“Close your mouth, Lord Lendale,” Lia said dryly. “You look like the village half-wit.”
Jack’s lips curved up in a heart-stopping, wry smile that was typical of him. He’d never once spoken to her in anger, even though she’d given him cause more than once over the years. He was the kindest man she’d ever met.
“Lia Beatrice Kincaid,” her grandmother exclaimed in a horrified voice, “you will apologize to his lordship this instant. We are here by his grace and generosity, or have you forgotten that?”
Lia sighed. “Oh, very well. I’m sorry, Jack. I was an utter beast to say that. Please accept my sincere apology.”
His smile faded as he shook his head. He looked so weary and frustrated. Lia knew better than anyone that Stonefell had fallen on hard times, but his manner suggested it was even worse than she’d thought.
“No, it’s I who should apologize to both of you,” he said. “Lia is not far off the mark.”
Her heart couldn’t seem to decide whether to leap into her throat or plummet to her feet. She had to swallow a few times before she could formulate an answer. “We’ll need a few weeks to pack up and make arrangements to store our things. Then again, because most of the furniture belongs to you, a week or so should do it, I imagine.”
Both Jack and her grandmother were now staring at her with stunned expressions.
“What?” she said. “Your mother obviously wants to transform Bluebell Cottage back into the dower house, which means we’d best be out of here as soon as possible.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Jack replied through clenched teeth. “Bluebell Cottage is your home for as long as you want it.”
She noticed he didn’t deny that his mother wanted Bluebell. Not that Lady John would ever think to live here while Jack was still a bachelor. No, she would reside at Stonefell as lady of the manor for as long as she could. Evicting them from the cottage was about ridding the estate of their noxious presence, as Lia had once inadvertently overheard her say. Lady John loathed Granny and would see this as her chance to finally get rid of her.
Her ladyship didn’t exactly approve of Lia either. In fact, Lady John had always deplored her son’s friendship with both the first and third generations of the Notorious Kincaids and probably even saw Lia as a threat to Jack’s moral rectitude.
It was a ridiculous notion. First, Jack would never besmirch any woman’s good name—not that Lia’s family name covered her in glory. Second, and perhaps more germane, Jack would be more likely to succumb to gales of hilarity at the idea of any sort of intimate relationship with her. In fact, she’d wager the thought had never crossed his mind.
She was the one who was hopelessly infatuated, not Jack. And she didn’t expect that to change any time soon.
“Thank you, dear boy,” Granny said in a grateful tone. “I know we shall always be able to depend on your generosity.”
“Just as we know we can’t take advantage of it forever,” Lia interjected with a warning glance at her grandmother. She and Granny had talked about this, trying to plan for the worst. And it seemed as if the worst was finally upon them.
“You are not taking advantage,” Jack said firmly. “I count you both as family and always will.”
Lia managed a smile. “That’s kind of you Jack, but—”
“But what does it actually mean?” The hard, clean angles of his face took on a cynical cast. “You might well ask.”
“Then I am asking,” she said. Granny was clearly too disturbed to handle the tricky negotiations that seemed about to occur. That was up to Lia. “Naturally, my grandmother had been hoping for some kind of annuity from your uncle, or an inheritance that would give us a measure of independence. It’s been weeks now and we’ve heard nothing about it from the estate’s lawyer, or from you.”
“Not that we wished to press you,” Granny hastily added. “We both know you’ve been so busy trying to settle things. It’s completely understandable that you haven’t had a chance to speak with us.”
Lia crossed her arms over her chest. “Not that we’ve actually had the chance to speak with you about it because this is the first time you’ve been back to Stonefell since Lord Lendale’s funeral.”
Jack’s dark brows snapped together in a bit of a glower, but Lia didn’t care. She and Granny had more or less been confined to the cottage during that awful week when the family descended for the funeral. Even though they’d spent more time with the marquess than anyone, and even though she and Granny had truly been his family, they’d been exiled from all official activities. Jack had stopped by a few times but was too harassed to pay them much attention. Then he’d disappeared for over two months, although at least he’d written them during his absence.
Still, it had felt perilously close to neglect. That had stung—probably more than it should, if she had half a brain in her head.
