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Lady Lavinia Carstairs’ exploits are the talk of London society, and not always for the better. Stubborn, willful, and totally without fear, she is quickly endangering her chances of a good marriage to a suitable man.
Lady Lavinia has a husband in mind, however, and he is the only man able to control her behavior. William Evans is not afraid to take the lady over his knee and teach her the error of her ways, and she loves him for it.
But William’s past holds a shocking secret, one that he has worked hard to protect from prying eyes. To finally make Lady Lavinia his own, once and for all, he must reveal his true self to the world and suffer the consequences.
Is Lavinia's love worth exposing his secret past? Will William sacrifice passion for privacy?
Read Spanking Lady Lavinia, the fourth book in the bestselling Victorian Vices series, to find out.
Publisher’s Note: Despite being part of a series, this story can be read as a standalone. This work contains depictions of adult sexual activity and adult domestic discipline. If you would rather not be exposed to such topics, please don’t read this book.
The castle of the Earl of Doune, the Highlands of Scotland
The sound of the gunshot echoing around the stone keep of Doune Castle woke the ten-year-old William Stewart from his bed way up in the nursery. The noise jolted him from sleep and left him confused and disoriented, until another such blast rang out again.
That time he heard his mother screaming.
William had to save his mother; no matter that he was a small, skinny child and that the drunken madman with the gun was no doubt his terrifying father, the Earl of Doune, he had to save his mother.
William threw back the covers and scrambled out of bed, slipping out of the nursery and running as fast as he could down the stairs that led from the nursery to the rest of the castle. He didn’t pass any servants on the way; his old nanny was too deaf to hear the commotion, and the rest of the staff slept in another wing of the castle.
He skidded to a halt at the top of the flight of stairs that really belonged in a grand Austrian schloss or a French chateau, not a badly designed castle in the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains of Highland Scotland. The stairs rose, with carved mahogany banisters inlaid with other rare and expensive woods, from the main entrance to the castle, twenty feet in the air, up to the first floor of the castle, where they branched off from each other. Each side of the staircase rose another twenty feet to the second floor, where the staircases branched again up to the third floor, creating an effect not unlike the proud horns of the stags that the Doune earls hunted across their ancestral lands.
From William’s point of view at the top of one of the third floor branches, he could see his father trying to reload his pistol as his mother tugged at his arm, desperate to stop him shooting again. In horror, William saw the body of a man lying slumped on the stairs, suspiciously still.
“You shot him!” his mother cried, still struggling with his father. “You killed him, you bastard, you killed him!”
His father stopped trying to reload the gun long enough to give his mother a slap across the face strong enough to send her reeling into the nearest wall. The sound of flesh meeting flesh made William want to be sick; the sound of his mother’s tears ignited his anger.
How dare his father raise his hand to his mother? Where was the honour in such a cowardly gesture?
William started down the staircase in front of him, anxious to reach his mother before she could be struck again.
“I had every right to shoot him!” his father screamed, his face red with whisky and hatred. “He was stealing my wife away! He wouldn’t stand and face me like a man, so I shot him in the back like the coward that he was!
“He wasn’t stealing me; I was leaving you!” his mother said with a hiss, edging away from his father and making her way towards the opposite side of the stairs that William was currently moving down.
“You can’t leave me; you’re my wife!” his father bellowed, starting towards his mother.
“I’m going, and I’m taking William with me!” his mother shouted back, running up the stairs in earnest. “You’re a vicious beast, and I’m not going to live with your cruelty anymore!”
William skidded to a stop, realising that he was on the wrong side of the huge ornamental staircase. He needed to reverse course and join his mother on the other side of the great keep, to offer her all the protection that he could.
However, his father, despite being encumbered by drink, had gained ground on his mother and had grabbed the back of the dark green travelling dress she wore. She screamed and turned to claw at his face, making his father roar in anger and shake her. She must have hurt his father in some way, perhaps with a lucky strike to his eyes, because his father let out another bellow of pain and hit his mother again.
