Monday, 3 November 2008
Tangled Hearts - Prologue and Chapters 1 - 3
When the outwardly Protestant Charles II died in 1685, he left a country torn by religious controversy but no legitimate children. The throne passed to his Catholic brother James.
It was an anxious time for the people, whose fears increased when James II, became so unpopular that he was forced into exile. In 1688, James’s Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, became the new king and queen of England.
Some English Protestants, who had sworn allegiance to James II, refused to take a new oath of allegiance to William and Mary and joined him in France.
When James’s younger daughter, Anne, inherited the throne in 1702, many Protestant exiles returned to England. Others declared themselves Jacobites and supporters of James II son, James III, by his second wife, Mary of Modena, and stayed abroad. They believed James III should be king.
Richelda Shaw stood silent in her nursery while thunder pealed outside the ancient manor house and an even fiercer storm raged deep within. She pressed her hands to her ears and, eyes closed, remained as motionless as the marble statues in the orangery.
‘Nine years old and you’ve not yet learned to be neat!’ Elsie, her mother’s personal maid, pulled Richelda’s hands from her ears. ‘Come, your father’s waiting for you.’
Richelda’s hands trembled. What was wrong? Until now Father’s short visits from France meant gifts and laughter. This one made Mother cry while the servants spoke in hushed tones.
Followed by Elsie, Richelda hurried down the broad oak stairs. For a moment, she paused to admire the lilies of the valley in a Delft bowl. Only yesterday, she picked the flowers to welcome Father home. After she had arranged them with tender care, she placed them on a chest, which stood beneath a pair of crossed broadswords on the wall above.
Elsie opened the massive door of the great hall where Father stood to one side of the enormous hearth. Richelda’s eyes searched for her mother before she spread her skirts wide and knelt before him.
Father strode forward and placed his right hand on her bent head. ‘Bless you, daughter, may God keep you safe.’ He smiled. ‘Upon my word, sweetheart, I vow the colour of your hair reminds me of a golden rose. How glad I am to see roses bloom in these troubled times.’
Richelda chewed her lower lip again. She did not know him well and dared not speak. Therefore, when he sat and beckoned to her, she hesitated.
Putting an arm round her waist, he drew her to him. ‘Come, do not be nervous of your father, child. Now, my daughter, do you know King James II now holds court in France and that his daughter, Mary, and William, his son-in-law, seized his throne?’
‘Yes, Mother told me we are well rid of King James and his Papist wife,’ she piped up, proud of her knowledge.
With a sigh, Father lifted her onto his knees and held her close. ‘Richelda, I must follow His Majesty for I swore an oath of allegiance to him. Tell me, Richelda, while the king lives how can I with honor swear allegiance to his disloyal daughter and her husband?’
Unable to think of a reply, she lowered her head.
Father held her closer. ‘Your mother pleads with me to declare myself for William and Mary and begs me not to return to France, but I am obliged to serve King James. Do you understand, Richelda?’
She nodded. Her cheek brushed against the softness of his velvet coat and she breathed in his spicy perfume.
‘If you remain in England, you will be safe. Bellemont is part of your mother’s dowry and I doubt the Crown will confiscate her estate.’
If she remained in England! Startled, she stared at him.
Smiling, he popped her onto her feet and stood. ‘Come, we shall ride. I have something to show you.’
Before long, they rode away from the house and estate. They drew rein on the brow of a hill. At its foot lay Field House, their ancestral home seized by the Roundheads soon after poor King Charles I execution.
He pointed at the Elizabethan manor house. ‘Richelda, I promised my father to do all in my power to regain the property.’ Grey-faced, he pressed his hand to his chest. ‘Alas, so far I failed to keep my oath and now I cannot,’ he wheezed.
Richelda yearned to help him keep his promise to her grandfather. She also yearned to find the gold and jewels legend said her buccaneer ancestor, Sir Nicholas, hid.
After her father breathed easy, she ventured. ‘If we found the treasure trove you could buy Field House.’
‘Ah,’ he teased, ‘You believe Sir Nicholas did not give all his plunder to Good Queen Bess.’
‘Elsie told me legend says he hid some of his booty in Field House,’ Richelda said, excited by the thought of pearls and rubies, diamonds and emeralds, gold and silver bars and coins. Less shy of him, she asked. ‘In his old age, when Sir Nicholas retired from seafaring, did he put his ship’s -’ she broke off for a moment in an attempt to remember the word and continued triumphantly, ‘- his ship’s figurehead, Lady Luck, in the great hall?’
‘Yes, for all I know she is still above a mighty fireplace carved with pomegranates, our family’s device.’
‘I want to find the treasure.’
He chuckled and wheeled his thoroughbred mare round. ‘Come, time to ride back to Bellemont. Do you know our family motto, Richelda?’
‘Fortune favours the brave.’
‘Are you brave, my little lady? Will you swear on the Bible to do all in your power to regain Field House?’
To please him, she nodded.
Fothering Place, London, England
Lord Chesney sat at ease in his lodgings and eyed his friend, Jack, Duke of Hertfordshire, whose tall frame was clad in extravagant silk and velvet. Gem set rings, illuminated by brilliant candlelight, adorned his long fingers and His Grace’s dark amber eyes were alert. His square face with its cleft chin looked tense while he toyed with his blond periwig.