“Well, I’m here now,” he said. “And I promise we’ll get everything sorted out.”
“Is there an annuity after all?” Granny asked.
When Jack hesitated, Lia knew what he would say. “No, Gran, I don’t think so.”
“Lia is unfortunately correct,” Jack said in a regretful tone. “My uncle did not leave an annuity for you, Aunt Rebecca. I’m so sorry.”
“But he left me something, did he not?” Granny asked in a hopeful voice. “Enough to set us up in a small house in the village, perhaps?”
Jack looked as if he’d accidentally ingested something toxic. “I’m afraid not.”
Lia flinched. She’d been preparing for the worst but had assumed they’d get some sort of small bequest—something to tide them over until she could think how to support them longer term. Granny’s lover had been a marquess, for heaven’s sake. Even though the estate was in poor financial health, surely he’d had other income to draw upon.
“And no dowry for me either, I’m sure,” she said, trying not to sound bitter.
Or terrified, even though that emotion lurked just below the surface. But without some sort of bequest to serve as a dowry, Lia had no hope of attracting a respectable suitor. Not that she’d been dangling for one, but she knew Granny had been pinning her hopes on that. After all, his lordship had promised years ago that he’d give Lia enough funds to overcome the stigma of her birth.
Now that hope was dying an ignominious death. Without anything from the estate, they would be almost entirely dependent on Jack for support.
“No, I’m sorry to say.” He sounded almost as bitter as Lia felt. “He left Aunt Rebecca some personal items and bequeathed a few things to you—mostly books and some prints from his library that you were fond of.”
Lia did a quick mental calculation. If they were the items she suspected, the results were not encouraging.
“Goodness,” said Granny in a faint voice. “That is discouraging news, I must say.”
She looked so pale that Lia was afraid she would faint. Casting an irate glance at Jack—who didn’t deserve it—she crossed to the bellpull and yanked on it. “We’ll have some tea, Granny. Then we’ll figure this out, I promise.”
“There’s nothing to figure out,” Jack said in a clipped voice. “I’m going to take care of you. Both of you.”
“Splendid, just like the previous marquess,” Lia retorted.
Jack opened his mouth, but Sarah’s entrance forestalled his reply. Lia’s former nursemaid, who now served the dual roles of housekeeper and cook, threw a sharp glance at her mistress and then a suspicious one at Jack.
Sarah knew all their secrets and hopes, and their worries, too. She’d developed an unwavering loyalty to Rebecca Kincaid years ago, happily abandoning an unsuccessful acting career to take up Lia’s care. Sarah had moved north with Rebecca and her granddaughter, devoting her life to them.
If the Kincaids went down, Sarah would go down with them.
“Oh, I was expecting Elsie. I’m sorry to bother you, Sarah,” Granny said, clearly attempting to rally. “But his lordship would like some tea. Could you bring up the tray?”
“Yes, ma’am, right away.” Sarah bobbed a quick curtsy in Jack’s direction. “My lord.”
He gave her a kind smile. “It’s nice to see you, Sarah. I hope you’ve been well.”
“Well enough, all things considered, my lord,” she said in a blighting tone.
Sarah had known Jack since he was a boy. Clearly, she was no more impressed with the new marquess than she’d been with the grubby lad who’d tracked mud into her kitchen. And Jack’s sigh indicated he’d received the housekeeper’s message. Lia was almost beginning to feel sorry for him.
She stood. “I’ll help with the tea tray, Sarah.”
The housekeeper looked scandalized. “I should say not. You’ll sit here with his lordship and act like the proper young lady you were raised to be.”
“Oh, Lord,” she sighed, sitting back down.
After another scowling glance in Jack’s direction and a few dark mutterings under her breath, Sarah exited the room.
“Sorry,” Lia said to Jack. “She’s very worried about us.”
“She needn’t be,” he said. “As you said, we’ll figure it out.”
“Then along those lines,” Granny said, “why don’t you apprise us of exactly where things stand? I knew Arthur was concerned about some investments he’d made, but he didn’t like to discuss such matters with me. He was concerned that I would worry.”
Lia had to swallow a snort. The truth was, his lordship had liked to live in a pretty fantasy when he came to Bluebell Cottage. Financial discussions would have injected an unsavory note into a relationship where both parties worked very hard to maintain a steadfast air of unmarred domestic bliss.
