Book 5 in the >Lords of Honor Series
In the 5th installment of Christi Caldwell’s Lords of Honor series, find out why NYT Bestseller Mary Balogh calls Christi Caldwell: “a must read!” and why NYT Bestseller Tessa Dare says, “A Christi Caldwell book never fails to touch the heart!”
Her name preceded her…
Lady Poppy Tidemore’s notorious family scandals assure her place in not-so-polite society. Of course, she didn’t help matters…with an infamous art lesson that left her name ruined. Now, Poppy’s only hope is to accept her sister’s invitation to live at the Paradise, the illustrious hotel owned by her brother-in-law. There she’ll be able to pursue her artistic studies without judgment. Except someone else at the Paradise knows Poppy, someone who used to occupy her girlish dreams: Lord Tristan. Thankfully, Poppy’s no longer that naïve little girl, moonstruck by the charming rogue. In fact, over the years, she and Tristan have become unlikely friends. So, there should be no problem living under the same roof…or at least, that’s what she keeps telling herself…
His reputation precluded him…
Scoundrel. Scapegrace. Soldier. That’s how he’s known…and not in that order. Tristan Poplar, now Baron Bolingbroke, has lost everything. Upon learning of his father’s dubious role in the disappearance of the rightful Maxwell heir he’s lost not only his title and wealth, but also his respectability. He’s determined to restore his honor at all costs. However, honor proves a tricky thing – as does self-restraint—the more time he spends with alluring Poppy Tidemore. His best course of action is to avoid her, but when Poppy presents Tristan with a legitimate offer he can’t refuse, both enter with clear heads and uninvolved hearts.
Except, the more time they spend together, their arrangement blossoms into something more. And when an unexpected opportunity comes along for Tristan to restore his name, he’ll have to decide which matters most: fighting for honor or fighting for Poppy’s love.
Everything was a lie.
All of it.
The fortunes. The landholdings. The title. The respectability.
And because of it, even Tristan Poplar, the Earl of Maxwell’s honor was being called into question.
Which therefore meant…everything was gone.
Or that was what the man—nay, the investigator—seated across from Tristan expected him to believe.
It was also the moment where Tristan was to say…something.
He knew as much. He, ever effortless in discourse and conversations, so affable he’d earned a reputation for it and never missed a beat, knew this moment was his cue.
But he could manage…nothing.
His office crackled from the tension at the revelation which had been made…ten minutes? Ten hours? Ten lifetimes ago?
Only, if the investigator seated across from Tristan was to be trusted, this wasn’t Tristan’s office. According to the last utterance made, this space and everything in it belonged to another.
Or had it been, not an utterance, but rather an accusation? Mayhap it was both. It was all jumbled in his confused mind. After all, there was no certain protocol, no code of etiquette for how to respond to charges that the title one had inherited, in fact, belonged to…another.
The hearth crackled; the flames snapped and hissed angrily across the room.
He’s burning…my God, he’s on fire…do something, Tristan…
That haunting echo of those memories upon the battlefield that would never fade echoed in his mind, in a sobering reminder…that for everything that the stranger seated across from him had revealed, Tristan had faced down cannon fire and the bayonet of Boney’s most ruthless soldiers with calm. With the smallest of garrisons, he’d faced down Napoleon’s assault eighty guns strong. He’d not be reduced to silence by the stranger before him.
Steepling his fingers, Tristan rested them on his chest. “I beg your pardon?” he began in shockingly steady tones. “You are claiming I am not the rightful holder of the Maxwell title?” Somehow, giving those words life helped steady him. It was too fantastical to ever make any sense. It was a title he’d inherited less than ten years ago. “That the title, in fact, belongs to—”
“Another,” the illustrious investigator Connor Steele put forward smoothly, for a second time. “Percival Northrop.”
So the man had a name; the Northrops had been the family who’d died along with their staff and seen Tristan’s father—and now Tristan—elevated to the rank of earl. And an obscenely wealthy one at that. He laughed, the mirthless rumbled in his chest.
