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Viscount Hartville could not have been away from the stables for more than an hour. He had galloped his black stallion past the home farm to the far end of the spring-green valley, and then turned directly back toward his estate. Being at Berwick Hall these days had become particularly irritating, and the ride was necessary to release some of his pent-up energy.
If his mother became any more obvious in her intention that he marry Caroline Carruthers, Hartville was going to eject her (his own mother!) from the estate. Not that Miss Carruthers was ineligible to be his viscountess, or even that she was an antidote. Far from it. But she was too angelic and too insipid for his tastes.
When Lady Hartville had invited a distant relation to stay, Hartville had surmised there was some plot in the making. His mother had a genius for schemes and stratagems. In the main, they were useful plans--how to circumvent a visit from the vicar or entice a pastry chef away from a neighbor--nothing to cause him a moment's disquiet. His mother had not so much as hinted that she wished him to marry, prior to this latest start. Hartville had always assumed she preferred being the female in charge of the domestic side of the estate.
His mother could have invited her cousin, a fifty-year-old matron of no discernible talent or conversation, to provide her with the companionship that she protested Hartville failed to supply her, what with his penchant for wandering off to London or the Continent. But no, a miss of four and twenty had arrived, just two weeks past, and Lady Hartville showed every sign of keeping the girl permanently--at Hartville's expense. Not wishing to embarrass the quiet, angelicCaroline Carruthers, Hartville merely avoided her whenever possible. He refused to exhibit the smallest sign of interest, fearful that it would be interpreted as an indication that he planned to make her an offer.
As the viscount drew Warrior in to a trot, he could see that something out of the ordinary was taking place near the stables. The grooms and coachman were gathered around a small child of four or five. Hartville could not tell if the child was a boy or girl, there were so many people in the way. The group turned as one at the sound of his horse's hoofbeats. John Coachman stepped forward, drawing the child with him.
"This here is Viscount Hartville," he said forcefully, glaring at the viscount in a most extraordinary way. "You tell him what you done told us."
The child raised wondrously blue eyes (not unlike Hartville's own) and said, "Papa!"
"Mother," Hartville said firmly, "I am not the child's father. I assure you I've never set eyes on her before in my life."
Lady Hartville, an imposing woman of fifty summers, remained unmoved. "You may never have seen her before, Hartville. That doesn't mean you ain't her papa."
Hartville's blue eyes hardened. "I'm not aware of any byblows, Mother, and I promise you that any woman who conceived my child would not be remiss in informing me and insisting on my support--which I would naturally give."
"Oh, naturally," she said, and sighed. Her feet were propped up on a stool, and a woolen rug covered her legs, obviously one of the kind attentions of the ubiquitous Miss Carruthers. But Lady Hartville was not disposed to allow these comforts to lull her into a false sense of contentment. "You've sown your wild oats with remarkably little consequence, Richard. It's time you settled down."
"So you've informed me." Hartville wondered where the virtuous Miss Carruthers had got to. She was ordinarily to be found seated near his mama, needlework in lap, patiently and elegantly knitting some fringe or other. Since her arrival he would have sworn she'd produced more finery than his mother's modiste in the village. In fact, he sometimes wondered if Miss Carruthers had aspirations to replace that worthy woman, should she fail to fulfill his mother's ambition for her.
"What do you intend to do about the child?" his mother asked.
"John Coachman said she was left by a man who wouldn't give his name. He was wearing a farm laborer's clothing, but he was no one John had ever seen before. When John asked if he was the girl's father, he denied it. He also denied knowing where the mother was."
"Why didn't they detain him?"
"How, mother? By force? The two came by horse. Apparently he placed the child on the ground, said she belonged here, and rode off." Hartville tapped his riding crop impatiently against the side of his boot. "Perhaps if I had been there, I could have induced him to be a bit more forthcoming. But I was not there, and my loyal retainers seem to have all taken the man at his word, damn their hides."
"Well, she can't stay here," Lady Hartville protested. "She'll have to go to the orphanage in Grassmere."
Which was exactly what Hartville had decided himself. Having his mother voice the option, however, tended to set up his back. And yet, what other alternative was there? She couldn't very well stay on the estate. Sometimes the illegitimate child of a member of the gentry was raised by a rural family in the vicinity, but in those situations the precise circumstances of birth and parentage were known and subtly acknowledged. With this little one...
"What's her name?" Lady Hartville asked.
Hartville shrugged. "She wouldn't say."
At that moment the door to the salon, which had (unbeknownst to him) been partially open, swung wide and a vision of blond elegance appeared there. His many-times-removed cousin Caroline Carruthers stood hand in hand with a clean, blond, curly-haired child who could surely not be the urchin he'd seen in the stableyard.
