Richard Standish, the Earl of Markfield, honourably agrees to aid Helena. He'll squire her around Town until her father recovers. Though when they are caught alone together, their temporary agreement suddenly looks set to become a lot more permanent....
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Tossing aside yet another polite reminder of a still unpaid account, Richard Standish, now 6th Earl of Markfield, leaned back in his chair and stretched his aching limbs, wearily surveying the mounting pile of similar requests on the desk in front of him.
It hardly seemed possible that a mere six months had elapsed since his cousin Simon's fatal accident, as a consequence of which, Standish had unexpectedly and, most reluctantly, found himself in possession of the ancient title. Having resigned his commission the previous year, following Napoleon's decisive defeat at Waterloo, the ex-dragoon major had returned home to his own small estate, fully intent on realising a long-held aspiration to revive the Standish Stud which, in his grandfather's day, had been highly regarded in horse-breeding circles.
Unfortunately, his sudden acquisition of Markfield's vast acreage, along with its accompanying tenant farms and labourers' cottages, had very quickly put a brake on his purchasing powers, owing to the numerous calls on his rapidly diminishing funds. Not that the expense of the estate itself was in any way responsible for his present financial crisis since, thanks to the competent management of his late grandfather's land agent, Ben Hollis who, for the past fifteen years or so, had been allowed a more-or-less free hand in the running of the place, this concern was largely self-supporting.
The real headache, from the new earl's point of view, was the appallingly run-down state of Markfield Hall, the family mansion house, which had been built to celebrate Sir Edmund Markfield's elevation to the peerage in 1698. In its prime, the Hall had been much revered as an outstanding example of classical architecture but, due to severe neglect on the part of the 4th earl, the late Simon Standish's father, two of the chimney stacks were now dangerously unstable, several parts of the roof were open to the elements and rain had caused considerable damage to much of the Hall's fine oak panelling.
Following Simon Standish's untimely death, the newly ennobled Richard had been appalled to discover how carelessly the previous two occupants had treated the magnificent old mansion house. Not that he had any real desire to take up residence there himself, since he much preferred the more modern comforts of his own house at Westpark—which, until his grandfather had made it over to Richard's father Henry, upon the occasion of his marriage, some thirty years earlier, had originally formed part of the much larger Markfield estate.
Nevertheless, as his grandmother, the dowager countess, had been swift to point out to him, 'The Hall has always been regarded as a symbol of the family heritage—to simply stand by and watch it crumble into ruins would be an act of pure sacrilege!'
Accordingly, more in deference to his ageing grandmother's wishes than to his own requirements, Richard had set in motion an extensive refurbishment programme but, since it had then transpired that the estate kitty contained insufficient funds to bear the brunt of the mounting expense, he had found himself obliged to furnish the cost of the operation out of his own pocket. Having already invested most of his capital in setting up his fledgling stud farm, this additional burden on his finances had been more than enough to cause him concern. Added to which, it now seemed that he had seriously underestimated the likely cost of the venture and, as he stared glumly down at the column of figures before him, he could not help thinking that the project was getting to the stage where it could only be likened to some enormous millstone hanging round his neck! Where in Hades he was going to find enough money to finance the spiralling expenditure was proving to be an ever-increasing quandary. He had already been forced to sell off two of his most promising mares, both in foal to the one-time champion Gadfly, and now it was beginning to look as though he might well have to sacrifice his prize-winning stallion, too!
Distracted as he was by the weight of his problems, the distant sound of the front door bell failed to impinge itself upon his consciousness and it was only the opening of his study door some ten minutes later that eventually roused him from his deliberations.
'Her ladyship has arrived from London, my lord,' came the sepulchral tones of Kilburn, his butler. 'She has instructed me to inform you that both she and Mr Standish are awaiting your presence in the drawing room.'
Stifling a groan, Richard laid down his pen and pushed back his chair.
'Have some tea sent in and tell her ladyship that I will be with her directly,' he instructed the man as, getting to his feet, he shrugged himself into his jacket and ran his fingers hurriedly through his dishevelled hair. After casting a perfunctory look at his reflection in one of the glass-fronted bookcases at the doorway, he made his way across the hallway into his drawing room, whereupon he was greeted by his grandmother's ringing tones.
'Oh, here you are at last, Richard! Charles was just about to come in search of you!'
'Dreadfully sorry to have kept you waiting,' said Richard, bending down to kiss the old lady's surprisingly unlined cheek before turning to acknowledge his cousin. 'Have you eaten?'
'We stopped off for a quick bite at the Red Lion in Wimbledon, as usual,' said Charles, returning his smile. 'But Grandmama was keen to get on and view the latest improvements—I see they've started stripping the roof of the west wing.'
Mindful of the tiler's recent statement of account, Richard gave a cursory nod. 'The work is progressing more quickly than I had anticipated. I rather fear that, if the bills keep coming in at their present rate, I may well have to call a temporary halt in the proceedings.'
'Oh, surely not, Richard!' protested the dowager, laying down her teacup with such force that its contents spilled over its rim. 'I have only just this minute finished telling Charles that the Hall is beginning to look almost as it did when I first went there as a bride over sixty years ago! Your poor grandfather would be so disappointed if he could hear you!'
'It's a question of juggling the finances, dear heart,' returned her grandson, as he moved over to the sideboard to pour drinks for Standish and himself. 'I already have a mountain of bills to pay and I must keep enough in the kitty for day-to-day expenses. However, if we are lucky enough to pull in good harvests on both estates, I dare say it might be possible to start on the east wing in the autumn.'
'If only your Uncle Leo had paid heed to my warnings after that dreadful storm, the poor old Hall wouldn' t be in this state now!' said Lady Isobel, with a plaintive sniff. 'I begged and begged him to attend to the roof damage, but would he listen? Oh, no! Said he had better things to do with his money. And your cousin Simon was little better. I can only thank God that neither of you is a gambling man!'
