Once Upon an Earl – Eleanor Meyers

The rumor of Lady Brandell’s dead child has reached my ears, and I mourn for her just as I do anyone else who experiences such tragedies. It’s hard for me to not think of her when I’ve a new foundling of my own to care for. Nash cries daily, as though he knows he doesn’t belong here. Truly, none of the children do. In a perfect world, every mother and father would cling to their offspring. Children would grow up loved by those who brought them into the world. Each would have their own place in a family structure and in society, but Nash is not like many of the others. Mr. Reed has brought me the child, this one kidnapped for its own good. He won’t tell me the home the child has come from, but with the quality of the clothing the child wore, I know he comes from wealth. And then he has a wealth of red hair. I can only think of three women in of Society who were with child. One was still carrying when last I saw her, and the other delivered safely. Then there was Lady Brandell. How odd that she is to lose one, and I gain one.

I wish to make inquiries, but Mr. Reed has warned against it this time. He knows how I like to know the children’s backgrounds. Their past has a way of helping me with their future, but he’s saved so many children in the past. It’s the reason I trust him in this matter, even if I don’t trust him with anything else. He’s a very unsettling man, and came to me covered in dirt… But something even more unsettling was when my maid told me of the disturbed grave in the background, a plot for the baby boy who’d died just a day go, God rest his soul. It truly makes one wonder… Who would take a dead child and why? -From the Diary of Mary Elizabeth Best May 1817 London, England Nash Smith was going to kill him. His stomach burned with anger and conviction. His blood pounded in his ears as he ran down the darkened road, cutting a straight path toward the Earl of Brandell’s terrace. His only thoughts were of how to take the man down.

Contrary to what most of those who knew him thought, he’d never killed a man before, not outright, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of it. He’d seen death. While in Newgate, he’d lived around men who might as well have been corpses. The foulest odor had clung to their thinning bodies, and the lack of food quickly made many waste away. He wasn’t anxious at the possibility of returning. After sitting in a cell for a few weeks, he’d sworn that if he was released, he’d never go back again. He’s been angry at first, strong-willed with a notion that he was rarely wrong. All it had taken to cure his misguided conviction were a few months of listening to the men and women screaming, their voices raised as they tried to fend off attacks from both prisoners and guards. After that, he’d sworn he’d be a good man and live a holy life. But purity never came with Nash’s freedom, for since the moment he’d stepped out of Newgate, he’d been forever changed, becoming harder than ever before, and only managing to hold the zenith of his anger leashed.

No one understood the extent of Nash’s mask, not even his family… or so he’d believed. For years, he’d tried to be the very example of a good man, but apparently, he’d never fooled either of his brothers. Both Chris and Reuben had known just what Nash was capable of, and had hidden a great secret from him. The secret of his identity. Until tonight. He slowed his steps and glanced around. He wasn’t entirely sure where Brandell lived, but recalled seeing it in the books at the club he worked at. Turning right, he slowed his steps as he came into a neighborhood bustling with the ton. Carriages flooded the streets. The hour was nearly midnight and the parties had been underway for hours, yet many would continue into the wee hours of the morning.

He wondered if Brandell was presently at a party. He’d not thought of that, as he’d decided to pursue the man, deciding he’d throttle the earl with his bare hands. And to think Brandell was his own uncle. The man who’d ordered his death! The one who’d tried to have Nash killed as a babe, so that he could take the title. Nash was the true Earl of Brandell. And the world would never know it. Who would believe him? Not a soul. Well, maybe there’d be a few. In the last two years, news of the discovery of illegitimate heirs had been published in all of London’s papers. Nash’s old caretaker, a woman named Mary Elizabeth Best, had kept a journal over twenty-two years, that spoke of the foundlings under her care, naming their parents, and revealing the truth behind their circumstances.