His eyes keen, Jack spoke. ‘My bailiff tells me you bought Field House.’
Chesney knew all about Jack’s insatiable hunger for land. In fact, Jack rarely missed a chance to add to his estates. ‘Yes, I did.’ He kept his tone smooth.
Jack swallowed the last of his port. ‘I would have bought the property but for my fool of a bailiff who informed me too late of the sale.’
Chesney beckoned to his man. ‘More port for His Grace,’ he ordered but decided not to drink any more because he never risked becoming a fool through over indulgence.
While Roberts served the port, Chesney glanced round the small but comfortable book-lined room. The fact that Jack was the most influential man and the largest landowner in Hertfordshire had naught to do with their friendship.
‘Will you sell the property to me? After all the house and land fell into a sad state of neglect after the civil war.’ Jack stretched his legs out towards the fire.
‘No, I like my estate and look forward to restoring the house. Do not argue with me, my mind is made up.’
Jack’s cheeks reddened. ‘Very well, but now you are my neighbour, you must visit me whenever you wish.’ He yawned. ‘The hour grows late, I will take my leave of you.’
Chesney stood and bowed with mock formality. ‘I will call on you with pleasure.’
They smiled at each other. Jack rose and Chesney asked Roberts to fetch their cloaks.
With an arm draped over Jack’s broad shoulders, Chesney stepped out of his lodgings and glanced at the darkened street. He bade goodnight to Jack and hired a sedan chair to take him to his mistress’s lodgings.
Once there, Chesney skirted a pile of noxious matter spilled from a leather bucket put out for the night-soil men and beat a tattoo on the door of her tall, narrow house.
A pert maid, dressed in Madeleine’s cast off finery, answered his summons.
‘Good day, Susie.’
She curtsied and dimpled at him. ‘Welcome, my lord.’
‘Madam said as how she hoped for a visit from you, my lord.’
‘You look well, Susie. I trust your brother is still in good health.’
‘Yes, my lord, thank you my lord. It is more than kind of you to ask.’
Chesney took off his hat. Careless of the jaunty white plume curled round the black brim, he tucked his hat under his arm. ‘No need to show me the way.’
Susie did not protest when he marched up the short flight of stairs to Madeleine’s bedchamber.
He lingered at the threshold remembering the first time he met sensuous Madeleine when her late husband, old Mr Purvey, came with a delegation to the French court. Chesney sighed. He knew she had hoped to marry him after Mr Purvey died in defence of her tarnished honor in a duel in Leicester Fields. But as he now suspected that he was not her only lover it would be out of the question to marry her.
Chesney rapped on the door, sure of his welcome. Without waiting for permission, he entered the small room, took a taper from the mantelpiece, touched the lighted wick to the fire and used the same flickering flame to light the tall wax candles in wall sconces. Immediately, the thick rugs, tapestries and brocade curtains bloomed.
Madeleine remained abed. She blinked and brushed back her wavy brown hair before she extended her carefully tended hand to him. ‘My lord.’
‘Madam, by your leave.’ Instead of kissing her hand, he sat on a chair by the hearth.
Maddy had aged since he first met her. Yet, with skin like polished ivory, which invited his touch, lips, cheeks the colour of apple blossom and almond shaped hazel eyes that changed colour in different lights, he still appreciated her prettiness. And he found no fault with either her figure or her long, elegant limbs and full breasts.
She giggled and smoothed the lace edged ruffles at the neck of her nightrail. ‘Such formality, sir?’
‘Madeleine.’ He addressed her by her full name instead of by her sobriquet, Maddy.
Her eyes widened. ‘How serious you look. Has something untoward occurred?’
Poor Maddy, not only did she demand too much of his time, she also expected him to pay for too many luxuries. Although he feared her hysterics, he did not hesitate to come to the point, despite his reluctance to cause her pain for, throughout his life, it had never been his intention to hurt anyone either deliberately or accidentally. ‘I am sorry to grieve you, my dear, but to quote the bard, parting is such sweet sorrow.’
Maddy thrust the covers aside and sprang out of bed. With her tiny hands outstretched, she rushed towards him. ‘What do you mean, Chesney? Why do you quote words from Romeo and Juliet?’
He held out his hands to ward her off. ‘We must part.’
‘No! I love you. I cannot live without you.’ She sank to the ground and raised her head to look at him.
‘I doubt you love me,’ he murmured and smoothed his face into an inscrutable mask.
Maddy’s eyes filled with tears. ‘Chesney, since my husband died I have been waiting for you to propose marriage to me.’
If she had never taken any other lover he would sympathize with her more. But Maddy had been unfaithful to her elderly husband since the early days of her marriage. His nostrils flared. He doubted Maddy’s nature allowed her to remain faithful to any man.
She jumped up, rushed across the room and flung herself face down on her bed. ‘I am not yet done with you for I do love you, I do, I do.’ She pounded the quilt with clenched fists and sobbed.
He hesitated. Had he misjudged the depth of her feelings for him, by believing them to be shallow?
‘Have I not made you happy?’ Maddy demanded and twisted round to face him.
