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The Earl of Lyndale was dying.
He lay shriveled and frail in his bed, cheeks sunken and skin wan. His right hand rested over his heart as if he waited to feel its last pulse. He presented a pitiable image of an old man facing the end.
Ewan McLean was not impressed. His uncle Duncan pretended to lie at death's door at least once a year. Each imminent departure from the earthly realm summoned his sons and nephew so they could ease his passing. While on his deathbed he issued demands and extracted promises of outrageous presumption. Then he would "recover" and use those promises like a whip to get all the cattle lined up in the direction he had decided they should go.
"I fear the end will come tonight." The earl spoke it like a line in a stage drama. Which, for all intents and purposes, it was. "I need to set matters in order before I go."
He held out a trembling hand.
Ewan took it and smiled indulgently. He had been here for four days, waiting for the earl to decide when to finish the game.
"Since Hamish is not here, I must confide in you," the earl said, referring to his heir.
Ewan was all too aware that Hamish was not here. Right now Hamish and his younger brother were enjoying fresh air and sunshine on the Continent and not sitting in this drafty old castle in a room hung with heavy green drapes. The same faded fabric framed the earl's body on the big bed, falling in languid swags like stage curtains.
The interruption of Ewan's visit to London by the summons had been irritating enough, but the discovery that his cousins, the earl's own sons, had escaped the call by going abroad, really annoyed him.
"I will confess that I am glad it is you, my boy. Hamish would not have understood the matter that weighs on me. You know how he is."
"I certainly do." All too well. Hamish had grown into one of those purse-lipped, morality-spewing, judgmental Scots. When the earl eventually died, which Ewan expected would not happen for another decade or so, Ewan anticipated that Hamish would try to reform his cousin by threatening the allowance that augmented Ewan's income from his modest property.
His uncle had never been so intrusive in his private life, but then, his uncle had a history that did not permit umbrage over bad behavior without considerable hypocrisy. The current Earl of Lyndale had been a rake in his youth and a roue in his maturity. Ewan suspected that the fair-haired woman floating about the castle today was the current mistress.
In short, the earl had more in common with his nephew than with his sons. If he chose to play at dying when only Ewan was available, that meant his demands for promises this time probably had to do with matters that only another rake would take in stride.
"There is a letter that explains it all." The earl pointed his trembling hand toward a writing table. Ewan watched the arm and finger stretch out while the earl rose on one shaky arm. His pose imitated that of a dying father in a painting by Greuze. An engraving that reproduced the painting was in Uncle Duncan's extensive fine-print collection, its theatrical sentimentality obviously appreciated often by its current owner.
"You must give the letter to Hamish. You must swear that you will see that he carries out my wishes that are contained in it."
"I will be in no position to do so. He will be the earl. I will remain a dependent relative and can demand nothing of him."
"Tell him you are bound by your promise to me."
"That will be of no account to him. You are asking that I harass a man for the rest of my life. That I pound my head against a stone wall. It isn't fair to make demands that I cannot fulfill."
"You can make him see that it must be done, if you put your mind to it. You are far more clever than he is."
Ewan was losing his patience. Being blackmailed into his own promises was one thing. Being forced to ensure that others acted in compliance with Uncle Duncan's whims was another.
"What is this vitally important matter, Uncle?" Attending the next sheepshearing? Escorting some cast-off mistress to a ball? The earl's demands were never dreadful, just damned inconvenient and often boring.
"I did a grievous offense to a man in my youth. The next earl must right this wrong."
"What kind of wrong?" Most likely his uncle had bedded a friend's wife. For all of his envy of the last century's ribald behavior, seducing a friend's wife was something Ewan himself would never do. Once, when he and Uncle Duncan had gotten foxed together, he had tried to explain to the old goat how that was dishonorable. Uncle had simply been unable to grasp the nuances.
"I was vengeful and went too far. It has preyed on my conscience ever since. I had intended to right matters, but now . . ." His hand went to his heart again.
