Northlund Merrit’s thoughts kept pace with the hoofbeats of the carriage horses as he was conveyed to his meeting with the local lord. He gazed out the window, but his concerns would not allow him to enjoy the beauty of the parkland surrounding the manor house. For all the notice he took, the stately evergreens, the pristine blanket of snow, and the graceful arc of the frozen river might as well have been painted on a backdrop. He anticipated no happy end to his journey from town; the tone of his lordship’s written summons was very much a prelude to reprimand. In his fifteen-year career as an instructor, he had become used to complaints as well as praise from the parents of his pupils, but this was the first time he had the opportunity to be upbraided for his methods by so lofty a personage. Sir Daltrey Powell was styled the Earl of Greenmarch as well as Lord Snowgate and Mr. Merrit made a mental note to ask whoever answered the door for his lordship’s preferred form of address. The teacher hoped the nobleman wasn’t the sort to insist on being called Your Lordship, but he’d heard these country aristocrats could be stiff-necked about their titles.
He was newly arrived to the shire and still missed the hum and bustle of London, but it could not be helped. There were too many at his last position who had become inquisitive about his personal life, too many pointed remarks about a man his age without a wife, or even a long-term engagement. With the familiar sad weariness that possessed him each time, he realized he must leave his beloved post at the academy, his dear students, and his comfortable bachelor quarters as he did each time the whispers grew too loud. It had been different when he was a young man and had Abigail on his arm, but as he matured, his deception of her began to disgust him. What she took as impeccably polite behavior was, in truth, his complete disinterest in her as an object of desire. He was certain he had broken her heart when he told her he would be a poor scholar all his life and would never be able to support a family. Not once in the twenty years since he’d fled had he returned to his hometown. He kept moving with guilt as his constant companion.
The village of Greenholm and small but prestigious Greenmarch Academy for Young Ladies seemed a safe haven in their remoteness from London and anyone who knew Mr. Merrit. The school was one in name only, as females were not expected to be well-educated, only to be proficient in a few accomplishments. Accomplishments might include embroidery, lace-making, painting watercolors or china figurines, speaking French or Italian, and singing or the playing of the harpsichord. Mr. Merrit was gifted with an ability to play the pianoforte that was nothing short of divine and his talent for composition nearly equaled it. He would have been wildly popular had he chosen to perform, but his fear of being revealed as deviant forced him to choose a life of anonymity. Perhaps he could not say with veracity that he led a happy existence, but he had the illusion of safety, and there were joys to be had in teaching. Though he was lonely, his pupils filled his days and he had quickly become fond of one of the young ladies at his new post.
Eleven-year-old Lady Arabella Marguerite Powell-Rand, niece to the earl, was a bright girl who was curious about everything her gaze fell upon. It was not enough for her to learn the fingering for a piece of music. She wanted to know all about the composer and why he wrote the music. It was a pity that she was destined to be an ornament for some lord’s arm and castle, making no decisions weightier than the menu for dinner. Mr. Merrit did not understand why young women should not be as learned as young men and he expected that this would form the gist of his audience with Sir Daltrey. He could picture the old curmudgeon with bristling white side-whiskers and a shock of white hair, his bulbous nose rosy with gin-blossoms, chewing the stem of his pipe as he paced the Oriental carpet of his study railing against newfangled notions. It was to be hoped that the old gentleman wouldn’t pick up a fowling piece to reinforce the weight of his opinions.
Mr. Merrit’s musings ended as the carriage stopped before the entrance of the well-kept fifteenth-century manor house. A footman opened the door of the landau and the teacher stepped down. As Mr. Merrit mounted the steps, one of the double doors opened and another man in dove-gray livery emerged. Gesturing with a white-gloved hand, the servant indicated that Mr. Merrit was to follow him. The teacher quickly straightened his cravat and tugged down the front of his sober black coat. Quickly smoothing his mustache and short beard with his fingertips, he hurried after the other man.
Lionel adjusted Sir Daltrey's cravat and pulled at the silken material of his vest, smoothing it down against the ivory linen of the freshly pressed shirt.
