Authors: Barbara Metzger
THE PRIMROSE PATH
Primrose Cottage was going to the dogs. Literally.
Corin Knowlton, Viscount Knowle, jumped to his feet. “The devil you say. Not even Aunt Sophie would leave a perfectly good house to a pack of mongrels.”
would. And did.
The solicitor cleared his throat until Corin resumed his seat. Mr. Spenser was a large man, looking out of place behind Lady Sophie’s delicate gilt Florentine desk. Then again, Mr. Spenser looked no more out of place than Corin felt on his spindly chair with the ruffled cushion. Every surface in the room was covered in lace or ribbon or fluttery floral-print fabric. Every surface, that is, that wasn’t covered by a dog. A dog that was going to inherit his, Viscount Knowle’s, cottage.
“Bloody hell,” Corin swore, ignoring the cluster of servants standing at the rear of the study in their shawls and cloaks, “that can’t be legal.”
“I assure you, my lord, that your late aunt’s last will and testament is perfectly legal. The firm of Spenser, Gilroy, and McMartin would not produce an inferior document.” Mr. Spenser glared over his spectacles at the younger man, but Lord Knowle wasn’t about to be intimidated by any pompous, pettifogging paper shuffler. He’d faced English public schools, French cannon, and the Almack’s patronesses. One snuff-stained solicitor couldn’t faze him, especially when the man was spouting claptrap about Primrose Cottage having been bequeathed to a motley collection of curs.
“Legal, my arse,” Corin said now, setting one of the housemaids to tittering until she was shushed by the housekeeper. “If children cannot hold property, and women cannot hold property, then four-legged, fur-bearing creatures certainly cannot hold property.”
Mr. Spenser realigned his papers. “Nor do they in this instance, as I was about to explain. The dogs do not own Primrose Cottage under the terms of your late aunt’s will; the house is instead to be maintained for their comfort under the proper trusteeship.”
“Ha! I wonder who gets to feather his nest with that tidy little windfall.”
Mr. Spenser ignored the viscount’s muttered contempt. “Lady Sophie named three administrators: myself, Reverend Benning, and Squire Hardwick.”
Three unimpeachable, respected gentlemen, dash it. Corin tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair.
Spenser frowned at him. “Squire Aloysius Hardwick is the local magistrate, my lord.”
“I know who Squire Hardwick is, by Jupiter. I don’t care if you’ve wrapped it all in jurisprudence jargon, overseen by a panel of archbishops. The whole thing is crazy. And Aunt Sophie had to be dicked in the nob to think of such a thing. No court will accept that piece of fustian. You do recall that bit about being of sound mind, don’t you?”
“Your aunt was crippled in body, my lord, not in her mind. I have here a note from her physician, attesting to Lady Sophie’s mental acuity, witnessed by the vicar and the magistrate.” Mr. Spenser blew on his fingers, then thumbed through his folders until he found another document. He handed it across the desk to Viscount Knowle. “And another, signed by the chairman of the College of Physicians, who personally interviewed my client the same week the will was drawn up. I myself played whist with the lady not a sennight before her death, my lord, and found her to be eminently rational. I lost ten pounds to her that evening. Oh, and so did Bishop Rushford. I believe General Cathcart was her partner.”
So much for impugning the witnesses. Corin was on his feet again, pacing. He was warmer that way, at any rate. Deuce take it, the place was freezing, despite the fire in the hearth that was likely for the comfort of the dogs. The dogs who were hairy heirs to
legacy! “I don’t care if Aunt Sophie marked the cards! Primrose Cottage was not hers to give. It was supposed to revert back to the Knoll, become part of the Knowlton estate again with her demise.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but those were not the precise words on the deed.” Mr. Spenser blew on his fingers to warm them again, before riffling through another folder. “As you must be aware, Primrose Cottage was originally—and until quite recently as these things are counted—a neighboring estate. It was never part of the Knowle viscountcy holdings, and therefore is not subject to the entailment.”
“It’s on the corner of the estate, dash it.”
“But it is not part of the estate. Your grandfather purchased it himself, with his personal monies.”
“Yes, yes, I know. He wanted a private place to bring his mistresses. Everyone knew that. Later my father let Aunt Sophie have the use of it, because it was easier for her to get around in than Knowle Castle.” And because Aunt Sophie and Corin’s own mother didn’t see eye to eye about running the Knoll. That was putting it mildly. Everyone in the county knew the two fought like cats and . . . dogs. Corin ran his hand through his already disordered blond curls, wishing he had his hat. And his gloves. “Aunt Sophie had no issue, no heir, no husband. Nor was she likely to, considering the nature of her infirmities. So Father assumed—no, he intended—that the cottage and its acreage would revert to the estate.”
