Alistair Alexander Price entered his father’s townhouse—for all intents and purposes, his townhouse since his father had taken ill the year before and was unable to travel. Alistair was responsible for the care and well-being of his siblings—he was to tend the account ledgers, he was answerable to all his father’s tenants—and it seemed, Alistair was also solely accountable for the funds needed to fulfill all of those obligations.
“Your coat, Mr. Price?” Donavon, the family butler, held his arm out, prepared to take his over garment.
Alistair shrugged, allowing the coat to fall from his shoulders and into his butler’s waiting arms. “Thank you. I will be in my study, please make sure I am not disturbed.”
“Of course, Mr. Price.” The servant gave him a faint smile.
Alistair was fairly certain the staff was delighted to have the Melton horde in residence—and agreeable to Alistair filling his father’s vacant shoes, though he had not inherited the Melton Viscountship as yet.
With a nod, Alistair continued on to his father’s study. He shook his head. His study. It was highly unlikely his father would ever journey to London again.
Alistair needed a quiet place to think, and if it took drinking himself into a stupor to figure out his family’s problems, then so be it. With eight younger siblings in residence, a quiet room was hard to come by; however, he knew his three brothers were at their fencing lessons, and the female part of his household avoided his study as much as possible—unless summoned. Alistair had made a point of using the room when doling out lectures on inappropriate behavior, as well as when imparting bad news.
Anyone who invaded his private space was subject to one or the other—and on many occasions, both.
His footsteps sounded as he walked down the corridor, past his sisters’ receiving room—not that the five Melton females were used to receiving guests beyond family—and beyond to the study.
The day had not gone as planned, to say the least. His father’s longtime solicitor, Mr. Adams, had shared with Alistair the dire conditions of the many Melton estates. Since the viscount had begun his downward spiral and his illnesses finally took his ability to walk, not a single tenant issue had been addressed, no roofs had been mended beyond what the villagers could do themselves, and no upkeep to the estate gardens had been done. And their family coffers were continually drained from the expenses of supporting nine children and a full-time physician to care for the aging viscount.
Alistair’s father had once been a very hands-on viscount, not trusting estate business and tenant concerns to anyone. That left Alistair to fumble his way through things once his father was unable to leave his sickbed—and his mother unwilling to leave her husband’s side.
Alistair rounded his desk and fell heavily into his chair—the chair he’d seen his father occupy for all of Alistair’s twenty-five years. It had remained vacant for nearly two years before Alistair and his mother made the decision to remove the children to London to avoid them witnessing the viscount’s worsening condition. His mother was to join them before his sister, Adeline, was presented to society.
The news had arrived yesterday—two short weeks before Adeline’s first ball—that Viscountess Melton would not be joining her children in London. At least, not this season.
Certainly, Alistair could handle depositing Adeline at her dress fittings, consulting with her on which invitations to accept, and accompanying her on outings to Hyde Park, but he did not enjoy any of those things, and as a rule, strictly avoided any excursion that would result in meeting marriage-minded females. There was an overabundance of those to contend with in his own home without seeking them out about town.
And Alistair hadn’t the time or the patience for any of it.
Thankfully, he only need present one sibling to the ton this season, Adeline—next season would be Adelaide and Amelia, and after them, Arabella the following year. Lastly, Ainsley. It was all too much to wrap one’s mind around. The viscount’s coffers would be empty long before Alistair inherited the title. And what to do about his brothers: Abel, Alfred, and Adrian? They were remarkably unconcerned with their future paths. None of the three wanted their father to purchase them a commission to serve their country—though Alfred and Adrian were much too young to be burdened with such thoughts as yet. Not a one had an interest in any trade, but Abel did enjoy spending his spare time assisting at the British Museum, without pay, of course; however, at the age of twenty and one, he should be focusing on something more suitable to support a family.
Alistair would see his duty through: ensuring that all of his siblings were wed and taken care of. And then, if there were still time for him and he hadn’t been beaten down by the strain of it all, he would think about his own future.
There were many years ahead of him before he had the luxury of pondering what he wanted for his life. Little Ainsley was only ten, after all, and with eight years until her introduction, Alistair would have no rest until then.
What had his parents been thinking? Nine children with his father already close to fifty when the first was born. It was irresponsible, to say the least. At this point, Alistair would be close to the same age when he had the time to focus on finding his own wife. Never would he burden anyone with supporting his offspring.
As he stared toward the open door, a flash of green flew past, catching his attention. He had glimpsed a trail of blonde curls before the girl was out of sight, her slippered feet making no sound.
He was out of his chair and following, a lecture on the inappropriateness of running indoors on the tip of his tongue. It was necessary for him to hurry to the entryway as his siblings were fast to disappear, especially if they suspected he was in pursuit.
