Barlow was right: this man was no creditor. Inked at the fingers, but meticulous in his clothing, Aldine held himself with a grace that belied his sturdy frame. A man to have beside you in a fight, Aidan realized. He reconsidered Aldine’s fingers: a man who wished to be underestimated. How, he wondered, would Aldine respond to a frog in his portfolio?
“Well, Mr. Aldine, what business is so urgent that you must come without warning?” Aidan used the brisk tone he found most effective at limiting unwanted interactions.
The solicitor looked from Aidan to his study. Aidan watched with interested satisfaction, knowing the room revealed little. The furniture was well-appointed, the objets d’art fine, but not extravagant. The pieces revealed no particular preference as to period or style: an ancient Grecian urn on a carved mahogany pedestal stood before a contemporary painting by a little-known artist. Aidan wondered whether Aldine saw a rake, unkempt from a night of carousing, or the former officer known for his ruthless detachment. The men’s eyes met, both having taken the other’s measure.
The solicitor folded his hands behind his back. “I come on behalf of Thomas Gardiner, the late Lord Wilmot. I’m to deliver a letter his lordship wrote you shortly before his death. If you agree to the proposition he outlines, I have brought papers for your signature.”
At Tom’s name, Aidan stiffened with complicated emotions: fondness, regret, anger, betrayal. “Wilmot has been dead a year, yet the delivery of these papers is urgent?”
“Lord Wilmot was very specific. Your letter—and one to his widow—were to be delivered within a day of the first anniversary of his death.”
“Then it is convenient I am in town.” Aidan leaned against the edge of his desk.
Aldine held out a letter, its seal unbroken. “His lordship instructed I am to remain while you read.”
Aidan nodded acquiescence, and Aldine began laying out papers on the desk.
Tom’s handwriting, though still legible, had grown less controlled.
My dear old friend,
Knowing one is dying gives a perspective to the past. Besides time and distance, only one thing stands between us, an act I cannot regret, except that it separated us. Had I lived, we would have talked and embraced again as brothers, but that conversation and the sight of your dear face has been denied me. These lines—poor substitutes— must stand in their stead.
Look beyond our present silence to our years of brotherhood when your father took a fatherless boy into his home and reared him as his own. His sons I cherished as brothers, but none more than you. Since I must leave my son fatherless, I ask you to serve as his guardian. Take him into your home and heart. Shelter him and guide him into manhood, for the sake of our old friendship.
In this guardianship, I give you a partner: his devoted mother. Do not separate the mother from her child. Ian would adapt, as children must do, but Sophia would suffer immeasurably. Find some way to live near one another, forgetting the past, for my dear
Love my son, protect him, rear him as your own.
Yours ever most affectionately and sincerely, Tom
Had Aidan been alone, he would have cursed out loud. Tom’s letter was unwelcome, as unwelcome as Aidan’s father’s summons five years ago to return from the wars to care for the ducal estates.
Aidan turned to the guardianship papers, noting several contradictions between them and Tom’s letter. “Let me make sure that I understand. Wilmot’s son is to live with me part of the year?”
“If you wish. My firm disperses funds for the boy’s maintenance, supported by the approval of both guardians, or one guardian and our firm.”
Aidan raised one eyebrow. “What is the rationale there?”
“If one guardian is unavailable or if you and Lady Wilmot cannot agree, the firm adjudicates on the child’s behalf.” Aldine offered a long pause. “It is a right we prefer not to exercise.”
“Ah, money is tied up in this arrangement.” Aidan leaned forward toward Aldine. “Did Wilmot believe his wife would run through the funds?”
“No. His lordship valued his wife’s judgment. She’s an able manager.”
“He valued her judgment, but removed the boy’s estate from her control?” Aidan let his voice convey disbelief.
“No, the estate remains under her ladyship’s control until the boy’s majority. This guardianship administers a trust for the boy’s maintenance. Wilmot wished to provide the boy with a male mentor, but you can refuse the guardianship.”Aldine pulled another document from his portfolio. “Your signature on this makes Lady Wilmot sole guardian.”
