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Lucien Balfour, the Sixth Earl of Kilcairn Abbey, leaned against one of the marble pillars at the front entry of Balfour House and watched the storm clouds gather overhead. "'By the pricking of my thumbs,' "he murmured, puffing on his cigar, "'something wicked this way comes.' "
Though an ominously darkening sky hung over the west side of London, that particular storm was not the one that concerned Lucien Balfour. A larger tempest was galloping toward him: he was about to welcome Satan's handmaiden and her mother into his house.
Behind him, the front door opened on well-oiled hinges. Lucien glanced skyward as a long boom of thunder rolled across the rooftops of Mayfair. "What is it, Wimbole?"
"You asked me to inform you at the hour of three, my lord," the butler answered in his usual monotone. "The clock has just struck."
Lucien took another drag of his cheroot, letting the smoke curl from his mouth and be snatched away by the stiffening breeze. "Make certain the study windows are closed against the rain, and provide Mr. Mullins with a glass of whiskey. I imagine he'll be needing it shortly."
"Very good, my lord." The door clicked shut again.
Rain began plopping onto the shallow granite steps before him just as a coach clattered onto Grosvenor Street and turned toward the mansion. Lucien took one last, long draw on his cigar, snuffed it out against the pillar, and cast it aside with an oath. The demons had splendid timing.
The front door opened again and Wimbole, flanked by a half dozen liveried footmen, appeared at his elbow just as the great black monstrosity of a coach rocked to a haltat the foot of the steps. A second vehicle, less ostentatious than the first, stopped behind.
As Wimbole and his troops marched forward, Mr. Mullins took the butler's vacated position on the portico. "My lord, I must again commend you on your attention to familial duty."
Lucien glanced at the solicitor. "Two people signed a piece of paper before their deaths, and I am left with the results. Don't commend me for getting trapped into something I've simply been unable to avoid."
"Even so, my lord..." The smaller man trailed off as the coach's first occupant emerged into the light drizzle. "My goodness," he choked.
"Goodness has nothing to do with it," Lucien murmured.
Fiona Delacroix stepped out onto the drive and with a flick of her gloved fingers beckoned to Wimbole for her walking cane. She didn't seem to notice the rain, but given the size of the hat perched on her bright red orange hair, she likely would have no idea of the downpour until the weight of the water capsized her.
"Lucien!" She gathered her voluminous pink skirts and marched forward as he descended the steps to meet her. "How like you to wait until the last possible moment to send for us. I'd begun to think you meant for us to rot in mournful solitude all summer!"
Mountains of luggage began sailing off the roofs of both coaches and into the arms of the waiting footmen. Lucien spared the heap one look, noting that he'd have to give over another room simply for female wardrobe, before he took her gloved hand and bowed over it. "Aunt Fiona. I trust the journey from Dorsetshire was a pleasant one?"
"It was not! You know how traveling upsets my nerves. If not for my dear, dear Rose, I don't know how I should have managed." She swung her rotund, schooner-topped form around to face the carnage again. "Rose! Come out of there! You remember your cousin Lucien, don't you, my sweet?"
"I'm not coming out, Mother," echoed from the bowels of the cavernous vehicle.
Aunt Fiona's smile became more radiant. "Of course you are, my dear. Your cousin is waiting."
"But it's raining."
The smile faltered. "Only a little."
"It will ruin my dress."
Lucien's determined good humor began to crumble a little. His uncle's damned will did not in any way obfigate him to catch pneumonia.
"Rose..." his aunt trilled again.
"Oh, very well."
The incamation of hell on earth as he'd thought of her since their last meeting, when she'd been seven and throwing a screaming, stamping tantrum at being denied a pony ride emerged from the coach. She stepped down amid a cloud of pink lace and ruffles that perfectly complemented her mother's frothy gown.
Rose Delacroix curtsied, the blond curls that framed her face bobbing in pert unison. "My lord," she breathed, rising and batting her long lashes at him.
"Cousin Rose," Lucien responded, suppressing a shudder at the horrifying thought that some of his gender would find her angelic appearance attractive. With her great puffy sleeves and feathered frills she looked more like some ungainly bird than an angel. "You both look colorful this afternoon. Shall we go inside, out of the rain?"
"It's silk and taffeta," Aunt Fiona crooned, fluffing up one of her daughter's drooping wings. "They cost twelve pounds each, and came directly from Paris."
"And flamingos come directly from Africa."
The comment was a mild one, for him, but as he turned to usher Rose toward the steps, her blue eyes filled with tears. Lucien stifled an annoyed sigh. Sometimes one's memories remained perfectly accurate, despite the passage of time.
"He doesn't like my gown, Mama," she wailed, her lower lip trembling. "And Miss Brookhollow said it was the very thing!"
Lucien had meant to behave himself, at least for today. So much for his good intentions. "Who is Miss Brookhollow?"
"Rose's governess. She came highly recommended."
"By whom circus performers?"
"Good God," Lucien muttered, wincing. "Wimbole, get their things inside." He returned his attention to his aunt. "Does all your attire match so ... vividly?"
"Lucien, I will not tolerate your insulting us five....