First Comes the Earl
Alicia Lockmore returned home from another night of dancing, mingling, and meeting one handsome gentleman after another. She was on top of the world, and she had been since her debut as one of London high society’s young women who were ready to seek a husband, which had occurred just a few weeks before.
She never failed to have many men ask her to dance, and she always returned home exhausted but filled with the delight of a young girl.
She had even had a few callers since her debut and, while she had not yet felt a connection strong enough to hope for an offer of courtship, she was intensely hopeful that her match was waiting for her.
Despite her fatigue, she lay awake, thinking about the next party she was to attend in just three days’ time. There were also two more balls scheduled for the end of the following week, and she was already planning her trip to town to buy her dresses.
She knew that Laura, her seventeen-year-old sister, was getting ready to begin her search for the ball to make her own debut into society. That was due to happen soon, and Alicia was happy to help her sister prepare for the occasion if Laura should invite her to do so. But most of all, Alicia hoped Ellen would be able to go with her.
Ellen was the youngest of the Lockmore daughters, just fourteen years of age, and yet Alicia felt closer to her than she did Laura or Rose, who was fifteen. All the sisters loved each other, naturally, but it seemed as though Alicia had more in common with Ellen, while Rose and Laura were more like one another than their other sisters.
Alicia and Ellen had spent many nights in one another’s bedchambers, talking all night long while the rest of their family slept. A few weeks ago, Alicia had even slipped Ellen her very first sip of champagne when their parents were preoccupied. They had giggled for the rest of the evening afterward, nearly exposing their secret. Alicia loved Ellen deeply, and she cherished their strong, special bond.
Alicia finally fell asleep to pleasant dreams of music and dancing. She awoke the following morning with the invitation already on her lips for Ellen to join her for a trip into town to choose the dresses she would wear to the upcoming social events.
She dressed quickly, donning a simple day dress. She could always change if she and Ellen did indeed go into town shopping later that day. She was so excited about the day, and the week, that lay ahead of her, it was hard to wait even one more moment to start her preparations for the impending parties and balls.
She hurried down the stairs and went straight to the dining hall, where the rest of her family was already seated and waiting for breakfast to be served. She smiled brightly at them as she entered the room, walking straight to her seat just beside Ellen.
“Good morning, everyone,” Alicia said, leaning down to kiss her youngest sister on the cheek before she took her seat.
Each member of her family returned her greeting, and she smiled sweetly at each of them. When her eyes landed on her father, however, she noticed that beneath his eyes were dark shadows almost like bruises. She could not help thinking he looked as though he had not slept well in ages.
Perhaps he had been working late for too many nights? He had spent a great deal of time in his study as of late, often skipping dinner with his family to continue working until after Alicia and her sisters had retired for the evening. Her mother looked well, if a bit distracted, so she decided her assumption was correct.
“What does everyone have planned for today?” Alicia asked, looking around the table at her family.
Rose looked at Alicia with a thoughtful expression.
“I was thinking of starting a new embroidery piece,” she mused. “There is a new design I am longing to try.”
Alicia nodded approvingly.
“Your embroidery is most impressive, Sister,” she said. “I cannot wait to see it once it’s finished.”
Rose smiled brightly. Then, she turned to Laura.
“What shall you do today?” she asked.
Laura shrugged, her eyes looking distant and distracted, like her mother’s.
“I have been learning some new music,” she said. “I might practice for a little while.”
The girls nodded. Ellen opened her mouth to speak, but just then the baron cleared his throat, rising slowly from his seat. He glanced around the table, but Alicia noticed immediately that he was not looking directly at his wife or his daughters. Worry for her father began to replace her earlier nonchalance, and she sat stiffly in her seat.
“Daughters, I must ask all of you to put your plans on hold just now,” he said. “I’m afraid it is necessary for you to begin gathering up your things and prepare for travel at once.” He sat down again, a beaten expression on his face.
The other three girls exchanged surprised expressions and began murmuring amongst themselves. Alicia glanced at her mother, who was staring down at her plate of untouched food.
A knot formed in Alicia’s stomach as she looked at her father, whom she noticed did not meet the eyes of anyone at the table.