"Well, if it is something that the Earl of Lyndale should do, then you can still make it right yourself. When you are better."
"I will never be better. I tell you, I am dying." Uncle Duncan spoke emphatically, with powerful strength of voice. His dark eyes glared out from under his bed cap's edge and his color rose to a nice, healthy pink.
Ewan experienced profound annoyance. This entire drama had been so unnecessary. There had been no reason for Uncle Duncan to pretend he was dying. There had been no justification in dragging Ewan from London and from the delicious pursuit of pretty Mrs. Norton.
"Swear it," the earl demanded. He sat upright, looking fit and hale and ready to ride for twenty miles. "Would you allow me to go to my grave with this unfinished, with no assurance that this sin will be mitigated? Ungrateful wretch! I will make a codicil to my will at once and cut you out without a penny. I will--"
Here it came, the blackmail. The threats. Really, Uncle Duncan should hire a writer to devise a new set of lines.
"--leave a letter for Hamish, telling him to cut off your allowance. I will--"
"Fine, I swear," Ewan snapped. "I swear that I will do all within my power to see that the next earl fixes the problem that you created but never bothered to fix yourself."
It was a toothless promise to make. There would not be a "next earl" for quite some time. Swearing to do all within his own power meant little since he would have no power at all.
Uncle Duncan did not see the huge holes. His ire receded. He sank back into his pillow. He arranged for his body to go limp and for his cheeks to appear gray.
The earl vaguely waved Ewan away. Still annoyed, but also amused by the theatrics, Ewan played his role to the end. He got up, leaned over, and kissed Uncle Duncan's head affectionately before leaving.
That night the earl surprised everyone by actually dying. He passed quietly in his sleep.
Ewan was stunned by the unexpected turn of events, but he suspected his amazement was more than matched by that of the earl himself.
Two weeks later Ewan lay on a sofa in his chambers in London.
If life were fair he would not be reclining alone. Mrs. Norton would be here with him, receiving the lesson in love that he had long anticipated giving her. Right now he would be plucking at the laces of her stays, preparing to unveil her abundantly luscious beauty.
Instead, he'd had to beg off on their assignation. He could not move, let alone seduce a woman tonight. He could barely think.
He lifted a limp arm and raised the letter. He read the first line again. It was unbelievable. Incomprehensible. Just a month ago he was happy and innocent and going about his business, which was easy to do because he made sure his business only dealt with pleasure, and now--
His manservant entered, carrying a fresh bottle of wine to replace the one that Ewan had just finished. Swigged, to tell the truth. Gulped down as if it were rum and he were a sailor.
Another man came in, too. Ewan glanced up from beneath the arm draped over his forehead to see Dante Duclairc gazing down at him. Dante's limpid brown eyes showed more amusement than concern and a smile wanted to break out on his angelically handsome face.
"Duclairc. Good of you to come."
His friend's presence touched him, and a pang of nostalgia sounded in his heart. Dante Duclairc had not been in these chambers since he married Fleur Monley last spring. The parties that occurred in this apartment were a lot less fun now that Dante had been domesticated. Only a calamity such as had visited Ewan today would get Duclairc here now.
"Your message seemed desperate. Are you unwell? You look like someone in a bad Greuze painting."
"Disaster has struck. Complete and total catastrophe. Once you learn of it, you will understand why it has laid me low." He lifted the letter.
Duclairc took it and sat down on another sofa to read. He did not even notice the little bronze statue on the table beside his seat. The latest addition to Ewan's renowned collection of fine-art erotica, it was a Renaissance work displaying a nymph servicing Pan. Ewan had been proud of the acquisition yesterday, but his friend's indifference seemed appropriate to today's solemnity.
"Jesus," Dante said after peering at the letter for a few minutes.
"I knew you would appreciate how outrageous this is."
"It is certainly unexpected. And amazing. I do not know whether to congratulate you or help you to mourn."
