~~ 1 ~~
The docks of London were a mass of sights, sounds, and scents. As he stepped off the gangplank, Leander Mayfield fairly reeled under the onslaught. After nearly five weeks aboard the Persephone, he was glad to be onto solid land again, although his legs weren’t yet accustomed to it. It was preferable to attribute his uneven gait to that than to think the influenza he’d barely recovered from before setting sail had returned.
He did his best to keep out of the way of the other disembarking passengers and then the multitude of workers hauling cargo to and fro. The docks of Boston had seemed crowded and busy, but they were nothing compared to London with her ships and wherries and crates and wagons and people as far as his farm-bred eyes could see.
“Yer box, lad,” a stevedore dropped a small trunk at his feet.
“Get along wit’ye, then,” the man ordered briskly.
“Yes, sir.” Leander bent to grasp the handle of his trunk, only to be assaulted by waves of nausea. He straightened slowly and closed his eyes, praying both would pass. He shivered; for the past week he had been cold so long that it often seemed he would never feel warm again.
“Move along,” said another voice, not nearly as amiably as the first. “Out of the way, there.” The owner of the voice, an even larger stevedore, gave him a shove and he nearly fell.
Gripping the trunk handle, he began walking, scanning the area for somewhere to sit and collect his thoughts.
“Beggin’ yer pardon, sir.” The same stevedore that had jostled Leander sounded much meeker now. “Can I help ye?”
“The Earl of Dearborne was to arrive today on the Persephone,” came a haughty voice. “Is he still on board?”
Leander didn’t hear the stevedore’s answer, being lost in his own thoughts. There was an earl on board? If only I had known that when—oh. I wonder if I’ll ever grow used to the fact that I’m the Earl of Dearborne. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward. “I’m Leander Mayfield, sir.”
Both men turned toward him and Leander suddenly became acutely aware of his clothing. Although he was wearing his Sunday collar and coat, and his overcoat was only a year old, he felt decidedly shabby in comparison to the heavyset man in the fur-lined redingote that was opened to reveal a green silk waistcoat and a fashionably tied fine linen cravat.
“Leander Mayfield?” Cool gray eyes flicked over him and then the man removed his tall beaver hat and gave Leander a slight bow. “Lord Dearborne, I am Morleigh Mayfield. The late earl, as well as your grandfather, were my father’s half-brothers.”
Leander tried to follow. “That makes us… cousins?”
“Half-cousins, after a fashion.” Mayfield didn’t sound the slightest bit interested in the fact.
After losing his father and both brothers in the past few years, Leander was glad to find himself with any relations. Standing as straight as possible, he removed his felt hat and imitated Mayfield’s half-bow. “I am very glad to meet you, sir.”
“The coach is waiting,” was all Morleigh said in response. Then he glanced over his shoulder. “Dodds, see to his lordship’s trunks.”
“There’s only one,” Leander explained. “I can—”
The stevedore was also eager to make up for his previous error. “Yer lordship, I can—”
“I said the footman will see to it.” Mayfield spoke firmly, freezing the stevedore in his tracks. “Come along, Dearborne.”
Still a bit dazed, Leander allowed himself to be ushered to an impressive coach with a coat of arms—his coat of arms—painted on the door. However, it was the pair of perfectly matched bays drawing the vehicle that made Leander forget his weariness momentarily. He stood admiring them until he realized the footman was holding the coach’s door open and everyone was waiting for him. Quickly he climbed in and sat down, feeling shabbier than ever on the velvet-covered seats.
Mayfield followed, settling himself across from Leander. Silence descended in the coach as it rolled away. Despite the dim interior, Leander could feel Mayfield’s eyes on him and searched for something suitable to say. “You have very handsome horses, sir.”
“They are your horses, Lord Dearborne, just as this coach is your coach,” Morleigh replied, still maintaining his cool, formal tone.
“Oh.” Leander fell silent as he tried to absorb that information. His father had owned only two plow horses, and even on the rare occasions he allowed his sons to ride them, Kit and Chance—as the eldest—claimed ownership of them and Leander usually rode sitting behind Kit, hanging onto his brother’s coat. The idea of owning such fine animals himself was rather bewildering.
Now that he was seated and no longer had to worry about his immediate surroundings, Leander’s body began making its complaints known. His bones ached after the long voyage made in the cold of January and his skin was cold and clammy. There might possibly be a return of his influenza after all, Leander realized with dismay.
Perhaps he should have waited until March to sail, as Daisy, Kit’s fiancée, had wanted him to do, but he had been determined to prove he was fit enough to travel. What he didn’t tell her was that he was afraid if he didn’t sail as soon as possible he would dwell too long on what had happened to Kit and Chance and lose his nerve entirely. All attempts by her and her family to dissuade him had fallen on deaf ears. Now he would have to pay for his stubbornness.
Leander looked out the coach window, deciding he ought to accustom himself to the sights of his new city, but knew almost immediately that it would be impossible to do in a single coach ride—there was simply too much to take in. Buildings lined the streets and Leander tried to guess how old they were and what sort of things they had witnessed. Had they survived the Great Fire or only been built after? How many of them were older than the buildings he’d seen in Boston? How many were older than Boston itself? And— “Is that the Tower of London?”
Mayfield looked out the window. “It is.”
Leander stared until the imposing structure was no longer in sight. He’d seen it in several books, but none of the drawings had been able to truly capture the building.
“If you wish to tour the sights of London, I’m sure your man-of-affairs will be more than happy to arrange it.”
