Wanted: An Earl for Hire by Tammy Andresen

Chapter One

February 1837


As far as friends went, Charlotte Pennington reflected, their group was one few idolized. In fact, as a spinster at three and twenty, people didn’t really pay much attention to her at all. Which suited Charlotte perfectly.

Her friends had mostly gone unnoticed as well. It seemed to suit them just fine too, though the why of it was a bit of a mystery. They were as beautiful as they were intelligent, but somehow, each of their group of five had some flaws that meant they just didn’t fit in with the rest of society.

That mystery, why her friends had become wallflower bluestockings, was far less important than the one they faced currently. Charlotte adjusted the thin-framed spectacles that dangled on the end of her nose and cleared her throat, her fingers brushing over the London Times in front of her.

Society and its elitist tendencies no longer concerned her. She’d had enough time in front of the ton to last her a lifetime.

“What does it say?” Alexi breathed, leaning forward, her blonde hair like a halo around her head as her blue eyes grew even wider than normal. Alexi was sweet and kind, but her constitution wasn’t quite as stern as some of the other girls, and she trembled now as she watched Charlotte. “Has there been another one?”

By one, Alexi meant murder. Charlotte grimaced as she looked into her friend’s large and frightened eyes. “Yes.”

“Oh dear,” she said, even as Clara placed a hand over Alexi’s, Clara’s smooth skin darker and in stark contrast to Alexi’s pale visage.

“Oh dear is right.” Priscilla pursed her lips, ruby red and accentuating the perfect shape of her face. “It’s the third this month. What are we going to do?”

Charlotte sighed. She didn’t know.

She was at a loss, which was not a normal feeling for her. Quite frankly, she didn’t like it one bit.

First, she didn’t know what they could do about the murders that had plagued London of late. Try as they might to investigate them, there were so many doors that were simply closed to women in general, unmarried ones specifically.

In all likelihood they should all be married already. But Charlotte was far too much of a bluestocking. And Alexi had suffered a disease of the lung as a child, and Priscilla’s Eastern European descent seemed to plague her, which was ridiculous. And as for Clara…well, no one was quite certain how she ended up friends with them and still unmarried at the age of one and twenty. She could have been a perfect debutante if she’d chosen to be so.

And her charm certainly did come in handy. Often.

But not when it came to a certain inspector named Scully, who also happened to be the lead investigator on the murders. And try as they might to glean any information from him, his lips were locked tight as a drum.

Most unfortunate.

“Do we give up?” Alexi asked, slumping back in her chair.

Charlotte grimaced. Likely yes. But then, what would she do with herself?

She was unwed, her parents had ceased parading her about balls and garden parties in hopes of making a match, a great relief to be certain. But unless one could fill one’s entire day with the reading of books, she needed a hobby to fill her time and give her life some meaning.

She liked puzzles. Always had, but this one was particularly perplexing.

And the case spoke to her heart.

Which caused her to tap her finger on the newspaper, flipping through the pages between taps as she scanned for any other information that might be helpful. “How can we give up? These dear women need us. Who will really fight for them if we do not?”

Clara shook her head, her blonde ringlets swaying gently from side to side. “I’m not certain we have a choice. Besides, if the investigators can’t solve the case how can—"

“We can do anything men can do,” Charlotte said quietly, without any malice. Clara was likely right. But she didn’t want to give up. The stakes were too high. For London and for herself.

And she knew her statement to Clara was a lie. For a whole slurry of reasons, they could not do many things that men could do. They couldn’t interview men at their clubs, or travel the streets at night looking for criminals, or…an idea was beginning to form. At the bottom of the paper, she noted a si quis.

Her fingers brushed over the small line of text, her breath catching in her throat. “Look at this.”

“What?” Mona asked, her green eyes sparkling as she stood next to her cousin, Charlotte. A lock of her red hair fell over her shoulder as she looked down, her eyes narrowing. “It’s a request for information on two missing anvils. What’s interesting about that?”

But Charlotte’s mind was already spinning. “Why didn’t I think of it sooner?”

Priscilla stood too. “Think of what?”

“A si quis.”

“Forgive me for asking, but what is a si quis?” Alexi peered over Charlotte’s shoulder. In times of confusion, her Russian accent grew stronger.

“It’s Latin. An old Roman custom. Translated it means ‘if anyone.’ They’d post notices requesting information,” Charlotte said, but her thoughts wandered away. She could post a request. Specifically for a man with enough sway to open doors that she could not. But what kind of man would answer? A smile curved her lips. Perhaps one in need of coin? Money she happened to have—in spades.

“Technically.” Clara raised a single finger. “The Egyptians posted public notices long before the Romans.”

And then Charlotte remembered why Clara was more comfortable with their group of bluestockings rather than other ladies of society. And how she’d ended up becoming a bluestocking wallflower instead of a diamond of the first water. “Quite right.”

“What are you going to write a si quis about? Are you just going to ask for information regarding the murders and hope someone answers? Offer a reward?”

“No,” she replied, her pulse quickening as ideas began to flow. “Though that idea has some merit. But I think I’ll try something a bit more subtle first.” The tapping of her finger increased in tempo. “I’m going to hire a man of influence who is perhaps short of funds to enter all the doors we cannot.”

