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Loving a Lost Lord
The Lost Lords
By Mary Jo Putney
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Late-night visitors were never good news. Lady Agnes Westerfield woke to banging on the door of her private wing of sprawling Westerfield Manor. Since her servants slept two floors above and she wanted to stop the racket before it woke her students, she slid into her slippers and wrapped herself in a warm robe.
Her candle cast unsettling shadows as she made her way to the door. Soft, steady rain hissed against the windows, punctuated by two deep gongs from the hall clock.
Among the quiet hills of Kent, robbers were unlikely to knock on her front door, but she still called, "Who's there?"
"Randall." Recognizing the familiar voice, she swung the door open. Her heart sank when she saw the three tall young men on her front steps.
Randall, Kirkland, and Masterson had been part of her first class of students — her "lost lords" who needed special care and education. There had been six boys in that class, and they had become closer than brothers. One had been lost in the chaos of France; another was in Portugal. Having three of the others show up with anguish in their eyes did not bode well.
She gestured them inside. "Is it Ballard?" she asked, voicing a worry she'd had for months. "Portugal is a dangerous place with the French army running amok."
"Not Ballard." Alex Randall stepped inside and removed his rain- soaked cloak. He limped from a wound he'd received on the Peninsula, but he was still ridiculously handsome in his scarlet army uniform. "It's ... it's Ashton."
Ashton was the sixth of their class, the most enigmatic, and perhaps dearest of them all. She braced herself. "Dead?"
"Yes," James Kirkland answered flatly. "We learned the news at our club and immediately rode down here to tell you."
She closed her eyes, despairing. It wasn't fair for the young to die when their elders lived on. But she had learned early that life wasn't fair.
An arm went around her shoulders comfortingly. She opened her eyes and saw that it was Will Masterson, solid and quiet but always knowing the right thing to do. "Did you come together to support me if I went into shrieking hysterics?" she asked, trying to be the calm headmistress they had known for so many years.
Masterson smiled wryly. "Perhaps. Or perhaps we wanted comfort from you rather than vice versa."
That was the underlying truth, she guessed. None of her young gentlemen had had decent mothers, so she'd taken that role in their lives.
A yawning maid appeared and Lady Agnes ordered food for her guests. Young males always needed feeding, especially after a long ride from London. When they'd hung their dripping cloaks, she led them to the salon. They all knew the way, for they had been frequent visitors even after finishing their schooling. "We all need some brandy, I think. Randall, will you pour?" Lady Agnes said.
Silently Randall opened the cabinet and drew out four glasses, the lamplight shining on his blond hair. He was taut to the point of shattering.
She accepted a filled glass and sank into her favorite chair. The brandy burned, but it sharpened her wits. "Tell me what happened. An accident?"
Kirkland nodded. "Ashton was never sick a day in his life." He looked a decade older than usual. "Is Miss Emily here? She will need to know, too."
Lady Agnes shook her head, wishing that her longtime companion and friend was present so they could mourn together. "She is visiting family in Somerset and won't be back for a week. General Rawlings is also away."
She contemplated her glass, wondering about the propriety of drinking herself senseless. She never had, but this would be a good time to start. "He was my first student," she said softly. "If not for Adam, there would be no Westerfield Academy." She didn't notice that she had slipped into using the late duke's personal name rather than his title.
"How did that happen? I never heard the story. You know how Ash was. When it came to his private life, he'd make an oyster look chatty." As Masterson spoke, the maid returned with a heavily laden tray.
The young men fell on the sliced meats, cheese, bread, and pickled vegetables like wolves. Lady Agnes smiled as she poured claret for everyone, glad she could do something for their bodies if not their spirits.
Randall glanced up. "Tell us how it all began."
She hesitated, then realized that she wanted — needed — to talk about how she'd met the very young Duke of Ashton. "Emily and I had just returned from our traveling years. Though I loved visiting so many faraway places, it seemed like time to come home. My father was unwell and ... well, there were other reasons, but they don't matter.
"After three months back in England, I was champing at the bit, wondering what to do with myself. I'd already sorted out the steward here at Westerfield Manor, and I needed a challenge. A pity women aren't allowed in Parliament."
Kirkland looked up from his sliced beef with a smile. "I would love to see you speak to the House of Lords, Lady Agnes. I daresay you'd sort them out in no time."
"I found a better use for my energy. One day I was strolling through Hyde Park and wondering what to do with myself when I heard a whip cracking. Thinking someone was beating a horse, I went into the shrubbery and found a dreadful little man cursing up a tree. Perched on one of the branches over his head was Ashton, clutching the most indescribable puppy."
"Bhanu!" Masterson exclaimed. "I still miss that dog. How on earth did Ashton get him up a tree?"