"This is Wilhelmina," Miss Carruthers said.
And the child looked adoringly up at her and said, "Mama?"
At this Lady Hartville laughed merrily. The viscount ground his teeth. "Just why are you willing to believe I'm the child's father, but find it absurd that Miss Carruthers could possibly be her mother?" he demanded.
"Oh, Hartville, do mind your manners," his esteemed parent snapped. "A woman cannot miss the fact of her parentage; a man most assuredly can." She beckoned toward the two females in the doorway. "Come, let me see the child. She told you her name?"
Caroline Carruthers, keeping a tight grip on the girl's fingers, drew her closer to the older woman. The child kept her eyes lowered, as though she were either shy or intimidated by her surroundings, and followed meekly along with her "mama." Hartville could distinguish no similarity between Miss Carruthers and the girl, with the exception of the blond hair, and even that was of a different type.
The child had the kind of white-blond hair that was almost guaranteed to make her look like an angel. In the stableyard her head had been partially covered with a knit scarf, and her hair had not been particularly clean. They had learned that she had ridden with the man, whom she called JoJo, for several days.
"Yes, she told me her name," Miss Carruthers agreed, with a rather odd look in Hartville's direction. "She pronounces it more like Wilmina, but agreed that it was Wilhelmina when I suggested it. She's been called Willy."
"Not around here she won't be," Lady Hartville proclaimed. "Come, let me see you, child."
Wilhelmina hesitated until Miss Carruthers pushed her gently forward. There was something forbidding about his mother, Hartville thought. Even when he was a child he hadn't trusted that she meant him well when she got that particular frown on her face. Her bristling eyebrows drew together, her eyelids narrowed, and she studied one with an intensity that couldn't help but alarm. Just now she was remarking on Wilhelmina's eyes.
"They're the very shade of blue of yours, Hartville."
"No, they aren't," he protested, though he wasn't quite sure that was true. "Besides, they're very like Miss Carruthers' as well."
Miss Carruthers' lips curved in a demure smile. "You're teasing, cousin. My eyes are more gray than blue."
Hartville did not appear to agree with her. He had studied her eyes one morning in the conservatory when she was bent over a long-leafed philodendron, concerned about the mildew she had found there. Her eyes were decidedly blue, though with a pearly cast that might have convinced someone that they were gray if they were not paying close attention. "The child does not have my eyes," he said.
Lady Hartville had concluded her inspection of the girl, having taken in the shapely head, the steady blue eyes, the rounded cheeks, the still-chubby hands, the feet clad incongruously in a pair of aging slippers.
"How old do you take her for?" she asked Miss Carruthers.
"She says she's four, milady," that young woman answered. She cocked her head, considering. "She's a deal shorter than your cook's five year old son, to be sure, but that might be just her small stature. Mrs. Bluestone thought perhaps she was approaching five. She had just bathed Wilhelmina and was searching about for a change of clothing when I happened upon them on the nursery floor."
Now, what was Miss Carruthers doing on the nursery floor? Hartville wondered. She must have heard of the child's presence and gone in search of her, which showed a great deal more curiosity than Hartville would have expected in the woman. Mrs. Bluestone, the housekeeper, was an old hand at dealing with any crisis that arose. Hartville himself had relegated the child to her keeping until a decision could be made as to her disposition.
"Mrs. Bluestone found this old dress in one of the trunks, but she was unable to find a pair of shoes which fit," Miss Carruthers explained. "I thought perhaps I could drive into the village this afternoon and purchase an appropriate pair for her."
Hartville balked at this. "You don't want to go getting attached to the child, Miss Carruthers. She'll have to be taken to an orphanage straight away. Allow Mrs. Bluestone to care for her until then."
"An orphanage?" His mother's visitor looked genuinely distressed. "But, my lord, that would be most unkind. Have you not heard of the conditions in orphanages?" She turned to Lady Hartville for support. "Oh, ma'am, I don't think it's right that Lord Hartville's child should be placed in an orphanage!"
"She's not my child!" he objected, attempting to keep his temper. "I've never seen her before in my life."
"That hardly signifies," Lady Hartville opined. She turned her rather fierce gaze on the child and asked, "Have you ever seen my son before?"
Wilhelmina's eyes moved from one person to the other in the room, uncertain. "Him?" she asked, pointing at Hartville.
"That's right," Miss Carruthers said gently, stepping forward to stand beside the child and encircle her shoulders encouragingly. "Have you seen him before?"
Wilhelmina shook her head. "But he's the Fine Man," she explained.
