Authors: Ariel Atwell
Tags: #Historical; Regency
THE MYSTERIOUS MR. HEATH
The Mysterious Mr. Heath
Copyright © September 2015 by Ariel Atwell
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Cover Artist: April Martinez
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To M. For always believing.
London, 3 April 1823
It was nearly nine o’clock in the evening by the time Laurence Heath reached the doorstep of his home on Russell Square—a late finish to a day that had begun at dawn with an urgent note from the Countess of Bewleton.
Bewleton is dead
, she had written.
Please come immediately.
And so he had, completely unsurprised when he learned that the Earl of Bewleton had met his end from a cuckold’s bullet. In Heath’s view, the newly deceased earl had been a rotter and his wife was well rid of him.
Like his father and grandfather before him, Heath had served as solicitor to some of London’s most prominent families for nearly twenty years now. But he never grew accustomed to being the bearer of bad news to ladies who, in his opinion, deserved so much better from the men who were supposed to be protecting them. It was damnably difficult being the one to inform them that their husbands had squandered the family fortune or run off to France with an opera singer.
The Earl of Bewleton had dipped his quill one too many times into another lord’s inkwell, Heath reckoned. Oh, but the terrible look on Lady Bewleton’s face when he’d told her all the money was gone.
How he had wished he could save her, Heath thought as he pulled the key to the front door from his pocket. How he wished he could save all the ladies shackled to cruel, reckless men.
Heath turned the key in the lock, and the front door swung open. He exhaled with relief. His house was neither large nor grand, particularly in comparison with the Mayfair mansions where many of the firm’s clients lived. But it was his refuge from the woes of the world.
A fire would no doubt be burning merrily in the grate of the sitting room, his housekeeper, Mrs. Campbell, having left a tray of food for him before going home for the evening. That meal was likely cold by now, Heath thought as the butler helped him off with his coat. Not that he cared, for he had eaten nothing since breakfast and was famished.
“Thank you, Martin,” Heath said absently, handing the servant his hat and walking stick. Pulling off his spectacles, he rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. The day’s events had left him feeling drained, and he thought a headache might be coming on.
Caught up in his thoughts, he took a moment to realize that the butler was staring at him expectantly.
“Did you say something, Martin?”
“I did, sir,” Martin replied. “There’s a gentleman waiting for you in the library. A Mr. Matthew Hastings. Arrived a few hours ago from Manchester with a trunk and two bags. Says you are expecting him.”
Blast and damnation, Heath thought. Why had the man come to London today of all days? “Ah yes, Mr. Hastings is the firm’s newest solicitor. I had forgotten he was arriving.”
“I gave him what Mrs. Campbell had fixed for your meal, sir, as it was so late and the gentleman seemed quite hungry. I hope you aren’t bothered.”
So much for dinner, Heath thought with some regret. “You did the right thing, Martin,” he said to the servant, who looked relieved. “Bring a bottle of port and two glasses into the library.” Heath stopped and considered for a moment. “The good port, Martin. We want the young man to feel welcome.”
Heath found his guest seated in the large wing chair directly adjacent to the library fireplace. At Heath’s entrance, Mr. Hastings rose to his feet. He was a large man—quite tall, with broad shoulders and a thick shock of black hair. Heath knew him to be in his late thirties, but he looked younger, with piercing blue eyes and a nose that was almost feminine in its beauty. The ladies would be fighting over this one, no doubt.
“Mr. Hastings, I presume,” said Heath, and the man nodded smartly.
“At your service, sir.”
“Welcome to London,” said Heath, thinking briefly about his purloined dinner and almost meaning it. “I apologize that I was not here to greet you upon your arrival, but I was dealing with a matter of some urgency for a client.”
“No apologies are necessary,” Hastings said. “When the hour grew late, I would have gone on to my lodgings and not bothered you tonight. But there’s been a bit of a complication. The current tenant has changed his mind about leaving, and while the landlord was quite apologetic, I will need to find alternative accommodations. I am not familiar with London and don’t want to make the wrong move. I was hoping you might suggest where I might find a place to stay temporarily.”
