"I'm happy to be of assistance in any way I can, my lord," the solicitor replied without hesitation. The earl gestured toward a leather chair in front of his desk, and Matthew sat down, feeling no affront—and no surprise—that the man who had summoned him from a badly needed holiday was now making him wait while he finished reading his mail. For generations, Matthew's family had been privileged to act as the Westmoreland family's solicitors, and as Matthew well knew, that honor and its enormous financial rewards carried with it the obligation to make oneself available whenever and wherever the Earl of Langford desired.
Although Matthew was a junior member of the family firm, he was well versed in the Westmorelands' business affairs, and he'd even been called upon several years ago to handle an extremely unusual personal assignment from the earl's brother, the Duke of Claymore. On that occasion, Matthew had felt a little intimidated and off-balance when he answered the duke's summons, and he'd suffered an embarrassing lack of composure when he heard the nature of his assignment. However, he was older now and wiser, and quite happily confident that he could handle whatever "delicate" matter of the earl's that required his attention—and without so much as a blink of surprise.
And so he waited with perfect equanimity to discover what "urgent" detail needed his particular attention, ready to give his advice on the terms of a contract, or perhaps a change in a will. Given the use of the word "delicate," Matthew was inclined to think the matter probably involved something more personal—perhaps the settlement of a sum of money and property on the earl's current mistress, or a confidential, charitable gift.
Rather than keep Bennett waiting any longer, Stephen put the letter from his steward on his Northumberland estate aside. Leaning his head against the back of his chair, he gazed absently at the intricate plasterwork on the frescoed ceiling twenty-five feet above, his mind switching from the steward's letter to the other, more complicated problem of Charise Lancaster. He was about to speak when the under-butler, an elderly man whom Stephen belatedly recognized as Burleton's former manservant, interrupted with a polite cough and said a little desperately, "Miss Lancaster is insisting upon getting out of bed, milord. What shall we tell her?"
Stephen transferred his gaze to the butler without lifting his head, smiling a little because she was obviously feeling much better. "Tell her I do not intend to let her out of bed for a full week. Tell her I'll join her after supper." Oblivious to the mixture of shock, admiration, and dismay that flickered across Matthew Bennett's normally bland features, or the erroneous conclusions the other man might draw from his smiling remark, Stephen decided to tackle his problem head-on. "I seem to have acquired a 'fiancée,' " he began.
"My heartiest felicitations!" Matthew said.
"She isn't my fiancée, she's Arthur Burleton's."
After a distinct pause, during which Matthew struggled to think of some appropriate response to that revelation, he said, "In that case, please convey my… er… felicitations to that gentleman."
"I can't. Burleton is dead."
"That's a pity."
"I killed him."
"That's much worse," Matthew said before he could stop himself. There were laws against dueling, and the courts were taking a stern posture of late. Furthermore, the blatant presence of the dead man's fiancée in the earl's bed wasn't going to do his case any good either. The solicitor's mind already searching for the best possible line of defense, Matthew said, "Was it swords or pistols?"
"No, it was a carriage."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I ran over him."
"That's not as straightforward as swords or pistols," Matthew said absently, "but it is much easier to defend." Too worried to notice the odd look the earl was aiming at him, he continued thoughtfully, "The courts might be persuaded to take the point of view that if you'd truly meant to kill him, you'd have chosen a duel. After all, your skill with pistols is widely known. We can call dozens of witnesses to attest to that fact. Theodore Kittering would make an excellent witness in that regard—he was a crack shot before you wounded him in the shoulder. No, we'd better leave him out of it, because he isn't fond of you, and the duel would be bound to come out during the trial. Even without Kittering's testimony, we should be able to convince the court that Burleton's death wasn't what you actually intended—that it was incidental to the event and, therefore, loosely speaking, an accident!" Very pleased with his logic, Matthew withdrew his thoughtful gaze from across the room and finally looked at the earl, who said very clearly, and very slowly, "At the risk of appearing hopelessly obtuse, may I inquire what in the living hell you are talking about?"
"I beg pardon?"
"Am I to understand you think I ran him down deliberately?"
"I was under that impression, yes."
"May I ask," his lordship drawled, "what possible reason I could have for such a deed?"
"I assume your reason had something to do… er, was directly related to… er… the presence of a certain young lady who is not permitted to leave your… ah… bedchambers."
The earl gave a sharp crack of laughter that had a rusty sound to it, as if laughter were foreign to him.
"Of course," Stephen said, "how foolish of me. What other conclusion could you have reached?" Straightening in his chair, he spoke in a brisk, businesslike tone. "Last week, the young woman upstairs—Charise Lancaster—arrived in England from America. She was betrothed to Burleton, and their marriage was to take place the following day by special license. Since I was responsible for his death, and since there was no one else to tell her what had happened, I naturally met her ship and gave her the sad news. I was talking to her on the dock when some idiot lost control of a loaded cargo net and it struck her in the head. Since her only travelling companion was a ladies' maid, and since Miss Lancaster is too ill to leave England for a while, I'll have to depend upon you to notify her family of all this and to escort any family member who wishes to come back here to England. In addition, I want to settle Burleton's affairs. Put together as complete a dossier on him as you can so I can see where to begin. The least I can do is make sure his name is cleared of debts that he didn't have time to settle before he died."
"Oh, I see!" Matthew said with a smile of relief that he was happy to see the earl return.