Stephen's warning shout came too late.

2

Leaning heavily on his cane, the ancient butler stood in the shabby drawing room and listened in respectful silence as his illustrious visitor imparted the news that the butler's employer had just met an untimely demise. Not until Lord Westmoreland had finished his tale did the servant permit himself to show any reaction, and even then, Hodgkin sought only to reassure. "How very distressing, my lord, for poor Lord Burleton, and for you as well. But then—accidents do happen, don't they, and one cannot blame one's self. Mishaps are mishaps, and that's why we call them that."

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"I'd hardly call running a man down and killing him a 'mishap,' " Stephen retorted, with a bitterness that was directed at himself, not the servant. Although the early morning accident had been much the fault of the drunken young baron who'd bounded into the street in front of Stephen's carriage, the fact was that Stephen had been holding the reins, and he was alive and unharmed, while young Burleton was dead. Furthermore, it seemed that there was no one to mourn Burleton's passing, and at the moment, that seemed a final injustice to Stephen. "Surely, your employer must have some family somewhere—someone to whom I could explain personally about the accident?"

Hodgkin merely shook his head, distracted by the dire realization that he was suddenly unemployed again and likely to remain so for the rest of his life. He'd obtained this position only because no one else had been willing to work as butler, valet, footman, and cook—and for the absurdly small wages Burleton was able to pay.

Embarrassed by his temporary lapse into self-pity and his lack of proper decorum, Hodgkin cleared his throat and hastily added, "Lord Burleton had no close living relatives, as I—I said. And since I've only been in the baron's employ for three weeks, his acquaintances aren't really known to—" He broke off, a look of horror on his face. "In my shock, I forgot about his fiancée! The nuptials were to take place this week."

A fresh wave of guilt washed over Stephen, but he nodded, and his voice became brisk and purposeful. "Who is she and where can I find her?"

"All I know is that she's an American heiress the baron met when he was abroad, and that she's to arrive tomorrow on a ship from the Colonies. Her father was too ill to make the voyage, so I presume she's either travelling with a relative or, perhaps, with a female companion. Last night, Lord Burleton was commemorating the end of his bachelorhood. That's all I know."

"You must know her name! What did Burleton call her?"

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Caught between nervousness at Lord Westmoreland's terse impatience and shame at his own deteriorating memory, Hodgkin said a little defensively, "As I said, I was new to the baron's employ, and not taken into his confidence. In my presence, he… he called her 'my fiancée,' or else 'my heiress.' "

"Think, man! You must have heard him refer to her name at some time!"

"No… I… Wait, yes! I do recall something… I recall that her name made me remember how very much I used to enjoy visiting Lancashire as a boy. Lancaster!'' Hodgkin exclaimed in delight. "Her surname is Lancaster, and her given name is Sharon… No, that's not it. Charise! Charise Lancaster!"

Hodgkin was rewarded for his efforts with a slight nod of approval accompanied by yet another rapid-fire question: "What about the name of her ship?"

Hodgkin was so encouraged and so proud that he actually banged his cane upon the floor with glee as the answer popped into his mind. "The Morning Star!" he crowed, then flushed with embarrassment at his boisterous tone and unseemly behavior.

"Anything else? Every detail could be helpful when I deal with her."

"I do recall some other trifles, but I shouldn't like to indulge in idle gossip."

"Let's hear it," Stephen said with unintended curtness.

"The lady is young and 'quite a pretty little thing,' the baron said. I also gathered that she was rather madly in love with him and wanted the union, while it was the baron's title that was of primary interest to her father."

Stephen's last hope that this marriage was simply one of convenience had died at the news that the girl was "madly in love" with her fiancé. "What about Burleton?" he asked as he pulled on his gloves. "Why did he want the marriage?"

"I can only speculate, but he seemed to share the young lady's feelings."

"Wonderful," Stephen murmured grimly, turning toward the door.

Not until Lord Westmoreland left did Hodgkin permit himself to give in to despair at his own predicament. He was unemployed and virtually penniless again. A moment ago, he'd almost considered asking, even begging, Lord Westmoreland to recommend him to someone, but that would have been inexcusably presumptuous, as well as futile. As Hodgkin had discovered during the two years it had taken him to finally obtain a position with Lord Burleton, no one wanted a butler, valet, or footman whose hands were spotted with age and whose body was so old and so stooped that he could neither straighten it nor force it to a brisk walk.

His thin shoulders drooping with despair, his joints beginning to ache dreadfully, Hodgkin turned and shuffled toward his room at the back of the shabby apartment. He was halfway there when the earl's sharp, impatient knock forced him to make his slow way back to the front door. "Yes, my lord?" he said.

"It occurred to me as I was leaving," Lord Westmoreland said in a curt, businesslike voice, "that Burleton's death will deprive you of whatever wages he owed you. My secretary, Mr. Wheaton, will see that you're compensated." As he turned to leave, he added, "My households are always in need of competent staff. If you aren't longing for retirement right now, you might consider contacting Mr. Wheaton about that as well. He'll handle the details." And then he was gone.

Hodgkin closed the door and turned, staring in stunned disbelief at the dingy room while vigor and youth began to surge and rush warmly through his veins. Not only did he have a position to go to, but a position in a household belonging to one of the most admired, influential noblemen in all of Europe!

The position hadn't been offered out of pity; of that Hodgkin was almost certain, for the Earl of Langford wasn't known as the sort of man to coddle servants, or anyone else. In fact, rumor had it that the earl was a rather distant, exacting, man, with the highest standards for his households and his servants.

Despite that, Hodgkin couldn't completely suppress the humiliating notion that the earl might have offered him employment out of pity, until he suddenly remembered something the earl had said, something that filled Hodgkin with pleasure and pride: Lord Westmoreland had specifically implied that he regarded Hodgkin as competent. He'd used that very word!

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