"I'll be damned if I'm going to mourn. It was very inconsiderate of them. Hugely so. There should have been a law against both of them putting themselves in danger at the same time. Where was Hamish's sense? If he wants to climb a damned mountain and die in a damned avalanche, let him go I say, but to drag his younger brother on the adventure and risk their both dying in the same damned avalanche--" He closed his eyes. It was all too much.
"Pity that they both dallied in marrying."
"'Pity'? 'Pity'? Irresponsible! Look where their negligence has left me."
"It appears that it has left you the Earl of Lyndale."
Indeed it had.
Ewan swung his legs and sat up. "Make yourself comfortable. I plan to get drunk and need company. I trust you told your pretty wife that you will not be home soon."
"Fleur assumed you were in horrible trouble after reading the dramatic message you sent me. She insisted I come. She had no idea that the terrible news was that you have inherited a title and a significant fortune."
"Do not get sardonic on me, Duclairc. A man has a right to some warning on such a thing. There I was, assuming there were two strapping men between the title and me . . . What were the odds they would both die before one produced a son? Negligible. Damned near impossible, or at least reassuringly unlikely. And now . . ." He waved the letter that had come from Switzerland, then let it drop to the floor.
He looked down at it. Something nibbled at his dazed mind. Something just as unpleasant as that letter had been. He tried not to acknowledge its intrusion, but it nudged and poked until it had his stomach sinking.
"Your shock is understandable, McLean, but you will be a fine earl. You will rise to the position. It will not disrupt your life as much as you think."
"Yes it will, but this 'oh, hell' was about something else." He got up, walked around the assortment of sofas and chaise longues that dotted the chamber, ducked past the swing hanging from the ceiling, and went to a writing table in a dark corner.
"I promised Uncle Duncan to give Hamish a letter should Uncle Duncan die, which I never expected him to do. I brought it here so that I could fulfill his final wish by handing it over to Hamish as soon as he returned to England." He pawed through a drawer for the infernal letter.
He brought it back to the sofa and stared at its seal. He gulped down another glass of wine.
I swear that I will do all within my power to see that the next earl fixes the problem that you created but never bothered to fix yourself.
"Duclairc, let me pose a philosophical question to you. Suppose a dying man extracted a promise from you, but you did not really believe he was a dying man, nor for that matter did he. Let us say further that both of you thought the ultimate responsibility would fall to someone else, but that a freakish coincidence caused it to fall to you. With all those peculiarities, wouldn't you say that--"
Ewan looked up to see Dante regarding him severely.
"Yes. Of course. You are right."
Well, hell and damnation.
"Perhaps you should read it. Maybe it is something very minor."
Sighing, he broke the seal.
"Well?" Dante asked.
"It appears that my uncle wronged a man named Cameron many years ago. Ruined him. He wants me to see that this Cameron and his family are cared for, that they do not want for anything. That is deucedly ambiguous. What if they want a coach and four? What if they want twenty thousand a year?"
"I think you would be safe to use your own judgment of what is adequate to ensure they are suitably cared for. I do not think your uncle means you have to hand them whatever their hearts desire."
"Good point. I knew having you here would be helpful. That is why I called for you and not one of the other lads. Marriage has made you so . . . sensible."
"There is no need to get insulting."
"My apologies." Ewan peered at the letter. "It seems this Angus Cameron lives all the way north, on the eastern border of Strathnaver. I get to pack myself back up to Scotland and brave the cold of the Highlands."
"Angus Cameron? My father knew an Angus Cameron. Spoke of him on occasion. They held a lively correspondence."
"Do you remember anything that was said about him? Uncle claimed this letter explained all, but he neglected to include just how he wronged this man."
"I only remember my father referring to Cameron as eccentric."
"That is not encouraging, Duclairc. Your father was more than a tad eccentric himself. If he used that word to describe Cameron, I could be facing a lunatic."
From the Paperback edition.