That time, however, his mother was standing next to a waist-high balustrade, which was not tall enough to support her when she was flung against it. Ten-year-old William was forced to watch in horror as his mother flailed helplessly at thin air before she toppled backwards and fell twenty feet to the hard, cold flagstone floor below.
William must have made some noise then—he might even have screamed; he could not remember later. All he could remember was the noise of the servants rushing into the keep, the horrified gasps of the maids, and the heavy hand of the butler on his shoulder. His father had slumped to the floor on the opposite staircase muttering, “She fell, she fell,” over and over again.
Drummond, the butler, carried William back up the stairs, away from the terrible scene. The last view he had of his mother was of her body being covered respectfully by several footmen using one of the tapestries from the wall. His nanny was woken up, and she forced William to drink something vile that would make him sleep. He didn’t want to sleep; he cried out for his mother, he tried to tell his nanny that his father had killed her, but the old woman merely gave him more of the sleeping draught until he passed out.
He woke late the next day, the mid-morning sunlight piercing through the gaps in the nursery curtains. His head felt fuzzy and there was a hollow ache in his stomach. He had slept far past his usual breakfast time. For a moment, he was confused about why he was in bed so late, but then he saw the suitable set of clothes his nanny had laid out for him, all in mourning black.
The knowledge hit him like a cannonball to the chest; his beloved mother was dead, and his father had been the man to kill her.
He wept, then, bitter, hot angry tears for the mother he loved with all the desperate devotion of a small boy. Her loss was all-encompassing, and the desire to clamber back under his covers was very strong, indeed. He gave in to the urge, spending more than an hour sobbing into his pillow, inconsolable with grief.
Eventually, however, his tears ran dry. There were only so many tears in his small body, after all. Bitterness replaced sadness; fury replaced tears. There was only one thing to do. He must confront his father, the murderer of his beloved mother.
He dressed as quickly as could in the unfamiliar clothes, calling for old Mrs Montrose, his nanny, but she was not in her small bedroom next to the nursery. The clock on the mantelpiece struck eleven; his tutor should have been leading him through his mathematics, but he hadn’t come to rouse him from his bed, either. William checked the schoolroom, down the corridor from the nursery. There was no Mr Douglas there. Mr Douglas’ bedroom was on the floor below, but that was empty, too. Too empty, William noticed, puzzled; he had been in there once or twice, and had seen Mr Douglas’ books and papers scattered haphazardly over his desk. All the books were missing, making the room seem a lot emptier. The door to the wardrobe was hanging open, and it, too, was empty.
Where had Mr Douglas gone?
William decided to go downstairs to find out what was happening. The first thing he noticed was the quiet of the place. Doune Castle was large, but there were always maids bustling about the place cleaning and footmen standing on duty at the doors to the drawing room and his father’s study. They were nowhere to be seen. He hesitantly went to the spot where his mother had landed, but her body had been taken somewhere else. The flagstones had been heavily scrubbed and William could smell the strong bleaching powder the maids used to clean the floors. No trace of blood remained there or over by the door where the body of the man his father had shot had fallen. It was like the horrors of the night before had never happened, except that the itchy black shirt he was wearing was proof that it had.
He had slept past breakfast time, but there were no maids setting the table for luncheon in the dining room. He wandered from room to room, looking for anybody to tell him what was going on, but there were no servants to be found anywhere. The whole castle seemed still and empty; no fires had been lit as usual in the fireplaces of the library or the drawing room. William hunted further for signs of life, even daring to go as far as his father’s study and peer around the heavy oak door, but his father was not there. The gun that had shot the man the night before was there, though, thrown carelessly into an armchair by the unlit fire. Empty claret bottles lay like fallen soldiers on the great desk, dribbles of their contents staining the papers there, leaving their bloodstains on letters and account books.
Church bells rang out suddenly, in great doleful peals. It wasn’t Sunday, so this confused William. He went to a window of the study that looked out over the walls of the castle and down the hill to the small church where generations of his ancestors had been christened, married, and buried. A stream of black-clad people was pouring from the church like ants, a whole line of them coming back up the hill towards the castle. As they got nearer, William picked out a few familiar faces—Drummond, the butler, who had carried him away from the stairs the previous night, Nanny, who was being steadied over an uneven path by Fergus, a very tall footman who always turned a blind eye to William’s naughty habit of sliding down the banisters of the staircase and jumping off at the end.
