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Babies, like science, can be rather messy.
Less explosive one might hope, but messy, nonetheless.

—From the scientific journals of Mr. Edmund Corbyn
 

REDSTONE HALL, KENT

Edmund Corbyn couldn’t say his grandfather’s summons had come as a surprise, but he should have been better prepared. He should have affianced himself by now, or at the very least, made firm strides in that direction. He ought to have had a short list of eligible young ladies, all of whom were properly turned out and beyond their Queen’s reproach. As it was, he’d arrived at Redstone Hall in the dark of night, a bachelor still and without a single name to his list.


Now, he stood in the quiet of the breakfast room and watched the dawn break over the eastern corner of the estate. He’d dismissed the lone footman from his post near the sideboard, and the only sounds to be heard were the distant goings-on of the household staff below stairs.


Blue, his elderly wolfhound, nudged Edmund’s thigh with her large head. He gave her ears a stroke and she angled her gaze toward him, one eye dark as pitch and the other light blue.

 

“What do you make of that view?” Edmund asked her. He’d always enjoyed the spectacle of a new day pulling into Kent. It came from far off, like a distant train, huffing and chugging along its track, vibrant blues and purples and pinks stretching along the horizon like steam clouds until the day screamed into the station in a blaze of golden warmth and light.

 

What he wouldn’t give to capture the colors with his camera, but the science hadn’t caught up with his aspirations. And anyway, today’s view lacked much of the vibrancy he was accustomed to seeing. He had his grim mood to thank, he was certain, for the day’s pale, muted appearance.

 

Odd though it was to admit, emotions came to him in degrees of light and color. Boredom cast everything in a dim grey shroud, and grief shad-owed the very air. When his heart was full, there was a sharp vibrancy to his surroundings, and when it was heavy, as it was today, colors had a pale, watery quality to them. It made the business of photography, which relied on an accurate accounting of light, rather tricky.

He set his cup on the breakfast table with more force than he’d intended, and coffee sloshed into the saucer. Blue, sensing his mood, nudged him more firmly. When her heavy tail threatened a porcelain bust on a nearby pedestal, he guided her to a place at the hearth where she could lounge with less danger to his grandmother’s fine things. As he turned, he caught the eye of the first Earl of Ashford, looking down grandly from his gilt-framed perch above the sideboard.

 

Eadmund St. James, with his sable-trimmed cloak and jeweled scabbard, had been a large man with thick black brows in proportion to his impressive bulk. The first earl had received his title during King John’s time, and an unbroken course of Ashford earls—over six hundred years of them—had followed to line the upper gallery of Redstone Hall. A gallery that ended with Edmund’s grand-father, now the fourteenth Earl of Ashford.

 

Edmund rubbed his jaw as the weight of the first earl’s stare bore down on him. He’d spent many a youthful holiday at Redstone Hall, laughing and teasing his sisters and being teased in return. Debating matters of physics with his father and grandfather. Sharing tales of his school successes with his parents and explaining his failures. Thankfully, as he disliked disappointing either of them, there had been more of the former than the latter. And Eadmund St. James had watched it all with his inscrutable gaze.

 

Edmund’s grandfather, who was also christened Edmund, had once explained the meaning of their shared name. It derived from “ead,” meaning wealth, and “mond,” protector. Edmund thought that could only mean they were meant to be wealthy protectors, but his grandfather explained they were also protectors of wealth. Of the first earl’s legacy.
But Edmund’s grandfather had only Edmund’s mother for his child and no sons. The earldom’s letters patent stipulated the title and entailed properties must pass “from the holder of the first creation to heirs male of the body lawfully begotten.” Though lawfully begotten, Edmund’s mother was not an “heir male of the body,” and therefore, neither was Edmund.

 

The fourteenth earl had long comforted himself with the knowledge that the earldom would continue through his younger brother and his brother’s sons. He’d set his daughter up with property and accounts of her own, and none of them had worried overmuch about the succession. But then, nearly four years ago, all the heirs had died within a depressingly short span of months, plunging the earldom into dangerous territory.

