The visitor was late, but he would have been unwelcome at any hour. Nevertheless, a stableboy came running to greet his carriage as it rumbled up to the manor house as the first star appeared in a purpling evening sky. Many more eyes watched from behind curtains on the dozens of windows of the great house. The oaken front door swung open, the butler and his footmen stood in readiness.
After a moment, a lean gentleman was seen in the doorway of the carriage. He bent his head, stepped out, and paused on the top of the little stair that had been let down. Straightening, he stood arrested, staring at the huge house, seeing the dark mass of it outlined by the last dim glow of sunset, punctuated by lights that twinkled in the dozens of windows facing the drive. It was too dusky for anyone to make out the expression on his face.
He stepped down and headed for the house, taking the fan of stairs to the front door rapidly and with easy grace, as though he hadn't been confined in a rocking carriage for hours.
"I believe I'm expected?" he asked the butler in a rich tenor voice, as he swept off his high beaver hat and caped coat and handed them to a footman. "I am Egremont."
The butler bowed, expressionless. "This way, sir," he said.
The gentleman hesitated. A thin eyebrow rose. "Sir?" he echoed with cool amusement, slapping his gloves against his palm. "Maybe you didn't hear me. I am the new earl of Egremont. I'd believed I was expected."
The butler's expression didn't change, but his face grew ruddy. "Yes, sir," he said. "You were indeed expected. As to the other matter, I was led to believe it was not yet settled, sir."
The gentleman laughed. "So it hasn't been. I suppose I can't fault you for being precise. Announce me as Sauvage then, if you must. Lead on. Oh, and I'd like something to eat. Will you see to it? It's been a devilish long journey."
The butler bowed and led the gentleman into the front hall. The new arrival scarcely seemed to look at the house as he strode over the shining inlaid mosaic marble floors. He didn't pause to study the life-sized Grecian statues that lined the walls, or raise his eyes to the gilded domed ceiling of the great hall to see the rose-and-gold frescoes there. He had hardly a glance for the pair of separate twin staircases that wound their ways to the second level, where they met and embraced in a riot of carved acanthus leaves. He only followed the butler through the hall and down a corridor, seeming as cool and untouched by his surroundings as the servant who guided him.
"You're awaited in the red room, sir," the butler murmured. He threw open a door to an enormous room with crimson stretched-silk-covered walls, Turkey red carpets, red and brown settees and chairs. A massive fireplace with a leaping fire sparked reflections from the gilt edges on the furniture and many picture frames. But the fire only cast murky, ruddy shadows over the quartet of people there.
"Mr. Sauvage," the butler said, announcing him.
The four people in the room stared. The visitor looked back at them serenely, only his eyes showing animation, glittering in the firelight as he surveyed them each in turn.
He saw a stout middle-aged balding gentleman, the very model of a country squire, a young blond lady, delicate and perfectly dressed as a china figurine, an older woman, who was obviously her mama, and a square-faced, straw-haired, broad-shouldered young man. They goggled at him from out of the crimson shade.
Their first impression was of a dark, elegantly dressed, extravagantly handsome young gentleman. The high planes on his smooth face were exaggerated by dancing firelight, making him look as though he'd just stepped, smiling, from out of the devil's own dressing room. He was impeccably clad in a close- fitting black jacket, with a white neckcloth, dark skintight breeches, and shining knee-high boots. The gentleman's face was impassive. He had flawless skin, even features, and watchful eyes. The firelight made it impossible to make out the color of those wide, well-spaced eyes, but they were light, and shone with crystalline clarity. The most arresting thing about him was the cool expression on his smooth face. He looked as though no human emotion could touch him or ever had done.
The middle-aged man leapt to his feet. "What is the meaning of this?" he said. "You are not Geoffrey Sauvage!"
"No, I'm not," the gentleman said calmly. "Geoffrey Sauvage was my father. I am Christian Gabriel Peter Colinworth Sauvage, now the earl of Egremont, and master of this house. And you, sir? You have me at a disadvantage."
The older man opened and closed his mouth.
The others echoed his expression. It was the fair young man who rose to his feet and spoke.
"I am Hammond Sauvage," he said stiffly. "This is my fiancée, Sophie Wiley, and her father, Squire Henry Wiley and his wife, Martha. You must understand that this is difficult for us to take in all at once."
Christian nodded. "Of course, I didn't expect you to believe me right away either, Cousin. You are my cousin, aren't you?"
Hammond nodded curtly.
"But in time, you will believe me," Christian said placidly. He moved toward the hearth. "I've traveled a long way, and it's cold out there. If you don't mind, I'd like a seat by the fire."
The squire flushed ...
The Return of the Earl. Copyright © by Edith Layton.
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© 2005 Edith Layton. All rights reserved.