Leaning forward, Steele set a thick leather folder down. “He now goes by the name of Malcolm North. He—”
“He can go by the name of Satan’s Spawn for all it matters,” he clipped out, as fury took the place of his earlier shock. “There were no living Northrops. The family, along with all their servants, had been wiped out by smallpox.” That fateful event had seen Tristan’s father named heir apparent. “There are no living Northrops,” he corrected. With that, he shoved the folder back toward the other man.
Steele made no attempt to take it.
“That is what the world was expected to believe,” Steele said cryptically. “There was a boy.” The investigator paused. “Which makes him the rightful heir.”
The rightful heir.
Tristan narrowed his eyes. “How fortuitous that the long-lost heir should come forward now. And this…Percival Northrop should just so happen to reemerge after—” This time, he reached for the file. Opening it, he skimmed the top sheet. “Twenty years.” Tristan tossed it down and it landed with a thump. According to the paperwork before him, this brought the grasper, to… twenty-six, nearly twenty-seven years of age. He searched his mind in a bid to recall anything either his mother or late father had said about the Northrops. “Consider me cynical, but isn’t it odd that the rightful heir, as you call him, should appear now?” Suddenly, after all these years? Shoving back his chair, Tristan stood, ending this meeting.
“He didn’t come forward,” Steele said quietly, remaining seated. “I located him.”
That gave Tristan pause. The unease that had been churning through him the moment Connor Steele had stated, “The title Earl of Maxwell belongs to another,” returned.
He reclaimed his seat. “I don’t understand,” he said in measured tones. “Smallpox wiped out not only the Northrop family but their staff along with it.” All had perished. He’d been too young to remember, but knew the origins of the title that had passed to him. Or he’d believed so. Everything was dangerously close to being flipped upside down. “No one survived.”
“Incorrect,” Steele murmured. “Two people survived.” The other man paused. “And it was scarlet fever, not smallpox.” He nudged his chin at the folder. “It’s in the file.”
“Two people?” Tristan asked, ignoring that latter part of what the investigator had said.
“A maid on her deathbed, and a boy turned over to an orphanage, raging with fever.”
Tristan sank back in his chair. “And just how do you come to know all this supposed information?”
A cool smile turned the other man’s lips up in the corners. “It is my job to know everything.”
Filled with the need to move…to think, free of this stranger who’d invaded his office and made threatening claims against the future he’d inherited, and now sustained his two unwed sisters and mother with, Tristan stood. He made his way to the sideboard. Grabbing the nearest bottle at hand, he poured himself a glass.
All the while, his skin prickled with the intensity of the gaze trained on him by the other man.
Refusing to give in to the panic raging through him, Tristan forced himself to face Steele. “I trust you understand why I’m…skeptical as to your claims? Claims brought forward by a…” Tristan’s lips twisted in a cynical grin. “Malcolm North… What is his background?”
Steele frowned. “I’ve already—”
“Not that supposed one,” he said with an impatient wave of his glass. “Where has he been these years?”
“In the streets of East London.” The investigator offered nothing more than that.
“Well, then forgive me, but I’m hesitant to simply turn over my future”—and more importantly, the future of his siblings and mother—“because of the sudden appearance of a long-lost relative.” Tristan swirled the contents of his drink and took a sip.
“The transaction…the sale of the child, it was marked with coin and a formal agreement.”
Tristan stopped with his drink halfway to his lips. In writing, then. “Anything could be forged for the right amount of funds. Anything can be said or done when there is power and wealth at stake.”
The investigator leveled a hard look at him. “And that is precisely what happened.”
Ice trickled up his spine, and despite his bid for self-control in front of the man threatening to upend his future, Tristan tossed back a long, much needed drink of brandy.
“I trust this comes as something of a shock?” Steele said when Tristan held his tongue.
Only, there was a question there from the immobile stranger. Which implied he was also here to probe Tristan’s role in the elaborate scheme he’d just laid out before him. Indignation swept him, an outrage that proved restorative.
He set the glass down hard. “I’m not some subject to play your word games with. What you are suggesting—?”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Lord Bolingbroke. I’ve done my research. I’m never wrong.”
