Authors: Lynsay Sands
t’s barely dawn and yet already so busy.”
Suzette nodded silently at her sister’s comment as she peered out the carriage window at the bustling activity on the streets they were passing through. London was fascinating and exciting in comparison to the sleepy village outside the estate where they had been born and had grown up. Or it would have been if Suzette’s thoughts weren’t preoccupied with worry for her father.
“Do you think we will find Father at the townhouse?” Lisa asked as if reading her mind.
Suzette sighed and sank back in her seat, her gaze skipping over the other two women in the carriage. Suzette’s maid, Georgina, was older by a decade, which was reflected in her silent composure as she peered out the opposite window at the passing buildings. Lisa’s maid, Bet, was as young as Lisa herself and in comparison the girl was practically vibrating in her seat with excitement. Her freckled face reflected animated awe as she too looked out the window.
“I hope so,” Suzette said finally, her gaze sliding back to her sister.
Lisa sank wearily back in her own seat and Suzette frowned as she noted the small dark smudges around the girl’s eyes and the pallor of her skin. Lisa had been favored with their mother’s pale hair and coloring, her skin always a fine porcelain that Suzette had often envied, but she didn’t envy the way the skin around her eyes would darken, making them appear sunken when she hadn’t had enough sleep. And between their worries and the discomfort of travel, neither of them had had enough sleep of late.
“What if he isn’t there?” Lisa asked, her gaze moving dully out the window on their side of the carriage.
Suzette felt her mouth tighten at the thought. They hadn’t heard from their father since he’d left for London more than a month ago. Lord Cedrick Madison had headed to town to sign some business papers, and had assured them he would return by week’s end. He could have returned sooner, but intended to check on their sister Christiana as well while there. The oldest of the three, Christiana had married Richard Fairgrave, the Earl of Radnor nearly a year ago and the pair had moved to his townhouse in London.
Suzette missed her older sister. She was also a touch worried because, while she and Lisa had been writing Chrissy regularly, they hadn’t received responses. That hadn’t concerned them too much at first. They understood that Chrissy would have many changes to adjust to and no doubt had a busy, exciting life in London now with little time for correspondence. But as the time had lengthened with still no response, they’d begun to fret, so it had been a relief that their father would have this opportunity to check on her.
However, their father hadn’t returned at week’s end with tales of Christiana’s well-being and happiness. He hadn’t returned at all. Neither had there been a message from him. After two such weeks, Suzette had sent a letter inquiring after his well-being and asking what word he had of Christiana. At the three-week point without an answer, she’d sent another message, along with one from Lisa. When they’d reached the month point with still no word, Suzette hadn’t been able to stand the worry and strain of wondering anymore. It was starting to seem like London was swallowing up her family members one at a time. She’d decided she would follow their father to town and find out what was happening. It hadn’t been very surprising when Lisa had insisted on accompanying her.
The two had set out, taking along their maids and four footmen to ward off any highwaymen who might see them as easy pickings. It appeared to have worked; they’d arrived in London unaccosted and would soon arrive at the family townhouse. Hopefully, they would also soon learn what was going on.
“If he is not there, we shall find out where he is,” Suzette finally answered, and was glad Lisa didn’t then question her as to how they would manage that because she really had no idea. This was the first time either of them had visited London and she hadn’t a clue what to expect. So far it wasn’t very impressive. It seemed a world of endless buildings all crowding together under a thickening cloud of sea-coal smoke which she assumed was from so many hearths being lit this cold morning. Suzette preferred the quiet, tranquil life in the country where she was able to at least see the sky.
The only way Suzette knew they had finally arrived at the Madison townhouse was that the carriage stopped. While it had been in the family for generations, she’d never actually seen the Madison London residence before and found herself peering curiously over it as she stepped out of the carriage. It was rather large and grand looking, but then it had belonged to their mother’s family, the Seftons, and they had been notoriously wealthy. Her grandfather had actually been called “Old moneybags Sefton” due to the wealth he had both inherited and increased. The man had left that wealth to his granddaughters on his death, dividing it three ways to give each of them a dower that would surely have the fortune hunters after them when they debuted. Or, it would have had he not insisted it be kept a secret.
