Once Harriet Kingsley was an impoverished, starry-eyed schoolgirl. Now, a little older and much wiser, she is a young widow with vast riches--and a life of her own. No high-and-mighty gentleman, not even Lord Marcus, can tell her what to do. . .especially about her ward, Annabelle.
. . .Can It Be True Love?
What is wrong with Lady Harriet, according to Marcus, is that she will not listen--and that she is so maddeningly lovely! Worse, their shared guardianship of the rebellious Annabelle has brought her into his household to handle the chit. . .and she's turning his life topsy-turvy. With a battle of wits soon raging over politics and a woman's proper place, Marcus is incensed--and intrigued. Then an impetuous kiss turns into a burning passion. Now the pros and cons are melting into sighs, but for Marcus the trouble with Harriet is only beginning. . ..
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The Trouble With Harriet
By Wilma Counts
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2001 J. Wilma Counts
All rights reserved.
Marcus Quentin Jeffries, Earl of Wyndham, frowned at the sound of a knock on his library door. Had he not given strict instructions he was not to be disturbed until he had dealt with the papers piling up inexorably on his desk?
"Come." He forced a neutral tone.
Heston, the butler who had served both previous earls — Marcus's father and brother — stood in the doorway. "My lord, I apologize, but there is a woman — a lady — and her ... her charge — urgently requesting audience with you."
"Who is she? And what does she want?"
"A Mrs. Hepplewhite. She says the girl with her is your ward."
"Your ward, sir."
"Heston, do you know anything of a ward?" Marcus had, in the last few months, often found it necessary to have servants and retainers fill him in on his new responsibilities as earl.
Heston shook his head. "No, my lord."
Marcus laid down his pen and sighed inwardly. "All right. Show them in."
A few minutes later Marcus stood at the entrance of the library as a middle-aged woman and a young girl were shown in. The woman was dressed soberly in a brown traveling outfit that was definitely not the first stare of fashion. The girl was young — fourteen or fifteen, Marcus surmised. Her hair was the color of rich honey, and she, too, was attired in rather unfashionable apparel.
"Mrs. Winston Hepplewhite and Miss Annabelle Richardson, my lord," Heston intoned.
"Mrs. Hepplewhite. Miss Richardson." Marcus gestured to two chairs in front of the desk and reseated himself behind it. He hoped to make short work of this interruption. "How may I help you?"
Mrs. Hepplewhite cleared her throat. "I have come to deliver your charge back to you, my lord."
The girl sat rigidly with a defiant air, refusing to meet his gaze when he looked at her.
"I fear there has been some mistake," Marcus began. "I have no ward."
"It was an Earl of Wyndham who delivered Miss Richardson to us, and it is the Earl of Wyndham to whom she is being returned." The woman's tone was clipped, adamant.
"We?" Marcus lifted one brow in what he hoped was an imperious manner.
"I am headmistress of the Lady Adelaide Chesterton-Jones School for Young Ladies."
"I see." Marcus glanced toward the girl again. "I assume Miss Richardson is a pupil in your school?"
He lifted the eyebrow again.
"She was a pupil in our school. But her deportment is such that we no longer may tolerate her deleterious effect on the other girls, especially the younger ones." Mrs. Hepplewhite emphasized this little speech by subtly but visibly distancing herself from the girl in the chair next to her.
Miss Richardson rolled her eyes heavenward and shrugged.
"I fail to see what this has to do with me," Marcus began. "Surely her parents —" He caught himself and turned his attention full on the girl. "I beg your pardon, Miss Richardson. It is rude of us to be discussing you in such a callous manner."
He saw Mrs. Hepplewhite color up at this, but the girl turned a surprised pair of brown eyes on him, then dipped him a regal little bow of the head but said nothing.
"Miss Richardson's parents are both deceased, my lord. They were unfortunately killed when their ship was attacked by a French warship on their return from the West Indies."
"And how long ago did this mishap occur?"
Marcus had addressed the question to the young Miss Richardson, but it was Mrs. Hepplewhite who responded. "Three years ago. Annabelle was brought to London by a governess, who left her in the care of ... your father, I believe."
"Why? Are we somehow related?" Marcus asked the girl.
"Answer his lordship," the older woman said sharply.
"I do not know, sir." The response was on the nether side of civility.
"Our records show only that she was in our care under the auspices of the Earl of Wyndham. And we are terminating the arrangement for cause. It is all here. You may see for yourself." She pulled out a sheaf of papers and stood to place them on the desk. "Now, if you will excuse me, I must be going."
Marcus had risen when Mrs. Hepplewhite stood and now watched in astonishment as the woman made to leave.
"What —? Now, see here, madam, you cannot just leave her here like — like some foundling!"
"You are the Earl of Wyndham?"
"Yes, but —"
"Then she is your responsibility. We at the Chesterton-Jones school have had quite enough of dealing with an incorrigible." She marched out of the room with Marcus on her heels.
"Wait," he called, and took fleeting notice of several articles of luggage piled in the entrance way.
