Read an Excerpt
In which Rothewell meets the Grim Reaper
October was a vile month, Baron Rothewell thought as he peered through the spatter trickling down his carriage window. John Keats had been either a poetic liar or a romantic fool. In dreary Marylebone, autumn was no season of soft mist and mellow fruitfulness. It was the season of gloom and decay. Skeletal branches clattered in the squares, and leaves which should have been skirling colorfully about instead plastered the streets and hitched up against the wrought-iron fences in sodden brown heaps. London -- what little of it had ever lived -- was in the midst of dying.
As his carriage wheels swished relentlessly through the water and worse, Rothewell drew on the stub of a cheroot and stared almost unseeingly at the pavement beyond. At this time of day, it was empty save for the occasional clerk or servant hastening past with a black umbrella clutched grimly in hand. The baron saw no one whom he knew. But then, he knew almost no one.
At the corner of Cavendish Square and Harley Street, he hammered upon the roof of his traveling coach with the brass knob of his walking stick, and ordered his driver to halt. The brace of footmen posted to the rear of the carriage hastened round to drop the steps. Rothewell was notoriously impatient.
He descended, the folds of his dark cloak furling elegantly about him as he spun round to look up at his coachman. "Return to Berkeley Square." In the drizzle, his command sounded rather like the low rumble of thunder. "I shall walk home when my business here is done."
No one bothered to counsel him against walking in the damp. Nor did they dare ask what brought him all the way from the Docklands to the less familiar lanes of Marylebone. Rothewell was a private man, and not an especially well-tempered one.
He ground his cheroot hard beneath his bootheel, and waved the carriage away. Respectfully, his coachman touched his whip to his hat brim and rolled on.
The baron stood on the pavement in silent observation until his equipage turned the last corner of the square and disappeared down the shadowy depths of Holles Street. He wondered if this was a fool's errand. Perhaps this time his temper had simply got the best of him, he considered, setting a determined pace up Harley Street. Perhaps that was all it was. His temper. And another sleepless night.
He had come home from the Satyr's Club in the rose gray hours just before dawn. Then, after a bath and a stomach-churning glance at breakfast, he had headed straight to the Docklands, to the counting house of the company which his family owned, in order to satisfy himself that all went well in his sister's absence. But a trip to Neville Shipping always left Rothewell edgy and irritable -- because, he openly acknowledged, he wanted nothing to do with the damned thing. He would be bloody glad when Xanthia returned from gallivanting about with her new husband, so that this burden might be thrown off his shoulders and back onto hers where it belonged.
But a surly mood could not remotely account for his troubles now, and in the hard black pit of his heart, he knew it. Slowing his pace, Rothewell began to search for the occasional brass plaque upon the doors of the fine homes which lined Harley Street. There were a few. Hislop. Steinberg. Devaine. Manning. Hoffenberger. The names told him little about the men behind the doors -- nothing of their character, their diligence -- or what mattered even more, their brutal honesty.
He soon reached the corner of Devonshire Street and realized his journey was at an end. He glanced back over his shoulder at the street he'd just traversed. Damn it, he was going about this as if he were looking for a greengrocer. But in this case, one could hardly examine the wares through the window. Moreover, he wasn't about to ask anyone's advice -- or endure the probing questions which would follow.
Instead he simply reassured himself that quacks and sawbones did not generally set up offices in Marylebone. And though the baron had been in London but a few months, he already knew that Harley Street was gradually becoming the domain of Hippocrates' elite.
At that thought, he turned and went up the wide marble steps of the last brass plaque he'd passed. If one was as good as another, it might as well be -- at this point, Rothewell bent to squint at the lettering through the drizzle -- ah, yes. James G. Redding, M.D. He would do.
A round-faced, gray-garbed housemaid answered as soon as the knocker dropped. Her eyes swept up -- far up -- his length as she assessed his status. Almost at once, she threw the door wide, and curtsied deep. She hastened to take his sodden hat and coat.
Rothewell handed her his card. "I should like to see Dr. Redding," he said, as if he made such requests every day of the week.
Apparently, the girl could read. She glanced at the card and bobbed again, her eyes lowered. "Was the doctor expecting you, my lord?"
"He was not," he barked. "But it is a matter of some urgency."
"Y-You would not prefer him to call at your home?" she ventured.