“Where are we going, Father?” she asked cautiously. “And when will we return?”
The baron looked up at his eldest daughter, guilt lining his face. Alicia found her mouth suddenly dry. She knew that whatever her father was about to say, it could not be good.
“We are leaving for our country home, just as soon as we can make ourselves ready to do so,” he said, clearly reluctantly. “And I expect us to remain there indefinitely.”
The murmured conversation between her sisters ceased at once, just as Alicia’s heartbeat increased to a loud roar. Moving to the country home? But how, then, was she to attend all the upcoming season’s events?
It was many hours of travel to and from their country estate, and she would be exhausted before she ever reached the parties. Unless, of course, her father meant…
“What exactly are you saying, Father?” Alicia asked.
The look in the baron’s eyes answered her question well before his lips did. Her stomach twisted around itself, and she held her breath, praying she was merely jumping to inaccurate conclusions.
“I am sorry, my dear,” he said, once more unable to look her in the eyes.
Alicia’s mind spun. She put a hand to her chest as if to steady her pounding heart.
Ellen looked at Alicia with wide, saddened eyes. Being closest to Alicia, she understood instantly what her eldest sister was feeling and seemed upset on her behalf.
“But, Father, why?” Ellen asked, her voice rising. “How can you do this to Alicia? She has only just come out to society.”
The baron put his head in his hands. Alicia searched her mother’s face for answers, but the baroness was looking at her husband with a mixture of emotions on her face.
“I had a very lucrative business deal in place several months ago,” the baron said slowly, his voice clearly pained and full of guilt. “At first, everything was going according to plan. Had it moved forward as it was then, I would have easily doubled our wealth, and continued doubling it for several years to come.”
He paused, heaving a shaky sigh. “But the man who was supposed to be my partner has cheated and robbed me. He took every penny I invested and closed the deal without me. By the time I realized what had happened, he had already fled to the Far East. It has cost me almost all our fortune, I am afraid.”
Rose and Laura exchanged alarmed looks, beginning to understand the severity of the situation. Laura, as the second eldest, looked especially distressed. She glanced at Alicia, then turned to their father.
“Can you not arrange new ventures, Father?” she asked desperately. “Surely, there are many gentlemen who would gladly join with you in new business partnerships?”
The baron shook his head sadly, clasping his hands together beneath his chin.
“I have already tried that, darling,” he said. “In fact, I have done nothing but try since first realizing the trouble we are in. But after hearing about my unfortunate gamble with the man who has cheated me, no one in London is willing to risk partnering with me. They believe me to be a poor businessman. Or, at best, a gullible fool. It is all I can do to maintain what few small ventures remain so we do not lose every penny we have.”
The girls once more fell silent. The baroness, who had not spoken a word all morning, reached out and touched her husband’s arm.
“It is not your fault, darling,” she said. “You have provided well for us thus far, and we will do as you wish. Things will turn around, I am certain of it.”
Alicia’s heart broke as her mother spoke. The baroness was clearly trying to be reassuring and comforting, but the strain and sadness in her voice were almost palpable, at least to her eldest daughter.
The other three Lockmore girls began to relax, seeming to find comfort in their mother’s words. Alicia, however, found no such solace. Their family was in dire financial straits, and she was going to miss the rest of her very first London Season. It also seemed likely that her sisters would not have the opportunity to come out at all.
An idea struck Alicia just then, suddenly removing all her previous apprehension.
“Oh, Father,” she said, “what if I were to put more time into my painting? I know I am not as good as Mr. Turner or any of the other great artists, but I am certain some of my paintings might fetch a few coins at a small market stall. Especially if I put all my concentration into them.”
Instead of brightening, the baron’s face grew darker, and Alicia’s pensiveness returned. Her father had never looked more aged or haggard than in that moment.
“Alicia, darling,” he said, sounding as though every word took all his strength, “that is a kind and thoughtful idea. Indeed, I should like to see some of your beautiful paintings sell and help you make a name for yourself as the wonderful artist you are. But unless you can make a very great deal of money with the paintings you already have, then I am afraid we shall no longer be able to buy your paints at all.”
