“And now… farewell to kindness, humanity and gratitude. I have substituted myself for Providence in rewarding the good; may the God of vengeance now yield me His place to punish the wicked.”
George was drunk. But not nearly drunk enough. He still saw his young friend’s dying eyes everywhere. In half-caught glimpses of strangers reflected in windows along Bond Street, under the hats of coachmen that passed him along the silent streets to Bedford Square, in the flickering lamps that shone pallidly against the cold London dawn as he stumbled up the steps to his front door.
They followed his every waking hour: hot, angry, hate-filled eyes that had once been warm with admiration.
He drank to forget, but all he could do was remember.
One more flight of stairs, then through the half-open door to his private sitting-room, already reaching for the waiting decanter of brandy as he crossed the floor.
He had a glass of oblivion halfway to his lips before he noticed the painting.
It stood on an easel, lit by a carefully arranged tree of candles. George’s own face was illuminated—the golden shades of his hair, his intensely blue eyes. The artist had captured his high cheekbones and sculpted jaw. “One of London’s most beautiful men,” he’d been called.
He stalked to the easel, moving with great care to avoid spilling his drink.
Yes. The artist had talent. Who could have given him such a thing?
As he bent forward to look at it more closely, something whipped past his face. With a solid thunk, an arrow struck the painting, to stand quivering between the painted eyes.
George dropped his glass as he started backwards, flailing to keep his balance, and trying to turn at the same time to see behind him. There. In the shadows behind the door. A silent gowned figure with another arrow already nocked and ready to fly.
“Who are you? What do you want?” The drink thickened his voice. “If I shout, I’ll wake the whole household.”
“The household are all either below stairs or well above. And you will have, at most, one shout before I put this arrow between your eyes. I have demonstrated I can.” It was a woman’s voice, low and determined.
George glanced back at the arrow, and swallowed.
“You won’t shoot me. You’re a woman.”
“I will shoot you with pleasure, if I must,” the woman said. “But shooting you is not my first choice.”
He pulled himself straight, glaring. “You won’t get away with this. Don’t you know who I am?”
“Do you not know who I am? I am the woman you owe a future to. And I mean to collect. You will give me either my future or my revenge.”
He took a step towards her, leaning forward to peer into the shadows. She lifted the arrow point fractionally, saying, “No closer!”
He stopped. “I don’t even know who you are. What crime have I supposedly committed? What do you want from me?”
She gestured to the chair by the fire with the point of her arrow. “Sit,” she commanded, and once he’d complied, she moved out into the light. “Now do you know who I am?”
She looked familiar. But no, George couldn’t place her. He shook his head.
She was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was stiff with outrage. “Perhaps I can help your memory. You killed my brother. You sank my reputation into the gutter. You left me with sisters to care for and a baby to raise. Remember me now, guardian?” She sounded like a heroine from a Gothic novel. Come to think of it, it was a Gothic novel, and he was the villain.
“You’re Stockie’s sister.” His voice was resigned. Really, he might have guessed that Stockie would find a corporeal way to haunt him. “But wait; you don’t understand. I didn’t mean to kill your brother. I was drunk. I misfired. You can’t blame me for that.”
She said nothing.
“He challenged me. I had to meet him. It was a matter of honour. I didn’t mean to kill him.”
She looked at him coldly. “I am not here to discuss the past. I want somewhere to live; somewhere in the country where you do not go. On the table at your elbow is a letter to your land steward in Gloucestershire. It tells him to give life tenancy of a suitable cottage to me and my sisters, with sufficient land to feed us. Read it. Sign it. Then toss it over here to me.”
George frowned, drawing his brows together. “But Selby said he’d take care of everything.”
“My cousin told you what he had planned?”
“That he would find you a place to live until the baby was born, and make sure there was no scandal.”
“That he would lock us two older girls away, sell the baby, and marry our little sister to his loathsome son.”
George had met the son. He wouldn’t put a dog he didn’t like in that boy’s care. He had given her dying brother his promise that he’d leave the girls alone, but surely Stockie would expect him to come to their rescue?
“Then let me see to it. I am your guardian. And your trustee.”
“We do not want you. And we do not want our cousin and his plans. Just leave us alone.”
He examined his feet, ashamed to meet her scornful eyes. “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I was drunk. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Sign the papers.”