It didn’t escape his notice that Steele had appropriated Lord Bolingbroke, that lesser title belonging to his late father before he’d become the Earl of Maxwell. “This time you are,” he said flatly. The other man had to be. What was the alternative? That someone in his family had orchestrated the greatest theft? Harmed a child and stolen a lifestyle and wealth that had never rightfully belonged to them?
And worse…what would it mean for Tristan’s mother and two unmarried sisters? What the other man proposed was a scandal that—if true—the Poplars would never recover from.
Taking another drink, Tristan steeled his jaw. “This time, you are wrong, Mr. Steele.” What the other man spoke of was impossible. “We’re officially done here.” He stood, but once more Steele remained as tenacious as his name.
“Are you familiar with your family’s circumstances prior to their great reversal of fortune?”
The Poplars had been an impoverished lot with land that hadn’t produced and crumbling properties that had been largely uninhabitable. There’d been frequent tears and fighting between his parents. And with the thick folder the investigator had amassed, Tristan would wager the title he now fought to cling to that those details were all neatly penned in the other man’s hand.
He came round his desk and dropped his hip on the edge. “My family’s previous circumstances prove nothing.”
“They provide motive.”
One word that made the situation…more real. Nay, more foreboding.
As if he sensed that weakening, Steele pounced. “Your father had motives and was responsible for removing the rightful heir.”
A chill scraped his spine. It was on the tip of his tongue to tell the overconfident investigator where he could go. And yet…to do so would be an impulsive act. One that wouldn’t right this situation. And as he’d never been one to run from a battle, he forced himself to grab the folder and confront the ugliness that this man attempted to heap upon him and his late father—and your sisters. This file and this detective represented a peril to those dependent upon him. Coming to his feet, he presented his back to the investigator and skimmed the top page.
Percival Theodore Charles Northrop.
Age at kidnapping: Six.
His stomach churning, Tristan flipped to the next page.
Accompanied to London by the only servant to survive the sickness. Child was sent to a foundling hospital. Sold at the age of six. In that time…
Skipping over those details, Tristan searched and searched.
And then found.
Payments made through the years, in the amount of one hundred pounds monthly, by the Baron Bolingbroke to maintain the silence of the former maid.
My father. That was who stood accused, and supposed monetary evidence inked on these pages, linking the late earl to…this.
Tristan snapped the folder closed. He held the thick stack out. “You are wrong.”
This time there was no attempt to debate the veracity of the claims being made. And the now pitying glint in the other man’s eyes sparked terror that not even the previous iciness had managed. “I trust you’ll require time to consider…all of this and the ramifications.” With that, Steele took his leave.
As soon he’d gone, Tristan carried the folder to his desk, and sat—just as the door exploded open. His mother burst inside.
Bloody hell. “Moth—”
“There you are,” she exclaimed hurriedly, pushing the panel closed and joining him at his desk.
“Mother,” he finished his earlier greeting, welcoming the distraction…even if it came from his mother and surely pertained to seeing his sisters properly married and finding himself a wife.
“What was he doing here?” she demanded, and before he could reply, she spoke on a rush. “That man cannot possibly have any dealings with us.”
Dealings with us.
It was a…singularly minor detail to take note of. And yet… Tristan frowned. “Why do you assume Mr. Steele came on a matter affecting us?”
Angry color splotched her cheeks. “Any dealings he has with you affects all of us, Tristan. Unless I need to remind you, there are your two unwed sisters.” His mother began to pace before his desk. “Marry for happiness, he said,” she grumbled. “They’ll find a husband in due time, he said.”
Using her distracted, back and forth march before his desk, Tristan collected the heavy file, and deposited it into his top desk drawer. “Need I point out that Christina”—the eldest of his sisters—“is, in fact, happily married with two babies and another on the way?”
Not breaking her angry strides, she scoffed. “To a self-made man.”
“He’s gentry, Mother,” he said in the same gentling tones he’d used when schooling his sisters on how to hunt.