 

Since then, his grandfather’s solicitor had, at great expense, endeavored to find another heir. When that produced no results, and as his grand-father’s age advanced, the fourteenth earl petitioned Queen Victoria to make Edmund his heir. Such an amendment to the letters patent could only be accomplished at the pleasure of their monarch, and Victoria had taken the position that Edmund must marry first, and marry well, to set the title up for the future. Barring that, the earldom, and all its entailments, would revert to the crown upon Ashford’s death.

 

One need not stretch the imagination to its limits to conjure Victoria’s notion of a suitable bride, as their Queen had been very explicit in that regard. A young lady of genteel breeding, Church of England morals and good family lines. A spotless reputation without any hint of scandal. Wealth was not a requirement as the earldom was flush, but certainly, no actresses or enterprising widows need apply.

 

The significance of Edmund’s new, elevated role as potential heir was not lost on him. He felt a high measure of pride that his family would rely on him in such a way, but also some private degree of alarm, as he knew nothing about being an earl. He would learn, though. He would not allow the legacy of six centuries to crumble to dust.

 

The sounds of a fussy baby came from the corridor beyond the breakfast room, and Edmund turned away from Eadmund St. James with more relief than such a noise warranted. Seconds later, his oldest sister appeared in the arched doorway with her infant son Harry in her arms. His nephew’s face was flushed and tear-stained, and Aster’s own eyes were red-rimmed. It was a fair debate as to which of them appeared the most done in.

 

“Edmund,” Aster said with mild surprise. “I didn’t know you’d arrived. Welcome.”

 

Edmund crossed the room and bent to place a dutiful kiss on his sister’s cheek. As he did so, she took the opportunity to divest herself of the squirming infant. Edmund held Harry with one hand beneath his padded hindquarters and another behind his head and neck as his sisters had taught him. “What’s all this fuss about, young Harry?”

 

“His teeth are coming in,” Aster explained as she leaned wearily against the door frame. “I’ve been awake most of the night walking with him. Though I dislike comparing my children, I don’t mind telling you that John never complained half so much.”

 

Harry’s chin shone with drool, and he clutched a wet cloth-covered rattle in one fist. He jerked in Edmund’s arms, displeased with life in general and with Edmund in particular, and squeezed his eyes shut on a long wail.

 

“He looks like you,” Edmund said as he tucked the infant more securely against his chest. “I didn’t see it before, but it’s clear now.”

 

“Oh, wit, thy name is Edmund,” Aster said without inflection.

 

Edmund paced the perimeter of the room, murmuring to the lad as he went. “I’ve no doubt you’ll grow to be a man of great wisdom and charm like your uncle, but I dare say fits like this will only give the ladies the wrong impression.”

 

Harry sniffed and shook his head in vehement denial. Blue watched from her place at the hearth, curious and a little alarmed at the turn the morning had taken.

“He favors a man’s voice,” Aster said, “but I suppose yours will do.”

 

Edmund smiled. Even in her exhaustion, his sister’s jests had a fine point to them. He gave Harry a finger to chew, and eventually the lad’s sobs eased to stuttering hiccoughs. Blue lowered her head back to the rug, but she kept one eye on them as Edmund paced.

 

“Where is Sir Andrew?” Edmund said. “Dare I ask how your husband has escaped this duty?”

 

“He’s gone to meet a man about a new contract.” His sister’s husband, who’d recently been knighted for his military service in India, now operated a successful trading business in London.

 

Harry released a watery sigh and shifted sleepily in Edmund’s arms. A bubble bloomed from his nose, expanding and contracting with each breath. Edmund wiped it away with a napkin from the sideboard just as an expression crossed the lad’s face that, in Edmund’s experience, preceded a full wardrobe change.

 

He quickly handed Harry off to his sister. She cradled the now-drowsing infant against her breast while Edmund used the other side of the napkin to dab a lake-sized puddle of drool from his waistcoat.

 

Aster leaned up to kiss his cheek. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Despite the crying, and the puddles, babies are the best. I hope you find your Cinderella soon so you might have one of your own.”

 

Like a splash of cold water, her words brought him back to his purpose in Kent. Marriage. Heirs. Rescuing the earldom from the brink.

 

“I don’t require a fairy tale,” he assured her. “Only a bride.”

 

“We all require a fairy tale,” Aster said gently.

***

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