Aaron toyed with the word in his mind as he rode the last few miles through London to make it to his residence there. It had been Aaron’s home for over a decade while the country estate had been his parents’ place. But now it was all his. He was the new earl. He’d thought both places would become his home, but it felt just the opposite. Nowhere seemed to fit and he felt adrift. Everything in his old life was gone, and he had yet to refashion it into anything familiar.
Which was 100% true.
Thankfully, after a year away, he was returning to London where he could create the rest of his life to his liking. It began with being officially recognized as the Earl of Chambers. After a massive party that he dreaded, he would begin in the House of Lords and continue the business of trying to run the country.
He carefully avoided thinking about all those things his mother had emphasized. That he needed to set up his nursery. That he needed to see his sister set up hers. According to his mother, everyone needed to be wedded and bedded in the swiftest possible manner because that was the way of the peerage.
Those were problems for tomorrow. Tonight was for brandy in a quiet house, then bed. Which made it all the more irksome that no one answered the door when he banged on it. He was coming in from the back having settled his horse in the mews. It was early evening yet, much too soon for everyone to be abed. He was grumbling when he pulled out his key and opened the door on his own. He was the earl, damn it. He employed a butler and a household staff. Why the hell was he opening…
His nose twitched the moment he entered the empty kitchen. There was a strange smell to the house like old Christmas dinners set burning on the stove. There was sweetness in the scent, but also a distinctly unpleasant smell as well. And then he heard a low moan.
Alarmed, he dropped his bag and rushed into the house. He headed straight up the stairs only to be stopped short by the cook and a kitchen maid who were huddled together there peering out through a crack in the door.
“What’s amiss?” he demanded. “Who is hurt?”
Both women squeaked in alarm as they spun around. Their fright was real, and he had to steady them both lest they tumble down the stairs.
“Milord!” the nearest one gasped. Her name was Sally and she trembled where she stood leaning hard against the wall.
“You near scared the life out of me, my lord,” said the cook Mrs. Owens.
“Who is hurt?” he repeated after making sure that both ladies looked hale.
“Wot?” Sally said.
“Nothing’s amiss,” said Mrs. Owens.
But then he heard it again. A low moan coming from beyond the doorway. “Who’s that?” He meant to push forward, but the women stepped clearly into his path.
“That’s nothing but a bit of playacting from Lady Clara,” the cook said. Then she tapped his arm. “How about I make you a nice pot of tea to welcome you home? You can have a rest down here until she’s done.”
Aaron felt his gut sink down to his toes. His sister was an eccentric woman, to be sure, but she normally kept her exploits to her friends from the lending library and the occasional odd visitor. Whatever this was marked a stark increase in his sister’s oddity.
“Step aside, ladies,” he said firmly. And when they did not comply, he bodily lifted Mrs. Owens up and set her down below him on the stairs. The younger Sally was agile enough to scramble out of the way as he pushed through the doorway. But two steps onto the main floor had him frowning in confusion.
“You were me favorite wee bairn. A bonny boy you were.”
It was a strange woman’s voice spoken in a brogue that came and went as if to suggest a Scottish origin but still make the words clear.
“Nana?” a man’s voice said. “Is that you?” Now that voice he recognized…but he couldn’t remember from where.
“Well o’course it’s me, ye bonny lad. Oi’ve come with a message fer you.”
“But how do I know it’s really you?” The man sounded breathless or on the edge of a laughing fit. It was hard to tell.
“I’ll bump the table to show Oi’m real.”
Now that sounded more Cockney than Scottish. Truly confused, Aaron stepped around the corner to look into the dining room. The room was filled with cheap candles that smoked, placed haphazardly about the room and table. Sitting in place were seven souls. He recognized his sister and her maid, placed as though they were guests. Another woman with her back to him, plus a footman were also seated like guests. At the head of the table was a woman dressed in colorful robes, her face and hair obscured by a hood. Before her smoked a brazier that was no doubt the source of the strange fruity/foul scent that permeated the room. And at the base of the table was a gentleman by the looks of him. The one who’d spoken before, but whom he couldn’t quite place.
Meanwhile the hooded woman began to moan some more. It was a loud sound punctuated by a groaning gasp. Very theatrical in nature and wholly ridiculous. Though when the table abruptly jumped, he was startled enough to take a step backwards. Not because he was frightened but because he wanted to see who was under the table making such a ruckus with his furniture.
He couldn’t see. The room was too dark. Besides he was distracted by the way his sister squeaked in alarm. Her and another lady.
“Never fear, Lady Clara,” said the gentleman at the base of the table. “I shall protect you.”
It sounded most gallant if there hadn’t been an undercurrent of humor in the words. Meanwhile, a person approached him from the side. He saw the man coming and recognized his butler.
“If you would come away, my lord,” the man whispered. “I can explain.”
He didn’t need the explanation. He knew his sister too well. This was one of her spiritual gatherings that had nothing to do with religion but a great deal to do with tomfoolery. Though he had no idea how she roped in his own staff to participate. There was only one thing he wanted to know, and so he leaned over to whisper in his butler’s ear.
“Who is the gentleman at the end of the table?”
His sister’s suitor! Of course. But before he could say more, the man in question started speaking.
“That tells me you’re real, spirit from beyond, but not that you’re my Nana.”
“Oh right,” the hooded woman said in a definite London accent. “I be your granny, the mother of yer da Seamus.”
