“It was the opportunity of a lifetime. Griffin St. Albans and his identical twin brother, Garnet, both have the chance to become the Earl of Devonsfield's next heir, but no one is exactly certain which twin is the eldest. So the earl decides that whichever twin marries a woman of quality first will become his heir. The only woman scholarly, shy Griffin could imagine marrying is the tart-tongued Hannah Chillton, but when Griffin arrives in Bath, he discovers that his rakish, charming brother, Garnet, has already met Hannah and her two chaperones, Letitia and Viola Featherton. Now as part of his "brilliant scheme" to help his brother, Garnet is pretending to be Griffin, who is about to discover exactly how difficult it is going to be to win Hannah's love. Caskie brings her fabulously fun Regency historical series featuring the matchmaking Featherton sisters to a brilliant conclusion with this deliciously clever, superbly sexy romance.”
“Readers will risk a bad heir day waiting in line for Kathryn Caskie's fine Regency.”
I couldn't put the book down. Although this was my first introduction to Kathryn Caskie's remarkably talented work, I can assure you it won't be the last.”
Kirkwell Abbey Churchyard
The Earl of Devonsfield was having a bad heir day. And now his eternity looked equally as bleak.
He removed his beaver hat, then lifted his freshly curled wig to scratch his bald head with ragged, chewed finger-nails. “Well, what say you, Pinkerton, can it be done?”
His man of affairs was a lean, hawkish-looking gent, who at the moment was dangling precariously from a rowan branch high above the mausoleum. “I fear the reverend’s man is correct, my lord, there is no way, at least none I can see, to add a second level to the crypt without compromising the existing structure.”
This did not please the earl, who had hoped for an altogether more positive answer, but during his long life he’d learned that adaptation was necessary for one’s own survival. “Then we have no other choice. We shall have to expand outward. Surely, with the right inducement—” the portly lord retrieved the single surname from the quartet of headstones beside him-“the Anatoles could be persuaded to move their family plot across the way.”
Pinkerton glanced down at the earl. The expression on his long face made it clear that he was dubious of a favorable outcome. Still, he was nothing if not loyal. “I shall contact the family to determine your plan’s viability, my lord.”
With hat and wig in his hand, Lord Devonsfield walked through the spring grass that poked up through the crisp withered leaves alongside his family’s crypt.
He sighed wistfully as he ran his pudgy fingers along its marble wall. This was just his sort of horrid luck—after two hundred years, the Devonsfield mausoleum was full up, just when his own time on earth was at an end.
It was his brother’s fault, of course. Even after Lord Devonsfield’s entire remaining family was killed in a dreadful accident last month—both of his sons—there was still one space left and, damn it all, it had been meant for him. But then his brother, Thelonius, nearly ten years his junior, unexplainably expired while sitting atop his chamber pot, thereby claiming the last eternal resting place in the family crypt.
“My lord, may I descend from the tree now?” Pinkerton, habitually dressed from hat to boot in ebony, nervously straddled a thick branch.
“What? Oh, certainly. We’re finished here.” The earl flicked his wrist dismissively and waved his man down. “Though while we are on the subject of trees, will you explain your concern about my family tree—more specifically the branch where my heir might be found? It has been a month since the accident, and still you have not located the heir to the Devonsfield earldom.”
Pinkerton cautiously settled his feet to a lower branch, bouncing a bit to test its soundness. “Oh, no sir, I know exactly where to find your heir. The gentleman resides in Cornwall. He is your late second cousin’s son.”
The earl’s mouth fell open in disbelief. He scurried to the base of the rowan tree and rapped at its trunk with his cane. “Devil take you, Pinkerton. Why haven’t you informed me until now?” Lord Devonsfield peered up through the branches. “I must speak with him at once. What is the man’s name?”
Pinkerton lowered himself to the ground, then brushed the bark shreds from his breeches. “I do not know...exactly. For I must inform you that your heir is—”
“What—a Whig? An invalid? A madman?” The earl sucked in a breath. “He’s not...a wastrel?”