Rothewell pinned the girl with his darkest glower. "Under no circumstance," he snapped. "Is that understood?"
"Yes, my lord." Paling, the girl drew a deep breath.
Good Lord, why had he growled at her? It was entirely expected that doctors would call upon their patients, not the other way round. But his damnable pride would never permit that.
The girl had resumed speaking. "I am afraid, my lord, that the doctor has not returned from his afternoon calls," she gently explained. "He might be some time yet."
This Rothewell had not expected. He was a man accustomed to getting his own way -- and quickly. His frustration must have shown.
"If you should wish to wait, my lord, I could bring some tea?" the girl offered.
On impulse, Rothewell snatched his hat from the rack where she'd left it. He had no business here. "Thank you, no," he said tightly. "I must go."
"Might I give the doctor a message?" Her expression was reluctant as she handed him his coat. "Perhaps you could return tomorrow?"
Rothewell felt an almost overwhelming wish to leave this place, to flee his own foolish fears and notions. "No, thank you," he said, opening the door for himself. "Not tomorrow. Another day, perhaps."
He was leaving in such haste, he did not see the tall, thin man who was coming up the stairs, and very nearly mowed him down.
"Good afternoon," said the man, lifting his hat as he stepped neatly to one side. "I am Dr. Redding. May I be of some help?"
"A matter of some urgency, hmm?" said Dr. Redding ten minutes later. "I wonder, my lord, you've let it go this long if you thought it so urgent."
The physician was a dark, lean man with a hook in his nose and a hollow look in his eyes. The Grim Reaper with his hood thrown back.
"If it had come and then gone away again, sir, it would not now be urgent, would it?" Rothewell protested. "And I thought it would. Go away again, I mean. These sorts of things always do, you know."
"Hmmm," said the doctor, who was pulling down the lower lids of Rothewell's eyes. "To what sorts of things do you refer, my lord?"
Rothewell grunted. "Dyspepsia," he finally muttered. "Malaise. You know what I mean."
The doctor's gaze grew oddly flat. "Well, you are a little more than dyspeptic, my lord," he said, looking again at Rothewell's left eye. "And your color is worrisome."
Again, Rothewell grunted. "I've but recently come from the West Indies," he grumbled. "Had too much sun, I daresay. Nothing more than that."
The doctor drew back and crossed his arms over his chest. "Nothing more than that?" he echoed, looking impatient. "I think not, sir. I am speaking of your eyes, not your skin. There appears to be just a hint of jaundice. These are serious symptoms, and you know it. Otherwise, a man of your ilk would never have come here."
"Of my ilk -- ?"
The doctor ignored him, and instead swept his fingers beneath Rothewell's jawline, then down either side of his throat. "Tell me, my lord, have you suffered any malaria?"
Rothewell laughed. "That was one curse of the tropics which I escaped."
"You are a heavy drinker?"
Rothewell smiled grimly. "Some would say so."
"And you use tobacco," said the doctor. "I can smell it."
"That is a problem?"
"Overindulgences of any sort are a problem."
Rothewell grunted. A moralizing crepehanger. Just what he needed.
With quick, impatient motions, the doctor drew a curtain from the wall near the door, jangling the metal rings discordantly. "Step behind this, if you please, my lord. Divest yourself of your coat, waistcoat, and shirt, then lie down upon that leather-covered table."
Rothewell began to unbutton his silk waistcoat, inwardly cursing the doctor, the gnawing pain in his stomach, and himself. Life in London was ruining him. Idleness was like a poison seeping into his veins. He could feel it, yet could not summon enough disdain to shake it off.
Before today, he could count on one hand the times he had been sick enough to require a doctor. They did a chap far more ill than good, he believed. Besides, Rothewell had always been a great horse of a man. He had needed no one's advice, medical or otherwise.
Beyond the curtain, he heard the doctor open the door and leave the room. Resigned, he hung the last of his garments upon the brass hooks obviously intended for such a purpose, then glanced about the room. It was sumptuously furnished, with heavy velvet drapes and a creamy marble floor. A massive, well-polished desk occupied one end of the room, and in the center sat a tall table with a padded leather top. Dr. Redding's patients, it would seem, lived long enough to pay their bills. That was something, he supposed.