“Poor gentry.” She stopped abruptly. “And it is all because of you.” She stabbed a finger in his direction.
As if there could be another “you” in question.
Tristan threw back a drink. “Wanting my sisters to marry happily. How positively barbaric of me,” he said dryly.
“Shortsighted,” his mother clipped out. She pressed her palms to her cheeks. “Oh, whyever did I not persist? Your sisters need…”
And while his mother dissolved into a lengthy cataloguing of what his sisters required, Steele’s pronouncement whispered forward.
There was a boy… Which makes him the rightful heir…
Tristan’s stomach turned. For though matches for wealth and power had been a luxury before, now the lack of them represented peril. Uncertainty. For his sisters. His mother. Even if…when…Tristan triumphed over some street tough scheming for his title, along the way his name and that of his sisters would be dragged across every gossip column.
“Are you listening to me?” his mother snapped. “This is a matter of the”—uttermost importance—“uttermost importance,” she finished with her usual overdramatic detailing. Only…where it had once been an almost farcical reaction from his grasping mother, now there was an urgency that she didn’t yet see.
“I’m listening.” He usually lied. Now, he was. Now was different.
“There is also your need of a bride and an heir.”
“In that order?” With the scandal set to hit London involving Tristan and his family, the prospects on that score were grim, indeed. Not that he’d any interest in marriage.
Her eyes flashed. “Of course in that…” She pursed her mouth. “This is not a time for your lighthearted teasing, Tristan.”
There’d been no truer words ever to leave the hard-hearted woman he called mother.
“As I was saying…that man—”
“Has no business here with our family.” She thumped her hand on his desk once more. “None. I don’t want you keeping company with him.”
The countess’ concerns, however, only stemmed from her desire for proper appearances. “Ah, of course. Poplars don’t interact with those outside the peerage?” he delivered that familiar, gratingly arrogant mantra she’d been uttering since she’d gone from baroness to countess. “I assure you even with my vaunted station”—a station that, according to the previous visitor, was nothing more than stolen goods—“I’m not so arrogant that I’d turn away Mr. Steele.” Steele had uncovered a ring of kidnappings that had been conducted on behalf of a London gang lord.
Of which, he’d suggest my family is part.
“You’re not being reasonable, Tristan. He is…he is…”
“The son of an earl.” Tristan had never moved in the same social circles but society well knew the history of Mr. Connor Steele.
“The adopted son from the streets,” she said, not missing a beat.
“And therefore not to be trusted?” he drawled.
She gave an uncharacteristically enthusiastic nod. “You do understand.”
“It was a question, not a statement, Mother,” he said coolly.
His mother slammed her palm down twice on the surface of his desk. “That man is not to be trusted. Why, he was taken in by an earl. Named an adoptive son and how did he repay that warmth? By shedding the earl’s name and marrying a common street rat.”
Her rank as countess and their family’s wealth had long mattered to her above all else—including her children’s happiness. “Mother, I’ve more important business to attend than your…worry about Mr. Steele’s birthright.” What would she say if she knew how precarious their existence had become…? “Now, if you’ll excuse me?” he asked for a second time. Taking one more much needed drink of his brandy, Tristan set the glass down—
When he registered his mother sweeping into the seat.
Bloody hell. Tristan swiped a hand over his face. He didn’t have the time for this. Not now. Now, he had to try and sort out…what to do…how to proceed on the threat made by Steele. “What is it now, Mother?” he asked, making no attempt to conceal his impatience.
“What did he say?” Her query came faint and threadbare. This from the countess known as a dragon among all Polite Society for her fierceness and fearlessness.
And the previous bells that had pinged at the back of his mind chimed once more. Louder. More incessant. Tristan eyed her wan features. “What did who say?” he asked measuredly.
She dampened her lips. “Don’t be coy and don’t play games. What did he want?”
And for her earlier fury, now all that remained was a shaky fear.
The reason for the investigator’s visit would shatter her, but the story would inevitably come to her. And it may as well be now.
Tristan glanced past her shoulder, and when he spoke, he did so in hushed tones. “I’m not sure how much you’re aware of the manner of investigative work Mr. Steele has done these past years.”