How stupid and shortsighted of them all.
“Yes, no doubt,” Jack said dryly. “As to how bad it is, I won’t insult you by trying to minimize the situation. The last few harvests have been disappointing, and my uncle did not, perhaps, make some of the best decisions when it came to managing certain aspects of estate business.”
“That’s obvious,” Lia muttered.
It was well known that Lord Lendale had frequently ignored the advice of his cautious and wise estate manager. But when the old marquess had gotten an idea in his head about how to make money, there’d been no talking him out of it.
“None of that, my dear,” Granny said in a stern tone. “I will not have you tarnish my Arthur’s memory.”
“Unfortunately, Lia’s assessment is correct,” Jack said. “My uncle meant well, but he had a poor head for both estate business and investments.”
Over the next few minutes, he outlined how appalling a businessman his uncle had been. By the time he finished, Lia felt almost faint with horror and Granny looked as if she might really faint.
Thankfully, Sarah chose that moment to bring in the tea tray. Lia immediately poured her grandmother a cup and then handed one to Jack. Sarah had piled the tray high with biscuits and cake, but they remained untouched. After Jack’s gruesome report, they’d all, apparently, lost their appetites.
With a weary sigh, Granny placed her teacup on the occasional table next to her chair. “I’m truly sorry, Jack. On top of everything else, you have the added burden of two useless women on your hands.”
Anger flared like a torch in Lia’s chest. She didn’t consider herself useless, and her grandmother had given up everything, devoting her life to a man who’d left her in an appalling situation. And where had such selfless behavior left poor Granny? Utterly betrayed by the man she’d loved.
While Lia struggled to contain her fury, Jack thankfully stepped into the breach.
“You’re not to think that way for a moment, Aunt Rebecca,” he said in a kind but firm voice. “You know better than anyone how despair had taken hold of my uncle, even threatened his sanity. You brought him back from the brink and gave him years of happiness. You must never forget that.”
The story was a sad one. In a young love match, Jack’s uncle had married the daughter of one of his neighbors, a prosperous gentleman with a tidy estate. Lady Lendale had, by all accounts, been a sweet and pretty girl. They’d been deliriously happy for two years before Lady Lendale tragically died after a long and agonizing childbirth. The infant boy had survived, only to die a week later when he caught a fever. Lord Lendale had plunged into a melancholy that lasted for years and all but ruined his health. He’d vowed never to marry again, claiming he’d grieved enough for one lifetime.
While Lord Lendale never remarried, he did fall in love again, with a courtesan so notorious that no respectable man would marry her. Lia couldn’t help thinking, with a good deal of cynicism, that it had been the perfect solution for him.
Granny blinked several times before flashing him a grateful smile. “Thank you, dear boy. Your words give me a great deal of comfort.”
“You, on the other hand,” Jack said to Lia with mock sternness, “are quite useless. I think I’ll have to put you to work in the stables to earn your keep. Or set you up as the estate smithy.”
Lia snickered and even her grandmother seemed to relax a bit. They all knew she more than earned her keep, helping out in Stonefell’s gardens and lending whatever assistance she could to the wives and families of the tenant farmers.
“I might take you up on that offer if you promise to give me a nice set of livery,” she said. “But enough silliness. We really have put you in a pickle, Jack. Granny is right about that.”
The beginnings of a plan to address the situation had been coalescing in her mind because she’d begun to suspect Lord Lendale might not have provided for them. But she wasn’t quite ready to trot it out; Jack would not approve.
In fact, he would be furious if he knew.
“Not at all,” he said. “Things will go on as usual. All your bills are to be sent up to Mr. Lindsey and I will provide you with pin money every month.”
Lia scowled at him. “You can’t be expected—”
He held up an imperious hand. “What I expect is that you will not make a fuss about it. Things seem dire now, but it won’t always be so. Mr. Lindsey and I are working very hard to turn things around, and I’ll be discussing the situation with my bankers when next I’m in London. Everything will be fine, I assure you.”
The look he gave her was surprisingly stern. “No, Lia. For once, I want you to listen to me.”
“I always listen to you,” she said indignantly.