The solicitor found the correct paper. “Here it is.... ‘Shall be hereby deeded to my sister, Sophronia Rose Knowlton.’ You see, there was nothing in your father’s will about her lifetime tenancy.”
“But that’s what he meant! He only included the deed in his will in case Mama tried to—That is, my father thought that if Aunt Sophie did get married or moved or passed on, the land and the house would become part of the Knoll again.”
“And so it shall. You can add Primrose Cottage to the entailment as soon as Lady Sophie’s last pet goes on to its final reward.”
From the look on Lord Knowle’s face, that fortunate day would come sooner, rather than later, if he had anything to do with the care of the benighted beasts.
“To reiterate, your aunt left the administration of her estate to myself and the others, but she left the maintenance of the cottage itself and the welfare of her beloved pets to Miss Angelina Armstead.”
“Who the deuce is Angelina Armstead?” the viscount demanded, moving closer to the mantel and what little warmth the hearth beneath it gave. He tried to nudge a sleeping bulldog aside with his toe, but the old dog just showed its worn teeth and growled. When one of the servants called out, “No, Windy,” the bulldog begrudged Corin an inch nearer the fire, as if it owned the place, by Jupiter!
Mr. Spenser cleared his throat again. “Miss Armstead was your aunt’s companion, my lord. I believe you know her as Lena.” The older man nodded his head toward a dark-clad figure seated at the back of the room, near the door.
Corin had thought she was just another of the servants, avidly listening to hear the word “pension.” He vaguely recalled his aunt’s most recent companion, a somber shadow pushing the Bath chair. Yes, there was the gray shawl and the mousy brown bun at the back of her head, under a wide black mobcap. According to the terms Spenser was enumerating, the companion could buy herself a new bonnet or two—or the whole blasted milliner’s shop if she wanted. Five thousand pounds outright, plus five thousand pounds per annum for each year she stayed with the cursed canines.
“Hell and damnation,” he swore, “I see what happened. A pension wasn’t enough for the grasping harpy, so the jade played on my aunt’s tender sensibilities. The companion couldn’t get the house and fortune from Aunt Sophie outright, so she cozened her into this taradiddle fund for the fleabags.”
The figure in back sat up straighter, clutching a small dog to her flat chest, but it was Mr. Spenser who answered the viscount’s charges. “If I may read from the will, my lord: ‘The above remuneration and recompense I gladly bequeath to my loyal companion and dear friend, Miss Angelina Armstead, unbeknownst to her. My hope is that when all my beloved pets have found good homes or are reunited with me in heaven, my dear Lena can make a good life for herself, for all the joy she has brought me.’ Did you say something, my lord?”
Nothing repeatable in polite company. “No, no, go on.” While the solicitor droned on about the generous retirements Aunt Sophie left to the rest of her servants, with even more handsome benefits if they stayed on to help care for her dogs, the viscount resumed his pacing. Thinking to look out, or to let more light into the room so he could better see the female who would be living on his property, he parted the heavy damask drapes at one window. Well, it was no wonder they were all shivering despite the fireplace. It might be April, but the day was still too cold for the windows to be open. He slammed it shut.
“Oh, my lord, you don’t want to be aclosing—” a servant said.
But Mr. Spenser frowned the speaker into silence. He repeated the last bequest, then dismissed the servants.
Corin stepped closer to the desk. “That’s it, then? I get the rest? My aunt was more than generous with her retainers, but I know her fortune far exceeded the amounts you mentioned, even including the exorbitant sums set aside for the upkeep of this palace for pugs.”
Spenser coughed. “Ah, not quite, my lord. As you say, Lady Sophie was a wealthy woman. Her mother’s fortune, don’t you know, was not an allowance or annuity from the Knowle estate,” he hurriedly reminded the viscount, lest there be any confusion over the source of Lady Sophie’s income.
Corin nodded his understanding, having advised his aunt about some of her investments. “Go on, tell me what harebrained scheme she had for the rest of her fortune. What is it? Buying coats for London’s hackney horses?”
The solicitor removed his spectacles to wipe them. Then he used the same handkerchief to wipe his suddenly damp brow. “She, ah, set aside the remainder of her capital, and the income therefrom, to purchase, maintain, and endow a, ah, home for unwanted dogs in the village of Knowlton Heights.”
“A what?” Corin shouted. “A home for unmarried mothers, for injured veterans, or penniless orphans— those I can see. Even a home for retired lady’s maids. But a home for dogs?” He pounded on the mantel. The bulldog rolled over. Mr. Spenser coughed. Corin ran to open the window.
“Your aunt sincerely believed that we are all God’s creatures, my lord, from the highest to the lowest. She did support many worthy charities in her lifetime, but this is what she wished to do after her death, create a shelter or hospital or home for neglected beasts. She hadn’t decided precisely what to call the foundation.” Noting the scowl on the viscount’s face, Mr. Spenser tried to inject a more cheerful note by explaining, “It shouldn’t take the full amount of Lady Sophie’s resources, my lord. Once the house, kennel, or whatever is built and the endowment is established to provide continued funding, you will inherit the rest.”