Of course, the journal had never been meant to be read by the public. No one knew who had the journals, much less who was giving them to the papers, yet one child after another was being revealed. Would Nash’s story be printed for all of London to see? He prayed not. He didn’t even want the title. What he wanted was justice. He kept this in mind, as he glanced at the crowd that had formed a line to be received by whatever host stood inside the townhouse doors. From the open windows, Nash could hear music, and there was enough light for him to make out people dancing and laughing. It amazed him to know he’d been born of that world. The son of an earl. His father, Vinci Wolfgang, would likely still be alive, if Rez Wolfgang hadn’t snuffed the life out of him, treating his own kin as though he were less than nothing.

There had been rumors that Rez had killed Vinci. A “hunting accident” the papers had claimed. The death had taken place years after Nash was born. As a child in an orphanage, he’d never cared when anyone died. He hadn’t understood what it meant at the time and hadn’t known Vinci in order to miss him. Another loss for him. And now that Nash knew what his uncle was capable of, he was convinced Rez had a hand in the murder. Perhaps he’d let him live long enough to find out the truth. Perhaps not. He stopped and stared at the gentlemen in their dark suits, and the women in their stunning gowns.

As a young orphan, he’d always wanted more, and he’d been told that even as child, he’d acted as though he deserved it. That was because I’d been a lord. Lord what? What had been his true name? The papers that had published Vinci’s death had only mentioned an heir who’d died shortly after birth. Yet here Nash stood. Why? His brothers, or rather, the men who’d been like brothers to him until tonight, had found Mary Best’s journal years ago, as young men. They’d read Nash’s story, but couldn’t remember all the details. And now, the journal was in the hands of someone else they’d yet to find. They’d meant well, Nash knew. They’d known what Nash would do if he found out, but what man would not defend his own death, false or not? Retribution for his father was simply another reason to go after the man. A driver stopped a carriage only feet in front of Nash, and a footman stepped down from the back.

“The party looks like a real crush,” Nash said to the young man. The footman looked up in the dark, studied Nash’s clothing, and finding it to be of quality, nodded. “Yes, sir. It does seem that way.” Nash moved over to him and lowered his voice. From his pocket, he produced two farthings. “Would you happen to know if Lord Brandell is there?” The footman took the coins. “No, but I can find out.” He grinned and dashed off. Nash stepped away and waited for the young man’s return.

It didn’t take him long. Servants tended to make friends with other servants during such events, and Nash could often count on them for gossip, especially when that gossip wasn’t about their own employer. “Brandell isn’t there,” the man said. “Apparently, he’s at his usual club, meeting with a few friends. His sons, however, are in attendance. Karl and Jolan. Nash had heard of them, heard that they were like day and night. Karl seemed passionate about everything, almost insanely so, while Jolan cared for very little. His cousins. He didn’t care to know them any more than he already did.

“Thank you.” He turned and walked in the opposite direction, toward St. James. Nash knew where most of the wealthy men chose to spend their time, had to, to gain members for Lord Iverstone’s Boxing Club, which was where Nash taught a class… along with overseeing other business interests for the Duke of Iverstone. Knowing time was short, he sped up his steps once more with only two goals in mind: Find Rez Wolfgang and kill him. Lady Samantha Coburn rushed after Dowager Countess Brandell as they continued down St. James, and wondered, not for the first time, if the dowager had lost her wits. Sam had been her companion for only five months, yet until tonight, she’d have easily been able to say that the dowager led a very dull life. There’d been a few afternoon teas with the dowager’s only friend, Lady Agnes, the Viscountess Selby. On occasion, the dowager left the house to wander the gardens behind Brandell’s terrace, and when her nephew Karl insisted, the dowager managed to appear at a few of his parties, which were always the highlight of Sam’s existence, but nothing more than that.

