John Fitzhugh Wyckerly, newly styled seventh Earl of Danecroft, tilted back his late father’s wooden office chair and plopped his muddy boots on a towering stack of yellowed invoices. From that position, he contemplated the gun collection on the far wall, left to him by his freshly departed brother.
If guns were the solution to his problems, he had a vast array from which to choose.
Outside the estate office, a clamor arose among the creditors waiting there. With any luck, the hue and cry signaled the arrival of a servant with the coffee he’d ordered.
Whiskey would have been preferable under the circumstances, but it was only noon, and drinking spirits so early in the day would be disrespectful of the brother who had just been laid to rest in the family vault. On second thought, the old boy would have encouraged a swallow of good malt, or two, or the whole bottle, regardless of the hour. George had arrived at the pearly gates in the same manner in which he’d lived—well pickled. Fitz understood the compulsion to reach for a bottle, but unlike his simpleminded brother, he wasn’t inclined to follow orders or urges.
Until now, Fitz had supported himself with his skill for cards. As a younger son, he’d had no obligation to family or estate. His affable charm and a peculiar gift for numbers had provided financial freedom. Now—he rolled his eyes in disgust—as far as he could tell, his family’s general incompetence and selfish indulgence had dug a hole deeper than a king’s treasure house could fill.
An earlier scan of the invoices and dunning notices scattered across the desk had produced the depressing calculation that if he could organize the meager family assets well enough to produce ten thousand pounds a year, the Danecroft estate would be out of debt in approximately a hundred years.
The Wicked Wyckerlys had ridden the road to ruin to its inevitable cliff. At least, in previous generations, there had been a few branches dedicated to saving the estate, but that had ended when his grandfather and great-uncle had come to blows. Perhaps his grandfather shouldn’t have wagered his brother’s marriage settlement on a cheese-rolling race, but the rabbit hole that had broken the champion cheese roller’s ankle couldn’t have been predicted.
The younger branch of the family had gone on to amass a fortune in trade. Apparently all the earldom’s luck had gone with them.
Bracing his hands behind his head, Fitz watched with admiration as Bibley maneuvered the door open and slipped through the narrow slot carrying a tray, effectively blocking any sight of the inner office from the angry hordes in the outer one.
“You have perfected evasive action to a science, Bib,” Fitz complimented the aging family retainer. “I deduce you have had much experience in dodging creditors.”
“Yes, my lord.” With palsied, spotted hands, the shrunken butler carefully lowered the wooden tray.
The silver had been sold long ago, despite the entailment requiring that it remain with the estate. The earls of Danecroft generally believed themselves above the boring details of law, even when they protected the welfare of uninteresting and often odious offspring.
“And bailiffs,” Bibley continued as if asking if he’d like sugar.
“Your brother’s debtors sued and won. They’re here to take him to Newgate.”
Fitz returned his boots to the floor to reach for the steaming cup of coffee. “Did someone point out the cemetery to them?”
“They weren’t amused, my lord.”
“No, I suppose they wouldn’t be.” Fitz straightened the neckcloth knot that had suddenly tightened around his throat. “I don’t suppose there’s a groat to be found among the cushions or a bottle of wine in the cellar worth selling?”
“Mice ate the cushions, and the late earl was brewing ale in the washtub,” Bibley said with all the dignity of his exalted position, despite the fact that his frock coat was shiny with age and his linen threadbare from laundering.
“Which late earl, Georgie or Pops?” Fitz spun his chair to look out upon the estate’s neglected weed field. Lawn was much too refined a word for the overgrown pasture beyond the terrace. But what did he know? He was a product of the beau monde, not a farmer. He thrived on London’s society. He would sell the land and return to the city if he could. But he couldn’t, or his ancestors would have already done so. Selling land no doubt required lawyers who understood the niceties of entailments.
He ought to feel sorrow at the recent losses of his only family in drunken accidents. He supposed, once he recovered from the shock of their sudden deaths, he would dig out a pleasant memory or two to mourn. But in truth, he hadn’t seen either his brother or father in what? Five years? Six? Along with being above the law, the Wicked Wyckerlys lacked family instincts. Or was that family affection and nesting instincts? Anyway, cuckoos would fare better.
“Viscount Wyckerly experimented in brewing,” Bibley replied, reverting to the sixth earl’s former title. George had managed to break his neck tumbling down inn stairs only a few months after inheriting the title—hardly time to be remembered as an earl.
“Enterprising of the old boy,” Fitz said absently, turning back to regard the piles of unpaid—and previously unopened—bills. “Don’t suppose he planned to sell the results of his ale experiments to pay your wages, did he?”
“Unlikely, my lord,” the butler said stiffly, pinching his wrinkled lips in disapproval.
“No, I thought not.” Pensively, Fitz drained his cup and regarded the gun collection. “Despite the family differences, Cousin Geoff really would be a better earl, wouldn’t he?”
Bibley took the empty cup and refilled it, a certain sign that he approved of the conversation’s direction. “Mr. Geoffrey Wyckerly runs his family’s woolen industry and has experience in managing accounts,” he agreed.