At this, Alicia’s heart seemed to stop. It was one thing to deprive both herself and her sisters of any chance of finding suitable husbands, but it was quite another to take from her the one thing she loved almost as dearly as her own family.
She stared at him dumbly in shock. Young Ellen broke the tense silence.
“No, Father, you mustn’t,” she cried, standing up so quickly, she knocked over her chair. “You cannot prevent Alicia from painting. She loves to paint, and it will devastate her if she cannot do the one thing she loves so well.”
Alicia’s heart broke once more, watching her dear youngest sister defend her. And she could see that Ellen’s words had hurt their father, as well. Rather than answer his young daughter, he put his face in his hands and shook his head once more.
“Ellen, that is enough,” the baroness said, her tone lacking authority in favor of tearful emotion. “Your father is not trying to take away anything. We simply cannot afford all the things we used to.”
Ellen refused to calm down. She stomped her foot, her bottom lip trembling fiercely.
“I do not see why we should be punished so for something that isn’t our fault,” she declared.
Before the baron or baroness could say anything further, Ellen turned and fled from the room, her sobs audible until she reached the second floor of the house.
There came the faint slam of her bedroom door, and then there was silence. And in silence, the Lockmore family finished their breakfast.
When Alicia could reasonably do so, she quietly excused herself and went to her own room. She walked over to her desk, burying her face in her hands to suppress the sound of her crying. She knew their predicament was not her father’s fault, but that did not make it any less devastating.
She truly had no idea what she would do with herself if she could no longer paint. It was the one thing she enjoyed above playing music and embroidering, and she knew she had a talent for it.
Frustrated, she pulled out some stationery from her desk. Beside the stationery was a piece of charcoal she sometimes used to make outlines for some of her more difficult paintings. She wiped the tears from her eyes, desperate to find some kind of outlet for the distress and dismay she was feeling.
Carefully, she touched the charcoal to the piece of paper, closing her eyes and imagining her favorite statue in the gardens. After a moment, she opened her now dry eyes and began pushing the charcoal across the page.
Time flew, and by the time she had finished her sketch, it was past lunchtime. That suited her, as she had no appetite after the morning’s bad news. She held up the picture she had drawn, and she could not help smiling.
She had never spent a great deal of time sketching, as painting was her true love. But as she looked at the drawing before her, she realized she was rather good at sketching, as well.
Perhaps, even if she could not paint, she could still find happiness in drawing. Charcoal was easy enough to get, and there would always be paper lying around. Finding one spot of brightness in the dark cloud that had so quickly settled on her family, Alicia left her room and went to find Ellen. Perhaps she could at least brighten little Ellen’s spirits with her new discovery.
“Ellen, darling,” Alicia said, taking a breath to keep from laughing at her sister and causing her hand to shake, “you really must sit perfectly still, if I am to make this sketch of you the best I possibly can.”
Ellen put her hands on her hips, directly defying her sister’s request, looking at Alicia as though she were mad.
“Alicia, you know perfectly well that you could draw a bird, in perfect detail, even while it was flying in frantic circles and chasing a fast-flying insect.”
Alicia blushed at the praise. Though she had worked hard at her sketching for three years now, she always saw room for improvement. Yet her family, especially Ellen, continued to speak highly of her talent, and it always humbled her.
“Just still yourself, Sister dear,” Alicia said. “I shall be finished shortly, and you can squirm to your heart’s content.”
Ellen sighed, but at last, she complied. The shade of the oak tree under which Alicia herself sat was keeping her cool, and she felt a sudden pang of guilt. She realized that Ellen was probably fidgeting because she was growing hot, sitting in direct sunlight to pose for the portrait.
The morning had been cool when they first started the project, but now it was approaching late afternoon, Alicia could feel the rising temperature, even from the shade.
Quickly, Alicia turned her focus back to the page she was drawing, not wishing to cause her sister any more discomfort than necessary.