“So it’s me or no male guardian.” Suddenly, Aidan remembered Tom as a boy, playing King Arthur and his knights with Aidan and his brothers. He cursed inwardly: Tom had known honor would not allow Aidan to refuse. “Then I will accept.”
Aldine returned the refusal to his portfolio. “My clerk can witness your signature, unless you prefer someone of your household.”
Aidan rang the bell. “I always prefer someone of my household.”
Aldine moved Aidan’s copy of the legal papers to the side and produced the official contract, a large piece of vellum, carefully lettered, with six signatures and seals already in place. Three signatures dated from shortly after Wilmot’s marriage: Wilmot’s own, large, flourished, and confident, and those of two witnesses. Wilmot’s seal—a dragon’s head—drew Aidan’s attention. Something tugged at his memory, but wouldn’t come clear. Lady Wilmot’s hand was f irm, but restrained; her witness, an Italian with a neat Continental script. Aidan read over the official document to ensure it was consistent with his copy.
When Barlow arrived, Aidan signed in his best, most official hand, adding flourishes to the tail of the S in Somerville, the curve of the D in Duke, and the F in Forster to mirror those in the ducal seal. An expansive signature to suggest full and willing consent. Barlow signed in a competent school hand, then slipped from the room.
“While the ink dries, have you any questions?” Aldine offered.
“I would like a sense of Wilmot’s intentions beyond this.” Aidan waved his hand over the documents. “I leave London in three weeks. May I take the boy with me to my estate?”
“The guardianship papers stipulate you may, but it might be wise to delay exercising that provision. Though his lordship established the guardianship a decade ago, her ladyship appeared surprised it had been called into effect.”
“What you do mean?” Aidan knew Tom never kept secrets without a reason.
“Lord Wilmot sent the instructions related to the guardianship in three letters, to me, to you, and to her ladyship. All were folded together in a cover addressed to my firm, signed and sealed by Lord Wilmot and carried to England by her ladyship.” Aldine tested the edge of the ink for dryness. “It seemed rather like the scene in Hamlet where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act as couriers of the papers that lead to their executions.”
“An interest in drama, Aldine?” Aidan quizzed.
“A student of human nature, your grace.” Aldine folded the contract until it formed a tall narrow book with a title already carefully lettered on its spine.
“Why do you think her ladyship was unaware of the guardianship?” Aidan asked, interested in Aldine’s observations.
“Her Ladyship rarely shows emotion. But her shoulders stiffened when she read the letter.”
“Then her ladyship is unhappy with this ‘partnership’?” Aidan replied, pleased at the news. The solicitor returned the documents to his portfolio. “I simply report her response to the letter.” Aldine withdrew a slip of paper and held it out. “Lord Wilmot purchased a house for her ladyship quite close to your own. If you do not wish to meet at her ladyship’s, my office is also available.”
Aidan looked at the address—Queen Anne Street, just around the corner. Near the park. The implications settled slowly. Aidan could likely look out his bedroom window and see her yard. “No, I will call on her.”
“Those copies are yours.” Aldine indicated the papers remaining on Aidan’s desk.
Aidan extended his hand in parting. The solicitor’s handshake was firm and confident.
Aidan waited until the solicitor reached the door. “Wilmot’s letter claims that her ladyship is devoted to the
boy. Is that correct? Women in the ton often find children merely an obligation to be fulfilled.” Aldine paused. “Then her ladyship is unusual. Observe the mother and the son together to determine the depth of her ladyship’s affection for her child.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You will charge me once more with a fondness for drama.” Aldine placed his hand on the doorknob.
“Then I’ll answer. Only with her son does Lady Wilmot seem to be a woman, rather than a beautiful statue carved in marble.” With those words, Aldine, ignoring the requirements of rank, wished Aidan a good day and left.