“I'm the earl of what?” Duncan Beaufort sat back in his chair, mouth open with disbelief.
“Blackwood, my boy, the earl of Blackwood,” boomed the older woman sitting across from him, as if he might have been hearing-deficient and not understood her the first time she'd said it.
“I don't understand,” Duncan said carefully. “How can I be the earl of Blackwood? How can I be the earl of anything and not know it?”
“Well, I don't like to cast aspersions on the deceased, but clearly your father did not adequately explain his position in the line of succession to you,” she said in what she clearly thought was a delicate voice. It was not.
Duncan stared at her. He was twenty-seven years old, raised as a country gentleman but certainly not a titled one. He'd awoken this morning planning to supervise the cleaning-out of the cow pasture (and probably help with the mucking, to be honest) and entertain his brother when Ned returned from his regiment this evening, and then a knock on the door from a liveried servant had informed him that the Dowager Duchess of Blackwood would be arriving shortly to speak with him about a Very Important Matter.
The Important Matter, it had turned out, was informing him that he was the heir to her late husband's earldom.
Duncan rubbed his forehead. This was not something he knew how to deal with. He had known, in a general sort of way, that his great-great-grandfather had been an earl, but his father had never mentioned there was a possibility of him inheriting the title. He was the product of a series of younger sons, for God's sake. He was having a hard time taking it in.
“Are you certain I'm the one you want? Surely someone else is more closely related to your, er, late husband than I am.”
“No, my boy, I am quite certain you are the next eldest male relative. My sons died years ago, without siring heirs of their own – Auggie was only married for a year before he went, his wife is remarried now, sweet young thing – and then George died at Waterloo. Married to his regiment, that one. John, my late husband, did not have any brothers. So we had to go further back, to the second earl, to look for an heir.”
“The second earl?” Duncan repeated rather weakly.
“John's grandfather. It's all there in the papers I brought,” Lady Blackwood said vaguely, waving her hand to indicate the large stack of papers her solicitor had set on Duncan's desk before she'd dismissed the mousy little man to handle matters herself. Duncan was getting the impression that the dowager countess was a very managing sort of female.
“Let me see, then, John's uncles.” The dowager countess ticked them off on her fingers. “Charles had an array of miscellaneous daughters – one of them joined a convent in France, if you can believe that – and then Edward was in the Royal Navy, an admiral, don't you know. Married to his ship, never to a woman. If he had any children, they certainly weren't legitimate. Then was William, who had a pair of daughters and then a son, William like his father, then another daughter and another son. Now the second William-”
Duncan's eyes widened in disbelief that she could keep all this straight and reel it off the way a country gentleman might talk about his pastures. The second William she was referring to, he recognized at once. His grandfather had had two older sisters, a younger sister, and a younger brother. The younger sister, his great-aunt Charlotte, had lived in Yorkshire, married to a wealthy merchant. They'd gone to visit her a few times when he was a lad.
“-and after his elder son died without issue, the title passed to the eldest son of his younger son. Which is you, of course. The fifth Earl of Blackwood.” Lady Blackwood beamed at him.
He almost asked again if she were certain, but of course she wouldn't have come all the way to Shropshire if she weren't. And clearly she knew the family's genealogy better than he did. It came as something of a shock to think that if his father hadn't died only last year, the earldom would have passed to him first. How could his father have died as the heir to an earldom and not told his children? He must not have realized that his second cousins had both passed on without siring heirs of their own.
“Well.” Duncan was not certain what the expected social response was to learning one was an earl from the wife of the man he'd inherited the title from. He stared again at Lady Blackwood, this time taking in her appearance more fully.
She was dressed richly, her mourning blacks beaded and tailored to perfection, and she held herself ramrod-straight in the chair she'd perched on. She was older, in her late fifties most likely, and still a rather handsome woman. She'd probably been quite pretty in her younger days. But what Duncan most liked about her was the air of steely determination and self-assurance that she carried around her like armor. He wondered if that came with the title or if it was something she'd learned as a countess.
He wondered if she could teach it to him.
He was rather afraid to be an earl, quite frankly. Managing estates, having the care of so many people on his shoulders... It did not sound like something he would have chosen for himself, something he could be good at. But it was now being thrust upon him nonetheless.
He would just have to figure out how to rise to the challenge.
“I'll be happy to introduce you to Society, my boy,” Lady Blackwood said suddenly, her voice much softer this time. “It won't be as bad as all that. And we have quite a wonderful solicitor who is overseeing the estate while the earldom transitions to you, so you shan't have to worry about that.”
“What will happen to you?” Duncan asked, frowning slightly.
“Oh, I'll putter along. I've got the dower estate in Kent, it's entailed so it is yours really, but John left me the use of it in his will, for the remainder of my years on this earth. I'll stay in London though. You own two townhouses in Mayfair. Auggie lived in Number Four when he was married. I'll take that so you may reside in the main house.”
“Absolutely not,” Duncan said immediately. “You must stay in the family home in Town. It's been your home for years. I will stay in Number Four.”
Lady Blackwood smiled at him, her eyes gleaming. “You sounded very much like a lord there, my boy. We'll make an earl of you yet. Very well, I shall retain my residence at Grosvenor Square, and you shall have Number Four when you come down to London.”
“Must I? Come down to London, that is.” Duncan had never particularly cared for town, but then, he hadn't been to London since he was a very young man. And he certainly had never experienced it as an earl.