“No, my lord. He’s a...twin.”
“A twin? Is that all? What in blazes does that matter?” The earl huffed his frustration. “Determining which twin is heir is not half so difficult. It is simply a matter of knowing which child was born first.”
“That’s just it, my lord.” Pinkerton peered down his hawkish nose at the earl, his eyes clouded with worry. “As preposterous as it might seem, no one knows which boy is firstborn. Even the parish baptismal records are unclear on this point.”
“The hell you say.” The earl slumped against the tree’s trunk.
“From what I’ve been able to learn, theirs was a difficult birth, with a goodly amount of blood. Their mother did not survive, and since the boys had no hope of inheriting anything of consequence, their distraught father, your cousin, made no effort to name one twin or the other firstborn.”
“Oh, good heavens.” Lord Devonsfield wrung his pale hands. “Do you know what this means? Why, I dare not think what the House of Lords will do should I die without an heir—which of course I shall within the year, for you yourself heard the physician. I am not a well man.”
“Actually, my lord, the physician only said that spending your days obsessing over death will see you to an early grave,” Pinkerton muttered, but the earl paid his comment no heed. He knew the truth of it, what his physicians were really saying but sought to keep from him.
“One of the twins must be acknowledged as firstborn.” The earl bit at his thumbnail as he paced back and forth between the tilted and crumbling gravestones. “We simply must find a way to see this oversight corrected.”
“Indeed we must, my lord, for if no legal heir can be determined, upon your passing, the Devonsfield earldom will revert to the Crown.”
The earl wished he could somehow stuff those blasphemous words back into Pinkerton’s mouth and force him to recant ever saying them. But what he stated was true, and there was no way that truth could be ignored. “I cannot allow the earldom to be lost. You know I cannot.” The earl stood upright. His mission was clear. “We’ve not a moment to lose. Pinkerton, see that my portmanteau is packed. We must away to Cornwall—tonight!”
Griffin St. Albans adjusted the aperture of his telescope by the golden rays of the setting sun. The cliff above Kennymare Cove was the perfect spot for measuring the constellations on what promised to be the clearest night sky all month.
He bent and eased his eye to the lens, meaning to check his settings, when suddenly a falcon, riding a rise of warm air from the sea, swooped straight at him and clipped his shoulder. His feet rolled across the gravel, sending pebbles plunging over the cliff's edge. Griffin slipped and fell hard to the ground, his back slamming down against the short, wind-shorn grass.
A faint feminine voice sailed over the cliff's lip. "Is someone up there?"
Griffin sat up, startled. He rose and warily peered over the rocky ledge. There, clinging to the wall, was a young woman stretching out her arm to reach a beribboned hat caught on a protruding root. His foot accidentally sent another bit of gravel her way.
She glanced up with the sharpest look of annoyance in her eyes. "Do take care not to pummel me with pebbles, sir. As you can see, the wind is strong this day and my foothold is precarious enough as it is."
Good Lord, she could fall to her death at any moment! Griffin flattened himself onto his stomach, inched to the edge of the cliff and reached out a hand. "Take hold. I can pull you up."
"Take hold? Are you mad? Without my bonnet? Not likely. My brother paid two guineas for it. Two . And you can be sure he'll not do that ever again." She stretched out her hand, straining for the hat, but it remained just beyond her fingertips. "Blast!"
"Let the gentleman help you, dear," called an old,
twig-thin woman who was looking up at them from the lower cliff trail.
The rounder matron beside her cupped her hand to her brow and looked up at the girl struggling to reach the hat. "Viola is right, dove. Take his hand. Perhaps your bonnet will be easier to reach from above."
The dark haired young woman peered down at the two women, then turned her pale blue eyes up at Griffin, considering. "It seems I must trust you not to drop me into the sea."