"And why?" Kirkland asked.
"The man was Ashton's tutor, a fellow called Sharp. To be fair, Ashton was driving the man to distraction," she said judiciously. "He refused to speak English or look anyone in the eye. His only friend was this filthy puppy he'd found somewhere. Sharp ordered the puppy killed, but the groom assigned the job couldn't bear to do that, so he released Bhanu in Hyde Park. When Ashton found out, he ran away from Ashton House to find his dog."
"And he wouldn't quit until he succeeded," Randall murmured. "Stubbornest man I ever met."
"You should talk!" Kirkland exclaimed.
Laughter at the comment lightened the atmosphere a little. Lady Agnes continued, "When I appeared and asked what the trouble was, Sharp poured out all his frustrations on me. He'd been assigned the task of preparing the boy for Eton.
"After a fortnight of being driven mad, Sharp was convinced that the new Duke of Ashton was a lackwit who couldn't speak English and certainly couldn't attend Eton. The boy was a vile limb of Satan! He was the wrong duke; the title should have gone to his decent English cousin! But the boy's fool of a father had been a cousin who never thought he'd inherit, so he married a Hindu slut while stationed in India. When the other heirs died, our Ashton ended up with the title, to the horror of everyone in the family."
There was a collective gasp around her. "I'm amazed Ash didn't go after his tutor with a knife," Masterson breathed.
"I was tempted to take the whip away from Sharp and use it on him." Instead, she'd gazed into the tree and seen stark misery on the boy's face as the tutor raved. The child understood every word and knew that he was despised.
In that moment, he'd captured her heart. Lady Agnes knew a great deal about being different — an outcast in the society to which one was born. This small boy with the startling green eyes needed an ally. "Ashton had been treated with contempt by those around him ever since he was taken from his mother in India and shipped back to England. No wonder he was hoping that his horrible new life could be wished away."
Her gaze went to each of the men in turn. "And that, gentlemen, was when inspiration struck and the Westerfield Academy was born. I used my grandest voice to announce that I was Lady Agnes Westerfield, daughter of the Duke of Rockton, and that I owned an academy for boys of good birth and bad behavior. I also claimed to have learned ancient methods of discipline during my travels in the mysterious Orient.
"Sharp was intrigued, and we struck a bargain. If I could get Ashton out of the tree and behaving civilly, Sharp would recommend to the trustees that the boy be sent to my academy rather than Eton. So I chased the man out of earshot, dredged up the Hindi I'd learned during my time in India, and asked Adam to come down." She smiled fondly at the memory.
"Of course he spoke perfect English — I was sure he must have learned the language from his father. But since I made the attempt to address him in Hindi, he decided that it was time to come down from the tree and deal with the world around him." He'd had tears on his face when he'd reached the ground, but that she would never tell anyone. "Though I spoke the language badly, at least I was trying. He and I struck a bargain of our own. He was willing to come to my new school if he was allowed to keep Bhanu and continue the study of mechanics, which he'd begun with his father.
"I thought that sounded perfectly reasonable. In return, I would expect him to apply himself to all his studies and learn how to play the role of English gentleman." She had also promised that his private thoughts would be his own. Torn from the land of his birth and his mother, he had needed to know that.
"Then I went in search of other students. You all know how you came to Westerfield." The English peerage had no shortage of angry, frustrated boys who didn't fit the pattern expected of them. Randall, for example, had managed to get himself expelled from Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, the three most prestigious public schools in Britain. She believed that his feat was unmatched.
The parents and guardians of her first class had been grateful to find a respectable school that would take their problem boys. Lady Agnes's sprawling estate was well suited to become a school, and her high birth had been a powerful lure. So was her recruitment of General Philip Rawlings. The general's military reputation was stellar, and parents assumed he would rule with an iron hand.
Instead, the general shared her belief that violence should never be a first resort with children. Bored by his retirement, he had accepted her offer with enthusiasm. With her connections among the beau monde and his ability to command boys without ever raising his voice, they had created a unique school.
Within a year, other parents were begging for places at the school, and subsequent classes were larger. Lady Agnes had become expert in alluding to her mysterious oriental ways of creating well-educated and well-behaved young gentleman.
In fact, her methods weren't at all mysterious, though they were unconventional. When she first met with a boy, she found out what he most wanted, and most hated. Then she arranged for him to have what he wanted, and not be forced to endure what he found unendurable.
In return, she required her boys to work hard at their studies and learn how to play the game of society. Once her students realized that they could play the roles expected of them without losing their souls, they did well.
Kirkland topped up everyone's claret, then raised his glass in a toast. "To Adam Darshan Lawford, seventh Duke of Ashton and the finest friend a man could have."
