The Earl of Falloden glanced at the visiting card resting on the salver his butler held extended toward him. He frowned.
" 'Mr. Joseph Transome, coal merchant,' " he said. "Why the devil is a coal merchant calling upon me? Could you not have found out his business and sent him on his way, Starret?"
The butler exchanged a brief glance with the earl's valet. "He was most insistent, m'lord," he said. "He declared that he could divulge the purpose of his visit to no one but you. You wish me to say you are not at home, m'lord?"
"Yes," the earl said irritably, motioning his valet to hand him his neckcloth. He had just returned from a morning ride in the park that had done nothing to lift the gloom from his mind, that could do nothing to lift it. He was not in the mood for visitors.
The butler bowed stiffly from the waist and turned to leave his master's dressing room.
"Wait!" the earl said. He looked even more irritable as he tied his neckcloth in a hasty and simple knot despite the compressed lips of his disapproving valet. "The man is respectable, Starret? And he came to the front door?"
"He arrived in a carriage and four, m'lord," the man said.
The earl raised his eyebrows. "I had better see what the devil he wants," he said. "Show him into the salon, Starret."
"Yes, m'lord." The butler bowed again before withdrawing.
"A coal merchant," the earl said to his valet's reflected image. "What do you suppose he wants, eh, Crawley? To get me to change my supplier of coal for the winter? Who does supply it anyway? Well, I suppose I should go down and satisfy my curiosity. He came to the front door asking for me instead of to the back asking for Mrs. Lawford. Interesting, would you not say?"
But he did not wait for an answer. He strode from the room and descended the stairs to the hallway of his town house on Grosvenor Square. The gloom of an early November morning made it almost necessary to have lamps lit, he thought as he crossed the hall and waited for a footman to open the double doors into the salon. It was a day entirely in keeping with his general mood.
Mr. Joseph Transome, coal merchant, was a cit, he thought as the man turned from the window at the opening of the doors. He was as neatly and as expensively dressed as the earl himself, and altogether more fashionably. The earl had not been able to afford to keep up with the fashions for the past year, though most of that time he had been wearing mourning anyway. The only criticism he might make of the merchant's clothing was that it all looked as if it might be at least two sizes too large for the man. He was thin and angular, with a sharp, beaked face, from which eyes too dark and too large looked keenly at his host.
The earl nodded to him. "I am Falloden," he said. "What may I do for you?" He stiffened when the man did not immediately reply but looked him unhurriedly up and down and half smiled.
"You are a fine figure of a man, my lord, if you will forgive me for saying so," Mr. Transome said, rubbing his hands together. "Finer than I had been led to expect. That is good."
"I thank you," the earl said coldly. "Did you have any business you wished to discuss with me, sir?"
Mr. Transome laughed and continued to rub his hands together. "You would think it strange indeed if I had come for no other reason than to admire your appearance, my lord, now would you not?" he said. "But that is important to me too."
The earl pursed his lips, stood near the doors with his hands clasped at his back, and declined to offer his guest a seat.
"Perhaps I should come straight to the point, my lord," Mr. Transome said. "If the nobility is like the merchant classes, then time is money, as I always say. And time is not to be wasted on unnecessary chitchat."
"My sentiments exactly," the earl said.
"It seems, my lord," the merchant said, continuing to rub his hands as if washing them and looking apologetically at the earl, "that you are indebted to me for a considerable sum."
"Indeed?" The earl raised his eyebrows and looked haughtily at his visitor. "A household bill not paid, sir? I shall have you conducted to my housekeeper without further delay."
"No, no." Mr. Transome raised a staying hand. "Trifling stuff that would be, my lord, beneath your notice and beneath mine. Nothing like that. Your principal seat, Grenfell Park in Hampshire, is heavily mortgaged, I do believe, my lord?"
The earl's eyes sharpened.
"And the house and estate are getting shabbier and more dilapidated by the year with the rent money not even sufficient to pay off the mortgage costs," Mr. Transome continued.
"I do not know where you get your information," the earl said, "but Grenfell Park is no concern of yours, sir. If you will excuse me, I have a busy morning planned."
"Doing what, my lord, if I might make so bold as to ask?" Mr. Transome said. "Visiting your tailor or your bootmaker? You rarely do either these days since your bills at their establishments are already so high that you have no chance of paying them. And you are, when all is said and done, an honorable man. Or so my sources say."
"Mr. Transome." The earl's voice was icy. "I must ask you to leave, sir." He turned toward the doors.
"And you never visit Tattersall's these days, my lord, or attend the races." The merchant ignored the opening doors. "And you do not play deep at cards, already burdened as you are with gaming debts higher than you can hope to pay in your lifetime--though they are not your own, I might add in all fairness. And many of them debts owed to moneylenders, my lord. It is not a good situation. I daresay you do not sleep peacefully at night."
The earl closed the doors again and took a few steps across the room toward his visitor. "Mr. Transome," he said, "I take it there is some point to this impertinence. Would you kindly get to it before I throw you out of my house? And would you kindly inform me how I am in debt to you? Something my cousin's man of business knew nothing of?"
"Nothing like that, my lord," Mr. Transome said, his voice soothing. "I daresay you know the full extent of your debts. And they are sufficient to weigh on your shoulders as heavily as that mountain did on that giant's shoulders. What's-his-name. I always liked that story."
"Atlas," the earl said curtly. "I wonder how heavily you will weigh on my shoulders, Mr. Transome, when I transport you to my door in a moment's time."