'An occupation for fools and tricksters, in my opinion,' replied Richard, shooting a warning glance at his cousin, whose cheeks had reddened at the dowager's remark. 'Have no fear, Grand-mama, I promise you that neither Charles nor I has any intention of following either Simon's or Uncle Leo's example.'
Lady Isobel frowned, but said nothing. Having suffered the loss of so many males in her family under somewhat unfortunate circumstances, she took considerable consolation from the knowledge that the current Lord Markfield had few, if any, of his predecessors' bad qualities and was determined to restore the estate to its former grandeur.
Furthermore she was confident that once Richard was set on a course of action almost nothing would change his mind.
Glancing across at him now, as he stood chatting to Charles, the youngest of her grandsons, her eyes softened. The 6th earl certainly cut a fine figure and was very personable to boot. If only he could be persuaded to take himself a wife and start setting up his nursery! Having reached the ripe old age of eighty-one years herself, she was well aware that her time was running out and she dearly wanted to hear again the joyful sounds of childish laughter ringing through the old Hall before she eventually met her Maker.
'You'll stay for dinner, of course?' Richard was asking his cousin.
Placing his empty glass down on the tray, Charles shook his head. 'Better not, old chap,' he replied. 'I promised Mother I'd be back in time to dine with her. It's been over a week now and you know how fidgety she's apt to get if I'm away for more than a few days at a time. I'll look in tomorrow, if I may?'
'Of course—you're always welcome, as I hope you know.'
After escorting his cousin to the door, Richard returned to his grandmother's side. Sitting himself down on the sofa next to her, he leaned back and stretched out his legs, a slight frown on his forehead.
'Take heart, my boy,' Lady Isobel said bracingly. 'At least you don't have to face up to a complaining invalid every time you come home. How Charles finds the patience to deal with that woman is quite beyond me. I have never been able to understand what your Uncle Andrew ever saw in her, for she was always completely useless as a cleric's wife!'
Richard, whose own mother had died when he was just seven years of age, gave a rueful smile. 'Well, it's not as though he can ignore her, is it? Besides which, he's obliged to come down to Southpark to attend to various estate matters.'
'To see how much is in the coffers, you mean!' returned the countess, with some asperity. 'He would do far better to get himself a wife and run his share of the estate as it should be run, instead of gallivanting about town!'
Well aware of what was about to follow his grandmother's observation in regard to his cousin's marital state, the earl, shifting uneasily on his seat, compressed his lips and waited.
'And, much the same applies to you, Richard, my boy,' she then went on. 'Apart from anything else, you have the succession to consider! Four changes of title in eight years should be more than enough warning to you. What if you were to die without issue?'
'Well, I did manage to get through an entire war pretty well undamaged,' he felt constrained to point out. 'I dare say I'm good for a few years yet! But, as to marrying, there's time enough for that—besides which, I have far too many other problems to deal with without adding the complications of courtship to the list.'
'That would depend on your requirements, surely?' returned his grandmother. 'In my experience—which is hardly limited—the acquisition of a wealthy wife tends to solve a good many problems!'
Richard stared at her in amazement. 'You're surely not suggesting that I should choose a wife on the strength of her dowry?'
Lady Isobel lifted one shoulder in a graceful shrug. 'It's hardly uncommon, amongst those of our standing, my boy. Always provided that the gel comes from good family stock, of course.' Pausing for a moment, she then continued, in a seemingly offhand manner, 'Added to which, a sizeable injection into those dwindling funds of yours would enable you to concentrate your efforts on that new horse-breeding programme you keep on about. I cannot think of anything that would please your grandfather more than knowing that you had brought the Standish Stud back into the forefront of horse-racing circles once again—he was deeply hurt that not one of his sons showed any interest in what had always been his pride and joy!'
One quick glance at her grandson's expression assured the countess that she had hit the vital spot. 'All those empty stables over at Markfield are just crying out to be restocked,' she added persuasively.
For a moment, Richard regarded her in silence, the hint of a frown sifting across his brow. 'I'm beginning to get the feeling that you won't be satisfied until you see me actually standing at the altar. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if you'd already drawn up a list of this Season's likely candidates—the usual progression of whey-faced schoolroom misses out on the catch, I dare say!'
'And I dare say that you might expect to do rather better than that!' laughed the countess. 'You are a Standish, after all! All you really need is some suitably endowed young female of acceptable breeding who fancies herself as a countess. Sadly, it would seem that this Season's selection has very little of interest to offer. Why, only the other day I was talking to my stockbroker—trying to find out if any of my shares were worth more than a fig—and he was telling me— Oh! Good heavens! I do believe I may have hit upon the very thing!'
Giving little credence to the idea that the dowager might be seriously considering involving herself in his selection of a bride, Richard was, however, somewhat confused by her sudden change of topic. 'Thinking of selling some of your shares?' he queried. 'I doubt if we have enough between us to cover even half of what's needed to fix that roof.'
His grandmother shook her head impatiently. 'Wheatley—my broker—I hear that he has been touting around for a leg-up into the beau monde for his girl for over a year now.'
'You're not about to suggest that I shackle myself to a Cit's daughter, I hope!'
As she eyed him uncertainly, Lady Isobel's brow furrowed. 'Whilst it is perfectly true that Giles Wheatley is a man of business, he also happens to be positively dripping with lard. Besides which, it just so happens that the girl's grandmother was a Coverdale.'
'I'm afraid the name means nothing to me,' said Richard, giving a careless shrug. 'So, what's she like—this daughter, I mean? She must be something of an anathema, since your man hasn't been able to palm her off for a twelvemonth or more!'