The others raised their glasses solemnly. Lady Agnes hoped the tears in her eyes didn't show in the dimly lit room. She didn't want to ruin her reputation.
After the toast, Kirkland said, "Now his cousin Hal is the eighth duke. Hal is the one who notified us, actually. He found us dining at Brooks, because he knew we would want to know as soon as possible."
"Hal is a good fellow," Masterson observed. "He was broken up by the news. Inheriting a dukedom is all very well, but he and Adam were friends."
Lady Agnes had met Adam's cousin Hal. He was indeed a decent fellow, though conventional. Life, and the Ashton title, would go on. She wondered if there was any special young lady who should be informed of Adam's death, but he'd never expressed interest in a particular woman. He'd always been very close about his private life, even with her. Well, the news would be public soon enough.
Realizing she hadn't heard the full story about Adam, she asked, "What kind of accident did he die in? Was he riding?"
"No, he was testing his new steam yacht, the Enterprise, up near Glasgow," Randall replied. "He and his engineers were making a trial run down the Clyde. They ended up steaming quite a distance. They had just turned to head back when the boiler exploded. The boat sank almost immediately. Half a dozen engineers and crewmen survived, but several others didn't make it."
Masterson said gloomily, "Ash was probably in the engine room tinkering with the damned thing when it exploded. That ... would have been quick."
She supposed that if Ashton could choose how to die, he'd be pleased to go this way. He was surely the only duke in England with such a passion for building mechanical devices. But he was unusual in many ways.
Then she stopped and considered what had been said. "Has his body been found?"
The young men exchanged glances. "Not that I've heard," Randall said. "Though our information might be incomplete."
He might be alive! Though she wanted desperately to believe that, she knew her thought was hope, not likelihood. And yet ... "So there is no proof that he is dead."
"With the fire and the sinking of the boat in such difficult waters, his body might never be recovered," Masterson said quietly.
"But he might have survived." She frowned as she considered. "What if he was injured and came ashore some distance away? In one of his letters, he told me how strong the currents are around the Scottish and Cumberland coasts. At the least, his ... his body might have been carried such a distance that it wouldn't be connected to a steam boat explosion many miles away."
"It's possible, I suppose," Randall said, his brows knit.
"Then why are you here instead of looking for him?" Lady Agnes snapped.
They all stiffened at her sharp tone. There was a long silence before Masterson banged his wineglass down on the table. "That's a damned good question. I was so shocked at the news that my brain ceased working. I'm going to head north and find out what happened. The survivors will be able to tell us more. Maybe ... maybe there will be a miracle."
Randall said grimly, "Not bloody likely."
"Perhaps not, but at the least I'll learn more about his death." Masterson rose, swearing under his breath as he wavered from a combination of exhaustion and drink.
"And I'll go with you," Kirkland said flatly. He and Masterson turned their gazes to Randall.
"It will be a fool's errand!" Randall exclaimed. "Grasping at false hope will just make the truth more bitter in the end."
"Not for me," Masterson retorted. "I'll feel better for knowing I tried. Granted, it's unlikely he survived, but there is some chance that his body will be found."
Randall scowled. "Very well, I'll join you. Ashton deserves our best efforts."
"Then it's decided, gentlemen. You may spend the rest of the night here and take fresh mounts from my stables." Lady Agnes rose and caught their gazes, one after the other. Voice steely, she commanded, "And if Adam is alive, I expect you to bring him home!"CHAPTER 2
Cumberland, Northwest England Two months earlier
By the time her tour of the house reached the drawing room, Mariah Clarke was giddy with happiness. "It's wonderful!" She spun in a circle with her arms out and her blond hair flying as if she were six years old, rather than a grown woman.
Her father, Charles, moved to the window to admire the Irish Sea, which glinted along the western edge of the estate. "Finally we have a home. One worthy of you." He glanced at her fondly. "As of today, you are Miss Clarke of Hartley Manor."
Miss Clarke of Hartley Manor. That sounded rather intimidating. It was time to start acting like a young lady. She straightened and tied a loose knot in her long hair so she would look closer to her twenty-five years. Like Sarah. As a child, she had often been alone, so she'd imagined that she had a twin sister called Sarah, who was always available to play. Always loyal. The perfect friend.
Sarah was also a perfect lady, which Mariah wasn't. If Sarah were real, she would be impeccably dressed with never a hair out of place. There would be no missing buttons or grass stains from sitting on a lawn. She would always ride sidesaddle, never shocking the countryside by riding astride. She would be able to charm everyone from cranky infants to curmudgeonly colonels. "I shall have to learn the art of supervising a large household. Can we afford more servants? The three here aren't really enough for an establishment this size."
Excerpted from Loving a Lost Lord by Mary Jo Putney. Copyright © 2009 Mary Jo Putney, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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