"Take my hand, miss. You have naught to fear. My back is strong."
She glanced down at the waves crashing upon the jagged rocks far below. "That may be, sir, but 'tis not your back I worry about." Despite her biting comment, the woman lifted her left hand and clutched his wrist with a grasp so firm that a lesser man might have been put to shame.
Griffin wrapped his fingers tightly around her wrist. "I've got you. Let go of the rock."
"Only if you promise to retrieve my hat before it blows into the ocean." Her eyes conveyed her complete seriousness.
"I vow it," he huffed with frustration. "Now, please, let go!"
With one more cautious look at him, the girl released her hold on the wall. For a moment, she dangled like a limp rag doll from his arm, her momentum sending her swinging back and forth in a pendulum's motion.
All the blood in his body seemed to surge into Griffin's head and he struggled to raise her up to the cliff's lip. Finally, after two perilous minutes, her head appeared level with the ledge.
"We're almost there, Miss. Just a moment more and I'll have you by my side."
Then, with a level of agility Griffin could never have imagined, the woman slapped her free arm over the lip, kicked her right foot up and swung her body onto the ground beside him.
"Damn me!" While Griffin might have expected such an athletic feat from a performer at a fair, never in all his life would he guessed it from a young lady such as the one who now gathered her breath beside him.
Griffin leaned back on his heels and stared with amazement at the fearless woman. Her hair was as dark as a starless night and her skin was pale, save the pink flush that had risen into her cheeks. But it was her eyes that intrigued him most. Inside a ring of vibrant indigo was a burst of a pale silvery blue that made her eyes glimmer like a pair of stars.
"My bonnet, sir." Her voice was still thin and breathy from the exertion. "You promised."
"That I did." Griffin couldn't help but grin at her stubbornness regarding a ridiculous hat. "I just need something to hook it." He glanced around for a stick.
The woman looked around as well, until her gaze fixed firmly on his telescope. A surge of worry shot through Griffin as she rose and started for his most prized possession in all the world.
"Perhaps we can lower part of this contraption over the edge and catch the brim of my hat." She reached out her hand for the brass instrument.
"No!" Griffin grabbed her wrist, perhaps a bit too roughly, for she whirled around, eyes widened with surprise.
"Not my telescope," he added, softening his voice. "'Tis very expensive, and I do not exaggerate when I tell you there is no other like it."
The woman lifted her chin and twisted her wrist from his grip. "I might claim the same about my hat, sir. Did you see the peacock feather on the band?" She nodded her head knowingly, as if this comment should make the great value of her hat plain to him.
Griffin knew what a ludicrous notion that was. There was no comparison. His reduced-sized Shuckburgh telescope had been custom made to his exact specifications by a protégé of Jesse Ramsden, London's all-time premiere instrument maker. He doubted there was as fine an astronomical instrument in all of England.
The woman folded her arms across her sprigged gown. "I do not see anything else that might serve as a tool...so well as your telescope."
"I-I have a sheep hook at my cottage." Griffin smiled at the lovely woman, deciding that he'd like to know her a bit better if circumstances permitted. Still, finessing a woman had never come as easily to Griffin as it did his brother, and he knew he'd likely bungle it. But he would try. "--Uh...if you like, you and your lady friends may take your ease in my home while I return for your bonnet. 'Tis just down the trail to the east. Not far, I assure you."
The young woman suspiciously raked him up and down with her gaze. "I thank you, but no. My bonnet might be caught by a gust of wind and whisked into the sea. I daren't leave it. Besides, I do not even know your name."
"St. Albans...Mr. St. Albans." He tipped his head to her. "And you are...?"
Her pink lips formed a smirk. "Not so addled as to follow a man I do not know to his lair."
"Lair? My dear lady, I believe you misunderstand my intentions--" Griffin began.
"Oh, sir, please do forgive her. She meant nothing by it," said the heavier of the two old women, who now stood nearby huffing and puffing from the exertion of climbing the steep cliff-side path.
