James Fitzsimmons sat before the fireplace in his best friend’s drawing room, staring at the letters in his lap. There were three, each promising ruination and even imprisonment to the recipient should certain conditions not be met by Lady Day—the twenty-fifth of March—namely that a loan totaling the princely sum of three thousand pounds be paid in full.
The sender was the powerful Earl of Grimsby. The recipient was James’s father.
“How am I going to come up with three thousand pounds in six weeks?”
Stephen Eddington settled himself on a sofa set at a right angle to James’s chair, placing his elbows on his knees and resting his chin in his hands. “Well, you can’t borrow against the farm.”
James’s father had done precisely that, igniting the fire that James was now trying to put out. “I can’t ask our neighbors for help. They are comfortable, but not so wealthy they could spare this kind of money even if everyone we know contributed.”
“And your father would be none too happy if they found out why he needed the money so quickly.”
Because the elder Fitzsimmons had shown exceedingly poor judgment in this financial matter. Grimsby’s reputation marked the earl out as deceitful and avaricious in his financial dealings, and less than gentlemanly even with the men of his own class.
James scrubbed a hand through his hair and over his face. “This would be a good time for a long-lost wealthy relative to appear and offer to make this all go away.”
Eddington straightened. “That’s a good idea. Not a relative, but perhaps you can find a patron who will lend you the money. I’ll put up my own property as collateral if it will help.”
“You’re a good friend, Eddy, but I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t ask—I volunteered,” Eddington returned with a quick grin. “That, together with the ledgers from the farm for the past several years, should be enough to convince a wealthy merchant or aristocrat to lend you the three thousand pounds. Your family keeps the farm and uses some of the income from it to pay back your benefactor. No one loses their home or livelihood.”
James turned the scenario over in his mind. The Fitzsimmons farm had a long history of solid production and the documentation to prove it, so that would be an incentive to a would-be lender. It was probably the inducement his father had used to obtain the three thousand from Grimsby in the first place, though it wasn’t worth that much outright. Neither was Eddington’s little estate. But if they found a sympathetic ear…
“What is it?” Eddington asked, jarring James from his thoughts.
“You’re wrinkling your nose as if you’ve encountered some noxious smell. What are you thinking about that’s so distasteful?”
James suppressed a sigh. “You know I don’t like dealing with the aristocracy. But it appears that my family’s very existence now depends on one of them.”
“I did say a wealthy merchant would do as well.”
“Do you know any merchants who might be willing to help?”
Eddington shook his head. “No. But I do know some aristocrats who might take pity on you.”
James felt his nose wrinkle again and his mouth pull into a frown. “I don’t want their pity.”
“Just their money.”
Ouch. But Eddy was right, and James didn’t have time to be choosy. If pity was part of the bargain then he’d have to learn to live with it.
“Fine. Where do we find these soft-hearted people with large bank accounts?”
“Phillip Maitland and his wife are having a house party in a few days. They won’t have the sum required, but they are well connected—Mr. Maitland is cousin to the Duke of Alston and spent some time in the Commons as an MP.”
James felt his body tense at the mention of the Maitland name and the duke’s title. He’d known the duke’s own sister in his youth—intimately. But it had been nearly two decades since he’d last seen her, and he highly doubted she would welcome him now.
He pushed the thought aside and tried to focus on his family’s current predicament. “Can we wangle a dinner invitation one evening, do you think?”
Eddington smiled brightly. “Better. I’ve been invited to the house party, and Mrs. Maitland just sent a note asking if I knew another gentleman that might be available. It seems she had a last-minute cancellation and needs to even out the numbers.”
James hesitated. A Maitland house party? Would Cecilia be there? “Are you sure I’ll be welcome? Dinner is one thing, but an entire house party is a bit more presumptuous.”
“It’s only a couple of weeks. And there’s bound to be someone there who can help you. Mrs. Maitland will be so glad to have an equal number of ladies and gentlemen she may even let you court her daughter.”
“Two birds, one stone—how efficient. My mother would be pleased,” James replied in a flat voice. She’d taken to reminding him that, while James’s sister’s son could inherit the farm, the boy didn’t carry the Fitzsimmons name, and impressing upon James how wonderful it would be to have a grandchild that did. But Cecilia Maitland had hurt James badly the one and only time he’d proposed marriage, and at seven-and-thirty he was no longer interested in the almost political maneuverings some people undertook to make the “right” match.
“There’s been no indication that Lady Cecilia will be there—she’s only a distant cousin to Mr. Maitland.”
James eyed his friend doubtfully. “You can’t be sure of that.”
Eddy shook his head. “No, I can’t. But I can be sure that your farm will be in Grimsby’s hands if you don’t go.”
“You have a point there.”
“You’ll go, then?”
James nodded, resigned. He could brazen out a Maitland house party in order to save the farm. And perhaps Eddy was right about Cecilia’s presence there. “I’ll go, and thank you for any information you can provide about the other guests.”
Eddington sank back against the sofa cushions. “You’re welcome to everything I know about them. Mr. and Mrs. Maitland are excellent hosts, too—you might even enjoy yourself.”
James wasn’t sure he’d enjoy anything until the farm was safe, but he nodded again to appease Eddington. “I might.”
“You’ll certainly feel better after some preparation. Come, let’s adjourn to my study and we’ll see what we can glean from Mrs. Maitland’s invitation.”
Lady Cecilia Maitland knocked on the door of her cousin’s bedchamber, hoping the hour wasn’t too late. Cecilia and Margaret had both been asked to arrive for the house party early to help with the preparations, and Cecilia found herself in need of counsel.
The door opened to reveal a fully-clothed Margaret Maitland, who smiled brightly when her eyes met Cecilia’s. “I didn’t expect to see you this late. I thought surely you’d be abed and sleeping soundly after traveling all day.”