It was a funeral, he realised, his mother’s funeral, and he hadn’t been told of it. He was overcome by grief as the reality of his situation hit him properly—his mother was dead, and she wasn’t coming back. His father had been the one to kill her, in one of his drunken rages.
Everybody in Doune Castle knew about the earl’s bad temper. Maids tiptoed around the west wing of the castle, desperate not to catch his attention. William knew never to do anything that would attract his father’s notice, as he could never be sure how his father’s unpredictable moods would affect him. His mother had showered William with affection, often spending whole afternoons with him upstairs in the schoolroom in an attempt to show him that one of his parents loved him. She’d had to be careful not to let her husband discover that she was doing this, as he often took his temper out on her. She blamed her bruises on stumbles and slippery floors, but even William, at his young age, knew that his father was to blame.
William had hated his father for as long as he could remember. Now that he had seen him murder his mother, he finally had a reason to voice his hatred.
Heavy footsteps sounded down the corridor. The door was thrown open, slamming against the door frame.
“Boy!” his father barked. “What in hell’s name are you doing in here?”
“I—I—didn’t know where anyone was,” William stuttered, hating the way his voice sounded high-pitched and weak.
“Where do you think we were? We were burying your mother,” the earl said shortly, bypassing William directly for the whisky decanter on the other side of the room.
From the stench of alcohol that followed him, he hadn’t stopped drinking from the night before.
“But—but—I didn’t say goodbye,” William said, hearing his voice break with the tears that started to slide down his face.
He had not cried them all away, it seemed. He tried to wipe his face, but his father had turned from the decanter and caught him in the shameful act.
A heavy cuff from one of the earl’s powerful hands sent William reeling into a bookcase.
“Don’t you dare cry, boy,” the earl warned, his voice slurring heavily. “No son of mine cries like a baby.”
A tiny little fire started to burn deep in William’s belly. He didn’t love this man; how could he, for all that he was his father? He was a drunk and a bully, and he had killed the only person who truly loved William.
“You killed her,” he said with as much menace as he could muster. “You killed my mother!”
The earl’s head snapped up, and he snarled at William like a huge drunken dog.
“The silly bitch fell!” the earl said, his hand flexing tightly around his whisky glass.
“She fell because you pushed her over the banister!” William shouted, his anger building inside him, that little fire burning brighter and hotter. “You’re a murderer, and I’ll tell everybody what I saw!”
The earl’s whisky glass came hurtling past William’s ear and smashed against the bookcase. A fragment of the heavy crystal struck William on the temple, and he could feel the warm blood start to pour down his face.
“You’ll say nothing, because nobody will believe you!” the earl said, rounding his desk clumsily and staggering towards William. “I am the earl here, and you’re nothing but a stupid little weakling boy!”
“I’ll tell the vicar—and the constable!” William shouted, dodging out of his father’s clumsy grab for him. “I’ll tell the whole village you killed her, when all she wanted to do was leave you!”
“Tell them!” the earl bellowed. “Tell them that your whore of a mother was planning to run away with a servant and live in sin!”
His words were ugly spears that struck William’s heart.
“She was not!” he screamed, running at his father, kicking and slapping at him in his rage. “Don’t you say that; don’t you say that!”
His father lashed out and caught William with a backhanded slap that sent him stunned to the floor.
“Everyone knows what a whore she was, spreading her legs for some nobody of a tutor!” his father roared. “She deserved everything she got. I should have done it before!”
William didn’t really remember what happened next; later on, as he lay in his bed, he heard his nanny talking in shocked whispers to a maid.
“Fergus heard the to-do and went in to the study to find young Master William screaming and shouting and trying to beat his father with his little hands. Bleeding he was, all over the place, and the earl going for him like he was a grown man! Shocking, I call it!”
“The earl beat Master William?” the maid said, shocked.