He sought a way to help her accept his decision. ‘We enjoyed our bed sport, yet you never quickened with child and duty requires me to father an heir. No more tears. You told me a score of times that you cannot abide puking babes and, what’s more, you always claimed the thought of motherhood dismays you. If you are honest, you will admit you could not tolerate your body thickening and I could never be brute enough to insist on fathering your child.’
Maddy stared at him, wide-eyed. ‘You are mistaken, I would be happy to bear your children.’
He bowed. ‘My dear, I cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself on the altar of reluctant motherhood.’
‘Then you are a true nobleman to part with me, your love, both out of consideration for me and for duty’s sake.’
His lips twitched. A cough concealed his amusement. He knew Maddy thrived on playacting. In all likelihood she would convince herself she had set him free and, before long, either wed an unfortunate cuckold or console herself with other lovers.
He picked up his hat.
Cat-like her eyes narrowed. ‘Chesney, give me a kiss to remember you by.’
He kissed her cheek and left the house. Should he leave town to prevent Maddy pestering him?
* * *
The following day, Chesney rapped his cane on the front door of Lady Ware’s London mansion. She was the sister of his late father’s friend, but he did not know her well and wondered at her summons.
‘Lord Chesney?’ Bennet, Lady Ware’s middle-aged butler, queried his lined face both curious and respectful.
Chesney inclined his head.
‘This way, my lord. You are expected.’ Bennet led him up the stairs to a beautifully appointed parlor on the first floor and announced him to Lady Ware.
Chesney raised his voice above the barks of six King Charles Cavalier spaniels. ‘Your servant, Lady Ware.’
‘My lord, I am pleased to see you,’ her ladyship greeted him and ordered her little dogs to sit. After he sat and had been served a glass of wine, she came straight to the point. ‘My lord, I summoned(you to propose your marriage to my niece, Richelda Shaw, and, in all honesty, I assure you the union is to your alvantage.’
While she waited for his reply, the petite lady fluttered her fan. In spite of her sixty odd years, she peeped over i| girlishly and patted her fair hair, which had a silvery sheen.
‘You flatter me, Madam,’ he drawled.
Lady Ware’s dainty shrug rmleased her cloying perfume of lavender mingled with roses and vanilla. She snapped her fan shut and tapped his arm with it. ‘You are mistaken. I do not flatter you. I offer you and my niece a solution. Your fathers followed King James to France. You are gossiped about and eyed as distrustfully as I think my niece will be when I bring her to London.’
‘Are you not gossiped about, Lady Ware? After all, your brother’s conversion to the Church of Rome must place you and your family under government scrutiny. For my part, I thank God my father remained true to The Anglican Church.’
Lady Ware shuddered. ‘Do not mention the matter to me, my lord. I vow I had no sympathy with my brother when he became a Papist.
All I can do is thank God he was not tried as a traitor and be glad his head was not displayed at the Tower of London.’
Chesney shifted his position and yawned before he made a cautious reply. ‘I am neither a Jacobite nor a Papist and apologize for mentioning the matter of your brother’s conversion.’
‘Some more wine, Viscount?’
He shook his head and leaned back, deliberately presenting a picture of a man completely at his ease.
Lady Ware arched her eyebrows. She sipped her wine. ‘All London knows I am a wealthy woman.’ She blinked a rush of tears from her eyes. ‘My lord, ’tis cruel not only to suffer widowhood thrice but to also lose my only child.’
To acknowledge her grief, he stood and bowed with respect. ‘My condolences, Madam.’
‘Thank you.’ She dabbed her eyes with a black handkerchief. ‘My poor daughter’s death is my niece’s gain. If Richelda is obedient, she will inherit all my property.’
Her ladyship rested her head against the back of her chair, opened her fan and plied it restlessly while she scrutinized him.
‘What do you think of the proposal, my lord?’
Chesney sat and, despite his intention to marry, replied with his customary forthrightness. ‘As yet I have neither put myself on the matrimonial market nor made my fortune and title available to any lady who wishes to marry me.’
‘I hear you purchased Field House,’ she ventured.
‘Yes, I did,’ he replied in a neutral tone.
‘Well, sir, I shall speak bluntly. My niece’s lands are adjacent to yours. Through marriage, you would double your estate and acquire my niece’s mansion, Bellemont House. As for my niece, she will become mistress of my childhood home.
He inclined his head. Ah, was this why her ladyship wanted him to marry her niece? Did she have a sentimental attachment to Field House?
Undeterred by his indifference to her proposition, Lady Ware continued. ‘I know your circumstances. Though you have no close relative, you are saddled with a clutch of distant relations who anticipate your help to advance in the world.’
Devil take it, she was correct. His family looked to him for patronage and expected him to marry and produce an heir. Confound it, not one of them had regained their positions, lands or fortunes after Charles I execution. Fortunately, his grandfather’s marriage to a French heiress saved he himself from poverty.
Her ladyship’s Roman nose twitched and her thin lips curved in a predatory smile. ‘You will consider the match?’
Reluctant to say anything she might interpret as his agreement to marry Mistress Shaw, he nodded.
