Harry wished he was dead. Well, perhaps death was an exaggeration, although St. Peter alone knew how long he’d be able to stand up to this sort of continued torture.
“And then what happens?” His tormentor stared at him with eyes that were very familiar to him, eyes that he saw every morning in his shaving mirror, a mixture of brown, grey, and green that was pleasant enough on him, but which surrounded by the lush brown eyelashes of his inquisitor, looked particularly charming. And innocent. And innocuous…something the possessor of the eyes was most decidedly not. “Well? Then what happens? Aren’t you going to tell me?”
Harry ran his finger between his neckcloth and his neck, tugging on the cloth to loosen its constricting grasp on his windpipe, wishing for the fifteenth time in the last ten minutes that he had been able to escape capture.
“I want to know!”
Or found another victim to throw to the one who held him prisoner.
“You have to tell me!”
Perhaps death wasn’t such a wild thought after all. Surely if he were to die at that exact moment he would be admitted into heaven. Surely St. Peter would look upon the deeds he had done for the benefit of others, deeds such as spending fifteen years working as a spy for the Home Office, and grant him asylum. Surely he wouldn’t be turned away from his rightful reward, damned to eternal torment, left to an eternity of hell such as he was in now, a hell dominated by—
Harry sighed and pushed his spectacles high onto the bridge of his nose, bowing his head in acknowledgement of defeat. “After the hen and the rooster are…er…married, they will naturally wish to produce chicks.”
“You already said that,” his thirteen-year-old inquisitor said with the narrowed eyes and impatient tone of one who is through being reasonable. “What happens after that? And what do chickens have to do with my unpleasantness?”
“It’s the process of producing offspring that is related to your unpleasantness. When a mother hen wishes to have chicks, she and the rooster must…er…perhaps chickens aren’t the best example to explain the situation.”
Lady India Haversham, eldest daughter of the Marquis Rosse, tapped her fingers on the table at her side, and glared at her father. “You said you were going to explain the unpleasantness! George says I’m not going to die despite the fact that I’m bleeding, and that it’s a very special time for girls, although I do not see what’s special about having pains in my stomach, and you said you’d tell me and now you’re talking about bees and flowers, and chickens, and fish in the river. What do they have to do with me?”
No, Harry decided as he looked at the earnest, if stormy, eyes of his oldest child—death was distinctly preferable to having to explain the whys and hows of reproduction—particularly the female’s role in reproduction, with a specific emphasis on their monthly indispositions—to India. He decided that although he had been three times commended by the Prime Minister for bravery, he was at heart a coward, because he simply could not stand the torture any longer.
“Ask Gertie. She’ll explain it all to you,” he said hastily as he jumped up from a narrow pink chair and fled the sunny room given over to his children, shamelessly ignoring the cries of, “Papa! You said you’d tell me!”
“You haven’t seen me,” Harry said as he raced through a small, windowless room that served as an antechamber to his estate office. “You haven’t seen me, you don’t know where I am, in fact, you might just decry knowledge of me altogether. It’s safer that way. Throw the bolt on the door, would you, Temple? And perhaps you should put a chair in front of it. Or the desk. I wouldn’t put it past the little devils to find a way in with only the door bolted.”
Templeton Harris, secretary and man of affairs, pursed his lips as his noble employer raced into the adjacent room.
“What was it this time, sir?” Temple asked as he followed Harry. Weak sunlight filtered through the dingy windows, lighting motes of dust sent dancing in the air by Harry’s rush through the room. “Did McTavish present you with another of his finds? Has Lord Marston decided he wishes to become a blacksmith rather than inherit your title? Are the twins trying to fly from the stable roof again?”
Harry shuddered visibly as he gulped down a healthy swig of brandy. “Nothing so benign. India wished to know certain facts. Woman things.”
Temple’s pale blue eyes widened considerably. “But…but Lady India is only a child. Surely such concepts are beyond her?”
Harry took a deep, shaky breath and leaned toward a window thick with grime. Using his elbow he cleaned a small patch, just enough to peer out into the wilderness that once was a garden. “She might be a child to our minds, Temple, but according to nature, she’s trembling on the brink of womanhood.”
“Oh, those sorts of woman things.”
Harry held out the empty brandy snifter silently, and just as silently Temple poured a judicious amount of smoky amber liquid into it. “Have one yourself. It’s not every day a man can say his daughter has…er…trembled.”
Temple poured himself a small amount and silently toasted his employer.