“I would be, but sleep has been rather elusive these past few nights.”
Margaret took a step back and opened the door wider. “Would you like to come in for a bit? Maybe a nice chat will settle you.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.” Cecilia entered the room, closing her eyes momentarily to savor the heat radiating from the fireplace. There were two comfortable-looking chairs placed near the hearth, and Cecilia seated herself in the one closest to the window while Margaret took the other.
“So what has been keeping you up these past nights?”
Cecilia suppressed a smile. How very like a Maitland to get right to the point. “I’ve found myself in some trouble, and I’m hoping you can help me discover a way to get out of it.”
Margaret’s brows rose. “What kind of trouble now?”
This time Cecilia allowed the smile to form on her lips. She was the unconventional member of the Maitland family, the forty-year-old woman who set up her own household and invested her money rather than marry and depend on a husband. Being the daughter and sister of a duke meant most of the ton brushed off what they called her eccentricities, but Cecilia’s society life had not been without incident.
But her smile faded as she spoke. “I have a blackmailer.”
“The Earl of Grimsby has an old letter of mine in his possession. One written to a lover many years ago that would disgrace me and the whole family if it became public. Or so he says.”
Margaret sat back in her chair. “You doubt the existence of this letter?”
“I don’t, actually. I vividly remember writing a number of letters to a certain gentleman when I was younger, so it’s possible that Grimsby does possess one of them. Though I’ll never know how he got his hands on it.”
“You’re worried about the effect on your reputation, then?”
Cecilia shook her head, her blonde nighttime plait sliding a little against her back. “I have position and wealth enough to withstand whatever backlash might occur, and I’m not exactly hunting for a husband. No, my concern is that my brother will find out.”
His Grace the Duke of Alston was older than Cecilia by twelve years and had been in delicate health most of his adult life. Over the past few years “delicate” had been supplanted by “dreadful” more often than not, and the family knew it was only a matter of time before he went to his reward.
“You think the shock will be too much for him.”
Margaret’s voice was solemn and Cecilia gave a little nod, listening to the fire crackle cheerily along as if everything were fine.
“And you came to me because I’m no stranger to scandal.”
Cecilia opened her mouth to protest, but saw that her cousin was smiling. Margaret had borne a child out of wedlock when she was nineteen and had withdrawn from Society as a result. Cecilia knew it had crushed Margaret to live as an exile in the country, particularly when she’d been so young and full of adventure. She didn’t often refer to her status, but it was good to see her speaking so easily of it now.
“Because you’re my favorite cousin,” Cecilia returned.
Margaret chuckled. “Don’t let Phillip hear you say that.”
Cecilia wanted to grin and reply with some witty comment, but instead she pressed her lips together for a moment. “You can’t tell anyone about this, including Phillip—the more people that know, the greater the chance someone will tell Alston.”
Margaret reached across the space between their chairs and clasped Cecilia’s hands in hers. “Of course I won’t. Your secret is safe with me.” She squeezed her cousin’s hands then released them and sat back. “Now what can we do about Grimsby? What is it that he wants from you?”
“Five thousand pounds. For that I get the actual letter in addition to his silence.”
Margaret’s hazel eyes went round. “Five thousand?” Then she smiled. “If your investments are doing as well as they appear to be, that isn’t an insurmountable sum for you. Is it?”
“No, it isn’t. But that’s not the point.”
“You’re angry that he’s trying to manipulate you.”
Margaret’s tone was so matter-of-fact Cecilia grinned. “I’d forgotten just how well you know me. Yes, I’m angry that he thinks he can so easily move me. But I can’t tell the magistrate what’s happened for fear of word getting out, and Grimsby well knows it—is counting on it.”
“Are you still in contact with the letter’s original recipient? Perhaps you could write to him and let him know what is happening. He may even have an idea or two about how to stop it.”
Cecilia pictured James as he’d been when she’d known him, tall and slim yet strong enough to lift her off the ground with little effort. He’d had a dimple in his left cheek—just a fraction of an inch from the corner of his mouth—that she’d been particularly fond of kissing. But it had been nearly twenty years since she’d seen him last, and the encounter had not ended happily.
“We lost touch,” she told her cousin, which was a version of the truth. His actual words had been something more akin to I never want to see you again. “I suppose I could set my solicitor to searching for him, but he doesn’t go about in Society.”
“Then he may not care about the letter surfacing, which is just as well. I think the only thing he could really do to help is marry you. That would render the letter moot.”
Cecilia nodded slowly, as if it was a simple thing Margaret suggested. Marriage to her former lover would negate the scandal the letter would otherwise cause for all but the highest sticklers, and those were people who didn’t approve of her anyway. What she didn’t tell Margaret was that James had been more than just a lover. He’d been a close friend, an ally, and her would-be fiancé. If Cecilia had accepted James’s proposal of marriage all those years ago, she wouldn’t be having this problem now.
Would she have been happier as his wife?
But what was done, was done. For all she knew, he was wed to some other woman and had a full compliment of children helping him run the farm.
“Marriage to anyone would probably negate enough of the scandal that little would reach Alston, particularly if he were confined to his home or bed. I am loath to give up my independence, though, Margaret. I’ve been my own keeper for nigh on sixteen years now, and to sign everything over to a man feels like a defeat.”
“You could retain some of your independence with the right settlements…and the right gentleman,” Margaret replied with a sly smile. “And marriage would undoubtedly be more pleasurable than giving in to Grimsby.”
“His lordship certainly wouldn’t see it coming.”
“And in a few days you’ll have a house party full of gentlemen to consider.”
“Half of whom I’m related to,” Cecilia quipped. “But at least it’s a viable action, if I want to take it. I would just have to find a willing co-conspirator.”
Copyright © 2017 by Cora Lee
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