The Mysterious Mr. Heath
It was nearly 9 o’clock in the evening by the time Laurence Heath, Esquire, finally reached the doorstop of his home on Russell Square marking a late finish to a day that had begun at dawn with an urgent note from the Countess of Bewleton.
“Bewleton is dead,” she had written. “Please come immediately.”
And so he had, completely unsurprised when he learned that the Earl of Bewleton had met his end from a cuckold’s bullet. In Heath’s opinion, the newly deceased earl had been a rotter and his wife was well rid of him.
Heath had served as solicitor to some of London’s most prominent families for nearly twenty years now, just as his father and his grandfather had before him. But he never got used to being the bearer of bad news to ladies who deserved better from their men. It was damnably difficult being the one to inform them that their husbands had squandered the family fortune or run off to France with an opera singer.
Bewleton had dipped his quill one too many times in another lord’s inkwell, Heath reckoned. Oh, but the terrible look on Lady Bewleton’s face when he’d told her all the money was gone. How he had wished he could save her. How he wished he could save all the ladies who were shackled to cruel and reckless men.
Heath fumbled with the key in the lock until at last the latch gave way and the front door swung open. He exhaled with relief. His house was neither large nor grand, particularly in comparison with the Mayfair mansions where many of the firm’s clients lived. But it was warm and cheerful and it never failed to make him feel welcome.
A fire would no doubt be burning merrily in the grate of the sitting room, where his housekeeper Mrs. Campbell would have left a tray of food for him before going home for the evening. The meal would likely be cold by now, Heath thought, as Martin the butler helped him off with his coat. Not that he cared, for he had eaten nothing all day and was famished.
“Thank you Martin,” Heath said absently, handing the servant his hat and walking stick. Pulling off his spectacles, he rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. The day’s events had left him feeling drained and he thought a headache might be coming on.
Caught up in his thoughts, it took a moment for him to realize that his butler was staring at him expectantly.
“Did you say something Martin?’
“I did sir,” Martin replied. “There’s a gentleman waiting for you in the library. A Mr. Matthew Hastings. Arrived a few hours ago from Manchester, with a trunk and two bags. Says you were expecting him.”
Blast and damnation, Heath thought wearily. Why had the man come to London today of all days? “Ah yes, Mr. Hastings is the firm’s newest solicitor. I had forgotten he was arriving today.”
“I gave him what Mrs. Campbell had fixed for your meal sir, as it was so late and the gentleman seemed quite hungry. I hope you aren’t bothered.”
So much for his dinner, Heath thought with some regret. “You did the right thing Martin,” he said to the servant, who looked relieved. “Bring a bottle of port and two glasses into the library.” Heath stopped and considered for a moment. “The good port, Martin. We want the young man to feel welcome.”
Heath found his guest seated in the large wing chair directly adjacent to the library fireplace. At Heath’s entrance, the man immediately rose to his feet. Hastings cut quite an imposing figure, thought Heath. He was a large man—quite tall, with broad shoulders and a thick shock of black hair. Heath knew him to be in his late 30s, but he looked younger, with piercing blue eyes and a nose that was almost feminine in its beauty. The ladies would be fighting over this one, Heath thought.
“Mr. Hastings, I presume,” said Heath, and the man nodded smartly.
“At your service sir.”
“Welcome to London,” said Heath, thinking briefly about his purloined dinner and almost meaning it. “I apologize that I was not here to greet you upon your arrival, but I was dealing with a matter of some urgency for a client.”
“No apologies necessary,” Hastings said. “When the hour grew late, I would have gone on to my rooms and not bothered you tonight. But there’s been a bit of a complication. The current tenant has changed his mind about leaving and while the landlord was quite apologetic, I will need to find alternative accommodations. I don’t know London very well and don’t want to make the wrong move. I was hoping you might suggest where I might find a place to stay temporarily.”
The new solicitor had no place to stay. Heath sighed inwardly. This was a very unwelcome complication indeed, for the last thing he wanted was a stranger staying in his house. It could make things…difficult. But the man had traveled a very long way. It would be churlish not to offer him a room while he sorted himself out. Hopefully it wouldn’t be for too long.
"You will stay here of course…no I insist. There is more than enough room,” Heath said, when Hastings began to protest.
“Thank you sir. That is most kind of you.”
“Not at all Hastings. It is the least I can do,” Heath said, brushing aside the younger man’s expression of gratitude. “Lord Wemberley has sung your praises to the heavens and if half of what he says is true, you will be a fine addition to the firm. Now here comes Martin with the port. Will you join me for a glass?”
Two hours and a bottle of port later, Heath had learned a fair bit about Heath & Heath’s newest employee. Hastings had studied at Oxford—Heath was a Cambridge man himself—and his wife had died several years previously, leaving him with two sons who were away at school.
“Both my boys are at Rugby,” Hastings said. “It’s been difficult time for they’ve quite missed their mother.”
“Sorry for your loss,” Heath said gruffly. “They’ll be glad to be back with their father at school holidays no doubt.”
“Thank you sir,” Hastings said, smiling the smile of a fond parent. “I will confess I miss having the little buggers about.”
It was nearly 11 pm when Mr. Hastings was finally escorted to his room, allowing Heath to claim his own chambers at long last. He employed no valet, preferring to look after himself. He was no dandy and, unlike many man of his acquaintance, was well capable of dressing and undressing himself, and attending to his toilet.
Heath entered his room and shut the door the behind him, turning the key in the lock. He took off his spectacles, laying them on the dressing table, and pulled out the black ribbon that he used to tie back his hair each morning, combing his fingers through the silver locks. His hair had started to lose its color back when he was still quite young, and now at the ripe old age of 43, he had gone completely silver. Many of his clients assumed he was much older than he really was, and he counted that as a good thing since people tended to take his advice out of respect for his years and wisdom.
Heath removed his brocade waistcoat and his wool trousers, hanging both neatly in the clothing cupboard. The shirt was next, the buttons on the white linen opening to reveal a bulky man’s corset and above it, several strips of fabric stretched tight across his chest.
He untied the corset allowing it to slip to the floor and then pulled at the knots holding the fabric until it too fell away. Laurence exhaled in relief, touching a tender spot where the corset bone had rubbed against soft skin. Free at last.
Glancing up at the mirror over the washstand, Laurence saw what no one else ever had. Or ever would. Locks of silver hair falling in a wild tumble. Two plump and unmistakably feminine breasts, the rosy-tipped nipples peeking through the folds of the unbuttoned shirt. A narrow waist, flaring hips and long slender legs clad only in a pair of men’s stockings.
Staring back at her in the looking glass was Laurence Heath, Esq., managing partner of Heath & Heath and one of London’s most prominent solicitors. And as it turned out, not a man at all.