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How was your trip to the solicitor, my lady?" Carlyle asked as he helped his mistress, the Marchioness of Bradstone, down from her carriage.
"Wretched!" she complained. "The incompetent man says there is nothing we can do. Nothing in the least. He is certain that next month the House of Lords will pronounce Robert dead and allow the title to revert to the Crown."
Carlyle shook his head. "I feared as much, madame."
Her ladyship fluttered her handkerchief. "A month, Carlyle! A month!" she wailed. "Where will I live? Where will I go? Everything that matters is entailed with the estate."
Where will we all go? Carlyle would have liked to add to her lament. The Bradstone staff had just as much at stake as their mistress in the Parnell family keeping the title -- their livelihoods depended upon it as well.
Lady Bradstone drew her handkerchief to her nose and sniffed. "If only my dearest boy would come home and prevent all this. Surely he must know the fits and tremblings his continued absence causes me, let alone this newest injustice."
"If his lordship were aware, my lady, I am sure he would hasten home without further delay," Carlyle said very diplomatically. He had tried on any number of occasions to explain to her that it was highly unlikely her son would ever come home.
For seven long years she'd denied that her son had fled the scandalous scene and sought passage on the doomed Bon Venture. Seven years of refusing to believe her son had been on that ship,when it was attacked and sunk by the French off the coast of Portugal. The papers had been filled with the sad tale of how all hands and passengers had been lost.
Including the Marquis of Bradstone.
In the ensuing years, the marquis's estate had been cast in turmoil -- first from a lack of heirs and now because of the Prince Regent's maneuvering to see the title revert back to the Crown.
Apparently Prinny wanted to reward one of his favorites with the prestigious title and the accompanying rich estates.
But the greatest impediment to disposing of the Bradstone legacy turned out to be the marquis's mother. Lady Bradstone refused to believe her son had perished. Not even the eyewitness account provided by the captain of a nearby packet ship swayed her from her unshakeable belief that her son had escaped death's watery trap.
A mother would know, she often told her pragmatic butler. If Robert were dead, I would know.
"This is all that Sutton creature's fault," her ladyship was saying, causing any number of her staff to look away, some of the cheekier footmen to roll their gaze heavenward.
Carlyle sent one and all his most severe stare. If their mistress wanted to blame the infamous debutante for the marquis's hasty and fatal departure from London, who were they to question her?
"If that horrible jade hadn't led my poor, sensitive boy astray, he wouldn't have had to flee town in such a confused state." The marchioness paused for a moment, her lips pursed, her jaw set with long held rage. "I shudder to think of him all those years ago, lost and undone over that wretched affair, prey to who knows what sort of fiends and villainy. I told Mr. Hawthorne-Waite this very morning that I am convinced Robert was most likely kidnapped and taken aboard some other villainous ship against his will. For he would never have gone off voluntarily on that awful Bon Venture." She paused again.
Carlyle waited for her final refrain. It hadn't changed a word in seven years.
And after the requisite pause, she finished her vehement rail. "Lisbon, indeed! My Robert would never have gone to such a heathen place by choice."
"Yes, indeed, ma'am," Carlyle replied.
Her ladyship sighed. "And so I told Mr. Hawthorne-Waite. Though I am starting to doubt that man's qualifications as a solicitor." She turned her watery blue eyes on the butler. "He is of the opinion that kidnapping is not reason enough to keep one's son from being declared dead."
"A terrible injustice, ma'am."
She smiled bravely and began to take the steps again up to the front door. "And he also refused to find and bring that jade to justice. She murdered that poor Spaniard. Who's to say she didn't harm my Robert as well? And can you imagine my shock, Carlyle, when that odious little solicitor had the audacity to intimate that she more than likely died with my Robert! Can you fathom such a thing? My Robert taking a murderess with him to Lisbon? I think not."
"Yes, my lady," Carlyle said, while silently agreeing with the solicitor's tactless assessment of the situation. Why shouldn't he?
Witnesses had seen Miss Sutton crouched over the body of the dead Spanish agent, a smoking pistol in her hand. Lord Bradstone had told several of the gathered crowd that Miss Sutton had committed the crime. Then in the hubbub and panic, Lord Bradstone had disappeared. Slipped away and fled London in the dark of night aboard the Bon Venture. And to make the entire scandal even more lurid, the next morning Miss Sutton was also gone.
After a brief investigation, letters found in Miss Sutton's room linked her and the. marquis romantically. Several of them had been reprinted in the press, telling the sordid tale of their secret affair.
Yet through it all, Lady Bradstone refused to believe anything that tainted her son's reputation. With each year, her remembrances of the man had grown and risen to such proportions it was hard to believe that such a paragon had ever existed.
Once Tempted. Copyright © by Elizabeth Boyle. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.