Beside the table was a pewter tray with a row of medical instruments laid across it. Rothewell stepped closer and felt an unpleasant sensation run down his spine. A scalpel and a set of steel lancets glittered wickedly up at him. There were scissors and forceps and needles -- along with other tools he did not recognize. The chill deepened.
Good God, he should never have come here. Medicine was just one step removed from witchcraft. He should go home, and either get well of his own accord or die like a man.
But this morning...this morning had been the worst. He could still feel the burn of iron and acid in the back of his throat as the spasms wracked his ribs...
Oh, bloody hell! He might as well stay and hear what the grim-faced Dr. Redding had to say. To push away the thought of this morning, the baron picked up one of the more horrific-looking devices to examine it further. A medieval torture device, perhaps?
"A trephination brace," said a voice behind him.
Jumping, Rothewell let it clatter back onto the tray. He turned to see the doctor standing just inside the curtain.
"But if it is any consolation, my lord," the doctor continued, "I rather doubt we will find it necessary to drill a hole in your head."
The day's drizzle had at last ended when the glossy black barouche made its third and final circle through Hyde Park. The Serpentine had risen up from its shroud of mist like something from an Arthurian legend, enticing the beau monde's heartier souls to venture out to ride or to drive. And though the height of the season was many weeks past, the gentleman who so elegantly wielded the barouche's whip easily caught their eye, for he was both handsome and well-known -- if not especially well liked. Alas, despite his beauty, society often saddled him with that coldest of English euphemisms, the vague stain of being thought not quite nice.
Though past his prime and ever on the verge of insolvency, the Comte de Valigny was nonetheless dressed with an unmistakable Continental flair, and his unimpeachable wardrobe was further accented by the sort of hauteur which only the French can carry off with aplomb. The stunning beauty who sat stiffly beside him was generally assumed by the passersby to be his latest mistress, since Valigny ran through beautiful women with rapacious efficiency.
The afternoon, however, had grown late, and it being both October and dampish, the crowd was thin. No one save a pair of dashing young bucks on horseback and a landau full of disapproving dowagers spared the woman much more than a passing glance. And that, to Valigny's way of thinking, was a bloody damned shame. He looked back over his shoulder almost longingly at the young gentlemen.
"Mon dieu, Camille!" he complained, returning a bitter gaze to her face. "Lift your chin! Cast your eyes more boldly! Who will look twice at a woman who will not look once, eh? You are not going to the guillotine!"
"Am I not?" purred his companion, looking haughtily down her nose at him. "I begin to wonder. How long have I been here? Six weeks, n'est-ce pas? Six weeks of this incessant damp and overweening snobbery. Perhaps I might soon welcome the executioner's blade?"
Valigny's expression tightened. "Ça alors!" he snapped, reining his grays to one side. "You are an asp clasped to my bosom! Perhaps, my fine lady, you should prefer to climb down and walk home?"
The woman turned and pressed her elegantly gloved fingers to her chest. "Quoi? And taint my precious virtue by strolling unaccompanied through Mayfair like some common tart?" she asked mockingly. "But wait! I forget. They already think me a common tart."
"Be damned to you, Camille!" The comte snapped his whip, and the horses set off at a strong trot. "You are an ungrateful little shrew."
She set her shoulders stiffly back, refusing to cling to the side for balance. "I am, aren't I?" she said, as much to herself as to him. "Would to God it were spring! Perhaps then your foolish plan might -- might -- succeed."
The comte laughed loudly. "Oh, mon chou! I very much fear that spring will be too late for you."
She cut a disdainful glance at him. "Oui, this is true," she admitted. "And, mon père, too late for you!"
Pamela, Lady Sharpe, was standing at her sitting-room window, one hand braced on the back of a stout chair, watching the world of Mayfair go by when the tall man in the dark cloak came striding purposefully down the street. At first, she paid him scant heed. The rain had stopped, and something which might possibly have been a beam of sunlight was slanting over the roofs across Hanover Street. Lady Sharpe resisted the urge to clap her hands with glee.
Tomorrow, perhaps, there would be callers? Yes, almost certainly. And she was well enough to receive them. Indeed, she was dying to crow over her accomplishments. This had been a momentous week -- but truth be told, it had been a banner year for Lady Sharpe. She had carried off the triple sweep of the social season, having launched her much-loved cousin Xanthia into society to shockingly good effect, and immediately thereafter marrying off her only daughter Louisa to an earl's heir.