“I’m aware,” she said immediately.
“He came because he…” God help him, he couldn’t even get the damned words out. Untrue though they may be, once he uttered them, the impending scandal became real.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“He claims the previous Earl of Maxwell had a son, and that son did not perish.”
Silence met that revelation. Punctuated only by the occasional snap and hiss of the fire in the hearth.
“I’m sure this comes as something of a shock,” Tristan went on, when still she didn’t speak.
And yet…his mother, given to histrionics when her morning gossip papers were set down on the wrong side of her breakfast plate, remained…motionless. Entirely too calm. Her features even. Her color…the same. There was no call for her smelling salts, or noisy waterworks that produced no water.
He narrowed his eyes. “Mother?” he quietly prodded.
The countess jumped. “Hmm? I…” She scrabbled at her throat. Her fingers frantically moved to her skirts. And then back again to her throat.
“What does he b-believe?” her voice cracked.
His stomach muscles knotted. “That father was responsible.”
“Take a child and place him in some…some…foundling hospital?”—The earth stopped on its axis—“You shame your father’s memory, Tristan. Shame him.”
Oh, God. No. No. No. Tristan’s stomach pitched. “I didn’t say anything about a foundling hospital.”
His mother pressed a palm to her mouth, and then abruptly let it fall. “Why…of course you didn’t. I’m simply saying…I was merely hazarding what that…that Mr. Steele said to you.”
A humming filled his ears. It is true. It is true. Everything Steele had uttered had been based on fact. “Stop.”
“As if your father would ever do something so callous—”
“Stop,” Tristan said through that distant tunneling of his hearing.
“I said ‘stop’,” he bellowed, exploding to his feet.
Gasping, his mother jumped back…and for the first time in the whole of his thirty-two years—she had no words.
His hands shaking, Tristan grabbed his half-empty snifter and downed the remaining contents; welcoming the burning trail it scorched down his throat. He set the glass down hard, and then looked to his mother. “I want the truth.”
“Tristan,” she began in those affronted tones she adopted with the damned servants.
“I want the truth.” He bit out each syllable as he spoke.
“He did it for you,” she said on a broken whisper.
A piteous moan swelled in his throat, choking him with the perfidy that had been his existence. Nay, this…none of it had been his. He’d lived the life belonging to another. An exalted one of wealth and opulence…stolen for him by his parents.
A restless energy filled him. Tristan took a step. And then stopped.
He took another. He needed to flee. To think.
Only there was nowhere to go. And there was nothing that would make sense of…this. Of what his family had done. Of what he himself had unwittingly been part of. Tristan, who’d held his honor above all else: on the battlefield. In his family. In his every relationship. Should now find his fortunes and recent past and now present were a product of the greatest dishonor.
I am going to throw up.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she whispered, snapping him back.
“And how am I looking at you, Mother?” he asked quietly. “As though, you and Father schemed to kidnap a child and divest him of his future? Stole from him so that we could have…this?”
She exploded to her feet. “Hush,” she hissed, alternating a frantic glance from the door and back to Tristan. “It was your father. He convinced me there was no other way.”
A half-mad laugh exploded from him, and at last, he managed to move.
No other way than to kidnap a child. To leave him for dead. To steal his title and his fortunes, and give them instead over to another family. An undeserving one. Tristan’s family.
His mother touched his sleeve, and he startled. He whose hearing and senses had been so heightened that he’d saved himself with nothing more than the crack of a brush in Brussels. Everything had been muted. Distorted as his whole life had become.
“He was sick, Tristan,” she cajoled. “He couldn’t have survived.”
And Tristan wanted to believe that. Only… His gaze fell to the drawer where that folder rested. “Mr. Steele has made a claim to the contrary.” And Tristan had rebuffed it outright. He’d called Steele out for being wrong, and leveled accusations against the man whom Steele had titled the rightful heir. “He survived, Mother,” he said flatly.
“Bah, what does this street rat turned investigator know? Why it’s very likely a fellow street rat colluding with him to divest us of everything we have.”