A collective gasp went up and then everyone began talking at once. Mostly their voices held either fear or the sharp note of disapproval.

Charlotte tried to listen, she really did. She loved her friends, and they expressed their concerns. Likely very valid ones. But in her head, the idea had stuck and when ideas sprouted, she rarely turned away from them. Besides, she was already mentally writing the first line if her si quis:

Wanted: Lord for hire.

Tatum Tate, yes, his parents had actually named him such, sat at his desk with his head bowed into his hands.

The past year had been one disaster after another.

He was a good businessman, an excellent solicitor, and a pretty damned good fencer. And yet, his life had managed to turn into a pile of cow manure over the course of the last several months.

It had all started with the death of his cousin…

A year ago, almost to the day, his cousin had died after a drunken duel. Alfred, the 5th Earl of Westmoreland, Earl for only six months, had died at the hands of a marquess, who was defending the honor of his wife, who Alfred had apparently bedded after a ball.

Tate sighed. The damned fool. Alfred had a certain zeal for life that Tate had admired and wished sometimes he could emulate. He missed his cousin terribly despite their many differences.

Tate was naturally more serious and needed to work a great deal harder as a fortune had never been at his disposal. His own father, the second son of the third earl of Westmoreland, had been given very little in the way of inheritance. Tate had spent most of his life working, not that he minded. Busyness suited him. But occasionally, he’d been jealous of Alfred’s life. All right. A bit more than just occasionally. The affluence, the leisure, the penchant for trouble that Alfred could effortlessly engage in without much worry.

Turned out, that was a lie too. Trouble always had a price and Alfred had had to pay in full with his very life. But that hadn’t been the only falsehood. Alfred still had a title but the money, between Alfred’s extravagant lifestyle and his father’s, was gone. All of it. A penchant for spending, bad investments, and terrible decisions with the remaining assets left Tate with the title of earl and absolutely nothing to support it.

The 6th Earl of Westmoreland was indebted up to his eyeballs.

Why hadn’t Alfred told him any of this? He would have helped him and started years ago, before the crisis had reached such a state. And why hadn’t Tate noticed the signs? The boots that needed replacing? The collectors that required evading? Tate had assumed it was all part of Alfred being Alfred. Devil-may-care rake. But Tate should have seen what was actually happening. Might have, if he hadn’t been so jealous.

He sighed into the palms of his hands, resting his elbows upon the paper that sat neatly pressed on the top of his desk. He had only a few servants left including the butler, James. James had started with the fourth Earl of Westmoreland, James had served his grandfather, his uncle, and his cousin. Now, Tate could hardly afford to pay him, but the elderly butler stayed anyhow. He was likely worried that Tate would muck the entire earldom up, though Tate failed to see how things could get any worse.

He’d tried taking the few remaining assets and putting them into promising businesses. He’d replanted fields that had been abandoned, but the tenement houses were in dire condition. There was no money to feed the workers he needed to plant enough fields so that he’d have the money to fix the tenement houses. It was a viscous cycle.

He was truly penned in.

Sliding his hands up, he dug the heels into his eye sockets.

This was the life he’d envied. It nearly made him laugh in that hopelessly bitter sort of way. He’d been so much happier with his simple life and his small career as a solicitor. Could he have saved Alfred if he’d seen that sooner?

Dwelling about it didn’t matter now. He was the 6th Earl of Westmoreland, noosed by debt, and all alone with no one but James to help him.

Tate had a plan, but he loathed it.

Nor did he feel at all likely to be successful. He actually knew business and he was failing. The only answer he could seem to come up with was to marry a rich woman and use her money to infuse the earldom while also creating an heir to ensure the line continue.

He let out a groan.

What did he know about finding a wife? Especially a rich one? While he’d participated in society occasionally with Alfred, the last time had been a house party five years prior. He’d been busy working. Most of his socializing had been with the daughters of other businessman and solicitors. What did he know of heiresses? And what would they think of him?

He was a simple man who’d stumbled into a title. What woman of high society would wish to be stuck with him?

His fingers dug into his forehead.

He’d have to find out.

There was no other choice.

Still, he’d love to delay the inevitable. Or at the very least, do some more research. Who should he be targeting in his search for a countess? A woman who understood what it meant to be a lady? An American heiress that wouldn’t mind shirking society? He had no idea. None. And no direction on how to discover the answers.

He spread out on the paper in front of him. Where to begin? How did a man, who had suddenly become an earl, go about finding a bride?

Tate hadn’t a clue where to start.

He looked down at the desk, his hands framing a section of the paper. A single line popped out at him.

Wanted: Lord for hire

He squinted. Who wished to hire a lord? For what purpose?

The next line gave little additional information. Very limited skills required. Enquire at 11 Parkland Avenue. Ask for C.P.

He stared at the ad, located between his thumb and forefingers. Who would want to hire a lord and for what purpose? And what lord, besides himself, would even consider such an offer?

But then again, here he was, considering it. If it was for hire, that surely meant there would be pay involved?

How much?

For what sort of job?

Would the money be enough to buy him time?

He let out a small growl. The businessman in him already knew he was going to inquire. He needed time and in order to buy time, he needed money.

Rising from the desk, he grabbed his hat and his coat and started for the door.