“Covered in bruises, the poor lad. It took two footmen and the butler to pull the earl off him. Drunk, of course.”
“It’s not right!” the maid said, scandalised.
“’Course it’s not right,” his nanny said scornfully. “What sort of man attacks a wee child like that?”
“You know what they say about Lady Elizabeth,” the maid said archly. “How her fall wasn’t such of an accident.”
“You’d better not let anybody hear you talking like that,” the nanny warned. “You’ll be out without references, and nobody will take you on.”
“The whole of Tomintoul is talking about it!” the maid said, affronted at being chided.
“Dying at midnight and buried at eight o’clock the next morning! It’s a disgrace how quickly that poor woman was put into the ground, with not even one member of her family there to say goodbye!”
“Well, she didn’t have much family, poor soul,” his nanny sighed.
“Just an old aunt, I think. Nobody ever came to visit, and she didn’t go to stay. There wouldn’t have been anybody to say goodbye to her, apart from Master William, and he shouldn’t have had to see that.”
“Poor wee lad,” the maid said, sounding sad. “His mam dead and his father a drunken beast. What chance has he got?”
No chance, William realised, the cold truth of his situation creeping over him. He could not remain in the house, not living with the man who had murdered his mother, who would get away with it because he was the Earl of Doune and there was nobody to gainsay him. William could tell whomever he liked about what had really happened, and nobody would believe him. Or they would believe him, he realised, but be unable to do anything about it.
He could not stay there.
He didn’t know anything about his mother’s side of the family, but his nanny had mentioned an aunt, hadn’t she? His great-aunt, that would be. He didn’t know anything about her, except that his mother must have written to her. She would spend hours every day writing letters. Her aunt must have been one of the people she wrote to.
His nanny came over to him then, clucking over finding him awake. She gave him more of the ghastly sleeping draught, and he gave in to the various aches and pains coursing through his body.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, he would find his aunt’s direction from one of his mother’s letters and go to her.
Anybody, any place, would be better than Doune Castle with his father.
William Evans looked at himself in the small mirror of the rented room and nodded nervously to himself. The barber had done a good job with his hair, clipping it neatly. One of the maids employed by the rooming house had ironed his shirt crisply and brushed his best frock coat well. He, himself, had shined his own shoes until they gleamed.
He was ready for his interview.
His rooming house lay in Bayswater, a respectable part of the city, if not the most desirable. It was not a long walk from Bayswater to the Mayfair home of the Earl of Beaumont, but he decided to take a cab. Although the crowded roads of central London would add time to his journey, he dared not risk the muddied streets of the Oxford Road, full as they were with rubbish and horse droppings.
The cab took him past the long walls surrounding Hyde Park and past the Marble Arch at Cumberland Gate. He’d expected white marble and classical sculpture, but was disappointed to see how grey and weather-beaten the monument actually was. Despite the slow speed of his cab, William could not make out much of statuary.
It was not the only disappointment he’d found in coming to London from Yorkshire. There he was used to clear skies, wide moorland, and clean water. London, in comparison, teemed with life like a dog with fleas. There were people everywhere, and most seemed to try to sell, beg, or steal something from him. The roads were a disgrace, mostly packed earth covered in foul horse dung that nobody bothered to remove.
The Thames was the worst of all; like any visitor to the capital, he’d made a beeline for the Palace of Westminster, where the Houses of Parliament sat. The building work was near completion after a great fire more than twenty years previously, and he’d looked forward to looking on the building with his own eyes. The building sat on the north bank of the Thames, right next to the river, but William had not been able to go near it.
The stench from the river was appalling; those who were forced to walk past it covered their faces with their handkerchiefs and picked up their speed until they were away from the sludgy brown waters. It was, quite simply, the worst smell that William had ever experienced, and it had left his eyes watering. How the hundreds of boatmen who sailed their craft up and down it daily managed, he had no idea!
The newspapers reported that Parliament had been forced to abandon the Commons chamber, despite the hanging of curtains soaked in lime chloride to disguise the smell. There was talk of removing to Oxford or St Albans until the matter could be dealt with.