“If I live so long!”
“Oh, no, my lord, a parcel has already been selected for the site, and an architect has been consulted. Your aunt had hoped to see the project completed before she— But one never knows, does one? Nevertheless, you’ll eventually come into a tidy bit of capital, along with the cottage, of course. And it’s not as if Lady Sophie forgot to mention you altogether, my lord. Here, this paragraph.” The lawyer readjusted his spectacles. “ ‘Henceforth, due issue, predecease ...’ Ah, here. ‘... Entire remaining assets and accounts shall then devolve upon my nephew, my next of kin and sole heir, Corin James Alexander Knowlton, seventh Viscount Knowle, Baron of Darleigh, Lord Rotterdean—’ “
“You don’t have to read them all, man. I do know my own titles and dignities.”
“Quite. ‘Upon my nephew, my next of kin and sole heir, et cetera, et cetera, who presently needs nothing but to learn to appreciate what he already has.’ “
Corin snorted. “That sounds just like the old bat. Well, don’t expect me to appreciate being cheated of my own property, sir. I’ll find a way to overturn that blasted will if I have to petition St. Peter himself. I’m sure
doesn’t want a bunch of malodorous mutts littering up his place any more than I do mine. Good day, sir.” Corin turned to go but paused near the door, where Miss Armstead sat with the rat-size terrier in her lap. Two others yipped at the viscount from under her chair, but the companion kept her head lowered. All he could see of her was the untidy brownish bun at the back of her neck, tied with a black ribbon. The dogs all had black ribbons in their topknots, too. Corin shuddered. “My congratulations to you, ma’am,” he said. “For now.”
Angelina was numb. She hadn’t thought she could cry one more tear, not after the past two weeks. Why, all of her handkerchiefs were so sodden, she’d taken to wiping her eyes on the little dogs in her lap. When Lucy got damp she switched to Lucky, then Lacy. They didn’t even mind, sharing her grief.
Five years Angelina had been with Lady Sophie, five of the best years of her twenty-one. Certainly they’d been the happiest since her parents died when she was a young child. Her childhood had ended then, too, for she was sent to live with her paternal grandparents. Reverend Armstead and his wife were fervent Reformers, zealous proselytizers, devout believers—in everything except love, kindness, and joy. Singing, dancing, laughing, idle conversation—all were the Devil’s devices. Work and prayer, prayer and work, those made a proper upbringing for an unwanted ward from an unsanctioned marriage.
Thankfully Angelina’s grandparents were called to become missionaries. At least Angelina was thankful, for she was placed in a school for girls. Although it was a rigid, moralistic type of institution, she was with other young people. The heathen savages must not have been quite so grateful, for they promptly dispatched the Armsteads to their Maker.
The tiny pittance from the missionary fund went to pay Angelina’s tuition, and she was able to exchange chores for her room and board. Of course then she was no more than the servant girl Lena, beneath the notice of the other students, neglected by the instructors, abused by the rest of the staff.
There Angelina stayed until she was ten and six, when Lady Sophie Knowlton’s housekeeper came, looking to hire a companion for her mistress. Lady Sophie wanted someone young, the woman said, to help exercise her dogs. Angelina would have exercised tigers in Timbuktu for the chance to leave the prison of school.
After a long carriage ride, Lena was left waiting in a vast marble-floored foyer, where she was joined by three dogs that came to inspect the intruder. Already nervous about the coming interview, Lena was quaking in her shabby boots at the sight of the unknown animals. She tried to hide behind an umbrella stand. She’d never had a pet of her own, never even been near enough a dog to touch it that she could remember. All she could think of now, seeing three open mouths and three sets of sharp teeth, was her grandparents and the cannibals. No one had ever said, of course, but she’d always wondered. Well, at least her grandparents had died for their beliefs.
Angelina believed she’d like very much to live in a house such as this, where even the animals looked well fed. She came out from behind the umbrella stand and let the dogs sniff her, lick her hands, and lean against her. Soon enough she was sitting on the floor, laughing and playing and getting her face washed. By the time Lady Sophie was wheeled into the foyer in her Bath chair, Angelina was covered in dog hairs and smiles. She got the position.
It was like having a home and a family—romping with the dogs, reading to Lady Sophie, pushing her chair through the gardens or the halls of Primrose Cottage. Lady Sophie’s friends accepted Lena once she learned to play whist, and the servants spoiled her because she made their mistress so happy. And the dogs, well, everyone knew there was no more loyal, undemanding affection to be found. Angelina thrived.
