Stephen stood looking down on Clara. Once, she had looked at him with love in her eyes. Or rather, what he thought was love. That was before he knew what she really was. Thirteen years had changed so little about her, including her faults. She only cared for money.
“Oh,” Clara murmured. Her face took on a pained expression. “I am so sorry,” she whispered.
Seeing her gentle, caring look tested Stephen’s resolve. A pang of yearning shot through him. How he wished it was a sign of her love. He had lived a hard life since leaving England. A hint that someone besides his mother might offer affection and comfort tempted him, even if he knew he could never trust Clara again. He shoved the thoughts aside.
“Do not trouble yourself, Miss Lumley,” he said coldly. The softness left her face, and her eyes took on an expression he could not make out. “Please, be seated and make Mrs. Alderly’s case to me.” He motioned for her to sit.
“I already explained my errand,” she matched his icy tone.
“The school’s finances.” He had looked through the ledger. The school would be in a sorry state without the patronage of the Clifford estate. But unfortunately, the estate’s finances did not continue to allow the charitable expenditure.
“Yes. I will be frank with you, sir. The lease must be renewed.”
Refreshments arrived, allowing Stephen a moment to collect his thoughts. Clara began to serve him. She picked up the sugar-tongs, and he broke their silence. “You ought to ask how a gentleman takes his tea,” he scolded.
She lifted her eyes. “With your surly attitude, perhaps you ought to have two sugars instead of your usual one.”
Reaching for his cup, he took it from her. Their hands grazed, and he tightened his grip on the cup lest she saw how his touch affected him. “I take it plain, now.”
Stephen took a sip and fought to hide his grimace. He learned to take his tea plain in India before giving it up entirely. He lived simpler there and learned to hate the import industry. He had only had a few cups since returning to England but savored each drop with not two but three sugars.
Clara had watched his expression and then reached for her own cup, also without sugar. “So do I,” she said.
Stephen scrutinized her face but saw nothing that looked like distaste. It must be her relative poverty that taught her to enjoy the bitter beverage.
“Back to the business of the school,” he said. “I have reviewed the school’s books, as well as the estate’s. The house will be rented as soon as I find a proper tenant at the end of the term. They will take occupancy at Mid-Summer. My solicitor will suggest alternative locations for Mrs. Alderly.”
Clara sat her cup down with a clang. “There is nothing unoccupied that is large enough for miles; perhaps even this county entirely.”
So much the better, Stephen thought.
Clara stood and smoothed her skirts. “Well, I will inform Mrs. Alderly of your decision, my lord.”
He did not miss the derision in her voice but stood as well.
“Shall I pass along your greetings to Miss Ward and her mother?”
“Pass them along all you like, but I have never met her mother.”
Clara’s sharp eyes met his. “I see. Well, I hear she is very much like her mother, as you must be proof enough.”
“I suppose the material difference being that she is to inherit ten thousand pounds and her mother only had her…assets.”
Stephen turned pale in anger. Not only was Clara insinuating that he would court a fourteen-year-old, but that he would be after her fortune, and she maligned Miss Ward while she was at it. He walked toward the door, and she followed. Once she collected her outerwear from the butler, he addressed her.
“I met Miss Ward only once. She was my brother’s ward and fell to me upon his death. I do know, however, that she could hardly deserve such censure. But then that sort of prejudice is precisely the Clara Lumley, I recall.”
He turned on his heel and returned to the study. Then, after pouring himself more tea, he sat and scribbled out a note to his solicitor. In it, he particularly suggested finding a more reasonable-sized house several hours away.
That evening at dinner, his mother brought up a detestable subject. “I have written to Lady Jersey. I hoped Fred’s vouchers might transfer to you.”
“I will have little time for Almack’s or other outings,” Stephen replied.
“Nonsense. The new earl must show himself. How do you expect to find a wife if you keep to yourself?”
“The new earl desires to do his duty and has no need of a wife.” Lady Clifford opened her mouth to protest. Stephen added, “At present.”
“Well, it is never too early to begin looking. Lord Sinclair has a daughter debuting this year.”
Stephen rolled his eyes. “I do not think a debutante is the sort that would appeal to me.” They would all be silly, fickle girls only a few years older than Miss Ward. That would never do.
“Oh. Well, I had not thought to consider any widows before. Mrs. Dickerson would be a charming hostess.”
Stephen prayed for deliverance from this subject. “Why do I need a wife for a hostess when I have you?” He smiled and hoped his words would redirect her thoughts.
“Those are the kinds of things Fred never said to me,” she smiled. “However, you will not put me off the topic.”
“Mother,” Stephen said while rubbing at the ache beginning in his forehead. “Why is it so important that I find a wife just as I return from India? I have the estate to oversee — which is doubly difficult since our steward quit before my arrival — and a position in Parliament to take. I will have little energy for courtship.”
Lady Clifford dropped her eyes. “You worked so hard to return honor back to our family and restore the title. Society has not completely forgotten the scandal, however. Therefore, it is imperative we act appropriately.”
