'What the devil do you want, Vincent, at this godforsaken time in the morning?' Theodolphus Archibald Frederick John Rickham, seventh Earl of Wister, known to his friends as Wister, or just Theo, yawned hugely and propped himself up on one elbow to scowl at his valet who had had the temerity to disturb him at dawn.
'I apologise, sir, but the man was most insistent that he speak to Sir James or Lady Devenish.'
Theo shot out of bed. 'Good God! This is a disaster. Did the man give his name?'
Vincent held out a brocade dressing gown liberally woven with gold and Theo slipped his arms in. 'I have some papers he gave me here, sir. He said they would explain everything.'
The bundle of papers disappeared into Theo's hand and he strode across to the candelabra. He flicked open the first and scanned its contents. He perused the next three, his eyebrows raised and his brow furrowed as he read.
'Vincent, what have you done with the young lady?'
'I asked Mrs Blake to conduct her and her abigail to the guest rooms in the east wing, sir. I couldn't leave her to sleep on the doorstep. The young men I sent round to the stables, they can find accommodation there.
'Excellent man, you did exactly the right thing. The young lady is, it says here, one Marianne Devenish, a great niece to Sir James and since her mother died she became his ward.'
Vincent looked grim. 'That has fairly put the cat amongst the pigeons has it not, my lord. What are you going to do?'
Theo flung the papers aside angrily. 'Quiet man, let me think, I cannot let the arrival of a stray schoolgirl ruin my plans.'
He ran his hand absently through his hair and chewed his bottom lip, deep in thought. Vincent left him to it, he knew it unwise to interrupt his master in such circumstances. He was better employed warming up some water and stropping the razor ready for his morning shave.
Theo paced the room, his long strides taking him across and back in easy rhythm. It was a conundrum of the most unlikely kind. Spies and villains, traitors and ne'er do wells he could deal with, but a girl, scarce out in society, that was quite a different matter.
Frowning he stared out of the window, the manicured lawns and elaborate old-fashioned knot gardens for once invisible to him. 'I have no choice, dammit! I cannot turn the child away but neither can I allow her to live here.' He spoke aloud, causing Vincent to pop his head round the dressing room door.
'Did you call, sir?'
'No, come in and sit down. I need to talk to you.'
With the ease of long acquaintance his manservant sat on a convenient chair and waited to be used, as many times before, as a sounding board for his lordship's machinations. Theo waited until he was settled.
'Good man. It says that Marianne is a substantial heiress and has been pursued by several gazetted fortune hunters and, according to her maternal grandmother, is in danger of finding
herself abducted by one of them. In desperation she has been sent here, supposedly out of harm's way, and placed in the care of her great uncle Sir James Devenish, whose long lost nephew and heir, I am supposed to be.'
'That's as maybe, sir, but it's a havey-cavey business, arriving in the middle of the night, with no luggage. Why did they not come in a carriage like normal folk?'
'According to this letter there is one bastard determined to have the girl, by force if necessary, and it was thought necessary to travel incognito. It seems it is my job now to keep her safe from him.'
'Well, that explains one mystery. But it does not solve the problem of how you are going to take care of her. You cannot tell her you are an impostor, can you?'
'No, I cannot. I have a vital job to do down here and must remain Sir Theodore Devenish until it is completed.' He paused, trying to make up his mind. 'I have no choice, Vincent. I must assume responsibility for the girl, become her guardian and administer her trust funds as requested. At least until this work is done.'
Vincent frowned. 'If she is a flighty miss, you may have to give up precious time to supervise her. And she can't stay here, this is a bachelor establishment; unless you can find an old tabby who can act as chaperone.'
'I had thought to foist her off on the Griersons at Frating Hall. They have a parcel of youngsters and will hardly notice one extra.' His valet was about to protest. 'I intend to offer them an extremely generous remuneration for accommodating her. Lord Grierson has his dibs permanently out of tune. He will snap my hand off in his eagerness to take my ward into his family.'
'Shall I get over to Frating Hall and inform Lord Grierson of your plans?'
'I shall write him a note explaining how things are. You can wait for his reply.'
'Very well, sir. Will you be wanting a shave before I leave?'
'I am quite capable of doing for myself.' Theo grinned. 'Do not forget that in private I am not the foppish Sir Theo, unable to do his cravat without assistance.'
Vincent got to his feet unabashed by the reprimand. 'I believe, sir, you always say that in order to bamboozle anyone successfully, the act must be kept up at all times, in case one is disturbed unexpectedly.'
'I have not the time to bandy words with you, I have a letter to write.'
I am delighted to be able to say that a stunning new shop, EVANS, (that stocks the kind of lovely things you don't know you need until you see them), in Great Bentley, where the book is actually set, has agreed to hold a 'Meet the Author' event on 2nd September for A DISSEMBLER. There is a village flower show on the green at the same time so I'm hoping some of the visitors will come in to see me and, hopefully, buy a book as well.