Early June 1830
Lady Azenor Dougall—Aster, to her family—clutched the onyx brooch on her bodice, the one containing a lock of her much-mourned baby sister’s fair hair. Even after all this time, the sorrow was a reminder of what happened should she ever shirk her duty again.
“I must not doubt my intuition,” she muttered as the carriage jounced in another muddy rut and rain blurred the windows. “I must believe in my gifts.”
“An instinct that takes you out in this storm is not very trustworthy,” Aster’s companion intoned in her sepulchral voice. Clad in black, cloaked in gloom, Jennet loomed large against the opposite seat. “We should turn back.”
Aster had chosen Jennet for her melancholy unlikableness. She wasn’t likely to become too attached to a physical representation of herself as a Prophetess of Doom. Or so she’d thought six months ago when she’d agreed to train Jennet as a lady’s companion. But desperately missing her faraway family, she’d even grown fond of Her Gloominess.
“Turning back would constitute shirking my duty. The marquess could improve the future of thousands of poor children,” Aster said steadfastly. “Even if I must make a donkey’s behind of myself knocking on his door, he must be warned.”
“He won’t believe you,” Jennet insisted.
Few outside her family ever did, Aster knew, so Jennet was being realistic, not pessimistic.
Unfortunately, because her family did have faith in her gifts, they’d been forced to cast her out of the nest and send her off on her own. Aster had proved all too painfully how correct her dire predictions could be. If only her gift would prove useful.
It was beyond dreadful to know when something awful would happen, and not be able to stop it. There were days when she feared everyone was better off not knowing their fate.
Lord Theophilus Ives, heir presumptive to the 3rd Marquess of Ashford, teetered dangerously on a once-elegant Louis XIV parlor chair to adjust the settings on his latest telescope. The chair rested on top of a table that slanted on uneven marble tiles, balanced by several volumes from the library. The leaning tower of pieces tilted as he leaned over to check the ocular.
The downpour that had driven him out of his roof aerie also obscured any view through the three-story foyer dome.
“I need a tower,” he complained to whichever of his layabout brothers followed the pack of spaniel puppies racing down the corridor.
“If you want a tower, go to Wystan.” Erran stumbled over a puppy and grunted under the burden of the table he carried.
A black-haired Ives two years younger than Theo, his barrister brother had the build of a young ox. This occasionally irritated Theo, who was taller but lankier and possessed mouse-brown hair instead of the distinctive Ives black. But Erran was the more social and civilized of his brothers, while Theo preferred his quiet library, so he supposed Erran needed his handsome looks.
“Wystan is filled with expectant females,” Theo grumbled, “or I would.”
The marquess of Ashford, holder of this damp estate in Surrey, was also the earl of Ives and Wystan. As earl, he owned land—and the infamous Wystan tower—in the wilds of Northumberland. Theo’s glass manufactory might have been suitable there, but all his allowance had gone into building it here, so Surrey had to be his home. Besides, he still needed the notice of the Astronomical Society to sell his highly-refined telescopes, and the Society was unfortunately located in London.
“Make yourself useful for a change and stick another book under the table leg, will you?” Theo called over the yapping of the excited spaniels.
“Get your own bloody book. Better yet, get the whole damned library before the roof falls in,” Erran griped, backing around Theo’s chair and dodging puppies to place a billiard table with the help of their half-brother Jacques.
“The roof and the library are Duncan’s business,” Theo said with a dismissive gesture. “Or maybe his missing steward’s. As the heir and the spare, I needn’t bother with them.” Which had never been a sore point. Theo wouldn’t have his brother’s title and responsibilities for all the women in the world.
“If he can’t even manage the library repair, we’ll never fix that leaky pipe over the billiard room—unless I tear off the ceiling,” Erran suggested.
“Absolutely not!” Theo said. “Stick with the hay baler you left strewn in the great hall. Lawyers should stick to wire and string.”
Finally giving up on the telescope, he frowned as his younger brothers settled the billiard table in front of the front doors. “What the devil are you doing?”