‘Good, I shall not press you further.’ She hesitated with her fan mid-air, only to wave it backwards and forwards in agitation. ‘I prefer you not to tell anyone my niece is my heiress. When she comes to town, I do not want a flock of fortune hunters to approach her.’
‘On my honor, I will not mention the matter to anyone. By the way, when will Mistress Shaw come to London?’
‘Within the week.’
He stood and each of the small dogs wagged their tails, stirred and yapped for attention round his ankles. Although no thought of imminent marriage had entered his head when he arrived, he might change his mind after meeting her ladyship’s niece.
Lady Ware clapped her hands. ‘My poppets like you and, believe me, my lord, they are good judges of character.’
Chesney restrained an incipient chuckle at the notion of her ladyship’s dogs tricked out in wigs and gowns to judge him. ‘I am complimented by their approval, my lady.’ He bowed and kissed her bejeweled hand. ‘As for your niece, only providence knows if Mistress Shaw and I are suited.’
With a rustle of her black silk mourning gown and petticoat she rose. ‘I believe you and Mistress Shaw are well matched, my lord.’
Chesney stepped from Lady Ware’s spacious house into King Street and walked towards Whitehall. Although the proposal to marry Mistress Shaw took him by surprise, he gave further thought to accepting it. Yet he would not wait for Mistress Shaw to come to town and parade in the latest fashions, powder and patch. Where did she live? He searched his memory.
Ah, now he remembered. She lived at Bellemont. Lady Ware had mentioned the estate lay close by his newly purchased property. Why not hazard a journey there and cast an eye over both domains?
His stride quickened to keep pace with his racing mind. Was Mistress Shaw tall or short, plain or pretty, blonde or brunette? Was she meek or shrewish, illiterate or well educated?
Cocksure, Chesney took Mistress Shaw’s acceptance of his proposal for granted. For, when all else was said and done, he was a viscount, well educated and not ill favored.
If the lady proved suitable he would wed her partly for her inheritance and partly because it was time to settle down and have a family. For his part, he would try not to give her cause for complaint and to ensure she lacked naught. They would refurbish Field House, improve the estate and purchase a town house.
His inner voice nagged him. What of love?
For most people of his rank, sentiment had little to do with marriage. In fact, some said no lady concerned herself with the vulgarity of love and passion. A wife should derive happiness and satisfaction through ensuring her husband’s comfort, good works, plying her needle and raising children.
He sighed. A man in his position must marry if only to father heirs.
‘Who is that Adonis?’ A high-pitched female voice interrupted his thoughts.
Chesney looked round and saw a powdered and patched lady with rouged cheeks staring at him.
‘I don’t know, I think he’s a newcomer to town,’ her companion, a younger lady said in an equally strident tone.
Unaffected by their comments he laughed. Since his youth women commented on his height and his perfect proportions. He did not consider himself vain, but unlike some members of his gentlemen’s club, who took little exercise and overate, he fenced, hunted and rode to keep his body fit.
The older lady inclined her head, the younger one winked before they went about their business.
Chesney whistled low and wondered what Mistress Shaw would think of him? He contemplated the future with pleasure. With a smile, he thought of the entertainment London offered: coffeehouses, theatres, parks, concerts and pleasure gardens.
Mistress Shaw’s inheritance, added to his more modest one, would ensure they could command the elegancies of life.
When he reached his lodgings, he summoned Roberts. ‘Pack, we leave for Field House tomorrow. Send a message to the stables. I require the coach at eight in the morning. Is there anything to eat?’
Roberts shook his head.
‘Order some mutton pies from the tavern. Do you want me to die of hunger? Hurry, man, what do you tarry for?’
Roberts bowed low, straightened and regarded him, his face creased in familiar lines of despair.
‘What?’ Chesney asked. Why did he always feel disheveled in the presence of a manservant only six years his senior?
He could not remember a day when Roberts did not wear an immaculate black cloth suit, a neat black waistcoat and unwrinkled stockings.
‘Firstly, my lord, the sooner you purchase a London House and employ a cook the better it will be. Secondly, with all due respect, my lord, your appearance grieves me.’
Chesney looked contritely at his black, buckled shoes and his white silk stockings splashed with muck from London’s filthy streets. He knew Roberts aspired to take the credit for him always being dressed to perfection and teased. ‘Do not despair, you shall have the pleasure of dressing me in fine clothes on my wedding day.’
* * *
Mid-March was mild. After an early thaw the roads dried sufficiently for the coach to travel faster than usual. Protected by armed outriders and postilions, Chesney did not fear highwaymen. Besides, armed with his sword and firearm he trusted his ability to deal with any miscreant.
They reached St Albans before dark and proceeded to Bellemont Village where they put up for the night at The King’s Head.
In the morning, Chesney delighted his manservant by being more particular than usual about his appearance.
With deep satisfaction, Roberts drew up Chesney’s black silk stockings with gold embroidery before he adjusted the black velvet garters.
Chesney stood and twitched the lace frothing at his wrists into place. ‘My waistcoat.’
He took the cream satin waistcoat embroidered with gold Celtic knots from Roberts.
‘Allow me to help you, my lord.’
‘I am not a complete milksop.’ Chesney put his waistcoat on before allowing Roberts to ease him into a black velvet coat trimmed with parallel rows of gold buttons and buttonholes bound with gold thread.