“It looks very grand, doesn’t it,” Lisa murmured as she paused beside her. “Though a little run-down.”
Suzette nodded silently, not surprised at the small signs of neglect here and there. There had been little money this last year thanks to her father and she had no doubt he’d cut back on servants and whatever else he’d felt wasn’t absolutely necessary in an effort to save money. After a quick word with the maids to ensure they oversaw the unloading of their chests, Suzette led Lisa up the front walk.
One of the heavy double front doors was opened before they’d reached it. A sleepy-eyed butler peered out, his gaze sliding with some irritation over Suzette and Lisa. There was no doubting his annoyance at such an early call, at first, but then his gaze slid to the carriage. Apparently recognizing the family crest of the Madison Barony, he immediately straightened, his expression becoming much more welcoming. Well, as welcoming as a British butler’s face got, Suzette supposed as the man allowed just a hint of a curve to touch the corners of his mouth.
“My ladies Madison,” the man greeted.
Suzette nodded, forcing a small smile of her own as she led Lisa past the man and into the house. Pausing in the entry, she turned back to him, removing her gloves as she asked, “Where is our father?”
“Er . . .” The man looked nonplussed for a moment, his eyes sliding toward the stairs and then along the hall before he suddenly relaxed and offered, “I believe he is in his office, my lady.”
Suzette glanced up the hall in that direction, spotting the crack of light coming from under one door, and knew at once it must be the office. Leading Lisa that way, she said, “Thank you. Our maids shall be following directly. Please have someone show them to rooms we can use while here and have servants help to prepare them.”
“Of course, my lady.” The man was moving off up the hall, no doubt in search of the requested servants even as Suzette reached the door to the office. Too anxious to bother knocking, she opened it at once and started in, only to pause abruptly at the state of the room. The first thing of note was the smell, the acrid scent of stale pipe smoke and old booze permeated the air and struck her like a fist. Suzette wrinkled her nose with a disgust that only increased as her gaze slid over the empty glasses and plates strewn about the room. Most seemed concentrated around two chairs set by the fire, though there were nearly as many covering the desk’s surface around their father’s slumped form. While the glasses were all empty of liquid, each plate held a half-eaten or untouched meal left to spoil. It was apparent their father had spent most of this last month in this room. Judging by the smell and state of things, he’d spent most of that time drinking and puffing away on his pipe and very little time or energy eating.
“Oh dear,” Lisa breathed. “Something must be terribly wrong.”
Suzette grimaced at the vast understatement. This just was not like the Cedrick Madison who had raised them. Obviously, there was something terribly wrong. Their father was without a jacket, his shirtsleeves rolled up, and his hair a ruffled mess. He also lay with his head on his arms on the desktop, obviously asleep, or passed out. She couldn’t be sure which.
Swallowing the lump that worry had lodged in her throat, Suzette pushed the door closed and moved toward the desk, saying softly, “Father?”
just sleeping, isn’t he?” Lisa asked worriedly as they paused at the front of the desk.
Concern growing at the question, Suzette leaned forward to nudge her father’s arm and was immediately sorry she had. He did respond to it, rearing upright and then dropping back in his seat, but the man they were now confronted with was even less the Cedrick Madison they knew than they’d first thought. This man had bloodshot eyes, a sallow complexion, and a couple weeks’ worth of facial hair that held bits of food caught in it. He also wore a shirt that obviously hadn’t been changed in a while, but was a wordless menu of the meals he’d half eaten lately. He smelled atrocious.
Suzette retrieved a hanky from up her sleeve and held it to her nose so as to avoid the smell.
“Papa?” Lisa breathed with disbelief.
Cedrick Madison blinked at them owlishly, confusion on his face. “Damn me, what’re ye doin’ here?” he asked, his voice faint and bewildered as his bleary gaze slid from Suzette to Lisa, and then he peered around with uncertainty. “Where’m I? Did I come home, then?”
Suzette’s mouth tightened grimly. Every word the man spoke was accompanied by the scent of spirits, and he was very unsteady in his seat. It was Lisa who gently said, “You are in your office in the London townhouse.”
