Authors: Celeste Bradley
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“Here’s a juicy tidbit from your very own Voice of Society, gentle reader! A confidential source has informed your Voice that now returning triumphantly from a wealth-building sojourn in the Bahamas, Lord Aaron Arbogast, who will soon assume the title of the Earl of Arbodean, has a secret motive—he has, in fact, come home to find himself a proper English countess!”
Inside a ferociously fashionable carriage lacquered in green so dark as to be nearly black, drawn by a perfectly matched pair, rolling down Bond Street at a purposeful clip, a man handed his companion a news-sheet folded open to the tattle page.
“Will that do it, do you think?”
The second man peered at the passage indicated.
The first man shrugged.
“Well, I do think the term
should be discouraged for the nonce.”
A soft chortle rose from the second man.
“Welcome home, Lord Aaron Arbogast!”
* * *
In a feminine but genteelly shabby chamber in a house located in a once-but-no-longer-fashionable neighborhood in London, a dainty fingertip tapped thoughtfully on a portion of the gossip column.
Then the girlish hand reached for a quill and dipped it into the inkwell on her escritoire.
Upon the desktop lay a sheet of foolscap on which was inscribed a very short list of names—wealthy, titled,
The pen rested for a moment at the bottom of the list.
Then slowly and thoughtfully, the quill tip rose to the top of the list, where it wrote a new name.
It underlined the name.
Lord Aaron Arbogast
* * *
In a breakfast room, not too far off in distance but miles away in aristocratic standing, a man forked eggs into his mouth as he perused a folded news-sheet with sleepy boredom.
His half-raised eyelids suddenly widened in horrified disbelief.
The fork clattered down to the fine china plate, spattering xanthous yolk onto the snowy tablecloth.
The hand holding the news-sheet drew tightly into a white-knuckled fist.
“Lord Aaron Arbogast!”
“No need to fret, Zander,” Elektra Worthington had assured her brother Lysander when he’d silently protested her strategy.
“What could possibly go wrong?”
She ought to have known better than to jinx matters by saying such a thing.
Worthington plans, no matter how well-laid, had a way of twisting ever so slightly sideways.
Now she sat in a dripping ruin at midnight, with her elderly but functional—mostly—pistol on her lap, staring at the suntanned and handsome—if a bit on the shaggy side—bound and furious fellow for whom she had risked her reputation, virtue, and any chance in hell of ever lifting her family from their penury, and found herself at a loss for the first time in her determined, single-minded existence.
Bloody hell. I’ve kidnapped the wrong man.
Twenty-four hours earlier …
Muddy water spattered high onto the chipped and scratched enamel of the carriage’s exterior.
Punishing rain immediately washed the majority of it right back down onto the sodden, rutted road.
Though the sun stood only a few hours after noon, one could not tell time because there was almost no daylight at all piercing the heavy black clouds.
Lord Aaron Arbogast, grandson and heir of the Earl of Arbodean, drove the carriage through the storm with capable, callused hands.
How strange to remember that when he’d left England nearly ten years previously, he’d never driven himself in anything but a sporting curricle.
He certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of exposing his lazy highborn hide to actual weather!
Now he thought nothing of the torrent beating down on his drooping hat, borrowed from his manservant Hastings, except to wistfully recall that the rainwater in the Bahamian Islands was never this cold.
His oilcloth driver’s cape was borrowed from Hastings as well, for his own wool finery was wrapped around his shivering, feverish servant, who was tucked up safe and warm inside the once luxurious but now somewhat scruffy-looking carriage.
It had taken far too much of his savings to purchase the conveyance in London, but once his ship had reached port Lord Aaron had wished to escape the city of his youthful downfall as quickly and as surreptitiously as possible.
Everything had cost more than it ought to—the two passages on the not-terribly-comfortable freight ship for himself and Hastings, the posh togs that had ended up wrapping the wiry Hastings to keep him warm, the aged carriage and the not-quite-matched, not-quite-shiny pair of horses to pull it.
Behind the conveyance there even plodded a “gentleman’s mount,” a rangy bay gelding of dubious descent and sullen temperament, but with long legs and a surprisingly fine gait, who, because of his problematic outlook on his servitude to mankind, had cost Aaron little more than meat market coin.
The beast had been on his way to the knackery when Aaron had noticed the aristocratic lilt to his equine step.
Outbidding the butcher at that point had been a matter of a few farthings.
In the last ten years, Aaron had come to believe in the reformative power of the second chance.
All of this was purely intended to make a good impression on his grandfather, whom he’d not seen since the day “Black Aaron” was banished from England for his poor judgment years ago.