‘My lord, if only you dressed so fine every day.’ Roberts removed the periwig as black as Chesney’s natural hair from a stand and put it on his master’s head.
Ready to depart, Chesney held a black hat trimmed with gold lace and a curled plume in one hand and in the other hand a cane ornamented with a knot of black and gold ribbons.
Now, Chesney thought, his curiosity intense, to seek out Mistress Shaw. He went down a flight of narrow stairs and passed the innkeeper, who bowed so low his nose nearly touched his knees. Outside, he picked his way across slippery cobbles dampened by a recent shower. A muffled figure approached him.
‘Lord Greaves, please accept this petition,’ a low voice said.
Chesney looked round the yard with the expectation of seeing Lord Greaves, the corrupt, greedy tax collector for the area. He frowned. ‘I fear you mistake…’
‘My lord, read the petition.’ The female concealed by a voluminous cloak and hood drew closer. She held out a scroll sealed with red wax and stamped with the mark of a pomegranate. ‘Doubtless you think I am impertinent to approach you. But the landlord expected you to pass the night here and I seized my chance to speak to you.’
One of his outriders dismounted and seized the woman’s arm. ‘Off with you.’
‘Release her and remount,’ Chesney ordered. His interest aroused, he hesitated by his coach. ‘Who are you?’
‘I serve Mistress Shaw of Bellemont and promise you that my mistress intends no mischief.’
By her accent, he judged she was not a servant. ‘You may enter my coach and discuss the petition,’ he drawled with feigned indifference.
She scrambled up the steps. A fold of her cloak slipped away from her hand in which she clutched a pistol.
He sat and did not betray his fear that she might be a dangerous lunatic. ‘How sad to see someone of your tender years brandishing a firearm.’
‘I am not brandishing it,’ she protested. ‘My mistress’ friend, Master Wynwood, told her I must arm myself.’ She lowered the pistol. ‘You did not answer Mistress Shaw’s letters. This is the only way for her to present her case.’
What to do or say? He doubted the baggage knew about the vindictive nature of the licentious tax collector or the cruel bullies he engaged.
‘My lord, my mistress wrote to you and explained Lady Shaw, God rest her soul, supported the Established Church and attended its services twice on Sundays. My mistress is not a Catholic. I implore you to reduce the illegal taxes on Bellemont. That will ensure she has sufficient wherewithal to excavate a short canal to float oak logs to the river to supply the navy. I beg you to oblige me. If you do not …’
‘If I do not?’ Chesney kept an eye on the firearm clutched in both her hands.
‘Mistress Shaw will not be able to support herself. Oh, you cannot imagine how hard Lady Shaw found it to maintain herself while Lord Shaw lived in France.’
‘A Jacobite?’ She hesitated for no more than a moment. ‘Like many other gentlemen his only fault, if you deem it a fault, lay in keeping his oath of allegiance to King James.’
About to reveal his identity, he raised his eyebrows. ‘I regret I cannot help Mistress Shaw and…’
The pistol wobbled. ‘Cannot help her!’ she interrupted. ‘That is not true. You can help her, even if she won’t sell Bellemont to you.’
Chesney eyed the girl from head to toe. Her full cloak revealed little of her person. ‘Has Mistress Shaw no relatives to save her from - er - want?’
‘Her mother’s family ignore my mistress and her closest relative, Lady Ware, her father’s sister ignores her. And her ladyship has enough money to…’
‘Did neither Lady Shaw nor Mistress Shaw apply to her?’
‘No my lord, Lady Shaw wanted nothing that was not freely offered.’
‘But you say your mistress does?’
‘She wants justice. The taxes are unjust.’
The coach bumped violently over a deep rut. The hood slipped from the girl’s head. Chesney braced his feet. A jolt threw her across the coach. Breast to breast with her, Chesney seized her upper arms to prevent her tumbling onto the floor of the coach. For the first time he saw her face, one of such classical beauty it was likely to haunt his dreams. Enchanted, he inhaled the fragrance of the girl’s skin, redolent of fresh air, and appreciated its delightful contrast to Lady Ware’s cloying scent and Maddy’s spicy perfume.
‘Release me, my lord.’
Chesney shuddered. The pistol pointed towards his genitals. He quailed for a split second before he grasped her slender wrist hard enough to release the weapon. It slipped from her grasp. He put his foot on it and looked into her defiant sapphire blue eyes.
‘W-will you help my mistress, Lord Greaves?’
He would pity any lady whose situation drove her to such desperate measures. ‘If I can help, I will.’
Chesney released her and rapped twice on the roof to indicate he wanted the coach to halt.
‘Are you fobbing me off or are you promising to help me?’
‘Odds fish, you are a minx. Be grateful to me for not summoning the constable,’ he teased.
The coach drew to a halt. Chesney flicked open his gold snuffbox and feigned interest in its contents. ‘Perchance we will meet at Bellemont,’ he said in a smooth voice.
‘Bellemont! Why are you going to Bellemont?’
Apprehension lurked in her eyes and her lips, which he still wanted to kiss, tightened.
