The Office of Malcom Hanes, Esquire
“He was a good man.” Katherine patted the family solicitor’s arm while the poor man hung his head in grief. She didn’t belabor the point that her husband’s horse certainly didn’t share the same opinion. Not when the beast had thrown Meriwether into a mud puddle, where he’d drowned. Seems his steady steed didn’t care to participate in a midnight steeplechase during a deafening thunderstorm with a foxed Meriwether handling the reins.
That act meant she was now the widowed wife of Lord Meriwether Vareck, the second son of the previous Duke of Randford. Her chest tightened, making it difficult to draw a deep breath. Indeed, she was sad her husband had died, and equally regretful that most of her grief was for the end of her too-brief marriage.
“Thank you for your kindness, Lady Meriwether.” The distinguished solicitor, Malcom Hanes, bowed over Katherine’s hand as they stood at the threshold of his office. With a deep, soulful sigh, Mr. Hanes murmured, “Please accept my deepest condolences. Such a shame you were only married for a year. I’m sure you’re at a loss.”
She nodded briefly. That was putting it mildly. Lost would have been a more accurate description. She had lost him. Katherine had last seen Meriwether on their wedding day. She’d always hoped he’d come home. Yet as the days between his infrequent correspondence had multiplied, the reality that he might never return had grown stronger.
Now it was a certainty.
“There are a few complications”—the solicitor pinched the bridge of his nose—“before we start the reading of the will.”
“Is anything amiss?”
“No,” he objected a little too quickly. “Absolutely not.” His lips pursed in an expression that reminded Katherine of a tightly cinched reticule. “We’ll begin shortly. I’m simply waiting for the Duke of Randford to deliver Lord Meriwether’s will. It seems His Grace had it in his possession the entire time he was in France.”
This time Katherine’s lips were the ones to press together. She would not utter a peep against the Duke of Randford, her brother-in-law. Newly arrived in London after three years fighting the French, the duke was Meriwether’s only family. Having the same father but different mothers, the duke and Meriwether were half brothers. Truthfully, a person couldn’t tell by the duke’s actions. Randford had treated Meriwether like a stranger.
Worse than a stranger really.
The duke acted as if Meriwether were a disease, one to be avoided at all costs. The fact that Randford didn’t even write to Katherine when he received word of Meriwether’s tragic passing, let alone call on her when he reached London, showed the selfish man’s true colors. Whether he was a decorated war hero or not made little difference. A man of integrity and good manners should have shown some respect for his brother and his widow.
One of Mr. Hanes’s clerks came to the door. With a flushed face reminiscent of a volcano ready to erupt, the young man frantically waved for Mr. Hanes to follow him.
“If you’ll excuse me, Lady Meriwether?” Mr. Hanes nodded before taking his leave.
Katherine walked to the window and gazed at the gray London morning. How fitting the heavens looked gloomy today. Though she didn’t love Meri, her husband’s preferred name, his larger than life personality had shimmered with a brightness and light that had drawn people near. When he turned his brilliant blue eyes your way, a whirlwind erupted and you were swept into his carefree world.
Certainly, she had been.
She fisted her kidskin gloves. No good would come from feeling morbid about her husband’s death. Meri certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way, particularly when his end came doing what he loved best—riding in a horserace and gambling on the outcome. Though they’d only spent six hours together as a married couple, Meri’s infrequent letters informed her of his travels. First, he’d made his way to Portsmouth, then Cumberland, all in the pursuit of investments—or so he claimed. Katherine had a suspicion the “investments” were nothing more than racehorses.
If he would have stayed by her side, they could have started their marriage. Nor would he have been dead.
“If you’ll follow me, ma’am.” Another of Mr. Hanes’s numerous clerks, a young man with bright red hair, escorted a woman heavy with child into the room.
The woman caught Katherine’s gaze and smiled slightly.
“May I offer you something before we begin?” the clerk asked.
The woman nodded. “If it wouldn’t be too much bother, a glass of water would be lovely.”
