Authors: Grace Burrowes
Tags: #Historical romance, #Fiction
Copyright © 2011 by Grace Burrowes
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Cover by Dawn Pope/Sourcebooks
Cover illustration by Anne Cain
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“Why is that sitting on my fountain?”
Devlin St. Just, the Earl of Rosecroft, directed his question to the wilted specimen who passed for his land steward. “And why, in the blazing middle of July, is my fountain inoperable?”
“I’m afraid, my lord, the fountain hasn’t worked in several years,” Holderman replied, answering the simpler question first. “And as for the other, well, I gather it conveyed with the estate.”
”—the earl jerked his chin—“cannot convey. It is not a fixture nor livestock.”
“In the legal sense, perhaps not,” Holderman prevaricated, clearing his throat delicately. He’d given the word a little emphasis: lee-gal, and his employer shot him a scowl.
“What?” the earl pressed, and Holderman began to wish he’d heeded his sister’s advice and stayed pleasantly bored summering on their uncle’s estate closer to York. The earl was not an easy person to work for—well over six feet of former cavalry officer, firstborn of a powerful duke, and possessed of both arrogance and temper in abundance.
The man was a Black Irish terror, no matter he paid well and worked harder than any title Holderman had run across. Devlin St. Just, newly created first Earl of Rosecroft, was a flat, screaming terror. Gossip, even in York, was that the French had run for the hills when St. Just had led the charge.
“Well, you see, my lord…” Holderman swallowed and stole a glance at the fountain. He was the land steward for pity’s sake, and explaining the situation should not be left to him.
“Holderman,” the earl began in those low tones that presaged a volcanic display, “slavery and trade therein were outlawed almost a decade ago here in merry old England. Moreover, I have no less than
younger siblings, and I can tell you
is a child, not chattel per se, and thus cannot convey. Make it go away.”
“I am afraid I cannot quite manage just precisely what you ask.” Holderman cleared his throat again.
“Holderman,” the earl replied with terrifying pleasantness, “the thing cannot weigh but three stone. You pick it up and tell it to run along. Tell it to go ’round the kitchen and filch a meat pie, but make it go away.”
“Well, my lord, as to that…”
“Holderman.” The earl crossed his arms over his muscled chest and speared the land steward with a look that had no doubt quelled insurrection in junior officers, younger siblings, miscreant horses, and drunken peers, regardless of rank. “Make. It. Go. Away.”
Holderman, in a complete abdication of courage, merely shook his head and stared at the ground.
“Fine.” The earl sighed. “I shall do it myself, as it appears I have to do every other benighted task worth mentioning on this miserable excuse for a parody of an estate. You, off!” He stabbed a finger in the general direction of the distant hills and bellowed at the child as he advanced on the fountain.
The child stood up on the rim of the dry fountain—which still left the earl a towering advantage of height—pointed a much smaller finger in the same direction and bellowed right back, “You, off!”
The earl stopped, his scowl shifting to a thoughtful frown.
“Holderman.” He spoke without turning. “The child is too thin, dirty, and ill-mannered. Whose brat is this?”
“Well, my lord, in a manner of speaking, the child is, well… Yours.”
“The child is not in any
manner of speaking
“The responsibility for the child, I should say.”
“And how do you reach such a conclusion?” the earl asked, rubbing his chin and eyeing the child.
“That is the former earl’s progeny, as best anyone can figure,” Holderman said. “Because the Crown has seen fit to give you Rosecroft, then its dependents must fall to your care, as well.”
“Sound reasoning,” the earl allowed, considering the child.
But, dear God, St. Just thought on a spike of exasperation, it needed only this. The former title holder was dead and had left no legitimate issue. As the Rosecroft estate was neglected and in debt, the Crown had not looked favorably on taking possession of it through escheat proceedings. An earldom had been produced from thin air, as a minor title
would not do
for the firstborn of a duke, and the estate had been foisted off on a man who wanted nothing to do with titles, responsibilities, or indebtedness of any kind, much less—merciful God!—
“Listen, child.” The earl sat on the rim of the fountain and prepared to treat with the natives. “You are a problem, though I’ve no doubt you regard me in the same light. I propose we call a truce and see about the immediate necessities.”
“I won’t go,” the child replied. “You can’t make me.”
Stubborn, the earl thought, keeping his approval to himself. “I won’t go, either, but may I suggest, if you’re preparing to lay siege, you might want to store up some tucker first.”
The child scowled and blinked up at him.
“Eat,” the earl clarified. It had been quite a while since he’d had to converse with someone this small. “Armies, as the saying goes, march on their bellies not on their feet. You need to eat.”
His opponent appeared to consider the point. “I’m hungry.”
“When was the last time you ate?” The child might be as old as seven, but it would be a thin, puny seven if that. Six seemed more likely, and five was a definite possibility.
“I forget,” the child replied. “Not today.” As the sun was lowering against the green Yorkshire hills, the situation required an immediate remedy.
“Well, come along then.” St. Just held out a hand. “We will feed you and then see what’s to be done with you.”
The child stared at his hand, frowned, and looked up at his face, then back down at his hand. The earl merely kept his hand outstretched, his expression calm.
“Meat pies,” he mused aloud. “Cheese toast, cold cider, apple tarts, strawberry cobbler, sausage and eggs, treacle pudding, clean sheets smelling of sunshine and lavender, beeswax candles…” He felt a tentative touch of little fingers against his palm, so he closed his hand around those fingers and let his voice lead the child along. “Berry tarts, scones in the morning, ham, bacon, nice hot tea with plenty of cream and sugar, kippers, beefsteak, buttered rolls and muffins…”
“Muffins?” the child piped up wistfully. St. Just almost smiled at the angelic expression on the urchin’s face. Great blue eyes peered out of a smudged, beguiling little puss, a mop of wheat blond curls completing a childish image of innocence.
