Mary Milne could not imagine why she had been
summoned to a solicitor’s office. Her late husband most certainly
possessed nothing worthy of legal transfer. Indeed, his paltry
military pension barely kept food in the bellies of her and their
She hated taking Stevie out on so miserable a
day. It was not only beastly cold, but she hated exposing her son’s
delicate lungs to London’s noxious air. Today one could barely see
one’s hand in front of one’s face for the sooty skies. How she
missed the clean country air of East Sussex and Darnley Lodge.
What a difference one Christmas made! Last
Christmas she and Stevie had enjoyed being with kindly old Lord
Paxton at his beloved Darnley Lodge. Now he was buried in the
churchyard near Darnley, and she and Stevie had been forced to
return to London and their squalid lodgings.
“Come, my little love. Wrap your coat tightly
around you. We’ve got to go into the City,” she told her son. She
dreaded it. She could not afford to take a hackney coach. They would
have to walk. She calculated it would take them nearly an hour to
reach the establishment of Mr. Percy Stonehouse, Esquire. She prayed
Stevie wouldn’t get sick. Again.
She even contemplated leaving him alone, but he
was only eight. Too young to be on his own. What if the building
burned down? And he was still young enough to be frightened when
left by himself. Even at the risk of damaging his lungs, she
couldn’t go off for that long without him.
She squashed a hat on her own blonde locks,
donned her worn, hand-knitted shawl, and they left. It had been so
long since she’d seen the sun shine, she wondered if it had forsaken
the Capital altogether. What a wretchedly miserable day it was with
piercing winds and a cold that penetrated every pore of her body.
At least Stevie had a warm coat. She had only a
well-worn pale blue merino pelisse that had been part of her
trousseau ten years earlier, and this topped by her shawl for
She looked longingly at those they passed who
wore heavy woolen coats. Those trimmed with costly furs drew her
admiration though she knew she would never own such attire.
The severe cold did not discourage travelers on
the busy Strand. There was a dray delivering ale, several coal carts
and many stagecoaches guided by teams of four horses—which always
fascinated Stevie—various carts with building supplies ranging from
boards to stones, a number of curricles and private coaches, and far
too many saddle horses to count.
After almost an hour, her feet beginning to
blister, they had made it to a narrow street a few blocks east of
St. Paul’s. A sign swinging in front of a slender building
proclaimed this to be the place of business of Mr. Stonehouse. She
announced herself to a youthful, bespectacled clerk.
“Mr. Stonehouse is expecting you, Missus.” He
got up and escorted them to an adjoining office.
A white-haired man with stooped shoulders rose
when they entered. After introducing himself, he asked them to be
seated in front of his desk. “I’ve asked you here today, Mrs. Milne,
to explain the terms of Lord Paxton’s will.”
It was a few seconds before she realized he
must be discussing her sweet Lord Paxton. When he’d sent her
away, she’d never thought to hear from him again.
And she hadn’t. Lord Paxton’s kindly
housekeeper, Mrs. Ballard, had written to tell her of Lord Paxton’s
passing the previous month. Mary had wept for days. It was like
losing her own father.
Then it suddenly occurred to her, dear Lord
Paxton must have left her a little something. How very kind. She
fleetingly wondered what thoughtful gesture he had made. Stevie had
adored the pony in his stable. Perhaps he’d left the pony to them.
Not that they could afford to keep it. But, still, it would have
been a thoughtful bequest.
Oh, dear. How could she disappoint
Stevie? Nothing would give him more pleasure than having a pony of
his own, but if that was what Lord Paxton left them, she would have
no choice but to sell the animal. She could barely afford to keep a
roof over their head. There was no way she could come up with money
for livery fees.
Poor Stevie’s heart would wrench even more than
leaving Darnley Lodge had hurt him.
Her eyes misted as she looked into Mr.
Stonehouse’s craggy face.
“As you must know,” he said, “Lord Paxton has
left the bulk of his considerable estate to his son and heir,
“But,” he added, “he has settled a hundred a
year on you for life.”
Her mouth gaped open, and tears gushed. A
hundred a year was the difference between comfort and poverty. She
had never expected such generosity. “I am profoundly grateful,” she
Her eyes widened. Her heartbeat thumped.
“Lord Paxton has stipulated in his will that he
wants you to have Darnley Lodge.”
It was almost as if a lightning bolt had struck
her, she was so shocked. “But Darnley was the place where he and his
son had so many precious memories. I . . . can’t. . .” How could she
be refusing this? She’d never loved a place like she’d loved Darnley.
And Stevie had never been happier—or healthier—than he’d been at
“It’s not your decision, Mrs. Milne, to accept
or reject. This is Lord Paxton’s last will and testament. It’s what
he wanted most. Can you question his judgment?”
She shook her head. “Lord Paxton was the wisest
man I ever knew.”
“I concur. Therefore, madam, you must
acknowledge Lord Paxton’s wisdom and accept Darnley.”
She didn’t dare allow herself to look at Stevie.
He might just be a child, but he was intelligent enough to
understand what he’d just heard. The prospect of returning to
Darnley would have him wild with glee.