Katherine’s eyes widened when the young man glanced her way then darted out of the room like it was on fire. But what caused her the most amazement was that the woman stood in Mr. Hanes’s office at all.
Dressed in a dark mauve muslin gown, she was elegantly attired. Whoever she was, she looked uncomfortable with the weight she carried in her middle since she was rubbing her lower back. Though Katherine was no expert, the stranger before her had to be in the last couple months of confinement. What would cause her to venture forth on such a dismal day? Surely, the woman was in the wrong office. She couldn’t be there for the reading of the will. It was only for the immediate family, Katherine and the Duke of Randford.
Nevertheless, the petite woman stood before Katherine. With an ethereal beauty enhanced by bright blue eyes and wisps of escaped hair, she exhibited a calmness in direct contrast to Katherine’s stomach, which swooped endlessly like a bat hunting in the wee hours of the morning.
“Would you mind if I sit?” the young woman asked as she waved a hand to one of the chairs in front of Mr. Hanes’s desk.
Mountains of paper were stacked on top with more mounds on the floor, a troubling sign that today’s proceedings could last well into the evening.
“Of course not,” Katherine answered. She quickly scooted one of the chairs toward the woman. “Please, let me help you.”
“Thank you.” The woman lowered herself into the chair.
“Are you somehow related to the deceased?” Katherine asked gently.
The young woman nodded. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Lady Meriwether Vareck.”
Katherine’s heart skipped mid-beat. Struggling to keep her bearings, she reminded herself she wasn’t the type of woman to faint. “Pardon me? I must have heard you incorrectly.”
Another Lady Meriwether Vareck?
Before the woman could answer, a different clerk escorted another beautiful woman into the office. Tall, thin, and elegantly attired, the lady tilted her head in a manner that was the embodiment of pure grace. It was difficult to see her since her hat hid most of her face.
With his mouth gaping, the clerk stood motionless while his gaze darted between Katherine and the other two women.
The red-haired clerk who had left to fetch the first woman a drink appeared with a full glass of water. When he saw the scene before him, his face paled. “You weren’t supposed to bring the third one here. Not until Mr. Hanes had a chance to talk to the duke.”
The clerk who had brought in the last women huffed in revolt. “And you weren’t to bring the second one here”—he waved his hands in the direction of the pregnant woman—“until Mr. Hanes had a chance to talk to the duke. Who escorted the first one”—he nodded in Katherine’s direction—“in here?”
Seeking purchase to keep from falling to her knees, Katherine reached for the closest chair and dug her fingers into the supple leather, clinging to it like a safety line in rough seas.
It was inconceivable. Meri had another wife. She shook her head, hoping it was all a bad dream.
No. Not another, but two.
The bad dream twisted violently into a nightmare that hit her with the force of a sledgehammer. She couldn’t breathe, but the dull pounding of her heart continued.
The bloody bastard had three wives, and one of them with whom he’d obviously found the time to consummate the marriage.
Her burning lungs protested the lack of air. She gasped for breath, but thankfully, the clerks’ verbal attacks muffled the ungodly sound. The other women’s gazes flew back and forth between the two young men. They’d completely forgotten about Katherine.
Outside the room, the crisp click of boot heels against the wooden flooring grew louder.
“Three? As in wives? Why should I be surprised?” The deep baritone voice echoed from somewhere in the building. “Here’s the miscreant’s will. That’s what I pay you for. Handle it, Hanes.”
“But, Your Grace,” Mr. Hanes pleaded. “We can’t find the money.”
Abruptly, the footsteps stopped. “What?”
Katherine slipped from the room, softly closing the door behind her. She leaned against the mahogany panel, hoping the cool wood would calm the overwhelming sense of dizziness. How could Meri have done this to her? One word came to mind. Bigamist. Yet, if he had three wives, then trigamist correctly identified him. She closed her eyes for a moment. For the love of heaven, if he had more than three, that made him a polygamist. The thought sent her reeling. Plus, he’d never sent a word or a peep about meeting someone else, only humorous observations about his travels.
She forced herself away from the door. Not more than twenty feet in front of her, Mr. Hanes stood wringing his hands before a giant of a man.