Cedrick Madison’s shoulders slumped slightly with disappointment. “Then ’twasn’t a dream? It happened again?”
Suzette felt her heart stutter in her chest and dread begin to gather at the last question. “
happened again? What the devil is going on, Father?”
“Oh,” he sighed the word on another waft of whiskey-soaked breath and ran one hand wearily through his hair. “I’m afraid I may have got us into another spot of bother.”
“Not gambling again, Papa?” Lisa asked with alarm, and he nodded miserably.
“How bad is it?” Suzette asked grimly. The last time, he’d gambled them to the edge of ruin and only Christiana’s marriage to Dicky had saved them from falling into that sad pit of shame.
“Bad. As bad as last time or maybe worse,” he admitted, shamefaced, and then sounded bewildered as he added, “I dunno how’t happened. I didn’t mean to. I just—” He shook his head in misery. “But I did, and then I tried to fix it. I’ve approached everyone I can think of who wouldn’t let the secret out. I’ve begged to borrow. I’d even steal if I could. I just can’t seem to fix it.”
Suzette stared at him, horror, betrayal and fear rising up in her like a wave, and all churning up a foamy topping of rage that roared through her. Hands clenching, she dug her nails into her palms and growled, “You never had any papers to sign at all, did you? You’ve never had to come to town to sign papers before. It was all just a ruse to get you to town. The truth is, you came here to gamble. That was why the sudden trip to London. Wasn’t it?”
“No,” he protested at once, standing on obviously shaky legs. “Langley wrote. He was concerned about your sister. He said he suspected Dicky was mistreating her. He said he had been turned away from the house three times and was worried about her. He knew Dicky couldn’t turn me away and wanted me to check on her. I swear.”
Suzette merely stared at him with disbelief. Robert Langley was a neighbor and family friend, and usually a trustworthy source of information, but it was hard to believe Christiana’s husband, Richard, would treat her poorly. The man had seemed to adore her when they’d married just a year ago.
It was Lisa who made this protest aloud, saying staunchly, “Dicky wouldn’t treat Chrissy badly, he loves her.”
“He seemed to,” their father agreed on a sigh. “But Robert wouldn’t lie and if Dicky
treating her badly . . .” He shook his head and sank wearily back onto his chair. “Anyway, that was the reason I came to town. I swear I never intended to gamble. I’m not even sure how it happened,” he repeated with a frown.
“And how are we supposed to believe that?” Suzette asked, biting out the words in her fury. “How can we believe anything you say? You promised us you would never
gamble again and yet here we stand on the verge of ruin for the second time in little more than a year!”
“I know,” Cedrick Madison moaned and covered his face with his hands. His next words were muffled as he said, “I don’t understand how it happened. I really don’t recall gambling, I must have had too much to drink or something.”
“How convenient,” she snapped coldly, and then asked, “And how exactly did checking on Chrissy land you drunk in a gaming hell?”
His hands dropped away from his face and he said wearily, “She wasn’t in when I arrived at their townhouse, and Dicky took me for a drink at the club. I recall going there and his suggesting a quick stop at the gaming hell. He—”
took you to the gaming hell?” Lisa asked with a combination of dismay and disbelief.
“I think so.” He didn’t look at all certain. “I mean, I said no when he suggested it, but I also recall being at the gaming hell, so—”
“Oh, so you do recall that much, do you?” Suzette asked grimly, and then screeched, “You shouldn’t even have been there! Obviously you intended to gamble or you wouldn’t have gone. How could you do this again?!” She sucked in her breath and then hissed, “Gambling your own daughters to the edge of ruin not once, but twice. I’m glad Mother is not around to see the useless, drunken wastrel you’ve become.”
Suzette didn’t wait to see how he reacted to the words, but promptly whirled on her heel and stormed out of the room, too sickened by the sight of him to stay any longer.
Lisa followed quickly, pulling the door closed behind her. She then asked worriedly, “What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” Suzette admitted, coming to a halt. Her throat was tight and she felt lightheaded, as if something had been cinched around her chest and was preventing her breathing. She forced herself to take a deep breath in an effort to calm herself, and then began to pace, and muttered, “I need to think.”