“I can remember when she was born,” Harry said as he stared out through the clean patch of glass, enjoying the burn of the brandy as it warmed its way down his throat. “Beatrice was disappointed that she was a girl, but I thought she was perfect with her tiny little nose, and a mop of brown curls, and eyes that used to watch me so seriously. It was like she was an angel, sent down to grace our lives, a ray of light, a beam of sunshine, a joy to behold.” He took another deep breath as three quicksilver shadows flickered across the dirty window, the high, carefree laughter of children up to some devilment trailing after them. Harry flung himself backward, against the wall, clutching his glass with fingers gone white with strain. “And then she grew up and had her woman’s time, and demanded that I explain everything to her. What’s next, Temple, I ask you, what’s next?”
Temple set his glass down in the exact same spot it had previously occupied, and wiped his fingers on his handkerchief, trying not to grimace at the dust and decay rampant in the room. It disturbed his tidy nature immensely to know that the room had not seen a maid’s hand since they had arrived some three weeks before. “I assume, my lord, that as Lady Anne is now eight years old, in some five year’s time she will be demanding the very same information. Would you not allow a maid to just clean around your books? I can promise you that none of your important papers or items will be touched during the cleaning process. Indeed, I would be happy to tend to the cleaning myself if you would just give me leave—”
Harry, caught up in the hellish thought of having to repeat with his youngest daughter the scene he’d just (barely) escaped, shook his head. “No. This is my room, the one room in the whole house that is my sanctuary. No one but you is permitted in it, not the children, not the maids, no one. I must have someplace that is wholly mine, Temple, somewhere sacred, somewhere that I can just be myself.”
Temple glanced around the room. He knew the contents well enough, he’d had to carry in the boxes of Harry’s books, his estate papers, the small bureau of curios, the horribly muddied watercolors that graced the walls. “Perhaps if I had the curtains washed—”
“No,” Harry repeated, sliding a quick glance toward the window before daring to cross the room to a large rosewood desk covered in papers, scattered quills, stands of ink, books, a large statue of Pan, and other assorted items too numerous to catalog. “I have something else for you to do than wash my curtains.”
Temple, about to admit that he hadn’t intended on washing the drapery himself, decided that information wasn’t relevant to his employer’s happiness, and settled with a sigh into the comfortable leather chair to one side of the desk. He withdrew a memorandum notepad and pencil from his inner pocket. “Sir?”
Harry paced from the desk to the unlit fireplace. “How long have you been with me, Temple?”
“Fourteen years on Midsummer’s Day,” that worthy replied promptly.
“That’s just a fortnight away.”
Temple allowed that was so.
“I had married Beatrice the summer before,” Harry continued, staring into the dark emptiness of the fire as if his life was laid out there amid the heap of coal waiting to be lit should the warm weather turn cold.
“I believe when I came into your service that Lady Rosse was…er…in expectation of Lady India’s arrival.”
“Hmm. It’s been almost five years since Bea died.”
Temple murmured an agreement.
“Five years is a long time,” Harry said, his hazel eyes dark behind the lenses of his spectacles. “The children are running wild. God knows they don’t listen to me, and Gertie and George are hard put to keep up with the twins and McTavish, let alone Digger and India.”
Temple’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. He had a suspicion of just where the conversation was going, but was clueless to envision what role the marquis felt he could serve in such a delicate matter.
Harry took a deep breath, rubbed his nose, then turned and stalked back to the deep green leather chair behind the desk. He sat and waved his hand toward the paper in Temple’s hand. “I’ve decided the children need the attention of a woman. I want you to help me find one.”
Harry’s lips thinned. “No. After Miss Reynauld died in the fire…no. The children must have time to recover from that horror. The woman I speak of—” He glanced over at the miniature that sat in prominence on the corner of his desk. “—will be my marchioness. The children need a mother, and I…”
“Need a wife?” Temple said gently as Harry’s voice trailed off. Despite his best intentions not to allow himself to become emotionally involved in his employer’s life—emotions so often made one uncomfortable and untidy—he had, over the years, developed quite a fondness for Harry and his brood of five hellions. He was well aware that Harry had an affection for his wife that might not have been an all-consuming love, but was strong enough to keep him bound in grief for several years after her death in childbirth.
“Yes,” Harry said with a sigh, slouching back into the comfortable embrace of the chair. “I came late to the married state, but must admit that I found it an enjoyable one, Temple. You might not think it possible for someone who is hounded night and day by his rampaging herd of children, but I find myself lonely of late. For a woman. A wife,” he corrected quickly, a faint frown creasing his brow. “I have determined that the answer to this natural desire for a companion, and the need for someone to take the children in hand, is a wife. With that thought in mind, I would like you to take down an advertisement I wish you to run in the nearest local newspaper. What is the name of it—the Dolphin’s Derriere Daily?”