The stranger still wore his beaver top hat on his head. The multiple capes of his black greatcoat fell about his shoulders, giving him the appearance of Hades emerging from the underworld to conquer all. His thick black hair brushed his shoulders. Though the long length was out of fashion, it suited him perfectly.
Slowly, he turned his attention to her. Katherine straightened to her full height, ready to battle the beast before her. His brown-eyed gaze swept from the top of her head to her feet, then came to rest on her face.
As he stared at her, she stared right back. She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes for effect. After watching her mother on the stage for years, she’d learned how to deliver a formidable look that could scare a mortal man senseless.
For that one moment, all sound and thought ceased except for the man before her. He wasn’t conventionally handsome. His patrician nose was a tad on the large side, and his huge eyes reminded her of a hawk hunting for prey. His full lips were presently turned into a scowl, and his strong square jaw accentuated his confident demeanor.
Such sureness was rare and to be admired. At least, Kat had always admired it. Unquestionably, he would get to the bottom of this travesty.
He nodded ever so slightly in acknowledgment.
Her breath accelerated as he continued to stare at her. His gaze dropped to her hands for a moment before his attention returned to Mr. Hanes.
Bloody hell. She’d been twisting her fingers together, a nervous habit she’d acquired in childhood. It completely destroyed her effort to appear disapproving. But after learning her fickle husband had three wives, it was a miracle she could stand at all.
Though the duke didn’t continue examining her, she took the opportunity to further study him. For weeks, the newspapers posted weekly accolades of his success on the battlefield. The accompanying drawings bore a remarkable likeness. He didn’t share Meri’s looks. Meri had light hair and blue eyes like an angel.
With his dark hair and strong features, the duke strongly favored an archangel. Standing in the hallway, he appeared invincible, like an otherworldly being.
The duke turned one shoulder to keep his conversation private. “Is she one of them?”
Even with his lowered voice, Katherine heard the words clearly.
“She’s your brother’s wife,” Mr. Hanes mumbled.
“Introduce me, please.”
Goose bumps broke out across her arms at the roughness in his quiet voice.
By then, Katherine’s companion, Willa Ferguson, had joined her. “Sitting in the waiting room, I couldn’t help but notice the solicitor’s office looks like an ant colony. Everyone is running back and forth as if they’ve lost their heads. Is there trouble?”
Willa’s Scottish lilt normally soothed Katherine whenever she was tired or irritated. But this was more than irritation.
This was anarchy.
“The worst type of trouble,” Katherine whispered. “I’m not the only wife Meri had. There are two others in Mr. Hanes’s office.”
“Nae! For all that’s holy.” Willa practically spit her displeasure as her eyes widened. “I knew there was something wrong with that lad.” Slowly, her gaze narrowed on the duke. “Who’s he?”
“Meri’s brother, the Duke of Randford.”
“He looks like a Highland barbarian. Stay away from that one,” Willa warned.
“I can’t.” Katherine blew an errant curl from her face. “I heard the solicitor say the money is missing. I’m assuming that’s my dowry.”
Willa’s gaze whipped to hers. “What?” she asked incredulously.
“Shush, Willa. My money is missing,” Katherine whispered.
“Pfft. Bloody English,” Willa murmured. “They never stop stealing what’s not theirs. Especially the rich ones.”
The duke returned his attention to Katherine and narrowed his eyes.
Katherine turned her back on the duke so she and Willa could speak softly without the two men overhearing. “He wants to meet me.”
Willa’s eyes widened.
Katherine nodded. “Hopefully, the duke and Mr. Hanes have devised a plan on how to right this wrong quietly and quickly. I’ll speak to the duke, then see what I can glean from the solicitor. Once I know my money is safe, I’ll ask that it be deposited in the bank. Then we can leave.”
She hated to worry about money, but there was no helping it, not after what she’d just heard.
“I’ll get your dowry for ye. I’ve brought some protection,” Willa answered as if sharing state secrets while she padded her cloak pocket.
Her darling Willa’s Scottish accent always thickened when she was excited. “You brought your knife?” Katherine asked softly.