Then Lady Sophie was gone, and with her the life that Angelina had come to love as much as she loved her sweet mistress. Tears wouldn’t bring Lady Sophie back, nor the security and warmth that Angelina had found for the first time since her parents’ deaths. She’d be alone again, cast off from everything she cherished. She grieved for her friend and grieved for herself. Tears didn’t help, but she cried anyway.
Now Angelina wept tears of relief and gratitude that she wouldn’t have to leave Primrose Cottage and the dogs, that she’d have enough funds to purchase a small house of her own someday, that dear Lady Sophie had cared enough to remember her in her will. Angelina had known, of course, that Lady Sophie would make provisions for her pets, but she never expected such generosity for herself, such kindness, such care for her future. Tears fell on Lucky, who squirmed in her lap. Lucy and Lacy were barking, so Angelina looked up—to find her ladyship’s nephew staring at her.
“You have her eyes, you know.”
His brow lowered. “Pardon me?”
“Lady Sophie’s eyes, my lord. They were the same blue-gray as yours.” They weren’t quite, though, Angelina could see now. The viscount’s eyes didn’t have his aunt’s twinkle, nor the tiny laugh lines at the corner. In fact, Lord Knowle’s eyes were narrowed and harsh. “You’re angry,” she said.
Angry? The frumpy female with her eyes all red and puffy and her nose swollen and dripping thought that he might be angry? His aunt wasn’t the one dicked in the nob; this shabby spinster was. “Yes, Miss, ah, Armstead, I am angry that my aunt chose to leave part of my family’s property to her pets.”
“But they were
family, my lord. What would you have had her do with them?” She stroked the one in her lap with work-roughened hands, he noted.
“I don’t give a da—That is, some provision could have been made if Aunt Sophie had only consulted me.”
“But you never came to call, my lord. Last summer, was it, when you visited last? You didn’t even spend the Christmas holidays at the Knoll this year.”
“I’m a busy man, Miss Armstead, with many obligations and calls on my time, such as Parliament, my investments—” Deuce take it, why was he making excuses to a paid companion? “Furthermore, Aunt Sophie did not precisely welcome my visits. To be precise, when I called last summer, she told me in no uncertain terms to get out and never bother her again.”
“You shouted at Caesar,” she said, as though that explained his aunt’s unwarranted behavior.
“The blasted mutt lifted his leg on my new boots,” he shouted again, sending the three little mop dogs into a frenzy of high-pitched yipping.
“Caesar doesn’t like men.”
From the looks of Miss Armstead—straggly hair, shapeless clothes, mottled complexion—Corin decided his aunt’s companion didn’t care much for men, either, but she wouldn’t—
“We think he’d been beaten by his former owner. A man, of course.”
“Of course,” he repeated dryly, as though all men brutalized innocent animals. Miss Armstead’s opinion of the male gender—human species—was becoming more clear by the moment.
Angelina didn’t know any men. That is, she knew Lady Sophie’s elderly gentlemen friends and the male servants, naturally, but young men, handsome, muscular, virile aristocrats, simply hadn’t come her way. She’d retired when Viscount Knowle visited with his aunt, respecting their privacy, and never left Lady Sophie’s side when they were at social functions. Females without looks or dowry or connections were not exactly sought after at the local assemblies. Now Angelina was glad, if they were all as arrogant as his lordship. Haughty, he was, and greedy, to be resentful of the poor dogs with nowhere else to go. Still, she owed it to her benefactress to be courteous to her nephew, so she told him, “She went peacefully, you know.”
“Your aunt, she died peacefully.”
Corin was embarrassed. He should have asked, or at least mentioned some words of condolence, in light of the female’s obvious grief. He did not like being put in the wrong, so his voice was gruff when he said, “I’m surprised. I thought the old bat—ah, the old lady—would have gone kicking and screaming, giving the Grim Reaper a part of her mind.”
A smile played about Angelina’s mouth. “And she would have, if she wasn’t ready. But she was content, knowing her pets would be cared for and her foundation would be established. Her only regret was not seeing the primroses one last time, though.”
The flowers that gave Primrose Cottage its name were magnificent, row upon row of red and yellow blooms bordering every path. They’d be out soon, but not in time. Angelina wiped another tear from her eye. “I am sorry for your loss, my lord.”
Corin didn’t know why, but he patted the female’s bony shoulder, then found his handkerchief and pressed it into her hand. “And I for yours, ma’am.” Either she was the world’s finest actress or her sorrow at his aunt’s passing was genuine. No matter which, he still intended to see Miss Armstead and the mutts out of his house.
The viscount didn’t actually need the cottage. Lud knew, he had enough space at the Knoll to house Hannibal’s army, elephants and all. It was a castle, by Jupiter. Then there were his three other homes, plus the hunting box in Scotland and the seaside cottage outside Brighton, without counting the plantation in Jamaica.
