Competent!

Slowly, Hodgkin turned toward the hall mirror, and with his hand upon the handle of his black cane, he gazed at his reflection. Competent…

He straightened his spine, though the effort was a bit painful, then he squared his narrow shoulders. With his free hand he reached down and carefully smoothed the front of his faded black jacket. Why, he didn't look so very old, Hodgkin decided—not a day over three-and-seventy! Lord Westmoreland certainly hadn't thought him decrepit or useless. No, indeed! Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, the Earl of Langford, thought Albert Hodgkin would be a worthy addition to his staff! Lord Westmoreland—who possessed estates all over Europe, along with noble titles inherited through his mother and two ancestors who'd named him as their heir—thought Albert Hodgkin would be a worthy addition to one of his magnificent households!

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Hodgkin tipped his head to the side, trying to imagine how he would look wearing the elegant Langford livery of green and gold, but his vision seemed to blur and waver. He lifted his hand, his long thin fingers touching, feeling at the corner of his eye, where there was an unfamiliar wetness.

He brushed the tear away, along with the sudden, crazy impulse to wave his cane in the air and dance a little jig. Dignity, Hodgkin very strongly felt, was far more appropriate in a man who was about to join the household staff of Lord Stephen Westmoreland.

3

The sun was a fiery disc sliding into the purple horizon by the time a seaman walked down the dock to the coach that had been waiting there since morning. "There she is—the Morning Star," he told Stephen, who'd been leaning against the door of the vehicle, idly watching a drunken brawl taking place outside a nearby pub. Before raising his arm to point out the ship, the seaman cast a cautious glance at the two coachmen, who both held pistols in clear view, and who were obviously not as indifferent as their master to the dangers lurking everywhere on the wharf. "That's her, right there," he said to Stephen, indicating a small ship just gliding into port, its sails dim silhouettes in the deepening twilight. "And she's only a bit late."

Straightening, Stephen nodded to one of the coachmen, who tossed the seaman a coin for his trouble, then he walked slowly down the dock, wishing that his mother or his sister-in-law could have been here with him when Burleton's bride disembarked. The presence of concerned females might have helped soften the blow when he delivered the tragic news to the girl, news that was going to shatter her dreams.

"This is a nightmare!" Sheridan Bromleigh cried at the astonished cabin boy who'd come to tell her for the second time that "a gentleman" was waiting for her on the pier—a gentleman she naturally assumed was Lord Burleton. "Tell him to wait. Tell him I died. No, tell him we're still indisposed." She shoved the door closed, shot the bolt, then pressed her back to the panel, her gaze darting to the frightened maid who was perched on the edge of the narrow cot in the cabin they'd shared, twisting a handkerchief in her plump hands. "It's a nightmare, and when I wake up in the morning, it will all be over, won't it, Meg?"

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Meg shook her head so vigorously that it set the ribbons on her white cap bobbing. "It's no dream. You'll have to talk to the baron and tell him something—something that won't vex him, and something he'll believe."

"Well, that certainly eliminates the truth," Sheridan said bitterly. "I mean, he's bound to be just a trifle miffed if I tell him I've managed to misplace his fiancée somewhere along the English coastline. The truth is I lost her!"

"You didn't lose her, she eloped! Miss Charise ran off with Mr. Morrison when we stopped in the last port."

"Regardless of that, what matters is that she was entrusted to my care, and I failed in my duty to her father and to the baron. There's nothing to do but go out there and tell the baron that."

"You mustn't!" Meg cried. "He'll have us thrown straight into a dungeon! Besides, you have to make him feel kindly toward us because we have no one else to turn to, nowhere to go. Miss Charise took all the money with her, and there isn't a shilling to buy passage home."

"I'll find some sort of work." Despite her confident words, Sherry's voice trembled with strain, and she looked about the tiny cabin, unconsciously longing for somewhere to hide.

"You don't have any references," Meg argued, her voice filling with tears. "And we don't have anywhere to sleep tonight and no money for lodgings. We're going to land in the gutter. Or worse!"

"What could be worse?" Sheridan said, but when Meg opened her mouth to answer, Sherry held up a hand and said with a trace of her normal humor and spirit, "No, don't, I beg you. Don't even consider 'white slavery.' "

Meg paled and her mouth fell open, her voice dropping to a dazed whisper. "White… slavery."

"Meg! For heaven's sake, I meant it as a… a joke. A tasteless joke."

"If you go out there and tell him the truth, they'll toss both of us straight into a dungeon."

"Why," Sherry burst out, closer to hysterics than she'd ever been in her life, "do you keep talking about a dungeon?"

"Because there's laws here, miss, and you—we—we've broken some. Not on purpose, of course, but they won't care. Here, they toss you into a dungeon—no questions asked, nor answers heard. Here, there's only one sort of people who matter, and they're the Quality. What if he thinks we killed her, or stole her money, or sold her, or something evil like that? It would be his word against yours, and you aren't nobody, so the law will be on his side."

Sheridan tried to say something reassuring or humorous, but her physical and emotional stamina had both suffered from weeks of unabated tension and stress, compounded by a long bout of illness during the voyage, followed by Charise's disappearance two days ago. She should never have embarked on this mad scheme in the first place, she realized. She'd overestimated her ability to cope with a spoiled, foolish seventeen-year-old girl, convincing herself that her common sense and practical nature, combined with her experience teaching deportment at Miss Talbot's School for Young Ladies, which Charise had attended, would enable her to deal admirably with any difficulties that arose on the trip. Charise's dour father had been so deluded by Sheridan's brisk, competent manner that, when his heart ailment suddenly prevented him from travelling to England, he'd chosen Sheridan over several older, more experienced, applicants to escort his daughter to England—Sheridan, who was barely three years older than she. Of course, Charise had something to do with his decision; she'd wheedled and sulked and insisted that Miss Bromleigh be the one to accompany her, until he finally conceded. Miss Bromleigh had been the one who helped her write her letters to the baron. Miss Bromleigh, she told him, wasn't like those other sour-faced companions he'd interviewed; Miss Bromleigh would be amusing company. Miss Bromleigh, she warned him slyly, wouldn't let her become so homesick that she wanted to return to America and her papa, instead of marrying the baron!

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