Evans Hall, August 1817
Alex, Earl of Evans, rode slowly up the drive to his country estate. He’d left the little village of Loves Bridge shortly after the weddings of his friends Marcus, Duke of Hart, and Nate, Marquess of Haywood, and had spent the last two months wandering the Lake District with only the hills and water and sheep for company.
No, that wasn’t quite true. He’d had one constant, unpleasant companion: envy.
Marcus and Nate had found wives without even trying. Trying? Ha! They’d been trying to avoid marriage, believing Marcus was under the shadow of an ancient family curse. He was the one who’d been looking for a wife.
I’d be married now if Lady Charlotte hadn’t jilted me.
He scowled at his horse’s ears. Charlotte was in his past. In the days he’d spent scrambling up and down the fells, he’d vowed to leave the past with all its pain behind. There were plenty more fish in the sea, after all. He knew what he wanted: a quiet, restful sort of female, one who wouldn’t constantly busy herself about his or other people’s affairs, dragging confusion and hubbub into his life like his mother and sister still did on occasion.
The ton was littered with women who would suit. He just needed to put his mind to wooing one. He’d shop the Marriage Mart, attend the balls and house parties, and talk to every eligible lady. He was an earl, after all, albeit a jilted one. How difficult could it be? By this time next year, he’d have joined his friends in married bliss.
He stretched his neck, loosening the tension that had gathered there, and looked around at the familiar landscape. “It’s good to be home, isn’t it, Horatio?”
His horse shook his head in apparent agreement, making the bridle jingle.
He reined Horatio to a stop. That sounded like Rachel, his sister’s eight-year-old. Lord! Was Diana at the Hall?
Tension came rushing back, unease prickling the back of his neck and shivering down his spine. He loved his sister, but she would be certain to notice his blue-devils and hound him until she discovered their cause. If he let on that he was considering marriage again . . .
He shuddered in earnest. Diana was five years older than he and had always had a finger—or both her hands—in his affairs. She would tell Mama and the two of them would assemble a queue of eager matrimonial candidates before he could say Jack Robinson.
They might have his best interests at heart, but he didn’t want them meddling in this.
I’ll just have to paste a smile on my face for as long as it takes to get rid of Diana.
Rachel could have come with her father, Roger, Viscount Chanton.
He breathed a sigh of relief. Ah, yes, that was likely it. O’Reilly, his head groom, must have encountered an issue in the stables and Roger, thinking Alex still in the Lake District, had ridden over with his groom to offer his opinion. Rachel was horse mad and would have teased her father to bring her along.
If Roger noticed Alex’s low spirits—highly unlikely—he’d have the good sense to ignore them.
“Where are you, Rachel?” he called, looking around.
He heard giggling. Was it coming from the tree on his right? He turned Horatio in that direction.
Rachel was the fifth of Diana’s eight girls. Eight! With luck the baby Diana was carrying now was a boy so Roger could stop trying for an heir.
He snorted. The needs of the viscountcy had nothing to do with the matter. Diana and Roger had been nauseatingly in love since they were children, and while Roger must prefer a son of his own inherit rather than his cousin Albert, he’d never shown the slightest disappointment when Diana presented him with yet another daughter.
Where was his niece? “Rachel!”
More giggling, definitely from that tree. He rode closer and looked up.
Rachel grinned down at him from a branch about ten feet above his head. She had a streak of dirt across her forehead, an assortment of leaves in her hair, and her skirts—
Of course Rachel wasn’t wearing skirts.
“Where did you get those breeches?”
Her grin widened. “Papa had them made for me after I borrowed Jeremy’s and put a hole in the knee.”
All Diana’s girls were spirited, but Rachel was a complete tomboy. He didn’t envy his sister the task of introducing her to Society when the time came, though one could hope Rachel would learn a little decorum before then.
“And who might this Jeremy be?”
Rachel’s grin turned to a frown. “You know. Jeremy. The vicar’s son, the one who’s almost my age.”
The vicar had a lot of sons. Alex had never bothered sorting them out. “The one with the red hair?”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “No! That’s James. He’s ten, the same as Esther. Jeremy has curly hair.”
“Ah.” He’d take her word for it.
Horatio shifted, reminding him that he was keeping the horse standing.
“Horatio’s eager for the stables. Do you want to ride down with me?”
He wasn’t surprised to see Rachel’s face light up. She scrambled down the tree like a monkey and skipped over, extending her arms. As soon as he swung her up to sit before him, she leaned forward to pet Horatio’s neck.
“What a handsome fellow you are, Horatio. Mr. O’Reilly thinks you’d make lovely babies with our Ophelia. What do you say? Would you like to be a papa?”