William was glad that the Earl of Beaumont did not live by the river, but instead in the fashionable Mayfair area of the city. Smaller houses and terraces gave way to grand mansions, removed from the street by high iron railings and enclosed courtyards.
He had been recommended to the earl by his previous employer as a capable private secretary, despite his youth. At twenty-three, he should, by rights, have been a junior assistant or even a humble clerk.
He got out of the cab and paid his fare, being careful where he trod. The streets of Mayfair were cleaner than those of Bayswater, but not by much. Beaumont House loomed above him, elegant in proportion and made of fine Portland stone. The windows sparkled in the clear May sunlight, and the brass door knocker gleamed as he rapped it smartly against the large black door.
William was admitted to the foyer by a very severe butler, who told him that he was to wait there until admitted to the presence of the earl. He took the time to appreciate the beauty of the room; although merely the entranceway to the grand house, time had been taken to beautify the room with bowls of sweet smelling roses and large paintings on the walls.
He stopped himself from tugging at his necktie, carefully folded into a neat bow. He was wearing his best suit of clothes for the occasion; his trousers and frock-coat were of the same fine grey material, and his waistcoat was of a similarly sober shade of blue that matched his necktie. Nerves, he thought to himself as he stroked his moustache self-consciously. He must not give in to his nerves.
He knew that he was young to be considered for such a position in the household of such an important man, and he felt that the moustache added an air of gravity to his youthful features. He was too young for whiskers, however, no matter what his aunt said on the subject.
He walked up and down the foyer, admiring the artwork on the walls. One in particular, right at the back near the discreet door for the servants’ use, caught his eye.
It was a Titian, he thought, although he could not be sure. The incredibly minor public school he had attended had not spent a great deal of time on the study of art. The painting was of a woman with reddish-blonde hair that fell loosely over one bared shoulder. She was wearing a sort of nightgown, William thought, one that dipped scandalously low over her breasts and off one shoulder entirely. A reflection of colour from the pink shawl draped over her left arm drew his eye—or, wait—was that a hint of rosy nipple that could be seen?
He couldn’t be sure. Without realising what he was doing, he peered a little closer at the picture, and started back in alarm when a rather young, cultured, female voice said loudly,
“It’s her nipple, you know. Well, not the full thing, just the bit around the edge. Mama and Anthony had a huge row about whether it was indecent or not. Anthony played the earl card and got it hung in the foyer, but Mama made Nash move it to the back. It’s ridiculous, don’t you think? It’s not as if we don’t know what nipples are, after all.”
William whirled around to see a confection of a young woman standing on the staircase that led up to the private family rooms of the house. She was tall and quite striking—not conventionally pretty, not with that nose and that chin in combination with each other—but she was possessed of a wicked smile that lit up her eyes. She was dressed in the height of fashion, William could tell, although he knew nothing about how women clothed themselves. She was wearing pastel shades, which rather made her resemble a flower, although with that mouth on her, she was very much a wild flower rather than a hot house rose.
He didn’t think that he had ever heard a woman say the word nipple before, especially not one who couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old.
“I wasn’t—” he began, his words starting to trip over themselves. “I mean I was looking for the artist’s name. I’ve never seen—”
“Oh, it’s one of the Italians,” the girl said dismissively, descending the stairs and floating across the marble floor to stand beside him. “Titian, I think. It’s called Flora. It’s not a patch on some of the ones we’ve got upstairs. She’s rather wishy-washy, don’t you think? All that staring off into the middle distance with an enigmatic look on her face. You can’t tell anything about her, except that she must be a bit chilly.”
“A bit chilly?” William said, bewildered.
“Her clothes are falling off, so she must be cold,” the young woman said helpfully. “Although she is in Italy, after all, so perhaps she’s warm.”
A mischievous look crossed her face, and somehow, instinctively, William knew what she was going to say next, probably because he was also thinking it.
“She must be warm,” she said decisively, “otherwise her nipples really would be showing through that dress!”
She burst out laughing, a real, unadulterated laugh, not the pretty giggles that the very few young women of his acquaintance seemed to be in favour of. William hesitated, partly horrified at her lack of decorum, partly intrigued by her forthright nature.