And then, as her grand finale, after two decades of marriage to an amiable and understanding husband, Lady Sharpe had finally done what no one believed possible. She had borne Sharpe an heir. A lovely, blue-eyed boy who was his father's spit and image, bald pate in the bargain.
"My lady?" The countess's maid hovered at her elbow. "Perhaps you ought to lie back down?"
Just then, the dark man passed squarely by Lady Sharpe's window.
"Oh! Oh!" she cried, pointing. "Look! Anne, stop him! Go down! Fetch him up at once."
"Ma'am?" Anne's brow furrowed.
"Rothewell!" She gestured madly at the glass. "I sent a note round just yesterday. I really must see him! Oh, do go down this instant."
Anne lost a bit of her color, but she went downstairs -- then ordered the second footman to hasten along Hanover Street after Lord Rothewell. The footman balked for an instant -- the baron's reputation was not unknown to the staff -- then finally did as he'd been bid. No appendages were lost in the process. Lord Rothewell had apparently bitten off his daily allotment of noses, and he followed the footman almost civilly upstairs.
The countess received him in her private sitting room, still attired in her cap and dressing gown, with her feet propped up on her husband's gout stool.
"Kieran, my dear!" she murmured, turning her cheek to be kissed. "You will forgive me for not rising."
"Yes, of course." Rothewell took the chair she motioned toward. "Though I cannot think, Pamela, that you've any business receiving anyone."
Lady Sharpe laughed lightly. "That is why you are my favorite cousin, dear boy!" she replied. "Your brutal honesty."
Brutal honesty. Rothewell wondered if the phrase was destined to haunt him today.
But Lady Sharpe's eyes were still twinkling. "Now, my dear! Why have you been ignoring me?
"I sent an urgent note round yesterday," she chided. "One would think I'd been forgotten altogether after just a few weeks of confinement."
"Ah," he said quietly. "But I have scarce been home since yesterday, Pamela."
"Indeed, it's a shock to see you out in broad daylight." She wrinkled her nose. "I do dislike the sort of company you keep -- and the hours. But never mind that just now. Am I to have your congratulations?"
Rothewell sat a little forward in his chair, his hands on his knees. "Yes, and my thanksgiving with them," he answered. "It was a dashed dangerous thing for you to suffer through, Pamela."
Lady Sharpe's finely etched eyebrows rose. "Why, what an odd thing to say. What do you mean?"
Rothewell forced himself to relax against the back of his chair. "Nothing, Pamela," he said simply. "I just hope you will not try to do it again."
"At my age?" Lady Sharpe gave a wry smile. "I should think it highly unlikely."
"This has shaved a year off Sharpe's life, you know."
"I do know, and I'm very sorry for it." Lady Sharpe was toying with a ribbon on her handkerchief. "But Sharpe needs an heir, Kieran."
"He needs his wife -- alive, preferably."
"Oh, you do not understand! Though you should do, of course -- and better than most. You know what I mean."
He did know. But an heir? The notion had always seemed absurd. "What will eventually happen, Pamela, to my title?" he finally asked.
"What, when you are gone?" Lady Sharpe tossed her handkerchief dismissively. "One of those odious Neville cousins in Yorkshire will inherit everything. But little do you care."
"A very little, I daresay," he murmured.
Lady Sharpe was watching him quizzically. "You should get busy, Kieran." Her voice was uncharacteristically sharp. "You know what I mean."
Rothewell pretended not to understand. He set his hands upon his thighs as if to rise. "Well, old girl, I must get on. You need your rest."
"Pish!" said Lady Sharpe, waving him down again. "If anyone needs rest, sir, it is you. It is rare I've seen you so haggard." She turned to her maid. "Anne, go and tell Thornton to present Viscount Longvale to his cousin."
The child? Dear God, not that. "Really, Pamela," said Rothewell. "This is not necessary."
"Oh, yes. It is." A mysterious smile curved her lips. "I insist."
Rothewell avoided meeting children at all costs. He always felt as if some sort of effusive response was expected of him. He was not effusive. He wasn't even especially pleasant. And children, more often than not, wished to be dandled upon one's knee, or to tug one's watch from one's pocket.