“The plumbing was dripping on the felt. We figured if you could set up out here, so could we. It’s wasted space anyway.” From beneath a mop of dark blond hair, Jacques flashed an impish grin remarkably similar to his French mother’s. “And as one of the irresponsible bastards around here, I have no other duty but beast of burden. Shall I start moving the library next?”
Knowing full well that Jacques was perfectly content with his side branch in the family tree, Theo ran his hand through his thick mop of hair. He winced, remembering he was supposed to have had it cut yesterday. Blast it.
He glanced out the windows at sheets of rain and decided his hair wasn’t going anywhere soon. His valet had left to visit his family and never returned. Theo really hadn’t noticed his absence, except when it came time for a haircut.
“It would be easier to repair the leaky roof than move the library. Didn’t Duncan hire someone to work on it?” Theo climbed from the chair and made a quick calculation in his notes. He shoved the stack of paper in his waistband so it didn’t end up as puppy litter.
“The esteemed Marquess of Ashford claimed he did,” Jacques said. “But then his doting fiancée sent a note asking for his opinion on the summer fete, and he hasn’t been seen since.”
Studying the curved glass dome overhead, Theo surrendered. Even his new telescope wouldn’t penetrate the thick clouds rolling in as they had for months. He needed a desert for testing his glass magnifications. He’d never persuade the Astronomical Society that there were many more moons around Saturn than the six they knew until he could actually show them with his new glass.
“At least Margaret knows what she’s marrying into,” Theo said philosophically. “She’s not likely to run out on Dunc anytime soon.”
Erran slapped Theo on the back, catching him by surprise and nearly bowling him over. “You should have taken your lady to Wystan instead of introducing her here, old boy. We’re really sorry about that goat race.”
Theo was really sorry about it, too. Celia had been tall, blond, and even-tempered—his perfect mate. It had taken him forever to woo her since they lived in different villages, and he wasn’t much inclined to social occasions. But once she’d accepted his suit, he’d even sworn off mistresses in anticipation of his nuptials, so he was just a bit testy these days.
He hated hunting for another available female, but he supposed it was good to learn that Celia had been prone to hysteria before he married.
Wystan, however, was not the answer to anything except Erran’s desire to shove Theo out of the house.
In retaliation for the unexpected slap, Theo caught Erran’s muscled arm and twisted it behind his back, proving brains could beat brawn. “It was the nude swimming that had her fleeing for her life, sapskull, not just goats rampaging through the hall. You’re all a parcel of heathens.” He shoved his younger brother toward the back corridor. “Move the library or fix the roof. If you’re not in London studying, you have to earn your keep.”
Under Theo’s careless shove, Erran stumbled against the billiard table, then tripped over Hog, his mangy bloodhound. He caught himself on a door jamb, leaned down to scratch Hog in apology, then grabbed a billiard cue.
“Don’t you dare,” Theo warned. He was still hurting over the fiasco with Celia and wasn’t putting up with more of his brothers’ antics. “You’re five-and-twenty and should put that thick head of yours to better use than a battering ram. When do you finish up your term at Chancellery? You don’t want to arrive with a broken nose.”
Erran rubbed his already misshapen proboscis. “I’m due in court next week. But I can’t afford lodging in London.”
Jacques hooted. “He spends all his funds on tailors and can’t afford the women in London. Buy him a rich wife. She’ll settle him down.”
Always ready for a brawl, Erran swung the cue at Jacques, who was inches shorter and a stone lighter and not an adequate partner for fisticuffs. Jacques retaliated by grabbing another cue, holding it like a rapier. Hog yawned in complaint and lumbered to the side of the room. The spaniels yipped in excitement and chased each other into the fray.
Through the tumult, a door knocker rapped authoritatively. Startled, Theo dropped the puppy he’d been removing from under his telescope. Hog howled his intruder warning, and the puppies proceeded to yap in enthusiastic accompaniment.
Jacques and Erran dropped their weapons to stare.
“Who the devil would be out in this deluge?” Erran asked, grumpy at having his brawl disturbed.
“Normal people open the door to find out.” Since he was as normal as any Ives got, Theo unbolted the massive carved door his great-grandparents had installed in recognition of their new marquisate.