Lady Hartville leaned forward. "The Fine Man. Hmm. How do you know that?"
"Well, ma'am, JoJo told me my papa was a Fine Man. He told me I would see him here. And this man is very fine, is he not?"
Hartville didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The child at least knew quality when she saw it! "And your mama?" he asked. "Is she a Fine Lady?"
Tears welled up in the girl's eyes. "She was sick when I was born, they said. I think she died. She never came to see me."
"Then where did you live? Who did you live with?" Hartville questioned, in a voice determined enough to earn him a rebuking glance from Miss Carruthers.
"With JoJo and Molly. But Molly says as there's too many kids and too little money, I was to go live with my papa."
Hartville snorted. "How did they know who your papa was?"
Wilhelmina looked helplessly at Miss Carruthers. "It's all right," the young woman soothed her. "Don't worry about that. Do you know where you lived?"
The child shook her head.
"Was it a big city? Or a village with just a few houses?" Miss Carruthers prompted.
"Just our house." The thought seemed to make her sad. "There are cows and pigs and chickens."
Miss Carruthers smiled at her, giving her a hug. "Very good. You lived on a farm. Did you ever go into town for shoes or clothes?"
Wilhelmina nodded. "There's market day. We took animals and lettuces to sell. And if JoJo had some extra shillings we got shoes from a cart."
"You must know the name of the town," Hartville insisted, his frustration obvious. Didn't even four year olds know such a simple thing? But Miss Carruthers was once again frowning at him, and he backed off. "Well, perhaps it will come to you."
Lady Hartville had observed these proceedings in silence. "She was probably put out to nurse with this woman Molly and never reclaimed. Perhaps for a while money came for her care. When that stopped, and they had so many children of their own..."
She paused, a frown creasing her brow. "There must be some reason they believed Hartville to be her father. They wouldn't have just picked his name from a hat."
Hartville had a sudden inspiration. "But perhaps they picked it from a newspaper. Last week my name was in all the papers for introducing legislation in the House of Lords. They must have seen it there!" he said triumphantly.
Miss Carruthers shook her head. "It's very unlikely, my lord, that JoJo and Molly can read."
Realizing that she was probably right, Hartville did not disagree with her. He turned, instead, to the child and said, "Wilhelmina, I know I must seem like a Fine Man to you, but I'm afraid I'm not your papa."
From the corner of his eye he could see both his mother and Miss Carruthers draw to attention at this. He refused to let them push him into doing something he knew very well was not his responsibility. However, he tempered what he had been about to say to the girl. "You may stay here for a while. Mrs. Bluestone is a nice woman, isn't she?"
Wilhelmina nodded, but moved to take Miss Carruthers' hand. "I like her better," she said shyly, looking up at her presenter.
Hartville sighed. "Well, it's not really a matter of whom you like better," he explained.
To his surprise, his mother interrupted with, "Oh, don't browbeat her, Hartville."
"Browbeat her? Of all the exaggerations! Be so good as to tell me how you feel arrangements should fall out, Mama. I thought you wanted her sent to an orphanage."
"That was before I saw her," her ladyship admitted. "She bears a certain resemblance to you, Hartville."
"Only her eyes!" he protested. "And by your own reasoning, I would have to have been the man who sent money to support her. I assure you I am not! You have my permission to question Wilson about that if you wish. I am not the child's father."
Lady Hartville regarded him in silence for a moment. Her hair, brown liberally dashed with white, had thinned considerably in the last few years. Her fingers now unconsciously moved to touch the limp and meager strands above her forehead, something she did when she was greatly distressed. No other sign of agitation was manifest, but Hartville knew his mother. She was on the point of making an important decision.
At length she said, "I believe you, Hartville, about the money."
Her son flushed. It seemed impossibly wrong to have her decree such a thing in front of the near-stranger Caroline Carruthers. But there was worse to come.
"And yet, I feel it is possible that you are in some fashion involved in this matter." She held up a hand to still his protestations. "No, no, you need not tell me again that you aren't the child's father. I tell you that you cannot possibly know whether you are or not. Let's not bicker about that. You've told Wilhelmina that she may stay here for a while, and I agree with that decision. My concern is in what capacity you intend to entertain her. I think--don't you, Caroline?--that Wilhelmina is likely rather gently born."
Not only did this astonish Hartville, but his mother's request of their visitor that she accede in this opinion very nearly caused him apoplexy. Miss Carruthers, however, did not hesitate to respond.
"Exactly so!" she exclaimed, her cheeks a becoming pink. "Yes, that was precisely my impression, Lady Hartville. There is just something..."
"Indeed," Hartville drawled. "She cleans up well."