But Lord Longvale, as it happened, was apt to do neither. He was a doughy, pink-and-white lump with two impossibly tiny fists and a pursed rosebud of a mouth, and far too small to be of any trouble to anyone. Moreover, this child was Pamela's, a person for whom he possessed a rare fondness. So Rothewell steeled himself, forced a smile, and leaned rather tentatively over the bundle which the nurse held out for his inspection.
Strangely, his breath caught. The child was so perfect and so still he might have been sculpted of Madame Tussaud's magical wax. His skin was so delicate it appeared translucent, and his round cheeks glowed with an otherworldly color.
A remarkable stillness settled over the room, leaving Rothewell afraid to exhale. He could not recall ever having been in such proximity to a newborn babe.
Suddenly, two pale blue eyes flew open. The child squeezed his fists tight, screwed up his face, and commenced squalling with healthy gusto. The strange moment shattered, Rothewell drew back.
"I fear Lord Longvale has little interest in making my acquaintance," he said over the racket.
"Nonsense!" said her ladyship. "I am sure he is just showing off. Have you ever heard such a fine pair of lungs?"
Rothewell had not. Despite his swaddling, the child pumped his stubby legs and tiny fists back and forth relentlessly as he wailed. Rothewell was struck by the sheer force of will which emanated from the tiny creature. Yes, the child was very real indeed -- and very much alive. And he was a scrapper, too, by the look of him. Rothewell found himself suppressing a sudden and improbable urge to smile.
Perhaps all of London was not dead or decaying after all. This little imp was precious and new, and quite obviously filled with promise. He would carry with him the hopes and the dreams of his parents into the future. Perhaps the cycle of life, death, and resurrection truly was eternal. Rothewell did not know if that thought brought him comfort or anger.
Lady Sharpe had opened her arms to take the child. "Let me soothe him a moment, Thornton," she said, tucking the bundle against her shoulder. "And then I suppose you'd best take him back up again. I believe we are making Lord Rothewell unaccountably nervous."
Rothewell did not return to his chair, but paced across the sitting room to one of the windows which overlooked Hanover Street. He felt strangely moved. He was but vaguely aware that the child's cries were slowly relenting. Eventually, the room fell silent.
One arm braced high against the shutter, Rothewell was still standing there, staring blindly at the falling dusk and wondering what it was about the child that struck him so when he heard Pamela speak again.
"Kieran?" Her voice was sharp. "My dear boy -- are you perfectly all right?"
Caught in his musing, Rothewell spun round to look at her. His cousin sat alone in the middle of the room. The child and his nurse had vanished.
Lady Sharpe set her head to one side like a curious bird. "You've not heard a word I've said."
"My apologies, Pamela," he said. "My mind was elsewhere."
"I said I have a favor to ask of you," she reminded him. "May I depend upon you?"
Rothewell managed a smile. "I doubt it," he said honestly. "Women usually regret it when they do."
She leaned over and patted the chair beside her. "Come sit by me," she suggested. "And do be serious. This is important."
Reluctantly, he did so. He did not like the faint strain he could hear in his cousin's voice.
"Kieran," she said quietly, "are you still keeping company with Christine?"
Rothewell was taken aback by the question. Christine Ambrose was Pamela's sister-in-law, but the two were as different as chalk from cheese. And Pamela never, ever pried.
"I see Mrs. Ambrose whenever it suits us both," he said vaguely. "Why? Has Sharpe some newfound objection?"
"Heavens, no!" Lady Sharpe waved her hand dismissively. "Sharpe knows he cannot manage his half sister, and he does not try. But the two of you -- well, you are not serious, Kieran, are you? Christine is not the sort of lady one would wish to... well, I don't quite know how to put it."
Rothewell felt his expression darken. He did not discuss his personal life -- even Xanthia did not dare ask such things. Christine was thought rather fast, and he knew it. He also did not give a damn.
"I am afraid my relationship with Mrs. Ambrose is a private matter, Pamela," he said coldly. "But there will be nothing permanent between us, if that is your concern."
Nothing permanent. No, there was no future for him with Christine -- not that he had ever contemplated such foolishness.
But Lady Sharpe's face had already brightened. "No, I thought not," she said, as if reassuring herself. "She is, of course, quite lovely, but Christine is -- "
"Pamela," he said, cutting her off, "you tread on dangerous ground. Now, you wished to ask a favor? Pray do so."