“My experience makes me a damned fine gambler.” Fitz spoke his thoughts aloud. It wasn’t as if anyone else knew his dissolute family’s affairs better than Bibley. “I won a Thoroughbred stud the night before last. I was on my way to Cheltenham to claim him when word reached me.”
“Very fortunate the solicitors found you, my lord.”
“Is it?” Fitz sipped the second cup. The uproar outside the office subsided to an angry buzz. He had a suspicion the estate office teeming with bailiffs and creditors wasn’t the best place for him to contemplate his future. “It might have been more fortunate if I had seen fit to be hit by a mail coach while on my way to claim my prize. Cousin Geoff would have been most grateful, as would all those angry men out there.”
“Your cousin is a wealthy man who would like to be earl,” Bibley agreed, polishing the gold watch he’d no doubt appropriated in lieu of wages at some earlier date.
He was surrounded by scoundrels, Fitz mused. A fitting environment for the likes of him. A deep and abiding respect for mathematics, and a fascinating but wholly useless knowledge of insects, did not qualify him to be an earl. “A stud as valuable as the one I won can provide a handsome return,” was all he revealed aloud. “I could have lived comfortably off the stud fees alone. I could have gambled the race prizes into greater wealth.”
“Not as great as Mr. Wyckerly’s,” Bibley said in the same agreeable tone as earlier.
“True.” Fitz listened for any indication that the estate’s creditors might be preparing to batter down the office door. “Geoff’s father married a wealthy Cit. His blood isn’t as blue as mine. He works for a living. In mills. And warehouses. And sundry other filthy holes.”
Bibley pursed his wrinkled lips and said nothing. A master manipulator was Bibley. Having lived on his wits and the cards for years, Fitz possessed a strong understanding of human nature. He recognized the butler’s mannerisms well enough.
“I sympathize with your plight, Bib.” He sat back and sipped his coffee, still eyeing the impressive gun collection. “And like you, I agree that while Geoff is no doubt as wicked as any Wyckerly, he might be a better earl, one who could make some inroads in paying the estate’s debts, anyway. The bailiffs are unlikely to haul him off to Newgate.”
The doddering family retainer tucked his watch back into his vest pocket. “As you say, my lord.”
“Unfortunately”—Fitz drained his second cup—“I’m not inclined to blow out my brains for the benefit of my tenants and staff.”
Bibley nodded as if that was to be expected of a degenerate, inconsiderate Wyckerly. “If I might be so bold as to suggest, my lord . . . ?”
“Have at it, old boy. I’ve not yet reached wit’s end, but the signpost is on the horizon.”
“With all due respect, my lord, evidence suggesting your death might come to light.”
Listening to the distant toll of a doorbell announcing the arrival of still another creditor or needy tenant, Fitz nodded in understanding. “Excellent ploy. Fake my death, put the bailiffs off, let Geoff think he inherits, and see what happens. Dishonest, but intriguing.”
“I would see that he paid the staff, of course.”
“Of course.” Fitz’s gaze found the portrait of his mother hidden behind the stacks of deteriorating estate ledgers his brother had evidently moved so as to more effectively display his gun collection.
“Perhaps you could build a better life elsewhere,” Bib suggested, staring over Fitz’s head at the unproductive fields beyond the window.
“I think not, old man,” he said thoughtfully. “Awful hard for an earl to disappear. Strange as it may seem, I have responsibilities.” And one rather important one that he couldn’t neglect any more than he already had. But now was not the time to mention the result of his youthful indiscretions.
Raised by ill-paid servants, Fitz, now the seventh Earl of Danecroft, had never known affection, or owned more than the suit on his back, but he hoped he had the character to attempt to crawl out from under the family woodpile and become a better person.
His greatest fear was that in his incompetence he would be the earl to complete the destruction of what his ancestors had wrought. “No tales about my death, Bib,” he warned.
“Yes, my lord.” Bib’s pursed lips of disapproval returned.
“I daresay it wouldn’t hurt if I disappeared for a bit, though,” Fitz said thoughtfully, tapping his fingers against the desk. “Buy a little time, figure out what to do next. Find Croesus and see if he has a daughter I could marry. This being earl isn’t something I was trained for.”
Old Bib almost smiled. “Perfectly understandable, my lord. I believe your cousin could be persuaded to loan a small sum for wages in your inexplicable absence.”
Fitz knew to be wary when Bib smiled, but his mind had already traveled to his next port of call. “I knew I could count on you, Bib. Tell my visitors I’ve stepped out, will you?”
Dusting off the curly-brimmed beaver hat he’d worn to the funeral, Fitz opened the floor-to-ceiling-length mullioned window behind the desk, ducked his head beneath the peeling frame, and stepped over the rotten sill.
The tall grass parted as he strode in the direction of the weed-smothered shrubbery where he’d heaved his baggage from the mail coach on his way to George’s funeral.
Dignity belonged to butlers, not to Danecrofts.