He snapped shut his snuffbox. ‘I am not obliged to explain my reason to you but I assure you it is a good one. Words fail you. I am not surprised.’ He smiled. ‘Forgive me, although I am sorry to witness your distress, I must to take my leave.’
An outrider let the steps down for his bold but delectable companion.
‘You forgot something.’
‘What?’ she asked her voice sharp as the silken hiss of sword blade against sword blade.
‘Your pistol.’ With an exaggerated flourish, he handed it to her. ‘If you wish to vent your spleen, shoot me, but I fear such an extreme measure will not help your mistress.’
‘Will you help her?’
‘Alas! I am unable to reduce her taxes for I am not Lord Greaves.’
‘Why did you not confess earlier?’ Her eyes darkened like the sky before a storm. ‘You are not a gentleman,’
‘Oh, I am a gentleman but I am certain you are not a servant.’
‘If you are not Lord Greaves, who are you?’
Chesney chuckled and did not reply.
Richelda hurried along an overgrown woodland path, which meandered through Bellemont, her neglected estate, to a disused charcoal burner’s hut where Dudley Wynwood waited for her.
‘Thank God you are safe. Now, tell me what Lord Greaves said,’ Dudley called when she drew near him.
Her mouth quivered. ‘I made a sorry mull of my business. I presented the petition to the wrong person.’
Dudley glared at her. ‘I wish you had taken my advice when I asked you not act like a madcap.’
For a moment, she feared Dudley’s bad temper and tried to placate him. ‘I beg you not to scold me. You know my reasons. Now, I must change before he reaches the manor.’
‘Who is going to Bellemont?’
‘The man I mistook for the tax collector. He took me up in his coach. After I handed him the petition and stated my case, he said he is not Lord Greaves. Dudley, what am I to do?’
‘If you are beggared, apply to your relatives. I doubt they would be willing to suffer the shame of one of their relations being forced by circumstance to live in the poor house.’
Richelda stared at Dudley, whom she had expected to marry since they first shared the schoolroom at his father’s vicarage. She looked at his curly, dark brown hair, expressive green eyes and oval face. Two years her senior, in her eyes he resembled a handsome angel with his regular features and slender, well-formed frame, a little above average height.
The corners of Dudley’s mouth turned down. ‘I should have made more effort to stop your foolery.’ He glanced at her censoriously. ‘I will escort you back to Bellemont.’
‘Thank you.’ She turned towards a path over which brambles crept. ‘I apologize, Dudley.’
‘For failing you. If I cannot make Bellemont productive, you must make your way in the world before we marry.’
His sudden pallor amazed her. ‘What is wrong? Why do you look - look… ’
‘Surely you do not think I will marry you?’
‘Dudley, what do you mean? Did we not plan to wed? Now I am eighteen I thought you …’
‘Forget your childish prattle about our marriage.’
Wounded to the core, she stood still and squared her shoulders. ‘Foolish? I have loved you for as long as I can remember.’
Dudley opened the lichen-stained wooden gate. They entered the weed-infested drive, on either side of which only the hardiest of the untended ornamental plants survived.
Back straight, head held high, Richelda strode past parallel orchards towards Bellemont House. Embarrassed because she declared her love, she battled against the urge to weep.
‘Richelda, sentimentality has naught to do with marriage. I intend to court our school friend, Kitty.’
Shocked, she staggered. ‘Y-you want to marry Kitty Carlton?’
After a moment or two, Dudley replied in an unnaturally high tone, his fingers biting into her arm. ‘Yes, I must make my way in the world and beggars cannot be choosers.’
She pulled away from him. ‘If I was still an heiress I am sure you would marry me’
Dudley’s expression remained indifferent. ‘You are not an heiress and you dress like a rumpscuttle.’
How merciless of him to say that. Yet he was wrong. Poor quality clothes did not make her a hoyden. And Dudley knew she was not to blame for her poverty. If Father had not followed James II and if - oh, useless to blame her father. Impossible to alter the past! She hurried past the herb gardens and skirted a huge ornamental urn.
The cost of her father’s honor had been hard to bear. After Father went to France, Lord Greaves wanted to purchase Bellemont and lodged false charges of spying for the exiled king against her mother. Thanks to providence, Jack’s mother, the late Duchess of Hertfordshire, helped to prove Mother’s innocence.
Dudley drew her attention to the present. ‘My love, I do you no disservice by stating the truth. Lord knows everyone pities your penniless state.’
My love! Dudley called her his love. Did he love her or were the words meaningless? Her eyes widened. Perhaps he had sacrificed his love for her in the mistaken belief that their marriage would be folly? She suppressed a sigh. Whatever his reasons, she did not want Dudley’s pity. In fact, she did not want anyone’s pity.
Pride prompted her to address him formally. ‘Master Wynwood, as you pointed out, children say many foolish things. For now, I wish you well and am glad your father paid your debts and rescued you from debtor’s prison.’
They halted outside the mediaeval front door. Dudley’s angelic cheeks reddened. His exquisitely shaped mouth tightened. ‘There is no need to mention the gambling debts I incurred at Oxford,’ he snapped.