“The Ram’s Bottom Gazette, sir, so named because the journal originates in the town of Ram’s Bottom, which is, I believe, located some eight miles to the west. I must confess, however, as to being a bit confused by your determination to place an advertisement for a woman to claim the position of marchioness. I had always assumed that a gentleman of your consequence looked to other members of your society for such a candidate, rather than placing an advertisement in an organ given over to discussions that are primarily agricultural in nature.”
Harry waved away that suggestion. “I’ve thought about that, but I have no wish to go into town until I have to.”
“But surely you must have friends, acquaintances who know of eligible women of your own class—”
“No.” Harry leaned back in his chair, propping his feet up on the corner of his desk. “I’ve looked over all my friend’s relatives, none of them will suit. Most of them are too young, and the ones who aren’t just want me for the title.”
Temple was at a loss. “But, sir, the woman will be your marchioness, the mother of your yet unborn children—”
Harry’s feet came down with a thump as he sat up and glared at his secretary. “No more children! I’m not going through that again. I won’t sacrifice another woman on that altar.” He rubbed his nose again and re-propped his feet. “I don’t have time to hunt for a wife through conventional means. I mean to acquire one before anyone in the neighborhood knows who I am, before the grasping title-seekers get me in their sights. Cousin Gerard dying suddenly and leaving me this place offers me the perfect opportunity to find a woman who will need a husband as much as I need a wife. I want an honest woman, one gently born and educated, but not necessarily of great family—a solid country gentlewoman, that’s what’s needed. She must like children, and wish to…er…participate in a physical relationship with me.”
“But,” Temple said, his hands spreading wide in confusion. “But…ladies who participate in a physical relationship often bear children.”
“I shall see to it that my wife will not be stretched upon the rack of childbirth,” Harry said carelessly, then visibly flinched when somewhere nearby a door slammed, and what sounded like a hundred elephants thundered down the hallway outside his office. “Take this down, Temple. Wanted: an honest, educated woman between the ages of thirty-five and fifty, who desires to be joined in the wedded state to a man, forty-five years of age, in good health and with sufficient means to ensure her comfort. Must desire children. Applicants may forward their particulars and references to Mr. T. Harris, Raving-By-The-Sea. Interviews will be scheduled the week following. That should do it, don’t you think? You may screen the applicants for the position, and bring me the ones who you think are suitable. I shall interview them and weed out those who won’t suit.”
“Sir—” Temple said, even more at a loss as to how to counsel his employer from such a ramshackle method of finding a wife. “I—what if—how will I know who you will find suitable?”
Harry frowned over the top of an estate ledger. “I’ve already told you what I want, man! Someone honest, intelligent, must like children. I would prefer it if she possessed a certain charm to her appearance, but that’s not absolutely necessary.”
Temple swallowed his objections, and asked meekly, “Where do you wish to interview the candidates for your hand? Surely not here, at Ashleigh Court?”
Harry ran his finger down a column of figures, his eyes narrowing at the proof of abuse by his late cousin’s steward. “The man should be hung, draining the estate dry like that. What did you say? Oh, no, any woman of sense would take one look at this monstrosity and run screaming in horror. Find somewhere in town, somewhere I can meet with the ladies and have a quiet conversation with them. Individually, of course. Group appointments will not do at all.”
“Of course,” Temple agreed, and staggered from the room, his mind a whirl. The only thing that cheered him up was the thought that Harry’s wife, whoever she would turn out to be, would no doubt insist on the house being cleaned from attic to cellars.
Harry was just settling down to make notes about what needed attention first on the estate, when a sudden high-pitched shriek had him out of the chair, and almost to the door before Temple appeared in the open doorway to the hall.
Harry hesitated at the sight of Temple’s weak smile. “The children—is someone hurt?”
“Peacocks,” Temple said concisely.
Harry blinked, then relaxed. “Peacocks? Oh. Peacocks. Yes, they do have an ungodly scream. I thought one of the children—”
Another blood curdling screech cut across his words. Before Harry could draw a breath, a huge green and blue bird raced passed him down the hall, its once magnificent tail feathers now ragged and muddy. Hoots, yells, and assorted shouts followed the peacock as the three younger children pounded after the poor bird. Anne stopped next to the great curved staircase, threw her head back, and let forth the most hair-raising sound Harry had ever heard.
“As I was about to say, sir, it is not the peacock making the noise, it is the children.”
Harry closed the door quietly, leaning back against it as the sounds of one agitated peacock being pursued by three noisy children around and around the hall filtered through the solid door. “Write the advertisement, Temple.”
A loud avian squawk followed by the sound of something large and ceramic shattering upon the hall’s marble floor sent Harry running back into his sanctuary. “Now! For God’s sake, man, write it now!”