“I’ve never admired anyone more than I admired
Lord Paxton. If he wanted us to live at Darnley Lodge, then we shall
live at Darnley Lodge.”
Now she allowed herself to cast a glance at
Her heart felt as if it could expand right out
of her chest. She hadn’t seen him smiling like that since . . .
since he’d been at Darnley nearly a year ago.
“Oh, Mama! We can be at Darnley for Christmas!”
Then his little freckled face saddened. “I shall miss Lord Paxton.”
“So shall I, love, so shall I.”
Mr. Stonehouse cleared his throat. “Before you
leave today, I am authorized to give you a sum of money. Your
quarterly installment. It should help with your transportation
The first thing Mary thought of was hiring a
hackney to take them back to their lodgings. What a wonderful luxury
it would be.
She took a quick glance at the bottom of her
shoe. A hole had worn through. No wonder she’d blistered. Thanks to
Lord Paxton she would be able to purchase a new pair of shoes, too.
Then she and Stevie would leave as soon as
possible for their new home.
* * *
John Beauclerc, the Earl of Finchley, strolled
into White’s, accompanied by his friends Christopher Perry and
Michael Knowles. Their fourth friend, David Arlington, recently
elevated to Earl of Paxton, had gotten a considerable start on them.
His brandy decanter was already half empty. Lord Finchley came to
stand beside David, wagging his brows as he regarded the bottle.
“Got every right to drown in my own cups.”
“And why would that be?” The man they all
referred to as Finch sat beside David while the others also sat at
the table with their long-time friend. The four of them had been
exceptionally close since their days at Eton.
“Because I’ve been grossly bestrayed by my own
“You mean betrayed.”
David nodded. “Indeed.”
“But your father’s been dead over a month now.
. . Good lord, did he leave his fortune to someone else?”
Christopher leaned toward David. “Then how were
“Of all the properties the Paxtons possess, I
shall not inherit the very one that means the most to me.”
“Paxton House in London?” Knowles asked.
“No,” David replied.
Lord Finchley looked askance at him. “He
couldn’t give away Tonton Abbey. It’s entailed.”
David’s eyebrows folded. “How long have you
“More than twenty years,” Finch answered.
“Since we were eight years of age,” Knowles
“And do you not know where I have always been
“Oh, yes!” Lord Finchley brightened. “Darnley
David nodded morosely. “Ever since I was a wee
lad, that was where I wanted most to be. That’s where I learned to
ride. Papa and I would always go there without the women and girls.
Just the fellows.”
“The shooting there was the best,” Christopher
“It still is,” David said. “But I won’t get to
“Who the devil did you your father bestow it
upon?” Lord Finchley asked.
David poured another glass of brandy and took a
long swig. “Some She-Devil who bewitched the old fool.”
“He left the lodge to a woman?” Perry asked,
his dark eyes narrowed to slits.
David nodded, the set to his head as grim as
one in mourning.
“A doxy, no doubt,” Lord Finchley said.
“It does seem so, though Papa was never in the
“Your father was the most honorable man I’ve
ever known,” Knowles said.
“So sorry this has rather ruined your
Christmas. You must come with Perry and me to Glenmont for
Christmas. I know you usually go to Darnley.”
David sighed. “There’s a massive problem about
“What would that be?” Perry asked.
“I’ve gotten a posthumous letter from my father
begging me to spend this last Christmas at Darnley.” He snatched up
his glass and downed the rest of the dark liquid.
“Will the doxy be there?” Lord Finchley asked.
David shrugged. “I don’t actually know. I don’t
even know why Papa insisted that I spend the Yule at Darnley, but
how I can refuse this last request? As angry as I am, he was
my father. And throughout my life, he was a very good father.”
“Oh, definitely. A very good father,” Lord
The two others nodded in agreement.
“I don’t understand how he could betray me like
this. He knew how much Darnley meant to me.”
“He couldn’t very well give away Tonton Abbey.
It’s been in your family for centuries,” Lord Finchley said.
“Not to mention it’s entailed,” Knowles added.
“Why did that conniving, depraved,
fortune-seeking, low-class wench have to get any of our
property?” David grabbed the decanter and poured out another glass
“Perhaps,” Knowles suggested, “you can have the
“I have certainly discussed that with our
solicitor. While he believes Papa was of very sound mind, and all is
in order with the will, with everything witnessed properly by our
long-standing Darnley servants, he will comply with my wishes to try
to contest it.”
“How?” Knowles asked.
“The solicitor is engaging a barrister to
examine the situation at my behest.” David took a long swig. “I also
feel betrayed by our Darnley servants. I would have trusted them
with my very life.”
Knowles shrugged. “All they did was obey your
father’s request to witness the will. Perhaps you’re being too harsh
“Rotten luck, old fellow,” Lord Finchley said.
The two others nodded in unison.
“What if you’re forced to spend Christmas with
that . . . that harlot?” Knowles asked.
David’s mouth thinned almost to a grimace. “I
almost relish the prospect. I assure you I’ll take away everything
that’s not nailed to the house. And you can be assured every animal
in that stable will be moved to the stables at Tonton. She’ll get
none of my possessions!”
“Such a dreary Christmas, old fellow.” Lord
Finchley patted him sympathetically.