"She is Miss Hannah Chillton, our charge." The thinner old woman pinched the girl's arm, eliciting a clumsy curtsy from her.
Just then, the falcon that had struck him earlier spiraled low over the four of them. Griffin watched, with great astonishment, as Miss Chillton withdrew a leather glove from her sash, slipped it onto her hand and allowed the bird of prey to land on her forearm.
The thinner elderly lady laughed at Griffin's surprise. "And that would be Cupid...Hannah's kestrel."
"He is your bird?" Griffin stared at the young woman incredulously.
"Yes. Why is that so difficult to believe?" Miss Chillton said rather smugly.
Why, indeed ? Griffin thought about it for several moments. Why should he be surprised that a woman he discovered fearlessly climbing a cliff wall, a woman with the strength to propel herself over the rock ledge, might have a hunting falcon as a pet?
"Miss Chillton, in the short time we've been acquainted, I have come to the conclusion that nothing about you should come as a surprise. For, indeed, you are the very definition of the word."
Miss Chillton looked uneasily toward the two old women, as if she had not the faintest notion how to respond to his assertion. Then, she turned her delicately featured face back to him and gestured to her guardians. "Mr. St. Albans, these are my duennas, the ladies Letitia and Viola Featherton, of London."
"And Bath, of late," the woman she'd referred to as Lady Letitia added. "We reside in the spa city for a few short months each year."
"In fact, our visit to The Lizard was to be the culmination of our grand Cornish excursion." The thinner woman, Lady Viola, smiled brightly up at him. "We are headed back to Bath this very eve."
"Not until we have my hat." Miss Chillton turned toward the sea, took a couple steps and peered over the edge of the cliff. She gasped. "Oh, no. It's gone!"
Lady Letitia joined her at the cliff's edge and wrapped her arm around the dark-haired beauty. "The wind must have taken it after all, child."
Miss Chillton turned her head around and glared at Griffin. "You, sir, owe me a hat."
"I?" Griffin sputtered.
"Yes, for I would have managed to retrieve my bonnet eventually had you not interfered." She said something in a low tone to Lady Letitia, who upon hearing the words, reached into her miser bag and retrieved a card. Miss Chillton took it from her and shoved it at Griffin.
"The Oatland Village Hat is available from Mrs. Bell, 22 Upper King Street in London. Ask her to add a peacock feather please. Can you remember that? Good. When you have acquired it, you may deliver it to No. 1 Royal Crescent, Bath. The direction is listed on this card."
Her business with him concluded, Miss Chillton took each of the Featherton ladies by the arm and led them up the path to where, Griffin surmised, their carriage must await.
"Good day, Mr. St. Albans," she called back to him, a sentiment echoed by the two elderly women. "I do hope we shall see you soon--for the hat was my favorite."
She flashed him an amused smile, and then, if he was not mistaken, threw him a teasing wink as well.
When the three women disappeared over the rise, Griffin St. Albans absently strolled to the cliff's edge and peered down its steep wall for the missing bonnet. Gone.
He patted his head tentatively, wondering if perhaps he'd hit it when the falcon clipped him and he'd fallen--for surely he'd been dreaming.
That was the only possible explanation he could muster, for nothing so outlandish as what had occurred during the past quarter of an hour could have happened to him.
Life in lower Cornwall just didn't work that way.
Three days later
Lord Devonsfield and his man of affairs did not knock or even call out their arrival at the home of the St. Albans brothers. There wasn't time enough for that. The earl's hold on this earth was short and trifling with manners was merely a waste of what few moments he had left in life.
Smoke trailed up into the cloudless azure sky through the tiny cottage's stone chimney. His heir was at home, or at least someone was, so the earl opened the flimsy plank door and he and his man stepped inside--to face the barrel end of a hunting rifle.