“And acting appropriately included Fred marrying a woman who cuckolded him?”
“Many leading married ladies of Society take lovers. Laura was a political asset and hosted many well-received meals in London. She was, in many ways, an exemplary wife.”
Just not in a manner that mattered most to Stephen. Still, he was touched by his mother’s concern over the family reputation. “I promise I will attend some outings. I will dance with ladies and compliment their mamas.”
“Stephen,” she said his name in the same scolding tone she had used on him as a child.
“And I will consider taking a wife.”
Although his mother barely acknowledged his words, Stephen believed she could not understand the pain such a promise cost him. He had sacrificed much for his family’s honor already. Knowing the truth of his father’s dealings threatened to suffocate him. His actions in Parliament would be his salvation. However, he doubted any respectable lady would wish to be aligned with him. As he readied for bed that evening, Stephen admitted to himself that what he disliked the most about his mother’s request was that it would mean finding a replacement for Clara in his heart.
Stephen led his mount over the land. His land. Except it still felt entirely like his father’s. The horse he rode on didn’t feel like his either. In India, horseflesh was too expensive. But, in his youth, he was an eager equestrian. Rather than journey by carriage, which would delay his already tardy arrival, Stephen chose to rent horses from the port to Clifford Hall. That choice was primarily out of a desire to hasten to his brother’s side, although they had never been close. Fred had always been his father’s heir and the apple of his eye. While Lady Clifford did indulge Stephen, she loved Fred as well. Stephen never begrudged Fred the earldom but having the love of both his parents inspired a bit of rivalry.
Returning home after his father was humiliated in court and Clara had not stood by him, Stephen had been happy to be of use. His father finally looked upon him with approval. For a few months, Stephen had forgotten a lifetime of his father’s cruel words that he was nothing, a coward…unwanted. Instead, he allowed Clara’s disapproval to be the subject of his fury and ire. Feeling a need to prove himself had served Stephen well. In addition to uncovering proof of his father’s innocence, the family and the East India Company profited from Stephen’s enterprises.
However, a few years into his service in India, he uncovered the truth of the suffering the Company brought. At first, he had been adrift. His life and everything he had always believed in shattered. When he ran out of friends to feel sorry for him, he decided to get on with his life. Returning to his investigation with fervor, he discovered the terrible corruption of the Company and how it went through to the highest peers in the land. Stephen used his time wisely after that. He contacted a few peers he knew from school. Many young members of Parliament in both political parties felt unease and disgust over the Company’s corruption in India.
Now back in England, Stephen looked for signs of his father treating his English servants and tenants with the same ruthlessness. Maybe that is why the steward quit without notice a few weeks ago. Or perhaps his father only treated the Indians harshly based on the location of their birth and the color of their skin. At each house Stephen visited, the residents seemed distrustful and wary of him. However, that did not equal abuse. Still, something did not sit right.
Arriving at the final tenant home, Stephen dismounted. A frail-looking lady in a worn gown exited the small cottage. “Mrs. Clay, how do you do?”
She did not meet his eyes. “I get on well enough, my lord.”
“I was sorry to hear of your husband’s passing, ma’am. I regret that I was not here to assist with matters.”
“The loss is no worse than you faced.”
“Surely it was. I did not lose the provider for my children. However, I wish to reassure you that although you have been unable to pay rent on the last quarter day or this one, I will forgive them both allow you extended time to pay on the next.” Stephen judged it a fair proposition. “Perhaps your eldest son can find employment in the village.”
A blush spread over Mrs. Clay’s features, and Stephen feared he had affronted her pride. Then she spoke harshly. “I do not understand what you mean by coming in this way, but we paid Mr. Grant at Christmas and Lady Day. John works the farm now.”
As she spoke, a young man about twenty came outside. Stephen had expected a youth. “Everything alright, Ma?”
“Lord Clifford says rent wasn’t paid.”
Stephen cringed. The tone of reprimand and disgust in her tone was unmistakable.
“Now, see here,” the young man said with firmness. “We pay on time. Even when me Da died. My honor demands it. You lords aren’t the only ones with honor, and we common folk don’t have to rely on our women to come and do charity to soothe our Christian conscience.”
“Forgive me for the misunderstanding,” Stephen said hastily. “As you know, I was away for many years and have only returned in the last few days. Mr. Grant quit without notice a fortnight ago. I reviewed the ledgers for the last two quarter days, and nothing was recorded for your family. It must be an error on Grant’s part. I apologize.”
Mrs. Clay and her son exchanged a look. “I’ve got to see to the bread. Excuse me, my lord,” the woman said and entered the tiny house.
“Be careful what Grant tells you,” John Clay said.
“Oh?” Stephen attempted to sound uninterested and unaffected, but, truthfully, he had a growing suspicion that his brother’s steward must have been embezzling funds from the estate.