“Rachel! O’Reilly never discussed, er, that with you.” He hoped. His head groom had a few rough edges, but Alex was almost certain the man wouldn’t talk about horse breeding with a young girl, even one as horse mad as Rachel.
She giggled again. “Course not. He was talking to Lionel. I was in Primrose’s stall, so they didn’t see me.”
Alex might not know the vicar’s children, but he knew his employees. Lionel was one of his stable boys.
“You should have let them know you were there,” he said. “It’s not polite to eavesdrop.”
“Oh, pooh. I’d never hear anything interesting if I didn’t eavesdrop.”
He bit back a laugh, suddenly reminded of Miss Jane Wilkinson, the new Spinster House spinster in Loves Bridge. She wouldn’t let a small thing like social proprieties keep her from her goals either.
He smiled. The woman was a good friend of Marcus’s and Nate’s brides, but she was also an extremely outspoken, independent female. At twenty-eight years old, she was firmly on the shelf—precisely where she wished to be. And now that she’d installed herself in the Spinster House, she’d never have to look for a husband.
In fact, he was quite certain she’d had a hand in turning her friends, the previous Spinster House spinsters, into wives. He’d been standing next to her when Nate and Miss Anne Davenport had announced that they, too, were leaping into parson’s mousetrap and for one brief moment, he’d thought Miss Wilkinson was going to hug him, she was so delighted.
He’d admit he’d been disappointed when she hadn’t.
Rachel looked over her shoulder at him. “Are you going to breed Horatio with Ophelia, Uncle Alex?”
He was not going to discuss that topic with Rachel, either. “I’ll have a word with your papa about it.”
“When we see him. Isn’t he at the stables?”
“No. He’s at Briarly.”
His stomach plummeted to his boots. Briarly was one of Roger’s other estates.
But wait. Roger didn’t like being away from his family. He always loaded them into his carriage—and Alex’s, since there were so many of them—and took them with him when he journeyed anywhere. Anyone encountering them lumbering along the road would think they were a traveling circus.
With that many children, they were a traveling circus.
“Why didn’t you go with your papa?”
“Because Mama can’t sit in a carriage that long anymore.”
“Ah.” Alex gave the house a nervous look as they passed it on the way to the stables. How pregnant was Diana? She’d spent the last twenty years in some stage of childbearing, so he’d stopped keeping track. “When is the baby due?”
“Any day now. Mama hopes it will wait until Papa gets back.” Rachel shrugged. “But babies come when they want to.”
Sweat blossomed in his armpits. “I would have thought your mama would wish to stay at home if she is so near her time.”
“Oh, no. She can manage the short trip to the Hall, and she and Grandmamma wanted to be certain they’d have uninterrupted time to discuss Bea’s come-out.”
His heart stuttered.
Lord, Mama is here too?
He’d thought she was in London. Sweat trickled down his sides now, and his collar was suddenly too tight. Diana was bad enough, but Mama? She would not give up until she’d ferreted out every last one of his secrets.
The only way to handle the situation was to take the coward’s way and run. But where? Mama might well follow him to Town.
Loves Bridge isn’t far.
And the village fair should be almost underway. He could use that as an excuse.
“Beatrice is old enough for a Season?” he asked while he considered his escape. He could see the stables now.
“She’ll be seventeen in October.”
He was momentarily diverted trying to imagine his bookish, opinionated, and dangerously outspoken eldest niece at Almack’s. Odds were Bea would dump a glass of punch over some Society popinjay’s head inside of her first hour in those hallowed halls. Hmm. He’d better keep an eye on her when she came to London. Roger and Diana hadn’t attended a Season in years. They might not be aware of all the traps awaiting a girl making her debut.
“Bea doesn’t want a Season,” Rachel was saying. “She is quite wild about it. She says that she will not be put on the Marriage Mart like a broodmare at auction.”
Good Lord! “It is not as bad as that.”
“How would you know, Uncle Alex? You’re a man.”
“Yes, but, unlike Bea, I have been in London for the Season.” And would be looking for a wife this year, though not for a girl as young as Bea. That thought was more than a little revolting. “And even if it were true that some parents treat their daughters that way, your parents would not. You know that.”
Rachel shrugged. “Perhaps, but I think she’s right not to want to go. Jeremy’s brother Jacob was in London last Season and he told Jeremy that the girls are all extremely silly and the ton parties dreadfully dull. The real fun happens elsewhere.”