“Pardon my laughter,” he replied.
She was about to tell him what she thought of his response when her grandmother gave her head a little warning shake. Granny obviously had something to say to her and she didn’t want to do it in front of Jack.
He glanced at his pocket watch and stood. “Please forgive me, but I’ve got to get back to the house. I have an appointment with Richard Hughes.”
Mr. Hughes held one of the largest tenant farms at Stonefell. And like the other tenants, he’d been struggling to keep up with his rent. Lia was sure the meeting would be unpleasant for both of them.
“Poor Jack,” she said, also standing. “What an awful homecoming you’ve had. You must be wishing yourself back on the Continent, far away from all of us.”
His firm mouth curved in a rueful smile that failed to reach his eyes. “I’ll admit there are days I’d rather face a line of French bayonets than wade through another stack of bills, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it soon enough.”
Lia’s heart broke for him a little. Even though she was thrilled to have him back home, he’d loved military life. She knew he’d never complain about his new circumstances, other than the occasional joke. He’d take up his responsibilities, even if he truly didn’t feel suited to them, and he’d do the absolute best he could. Lia wished she could do more to ease his burden.
That, however, was not her place, nor would it ever be.
Jack leaned down and kissed Granny’s cheek. “I’ll come visit in the next day or so. We can discuss things in a little more detail then. In the meantime, you’re not to worry.”
“Thank you, dearest,” Granny said with a misty smile.
He swept Lia up in an encompassing hug. “And you stay out of trouble, pet. Understand?”
She hugged him back, briefly pressing her face into the fine wool of his riding jacket. “You must be thinking of some other girl,” she said, her voice slightly muffled. “I’m never any trouble at all.”
She felt his lips brush across the top of her hair. “No, you’re not,” he murmured. “In fact, I don’t know what we’d do without you.”
Her chest tightened with a mix of gratitude, sadness, and regret, but he was out the door a moment later, sparing her the necessity of a reply. Lia stared after him for a moment before turning to her grandmother.
To her surprise, Granny wasn’t looking downcast at all. Resigned, yes, but also…calculating?
“What?” Lia asked.
Her grandmother’s lips parted in a dazzling smile, the one that had apparently been the downfall of many a hardened rake when she’d been in her prime. Lia recognized that smile. It signaled that Granny was about to engage in a bit of ruthless manipulation.
Heaving a sigh, she trudged back to her seat.
“You can moan all you want, child,” her grandmother said, “but it’s time to face facts and be practical about our situation.”
“I’ve been trying to do just that for weeks,” Lia replied. “But you didn’t want to hear any of my suggestions.”
“Yes, I must admit I allowed myself to hope Arthur had done a better job of things. How foolish.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry I failed you, Lia. You have always been my first responsibility. I let my affection for Arthur get in the way of that.”
“To be fair, he did support us all these years. Despite the odd hiccup now and again, we’ve been comfortable. And happy.”
Most of the time they had been, and how many people could claim that? She and Granny loved Stonefell, despite the occasional snub from one of the more persnickety locals, or the sense of exclusion they felt on the rare occasions when Lord Lendale’s family had visited.
And then there was Jack, of course. He’d made everything seem worthwhile, even the snubs, the exclusions, and the leaky roof.
“My love for Arthur turned me soft,” Granny said. “I believed him when he said he’d always take care of us. I would not have made that mistake when I was younger. I should have asked for more as we went along, and insisted he make some kind of provision for you in writing.”
This sort of discussion always made Lia feel squeamish. But such arrangements were a simple fact of life for women like her mother and grandmother. She’d been spared that life and counted herself exceedingly fortunate in that respect.
“You, of course,” her grandmother continued, “will do better than I did. You have an excellent head for business, and I don’t think you’ll ever let a man take advantage of you. That will give you a sound basis for negotiations.”
Lia had cupped her chin in her hands, but her grandmother’s words had her bolting upright. “What are you talking about, Gran?”
Her grandmother folded her hands neatly in her lap and stared her straight in the eye. “When you look for a protector, you will negotiate a clear and detailed agreement for your ongoing support in writing. I’ll help you with that.”
