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Jackson Worth tugged at his new neckcloth with an impatient finger. The damned thing choked him, its starch irritating his recently shaved throat. His newly acquired title chafed even more. He stood and began to pace.
What was he to do with an earldom that came with nothing but ominous responsibilities and no wealth to support them? Damn it all, he liked his life the way it was, with only himself to manage. Most of the time, that went rather well, and when it didn't, only he suffered the consequences.
Jack winced when he realized that was too much like his father's outlook had been. Frustrated by the very thought, he sat down again and began tapping on the smooth wooden arms of the chair.
"You're certain there's no one else in line for it?" he asked Mr. Hobson, who sat behind the solicitor's desk. "I cannot afford this, you know. Every penny I owned, other than what is in my pocket at present, was tied up in my last shipping venture." A disaster, as he had just explained. He'd had a few of those, but one lived and learned. Nothing risked, nothing gained—that was his motto. Rather, it had been his motto.
His only ship was lost, the insurance gone to pay survivors of the crew and his investors. Devil take it, he should have captained the damn thing himself. He would recoup, of course. He had done it before, but it would take time, travel and energy. Those were three things an earl would not be able to spare while keeping a sizable estate running and its people in check and well fed.
The solicitor smiled as he laid a page of the document on the desk and turned it so that Jack could see the content. "Rest assured, there has been a thorough investigation, sir. The former Earl of Elderidge instigated the search for a male heir before he died. Your lineage is well documented through church records, proof that your father and the late earl shared a great-great-grandfather who was fourth Earl of Elderidge."
"No one ever informed me of this," Jack grumbled.
"The connection was rather remote. Perhaps your father thought it of no significance. You were abroad when I finally located your mother's lodgings in Plymouth—hence the message left there for you to contact me as soon as you arrived in England."
"Had I known, I might have stayed in Amsterdam," Jack muttered.
"A petition was offered on your behalf and the lords have already met. Letters of patent have been issued.
You should be gazetted soon. The title and all that it entails are yours without question."
"Mine, eh?" Jack sighed with resignation as he shifted in his chair. "With no funds to run the estate. So what did Elderidge do with his fortune? Gamble it away?"
"No," the solicitor answered. "He willed it to his daughter." A sly grin lifted the old man's prodigious mustache. "Your very distant cousin, Lady Laurel, the earl's only child." Hobson sat back in his chair and fingered his mustache thoughtfully. "If I might suggest it, you should retrieve the girl from the convent where his lordship placed her, woo and wed her, and thereby solve your problem as well as hers."
"A convent? The earl was Catholic? Is that not impossible?" Not that he cared. Jack asked only to delay long enough to consider the idea just proposed.
He had not thought to marry, especially not for money. Or even love, for that matter. He enjoyed the freedom to travel, do what he liked, whenever he liked, with whomever he liked, without any permanent ties. However, push had come to shove in a most disconcerting way. He might have to entertain the thought.
Mr. Hobson shook his head. "The earl was Church of England, of course. But his first wife was Catholic."
His voice dropped to a near whisper. "She was a cyprian, as well, and his first mistress."
Well, that brought Jack's eyebrows up. "You don't say!"
Hobson nodded. "One of the fashionably impure he got with child. He eloped with her. An outrage it was, too! She died giving birth and the earl remarried within the year. His new wife, a choice more suitable, wanted nothing to do with the baby born of his misalliance, so he placed it with the Sisters at Our Lady of Cambre, near the coast of Spain."
"Why Spain, of all places?" Jack was intrigued. He, born of a naval officer and a merchant's daughter, could hardly imagine life as a noble. Yet he simply could not understand how a man of any station could simply give up his firstborn and relegate her to a foreign country to be brought up by strangers. And leave her there while war raged around her.
Hobson continued, explaining the situation. "Lord Elderidge had visited Spain as a young man on his grand tour, I believe. There are a number of English convents there, set up after they were disbanded here centuries ago. English Catholics often send their daughters away to convent schools. In any event, she was sent to the Sisters of Cambre as an infant and they were provided generous contributions for her care. No doubt the earl believed the girl would take vows when she reached the proper age."
"So he died, the money stopped and the nuns gave her the boot?" Jack asked, interested in spite of himself.