“Lavinia!” a female voice called from above.
“Blast,” she muttered. “Caught in the act.”
“Mr Evans,” the butler said, reappearing silently through a door on the other side of the entrance hall. “His lordship is ready to receive you now.”
Another woman descended the stairs, a much older woman. Her hair was grey, compared to Lavinia’s honey-streaked brown, but she had the same nose and chin.
“Lavinia, you were told that you must be accompanied when you leave the house,” the woman scolded, coming down the stairs and ignoring both William and the butler.
“I’m only going to Bond Street,” Lavinia said crossly. “I don’t need a maid to show me the way. I’m not addled!”
“No, but the last time you snuck off shopping by yourself, you somehow ended up in the middle of that horse race in the middle of Hyde Park!” the older woman said crossly.
“I would have won if that blasted groom hadn’t ridden up next to me and grabbed the reins,” Lavinia said, pouting.
“Your placement in the race is not the issue in question!” the older woman said, her calm countenance finally stretched to breaking point.
“Mr Evans,” the butler said, a little more forcefully.
William started a little, so completely lost in the argument as he was. Had this young woman really entered one of the illegal horse races in Hyde Park favoured by the young bloods of the ton? And she nearly won? She couldn’t be more than sixteen years old!
He stepped away from the women who were so lost in their own argument that they didn’t notice him leaving. He followed the butler down the corridor away from the foyer, through a set of double doors, and along another long corridor.
“May I ask who those ladies were?” William asked politely, taking note of the finely polished vases that stood on plinths and more Old Master artworks that adorned the walls. It was clear that this was a house of wealth and refinement. He decided not to walk too close to the vases, in case he accidentally knocked one over.
“The dowager countess and her youngest daughter, the Lady Lavinia,” the butler said, not bothering to turn his head.
“And they both reside here?” William asked.
“Along with the earl and the countess and the young master,” the butler said. “Several of his lordship’s sisters also stay here when they are in Town.”
A busy household, then; a young family, his mother and several sisters, as well as a full complement of staff.
“Not that you would have any call to converse with any of the family,” the butler said sharply, stopping suddenly outside a closed oak door. “Personal secretaries are still servants, and servants don’t mix with their betters. You’d do well to remember that, Mr Evans.”
“Yes, sir,” William said deferentially.
It didn’t do well to annoy any of the servants, especially one as important as a butler.
“Although,” he added, “I didn’t engage Lady Lavinia in conversation. She spoke to me first.”
“Ah, well,” the butler said, a strange look coming over his face. “When it comes to Lady Lavinia, it’s best that somebody remember the rules of polite society.”
Because she certainly won’t hover in the air between them.
He suddenly rapped his knuckles on the door, paused for a moment, and pushed it open. “Mr William Evans, your lordship,” he announced, and William entered the room.
It was a pleasant room, full of light from the large windows that looked onto the quiet residential street outside. Leather-bound books lined large bookshelves, and portraits hung on the wall. One was of a petite, pretty blonde woman set against a wild seascape with a half-ruined castle in the distance. The other was of a chubby baby, the sex indeterminate, as it was wrapped in layers of white clothes, caps, and lace frills. The baby had a blond curl in the middle of its forehead and eyes the exact shade of those of the man who had stood from behind the desk to receive him.
William bowed to the Earl of Beaumont, the Anthony who had hung the Titian in the foyer.
“Mr Evans, good to see you. Please, take a seat,” the older man said.
William was waved into a chair opposite the earl, who was scrutinising several documents in front of him.
“I am looking for a private secretary,” the earl said. “Somebody to take charge of my correspondence, organise my diary, all that sort of thing. I used to do it myself, but I find since my marriage that I have less time and less inclination but more blasted engagements.” William nodded politely. “I see from your references that you have worked as secretary for Lord Burnish,” the earl said, picking up one of the letters.
It was written in the shaky hand of his previous employer, the writing very familiar to William. The writing, never neat or legible, had worsened as the illness he suffered had ravaged his body.