"Will you stop fussing, Lionel? You would think you're dressing me for an evening at the opera instead of a meeting with Arabella's professor."
"You represent the Powell name at all times, sir." Lionel held out the ebony waistcoat and Lord Daltrey shoved his arms through the sleeves.
"Must we forever have this conversation? I know I represent the family name and I endeavor every day to remember that, really I do."
"If by endeavoring you mean debauching a great many of London’s society ladies and more than a few of the handsomer men, then I would have to agree with you, sir."
Lord Snowgate brushed the hand of his valet from his shoulder while attempting a look of indignation. "Can I help it if I'm unable to resist a pretty face? Besides, you go too far when you suggest a great many."
"Apparently not as far you have gone, sir."
"I beg your pardon, my lord." Lionel bowed and turned, hiding a smile as he made his way to the large mahogany dresser on the far wall.
"How is your leg today?" Daltrey asked, noticing Lionel's limp seemed more pronounced. "You get more lame with every passing year, you old goat."
Lionel handed Daltrey the silver and ivory comb, knowing his lordship's childhood aversion to anyone helping with the unruly curls. "My leg is as hale as it will ever be, thanks to the Punjab who shot me all those years ago, and it's a sight better than a piece of wood. Now do something with those curls or I shall be forced to wrestle that comb from you and tame them myself … or cut them off."
Daltrey turned to the mirror and frowned at the way his hair twined about his ears. "What do you think he's like, Lionel?"
"Lady Arabella's teacher? I would assume he has the requisite look of his profession. Though they have little in the way of money, I have never met a tutor that did not have that … learned look about him."
Giving up on his thick uncooperative hair, Daltrey handed the comb back to his valet. "Learned look," he snorted. "That is just another way of saying old and stuffy."
"Aged and distinguished, I would say."
"Please, Lionel. This Mr. Merrit teaches music; he's probably just this side of ninety and deaf to boot." Daltrey sighed, wishing the meeting was over and done with already. There was a party later in the evening and he desperately needed to rest in preparation. This season, with its rounds of parties at neighboring estates culminating in a grand celebration here at Snowgate Hall, inevitably exhausted him. Lionel was prone to pointing out that it wasn't strictly necessary to accept every single invitation, but Daltrey insisted it was only polite.
"He should thank the gods if he is deaf; at least he will be spared the sound of you prattling on about your limited knowledge of the subject."
Daltrey blanched. "I have more than enough knowledge of music, Lionel."
"Seducing one's music teacher when one was eighteen hardly qualifies as knowledge, sir."
Turning from the mirror, Daltrey folded his arms, glaring at his valet's back as Lionel arranged clothing within the closet. "Must you goad me, Lionel?"
The older man left the closet and closed the door. "I find it the only sport I can truly enjoy at my age, sir."
"I should hand you your papers, you insolent jackanapes."
"And I should hobble you like a green colt to keep you at home at night and away from the ton and their less than savory ways, but we all live with our disappointments, don't we, my lord?"
Narrowing his eyes, Daltrey replied, "Remind me again why I put up with you."
Lionel opened the bedroom door and stood to the side. "Because your father and I served together in India and I gave him my promise to look after you." Daltrey preceded the valet through the door as Lionel added, "And no one else would put up with your ways, sir."
Daltrey moved purposely down the corridor, hoping the doddering graybeard he was meeting wouldn't insist on spending the afternoon nattering on about the great composers and how the young people these days had no appreciation for the classics. Even though he had summoned Mr. Merrit, he resented having to give up a moment of his precious time to a wheezing curmudgeon with bad breath and a body odor that would frighten horses.
Daltrey stopped before the door to the study and motioned Lionel closer. "Bring us tea and then leave us for no more time than it takes to drink one cup. Then you are to interrupt and say that something requires my immediate attention."
"What could possibly need your attention, sir?"
"Damn it, Lionel!" Daltrey said in fierce whisper. "Make something up; something serious that will leave no doubt in the old fool's mind that the meeting is at an end."
Lionel bowed, snapping his heels together as he did so. "As you wish, sir."