Fifteen minutes later, Alicia lifted the brown leather sketch book and held it up to compare the likeness caught there to Ellen herself. As Ellen had implied, she had rendered every detail accurately, even adding some flourishes she had recently been practicing. Though she was exceedingly humble about her gift, she could not help thinking the simple portrait was one of the best sketches she had ever made. Indeed, perhaps the best of all.
Still, she could not avoid the pang of longing she felt as she stared at the black lines on the white page. Even after three years of not being able to paint, with each drawing she still saw all the colors she would have used if she could have afforded the paints.
Ellen hurried over to her, clearly impatient with her eldest sister’s daydreaming. She started to tug the sketch pad out of Alicia’s hands, but Alicia shook her head, gently pulling it out of her reach.
“Patience, Sister,” she said, feigning a dramatic secrecy, which she knew Ellen always enjoyed when waiting for Alicia to reveal her latest work.
Ellen huffed and stamped her foot, but she was not even remotely angry. It was merely part of their ritual whenever Alicia prepared to show her a finished drawing.
“Did you manage to capture all my good features?” she asked.
Alicia nodded, gazing at her youngest sister fondly.
“Every one of your features is good, Ellen,” she said. “For you are gorgeous.”
Ellen giggled, lacing her hands and theatrically placing them to her cheek.
“I know,” she said gleefully, “but it feels wonderful when you say so.”
Alicia laughed. Her sister was, indeed, very beautiful, even at such a young age. All the Lockmore girls were lovely, and they could almost pass for quadruplets. But Ellen was the one who took the most pleasure in being told how lovely she was, and she was the proudest of it. She was not arrogant and rude about it, however.
She had a heart just as beautiful as her face, and her kindness knew no bounds. So, if she was pleasantly proud of her looks, Alicia felt it was fine. It would one day likely win her a wonderful husband who appreciated her beauty as much as her family.
At last, Alicia revealed her drawing to her anxious sister. Ellen gasped, gently taking the book from her eldest sister’s hands and staring at the page in awe.
“Oh, Alicia,” she breathed. “You truly do have a talent for drawing. This is more beautiful than anything you have ever drawn, I do believe.”
Alicia giggled, flattered by the compliment from her sister.
“That would not happen to be because you are the subject matter, would it?” she asked, amused.
Ellen shook her head slowly, not taking her eyes off the sketch.
“You have captured me, even more beautifully than I had imagined,” she said. “But it is clear you were born with drawing skills good enough to rival many of the great artists of our time.”
Alicia put her hands to her reddening cheeks, her smile widening.
“You are too kind, Sister,” she said. “I am sure I could never be as good as a professional artist.”
Ellen looked at Alicia with fond wonder.
“You already are, silly,” she said.
Alicia giggled again, taking the book from her sister and looping her arm through Ellen’s.
“Come,” she said, “the sun will be setting soon, and dinner will be ready. We should go back inside and clean ourselves up. You know how Mother fusses if we look the least bit mussed or dirty at mealtimes.”
Ellen rolled her eyes and nodded. Then, she turned, leading her eldest sister back toward their small country mansion, chatting excitedly about Alicia’s portrait of her all the way. They walked slowly, enjoying as much of the early evening sunset as they could before reaching the manor.
Alicia loved the sunset. She had once been very fond of painting various sunset scenes she witnessed. It had, in fact, been one of her favorite things to paint. Once more she longed for her watercolors and canvas and wondered if she would ever be able to paint again.
Once inside their home, Alicia hugged her sister, thanking her again for her kind compliments on her drawing. Then, she went to her bedchambers to undress and quickly wash her hands, arms, and face in the little wash basin there. She used a few sprays from her lavender perfume bottle to tame some wild strands of hair that poked out from her ringlets.
Then, she dressed again, donning a simple pink dress with a matching bow at the back. She still had a few more formal dresses, all with matching gloves, but she had decided to save them in case there was ever a time when she might attend another party.
Though her hopes of such a thing dwindled by the day, she could not bring herself to wear the dresses. To do so would be to accept she might never mingle with high society again, and she was not ready for that, even though in her heart she already knew it to be true.