“I had that privilege,” William said, nodding. “I grew up on his estate in Yorkshire, and Lord and Lady Burnish always tried to help their tenants in whatever way they could. His lordship sponsored my education and gave me a position when I left school. I’ll always be very grateful for his kindness.”
“I always liked him,” the earl said thoughtfully. “He and my father were of an age, although my father passed when I was very young. He always offered me good advice on practical matters. He must have known he was dying when he wrote me this letter, telling me that I’d do very well in hiring you as a secretary.”
“His lordship consulted several London doctors,” William said gravely. “He wanted to put his affairs in order before he passed, so as not to distress Lady Burnish too much. He was a good man.”
“One of the best,” the earl agreed. “He always gave me sound advice, and I am inclined to take it now. I have interviewed other applicants, you understand, just to make the process fair.”
“Of course, my lord,” William said, nodding.
His heart started to beat a little faster. He knew that just because old Lord Burnish had vouched for him with the Earl of Beaumont, he wasn’t guaranteed a place in the Beaumont household, but he had very much hoped he would get it. His aunt was an old woman, and her money didn’t stretch very far. He needed to be able to support her.
“Tell me something of your background,” the earl said, peering at the old lord’s letter. “Burnish has written something here, but it’s damn near impossible to read.”
“My great aunt brought me up on Lord Burnish’s estate in Yorkshire, my lord, after my mother died when I was ten,” William said.
“Your father is also deceased?” the earl asked, frowning.
“They died on the same night,” William replied.
It was very close to the truth; any small scraps of love he might have had for his father died the night his mother was murdered at his hand. As far as William was concerned, his father was dead to him, and had been for these last thirteen years.
“My condolences,” the earl said softly, and William could tell the man meant it.
“My great-aunt is the only family I have, and she took me in,” William went on.
It had been a shock for the old woman when ten-year-old William had appeared on her doorstep one morning, half-starved after making the long journey from Scotland alone. He’d set out with the clothes on his back and all the coin he could find in his mother’s belongings. He’d kept a few pieces of her jewellery, things she had told him were hers from before her marriage. Those had been too precious to sell, even though they could have bought easier passage to Yorkshire than the series of kind-hearted railway guards who looked the other way when he crept into the luggage van, or the farmers who had given the tired boy a rest from walking by giving him a ride in the back of their wagons. He’d also brought a stack of her letters with him, to prove his identity to his great-aunt, who had never seen him in the flesh before.
She was some sort of distant cousin to Lord Burnish, the last fruit of a branch of the family tree that had fallen on hard times. He let her stay in a grace and favour cottage, the old man too kind hearted to see a family member living in reduced circumstances. He knew William’s true identity and had questioned the boy thoroughly about the death of his mother. He had believed his story and kept William’s identity a secret, suggesting that he take a different surname. He should have returned William to his father’s custody; that was the law of the land. Thankfully, the old man obeyed a higher law, that of common sense and kind heart.
“Lord Burnish saw to it that I was well educated and gave me a position in his household. Lady Burnish has her own secretary, a very capable young lady who runs her affairs well. There was no need of me in the household any longer.”
“You took care of Lord Burnish’s correspondence?”
“I did,” William confirmed. “I also organised all of his lordship’s travelling arrangements and dealt with his lordship’s appointment diary.”
“I have a small test for you,” the earl said, indicating a second, smaller desk pushed against the right hand wall of the room. There were stacks of papers loosely arranged on it. “I’d like you to organise these and indicate to me what you think are the three most important pieces of information from them. You will have ten minutes.”
The earl pulled his fob watch from his waistcoat and looked at the time. “You may start now,” he said, and watched as William stood and made his way to the desk.
There was a jumble of papers there—letters addressed to the Countess of Beaumont, bills from modistes and milliners, as well as letters from the earl’s land steward and notes from the Palace of Westminster regarding the earl’s presence being needed to vote in the House of Lords.
As William began to hurriedly shuffle the jumble of paper into distinct piles, the door to the study flung open, and Lady Lavinia strode into the room.
“Anthony!” she shouted. “Tell Mother that I am perfectly capable of leaving the house unaccompanied!”