Corin did not need Aunt Sophie’s small fortune, either, not when he was already one of the wealthiest men in England. He wouldn’t have turned the money down, naturally, but he wasn’t greedy. He wouldn’t have minded if his aunt had left all her blunt to charity or to her faithful old retainers—anything but her dogs. Why, he’d be a laughingstock in Town when the terms of Aunt Sophie’s will were made public. Corin, Lord Knowle, did not like being laughed at. It did not suit his sense of dignity, any more than having a dog hotel at his doorstep. Besides, he had plans for Primrose Cottage, plans that did not involve spinsters, setters, or superannuated servants.
To that end Corin detained the white-wigged butler after the old man handed over his hat and gloves. He’d known Penn his entire life, so felt entitled to ask, “Shall you be staying on here, Penn, do you think? Lady Sophie’s bequest to you was a generous one, I believe. Enough for you to retire in comfort, I should think, especially if you invest it wisely. I’d be happy to give you some advice on the funds or the shipping trades.”
“Thank you, my lord, I’m sure any advice would be welcome. But I could not repay my lady’s generosity by abandoning her dear ones at their hour of need.”
Corin bit the inside of his lip. “I see. And what of Miss Armstead, Penn? Do you think she’ll take the cash and head for greener pastures, now that she is a woman of substance?”
“I could not presume to guess, my lord, but Miss Armstead has never expressed a desire to be anywhere else.”
“Her family?” he asked hopefully, but Penn merely shook his head.
“None, my lord.”
“Surely she has friends somewhere, school chums or old neighbors she’d like to settle near?”
Penn shook his head again. “Nothing, my lord. Nobody. In the years she’s been here, there has not been one letter of a private nature delivered for her. Or received by her. I do not believe she has ever taken so much as a weekend holiday away from my lady. Perhaps that is why she seems most despondent. Why, if it weren’t for the dogs, I believe Miss Armstead would go into a decline, so devoted was she to my lady—not that the rest of us weren’t, of course.”
Blast! Corin thought. The female would be even harder to dislodge than he had believed, but get her out he would—her and her ribbon-decorated dust mops. He had plans for the cottage, the vacant cottage. Corin snapped his beaver hat on his head and started to draw on his gloves. His fingers all poked through the ends of his right-hand glove. The wrist of the left one gaped open, except for one long shred of expensive, dyed-to-order, specially fitted leather. Corin just stared at the remains in his hand. His gloves, the personal effects of the seventh Viscount Knowle, a hero of the Peninsular Campaign, a rising star in politics, and a nonpareil in tonnish circles, had been put through a meat grinder.
The butler followed his astounded gaze, then hurriedly opened the door. “Sadie likes leather, my lord. She’s not usually loose in the house, but Miss Armstead thought she was pining for the mistress. What with everything at sixes and sevens with the reading of the will, she must have been upset again.”
So the bitch butchered an innocent pair of gloves? Two weeks, that’s what Corin would give them. Two weeks and they’d all be chasing balls in Bath or Belfast or Boston. He didn’t care which, as long as they were gone. Miss Armstead included.
* * * *
Miss Armstead was upstairs, lying down. She had a cold compress on her eyes and an Irish setter on her legs. Thank goodness that was over, she thought. And thank goodness she’d never have to see Lady Sophie’s toplofty nephew again.
Viscount Knowle traveled to London the next morning, armed with copies of the will and the deed, a fresh pair of gloves, and a deep determination to resolve this awkward situation before another day went by. Or another misanthropic mongrel took up residence at Primrose Cottage. There was more at stake here than Corin’s pride and dignity, more even than his near feudal bond of ownership with his titled estate. National security was at risk.
“Sorry, my boy,” the Duke of Fellstone told him, “you’ll have to do better than that. We’re counting on you.”
As soon as Corin had delivered his documents to his own solicitor, with instructions to find a way to overturn that blasted will by nightfall, he’d headed for His Grace’s office. It was in a private chamber in a secluded wing of a nondescript government-owned building near Whitehall. Few even in the War Office knew of the department’s existence; fewer were admitted through its doors. A stepchild to the espionage division, the Duke of Fellstone’s operation controlled sabotage, propaganda, and the dissemination of information Bonaparte wouldn’t want his people to know—such as how many Frenchmen were dying in Spain, how many francs the emperor’s ambition was costing France while the peasants went hungry. Unfortunately most of the peasants couldn’t read, nor could the majority of Boney’s troops, or Fellstone would have dropped enough broadsheets and leaflets on their heads to wallpaper every room in Paris. He had four hot-air balloons just waiting on his orders.
Lord Knowle had been drafted by His Grace after a musket ball ended Corin’s army career. Viscounts weren’t supposed to risk their lives, Fellstone informed Corin. They were supposed to be decorative dilettantes, hey-go-mad hedonists—and loyal patriots. With his noble contacts, the viscount could travel to courts all over Europe, amusing himself and amassing information, meanwhile passing messages among the department’s network of provocateurs, sympathizers, and outright paid mercenary rabble-rousers. If some of their pay came from Corin’s own purse, well, noblesse oblige and all that.