Adeline stood, ready to enter the receiving room when he called her name, his displeasure clear in his voice.
Her hand paused on the door handle but did not turn it.
“Adeline,” he chastised. “What have I said about running in the house?”
“It is only necessary to run faster than the person chasing you?”
“Do not play feebleminded with me,” he sighed, knowing he had, indeed, said those exact words many times, but that was before he and his sister had reached adulthood—and he’d been forced to take his unofficial place as head of the Melton clan. “What did I say about running in the house yesterday?”
“That it is highly inappropriate for women who’ve left the schoolroom and expect to be accepted in ballrooms,” she mimicked. “Women who have turned their cotton pinafores in for silk gowns should refrain from such uncouth behavior.”
“And…” Alistair prodded. He shouldn’t have to lecture Adeline on her decorum. Hadn’t he spent enough coin on her tutelage? For a woman of eight and ten, she could use a healthy dose of maturity.
“If such young women do not agree, then they are free to pack their trunk and return to the country.”
He smiled with pride at her ability to recite his lecture from the day before. “Very good. Miss Emmeline’s School of Education and Decorum for Ladies of Outstanding Quality has at least taught you one valuable skill. Now if only you could follow the sound advice you memorized.”
Adeline stuck her tongue out at him as she turned toward the door once again.
“Adeline!” Again her hand froze on the knob—knowing her luck would only get her so far with her eldest brother. “You must put your childish ways behind you if you favor a successful season.”
“Of course, my dearest, most loving, and wise brother.” Her talent for charming others—all the while mocking them—was a gift all of his siblings shared, though her sweet words never fooled him. “Now, if you do not mind, it is discourteous to keep guests waiting.”
“Not many are informed we are in London. Who is calling on you?”
And why hadn’t he been informed there was a visitor in his home? It was not only his aging parents but also his servants who’d taken a liking to his younger siblings, often doing their bidding without realizing it.
“It is only Theo, Alistair.” She said the name as if it should be familiar to him. Only Theo?
He wanted to demand she tell him who the bloody hell Theo was and what the man was doing calling on his sister without properly introducing himself to Adeline’s eldest brother before requesting an audience with her. True, their parents were still responsible for the lot of them; however, as the eldest male in good health, it fell on Alistair to keep his siblings safe.
And he could not do that if unfamiliar men were coming and going right under his nose.
Instead of ripping the door off its hinges and confronting the man who dared enter his home without an invitation, Alistair took a deep breath. Far different from the deep breath he’d taken earlier in his study as he’d allowed the pressure of his responsibility to settle. No, this deep breath was giving him time to gather his words to use as his weapon instead of his fists.
Many—especially his female siblings—called him domineering and imperious when it came to his family. But his father had trusted him to lead well in the viscount’s stead, and no matter the difficulty of the task, Alistair would do exactly that.
Adeline looked at him as if he’d grown a second head with five eyes. “Are you experiencing a decrease in memory, dear brother?”
His temper rose at Adeline’s reference to their father’s diminished mental capacity, and his sister knew she’d gotten to him. She was most successful at finding every little thing that irritated him and drawing his annoyance out. And since her return from boarding school, he’d realized she hadn’t changed. Not even the smallest bit.
The viscountess, Lady Melton, had hoped that separating the two siblings would ease their lifelong discontent and competitiveness with one another, but while Alistair had been made to mature far quicker than most, his sister was still the hellion she’d been since birth.
“I assure you, I am in full capacity of my senses, Miss Adeline,” he spoke the words slowly, pronouncing each as if she were the one who was struggling to grasp his meaning. “Why do you not introduce me to your friend, Theo?”
Maybe he was the boon Alistair had been praying for—a man to take his wayward sibling off his hands before the season had even begun. Alistair’s only regret was that he’d paid the modiste’s note the day before. He need push this Theo to announce his courtship quickly and have the betrothal papers drafted as soon as the man hinted at the possibility—before he discovered that Adeline was not the demure miss he assumed her to be, but a sharp-tongued, quick-witted, infuriating debutante who knew exactly how alluring her blonde hair, fair skin, and pale blue eyes were.
Adeline made no move to join her guest, most likely suspecting her brother had some plan contrived—and she would be correct.
“Come, dear sister,” he hissed. “Let us not keep our visitor waiting.”
“Do you not want me to greet our guest?” he asked. This Theo gentleman must be highly unsuitable if Adeline were working this hard to keep Alistair from entering the room. Again, he searched his memory for any mention of a Theo—or, more likely, Theodore—who’d made his acquaintance. There was that elderly earl, Lord Bays. His given name was Theodore if Alistair weren’t mistaken, but he was far too old for his sister’s liking and, he gulped, wedded going on three decades. Certainly, Adeline hadn’t lowered herself to consorting with men who were spoken for. “Allow me to open the door.”