Is that what we’re calling it now? Poor judgment? The girl died!
Aaron flinched at the accusing voice in his own mind.
He had paid for that terrible mistake over the last decade, although even ten years in the sweltering tropics could not bring Amelia back to life.
Such enforced exile had been his grandfather’s only recourse.
Aaron knew that.
The crime that had driven his only family to reject him across three continents had been so unforgivable that it had taken every day of those ten years to slowly and steadily rebuild his personal sense of honor.
His reputation, sadly, remained unsalvageable.
If the old earl were not so ill, Aaron might not have drummed up the courage to return even then.
However, if his grandfather was indeed as ill as Aaron’s aunt’s message stated, this would be Aaron’s last opportunity to plead his case and claim his full heir status at last.
For the title and estate were entailed, and none could take them from him, no matter his social odor—but try managing all those square miles without the wealth or standing that his grandfather’s forgiveness would give him.
If he could get to Derbyshire in time, he might, just possibly, perhaps, prove to his grandfather that he was a changed man.
He had brought letters of recommendation from respectable gentlemen, his grandfather’s steward on the isles, and the local magistrate.
Those missives, safely wrapped in oilcloth and tucked deep into Aaron’s baggage, were his proof and his talisman.
Perhaps all his hard work at redemption had not been in vain.
During a lull in the slashing rain and booming thunder, Aaron heard another explosive sneeze from his suffering servant.
He flipped open the trap and gazed down into the carriage from his high seat.
Hastings blinked miserably up at him, a pale face splotched with feverish cheeks and a spectacularly red nose visible in the wildly rocking light of the interior lantern, and sniffed pitiably.
“I need soup, ye rotten toff,” Hastings informed Aaron in thick Cockney tones.
“Soup and a bed, one wi’ real blankets and all!”
Lord Aaron Arbogast, a man who in his decadent youth had once knocked a footman unconscious for a barely audible snicker, merely nodded in sympathy at his loyal, ex-thief servant.
“You’ll have it, my friend, as soon as we find that inn.
Are you certain it is on this road somewhere?”
Seized by a fit of coughing brought on by his vehemence, Hastings dissolved into petulant mutters.
“Good thing ’e’s a toff, for he’d never last a moment as a workin’ bloke!”
Aaron let the trap fall closed, for the rain had increased and he didn’t want Hastings to get any wetter or any colder than the poor man already was.
Gripping the reins more tightly in his hands, ignoring the gasping chill of the rain hitting his body, he gently urged the weary horses just a bit faster.
When the inn emerged from the gloom, its windows glowing yellow and welcoming through the blue English dusk, Aaron let out a yell of pleasure and gave the horses one last lick of the reins across their backs.
The pair scarcely needed it, for they well knew where good grain and warm hay came from.
The carriage rattled into the cobbled yard of the inn, and Aaron was grateful to see the groom’s boy run into the rain to take the horses by the lead.
Gesturing to a stout fellow he took to be the innkeeper, Aaron drew in his assistance in getting Hastings from the carriage.
The innkeeper shook his head at Hastings’s illness.
“Oy, your poor master looks bad, lad!
Want I ought to send for the village physic?
He isn’t much, just a tooth-puller, really, not near good enough for a fine lord, but he knows a fair bit about a fever.”
Aaron hesitated at the innkeeper’s mistake, then nodded, tugging the brim of his dripping hat in a respectful gesture.
I’d be right grateful if ye did.”
In Aaron’s coat of fine dark wool trimmed in gold braid, fit for the Prince Regent’s Court, Hastings looked the very picture of an ill nobleman.
Aaron’s boots were finer, but both men were mud to the knees so it wasn’t likely anyone would note it.
Hastings would get the best of care if the inn staff thought him a wealthy gentleman.
Together the innkeeper and the boy began to carry the limp and shivering manservant indoors.
Aaron let out a deep sigh as he gazed longingly up the muddy road.
The Arbodean estate was a mere half day’s journey north.
There was no help for it.
He could not abandon Hastings until he was sure his man was well set.
Once he found them rooms, he would send a message to his aunt that he would be delayed.
Aaron went back to the carriage to retrieve their baggage, little though it was.
Then, as he turned back toward the inn, he glanced upward into the most beautiful green-blue eyes he’d ever seen.
* * *
Elektra Worthington glanced up from her novel as her brother Lysander entered the private dining room they’d overtaken at the Green Donkey Inn.
The innkeeper hadn’t offered it for their use.
He likely didn’t even realize they were using it, but Ellie knew from long experience that a smile and an assumption were as good as permission.
Especially out here, nearly to the wilds—relative to London—of Shropshire.