“Where no respectable young lady ventures.” He could imagine exactly what mischief a young cub, even a vicar’s son—no, especially a vicar’s son—could get up to in Town. He’d got up to many of the same things in his youth.
“I know that, Uncle Alex. I just want to go to Tatt’s and see the horses.”
Tattersall’s was not a place for ladies, either, but there was no point in telling Rachel that.
They finally reached the stables. Alex had never been so happy to see O’Reilly’s craggy face.
“Milord, it’s good to have ye home. And I see ye’ve found yer niece. Let me help ye down, Miss Rachel.”
“I don’t need any help.”
That was foolishness. Rachel might be a respectable rider, but Horatio was far taller than her pony. “Perhaps you don’t need help, Rachel, but you shall let O’Reilly assist you anyway.”
She frowned, but since he had no intention of letting go of her until she agreed, she finally let out a short, annoyed breath. “Oh, very well.”
Alex stayed in the saddle.
“Milord?” O’Reilly looked up at him questioningly.
“Do get down, Uncle Alex. Mama and Grandmamma will want to see you.”
Of course they will. And they will ask me questions and give me advice and start thinking of eligible young ladies for me to marry and it will be hellish.
He’d probably sweated through his coat by now.
Horatio pawed the ground and shook his head. He was very well-behaved, but he was getting impatient.
“Shall I take Horatio to his stall, milord, so ye can go up to the house straightaway?”
He made his decision. He couldn’t run fast enough. “As it turns out I’m not staying, O’Reilly.”
His groom, not surprisingly, looked at him as if he was mad.
Rachel put her hands on her hips and frowned. “But you’ve just arrived, Uncle Alex.”
“Well, yes. But I’ve suddenly remembered somewhere else I need to be.”
“Where? Mama will want to know.”
He felt the cowardly impulse to ask Rachel and O’Reilly not to mention they’d seen him, but he discarded that notion at once. Several stable boys had walked past while they’d been standing here. There was no keeping his visit secret.
“I’m off to Loves Bridge for the village fair.”
Miss Jane Wilkinson put her hands on her hips and glared at the slimy little man. “You said you had a kangaroo.”
She and Mr. Waldo W. Wertigger, proprietor of Waldo’s Wondrous Traveling Zoo, were standing on the Loves Bridge village green. It was the afternoon before the day the village fair was supposed to begin.
“I do have a kangaroo.”
“A dead one.”
The object under discussion was propped against the side of what had clearly once been a simple farmer’s cart. Someone—likely the rogue standing in front of her—had added a canvas arch proclaiming the business’s name, or what would have been the name had someone with any skill or literacy been in charge: Waldo’s Wundrus Travling Zu. The concluding u was a muddled drawing of a snake—or perhaps a large worm.
She returned her attention to the only snake—or worm—at hand.
Mr. Wertigger tugged on his collar. “A stuffed one. It was alive once.”
“That’s beside the point. It’s dead now.” Her fingers itched to shake the fellow.
She felt partly to blame for this disaster. The Loves Bridge fair committee had been going to engage last year’s organ-grinder and trained monkey when the Boltwood sisters suggested that a traveling zoo would be something special and, as the Duke of Hart was back at the castle, married, and soon to be a father, they should make this fair special.
What they hadn’t said but everyone thought was that this might be the duke’s last fair if the duchess was carrying a boy. For two hundred years, thanks to an angry spinster by the name of Isabelle Dorring, no Duke of Hart had lived to see his heir born.
A thread of worry twisted in her chest. The duke’s new duchess was Catherine “Cat” Hutting, one of Jane’s two close friends. If the duke died . . .
She took a calming breath. Everything would be fine. Only superstitious cabbageheads believed in curses, but even if there was a curse, legend had it that it would be broken when a duke married for love, which this duke most certainly had. It was rather nauseating watching him and Cat together, they were so besotted.
In fact, love, like a miasma, had settled over the village. Just days after that wedding, Jane’s other close friend Anne Davenport tied the knot with the duke’s cousin, the Marquess of Haywood.
An odd, hollow sensation formed in Jane’s stomach. It wasn’t envy, was it?
Nonsense! She was merely hungry. She had got exactly what she’d wanted from those weddings: the Spinster House. For the first time in her twenty-eight years, she was living all by herself.
Well, if you didn’t count Poppy, the Spinster House tricolored cat, but at least Poppy was a fellow female. She didn’t leave cravats festooning chair arms or crumb-filled plates on every horizontal surface like Jane’s brother Randolph did.
She turned her attention back to Mr. Waldo W. Wertigger. She had wanted to see a kangaroo—a live kangaroo—so she had supported the Boltwoods’ suggestion that they bring this . . . this charlatan to Loves Bridge.
