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A GIFT FOR THE EARL
by Beauvallet

Thaddeus had been wracking his brain for days, trying to think of a suitable
birthday gift for his employer. Nothing too expensive for although the Earl of
Edrington paid his secretary well enough, it would not do to appear toadying.
And nothing too cheap either because after all, he was the Earl of Edrington.
And now here it was, the eve of his lordship's birthday and he still had no
gift for the man who, by offering him the post of private secretary, had saved
him from a stultifying life of tutoring youths who would rather by far not be
tutored.

Thrusting one hand through his hair, he limped across the room to his desk,
banging more loudly with his peg-leg than usual. A cluster of last minute
acceptances to his lordship's birthday gala occurring this evening littered the
desk. He began collecting them to put in some kind of order, and grimaced as his
gaze fell on the far-too-flowing penmanship of Lady Ursula Fanswift-Welton.
Lady Ursula was a prudish widow with, as his employer had once confided bluntly
to his secretary, a glittering eye to the main chance. Embarrassingly soon
after her elderly husband's demise Lady Ursula had made it plain that she
intended her next husband (victim!) would be the Honourable Alexander Chase Martin
Edring, eighth Earl of etc, etc. For her efforts to capture the Earl's hand she
had been warmly welcomed by his mama the Countess, who seemed inappropriately
hasty to add the word Dowager to her own title. The Earl, on the other hand,
had observed her machinations with a colder and more cynical eye. Yet not even
the severest of snubs daunted the lady, and she pursued the Earl with an overt
fervor not seen amidst the ton since Miss Fubsyface had once set her cap, in
vain, for Sir Edward Pellew. The Earl, only a few years Thaddeus's senior,
had at first been irritated. Then, in turn, he had been angry, embarrassed,
humiliated, and was now bordering on fearful. Lady Ursula's prudish nature had
found a powerful ally in the Countess, and the pressure on his lordship was so
intense that the betting at White's was now beginning to go against him.

Maybe he should shoot the woman, Thaddeus grinned. Now that would be a fine
birthday gift for Edrington! No worries about too cheap or too expensive then,
and it would be bound to please the Earl! Sorting through the invitations he
discovered he had mistakenly placed a personal letter from one of his own
brothers in with the invitations. He shook his head. Octavian was something of a
black sheep, if the vast Thistledown tribe could be said to have spawned such a
creature. A shocking flirt, recklessly adventurous, wily as any
thimble-rigger, and up to any rig and row in London where he had just arrived as announced
by the letter. Now Octavian was a chap who was the antithesis of Lady Ursula,
he mused, then caught his breath as an idea occurred to him. Yes! Octavian was
the very man he needed!

Thaddeus brushed aside the invitations, and drawing a fresh sheet of
parchment from his desk, he began to scrawl hastily. This, he thought, may be the most
scathingly brilliant notion he'd ever had -- if it worked!
******** ******** ******** **********

On the anniversary of his birth, and the morning after the gala given to
honour such, the Earl of Edrington rose late, bathed, and dressed leisurely in a
coat of blue superfine with a decidedly military cut. His biscuit-coloured
pantaloons clung to magnificently muscled thighs, and his cravat was an exquisite
creation of his own making and had taken no more than half an hour to achieve
those perfect folds. His fair, wavy hair was the sole unfashionable portion of
his aspect, rigidly swept back as it was from a high, noble forehead, and
plaited tightly into a short queue. As leisurely as he had dressed did he also
descend the stairs and find his way to the morning room where breakfast was laid
out. He allowed Harpworth, his butler, to serve him some eggs, a little ham,
coffee, and a basket of his favorite muffins was placed within easy reach. He
enjoyed a second cup of coffee while examining the Gazette, then rose from his
chair exactly on the half-hour, and made his way to his secretary's office.

Thaddeus rose from behind his desk and wished the Earl the compliments of the
day, which greeting was graciously received as his lordship seated himself at
his own desk.

"I beg your pardon, m'lord," Thaddeus's expression was a study in innocence,
"I had not thought you intended to work today. I regret that I do not have
that speech for the House perfected yet --."

Edrington interrupted. "Never mind it, you were right. I do not intend to
chain myself to this desk today. I had thought I might be reduced to so
ignominious an artifice as a way of excusing myself from Lady Ursula's attentions but
now I need have no further fear of her importunities, I daresay I may now go
riding without fear of her throwing herself under my horse's hooves."

It had worked! God bless Octavian, Thaddeus sent up a prayer for his
hey-go-mad brother and strove to keep his countenance. But how? How had it all played
out?

"My lord?"

"Ah! Had you not heard, Thaddeus? I was -- almost -- certain you had learned
of it."

"Learned of what, my lord?" He struggled to arch a single inquisitive
eyebrow, a trait he had learned from the Earl.

"Why, that I have been quite cast off by the lady!"

"I cannot imagine it, my lord. She is quite set on you."

"No, I can barely comprehend it myself, but so it is." Edrington shrugged at
the mystery and rose to leave. Hardly was his hand upon the door when
Thaddeus, aching with curiosity, blurted out, "But what happened, m'lord?"

"You do not know?" Edrington shook his head in wonderment. "Overnight I am
become, according to the lady, a libertine of the worst sort, a rake-hell, a man
it seems who would willingly share the - ah - connubial privileges of his
wife with other men in order to win a wager!"

"My -- LORD!" Thaddeus was aghast. Octavian had gone too far in his bid to
convince Lady Ursula that Edrington would be an ill choice for a husband.

"Just so, Thaddeus, just so," the Earl reflected calmly.

"My lord, she -- it -- she did not make so false a denunciation publicly?" He
hoped!

"Oh, but she did. Before the entire ton. But more importantly, before Mama!"

"Your reputation, my lord! I would not -- that is...she must be mad!"

"So Mama said. Before the entire ton. And shortly before having Lady Ursula
escorted to the door." Edrington tugged at one ear, and went on. "I can only
wonder if perhaps the stranger said something to mislead her as to my
character."

"Stranger, m'lord?" Thaddeus nearly strangled on the words. Clearly his
lordship knew all, and was merely twisting the knife in Thaddeus before dismissing
him from his employ.

"Some chap calling himself Sir Philip Ander. Odd name, that. I would have
questioned him in the matter but he had vanished from the party. Good looking
fellow, too, about your height and colouring, Thaddeus. And something of the same
determined chin. I thought he might be one your far-flung clan until he was
introduced."

"Really, m'lord?" Thaddeus was choking on despair now. "Possibly some long
lost cousin, you think? But not -- not ---."

"NOT one of your relatives, Thaddeus, I am sure! Naturally if one of your
cousins -- or even a brother -- were to speak such falsehoods of me, I could no
longer keep you in my employ."

"Of course not," he agreed miserably.

"But I am as certain of your loyalty to me, Thaddeus," Edrington said gently,
"as I am of the sun rising in the east. Fortunately I am secure in the
knowledge that none of your relatives would engage in such malicious talk, for I
very much fear that I could not easily dispense with your services, as wide and
varied as they sometimes are."

Thaddeus kept silent, almost in shock as the Earl opened the door, then
almost overcome with relief he choked out a most sincere, "Happy Birthday, my
lord!"

Edrington smiled sweetly over his shoulder, blue eyes meeting brown in
perfect understanding. "Thank YOU, Thaddeus!"

 

 

-- Finis --