She was quickly followed by the grey-haired dowager countess, who was also shouting.
“Anthony! Tell your sister that she is a disgrace to the family name and should be locked up in the dungeon of that castle of yours in Cornwall!”
A blistering family row followed, the noise drawing the younger Countess of Beaumont, who was the young woman in the portrait on the wall, into the room. She had a toddler on her hip, whose riot of blond curls identified him as an older version of the baby on the opposite wall.
The noise abated somewhat as the two shouting women stopped to coo at the baby, but then each appealed to Lady Jennifer to take her side in the argument. She put the toddler down, and he wobbled over to William and grabbed his leg for support. William paused in his frantic paper sorting and regarded the infant cautiously. He was entirely unused to children. The child seemed happy enough to sit on his foot and hold onto his calf, so William carried on sorting.
“Enough!” Anthony finally shouted, his voice reaching over the noise of his mother and sister, who were both reaching a crescendo. “Lavinia, you cannot leave the house unaccompanied. No, I am sorry, but that is final,” he said firmly. “If you insist on creating havoc wherever you go, we need at least one witness to post bail. Mother,” he continued, over Lavinia’s splutters of outrage, “other young women of Lavinia’s age are accompanied by a maid, I believe. I suggest you select a member of staff you think capable of reining her in, if necessary. A chaperone, if you will. Maybe one who weighs twenty stones and can arm-wrestle for England.”
His mother, who had been outraged at the thought of the need of posting bail money to release her child from gaol, suddenly looked thoughtful.
“Jennifer, my darling, you look more radiant every day. Do have a good meeting with the Board of Trustees at the British Museum,” Anthony said finally, pecking his wife on the cheek. “Give them what-for about this National Library business.”
The petite blonde woman smiled at her husband and swiftly left the room.
Lady Lavinia stamped her foot and announced, “I will not tolerate a chaperone!” and flounced from room.
The dowager countess let out an aggrieved sigh and followed her.
Blessed silence reigned.
“So, Mr Evans,” the earl said at last. “What three important things have you learned in the last ten minutes?”
“Well, my lord,” William said, sending a quick prayer heavenward that he wouldn’t offend this genial man, “there is a vote in the House of Lords at three o’clock this afternoon that four peers have asked you to attend, two from each side of the House. I would recommend a handkerchief soaked in some strong scent, my lord, to mask the stench of the Thames.”
“Yes,” the earl said, smiling. “What else?”
“Both your Cornish land agent and your Somerset land agent want you to visit the estates you hold during the same week, which clashes with a ball that the countess has arranged, if these bills from the modiste are dated correctly,” William said. “A clash of the calendar that should be avoided, I suspect.”
“Most certainly,” the earl said with feeling. “And the third thing?”
“I think you should install dead bolts on the inside of your office door,” William said bluntly. “And hire a nanny to keep better track of your heir.”
He leant over and picked the solid toddler up into his arms. The child immediately reached for his father, who looked surprised to see him.
“Peter! What were you doing down there?” he said in amazement.
A knock at the door followed, and a flustered nursery maid appeared.
“Oh, here he is, your lordship,” she said in relief. “Lady Jennifer was playing with him, then she went to see what all the fuss was about, then her carriage just left.”
“No harm done,” the earl said affably, kissing his son on one of his rosy cheeks and handing him over to his nurse, who departed with the child to the nursery.
“You’re hired,” the earl said after a moment. “One hundred and fifty pounds a year, to start immediately.”
William couldn’t keep the shock from his face; that was an incredibly generous salary, far more than personal secretaries were usually paid.
“You’ve seen what life is like around here; this is a quiet day,” the earl said frankly. “If I paid you less, you’d leave after a month. Besides, you have an aunt to support, and I know what it’s like to have that responsibility.”
William nodded, still in shock.
“Go back to your lodgings and collect your things,” the earl said kindly, patting his pockets until he found some coins, which he handed to William. “Take a cab. When you get back, you can get on with your first task.”
“What’s that, my lord?” William asked.
“Get those damn bolts put on my door!”