If curses were real, she’d curse this humbug.
“Your advertisement claimed your kangaroo could jump over several grown men standing on one another’s shoulders.”
“And my kangaroo could”—he cleared his throat—“when it was alive.”
Jane took another deep, calming breath and tried not to shout.
She did not succeed.
“We wanted a live, jumping kangaroo, you despicable mountebank.”
The Worm tugged on his waistcoat. “Now, now. There’s no need to call names. My poor kangaroo, sadly, may no longer be able to jump—”
Mr. Worm Wertigger ignored her. “But I have other attractions. See my rare onager?” He pointed to a creature tethered to the back of his cart, contentedly grazing on the grass.
“That’s an ass.” As are you.
“An Asiatic ass.”
Jane snorted derisively.
“And I have Romeo, the talking parrot.” He wrestled a cage draped with a blanket out of his wagon and removed the covering with a flourish.
A gray parrot with a dark reddish tail cocked his head at Jane and gave a loud, rude whistle. “Hey, sweetheart—”
The Worm quickly dropped the blanket back over the cage.
“Sir! That parrot is not appropriate for a village fair.”
The miscreant shrugged a shoulder. “Well, he did come cheap. I got him from a brothel that was closing.”
She was shouting again. Fortunately, Poppy appeared at that moment to rub against her ankle, calming her—
“May I be of assistance?”
A jolt of some unidentifiable emotion shot through her at the sound of that male voice. It couldn’t be the Earl of Evans, could it?
Of course it can’t. Lord Evans left Loves Bridge almost two months ago.
She glanced over her shoulder.
Lud! It was the earl. He looked . . . rough. Not quite civilized. His dark blond hair edged over his collar, and his face was weathered, making his eyes appear even bluer.
That’s right. He’d gone off to walk the Lake District.
“What are you doing here?” She flushed. She was afraid that had sounded rather unwelcoming. She hadn’t meant it to. She liked the earl and was actually happy to see him. She just hoped he didn’t think to swoop in and save her from Mr. Wertigger. She could handle the Worm all by herself.
Lord Evans’s right brow arched up and his firm lips twitched into a brief smile. “I’m delighted to see you, too, Miss Wilkinson.”
“Pardon me.” She gestured toward the Worm. “I’m afraid I’m rather busy at the moment.”
“So I see. What seems to be the difficulty?”
The Worm’s expression brightened at the sight of a fellow male. “The lady is being most unreasonable, sir.”
“Unreasonable?!” She’d show him unreasonable.
“And emotional.” The Worm leaned toward the earl as if sharing a male confidence. “But that’s the way women are, isn’t it? A rational, calm, male head is needed to do business properly.”
Jane hissed—or maybe that was Poppy.
The Earl of Evans laughed. “You’d best look to your head, sir. I believe Miss Wilkinson would like to sever it from your neck and kick it all the way to London.”
Mr. Wertigger glanced nervously at Jane and then back to the earl. “Since you know the lady, perhaps you can explain matters to her.”
“I do know the lady and have found her understanding to be superior.” Lord Evans turned to Jane. “Can you explain matters to me, Miss Wilkinson?”
She did like Lord Evans. He was one of the few reasonable men of her acquaintance.
“This, Lord Evans, is Mr. Waldo Wertigger. The fair committee thought his traveling zoo would be a splendid addition this year because of its exotic animals”—she narrowed her eyes and was gratified to see the Worm tug at his collar—“specifically its kangaroo”—she pointed to the sad, stuffed creature propped against the wagon—“which Mr. Wertigger advertised as able to jump thirty feet in the air.”
Lord Evans pulled out a quizzing glass—she’d never seen him use one before, but he wielded it with great effect—and examined the kangaroo. “Jump, you say?”
“It did, milord.” The Worm tugged at his collar again. “Until it met its untimely end. Apparently the English climate did not agree with it.”
Jane suspected the Worm had not taken proper care of the animal, but since she had no proof of that—and it was beside the point anyway—she didn’t dispute his theory. “He says that sad-looking donkey is an onager.”
“It is,” the Worm insisted.
She couldn’t disprove that either, so she moved on. “And his parrot learned its conversation in a brothel. It’s completely unsuitable to be exhibited at an event with young children and sensitive ladies. People would be shocked and distressed.”
“Were you shocked and distressed, Miss Wilkinson?” Lord Evans asked, his eyes glinting with what might be suppressed laughter.
“Yes.” Though not so much by what the parrot had said as by the realization that the entertainment she and the fair committee had arranged—and which she herself had so looked forward to—was a complete and utter disaster. And the fair was tomorrow! What were they—what was she—going to do?