Now the woman was turning Irish and Aaron started to smile. It was like watching a bad play in his own home.
“I held yer bonny body in me own arms when you were born.”
“But how can I know it’s you?” Lord Loughty pressed. “Tell me something only you would know.”
“You were a lusty boy as a child. Strong legs and a way with the lasses. I remember how you kissed them lassies, full on the mouth before ye—”
“Oh my!” interrupted the women who had his back to him. “I don’t think we need to hear that.”
Aaron straightened of the wall, his heart thumping hard in his chest. He knew that voice. It sounded like Lilah Rees, but it couldn’t possibly be true. There was no reason for her to be in his dining room. And yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was really her. Unfortunately, she spoke no more as Lord Loughty cut in.
“Tell me something else Nana.”
“Ye were in the Vauxhall Gardens last week. I saw ye from the heavens and heard your plans, you naughty boy.”
Really? Now that was sounding more interesting. Apparently, Lord Loughty thought the same.
“What plans, Nana?”
The woman let out a bloodcurdling scream and it was echoed by the woman in the room. He was sure the table rattled again too, though it was hard to tell as even the footman gasped out, “Blimey!”
“Nana,” Lord Loughty asked. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s wrong, bonnie boy! She’s all wrong for you! You canna marry her!”
“Who? Who mustn’t I marry?”
There was definitely a tremor of laughter beneath the questions, but the hooded woman went on as if everyone was terrified.
“Lady Clara is no’ fer you! Doom! Toil! Blood! Boil!”
Was she trying to quote Macbeth?
“Me?” cried his sister in what was clearly a staged voice. “He can’t marry me?”
“No! It will be the end of everything if he does! Aaiiiieeeee! Ooooooo!” The woman continued wailing as she thrashed in her seat. The table jumped and bounced until Aaron feared for the floor. But it wasn’t until a knife sailed through the air to land with a heavy thunk on his table that Aaron had enough. Lord Loughty too as it landed right in front of him.
The man leaped back with a gasp and no wonder. Someone could have lost a hand since it was a cleaver that was now embedded several inches deep into the table.
“That is enough!” Aaron shouted as he stepped into the room.
The reaction was instantaneous. His sister leaped to her feet with a gasp as did the maid and footman. The other lady—the one he didn’t want to face just yet—pressed her hands to her mouth in a squeak of alarm.
He went past them to the far windows which he hauled open. He wanted that horrible smoke out of the room. Unfortunately, the hooded lady was trying to hold on to her performance. She was still moaning and thrashing in her seat.
“Ye can’t marry! No’ her!” she cried.
“I shouldn’t think he’d want to,” Aaron snapped as he grabbed the brazier and tossed the contents out the window. Bloody hell that was hot. Thankfully, he’d used his handkerchief to shield his hands, but even so, he dropped the thing back on the table as soon as possible.
“Binner!” he snapped at his butler. “Bring in some good candles. And who in the hell thought it would be a good idea to throw knives in my dining room?”
“You mustn’t blame them,” his sister cried. “It was the spirit of his lordship’s grandmother who did that.”
“Oh yes,” Lord Loughty said with a chuckle. “My Nana was most adamant on that, I can see.” He touched the shaft of the cleaver and pulled it out of the table with a quick yank. “It’s most like her to throw cleavers, too,” he said.
“Really?” Clara said with a pleased gasp.
“Oh quite. She was always throwing them at people’s head. Carried a satchel of them with her everywhere she went.”
And when everyone just stared at him, he burst out laughing.
“Good lord, you will believe any nonsense at all, won’t you? As long as it’s about a Scot.” Then he crossed over and clasped Clara’s hands. “Thank you, my lady, for the most entertaining evening I’ve had all year. This has been truly delightful.”
“Delightful?” Clara echoed, obviously confused. “But the ghost of your Nana just told you we can’t marry.”
“Yes, well, she was always a terrible busybody in life. I didn’t listen to her then, so I can’t see as how I’d listen to her now.”
“But…but…we can’t! You’ve had a message from beyond the grave!”
He lifted her listless hands up to his mouth and pressed kisses onto her hands. “Come riding with me in Hyde Park tomorrow morning.”
“We can walk in the afternoon at the fashionable hour.”
Clara actually shuddered. Aaron knew his sister hated the fashionable hour. “I cannot do that.”
“Then dance with me at a ball. What do you attend? I shall gain an invitation even if it is at the palace itself.”
“The palace?” She sounded even more repulsed than she had at the mention of Hyde Park. “I do not dance, my lord.”
The man tweaked her chin in a fond gesture. “I’ll bet my castle that you do.”
“You’d lose!” Clara said, obviously not guessing that the man meant a decidedly more carnal type of dance. And that was Aaron’s cue to put a stop to things.
“I think this evening is done, Lord Loughty. Perhaps you could try again with an afternoon visit.”
“Yes,” the man said as he smiled at Aaron. “You may be right.” Then he bowed to the room in general. “A capitol evening, one and all. A capitol evening.” Then as he grabbed his cloak from the butler, he glanced back at Aaron. “Sorry about your table, though. That’s a bloody big gash in it.”
“Yes,” Aaron said mournfully. “So I surmised.” Then he waved his hand and the man departed. Would that the rest of the people in the room could disappear so easily. All but one in particular…