The earl stared at the two young men before him, who, at first glance, appeared identical in every way...save their mode of dressing perhaps. They both stood well over six feet and, unlike the earl, their heads were topped with an abundance of slightly curly sable hair.
He supposed their eyes could be called hazel, but in truth they were mostly green with a flickering of dark amber encircling the pupil. Their shoulders were broad and they had good, strong, square jaws, with a divot in the chin, the sort the ladies so seemed to fancy. Damned if they weren't a pair of the handsomest men he'd ever seen. This pleased the earl on more than one level.
He eyed the one who pressed the rifle, painfully he might add, to his forehead. Now that twin had courage, gumption. And, now that the earl had a moment to reflect (for there was no way he was going to make a move with a rifle to his head--he'd leave that to Pinkerton) this twin had a sportsman's build. He was quite strong, his arms well-muscled, as though he spent a goodly amount of time studying pugilism, as his own eldest son, God rest his soul, had.
The earl smiled broadly. Yes, his initial impression told him that this twin would make a brilliant heir.
"Sir, I would not be so quick with a grin when my brother has a rifle trained upon your head," said the strikingly handsome, but less muscular twin. "He can take down a bird in flight without effort, so I daresay, he would have no difficulty bagging an intruder at such close range."
The earl lifted an eyebrow. Such a sassy mouth, this twin had. Denoted a clever mind. Unlike the other, this man's hands were smooth and his fingernails clean. His clothing was perfectly pressed and damned if there wasn't something the least bit aristocratic about his stance. Hmm. Not a bad option either .
Pinkerton, the bloody coward--for his hands shot into the air the minute he saw the rifle--finally spoke up. "My dear sirs, this gentleman means you no harm...nor do I."
Neither twin said a word, didn't move a muscle.
"Er...may I...lower my hands, young man?" he continued.
The twin with the rifle nodded his head slowly.
"And...uh...might you also deign to lower the weapon? We are unarmed, and as you can see, we are hardly in the first bloom of our youth...as the both of you are. Even if we wished to challenge you, you could easily subdue us in mere seconds."
The twin paused a moment, then lifted the barrel of the rifle from the earl's forehead. Lord Devonsfield clapped his hand to his brow and felt the ringed indention left behind.
"Fine way to treat your father's cousin," he snapped.
"You are our father's cousin?"
The earl turned to see the more refined of the bookend pair of men studying his clothing.
"I am." The earl straightened his spine.
Pinkerton cleared his throat. "May I present the Earl of Devonsfield."
The twins exchanged confused glances, before returning their attention to the earl. Then, as if on cue, they honored him with a set of gracious bows.
"Of course we have heard of you, my lord," offered the twin with the soft-looking hands.
"Indeed," said the other. "We just never, in our lifetimes, expected to make your acquaintance. Our lives are so far removed. We work in iron, while your lordship--"
Pinkerton broke in. "His lordship does not labor at all."
The muscular twin raised an eyebrow. " Exactly ."
The earl pivoted on the heel of his gleaming boot, strode across the small room and took his ease on a worn chair near the coal fire. "Well, my boys, your days toiling about the iron mines are at an end as of this very day. Come, come. Be seated and let us talk."
"I beg your pardon, my lord, we have so few guests I fear our manners have become somewhat rusty." The aristocratic one snapped his feet together and gave the earl a nod. "I am Garnet St. Albans."
The earl nodded his head in greeting. " Garnet . Refined and polished like the gem itself. How very appropriate," the earl chuckled. He turned his head to the twin with the rifle. "So you must be Griffin . Part eagle, part lion." The earl smiled at him. "Yes, indeed you are. How splendid are your names. Perfectly splendid. I shall have no difficulty in discerning between you ever again."
An elderly woman entered through the front door just then, and was so startled to see visitors that she dropped her market basket on the floor, sending two green apples rolling across the stone pavers. "Oh, I beg your pardon. I had no notion you had guests."