The new solicitor had no place to stay. Heath sighed inwardly. This was a very unwelcome complication indeed, for the last thing he wanted was a stranger in his house. It could make things…difficult. But the man had traveled a very long way. It would be churlish not to offer him a bed while he sorted himself out. Hopefully it wouldn’t be for too long.
“You will stay here, of course… No, I insist. There is more than enough room,” Heath said when Hastings began to protest.
“Thank you, sir. That is most kind of you.”
“Not at all, Hastings. It is the least I can do,” Heath said, brushing aside the younger man’s expression of gratitude. “Lord Wemberley has sung your praises to the heavens, and if half of what he says is true, you will be a fine addition to the firm. Now here comes Martin with the port. Will you join me for a glass?”
Two hours and a bottle of port later, Heath had learned a fair bit about Heath & Heath’s newest employee. Hastings had studied at Oxford—Heath was a Cambridge man himself—and his wife had died several years previously, leaving him with two sons who were away at school.
“Both boys are at Rugby,” Hastings said. “It’s been a difficult time for they’ve quite missed their mother.”
“Sorry for your loss,” Heath said gruffly. “They’ll be glad to be back with their father at school holidays, no doubt.”
“Thank you, sir,” Hastings said, smiling the smile of a fond parent. “I will confess I miss having the little buggers about. Although they really aren’t so small anymore. The eldest is nearly as tall as I am.”
The clock had struck eleven by the time Mr. Hastings was finally escorted to his room, allowing Heath to claim his own chambers at long last. He employed no valet, preferring to look after himself. He was no dandy, and, unlike many man of his acquaintance, was well capable of dressing and undressing himself and attending to his own toilet.
Heath entered his room and shut the door behind him, turning the key in the lock. Taking off his spectacles, he placed them on the dressing table and then pulled off the black ribbon that he used to tie back his hair each morning, combing his fingers through the silver locks. His hair had started to lose its color back when he was still quite young, and now at the ripe old age of forty-two he had gone completely silver. Many of his clients assumed he was much older than he really was, and he counted that as a good thing since people tended to take his advice more readily out of respect for what they perceived to be his years and wisdom.
Heath removed his brocade waistcoat, then his wool trousers, hanging both neatly in the clothing cupboard. The shirt was next, the buttons on the white linen opening to reveal a man’s bulky corset and above it several strips of fabric stretched tightly across his chest.
He untied the corset, allowing it to slip to the floor, and then pulled at the knots holding the fabric until it too fell away. Laurence exhaled in relief, touching a tender spot where the corset bone had rubbed against soft skin. It felt so good to be free at last.
Glancing up at the mirror over the washstand, Laurence saw what no one else ever had. Or ever would. Locks of silver hair falling in a wild tumble. Two plump and unmistakably feminine breasts, the rosy-tipped nipples peeking through the folds of the unbuttoned shirt. A narrow waist, flaring hips, and long, slender legs clad only in a pair of men’s stockings.
Staring back in the looking glass was Laurence Heath, managing partner of Heath & Heath. One of London’s most prominent solicitors. And as it turned out, not a man at all.
London, 36 years earlier
“Freddie says I’m not a boy.”
“And how would Freddie come to have an opinion on such a thing, Laurence?” His mother’s tone was suddenly sharp.
“We were taking a wee in the alley, and he has a tallywag and I don’t.”
“That’s very naughty, Laurence, and you’re not to do that again. Do you hear me?” His mother had grabbed him by the arm, her nails stabbing into his skin.
“Ouch, Mummy,” he howled in protest, tears welling in his eyes.
“Do you hear me, Laurence Heath?” she said fiercely, ignoring his tears. “And you won’t be messing about opening your trousers in front of Freddie or anyone else anymore now, will you? Promise me, or I will take a switch to your bottom until you cannot sit down.”
“Yes, Mummy, I promise.” At last she let go of his arm, and he rubbed the area to erase the pain of her grip.
“Now be a good lad and wash up. Your father is coming for a visit as a special treat for your birthday. You’ll want to tell him all about how well your lessons are going,” his mother said, her voice calmer now. “You’re the only son he has, and you could be his heir one day. But that will only happen if you show him what a bright boy you are. You must always be the best boy, Laurence, or your father won’t love you and we’ll have no place to live and nothing to eat. You don’t want us to starve in the streets, do you?”