Once she was ready, she went downstairs and joined her family for dinner. She saw that Ellen had beaten her to the dining room, which was no surprise. Her sketching tools always left her with blackened hands and fingers, and it took her longer to wash up after she had been drawing. She gave her youngest sister, who was staring up at her as if she was responsible for all the stars in the sky, a warm smile. Then, she glanced at the rest of her family, making her way to her seat.
“Good evening,” she said, gracefully adjusting her chair beside Ellen.
The baron and baroness gave their eldest daughter affectionate smiles. Alicia thought the baron had a sparkle in his eye, but she could not be sure. Her father had been very reserved since their arrival at their country house, despite his wife and daughters continuing to try to remain positive and happy about their new way of life.
“Good evening, darling,” the baroness said, smiling brightly at her daughter. “Did you and Ellen have a nice day out in the meadow?”
Alicia opened her mouth to speak, but Ellen interrupted.
“Oh, Mother,” Ellen gushed, “Alicia is too good with her drawing. She sketched a portrait of me today that any professional artist could not outdo in all of London.”
Alicia blushed anew at more of her sister’s exuberant praise.
The baroness raised her eyebrows and glanced proudly at Alicia.
“Oh?” she said, “may we see your drawing, my dear?”
Alicia bit her lip, shrugging bashfully.
“Mother, Ellen does exaggerate,” she said softly. “She simply made a lovely subject to draw, that’s all.”
Rose scoffed, looking at her eldest sister as though she had gone mad.
“Sister, we have all seen your drawings,” she said. “You truly do have a gift with a piece of charcoal and a sketch book.”
Laura nodded in agreement.
“The portrait you made of me today is incredibly good,” she said. “I leave it on my desk, so I can look at it whenever I am writing letters.”
Alicia smiled shyly at her family. Even though they had fallen on hard times, it was clear they all loved one another and could find joy in life.
“Thank you all,” she said. “I cannot tell you how much your kind words and support about my artwork mean to me.”
Ellen wrapped her arms around her sister, squeezing her tightly.
“If anyone deserves such praise and support, it is you, Sister,” she said.
The baron cleared his throat, gaining the attention of his whole family. Alicia noticed the baroness was barely concealing a smile, and she wondered what could be going on between her parents.
“Speaking of things my girls deserve,” the baron said, winking at Alicia, “I have some news I wish to share with all of you.”
Ellen’s eyes brightened instantly, and she began trembling with excitement.
“Oh, Father,” she said, “will we be returning to London soon?”
Some of the joy faltered on the baron’s face but only momentarily. He shrugged, holding up a gentle hand to his youngest daughter to encourage her to allow him to speak.
“That is something we will discuss in the near future, my dear,” he said. “But for now, I wish to say something else.” He looked back at Alicia, his smile returning. “This news is more to do with our eldest girl.”
Alicia set aside her napkin and straightened herself in her chair, giving her father a polite, though tense, smile.
“Yes, Father?” she asked.
The baron smiled warmly at his daughter, and Alicia realized that he did, in fact, look less distressed than he had since they had moved to the country. Though his hair and beard were much grayer than they had been just a few years before, just then, he looked younger than Alicia could ever remember.
“I know how difficult it was for you to have to leave London during your first season,” he said. “So, I am happy to tell you that your aunt has happily agreed to take you into her home so you may attend the upcoming season.”
Alicia’s mouth fell open, her heart beating furiously in her chest. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She had thought that if any of them returned to London, it would be all of them together.
Never had she considered going back without her family, even to stay with her aunt and cousins. The idea had never crossed her mind. She stared at her father dumbly for a moment, trying to find the right words to say.
“Darling, isn’t that wonderful?” the baroness asked, looking at Alicia with bright eyes.
Alicia looked up at her mother and nodded, still trying to find her voice. From the corner of her eye, she could see Laura listening intently, her face expressionless but her eyes alert and curious.
Alicia looked back at her father.
“But what about Laura?” she asked. “At least I was able to come out. Should Laura not be the one who goes back to London? Perhaps Aunt Paulette could throw her a debut ball and let her attend the season.”
The baron nodded sympathetically, giving both Alicia and Laura an apologetic smile.