“Of course,” the dowager countess boomed. “You must present yourself before the Privy Council, and take your seat in the House of Lords. My late husband was not much of a politician, but if you've the inclination, you can certainly make of it what you will.”
“I see,” said Duncan, mostly for something to say. He had not even thought about the earldom conveying a seat in the House of Lords. A thrill of fear went through him. What did he know about making laws and governing the country?
“You have a sister, do you not? Still in the schoolroom, I believe.”
Duncan nodded. Iris was probably listening at the door at that very moment. “She is sixteen, my lady. Too young to be out yet.”
Lady Blackwood waved this aside. “Plenty of gels are brought out at sixteen, my boy. I've always thought it a bit young, though. And she'll need more instruction than what a country governess would have given her-”
Duncan squirmed a bit at that. Iris had not had a governess since she was twelve. Their father had never gotten round to hiring her a new one when Iris had run off her last governess, and Duncan had not thought to hire one for his sister now that he was head of the family. He supposed he should have done something about that.
“-so we shall simply wait until she's seventeen. That's more the fashion these days, in any case. Still, she shall come to Town with us. It's highly educational for a young lady. And I feel certain she shall enjoy it immensely.” Lady Blackwood cast a brief glance toward the door that made Duncan wonder if she knew Iris was likely eavesdropping.
“And your brother?” Lady Blackwood went on blithely. “I believe he serves in the Fourth Cavalry, with Colonel John Wallace?”
Duncan blinked. “Yes, my lady. How did-”
“My solicitor is very thorough. Your brother's regiment is arriving this evening, I believe. I shall expect to see Captain Beaufort in town with you, however briefly, before he returns to his duties. And now-” the dowager countess rose gracefully, and Duncan hurried to his feet as well, “-I shall leave you to your thoughts, and expect to see your family in London by Friday next. Good day, Earl Blackwood.”
The words stunned him momentarily, so that she was able to sail out of the small office leaving him at a loss for words at being addressed by his new title.
Duncan fell back into his chair and covered his eyes with his hands. The entire day felt slightly surreal. He was an earl, for God's sake. The weight of new responsibility pressed on his shoulders. He'd spent the last two years since the death of his father being responsible for his younger sister and brother, and now he was to be responsible for the well-being of hundreds of strangers living on his land and working for him.
His land. Hell, he owned more land. His father had left him a piece of Shropshire and the home he'd grown up in, appropriately sized for a country gentleman of no title but decent breeding, and he'd never thought to own more than that. He didn't even know how much he owned now. A dower estate in Kent and two townhouses in London, to begin with, at least from what the dowager had said.
Duncan eyed the stack of paperwork in front of him. It had to be a foot high. He was no solicitor, he did not know how he was meant to go through it all himself. He'd have to get a solicitor of his own, he supposed, though probably he could go and see the late Lord Blackwood's solicitor. No doubt the man knew all about this and could explain it all to Duncan. The officious little man brought along by Lady Blackwood had seemed the type to explain almost anything.
The door cracked open and the dark, slightly disarrayed head of his younger sister poked in. Iris never hesitated, and the fact that she was hovering at the door showed her own shock at the news. Duncan waved her inside, and Iris came in to flop down onto the chair Lady Blackwood had just vacated, curls flying. She had not pinned them up properly, again.
“I can hardly credit it,” his little sister exclaimed. “My brother, an earl! A peer of the realm, a pillar of society, member of Parliament. And all of us summoned to London to learn how to go about in Society. I never would have thought today would turn out like this when I woke up.”
“Neither did I,” said Duncan dryly.
“Is that it, then?” Iris went on, pointing to the stack of paperwork in front of him. “Aren't you going to read it?”
“I will. I need to find a solicitor now, I suppose.”
Iris picked up a good-sized chunk of the papers. “I cannot believe this is happening. Ned is going to be stunned. Is this in English, do you think?”
“I believe it's in solicitor,” Duncan said, reaching across to remove the papers from her hands.
“You're going to need a wife now, you know,” Iris informed him. “You need an heir, now that you're an earl. You'll need to find a duke's daughter to marry.”
“You read too many novels,” Duncan muttered, but she had a point. Earls were supposed to have heirs. An heir and a spare, wasn't that what they said? Though it had not done the late Lord Blackwood any good. His heir and spare had both predeceased him. It suddenly struck Duncan as extremely sad, and he wished he'd been more solicitous of Lady Blackwood during her visit. He'd offered his condolences on the death of her husband upon her arrival, when she'd announced it rather imperiously, but he'd been so stunned by the news of the earldom that he had not thought to do the same for the deaths of her sons. Waterloo was not that long ago, for her to have lost her younger son.
He looked up and caught his sister's eye. She looked very excited by the entire prospect. It probably seemed a grand adventure to her, and no doubt it would be. As an earl's sister, she inherited all of the adventure and none of the responsibility.
“What the devil am I going to do, Iris?” he asked slowly, almost to himself.
She raised an eyebrow at him, and some of the sparkle in her eye turned to sympathy. “You're going to be the earl of Blackwood, dear brother. And you're going to do it well. You're going to go to London, move into your townhome, present yourself to the Privy Council, and you're going to spend a great deal of time with Lady Blackwood's solicitor to learn about the estate.”
Duncan nodded. “Right. Yes.”
“And when we get to London, you're going to buy me a lovely new wardrobe,” Iris added with relish.
Duncan let out a heartfelt groan, trying to hide his grin.