Adeline scrutinized him before shrugging. “Very well, let us greet our guest. Do not embarrass me before my friend.”
“Embarrass you?” Alistair asked, stunned. “Why ever would you think I would do something so juvenile?”
“You have been known to make me look awful and think it is comical.” She released the knob and crossed her arms. “Or need I remind you of how cruel you and Abel have been to me?”
“Must I remind you what a nuisance you were as a child?” he retorted. This was the way of things for them: bickering, bantering, and arguing—with no end in sight. “You would follow Abel and me around constantly. It was improper for a young girl of quality.”
“You lost me in the woods!” she shrieked. “I was only ten, and the sun was setting.”
“But you never followed us outdoors again, did you?”
“Humpf.” She tapped her foot, waiting for him to agree that he would not mortify her. When he made no move to agree to her request, she continued, “And the pie?”
Alistair couldn’t help but chuckle at the reminder. “The pie dropping over the railing from the landing above the main hall was Abel, and you very well know that. We could not have known you’d be walking below at that precise moment.”
“My new frock was ruined from the berry juices.”
“Again, that was many years ago, Adeline,” he said. “I have grown—matured—as I hope you did as well during your time away at school. Now, please allow me to escort you to greet this Theo gentleman.”
A smirk landed on Adeline’s face, and her brow rose. “Of course, dear brother. Let us join our guest.”
He set his hand on her arm to halt her before she entered the room. “Do not think I take kindly to men calling on my sister without my express permission. This will not go unmentioned.”
“Oh, I certainly hope you do reprimand Theo.” Adeline giggled, a sound Alistair hadn’t heard in many years. Actually, he hadn’t heard it since she’d slipped a dozen pond frogs into his trunk before he’d left for Eton. The carriage had been made to stop only two hours’ journey from their country estate to free the trapped creatures; however, they’d already done the intended damage to his entire wardrobe, and Alistair had spent an entire week wearing the same set of clothes until new ones could be sent. “It is only what is deserved.”
Alistair had had enough of his sister’s irksome banter, so he stepped around her, pushing the door wide. “After you.” Alistair bowed mockingly as she flipped her hair over her shoulder and preceded him into the room.
Entering, he immediately scanned the room looking for the man who dared enter his home with no regard for proper etiquette, putting his sister’s reputation in question before her first season was underway.
“I do not appreciate hearing that someone dares cross the threshold of my home without suitable cause to do so.” Alistair’s voice thundered through the small receiving room. He wanted the man to be aware his actions were not agreeable to Alistair—Adeline’s guardian while in London. “You are certainly fortunate I am in residence to rectify the situation.”
He paused, glancing around the room for his intended target, but no man stood by the open hearth, nor by the windows, their drapes held back with a simple tie to allow the warm sunlight in.
A small gasp brought his attention to the delicate sofa his mother favored when in London.
“Lady Theodora Montgomery,” Adeline said, rushing to stand before the sofa. “I have missed you ever so much. I am happy to see you have arrived safely in London.”
After bending down to give the woman a quick hug, Adeline cast a smirk in her brother’s direction—knowing she’d successfully redirected the embarrassment to him. “I do apologize for my brother’s abominable greeting.”
The woman’s eyes were rounded with fright at his callous tirade as she stood abruptly, ready to flee.
“As you can see, he is as dreadful as I’ve told you all these years,” Adeline confessed, squeezing Lady Theodora’s hands before turning to Alistair. “Have you terrified my dear friend enough for one day, brother?”
The poor woman was so startled she hadn’t managed a single word in greeting—Alistair regretted any alarm he’d caused her; however, she must understand Adeline had misled him. She was certainly a gently bred woman, unlike his hoyden lot of sisters.
“Lady Theodora,” Alistair started, attempting to mend the dismal situation. “I am Mr. Alistair Price, Adeline’s eldest brother—and I assure you, I am not the horrid man my sister claims.”
The woman looked wholly unconvinced by his proclamation, but offered her own greeting nonetheless. “It is nice to make your acquaintance, Mr. Price, but please refrain from dropping a pie on my head while I’m in your home. I fear my mother would be quite vexed if I ruined my new gown.”
Alistair took a step back at her brazen comment as his sister doubled over in laughter.
“My dear, Theo,” Adeline said, a giggle on the fringes of her words, “I have missed you so.”
Why did he feel as if he’d walked into a trap set up by his most cunning sister?