“I did consider that option, my dears,” he said. “But your aunt Paulette would need some financial assistance from me to host such a lavish event. It will be enough of a struggle for her to help Alicia buy new dresses as she will also be tending to Pippa’s season.”
Alicia nodded, unable to help feeling a little disappointed. For a moment, she thought she had managed to find a way to help her sister achieve something she knew was important to her. But she understood how much more difficult it would be to fund a fresh debut into society rather than supporting a young woman who had already come out.
Laura also nodded, her smile somewhat pained yet genuine. She gave Alicia a warm, fond look, then turned back to their father.
“I understand,” she said. “And it will be good for Alicia to attend some balls. Perhaps she will find a good husband.”
Understanding dawned on Alicia, and she bit her lip. Of course, it made more sense for her to be the one to return to London. She was soon approaching spinster age, whereas Laura still had plenty of time to find a husband and marry.
Besides, if Alicia made a name for the Lockmore girls in London again, Laura and her other sisters, once they had reached the proper age, might garner plenty of callers and suitors without having debut balls or attending the London Season at all.
It was a stretch, but Alicia knew that anything was possible if just one of the sisters could mingle with the ton again and make a good impression.
With a decisive smile, she looked at her mother and father.
“That is wonderful news,” she said. “When will I be leaving for London?”
The baron, his pride in his announcement renewed tenfold, smiled at his daughter once more.
“Your cousin Patrick shall be coming for you in five days’ time,” he said. “And he has also kindly offered to act as your chaperone throughout the season.”
Alicia nodded, feeling overwhelmed. She was too surprised at the sudden knowledge she would be attending another season to fathom quite how she felt about it just then. However, she knew for certain that she would miss her sisters and her parents dearly.
She wished her father had waited to speak to her in private before making such an announcement, though she understood he was proud at having done something he believed would begin to make up for having taken his daughters away from the promising futures and lives they had enjoyed in London.
She continued to smile as each of her sisters congratulated her and began talking about how exciting it would be for Alicia to be part of society again. But deep down, Alicia was conflicted.
She knew what a wonderful thing it would be for her entire family if she found a husband and married well. But what if she didn’t? Was her father making the right decision?
Ewan Walsh held his breath as he watched the animals clustered just ahead, sniffing the air cautiously. They were many paces away, just close enough for him to make them out, but he knew that he could ill afford to make any sudden movements.
In all his years of hunting, to find so many animals together and so close to his position was rare. It could easily be one of his most successful hunting trips so far that season. But he had to move with great care, or he risked alerting the animals to his presence and his intent, and he would lose his chance to get even one of them.
“Any luck, Walsh?” said a loud voice from behind him.
Ewan jumped, seeing the animals instantly scatter so quickly it was as if they had never been there. He groaned, turning to face the speaker with eyes as sharp as daggers.
“Caldwell,” Ewan growled, resting his weapon against the tree behind which he had been concealing himself from the animals. “Do you have any idea what you have just done?”
James looked all around, glancing over Ewan’s shoulder, then he looked back at Ewan, his expression confused and amused.
“It would appear as though I caught you so lost in your thoughts, and you quite forgot why we are out here,” he said.
Ewan narrowed his eyes at his friend, feeling the disappointment of missing a good kill rapidly fading.
“It is a good thing that you and I do not hunt together to make a living,” he said. “We would both starve within a month, of that I am certain.”
James looked at him, seeming even more amused and puzzled than before.
“Unless you are hunting imaginary animals now, there is nothing out here for you to track,” he said.
Ewan sighed. Hunting was his favorite activity, and it was, indeed, where he got much of the meat cooked in the kitchens of his country home. But the larders were currently well-stocked, and he did not wish to make his best friend feel bad.
Though James enjoyed an occasional hunt, he was not quite as passionate about it as Ewan, and he did not understand the thrill of a successful hunting expedition. Or the disappointment of missing perfect opportunities, like the one he had just ruined for Ewan.
“Come, James,” he said, retrieving his weapon and putting his hand on his friend’s back. “Luncheon will be ready soon, and I am famished.”