“The sickly maid hired to escort the boy to London has confirmed the history. There’s a payment history made to this woman, confirming not only that Percival Northrop lived but that the maid who accompanied him was paid off for her silence.”
His mother’s legs weakened and she caught the top of the leather winged chair to keep from collapsing.
Oh, God. Tristan dragged a hand through his hair. “And you know it.”
“He was on his death bed. Feverish. His lungs rattled. His throat swollen. What could be the harm?” The countess lifted her palms up in entreaty. No, not the countess. She was the baroness…his mother. Nay, he couldn’t even think of her in that light. Not in this instance. “Surely you see?”
Did she try to reason with him? Or herself? Tristan wrenched away from her. “What could be the harm?” he croaked. “What could be the harm?” Another half-mad laugh rumbled in his chest and died in his mouth, choking him. He reached for his glass. Found it empty. And then grabbed his bottle. Bringing the decanter to his lips, he drank deep of the fine French spirits, spirits that belonged to another.
He slammed the bottle down so hard it splintered, cracked, and then rained down amber droplets upon the previously immaculate surface, marring the mahogany. “Tell me this, Mother?” he whispered. “If the boy was upon his deathbed and Father was so certain death was imminent…then why…” I can’t. I can’t bring myself to utter that heinous phrase, “…why…?” Why take him to a foundling hospital? Why steal security out from under a child?
“There were you and your sisters, Tristan. We struggled mightily. You don’t recall. But I do.” She pressed a hand to her chest. “I do.”
“Our life was comfortable.”
“You know nothing of it,” she scoffed. “Your father would have ended in debtor’s prison and we would have suffered.”
Instead, another had suffered. The rightful heir. Tristan clenched and unclenched his fists. “But at least he would have had his honor.”
“Bah, honor,” she cried, her voice pealing around the room. She immediately went silent. Closing her eyes, his mother ran her hands over the front of her skirts. When she opened her eyes, her face assumed its usual unflinching mask. “When you have children of your own, then you can speak to me of honor, Tristan. Then you can tell me what you would have done or not done.”
“Not this,” he spat, cynicism dripping from those two words. He shook his head. “I would have never done this.”
His mother gave him a small, hardened smile. “But because of what your father did, you’ll never have to make those decisions.”
Creasing his brow, he stared at her. What was she saying? And then the truth slammed into him—“You want me to fight him for his claim to the title.”
“It can be dragged on for years and there’s no solid proof.” His mother gave him a pointed look. “Not truly.”
And she was correct. It would. Such entanglements would be messy. It would drag on and on for years, unending. Mayhap forever. In that time, Tristan’s sisters would live their comfortable lives…albeit still scorned for the scandal surrounding their family.
Valor nudged at his hand, the dog’s cold, wet nose, burrowing against his palm, as the pup he’d once given comfort to became protector. Tristan automatically stroked the silky top of the dog’s large head, and there was something steadying in the loyal creature’s presence. “You were correct on one thing, Mother,” he said quietly.
A shaky smile curled her lips up.
“Because of what my father did, I’ll never have to make those decisions.” He started around his desk. Valor immediately fell into step beside him. “Instead, I’ll make others. Different ones.” A previously slumbering Honor sprang to his feet and joined them. Tristan sat. Opening the desk drawer, he withdrew the folder left by Steele. Except, he didn’t truly need the proof contained within the leather file. His mother had confirmed…everything. He yanked out a piece of parchment…and then reached for a pen.
“What are you saying?” his mother demanded sharply, her voice pitched with panic.
Head bent, he didn’t bother to look at her when he spoke. “It is not what I am saying, Mother,” he murmured, dipping his pen into the crystal inkwell. He tapped the excess ink on the edge, and began writing.
“And what are you doing?” When he still did not answer, she cried out. “I asked what you are doing.”
This time, Tristan lifted his head very slowly. A muscle leapt in his jaw. “Why, I am at last making it right, Mother.” And with that, he penned the remainder of words upon that page that would erase the comfortable, elevated existence he’d lived these past twenty years.