“My protector?” Lia’s voice sounded rather screechy. “Do you mean a…”
“A lover? Don’t be a ninny, dear. Of course that’s what I mean.”
Aghast, Lia stared at her grandmother, who seemed in dead earnest. “But…but you always wanted me to find a respectable suitor,” she stammered. “To get married.”
For a moment a hollow, grieving look threw up ghosts in her grandmother’s deep blue eyes. But then her gaze shuttered and her chin firmed. “Of course I did, but we know that’s no longer possible. Without a dowry, no respectable man will offer for you.”
“Well…I don’t think that’s entirely true.” Lia felt quite certain the cheesemonger’s son would take her, even over his family’s objections, and then there was—
“Jimmy Lanstead?” her grandmother asked.
“Certainly not. No granddaughter of mine will marry a pig farmer,” Granny said in a haughty voice. “Especially one who rents his farm. We may be courtesans and actresses, my dear, but we are also Kincaids. We do have a standard to keep.”
Her grandmother could be an awful snob, but Lia couldn’t hold back a rush of relief. She had no desire to marry Jimmy Lanstead or anyone else.
She firmly pushed that idea to the deepest recesses of her mind. It belonged in the dusty bin of broken dreams.
“I agree with you about Jimmy,” Lia said, “but trying to set me up as a courtesan is rather drastic. I’m not you or Mama. I’m not a patch on either of you.”
“Nonsense. You’ve grown into a stunning young woman. With a little help from me and some financial support, you could very well take London by storm.”
There were so many things wrong with that plan that Lia didn’t know where to start. “I have another idea, Gran, and I’m convinced it’s the best one we could possibly come up with.”
Her grandmother had been reaching to replenish her teacup, but her hand halted in midair. “I’m listening.”
“I’ll join Mama’s acting troupe. They’re looking for new company members now that they’re in London. Mama said so in her last letter. And I’m sure I could live with Mama and Mr. Lester in their town house in Kensington.”
Her grandmother regarded her with a dubious air. “Unfortunately, there are a number of critical drawbacks to that plan.”
“You can’t sing, dance, or act.”
That was rather a low blow. “I’m not much of a singer, I grant you. But I’m sure I can learn to dance, and you know very well I can act.”
Lia had been playacting for as long as she could remember and had often dreamed girlish dreams of following in her mother’s famous footsteps. She’d put on any number of recitations for her grandmother and his lordship over the years and had staged skits and little dramas for the servants, often with help from the kitchen maids and footmen. Granny and Lord Lendale had often told her that she was as fine an actress as Mrs. Siddons.
“My darling, the truth is you’re a dreadful actress,” her grandmother said in a patient tone.
“But you and his lordship were always so enthusiastic about my performances,” she protested.
“Because we didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“But what about the amateur theatricals I put on up at the house? The servants all seemed to think I was splendid.”
Her grandmother rolled her eyes.
She couldn’t help feeling daunted, but she had no intention of conceding—especially if the alternative was to become the next Notorious Kincaid. Lia was convinced she’d make an utter fool of herself as a courtesan, especially because her heart wouldn’t be in it.
“I don’t care what you say,” she said. “I’m writing to Mama tonight and telling her I’m coming to London. I can at least try out the notion on her and Mr. Lester and see what they say.”
Her grandmother seemed to waver for a moment, but then she grimaced. “I feel certain your mother will not be amenable to you taking up the theatrical life.”
“But she will be amenable to me becoming someone’s mistress?” Lia asked with disbelief.
Granny starched up. “It was good enough for me, was it not?”
“Look how well that’s turned out.”
“I’m sure under certain conditions your mother will agree to this plan,” Granny said, clearly determined to ignore Lia’s objections.
“And what are those conditions?”
“That won’t become entirely clear until I’ve had a chance to speak with Jack.”
Lia’s mind blanked for a few moments. “What in heaven’s name does Jack have to do with me becoming a courtesan?”
Granny’s eyebrows lifted with delicate incredulity. “Because you’re feeling a little squeamish about this plan, I think he should be your first.”
Lia got a very bad feeling—which was something, considering how alarming the entire discussion had been thus far. “First what?” she asked, praying she had misunderstood.
“Your first lover, of course. But only if I can persuade him to agree to our terms.”