A few minutes later he raised his head. “Ah, Honeydew. I forgot to…”

“It is now one o’clock,” Honeydew informed him.

Simeon looked with some surprise at the tray next to him. Apparently, he’d eaten all the toast without noticing.

“Those papers have been waiting for years, Your Grace. Surely a night or two won’t make any difference.”

“Some—nay, many—of these papers extend back into the days when my father was alive.”

“Ah.” The butler’s face was utterly inexpressive.

“Yet my father didn’t suffer a long illness; he died in a carriage accident. How could—” Simeon bit off the words. It wasn’t appropriate to ask the butler why his father had stopped answering estate mail.

And yet it was true. Incredibly, it seemed that his father had made a practice of not paying bills until he absolutely had to, until letters from solicitors reached hysterical and unpleasant depths. He knew. He’d found all the letters. He even thought there was a system to it: his father paid after the fourth or fifth dunning letter, and then quite frequently only part of the bill.

Apparently tradesmen were so happy to receive a few pence on the pound that they ceased their complaints. It was inconceivable.

Well, perhaps it was conceivable in the case of a man with no substance. Yet the Duke of Cosway could hardly be described as poor.

Simeon kept turning back to the estate books, neatly kept, neatly laid out. The estate was thriving. He couldn’t explain how or why. There had been no improvements made in years. His father had fired the estate manager years ago. But it was. He could pay off all the outstanding bills and feel no pinch.

So why had his father done it?

There was only one person who could tell him, and he didn’t wish to speak to her.

“Mr. Kinnaird has arrived, Your Grace,” Honeydew said.

Thank God. His father had somehow neglected to fire Kinnaird, the manager of his London properties, perhaps because he didn’t see him often. “Send him in immediately, please.”

Kinnaird entered, bowing. He was a tall, nervous-looking man with a skinny bottom that showed to no great advantage in his short frock-coat. With it he wore horizontally striped stockings, undoubtedly because his valet thought the effect would give his legs more breadth.

“Kinnaird,” Simeon snapped, thinking that the man looked like a fool. And then: A fool to whom I cheerfully dispatched thousands of pounds worth of fabric and jewels over the years.

His hand tightened under the table, but he made his voice affable enough. “Please, sit down, Mr. Kinnaird. I do apologize for my brusque greeting just now. I find myself worried by the state of Revels House.”

“Entirely understandable,” Mr. Kinnaird said, rather unexpectedly.

“Could you tell me where all the fabrics and other items that I sent my mother over the years might be found?” Simeon asked.

“The East Warehouse in Southwark,” Mr. Kinnaird replied. He pulled out a small black notebook and opened it. “You first sent ten boxes of stuffs from India in 1776, Your Grace. Those were stored in the upper reaches of the warehouse. As they arrived, succeeding goods were numbered and placed in similar shelving. In 1779, we purchased the warehouse, the better to maintain security. It is guarded around the clock, and all goods are dry and free of infestations.”

“And the stones and other nonfabric goods?”

“Jewels were sent on two occasions, arriving in England in March 1781 and in November 1783. On neither occasion did I judge our warehouse to be sufficiently secure. Those materials are stowed at Hoare’s bank in London. I have here the bills of deposit, co-signed by the bank manager, myself, and the captain of the vessel in question.”

“Mr. Kinnaird,” Simeon said, “I have misjudged you. I’m afraid that when I entered this house and realized the state it was in, I jumped to the worst of all possible conclusions.”

Kinnaird looked about him. “I cannot take offense, Your Grace. The truth is that the dowager duchess did not welcome my visits, nor did she accept the goods you sent for her personal use. I returned those trunks to the warehouse as you will see on the itemized list.”

Simeon sat for a moment. “Did she give any explanation?”

“She is rather set in her ways, Your Grace, as I have noticed elderly ladies often are. Perhaps India and Africa seem too distant for her.”

“I gather that she did not allow you to act as a man of business for her, given—” he gestured “—the stacks of papers I find here.”

“No, Your Grace. She informed me that she would continue to run things precisely as your father had done. I did inform you of this in a letter, Your Grace.”

“Not every letter reached me,” Simeon said, staring sightlessly at the piles of foolscap covering his father’s desk.

“No, Your Grace. Of course.”

“Well, Mr. Kinnaird,” Simeon said finally, “could I ask you to return to London and arrange for transfer of the goods I intended as gifts? They can be transported here. I am in the process of directing payment of all overdue bills.”

Kinnaird cleared his throat. “I should inform you that Mr. Honeydew occasionally forwarded bills to me that had to be paid and naturally I took care of them.”

“You mean he would steal them from this table and send them to you in London?”

“That allowed the household to keep running, Your Grace,” Kinnaird said.

It wasn’t easy to accept that one’s mother has lost her mind. Gone uncooked. Thrown her pancakes to the roof. However you want to put it.

“Very good, Kinnaird,” he said. He paused. “Have the servants’ wages been raised since my father died?”

“No, my lord. Nor for some years before that sad event. However, I took the liberty of giving each of them a Boxing Day present that brought their wages to near-current rates. Again, Mr. Honeydew was invaluable in this respect.”

“As were you, Mr. Kinnaird.”

Kinnaird’s knees turned inwards and he gave an odd little bob that Simeon thought indicated pleasure. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Simeon felt like going for another run, but instead he made his way to his mother’s chambers and knocked on the door.

She was sitting before a small secretary at her window. Simeon realized with a sinking heart that her desk, too, was stacked with sheaves of paper.

He dropped into the bow that she required, waited while she held out her hand to be kissed, waited while she arranged herself in a chair and motioned him to another. Though they were in the country, and surely not expecting morning callers, she wore a high powdered wig hung with teardrop pearls.

“You have come, of course, to apologize,” she said, folding her hands. “I expected as much from your father’s son.”

When had his mother’s voice become so high and quavering? When had she developed that slight hitch in her step? When had she become so old?

“Mother,” he began.

She raised her hand. “I see no reason that you, a duke, should address me by a term suitable for a schoolboy’s use.”

“Your Grace,” he started over. “I am concerned about the state of the paperwork in the study.”

“You needn’t worry about that,” she said, bestowing him with a gracious smile. “I took care of everything regularly. I was brought up to manage a large estate, and I have continued to do so since your father’s death. In every case I noted the instructions I gave Honeydew, so that you have a thorough record.”

Tags: Eloisa James Desperate Duchesses Romance
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