“Luncheon sounds delightful,” James said. “Though I must admit I was looking forward to some fresh game today.”
Ewan rolled his eyes, giving his friend a crooked grin as they made their way out of the woods and onto the path leading up to Ewan’s country manor. Ewan led his friend inside and directed him to a spare room upstairs when they reached the back door.
“Please, feel free to change and wash up,” he said, smiling warmly at James. “There are some suits in the wardrobe in that room which I know will fit you, and my servants will be happy to clean the clothes you are currently wearing while we have luncheon and enjoy the afternoon.”
With that, Ewan turned to make his way to the other end of the long hallway, where his own bedchambers were situated. But before he reached his room, the butler materialized before him as if from thin air.
“Your lordship,” he said, holding out a sealed envelope. “This came for you. The courier said it is rather urgent.”
Ewan took the envelope, instantly recognizing the handwriting and frowning. He opened it quickly, hoping all was well, given the message was supposedly urgent.
How are you, darling? It feels as though it has been ages since I heard a word from you. It has been at least an age since I saw you. I miss you terribly, my dear. Nothing is the same without you here.
Ewan, I must make a request of you. Please consider coming to visit me soon. The season will be starting soon, and it would be an added delight to have you come to see me during such a festive time. I am well cared for, thanks to your generous allowance, but money is no substitute for your company.
I insist that you consider my request seriously. I shall have your old room made ready for your arrival. I love you, Ewan.
Ewan idly folded the letter and closed his eyes. He supposed he should have known that, sooner or later, his mother would try to get him to return home. He did miss his mother, and he had no doubt that she missed him, too.
She had become especially emotionally dependent on Ewan since his father’s sudden death six years prior. Truthfully, part of him felt guilty for leaving her in London while he hid out in the country. But his guilt was shadowed by another feeling that now rapidly filled his mind. His mother might truly miss him, but she had said something very important in her letter.
The season will be starting soon…
Instantly, Ewan understood what his mother was about. She wanted him in town just in time for the upcoming season so that he would find himself a future wife. She was hoping he would at last settle down, return to London permanently, and start a family of his own.
He sighed, smiling sadly at his mother’s innocent but problematic hopefulness. He had not told her everything when he had fled London. He had only told her he needed time to recover from his heartache over Jane, though he suspected that, at some point, she had learned the entire truth through the gossip sheets.
Tucking the letter into his pocket, Ewan continued to his bedchambers. Thoughts of Jane brought a genuine renewal of his old heartache. He had been in love with Jane once and had every intention of marrying her.
To all appearances, she had loved him, too. She had been thrilled when he had asked her to court him, and he had been confident that, when he asked for her hand in marriage, she would say yes with every bit as much enthusiasm.
Yet, on the day he had asked her to marry him, she coldly and flatly rejected him in front of her entire family. She confessed to him then that she had only been courting him to make a duke in whom she was interested jealous.
Ewan had stared, dumbfounded and humiliated, as Jane explained the carefully laid plan she had executed and how well it had worked. In front of her family, she announced that the duke had asked for her hand, fearful he would lose her to Ewan, and she had accepted.
When Ewan had uncomfortably and dejectedly excused himself and fled from her home, she had not offered so much as a weak apology. That day, on returning to his London home with a shattered heart and mind, he had sworn he would never make the mistake of trusting another woman again. How could he, after what Jane had done?
“What’s wrong, Walsh?” James asked, startling Ewan. “Is everything all right?”
Ewan turned, surprised to see him already cleaned up for lunch. He shook his head and held up the letter, briefly explaining his mother’s request.
James nodded, his expression growing solemn and thoughtful.
“I can only imagine what is going through your mind now,” he said.
Ewan sighed, running a hand through his hair.
“I do miss Mother,” he admitted. “But…” he trailed off, gesturing to thin air with another shake of his head.
His friend nodded once more, his eyes sympathetic and kind.
“I understand, Ewan,” he said. “What will you do?”
Ewan shrugged, starting to explain to James that he was unsure what he should do. But just then, Margaret stepped into the hallway, approaching the two men. Her bright smile wilted as she reached them, her brow wrinkling with concern.