Now he had a new and unusual duty: to provide secret housing for the fleeing French author of the anti-Bonapartist newspaper
“No,” Lord Fellstone was saying through the pall of cigar smoke surrounding him, “we owe L’Ecrivain safe harbor for all the work he’s done for us in the past, gathering news, spreading erroneous information about our troop movements, encouraging the Royalists. Besides, although no one knows L’Ecrivain’s identity, he knows some of our codes and contacts. Can’t let him fall into the wrong hands, what?”
“Of course not, Your Grace. I know that the Scribe has been invaluable to the war effort, but surely there’s a place other than the Knoll—”
“No, no, too late, my boy. The hidden print shop was discovered in a raid and the pressman arrested. It’s only a matter of time before that poor bastard gives up the Scribe, unless he’s lucky enough to die first. L’Ecrivain’s been warned, so he’s most likely already making his way to the coast. As soon as your aunt died and you offered that vacant cottage, word was sent. Communication got to France before you got to Kent for the funeral, I’d wager.”
Corin muttered an oath under his breath while His Grace sat back and admired his latest smoke ring and the efficiency of his department. “Good men, what? No recalling the message now. Don’t even know where the fellow is, much less how long it will take him to make his way across the Channel. Our smuggling chaps have been told to be on the lookout. That’s all we can do to help him until he gets here. Too risky to send anyone over there.”
“Surely we can get word to him somehow.”
‘Too dangerous. Wouldn’t do to draw attention to him, or to one of ours if the Scribe is taken. Besides, we don’t even know the Scribe’s real name, my boy, he’s that cunning. He’ll get out.”
Not if he had Corin’s luck, he wouldn’t. “Let us hope so. Your Grace. Then, when he arrives, we can redirect him to another area. I have a comfortable, secluded property near Brighton.”
“Where Prinny and his set congregate? Lud, the place may as well be a fishbowl, what? Besides, the Scribe’s not going to arrive here in Town and announce his presence at the Horse Guards, is he? Not if he wants to see the next day’s sunrise. No, he’ll go straight to Kent, to the location we passed on. Also, it’s closer to the coast.”
“Don’t worry, lad, it won’t be for long, just till we can get the man back into France with another identity. He’s too valuable to lose, and you know every blasted Frog bloodhound will be after his skin if they find where he’s gone to ground. Violent bunch, those
“It’s not a matter of the length of time at the cottage—”
“Besides, we can’t forget the man’s a gold mine of information. We need him where everyone appropriate can have access, the foreign secretary, the War Office, the army. Your property is, what, less than a day from Town? Perfect, my boy, perfect. And with the cover of that house party you’re planning for right after the Season, no one will notice one or two government bigwigs among the company. Looking forward to it myself, what?”
Hell and damnation, Corin thought. His future career in politics just stuck its spoon in the wall.
The duke was smiling, thinking of the brief vacation he was going to permit himself. He might even get in some fishing. “No one will think anything amiss with a gentleman disappearing from the company for an hour or two. Shooting, riding, what? Normal country pursuits, like going for walks around the property. Couldn’t be better, my boy. Excellent suggestion you had. I’ll be sure to tell the Secretary.”
Be sure to tell him not to wear leather gloves, Corin thought, but dared not say.
“And inviting Midas Micah Wyte was brilliant, lad, just brilliant. The man travels with an entourage befitting a Turkish pasha. The nabob’s got so many servants and secretaries that my men won’t even make a ripple in the countryside.”
The duke puffed on his cigar. The smoke in the room was so thick now that Corin was feeling queasy, or perhaps it was the thought of Micah, Lord Wyte, coming to Kent, too, with his daughter. Lud, a defector, a deep-pockets nobleman, and a debutante, all tripping over his dead aunt’s dogs.
“Don’t look so downpin, Knowle, the end of the Season’s not far away. Then you’ll be able to get Miss Melissa Wyte all to yourself there in Kent, away from those young pups sitting at her feet here in London, what?”
If His Grace only knew ...
“A few walks in the moonlit gardens, perhaps, or getting lost in the maze? I’m sure I don’t have to give a downy cove like you advice, my boy, but if you stop this dillydallying, you can announce the betrothal while all the company is still assembled. No need to toss another do, what?”
“My betrothal?” Corin choked. It was the smoke, he was certain. “There’s nothing definite yet, Your Grace. How did you hear about that?”
an intelligence organization, my boy, or did you forget? Excellent match, Wyte’s daughter. Your blood’s blue enough for both of you, but the chit’ll bring another fortune to the family coffers, what? Not that you need it, of course. Lovely gel, I hear. A real beauty.”
