April 28, 1780
Berkeley Square, London
“Oh, Lord,” came a dismayed male voice from the direction of the foyer. “Mother’s here.”
“Yes, and you two are an absolute disgrace!” Dowager Countess Tavendish snapped from her wheeled chair at the top of the stairs. “Come give me kisses.”
Elliott watched from the library as his younger brother and nephew trudged up the stairs and pretended to be unhappy she was present, whilst she pretended to be unhappy with their bachelor living.
“Grandmama, I thought you weren’t coming for another fortnight,” Sandy protested. “I have ladies scheduled every one of those nights in preparation for famine.”
“Do you think to cozen me that you could find one willing woman, much less fourteen?”
Elliott and Niall burst out laughing. Sandy’s face and ears turned bright red.
“You should know better by now, Kerr,” Niall said, punching Sandy in the arm. “You cannot shock her or get the better of her. I’m here for nuncheon, not to greet you lot. Is it ready yet?”
And that was Camille’s screech, right on cue.
It was the second family reunion Elliott had been part of in six weeks and though this one involved fewer family members, it was no less boisterous.
There were women everywhere: Mother, Camille, Sophie, all their maids . . . and Mrs. Mocksling.
There were pug dogs everywhere: After being quelled into submission by the clutter of half-feral cats on the Penance, the dogs were now overjoyed to have been released from their imprisonment, and eager to let everyone know.
There were twice as many sailors as women and dogs: The ones who had long been pensioned off to look after Niall and Sandy had learned their new trades and were handling everyone with the aplomb of lifelong aristocrats’ servants. The newer ones who had arrived with Old Ben had been banished belowstairs until the family was settled in. Wherrymen were hauling trunks to the home and fetching and carrying. They would be staying aboard it until the end of the Season, when they would all—save Elliott and the Mockslings—return to Northumberland.
“Lynch,” Elliott muttered to his unruffled butler, who had served on the Iphigenia as Elliott’s ship’s master, “get the Mockslings and their meager belongings to Rathbone House immediately. If I have to endure them for one more moment, I will put that man’s head through the door for being so bloody spineless.”
“Elliott!” Sophie called down the stairs. “You promised a trip to Tattersall’s as soon as we arrived!”
He cocked his head back to see his youngest sister leaning far over the rail three floors up. “And are you not a cheeky little she-devil!” He laughed when she gave him a saucy grin. “I will take you as soon as you manage to pass for a boy.”
“Oh, thank you, Elliott!” she squealed, then blushed when he winked at her before scampering off.
“Don’t encourage her,” his mother said stiffly when she, in her chair, was carried down the stairs by two footmen.
They were almost the first words she had spoken to him since their argument five days before. No more superlatives regarding his courage and cheer had been forthcoming. “Mother, I have explained this. She truly does not wish to wed and I refuse to press it upon her.”
“She is my daughter, not yours,” she snapped.
“I’m the earl.”
Her nostrils flared. “As you continue to remind me.”
“Because you continue to refuse to yield.”
She ignored that. “She will grow out of it.”
“Whether she does or not is irrelevant to me. If or when she desires a husband, she will be free to choose for herself. I acceded to your condition that she not be parcelled off until she reaches her majority, and you would be well served to give her no reason to defy you. Teach her how to keep her accounts and let her have a bit of freedom, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the choices she makes.”
“I’d rather not discuss it in the foyer whilst we are in the middle of moving house, if you please.”
“I did not initiate the conversation, Mother.”
The day continued on thusly until Elliott had had quite enough of the noise and excitement, and climbed the stairs to the earl’s bedchamber—the one he had never used. Piefke was awaiting him. “Did Niall and Sandy go back to their offices?”
“Aye, Cap’n. They will be there all night, as they are involved in a file.”
Elliott grunted, went to his sideboard and poured himself a glass of whisky and shot it down his throat. “I’ll assume we’ve invitations piled three feet high?”
“Aye, but her ladyship has them all under control. The ladies will be staying in this evening, but said she would discuss them with you after she receives morning callers.”
“And so it begins, not twelve hours arrived. Thank you, Piefke. That is all for the night. I don’t want to be disturbed until morning.”
“Because right now,” Elliott muttered to himself once he was left alone and took a seat at the desk in his private library, “I am going to write a list of tasks I need to accomplish.”
He found what he needed, sharpened his pen, and began to write.
“Number one: find her.”