Michael Cranfield leapt from the carriage before it had even come to a full stop. His legs, cramped after the overnight journey, were unprepared for this sudden exertion, and he almost went sprawling onto the pavement. He managed to keep his feet and sprinted toward the Astley town house, taking the stairs two at a time and ignoring the footman’s expression of bewilderment.
“Is Anne here?” he said, panting as he crossed the threshold. “I must speak to her right away.”
An older man who had a butlerish look about him, between his ramrod-straight posture and air of silent disapproval, raised a single eyebrow. His expression was that of a man who had smelled something exceptionally unpleasant, and he seemed to be pondering which was the graver offense, the fact that Michael looked every bit as rumpled and dusty as one would expect after eighteen hours spent on the road, or that he’d had the audacity to refer to the Earl of Cheltenham’s daughter by her first name. He lifted his chin high enough that Michael could see right up his nose. “Could you possibly be referring to Lady Anne?”
“Yes—Lady Anne, of course. It’s just—I’ve known her all my life, so I—” Michael swallowed. He didn’t have time to explain. “Is she here? I need to speak with her. Urgently.”
“She is not. Perhaps you could leave your card, Mr.—”
Oh, God. The most important conversation of his life, and he was going to miss her. “There isn’t time for that. Where did she go?”
The butler puffed out his chest. “This is most irregular, sir. You may leave your card. If Lady Anne wishes to receive you—”
“In two hours, there is a ship leaving for Canada, and I must be on it,” Michael bit out.
The butler looked him up and down. “Rather urgent business for a man of your years. Do tell what it might be.”
“I am not at liberty to disclose it. But suffice to say, the matter is urgent enough that my father just pulled me out of Oxford.” Michael detected the tiniest sliver of interest in the butler’s stony expression. “Please, sir,” he begged. “I have to be on that ship, and I must speak to Anne before I go. I could be gone a full year, and I—I’ve never told her that I—” He swallowed, unable to believe what he was admitting, and to a complete stranger. “I mean, I’m fairly certain she already knows, but—” Lord, this was mortifying. The butler’s mouth was hanging open in a most unbutler-like fashion. But Michael ploughed on, because he had to convince the man somehow. “But I haven’t actually asked her to—to be my—”
The butler’s eyes sharpened. “You are Lord Morsley.”
“Yes. Yes, I am.” Michael felt his face reddening, all the way to his large, sticky-outy ears. He shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone back home in Gloucestershire seemed to know he was hopelessly in love with his best friend, that he had been for years.
But it was lowering to discover that his feelings were so openly discussed that this man whom he had never met, who lived a hundred miles away, was privy to them.
At least his confession had the desired effect. “A thousand apologies, my lord. Carter!” the butler snapped at the man posted at the door. “I want every single footman in this house standing before me in one minute, as well as Lady Anne’s and Lady Cheltenham’s maids.”
“Yes, sir!” Carter said, already sprinting toward the back of the house.
It was quickly ascertained that Anne and her mother had gone out to pay a round of social calls. Nobody knew their precise itinerary, although between Yarwood (this proved to be the butler’s name) and the ladies’ maids, they were able to put together a list of several dozen possibilities.
Footmen were dispatched at a run to inquire at the houses on the list. Michael was pacing past a drawing room when a gentleman with short brown hair peppered with flecks of grey appeared in the doorway. Michael started, and the man laughed.
“I’m sorry. Probably I should have made myself known earlier. I’ve been waiting for Lord Cheltenham.” He extended a hand. “I’m the Earl of Wynters.”
“Lord Wynters.” Michael pumped his hand. “I’m the Earl of Morsley.”
“Come, sit,” Lord Wynters said, gesturing to a chair before the fire. He strolled over to a decanter in the corner and filled two glasses. “I daresay you could use a spot of this,” he said, handing one to Michael.
Michael was just starting to take a sip when a great clattering sound made him all but jump out of his skin. It proved to be Lord Wynters’s walking stick, which he had knocked over as he resumed his seat on the sofa. As the earl leaned it against the couch once more, Michael noticed that the shiny black lacquered stick had a silver handle shaped like an icicle. “I could not help but overhear your predicament,” Lord Wynters said.
Michael cringed. “I, er—”
The earl laughed. “Come now, there’s no need to feel embarrassed. I, too, was once”—he paused, studying Michael assessingly—“seventeen?”
“Nineteen,” Michael said, unable to keep a hint of defensiveness from his voice.
“Nineteen. My apologies.” Lord Wynters sipped his drink. “Lord Morsley—that’d make you Redditch’s heir.”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about. Your father is tall, as was your mother, God rest her soul. I’ll wager that, within the next year, you’ll grow into those hands and feet.”