“My dirk.” Willa shrugged. “Kat, I thought there might be a wee bit of trouble. An’ I was correct.”
Katherine shook her head.
“At least I dinnae bring my claymore,” Willa added defensively.
“Thank God for small miracles,” Katherine murmured. “We’d both be thrown out of the office if you drew your sword.”
Yet, she couldn’t be angry. Tall, spry, and in her forties, Willa had been with Katherine since she was a small girl, first as a nursemaid, now as her companion. Even when Katherine’s mother was alive, it was Willa who tucked her into bed and tended to her when she was sick. More than a companion, Willa was Katherine’s only family—well, besides Meri the “trigamist” and perhaps the duke.
“Don’t let anyone see it,” Katherine scolded softly. “Will you fetch my cloak from Mr. Hanes’s office while I speak with them about my money?”
Willa nodded, upsetting several curls of her graying red hair. “What about the will?”
“I doubt if Meri left me anything.” Katherine tried to smile but failed. She wanted to summon nice thoughts of her dead husband, but it was uniquely difficult after he’d left her to fend on her own. Now, it was inconceivable after learning he had two other wives. She exhaled. “We were only together a day.”
“Six hours,” Willa corrected as her green eyes flashed. “Not even enough time to consummate the marriage. Yet the bastard ate the bridal breakfast afore he left.”
“Hush, please,” Katherine begged. “I don’t need to be reminded, and I don’t want them to know.”
“What about ’im?” Willa threw her head in the duke’s general direction.
“I’ll take care of it.” Katherine patted Willa’s hand.
“It,” Willa grunted while eyeing the duke. “That’s a good description of ’im.” She nodded reluctantly, then left.
Katherine took a deep breath and turned to face Meri’s brother and Mr. Hanes once more.
The duke stared at her while continuing his discussion with his solicitor. She smoothed her hands down her skirt, then started forward.
The duke nodded briefly in her direction then turned his focus to the solicitor. “I don’t care what you have to do. Take care of this mess,” the duke commanded in a voice that demanded results.
Once Katherine stood beside them, a flustered Mr. Hanes turned in her direction before his gaze whipped back to the duke’s daunting visage. “Your . . . Your Grace, may I introduce your late brother’s wife?”
Miraculously, the duke smiled and, for a moment, Katherine could have sworn the sun had burst through the clouds in welcome. The room practically swam in light. Two perfect dimples appeared on his angular cheeks.
Immediately, she changed her opinion. He was handsome. Too handsome, if truth be told.
Another clerk motioned Mr. Hanes forward, leaving Katherine alone with the duke.
The imposing man tucked his hat under the arm adorned with a simple black armband to show he mourned his brother. He clasped her fingers in his. In a show of respect, he slowly bent over her hand. “I’m so sorry we meet under these circumstances,” he murmured. “Randford at your service, Lady Meriwether.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Though he acted the perfect gentleman, the heat of his long fingers clasping hers sent a slow meandering chill down her spine. Ignoring the response, Katherine dipped a curtsey. When she rose, she smiled demurely.
“How are you faring under this trying situation?” he asked with a deep, smooth voice that could charm harpies from the ocean.
Completely captivated, Katherine leaned forward. His sandalwood scent surrounded her, and she inhaled deeply. “Well, Your Grace. Thank you for asking.”
His eyes softened. “I’m glad to hear that.”
The rumbling sound resonated within her chest, warming her insides, and she smiled in return. This man was the definition of dangerous, a celebrated war hero who led his men into battles that others ran from. He always won, no matter the odds. If he had asked her to follow him into one of his heroic war campaigns, Katherine didn’t know if she could have refused. Thankfully, this wasn’t war.
Or at least, she didn’t think so. But heaven knew this was a disaster beyond epic.
“If you’ll excuse me? It was lovely to meet you,” he said.
The vision of a warrior who conquered all dissolved before her eyes. “Wait, you can’t leave.”
“Indeed, I can,” he murmured as he bowed. “And I will.”Return to A Duke in Time