“Muffins.” The earl reiterated as they gained the side terrace of the manor and passed indoors. “With butter and jam, if you prefer. Or chocolate, or juice squeezed from oranges.”
“Had them all the time in Spain.”
“You were in Spain?” the child asked, eyes round. “Did you fight old Boney?”
“I was in Spain,” the earl said, his tone grave, “and Portugal, and France, and I fought old Boney. Nasty business, not at all as pleasant as the thought of tea cakes or clean linen or even some decent bread and butter.”
“Bread and butter is good. I’m the Earl of Helmsley.”
The Earl of Rosecroft stopped and frowned. “Better you than me. I’m Rosecroft, of all the simple things to name an earldom.”
“This estate is Rosecroft, and it belongs to the Earl of Helmsley.”
Would that it still did, St. Just fumed silently. Had no one told the child of Helmsley’s death?
“We are in the midst of a truce,” the earl reminded his companion. “A gentleman does not bring up conflicted matters during a truce.”
“I’m still the Earl of Helmsley. Can we have supper anyway?”
“We can.” The earl nodded his agreement and began towing the child up the stairs. “But one must be decently turned out for dinner, and you, my friend, are sadly lacking in both wardrobe and proper hygiene.”
The child looked down at scruffy britches, a tattered shirt, and very dirty brown toes. “I’m decent.”
“But when opposing generals show one another hospitality the night before a great battle, they do not merely present themselves as decent.”
“They don’t?” The child peered around at the private suite the earl had appropriated. The rooms were spacious and full of interesting things no doubt begging to be touched.
“‘Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look,’” the earl quoted. “Have a seat.” He half lifted, half led the child to a settee, though even on that modest piece of the furniture, those dirty little toes swung several inches above the carpet. St. Just began to divest himself of his garments, having long since learned to make do without a valet, batman, or other sycophant.
“Well, get busy,” the earl said when he was in the process of shucking his breeches. “A gentleman doesn’t go down to dine unless he’s properly bathed, and you, I fear, will take a deal of bathing.”
“I am not a gentleman,” the child said, the truculence back in full force. The earl glanced down at his own naked chest and recalled that grown men were not necessarily an easy thing for not-so-grown men to compare themselves to. He shrugged into a dressing gown and tossed his shirt to the child. “For your modesty. Now let’s be about it, shall we? The sooner we’re clean, the sooner we eat.”
He eyed the child’s hair and suspected getting clean might involve a quantity of shampoo, but merely held out his hand again. “Come along, child.”
a gentleman,” the child said again, scooting back against the sofa.
“We can remedy that,” the earl said with what he hoped was a reassuring tone. “A little scrubbing, some decent attire, small refinements of speech.” He slipped the child’s shirt off in a single motion. “If I can master it in not quite thirty-two years, there is certainly hope for you.”
“I am not a gentleman,” the child ground out, standing on the sofa cushions and swatting at the earl’s hands, “and I do not want to
“Then you can be a pirate,” the earl reasoned. “But if you are eating my food, you shall do so with clean fingers.” He made a deft grab for the scruffy britches, yanking them down over narrow hips and bony knees with a swift jerk.
The child stood up on the sofa, naked and indignant.
I am not a gentleman. I do not want to be a gentleman!
“Jesus, God, and the Apostles!” The earl swiftly wrapped the child in his shirt and stood panting in shock. “You are a benighted damned female!”
“Do I still have to take a bath?”
“What is a benighted damned female?”
They were dining in the breakfast parlor because the earl refused to put his staff to the trouble of a formal evening meal for one person, and the breakfast parlor was closer to the kitchen. “You will forget I said that,” the earl instructed. “Elbows off the table, and what is your name?”
“Brat,” the child replied, elbows slipping out of sight. “My mama used to call me Winnie, but everybody else calls me brat.” The earl raised an eyebrow, and his dinner guest dropped her gaze. They called her worse than that, but he knew she wasn’t about to share it with him—yet.
“I will call you Miss Winnie. Where is your mama?”
“In heaven. May I have some more peas?”
“You are an unnatural child,” St. Just said as he spooned more buttered peas onto her plate. “Children abhor vegetables.”
“I like what comes out of the garden.” Winnie tucked into her peas as she spoke. The earl suspected, watching her consume her food with single-minded focus, she liked what came out of the garden because she could help herself to it all summer long.
“Then you will like apple tarts.”
“Do you like them?” Winnie didn’t take her eyes off her peas as she asked.
“No talking with your mouth full. I am very fond of apple tarts, particularly when made with lots of butter, cinnamon, and a brandy glaze. For pity’s sake, child, nobody is going to steal your peas.”
“Not if I eat them first.” Winnie tipped her plate to scrape the butter sauce onto her spoon.
“None of that.” The earl put the plate back down on the table. “You need to leave room for your apple tart.” He signaled a footman. “Miss Winnie will be having some very weak tea with her apple tart.”
“Of course, my lord.” The man bowed and began collecting plates, stoically ignoring the look of longing with which Winnie watched his departure.
“So tell me, Miss Winnie, did you enjoy the lavender bubbles?”
“They smelled like lavender but they weren’t lavender colored.” Winnie eyed the basket of rolls and the butter, the only food remaining on the table.
“You wanted purple bubbles in your bath?” St. Just almost smiled. “Fine earl you’ll make.”
Winnie’s chin came up. “I am Helmsley. My mama said so.”
“You can be Helmsley all you like, as long as you take your baths, say your prayers, and behave yourself. Who looks after you?”