“What has the two of you looking so serious?” she asked.
James looked at his sister, all traces of his usual jester-like boisterousness evaporated. It was clear to Ewan he was taking his friend’s dismay very seriously, and Ewan was suddenly very glad for his friendship.
“Ewan’s mother is calling him back to London,” James said simply, his tone devoid of all humor.
Margaret looked Ewan over, seemingly considering something. Ewan began to feel uncomfortable under her gaze, and he wished he had been quicker in getting to his bedchambers.
“What?” he asked Margaret. “You look at me as though I am growing a second head.”
Margaret did not laugh. Instead, she tilted her head, clasping her hands at her waist.
“Perhaps you should go back,” she said. “The season will begin soon, and I am sure there will be many wonderful young ladies seeking a husband.”
Ewan groaned. He should have known that Margaret would be thinking the same things as his mother. Margaret was so much like a sister to him and, even though they did not share parents, she reminded him a great deal of his mother much of the time.
And, like his mother, he knew without a doubt that Margaret only wanted to see him happy and well. But, also like his mother, Margaret could not know how uncomfortable he was with the thought of meeting another woman who could hurt him the way Jane had.
Jane had taken his ability to trust as well as his heart, and he simply did not believe he would ever be able to settle down with a woman.
He said none of those things, however. At best, it would earn him a well-intended lecture from Margaret about how he must leave the past where it belonged and get on with his life. At worst, Margaret would be saddened to learn his experience with Jane had so deeply scarred him, and he did not wish to be a source of concern for her. So, instead, he smiled, giving her a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders.
“It is something to consider,” he said.
That evening, Ewan met James and Margaret in the main dining hall for dinner. He had spent much of the afternoon after luncheon thinking about his mother’s letter. It really was tempting to pay his mother a visit.
He missed her dearly, and he thought that being back in his old home might do something toward cheering him up. However, he was still reluctant to show his face among the ton.
He wanted to believe that subsequent scandals had rendered any past damage to his reputation irrelevant, or at least unimportant enough to allow him to re-establish himself as the more mature man now was.
In his heart, he doubted everyone had forgotten his previous reputation, and he was certain that not everyone would be willing to accept his changed ways.
“Ewan,” James said, pulling Ewan from his brooding, “I have not yet had the chance to tell you that I have recently taken an interest in the wine trade. France is exporting ever greater amounts from what I hear, and London is selling more French wine than ever before. And that is to say nothing of the other types of wine we already know and love well.”
Ewan nodded, raising his eyebrow suspiciously.
“Are you perchance mentioning this to me now as a means of getting me to agree to return to London?” he asked.
“Nothing escapes you, does it, my friend,” he said. “I admit the notion had crossed my mind that, if you do return to London with us, you and I could go into business together, as partners in our own little piece of the wine trade. From what I understand and from what I have seen for myself, such a venture would make us very wealthy quite quickly. And even a hermit such as yourself could make use of some extra income, and I would wager.”
Ewan snorted, smirking at his friend sardonically.
“Keep up with your wagers, and you will have all your money spent before you even begin your new endeavors.”
James guffawed again, shaking his head indulgently.
“You and your wit, Walsh,” he said. “With that and my intelligence, I daresay we would make quite a formidable team. And with your mother asking you to visit her, now would be the perfect time for us to begin such a venture.”
It was Ewan’s turn to laugh. He understood James’s joke, but he knew there was some truth to it. And beneath that, he knew James was being serious. James was far better at business than he was at hunting, and if he was making a business proposal to Ewan, then he was very sincere.
“You are nothing if not persistent,” Ewan said at last. “Let me give it some thought, and we can discuss it once I have reached a decision.”
James grinned, raising his glass to Ewan.
“I knew you would not be able to resist,” he said.
Ewan nodded, forcing himself to maintain his smile. Deep down, however, he was still uncertain whether he would ever really consider returning to London. His mother had fortunately been largely spared from the repercussions of his roguish behavior before he left London. But what would happen if he found himself right back in the scandal sheets before he could prove he was a changed man?
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