The dowager liked to do needlework. She liked to read, and, on occasion, she spoke to Sam. The dowager hadn’t wanted a companion. She had said more than once she didn’t need one, and until tonight, Sam would have agreed, yet Karl had insisted, and here Sam was. She sometimes believed that Karl’s intentions were good, that he even cared for his aunt, but his insanity made Sam question if he ever did anything with intention. It seemed the dowager’s only purpose in life was to sit in a chair in a corner, until the day she died. She was called a dowager, but the woman had yet to reach half a century. Still, everything about her fit a woman at least thirty years her senior. Her clothes were dark and unfashionable, her expressions more serious than not, and whenever Sam or Lady Agnes managed to pull a smile from her, the dowager acted as though it was almost painful. She didn’t like people.

Only Lady Agnes, though Sam hoped to one day be added to that list. Sam recalled an afternoon a fortnight ago, when she’d suggested they venture to Hyde Park during the fashionable hour, but the very idea had bothered the dowager so greatly that Sam never brought it up again. But if Sam had been asked to describe the formerly sensible woman who was currently being quite insensible, as she walked briskly down the road at the darkest hour of night, in a city that was known for its dangers, she would have no answer to give. “My lady,” she gasped. She was quite winded. “Perhaps, we could take a carriage where you wish to go?” “No, this way.” The dowager didn’t sound winded at all. In fact, she sounded quite determined, more determined than she ever had before. Who was this woman? They stopped when an alley presented itself, and Sam could hear masculine voices at the other end. There was laughter, the sound of it harsh against Sam’s senses.

Cockney flowed from their lips. She paused at the vulgarity of their language. She couldn’t see them. The shadows were too great for that, yet she imagined exactly what they’d look like. Large. Dangerous. Calloused hands. “Ah,” the dowager said with a lift in her voice. “Just the sort we’ve been looking for.” Sam’s eyes widened.

Had they truly ventured into the night so that the dowager could find some thugs? Whatever did the woman hope to gain? Sam’s fear grew at the thought of what she might lose. Her virtue was the first, though the state of her maidenhood was questioned by many of the ton, thus her occupation. “My lady—” “You wait here, Sam. I must speak to these men in private.” The dowager touched her coin purse and started down the alley. Sam followed, using all her strength to wrestle the woman back toward the street. “Dowager, please. This is… unwise.” She whispered the words, unable to speak louder because of the strain. One would think the dowager’s larger weight would make her weak, but when the woman fought back, Sam was overpowered.

“Lady Samantha! You stop this at once! You are not my governess.” No, but perhaps the woman needed one. The noise on the other end of the alley suddenly ceased. “Who’s there?” a loud voice called from its dark belly. Then, footsteps started their way. Sam gasped and broke out in tears. “Oh, my lady, I beg you, please let us return to the party.” They’d attended a party with Lord Karl, another first for the dowager, and somehow, the woman had talked Sam into a walk down the road. That walk had then turned into an ambitious run toward danger. If only she’d known.

“Hello!” the dowager called to the men. “I’ve simply come to speak to one of you. It’s only me and my companion here, and I’ve money.” Of all the things to say! Using the last ounce of her strength, Sam moved in front of the dowager and managed to push her back toward the road. “Sam! What is the matter with you!” The dowager tripped but caught herself, again proving she was more agile than she looked. With a final push, they were in the street again. Sam prepared herself to call for help, but the words were stolen from her when she bumped into something large. She was grabbed by someone whose hands came out and caught her. This person had large muscled arms and a solid chest. She knew at once, they did not belong to the dowager.

She pulled in a breath to scream, but it was cut off when she found herself in motion. She was placed behind the stranger’s back as the men from the alley finally spilled out into the street. Sam could hardly see what was taking place in front of her, because the man who’d grabbed her kept blocking her view. She was trembling, but feared moving away. This man, whomever he was, was like a wall. She felt protected, especially when she took in how well the tails of his suit jacket had been cut. Surely a ruffian didn’t have such lovely tails. “Can I help you?” the “Wall” asked the men. “Help us?” the man who’d spoken before asked. “We heard a shout from one of these women asking for our aid.

We wanted no trouble.” Did his voice tremble at bit at the end?

.

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