“I thought… I told the governess to meet me. In the dark, I just assumed… “
“Sign the papers,” she repeated.
“I am sorry, you know.”
“‘Sorry’ does nothing. If you are sorry, then sign the papers.”
He reached for the papers; began to read.
“And do not think to renege on the bargain,” she went on. “A cottage and some money for us to live on to make it possible for me to look after my family, and I will go away and be quiet about what you did. But if you try to take back the cottage, or to harm any one of us, I will make sure the whole of society knows.
“Do not think I am afraid to speak,” she added, as he opened his mouth to tell her she had nothing to fear. “You have made certain our place in society is lost. Take away what little we have left, and I will take you down with me. I know society blames the innocent maid rather than the rake that ruins her, but they will care that she was your ward; they will care that you killed another ward, her own brother.”
“Look, I’ve signed.” George rolled the papers and tossed them at her feet. “You said you want money. I… I’ll give you a letter for my bank. How much?”
She gestured with her head towards the purse he’d dropped as he came in the door. “What is in that?”
“My winnings from tonight.”
“It looked heavy.”
“I had a run of luck. Three thousand guineas, more or less.”
“I will take it.”
George frowned. “Three thousand? Will that be enough?”
“With the cottage, it will be enough. I don’t want anything else from you except your absence from our lives.”
“I’m still your guardian.”
“For the sake of us all, I suggest you forget that. I will look after my sisters now.”
He couldn’t meet her eyes. He studied his hands, instead. What if he broke his promise to Stockie?
“I could marry you. That would fix things.”
Stockie’s sister—damn him if he could remember her name—shook her head, looking at him as if she found him loathsome, then said, “Take off all your clothes.”
George gave a surprised laugh, one that turned automatically to a leer. “Sweetheart…”
She drew the bowstring that she’d allowed to relax, re-aiming the arrow at his heart. “All your clothes. Now. Take them off… Gather them together… Good. Now throw them out of the window.”
Even through the drink, even at the point of an arrow, the thought of being naked in front of this woman caused a little stirring in the portion of his anatomy that had caused the problem. Her face was fiery red. Showing and then undoing his corset was embarrassing. More and more, in his casual liaisons, George was disrobing in the dark. His mistresses, of course, were paid to make no comment about his growing paunch.
He obeyed her instructions, opening the window and leaning out to drop his clothes. The bundle unfurled and spilled down the front steps into the street. Behind him, he heard the door shut, and the key turn in the lock.
Without much hope, George tried the door, and then the door to the bedroom. Both were locked. She hadn’t missed a trick. He couldn’t get out on his own. The servants were too far away to hear him. And, without his clothes, he could not try to attract attention from the street.
He wished her every success. Perhaps another letter to his land agent, instructing that she be given every care? No. That would only draw attention to her. Better let her handle it.
It was chilly in the room. It could be hours before the valet tried the door. But he had most of a decanter of brandy to keep the cold and the ghost at bay.
Perhaps, if he stayed away from Longford and kept the girls’ secrets, his betrayed friend would stop haunting him?
Stephen Edward John Redepenning, 8th Earl of Chirbury, took up yet another paper from a stack that never seemed to get any smaller and brandished it at the portrait of his predecessor.
“You self-centred prick, George. Couldn’t you have dealt with some of this before topping yourself?”
The portrait was an odd decorative choice.
It was fine enough, showing the golden hair and blue eyes all the Redepenning cousins had in common, and the elegant bones that helped George to cut a swathe in the bedrooms of the ton. But it was marred by a cut between the eyes, as if something sharp had been punched into the canvas with some force.
Mind you, George probably never saw it. The mess in which he left the estate suggested he’d not so much as entered the Earl’s study in years.
Rede sighed at the brimming desk. In the four months since he’d stepped off the boat from Canada to find he’d inherited the earldom, one problem after another had surfaced. Some days, every waking moment was devoted to cleaning up the mess his cousin had left, coming to grips with his duties in the House of Lords, and making sure his own business interests and his all-important hunt were not neglected.
Despite his efforts, he’d barely made inroads into the papers his predecessor had left behind him. He’d stacked them in piles on a bookshelf, with the overflow on a sideboard. They must be all well out of date now, but they needed to be filed or thrown away, and someone needed to work out which was which while he focused on the current work.