“Thank you,” Michael muttered, even though he felt the opposite of grateful. He was all too aware that, unlike his friends, who had shot up dramatically in the last few years, he remained on the shorter side of average. Not only that, he was scrawny and terrifically awkward, with hands and feet so large they looked like they could not possibly go with the rest of his body.
Throw in his gigantic ears, and he wasn’t exactly a fairy-tale prince.
But Anne wasn’t shallow. She didn’t care about things like that.
At least, he hoped to God she didn’t.
The earl was shaking his head, looking wistful. “You remind me very much of myself when I was not too much older, when I began courting my first wife. You’ve chosen well for yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so. Lady Anne actually bears a striking resemblance to my Clara.”
“I see,” Michael said. He was so anxious, it was difficult to attend to what the man was saying, but he was trying not to be rude.
There was a rush of footsteps in the foyer as the first footman returned. “Excuse me,” Michael said, already halfway across the room.
“They were at Lady Grenwood’s house earlier,” the footman said, hands on his knees, breath coming in gasps. “But they left a half hour ago, and her ladyship didn’t know where else they were heading.”
Yarwood gave the man no quarter, handing him another slip of paper. “We’ve thought of three more houses.”
“Yes, sir!” the footman said, hauling in one last breath before rushing out the door.
Time passed both agonizingly slowly and all too quickly. Somehow every time Michael checked his pocket watch, another five minutes had disappeared. Soon all of the footmen but two had returned, and still there was no news.
Michael sighed and turned to Yarwood. “If I am to make my ship, I must depart in ten minutes. As much as I hate to convey such a message in a letter, it appears it has come to that.”
“I believe you are right, my lord,” Yarwood said, leading Michael back into the drawing room, where the earl was still waiting before the fire. Yarwood opened a writing desk and gestured for Michael to sit.
Over the years, Michael had imagined proposing to Anne in hundreds of different ways—on the balcony at a ball. In the Greek folly behind her house. On the pond where, years ago, they had whiled away many an hour playing pirates (Michael had quickly rejected that one. They had been prone enough to overturning the skiff without anyone attempting to go down on one knee.)
But he had finally decided that he would propose in the meadow next to Cranfield Castle, the glorious old ruin that had been in his family for almost five hundred years. This happened to be the spot they had been picnicking the summer they had both been fifteen, when Michael had come oh so close to kissing her.
And so proposing in a letter tasted like the bitterness of defeat, and what Michael was able to compose in the space of ten minutes left much to be desired. But at least he was able to cover the essentials—that he loved Anne, that he had for years; that he wanted no one but her for his wife; that he never wanted to be parted from her; and that if she would but wait for him, he would rush back to her side just as soon as he had completed the task his father had set before him.
“There,” he said, putting a final crease in the paper and rising to his feet. He consulted his pocket watch and was dismayed to discover that he should have left five minutes ago. “I must hurry.”
“I will ensure that Lady Anne receives it,” Yarwood promised.
“Thank you, Yarwood,” Michael said with feeling. “For everything.”
The earl had crossed the room to shake Michael’s hand. “Good luck to you, young man.”
Michael accepted his hand. Plague take it—he was in such a state he had entirely forgotten the man’s name. “Thank you, my lord,” he said.
And so Michael hurried down the steps as quickly as he had rushed up them, anxious for Anne’s answer, and knowing he would have to wait months to learn what that answer might be.
Lord Wynters glanced about the drawing room. The house was still aflutter following the excitement caused by young Lord Morsley’s unexpected arrival. The footmen were chattering amongst themselves in the foyer.
Yarwood, the only one who seemed to recall that they still had a guest, had taken up a position just outside the door.
“Yarwood,” Lord Wynters called, “I suppose I won’t wait any longer. But I wonder if I might ask a favor before I go.”
“Certainly, my lord.”
He raised his empty glass. “I happen to know that Cheltenham keeps a bottle of Martell up in the library. Would you mind fetching me a glass?”
“At once, my lord.”
As soon as the butler was out of the way, Wynters crossed to the writing desk and seized Lord Morsley’s letter. He didn’t bother to open it; he knew well enough what it said.
He threw it straight into the fire.
He then scrawled a quick note of his own, which he positioned on the desk at the precise angle of Lord Morsley’s missive.
By the time Yarwood returned with his drink, Wynters was back in his seat, arm draped across the back of the sofa, looking for all the world as if he had never moved.
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Excerpt from What’s an Earl Gotta Do?, copyright Courtney McCaskill 2021. All rights reserved.