‘May I remind you some of us are unfortunate? We rely on our wits to aid us. I lied when I said I love you. I merely sought the protection of marriage.’ She bent her knee like a court lady who curtsied to one of equal birth. ‘Good day to you.’
Inside, Richelda rested her head against the wall in the dingy hall. If only Dudley’s love matched her own, he would marry her. She trembled, tears pouring down her cheeks. She fumbled for her ragged kerchief, blew her nose and sank to the floor. Elsie’s voice shattered the silence of the house and filtered through her misery. The sound drew closer until Elsie stood in front of her.
‘Where did you go, child? Lord, I have such news for you.’
To hide her tears, Richelda covered her face with her hands and put her head on her knees.
‘Do get up, Mistress.’
Richelda wiped her face but did not stand.
‘How many times have I told you not to roam alone?’ Elsie asked. ‘Why are you crying? Why didn’t you take your dog with you? Puck’s howled all morning.’ Elsie crouched down to put her arms round Richelda’s shoulders. ‘D-did someone assault you?’
‘No one assaulted me and to answer your question, Master Wynwood dislikes Puck so I did not take him with me.’
‘Haven’t I warned you over and over again about the young gentleman’s true nature?’
‘Despite your opinion of Dudley, I think well of him, Elsie. Indeed, today he waited to raise the alarm if harm came to me while I met Lord Greaves at the inn.’
‘By mistake, I approached another man who put up there.’ She sighed. ‘On the way home I told Master Wynwood…’
‘Master Wynwood? He’s always been Dudley to you.’
Richelda hung her head. ‘Now I am no longer a child, it is not fitting for me to use his Christian name.’
Elsie stood. She narrowed her eyes.
Richelda looked down at the floor. ‘I made a fool of myself. I thought Master Wynwood wanted to marry me. He does not. He wants to marry Kitty for her fortune.’
‘Oh, Mistress, don’t break your heart over a man who …’
Richelda put her hands over her ears. ‘Yet again, do not repeat spiteful gossip about him.’
‘Some of the rumors about Master Wynwood might be exaggerated. Those about his insolence, excessive drinking and gambling are not,’ Elise persisted.
‘They are lies.’ Richelda did not believe the worst about Dudley. Anger boiled inside her.
The sour taste of bile rose to the back of her throat. ‘Elsie, for his sake I wanted to make Bellemont profitable. Now, I am tired of struggling. I will sell all but a snug cottage and a few acres of land for my own use to live in to Jack.’
‘Sell Bellemont to His Grace!’ Elsie shifted her bulk from one foot to the other and twined her work-roughened fingers together. ‘Lord above, my wits have gone begging? I’ve forgotten to say a visitor awaits you.’
Richelda wiped her face on her coarse apron. ‘Visitor?’ She forced herself to her feet.
‘Yes, a fine gentleman, Viscount Chesney by name, is waiting for you in the parlor.’
Heavens above, the gentleman must be the man whose identity she mistook for Lord Greaves.
A long male shadow fell across the dark oak floor before the parlor door closed. She caught her breath. Either Elsie left the door ajar by mistake or her uninvited guest had opened it and eavesdropped.
After washing and changing, Richelda went down the broad flight of oak stairs, looked at Elsie and raised her eyebrows.
Elsie nodded her approval and pointed at the parlor door. ‘He’s still in there. I’ll fetch some elderflower wine.’
‘No, come with me…’ she began, but Elsie, with speed surprising in one of her size, bustled into a passage that led to the kitchen.
He will not recognize me, Richelda reassured herself again. She mimicked her late mother’s graceful walk, entered the room and coughed to attract attention.
The gentleman turned away from the window and gazed at her intently. ‘Mistress Shaw?’
Richelda curtsied and wished she also wore exquisitely cut black velvet and silk instead of the threadbare gown fashioned from one of her mother’s old ones. He bowed and extended a perfectly manicured hand.
Ashamed of her rough hands, she permitted him to draw her to her feet. ‘You have the advantage of knowing my name.’ She looked into gray eyes reminiscent of still water on an overcast day.
‘Lord Chesney at your service, Mistress.’
‘I am honored to make your acquaintance, my lord. Please take a seat.’
He laughed. ‘Mistress Shaw, although I did not introduce myself to you earlier, I hoped you would say that you are pleased to renew your acquaintance with me.’
She tilted her chin. ‘You mistake me for someone else, my lord.’
‘I do not. Your eyes and voice are unforgettable.’
‘What can you mean?’
‘Why are you pretending to misunderstand me,’ he drawled. ‘Shall we sit? No, do not look at me so distrustfully. I did not seize the opportunity to manhandle you earlier today and promise you that there is no need to fear me either now or in the future.’
Somewhat nervous in spite of his assurance, Richelda sat opposite him. While she regained her composure, she arranged her skirts and put her feet side by side on a footstool.
‘Confess and I will not tell your aunt.’
‘Yes, at her insistence I am here to make your acquaintance.’
Her mother’s family shunned her. They feared the taint of her late father’s politics. The viscount must have referred to father’s only close relative, his sister Lady Ware.
‘Aunt Isobel?’ she queried suspicious because she knew her mother, born into a family with slightly puritanical inclinations, despised Aunt Isobel’s frivolity.