Hobson shrugged. "She could have remained as a novitiate but I was informed on her last progress report that the young lady had elected to take a position as governess instead," Hobson explained.
"I'm surprised they would allow a lady to accept work, given who she is."
"The nuns never knew his lordship's station in life."
"Her father didn't visit her?"
"She and the earl never met, save when she was a babe in arms, too young to know him. You must understand the circumstances then, sir. Elderidge had not yet inherited. He was highly pressured by his father, the earl, his new wife and his peers. Everyone wanted the entire fiasco forgotten. The child would have been a constant reminder."
Jack rubbed his forehead and gave a huff of disbelief. "Still, it was an unconscionable thing to do, depriving her of all privileges she would have enjoyed as his daughter."
Hobson agreed with a slow nod. "Just so, but he also spared her the disdain she would have endured because of her mother's reputation. And he did bequeath every farthing he inherited and later amassed to her and her alone."
"What of his second wife?" Jack asked.
"The dowager countess has her widow's portion, of course, which was basically what she brought to the marriage. But the daughter's inheritance is considerable, more than sufficient to see that the estate you have inherited will prosper. In fact, more than you and she together could ever spend."
The solicitor folded his hands on the desktop as he leaned forward. "It is up to you to make things right for the young lady."
"By marrying her and stealing the only compensation afforded her by the old blackguard who gave her away? That should earn me a proper place in hell."
Hobson pressed his lips together in a grimace before replying, "Better you should dread hell than for her to endure it presently, sir. Your only alternative is to leave her introduction to England to the mercy of the woman who ordered her evacuation from the earl's life when she was but a helpless infant. Make the girl a countess, as is her due, and manage her funds to best advantage. You both will benefit. It's the right thing to do. Surely you see that."
He pushed a leather folder across the desk. "Here is the location of the estate, the house here in town and travel funds. Two hundred pounds from her account should be sufficient to see you there and back with the heiress."
"Me? Why must I fetch her home?"
"Who better?" Hobson smiled. "You should go there, court and wed her before she reaches England." He added, "She will surely prove reluctant to marry you if you wait until she learns of her worth and realizes that your design is upon her fortune instead of her person. I doubt she would agree then that the marriage would be for her own good."
Jack stood, squaring his shoulders. "What if I decline all? The earldom, estate and the marriage of convenience?"
Hobson stood as well, his face grave now. "By law, you cannot refuse the title. I strongly suggest you make the best of it, serve your country and meet your obligations. Those employed at Elderidge House and on its lands, as well as the staff here in Town, are now dependent upon you for their living my lord" He reached down and pushed the leather folder closer to Jack. "And so is our young Lady Laurel."
Jack accepted the money, hefting the flat purse in his hand before tucking it away in his breast pocket.
Most men would leap at the chance. Why shouldn't he? He had the impoverished earldom, and marriage to the heiress would ensure a secure future. No more risky ventures. No further scrabbling about for investors. Jack was no fool. "Her direction?"
"Written down for you in the folder."
Jack shrugged. "The least I can do is release the poor girl from service and bring her home to England."
Mr. Hobson smiled with satisfaction. "You might keep foremost in your mind, sir, that she is not a poor girl, but a ready means to your salvation."
All right, maybe he needed saving. He would go and take a look, see if this rich little lady and her wealth could do the impossible.
"Take your hands off me!" Laurel shouted. She raised her sturdy walking shoe and stomped on the lecher's foot. He cursed roundly and hopped backward while Laurel swept around to the far side of his writing desk. Now he stood crouched between her and the door, clenching his beefy hands, his piggy black eyes narrowed, daring her to try to escape.
She shook her fist at him. "You are no better than your sons! They don't need a governess, sir. They could use a strict minder with a stout cane and so could you!"
He straightened and grinned his oily grin. "Usted sabe que usted esta en mi misericordia!" "I am at no man's mercy, sir! Certainly not yours!" The door opened and the housekeeper stood there wide-eyed, looking from one to the other. "Senor Orencio?"
A large man pushed past the woman before she could announce him and approached Orencio, towering over him. "I have come for Miss Laurel Worth." He turned to Laurel. "Are you she?"
She nodded once, astounded. The man knew her name.
"Pack your things and make haste. Your presence in England is required."
"England?" she asked in a whisper.