There was no question—the Worm and his menagerie would have to go. She looked the man directly in the eye and said firmly, so he could not misunderstand, “We shall not have need of your services, sir. Please leave at once.” She wouldn’t put it past the fellow to lurk about and cause trouble.
Mr. Wertigger frowned. “I’ll leave after I’ve been paid.”
“Paid?! What do you mean, paid? You won’t be paid a single farthing, sirrah!” The gall of the fellow.
His jaw hardened. “I will be paid. You can’t drag Waldo W. Wertigger out to this sorry excuse of a village without paying him for his trouble. I’ve come quite a distance at considerable expense.”
“And under false pretenses!”
He looked at Lord Evans. “Milord, you are a man of experience. Explain to this woman, if you will, that she cannot contract for services and then decide at the last minute that she does not want them.” He paused to scowl at Jane. “We had an agreement.”
Jane could not believe what she was hearing. “Yes. That you would provide a live kangaroo and a zoo that was suitable for a village fair—a fair that would be frequented by families, not by light skirts and libertines and . . . and other people of ill repute. You did not do that.” She crossed her arms. “Thus you shall not be paid.”
The Worm took a threatening step toward her.
“See here!” Lord Evans started to reach for him, but Poppy was faster. She jumped in front of Jane, arched her back, and hissed.
The Worm paused. “Madam, control your cat.”
“Poppy is not my cat, sir, but even if she were, she has a mind of her own. I would caution you to stay back if you don’t want your boots—and your flesh—slashed.” She said that last part with great relish.
The Worm looked at Lord Evans. “Milord, please.”
“I’m afraid Miss Wilkinson is correct, Wertigger. Poppy can be quite dangerous. She attacked the Marquess of Haywood’s boots on several occasions, and I’m sure she would not hesitate to do the same to yours.” He smiled. “Her teeth look very sharp as well, don’t they?”
Poppy hissed again to underline Lord Evans’s observation.
The Worm stepped back. “Very well, I’ll complain to the authorities then.”
“You can complain to anyone you want,” Jane said. “You are still not getting any money from me.”
“I’ll get it from someone.”
Her hands flew to her hips. “I shall be happy to watch you try.”
His hands curled into fists. “I will be paid, madam.”
“No, you won’t.”
Lord Evans sighed and reached into his pocket. “Enough. I find you a complete bore, Wertigger. Oblige me by taking yourself off.”
“You can’t pay him,” Jane said, but it was too late. The earl had already tossed the man a coin.
The Worm snatched the money out of the air and looked at it. “It’s only a quid.”
“And far more than you deserve,” Jane said, and then glared at the earl. “I can’t believe you gave that dastard anything.”
“I want him to go away, Miss Wilkinson, and this seemed the fastest way to accomplish that goal.” He looked back at the Worm. “I advise you to cut your losses, sir, and leave at once. My friend, the Duke of Hart, whose principal seat is here, and his wife—Miss Wilkinson’s good friend and another member of the fair committee—are unlikely to be sympathetic to your position.”
The Worm scowled, and for a moment Jane thought he’d take issue with Lord Evans, but then he let out a long breath and his shoulders drooped. “Very well. But don’t expect Waldo W. Wertigger to ever come back here.” His jaw hardened. “And I’ll tell my friends to avoid the place too.”
Jane very much doubted the scoundrel had any friends, but if he did, she certainly didn’t wish to meet them. She opened her mouth to tell him exactly that, but the earl laid his hand on her arm to stop her.
“You must do as you think best,” Lord Evans said, and then he turned his back on the miscreant, smiling down at Jane. “Shall we repair to Cupid’s Inn for a bracing cup of tea, Miss Wilkinson?”
She glanced over at the Worm to be sure he was indeed leaving.
He was, but he treated her to a very nasty look.
She might be independent, but she wasn’t stupid. Now that the fury of the moment had passed, she was happy to have the large, obviously fit earl at her side. Men could sometimes be dangerous. It was extremely annoying that women were at such a physical disadvantage.
Well, yes, Poppy had helped rout the fellow too.
She turned her attention back to the earl. If he wanted to put his nose in her business, he could help her solve her problem. The fair was tomorrow and the main act was departing.
If we go to the inn, we’ll get interrupted constantly. Everyone will want to know what he’s doing in Loves Bridge.
What is he doing?
Likely visiting the duke. His travels were none of her concern. The fair, however . . .
“Let’s go to the Spinster House instead. You can help me come up with a replacement for Mr. Wertigger.”