Melissa was a Diamond of the First Water, but Corin wasn’t ready to commit himself. At eight and twenty, he needed a wife to fill his nurseries and ensure the succession, a chatelaine for his houses, and a hostess for his political aspirations. What he didn’t need was a spoiled and demanding rich man’s daughter.
“The visit is by way of an experiment, Your Grace, to see if Miss Wyte likes the countryside and the castle, to see if we’ll suit. As you say, it will be easier to spend time alone out of the city, to get to know each other before we make the irrevocable decision. Miss Wyte might find some other, more eligible,
before the end of the Season, someone with whom she prefers to spend the rest of her life.”
“She’ll have you, my boy. There’s no higher title up for grabs this year, no greater fortune, either. Wyte’s holding out for both, I hear. He may have bought his own title with the India trade money, but he aims to make sure his grandchildren come by theirs the old-fashioned way, in the blood. The chit won’t mind pleasing her papa, either, not if you turn her up sweet the way you handled that French
for us. The gel’s Wyte’s only chick, eh? Excellent. Excellent. I wish you luck, my boy.”
His Grace stubbed his cigar out in the silver ashtray on his littered desk. The interview was over. “Oh, and my condolences on your aunt. Send Higby in on your way out, will you?”
* * * *
“You’ve got to find a way, Abercrombie, you just have to! I absolutely have to get that female and the furballs out of Primrose Cottage—instantly!”
All the way to his solicitor’s office, Corin had been thinking of alternative solutions to his French spy dilemma. He couldn’t pass him off as another guest at the house party, not with that high stickler Micah Wyte inspecting him as a prospective son-in-law. Lud, Corin didn’t even know if the Scribe knew which fork to use at dinner.
Whether he did or not, the viscount couldn’t offend the War Office’s ally by disguising him as a servant, not after he’d served Britain so well and at such great personal risk. Besides, the other footmen and the visiting servants were bound to notice, and bound to gossip about the new man. Corin thought about stashing him in the wine cellars or the attics, but that wouldn’t do since so many people, all of them influential, were coming to consult with the heroic bastard.
Some remote gamekeeper’s cottage or shepherd’s hut? No, the local folk couldn’t help noticing such odd comings and goings, to say nothing of a Frenchman in their midst. Did he speak English? Corin didn’t know. Lud, how could he keep him a secret? And if Corin couldn’t keep him secret, how the deuce was he supposed to keep the man alive?
Hell and confound it, the war was going to be over eventually, and when it was, Corin wanted to be a respected member of the ruling class, not just taking his seat in Parliament, but having a say in the welfare of the country. Who would respect the man who got L’Ecrivain murdered? Thunderation!
Abercrombie was his only lifeline, and Abercrombie was letting him drown.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” the solicitor reported, nervously realigning the documents on his desk. “But the will seems to be in order. I doubt you’d be able to prove mental incapacity, collusion, or coercion, not with the bishop’s signature.”
“That’s it, then? There’s nothing I can do?”
Abercrombie straightened the papers one more time. “I did find one clause of note, my lord, which perhaps escaped your notice.”
“Yes?” The viscount was almost off his seat, his sudden movement disturbing Abercrombie’s neatly stacked piles. “What did you find?”
“Ahem. In discussing the tenure of Miss Angelina Armstead, your aunt wrote, ‘Until the last of my beloved pets joins me in Heaven, or finds a good home.’ It would appear that all you have to do is find decent homes for the curs—ones this Miss Armstead cannot fault—then she’d have to leave and the cottage would become your property. Easy as pie.”
Finding a home for a dog that hated men, or for one that loved leather? For three of the yippingest little terriers in creation? And what about Windy? Good grief, who’d ever take Windy? No matter, Corin vowed, he’d do it. He’d find homes for the ones he could, even if he had to bribe his friends and neighbors to take the plaguey pooches, even if he had to pay annuities for their upkeep. Even if he had to put an advertisement in the newspaper, he decided. And he’d just have to adopt the rest, that’s what, take them all back to Knowle Castle with him. Easy as pie.
The way Corin figured, he had a week, perhaps two, before the Frenchman arrived, not enough time to get all of the mutts adopted and out. No, he’d do better to clear the cottage of the hairy horde at one fell swoop, then work on getting rid of them one by one. That way he could see the last of Miss Angelina Armstead.
On his return to Kent, the viscount stopped first at Primrose Cottage, at the edge of the mile-long drive up to the castle. Deuce take it, the place was practically on his doorstep. So absorbed was he in his cogitations that he didn’t bother to notice that the primroses were starting to show their vibrant colors or that a vase of daffodils stood on the mantel in Aunt Sophie’s front parlor.