Leander overlooked the amused disdain in his cousin’s voice, more curious about his words. “Man-of-affairs?”
“I believe his name is Marlowe. He was hired by the late earl’s man—one last duty before being pensioned off. Of course, he couldn’t ride out to meet you in the Dearborne coach, so that duty fell to me.”
“I see.” Leander didn’t want to appear any more foolish in the man’s eyes, so he refrained from asking more questions. He had a vague idea what a man-of-affairs did and this Marlowe would probably be able to explain the specifics of his job. “I’m sorry to put you to the trouble.”
Instead of saying “not at all,” which is how most people in Leander’s village of Pelham would have replied, Mayfield said, “There are many things you will have to accustom yourself to.”
“Yes, sir.” Leander nodded. He didn’t want to dwell on those things at the moment, however. Worrying about the enormity of his situation would only bring on the melancholy he was prone to. Better to deal with each concern as it materialized, no matter how difficult it might be.
At the moment his concern was staying alert and not giving in to the dizziness that still lingered. In addition to the chills, he was also feverish and his head was pounding. The sea air that was supposed to improve his health seemed to have had the opposite effect. He tried to concentrate instead on the motion of the coach, grateful for a familiar sensation in the midst of his strange new life. The only difference was that the well-sprung vehicle was far more comfortable than the buckboards or wagons Leander was used to riding in, and the swaying soon lulled him to sleep.
Mayfield roused him just as they were rolling to a halt, and before he was fully awake, the footman had the door open and Leander found himself on the sidewalk staring up at an impressive four-story brick building. “This is where we live?”
“This is where you live,” Mayfield said, cool amusement still apparent in his tone. “I have my own lodgings in Dorset Square,” he added as he descended from the coach.
Having spent most of his twenty-two years in a four-room farmhouse, the idea of so much space was intimidating rather than exciting. He started up the steps when Mayfield motioned for him to do so, wondering if perhaps he was still sleeping after all. The enormous front hall and the line of servants assembled before him seemed unreal. He handed his overcoat, hat, and woolen gloves to the solemn butler as if in a dream.
“His lordship is not well,” Mayfield announced once the introductions were finished. “Be sure there is a good fire in his room.”
“There is, sir,” one of the footmen answered.
“And see to it that he is brought something hot to eat.”
Leander’s stomach rebelled at the thought. “No.” His voice wasn’t as strong as he would have liked, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “No food. Thank you.”
“Have some negus prepared and brought up,” Mayfield amended. “Powell will show you up to your chambers, Lord Dearborne.”
“My box,” Leander protested, wishing his mind would function well enough that he could speak in proper sentences.
“Dodds has already brought it up,” Mayfield said impatiently. “Gibson is no doubt unpacking it as we speak.”
Leander vaguely recalled the name of Gibson among all the others, but nothing else about him.
“I must take my leave. I have other matters that require my attention.” Mayfield made another slight bow. “Good day, Lord Dearborne.”
“Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Mayfield.” Leander didn’t need Mayfield’s condescending look to know that none of his actions sprang from kindness, but Leander felt that he ought to say something.
After another polite but cold smile, Mayfield left. Alone but for nearly a dozen servants, Leander looked around at all of them until Powell, the butler, took pity on him. “If you will walk this way, my lord.”
Leander followed the dignified man upstairs and into a room easily twice as large as any in his old home. The dark wooden furniture was so highly polished it gleamed while the curtains and bed hangings were of a heavy, dark blue fabric that Leander guessed might be silk. More important to him was the bed itself, which was large and piled with pillows and blankets.
He jumped slightly when he felt hands on his coat collar and turned to see a tall, wiry young man, not too much older than himself, attempting to remove his coat for him. The man was apparently here to help him undress, which Leander found excessive. “I’m not ill,” he assured the man—Gibson, no doubt. “I can do it myself.”
“Very good, my lord.” Gibson stepped back immediately. “The maid has brought the negus up already.” He nodded toward a small, round table.
“Thank you.” Leander sat in the deep, well-padded chair next to it and wrapped his hands around the steaming cup. Sipping at the sweet, spicy drink, he watched Gibson lay out his nightshirt.
That finished, Gibson moved next to Leander’s chair, standing there in silence until Leander became uneasy and looked up at him questioningly.
“Do you require anything else, my lord?”
“No, thank you.”
Gibson bowed—much more deeply than Mayfield had—and left. Leander was relieved to finally have some time alone, even if weariness was pressing too heavily for him to reflect much on the day’s events. He was halfway through the cup of negus, which he suspected contained something much more potent than cider, and drowsiness was beginning to overtake him in earnest.
Setting the rest of the drink aside, he rose and began changing into his nightclothes. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the washstand and paused. Weary blue eyes stared back at him from a pale face. His thick, wavy black hair was in disarray and Leander pushed it into place even though he was about to turn in and his hair rarely behaved as he wished it to at the best of times. He did look ill, he decided: his face was drawn and his cheekbones more prominent than usual. Hopefully, sleep would help. He didn’t want to begin his life in London looking like a consumptive weakling. With a frown, he turned from the mirror and got into bed.
As soon as he was settled, thoughts of the crowded city, the formidable house, or the numerous strangers that shared it with him no longer plagued him. He wasn’t concerned with the fact that he didn’t know a soul in the country except for a disdainful cousin. All that mattered was that the bed he’d just climbed into was as comfortable as he’d hoped and that the blazing fire and warm drink had managed to chase much of the chill from his bones.
Even the strangeness of resting among so many pillows failed to distract him, and within moments, he was deeply asleep.