"Yes, of course." Pamela was smoothing down the pleats of her dressing gown. "Thursday is the christening, Kieran. And I wish... yes, I have thought it out quite clearly, and I wish you to be one of Longvale's godparents."
Rothewell could only stare at her.
"Oh, I mean to ask Xanthia, too," she swiftly added. "You are my nearest relations save for Mamma, you know. I was so happy when you came back from Barbados after all these long years away. Oh, will you do it, my dear? Please say you will."
Rothewell had jerked from his chair and returned to his spot by the window. He was silent for a long moment. "No," he finally said, his voice quiet. "No, Pamela. I am sorry. It is quite out of the question."
Behind him, he heard the rustle of fabric as his cousin rose. In an instant, she had laid a light hand upon his shoulder. "Oh, Kieran! I know what you are thinking."
"No." His voice was hoarse. "No, you do not, I assure you."
"You believe that you would not be a suitable godfather," Lady Sharpe pressed. "But I am quite convinced that is not the case. Indeed, I know it is not. You are a brilliant and determined man, Kieran. You are honest and plainspoken. You are -- "
"No." He slammed the heel of his hand against the shutter, as if the pain might clear his mind. "God damn it, did you not hear me, Pamela? No. It is quite impossible."
Lady Sharpe had drawn back, her expression wounded.
He turned to fully face her, dragging one hand through his hair. "I beg your pardon," he rasped. "My language was -- "
"Insignificant, really," she interjected. "There is goodness in you, Kieran. I know that there is."
"Pray do not bore us both with a recitation of my virtues, Pamela," he said, softening his tone. "It would be a very short list anyway. I thank you for the compliment you have paid me, but you must ask someone else."
"But... But we wish you to do it," she said quietly. "Sharpe and I discussed it at length. We are quite persuaded you are the right person for such a grave responsibility. You, more than anyone, know the importance of bringing a child up properly -- or, I should say, the damage done to one who is not brought up properly."
"Don't speak nonsense, Pamela," he said gruffly.
"Moreover," she continued amiably, "Sharpe and I are not as young as we once were. What if we should die?"
He let his hand drop.
What if they should die? He would be of damned little use to them.
"Xanthia will see to the child should something untoward happen," he managed. "She and Nash would raise the boy as their own if you wished it. You know that they would."
"But Kieran, the role of godfather is more than -- "
"Pray do not ask me again, Pamela," he interjected. "I cannot. And God knows my character is too stained even if you do not."
"But I do not think you under -- "
"No, my dear." With surprising gentleness, Rothewell laid her hand across his forearm and turned her toward her chair. "It is you who does not understand. Now you must sit down, Pamela, and put your feet up. You must. And I must go."
When they reached the chair, Lady Sharpe braced one hand on the chair arm and sank slowly into it. "When do Nash and Xanthia return?" she asked. "I daresay she will agree to do it."
"Tomorrow," he said, gently patting her shoulder. "Ask Nash to serve with her. He'll be honored. After all, he still isn't sure we like him."
"Do we?" Lady Sharpe looked up.
Rothewell considered it. "Well enough, I daresay," he finally answered. "We must trust Xanthia's judgment. And now I think on it, I'm dashed grateful to have him around."
"Are you?" The countess blinked. "Why?"
Rothewell managed a smile. "No particular reason, Pamela. Now, let me bid you good day."
His cousin gave a pitiful sniff. "Well, we did hope you might stay to dinner, at the very least," she said, beginning to pick at the pleats of her dressing gown again.
"After all, you have no one at home now with whom to dine."
Rothewell bent to kiss her cheek. "I am a solitary beast," he assured her. "I will manage."
The countess craned her head to look up at him, her lips pressed thinly together. "But you and Xanthia lived and worked cheek by jowl for thirty years," she insisted. "It is only natural one might be lonely, Kieran."
"Lived, aye, but not worked," he answered, staring at the door, his escape route. "Xanthia was our brother Luke's protégé, never mine. They were the peas in the pod, Pamela. I was just... the leftover husk."
And then, before Pamela could dredge up her harangue yet again, Rothewell strode from the room.
Copyright © 2008 by Susan Woodhouse