He should have worn mourning, he admitted, reminded by the scowls and somber black gown of Miss Angelina Armstead. But, dash it, spring had finally come, and he’d tossed off his greatcoat with its black armband. She might be sending disapproving looks toward his striped waistcoat, but, hell, he didn’t think much of her appearance, either. The companion resembled a scarecrow in that shapeless black bombazine, something put out to frighten the birds and small children. And her nondescript hair was falling out of its bun again as she bent to pour their tea. Granted, she looked better than she had at the reading of the will, for her complexion wasn’t all ruddy and splotchy. In fact, now that he could see her face, Corin decided Miss Armstead wasn’t nearly as old as he’d imagined. Her eyes, no longer red and swollen, were actually quite fine, a soft shade of green, somewhere between a hidden forest glen and a moss-lined trout stream.
The popinjay might as well be comparing her to pond scum, Angelina fumed, the way he was rudely inspecting her, a sneer marring his handsome countenance. Handsome is as handsome does, she reminded herself, and Lady Sophie’s nephew was a cad. She pursed her lips, set down her teacup, and said, “My lord, your plan to adopt the dogs yourself will not be acceptable.”
Yes, she could be a passable-looking woman, Corin decided, with those eyes flashing fire that way. Then her words penetrated his connoisseur’s automatic evaluation. “Why the devil not? I saw a handsome foxhound in the fenced yard as I drove up that would be a fine addition to my kennels. There was a capable-looking sheepdog out there, too; I’m sure one of my tenants could use a good shepherd.”
“And the rest, my lord? What about the others?”
“Are you suggesting I wouldn’t give them a decent home? I have an army of staff and miles of grounds. How could you possibly object?”
“Because you’re never there, my lord. You’ll be back in London by the end of the week, at some house party or hunting trip or off on one of your pleasure jaunts. The dogs will be left in kennel cages like your own hounds, or alone with your servants in that big empty castle.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Corin wanted to know. “It’s good enough for half the children in England.” Hell, it was how he himself was raised, and all his friends and acquaintances. “We’re talking about dogs, anyway, not infants.”
Angelina didn’t think much of the British aristocracy’s system of child rearing, a prime example of which was sitting across from her, cold, heartless, and despotic. That wasn’t the point. “Leaving children to governesses and nannies and tutors may or may not be the proper way to care for them, but it’s not good enough for Lady Sophie’s pets, my lord.”
“Deuce take it, Miss Armstead, they’re animals!”
“Exactly, and they need companionship, attention, and affection. They were Lady Sophie’s friends, not just a collection of living knickknacks. With her infirmities your aunt could not get around as much or be as active as she wished. The dogs were with her constantly, her joy and her comfort in her isolated life. Can’t you understand that she loved them and they loved her? They need to be around people, yes, but not some hired servants who come and go. I can let them go only to homes where I’m sure they will find that same kind of love, my lord. It would be dishonoring Lady Sophie’s memory to do otherwise.”
Corin was furious that this insignificant drudge had found him wanting. He brushed a crumb of poppy-seed cake off his knee and watched the three little ankle biters charge after it. They had gray bows in their hair today. Bah! The sour-faced spinster had grasped the mutts to her meager, unfulfilled bosom as the children she’d never had. Next thing he knew the woman would have them in little bibs and nappies. She’d never part with them, blast her to perdition. “What do they have now, Miss Arm-stead?” he demanded angrily. “What are you but a paid servant?”
That was unforgivably rude, and Corin felt like an outright dastard to be speaking to any female in such a manner, no matter how buffleheaded she was. Deuce take the woman, now he’d have to beg her pardon.
But Angelina wasn’t giving him the chance to apologize. She rose to her feet, forcing him to stand also lest he appear even more of an unmannered brute. “Yes, my lord, I am a paid servant, one of those who are forced to make their own way in this world without being handed every advantage. I refuse to be ashamed of my status despite your arrogant attitude. Your aunt was my employer, yes, but I loved her as I would my own aunt, and I love her pets. Her other employees are equally as fond of the animals or they wouldn’t all be staying on to see to their well-being. Even Lady Sophie’s abigail is remaining to help with the grooming. So that is what the dogs have now, love that you would never give them with all of your fine houses and hirelings.”
Angelina’s hands were shaking. How could she have spoken so to Lady Sophie’s nephew? She sank back down, as always making sure the chair behind her was empty. Drat the man for making her so angry she forgot herself. It was all his fault. Since she’d already blotted her copybook with his high-and-mighty lordship, Angelina decided she might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb and air another of her grievances. After all, she might work for her wages, but
wasn’t the one who wrote the checks. “Lest you think the animals are neglected, my lord, by myself and the other ‘paid servants,’ the local children come in the mornings to help exercise the dogs. They come in exchange for lessons, because their patron, their landlord and resident potentate, hasn’t bothered to hire a new schoolteacher since the last one ran off with Jeb Allen’s daughter.”