"Good day, my lord." Mrs. Hepplewhite waved airily and was out the door that the surprised butler had hurriedly opened for her.
"Oh, good grief," Marcus muttered. "Heston, get Mrs. Benson in here immediately." He gestured toward the library, which — until a few moments before — he had considered a sanctuary of sorts.
As he reentered the room, leaving the door ajar, he thought he saw Miss Richardson dab a handkerchief at her face and sit straighter. She glanced at him, then away. He took a seat behind the desk, picked up his pen, dipped it, and began a hasty note.
"You cannot force me to stay here." The voice was quiet but tinged with rebellion and uncertainty.
"Nor would I wish to do so," he said, not bothering to hide his irony. "However, neither can I turn a young person such as you out on the street." He thought she seemed to relax a bit at this.
There was a soft rap at the open door. "My lord? You wished to see me?" his housekeeper asked.
"Yes." He stood and gestured toward the girl. "Mrs. Benson, this is Miss Richardson. She will be a guest at Wyndham House. Will you see to her accommodation, please?"
"Very good, my lord." The housekeeper's lips tightened in obvious disapproval of this female addition to a bachelor household.
Marcus grinned at the housekeeper and addressed her with easy familiarity, for Mrs. Benson, too, had served both previous earls and had watched Marcus and his siblings grow up. "And before you allow your sensibilities to become too ruffled, please send a footman to Lady Hermiston with this note." He stood and handed her the paper. "You will need to see a room prepared for her as well. Oh. And send in some tea, please."
"Very good, my lord." The response came this time with an approving smile.
Marcus picked up the papers Mrs. Hepplewhite had left, but instead of resuming his seat behind the desk, he directed his guest to one of two wing chairs next to a marble-topped table in another part of the room.
"Now, Miss Richardson, suppose you tell me as much as you know of the circumstances that brought you here." He spoke in a conversational tone that had once invited confidences from diplomats.
She chewed at her lower lip. "Truly, my lord, it was not I who was at fault this time."
"I admitted to trading the sugar for salt at the headmistress's table. And it was I who put the snake on Miss Manson's bed. But it was only a harmless grass snake, and it was dead, you see, but no one else would touch it, so I was the one to do it."
Marcus felt his lips twitching and looked down at the papers in his hand. "Hmm. Secret meetings after lights were extinguished? Unsuitable reading materials?"
She seemed to squirm a bit at this. "Well, you see, Letty and I had a larger room than the others — she being a duke's daughter, you know — so naturally the others came to our room."
"The others?" Marcus prompted.
"Our special friends. There were six of us, but when Catherine squealed just as the evil count was about to grab the fair maiden, it woke that horrid Belinda in the next room and she snitched on us — I mean, she informed on us — and I am sure she did so because none of us could tolerate her superior airs. That is when Mrs. Hepplewhite discovered it."
"The book." She looked at him impatiently. "The novel."
"You brought a novel into the school?"
"No. Letty did. But as her mother would positively have the vapors over such, we allowed Mrs. Hepplewhite to believe I had done it — for I've no family to care, you see." She said this very matter-of-factly.
"So you lied?"
The squirming was more pronounced. "Not precisely. She just assumed it was I and not the duke's daughter because I was the one reading aloud when she came in."
"Hmm," Marcus mumbled, trying to sort this out as the girl babbled on.
"Oh, it was so good! All about this count who turned into a monster during a full moon and —"
Just then a footman came in bearing a tea tray, which he set on the table between them.
"Ooh. Apricot tarts. My favorites," Miss Richardson said, and then seemed to recall her training as a young lady. She sat back and folded her hands.
Marcus smiled and gestured to the servant to pour the tea. "Help yourself, Miss Richardson. I am partial to apricot tarts myself."
They sat in comfortable silence for a moment, Marcus savoring the tea as he glanced through more of the papers. He looked up when he realized the girl was talking again.
"— we were not even allowed to finish the story," she lamented.
"Yes. Well. It would appear that the novel — while iniquitous enough in the eyes of Mrs. Hepplewhite — was not your worst offense."
"Wha-what do you mean, my lord?"
"According to this," he said, reading, "you also 'introduced wantonly salacious material including both drawings and text that were shockingly unsuitable for any young lady at the Chesterton-Jones school.' Can you explain that?"
"Oh." It was a little squeak. She carefully replaced the tart she had been about to bite into. "Oh, dear."
He waited, letting the silence do far more than words could.
"That — that must refer to the pamphlet found under my mattress."
"Pamphlet," he prodded.
She blushed and looked away. "I ... uh ... It —"
Suddenly, he knew. The same sort of reading matter fascinated adolescent boys, if memory served. He was somewhat surprised to find a young girl with access to such, though. He cleared his throat. "A pamphlet dealing with the most intimate matters between men and women, I gather?"
Her blush deepened. "Yes, sir."
"Where did you obtain such literature?"
"Letty found it behind the armoire when she moved into her sister's room after Lady Pamela was married."