The merchant chuckled. "Not much, my lord," he said. "Not much these days. You now owe me all those debts, my lord. I bought 'em all. Every last one of them."
The earl froze. And strangely, he did not doubt for a moment that the man spoke the truth. All those debts his cousin and predecessor had incurred in eight years as Earl of Falloden. Those debts he had refused to repudiate when he had inherited fourteen months before. And he had refused to sell Grenfell Park with its vast estates because it had been his childhood home. Because it was in his blood, a part of him, his most treasured possession. A millstone about his neck.
"Why?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Why did I buy 'em?" Mr. Transome asked. "To do you a favor, my lord. It is better, less confusing, I always think, to owe money all in one place than all over London and the southern counties. Would you not agree, my lord?"
"I find the thought enormously comforting," the earl said. "So you have come to put the squeeze on me, Transome? You are going to have to wait. I will pay off every penny of the debt eventually. But it will take time."
Mr. Transome laughed. "I have worked hard all my life, my lord," he said. "Through diligence and a little good luck too, I have amassed almost everything a man could want in this life. Only one thing I have very little of, and it is the very commodity you ask of me. Time. I have very little time."
"Then," the earl said, "I shall have to reconcile my mind to debtors' prison, I suppose. I am sorry, sir, but I cannot reach into a pocket and bring out the sum I owe you. I wish I could. Believe me."
"I do, my lord," the merchant said, resuming his old occupation of rubbing his hands together. "But your debts can be canceled in a moment, my lord."
The earl smiled arctically.
"You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, so to speak," Mr. Transome said. "You do something for me, my lord, and I'll cancel your debt. Every last penny of it. And make sure that you have the wherewithal to make Grenfell Park one of the showpieces of England and its farms the most prosperous. And to spend some time and money at your tailor's again."
The earl raised his eyebrows.
"You are waiting to hear what it is you must do for me," Mr. Transome said. "It is a small something, my lord, in exchange for what you will get in return. But it will mean a great deal to me."
The earl did not change his expression.
"I will cancel your debts and settle half of my fortune on you, my lord--and it is a considerable fortune," the man said, "if you will marry my daughter. And most of the remaining half of my fortune will be hers after my death and so in effect will be yours too."
The Earl of Falloden stared in disbelief at his visitor. "You want me to marry your daughter," he said faintly, wondering for a moment if he had walked into some strange dream. A cit's daughter. A coal merchant's daughter. A total stranger.
"She is nineteen years old and a beauty, even if I do say so myself," Mr. Transome said. "And if it is refinement you want, my lord, you cannot do better than my Ellie. I had her educated at Miss Tweedsmuir's academy. Two lords' daughters were there at the same time and a colonel's daughter too. She was particular friends with Lord Hutchins's girl."
"How do you know I am not married already?" the earl asked coldly. "No, disregard that question. I do not have a doubt that you know everything about my life, sir. Doubtless you know of my attachment, though not betrothal, to Miss Dorothea Lovestone. Doubtless you know of the mistress I have had in keeping for a year past."
"Miss Alice Freeman," Mr. Transome said. "And a beauty she is too, if you don't mind my saying so, my lord. She is a credit to your good taste. But then so will Ellie be. You will have her beauty and her refinement and education and half my fortune, my lord. And she will be your countess. She will bear you the heir to Grenfell Park and your earldom. It is all I ask, my lord." He chuckled. "To be grandfather to an earl."
"Mr. Transome," the earl said quietly, "get out of my house."
The merchant scratched his balding head. "I understand that you are a man of pride, my lord," he said. "What member of the peerage is not? And I know that it goes against the grain, so to speak, to consider marrying into the merchant classes. But sometimes necessity must swallow up pride. I really cannot see that you have any alternative to what I have suggested."
"Debtors' prison," the earl said curtly. "That is an alternative, sir."
"You have not even seen my Ellie," Mr. Transome said. "How can you be sure you would prefer prison, my lord? And I cannot believe you are serious. It is bravado. But even without prison, what is there ahead of you in life? You have not been able to offer for Miss Lovestone, have you, my lord, even though you have the title to dangle in front of her papa's eyes? You are too proud to offer her marriage while you are debt-ridden. But if you will pardon me for saying so, you will be an old man or perhaps even a man in his grave before you are free to offer. It is doubtful that her papa would accept you anyway, since he is not himself a wealthy man."
"My relationship with Miss Lovestone is entirely my own concern," the earl said.
"Quite so," his visitor agreed. "But you were the first to mention her name, my lord. Let me be brief, since I see that you are eager to bring this interview to an end. You must marry my daughter within the month, my lord, or I shall call in my debts within the same month. I would hate to do it, but business is business."
The earl set his hand on the knob of a door. "Allow me to show you out," he said.
"I shall call tomorrow, my lord," Mr. Transome said. "I cannot wait any longer. I trust you will think carefully of your decision."
"There is nothing to think of," the earl said, opening the doors and motioning his guest to precede him into the hallway. "You will be wasting your time returning here, sir. I will bid you a good morning."
"Until tomorrow, then, my lord," Mr. Transome said, taking his coat and hat from a footman. "I believe that in the course of one whole day and one whole night you will see that in all wisdom you have only one possible course. And it will be a good one, I can promise you. I have chosen you with care, since I will be entrusting to you my dearest fortune of all."
"Good day to you, sir," the earl said, and he nodded to the footman to open the door and turned away himself to climb the stairs.
He felt rather, he thought, as a condemned man must feel when climbing the steps to the scaffold.
Excerpted from A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh. Copyright © 2010 by Mary Balogh. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.