‘But my aunt…’
Burdened by a tray, Elsie entered the room and served them elderflower wine before she sought Richelda’s permission to withdraw.
Chesney eyed his glass of wine with obvious mistrust. ‘Why did you sigh, Mistress Shaw?’
Richelda refrained from explaining she longed to eat something other than the daily fare of coarse bread and boiled puddings. In spite of the flavor of herbs, mixed with vegetables and served with or without game birds or rabbits, which Elsie sometimes snared, she longed for a change of diet.
Bowstring taut, Richelda drank some of the pale wine. She looked at the viscount. His posture depicted a man at ease. ‘Please taste the wine, my lord, although you might not be accustomed to home brewed beverages, I think you will enjoy the flavor.’
He sipped some. ‘An excellent tribute to the housewife’s skill. Now, tell me, child, how long have you lived alone with Elsie?’
‘Since Mother died nearly a year ago.’ The pain of her mother’s death always made her mouth tremble when she spoke of her.
‘Why did you remain here?’
‘I hoped to improve the estate. Oh, I know everything has deteriorated, but if I could …’
He concluded her sentence, ‘transport oak to the shipyards?’
She widened her eyes. ‘Thank you for your excellent advice, my lord, I daresay you noticed my valuable stands of oak when you approached Bellemont?’
Although he chuckled, his eyes remained serious. ‘Never forget I do not allow anyone to play me for a fool, not even a rumpscuttle of an actress as pretty and worthy of note as you are.’
Outraged by being called a rumpscuttle for the second time that day, she stood. ‘Please leave.’
Chesney rose and approached her. The muscles across the breadth of his shoulders rippled beneath his coat, a testament to his tailor’s skill. When he put a hand on either side of her waist, she trembled. His lordship was tall, taller than Dudley. Her head only reached his throat. She looked up at Chesney and trembled again when his breath warmed her forehead.
‘Child, if my lightest touch frightens you, imagine the effect of Lord Greaves’ greedy hands on your person. I took this liberty to warn you not to endanger yourself. Who knows what harm might have befallen you in Lord Greaves’ company? He is known for his dishonor.’
His proximity unnerved her but as though a spell had been cast over her she remained still. ‘Are you known for your honor?’
‘Though I had the opportunity, I did not assault you and will never do so.’
His eyes darkened and a curious light flickered in them. ‘Although I cannot resist the temptation to tease you, do not be frightened of me.’
‘I am not afraid of you.’
He chuckled. ‘A good start.’
‘You are impertinent to hold me close.’
‘Does Master Wynwood hold you closer?’
Oh, he had overheard her discussion of Dudley with Elsie. Her cheeks burned. ‘Dudley does not-I mean you cannot know much about Master Wynwood.’
‘Perchance he is a fool and you are a country innocent. The question is, do I prefer nature to powder and patch?’
Surely he did not prefer her to sophisticated ladies? ‘Please do not address me as a child. I cared for my mother after she became ill when I was fourteen.’
‘My apologies, I did not mean to offend you. Poor Mistress Shaw, I will not call you a child again.’
Richelda twisted free of him and forced herself to breathe slowly. She resented any man’s pity. After she sold Bellemont, she would dress so elegantly that no one would ever taunt her in the future.
She curtsied. ‘Good day to you, my lord. I doubt there is more for us say to each other.’
‘Your performance is suited to the playhouse where the actors - like courtiers - deceive. But believe me, if Master Wynwood cannot separate gold from dross, he is unworthy of you.’
‘You have not the right to insult him.’
He applauded. ‘Let no secrets lie between us, Mistress Shaw. I overheard you when you confided in your servant.’ His expression hardened and his eyes glittered like ice. ‘No gentleman worthy of his name allows a slip of a girl to endanger herself. Instead of playing the coward’s part, he would be prepared to lay down his life to prevent her accosting a man of Lord Greaves’ ilk.’
Her temper rose. Yet she wanted to be a lady of her mother’s fine caliber and refrained from childishly stamping her feet and raging: Dudley is not a coward. ‘My lord, you are an eavesdropper and in spite of your fine clothes you are not a gentleman.’
‘Mistress Shaw,’ he said, his tone icy.
Ashamed of questioning his breeding, she apologized. ‘I beg your pardon, my lord.’
‘We will not refer to the question of my honor again.’ He smoothed his coat sleeve ostentatiously. ‘Alas, I am ashamed, for I hoped to impress you.’
Richelda ignored his comment. She peeped at him through her lashes. Ready laughter lurked in the depths of his eyes. Her lips twitched. The wretch did not look contrite. Did he know the meaning of shame? Did he have even the smallest understanding of the miseries of loneliness and poverty?
‘How rude you were to listen to a private conversation, my lord.’
‘Do not be angry, Mistress Shaw. I said I would help you and I will. Allow me to express my sincere admiration of you.’
Did he mock her? In spite of her harsh words, she thought him fine, very fine.
He raised her hand to his lips and warmed her skin with a kiss. Unfamiliar tingles ran up her arm and down her back. ‘I must leave.’ His tone caressed her. She stroked her arm. ‘My horses have waited long enough. I do not doubt we will meet again.’
He bowed and departed too quickly for her to ask. How will you help me?