"Aye, as soon as may be. The ship's waiting," he replied, his piercing gaze returning to Orencio, who must have understood some unspoken command. Her employer backed away enough to allow Laurel to pass between him and the stranger and leave the room.
She ran upstairs and quickly stuffed her few belongings into the small carpetbag she had brought with her. Her hair was mussed and her sleeve torn, but she took no time to repair either, lest her one chance at getting away should change his mind and leave without her. In minutes, she was back in the foyer, just outside the door of Orencio's library. She clutched her bag and shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
Who in the world was this new arrival and who had sent him? He knew who she was and that she came from England. At the moment she would accept help from the devil himself to get away from Orencio's hacienda.
The man was obviously English, disturbingly handsome and well dressed. Also very, very angry. She hoped that his anger was on her behalf because he had overheard her exchange with Orencio. She shuddered to think that was his usual demeanor. Even were that so, she was going with him.
The gentleman in question stormed out of the library just then. "Come," he snapped as he marched to the front door, opened it and threw it wide. He didn't wait to see whether she followed, but strode right out. Laurel ran to catch up.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked breathlessly as he yanked the bag from her grasp, caught her up by the waist and deposited her upon the seat of the open carriage.
"I told you. To the coast. Then on to England." He tossed in her bag and climbed up to sit beside her. With a click of his tongue and slap of the reins, they were off.
"Please explain!" Laurel demanded, almost as frightened of him as of Orencio, whom she had been fending off successfully for over a week. "How do you know me?"
He passed the reins to one hand and with the other took a letter from inside his coat. "Read it."
She broke open the seal and read the contents. It was from Mr. Hobson, the solicitor in London who had been sending money on behalf of her father all these years. He had visited her twice to ascertain her health and progress at school. Never once had he mentioned her returning to England. Until now.
"This says you are Jackson Worth, Earl of Elderidge!" She stared at him. "An earl?"
"Aye." He visibly drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. "I apologize for my gruffness. In fact, I apologize for the entire male gender. You must be horribly overset and I've only added to your misery."
Laurel refolded the letter and held it crumpled in both hands. "At the moment, more stunned than overset, sir my lord."
"Jack will do," he replied, calmer now but still terse.
"Mr. Hobson writes that you are my father's heir. No one ever told me that he was a noble!" So she was baseborn, after all. A bastard and a mistake. For years, she had suspected as much. Why else would a father want his child so completely out of sight and out of mind. Well, not completely out of mind, she supposed. At least he had provided support until she was grown. That was something.
"Why did you come for me? I mean, you in particular. The task is a bit above your station, I should think." She tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear and brushed another off her brow as she spoke, suddenly embarrassed for anyone to see her in such disarray.
He glanced at her then, a quick taking of her measure, she thought. Then he looked back at the road they traveled.
"I came because we are kin," he explained. "I am your cousin. Had I known of you earlier, I would have come sooner. It was almost not soon enough, was it? I should have shot that wretch like I threatened." He snapped the reins again.
Her cousin. She simply stared, fully taking in his sun-browned visage, wide-shouldered frame and the fine cut of his clothes. Travel dust did nothing to detract from his roguish appeal, and doubtless he knew it well.
He looked down at her travel bag and back at her. "You packed fast or perhaps had already packed before I arrived. So you were planning to leave. Where were you going?"
She didn't bother to correct his assumption. "To the convent, where else?"
"You didn't mean to take vows or you'd never have left in the first place."
His presumption irritated her, as did the flutter in her stomach that his very appearance caused. She pressed a hand over her middle and inhaled to steady her nerves. "I had very little choice of destinations."
"No matter, a different life awaits you now," he said with a smile in his voice if not yet on his face. "I know you were not aware your father was of the nobility," he stated. "No one at the convent was apprised of the fact, so I'm told. A shock for you, I daresay."
She nodded and took another deep breath that caught in her throat. There were too many questions flying through her mind to get them in order.
"We need to reach the coast before dark," he declared. With that, he snapped the reins more harshly, urging the sturdy roan to an even faster gait.
They were well down the road before her wits returned enough to realize that a total stranger, this incredibly handsome rogue, had her at his mercy. What if that letter were false? She had never met an earl, of course, but always imagined nobles having a more stately look and pleasant attitude.