Griffin crossed the room in two long strides and helped the woman gather her things. "You need not fret, Mrs. Hopshire. Lord Devonsfield is family. Though perhaps some tea might be in order."
The earl raised his hand. "Pinkerton, trot out to the carriage, will you and fetch us some brandy, for we must celebrate."
Garnet St. Albans caught Pinkerton's arm as he started for the door. "No need, sir. Mrs. Hopshire, some glasses please." Near the hearth was a box, a cellaret of sorts, from which Garnet withdrew a bottle of fine brandy. "We are deep in the country, but not without a few luxuries."
Mrs. Hopshire brought a tray laden with several thick, clanking glasses into which Garnet poured the amber liquid. He handed the first glass to Lord Devonsfield.
"Uh...you were saying, my lord, something about our days of toil being at an end?"
"Indeed I did." The earl drained his glass and immediately passed it to Garnet to be refilled. "For one of you is to be my heir."
"Your... heir?" Griffin bent down and added a few more pieces of coal to the smoldering fire. He turned his head up to the earl. "Which of us?"
"My lord, what my brother means is that the law of primogeniture cannot be applied in our situation for we do not know which of us is firstborn. Never had any reason for it to matter...at least until now, it seems."
Griffin rose and came to stand beside his brother.
"I am well aware of our predicament." The earl studied both Griffin and Garnet in turn. Each had qualities to recommend him as heir, or at least so it appeared, and the earl had always placed great weight on the importance of first impressions. "Pinkerton, carry on please."
Pinkerton took a step forward. "The predicament, as the earl has put it, is far more dire than you could possibly imagine. Therefore, what I am about to impart to you must be kept in strictest confidence--for the future of the Earldom of Devonsfield depends upon your discretion." Pinkerton's eyebrows migrated toward the bridge of his nose. "Unless it can be agreed upon which of you is the eldest, which of you is the legal heir, the earldom will revert to the Crown upon the earl's passing."
"Obviously, I will not accept this eventuality." The earl came to his feet and clapped a hand to each twin's shoulder. "And so I have a proposition for you. My time is short. My physicians do not expect me to survive the year."
Pinkerton coughed, then looked up and caught the earl's stern gaze. "Forgive me, my lord. Go on, please."
"As I was saying, I will certainly not survive the year--but I do not intend to allow my family's legacy, the Earldom of Devonsfield, to dissolve."
He gave a nod to Pinkerton then, who withdrew two folded sheets of foolscap from inside his coat and gave one to each of the twins. "For this reason, I will make a secret pact with the two of you. And if you agree to my terms, one of you will become Earl of Devonsfield."
The earl gestured for the papers to be opened. "Read the terms."
Each of the twins opened his paper from its folds and for several minutes read and reread the terms the earl had written inside.
"Do you agree to the terms as set forth?"
Griffin and Garnet's eyes met, and for a clutch of moments, the earl had the notion that they might be silently conversing, as he'd heard some twins do. A slight feeling of distrust crept into his mind for a moment as the earl wondered if the two men would add some terms of their own. For it was clear they were aware of how desperately he needed their compliance. But, judging from the state of this ramshackle cottage, they needed him as well.
A moment later, he realized that his concerns were all for naught, for the twins agreed to every term, exactly as he'd written them.
"Brilliant, brilliant! Now, since you agree to the terms, cast the papers into the fire, for this discussion must remain a secret for all eternity."
Griffin and Garnet crumpled the papers in their large, capable hands and tossed the damning documents into the coal fire. Together the four men watched in reverent silence as flames fingered the foolscap and eventually reduced to ash the earl's darkest secret.
"We are agreed then. The continuation of the family is paramount. So, per the terms set forth and dually agreed upon, whichever of you marries a woman of quality first, will become--"
The twins, as one, intoned a single word.
The earl, greatly relieved, smiled and signaled for another brandy. "Quite right."
For the first time in more than a month, the earl was having a good heir day.
End of Chapter One.
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