“He came by saying something like that every year or two. Thought I’d be too stupid or weak to challenge him, but a few glares and tales of fights in the tavern helped him find the misplaced funds.”
“Are you saying you that believe Grant was intimidating tenants and charging them twice?” Stephen scrutinized his tenant, searching for the truth.
“I know it. I saw it more than once. He favored the young and old. Johnson’s been hard-pressed more than once. And his crop ain’t near as good as mine.”
Stephen looked the strong, virile man in front of him up and down. “No, it wouldn’t be. Did no one report Grant to my brother?”
“Forgive me, sir, but the Lord Cliffords do not exactly have a good or welcoming reputation.”
Stephen understood. His brother had been too happy to play the role of the overbearing, entitled heir, and his father had been a harsh man. “What of my mother?”
“We couldn’t bear to hurt the dear lady’s heart. So we take care of our own. Johnson and his wife don’t go hungry.”
Stephen’s eye twitched. People dependent on his family and in his care faced hunger? He ought to have returned home long ago. How did Fred not notice this? Stephen mounted his horse. “Thank you for your information. Again, I am sorry for the offense and accusations. Additionally, please accept my apologies for the failings of my family.”
The other man blinked in surprise, then stared at Stephen for a long moment. “Do not blame yourself or your brother too much. He was seldom here, and I hear leaving estate matters to a steward is something most men do. I always heard he was involved in other charitable endeavors. His missus made a girl’s school, and the dowager always paid for the apothecary and physician visits.”
Stephen nodded his head, not wishing to discuss his family’s private matters so openly. “I will be in London for the next several months, tending to matters there. However, if anything arises that you believe should concern me, please alert the housekeeper. She has instructions to keep me abreast of all things relating to the estate and to forward any correspondence.”
“Certainly, my lord,” John agreed. “May God grant you a safe journey.”
Stephen tried not to flinch at the mention of the supreme deity. He was not on good terms with his creator. After bidding the man farewell, Stephen returned to the house.
The next morning, Stephen readied for his journey. He had found an invitation to a house party that was actually addressed to him and not Fred. It was the mother of one of his old friends and on the path to London. To appease his mother, Stephen had decided to attend it for a week or so.
After descending the stairs, he saw the carriage was already pulled up. The butler met him at the door.
“My lord, your trunks and Thompson have already departed.”
“Excellent,” Stephen said while nodding his head and walking toward the drawing room. The servant followed. “Pack as many of the estate ledgers as can fit in one crate. I wish to review them while I am in London. I will leave as soon as I say goodbye to Lady Clifford.”
The butler bowed in obedience, and Stephen entered the drawing room to see his mother sitting near the window but ignoring her embroidery. The sound of his entrance her notice, and she jerked her head to look at him in the door frame.
“Oh, Stephen. Must you really leave again?”
Lady Clifford’s distress was clearly displayed, piercing Stephen’s heart. What other lady could be as good as his mother? Uneasy with her affection and discomfort, he hoped to lift her spirits. “You were the one who desired I find a wife. If you have changed your mind, then I will stay and write letters of refusal to all the invitations I’ve received a thrice.” Of course, all of the other invitations hadn’t been for him. They had been for his brother, the rightful lord, not the imposter that he was.
She shook her head. “No, do not try to weasel out of it. We both know that you go to take your seat in Parliament. Go and do your duty to the family. Enjoy your visit with Lady Randolph and while you are there, you can find a nice lady to woo as well.”
“Come with me,” he said.
“My heart is too broken for frivolity. No one wants a grumpy old dowager at the Season’s events, least of all you. Surely, you would prefer courtship with me out of the way.”
Actually, he would prefer no courtship at all. Unfortunately, his mother did not wait for his response.
“Bring home a countess. One that can help you return honor to the Clifford name. If only Fred had….”
She trailed off, and he wondered if perhaps his mother was not so ignorant to the failures of his brother and father and the struggles of their tenants as Stephen had assumed. Perhaps if Fred had married a lady who cared more for the estate and the people who lived off it, things might have been different. His mother could not interfere in the running of the estate or tell the men in her life about how to run it, but she expressed her care as she could. Every Christmas, wedding, child’s birth, and illness was tended to by this lady. She could do little to alleviate the tenants’ and servants’ daily concerns but saw that they had the comforts she could offer in her sphere of influence. He cast a studious look at her. Indeed, she was overtired and overwrought. She deserved to have someone else take her role and spend her days in retirement. He could no longer be so selfish. He needed to find a wife.
After a tender farewell, Stephen entered the carriage with a crate of ledgers on the opposite bench. He began to compile a list of tasks in his head. He would first need to find when Grant began embezzling funds. It looked as though he had ledgers going back the last five years. Grant was hired ten years ago, and he might have been corrupt the entire time. He would also need to be found, and charges pressed. A visit to the family solicitor would be required. Stephen supposed he could begin a marriage settlement then as well. Somehow, he needed to fall in love with a lady — for he refused to marry without it. If only his heart could take orders as easily as his brain.