"Letty again. Letty sounds a remarkably cowardly sort to lay the blame on you all the time."
"No! She is not." Miss Richardson defended her friend vehemently. "It was just that — well, you see, Letty is Lady Letitia Atkinson. Her father is the Duke of Turlington, and he is very strict, and Letty is so very afraid of him. Letty said even Mrs. Hepplewhite seemed afraid of the duke. Truly, we did not think it would come to expulsion — and heaven knows the school could not inform my father, so ..." Her voice trailed off, and she sat with a worried look. "You ... you will not inform the duke, will you?"
"What? No. No, of course not."
They sat silently — she seemingly nervous and apprehensive, he thoughtful. He finished his tea and set the cup down deliberately.
"Well, Miss Richardson, you have presented me with quite a dilemma."
"I am sorry, my lord."
"I shall have it sorted out in due time," he said with far more confidence than he felt. "In the meantime, you will be a guest here."
He recognized her trepidation. "Yes. Here. You will be taken care of properly. My aunt, Lady Hermiston, will arrive shortly to lend propriety to your being at Wyndham House."
She sat with greater ease at this. "Thank you, my lord."
"I shall have someone show you to your room." He rose, tugged on a bellpull, and added, "I assume you can entertain yourself until dinner?"
"Oh, yes, my lord."
"You will find much that is soberly edifying in this collection," he said, making a sweeping gesture of the ample library and keeping his expression bland. "There is even a novel or two, I believe."
She blushed, then grinned impishly. "Thank you, my lord."
A maid arrived to lead her above stairs.
An hour later Marcus sat in front of a desk piled high with paperwork. Looks as though my misery has found good company, he said to himself. Aloud, he said to Mr. Dickinson, his solicitor, "I apologize for barging in on you with no notice."
"Not at all, my lord." The balding, portly man had just reseated himself after greeting the man Marcus knew — with no pretension of false modesty — to be the lawyer's most important client.
Marcus explained the purpose of the visit and related the events of the morning.
"Yes." Dickinson shifted in his chair. "I remember very well the earl's part in dealing with the Richardson offspring. However, I believe there was another party — it was to be a joint guardianship. Allow me to check the records." He gave a short jerk on a bellpull behind the desk. Almost immediately a young clerk poked his head in the door.
"Go into the vault and bring me the file on the Richardson guardianship — in the cabinet containing the Wyndham papers."
Presently the young man returned and laid a thick folder before his employer. "Here you are, sir."
Dickinson leafed through the folder. "Ah-hah. Here it is." Peering over his glasses, he handed some papers to Marcus. "As you can see, my lord, the guardianship was shared between your father and a Mr. Raymond Knightly. Apparently the earl and Mr. Knightly were longtime friends of Miss Richardson's father."
"Knightly? I do not recall either that name or Richardson's."
"They were school-fellows. I doubt your father had even seen Richardson in twenty years when that governess and her charge appeared on his doorstep. Richardson had amassed quite a fortune, and his will stipulated that it be held in trust for his daughter and supervised jointly by Wyndham and Knightly."
"So, she is an heiress." Marcus made a cursory examination of the papers that confirmed what Dickinson had outlined.
The solicitor held out another paper. "Here is a memorandum from Mr. Knightly approving your father's plan to put the child in a boarding school." Dickinson coughed politely. "Actually, I believe that plan was your mother's and had Lord Gerald's concurrence, for your father was quite ill at the time."
Marcus noted the dates. As a diplomat with the Foreign Office, he himself had been out of the country at the time. "It sounds the sort of solution they would seek." He kept his voice neutral, but his thoughts were bitter. Gerald and his mother had rid themselves of a nuisance with no thought of the child's loss. And what of this Knightly? He posed this question to the solicitor, who leafed through some more papers.
"Hmm. Nothing here," Dickinson said. "Only that memorandum with his approval." He turned over some more sheets. "Oh, this is interesting ..."
"A letter from Carton and James, Mr. Knightly's solicitors. It appears that Mr. Knightly died in 1814. He was in his late fifties and in poor health the last year or so. He left his widow in full control of everything."
"His domestic household, you mean."
"No, sir. Everything. The businesses, the country estate, a London town house, some charitable interests — everything! Most unusual for a woman to have such control."
"Or such expertise," Marcus said.
Dickinson nodded. "What that means — as I am sure you know, my lord — is that Mrs. Knightly must agree to any decision made on behalf of Miss Richardson."CHAPTER 2
Despite its being well into the afternoon, Marcus was intent on meeting with Mrs. Knightly. Might as well get this over with, he told himself. The direction Dickinson had given him was in the Bloomsbury area, where several rich merchants had established town houses in recent years. The middle-aged widow of some cit would probably not find a call by a titled lord inconvenient, he thought — and then was immediately ashamed of the inherent arrogance of such an idea. Now, that was an attitude worthy of his predecessor, the inimitable Gerald.
Excerpted from The Trouble With Harriet by Wilma Counts. Copyright © 2001 J. Wilma Counts. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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