He needed a secretary. Perhaps David or Alex might know of someone trustworthy and capable.
He began leafing through the report in his hands, skimming for the salient points. Something made him glance up. Nothing so definite as a sound, perhaps just a change in airflows. David Wakefield was standing across the room from him, leaning against the wall beside the door.
“David. Good to see you.” He rounded the desk to shake his visitor’s hand.
“My Lord,” David responded, his quick grin mocking the formal salutation even as he gave it.
“Rede to you, always, as you well know,” Rede protested. “Take a seat, David, and I’ll ring for refreshments.”
“This is a nice room,” David commented. The furnishings were not new, but solid and well proportioned, the wallpaper between the ranks of shelves a green on green that complemented the darker green damask hangings pulled back from the window to let in the spring sunshine.
“George neglected it in his redecorating of the rest of the house. Thank God. From what I can gather, his man of business used it, but George never came in here.”
The butler entered, and was sent away with an order for refreshments.
“Not much for business, your cousin.”
“As you say. He had most of the house done in the Egyptian style. Both parlours are plagued with jackals and crocodiles, and even the hall bristles with sphinx heads and lions’ feet. You take your life in your hands just walking to the bedchambers.”
“I saw the front hall and the drawing room when I met you here in January. It’s very fashionable in France, they say.”
“It’s gruesome—or at least his version of it is gruesome. Though the master bedchamber is worse: I think the style might be called French bordello. I had John set me up with one of the other rooms. I’d rather sleep with mummies than mirrors. The whole place needs to be redone when I can find the time.”
The butler returned, leading a short procession of maids carrying trays. The two men were silent while he rearranged a group of small tables between them, and supervised the unloading of sliced bread, cold meats, cheese, slices of a meat pie, pickles, a bowl of fresh fruit. The maids came and went, one adding a large pot of coffee, with a sugar bowl and a jug of cream, and another bringing cups, plates and cutlery.
Their task completed, the maids dimpled at Rede’s nod of thanks, and left the room. The butler took up a position beside the fireplace.
“Thank you, Parrish. We’ll serve ourselves,” Rede told him, firmly. “Please shut the door on your way out.”
He poured David a cup of coffee. The two men had been friends for a long time—since the taller, older Rede had come to David’s rescue at Eton when Rede was fifteen and David an undersized fourteen. David had learned a few tricks since then.
He was still slender, and of less than average height, but Rede had seen him in action during their days as youths on the town. He knew how to use his wiry strength to take down men with twice his body weight. Rede was no slouch in a fight, but he’d rather have David on his side than against him.
They hadn’t kept in touch during the years Rede was in Canada. Rede was surprised to see David’s name on the list of thief takers his solicitor had found him four months earlier. But he was not surprised to find that David had a reputation for both success and honesty—many thief takers were barely more trustworthy than the thieves they hunted.
David preferred the term ‘enquiry agent’, and described his job as ‘finding things and people’. ‘Finding’ apparently required the ability to move at any level of society, and to come and go unobserved when he wished to.
Rede handed his friend the cup. As usual, David’s face gave nothing away; his mobile mouth slightly quirked in amusement as he observed Rede watching him, his brown eyes steady under his heavy brows.
“I think,” Rede said, “that you’re going to tell me that you didn’t find what you were looking for in Liverpool.”
“Say, rather, that I found for sure that what I was looking for wasn’t in Liverpool. I’ve written you a detailed report, but the summary is that I was able to clear all five of the men I went there to investigate.” David took a bite of the bread he’d loaded with cold meat and pickle.
“So it’s the three in Bristol, then.”
“Probably. It seems likely.”
Rede made what would have been a rude gesture if his hand had not been holding a large slice of pie. “Come on, man. You’ve already cleared seven names in London, and now the five in Liverpool. You’ve eliminated every other suspect. It has to be them.”
“One or more of them. Or someone we haven’t thought of. I’ll find the evidence if it’s there, Rede.”
“I’ve waited so long, David. I suppose I can wait a bit longer.”
“I’ve only been investigating for four months.”
“I’ve been hunting for more than three years. I landed here in London three years to the day since I found them dead. Killed so that some English tradesman could turn an extra pound.” And still, every night, he relived the moment he came home to the smoking ruin of his home, the broken bodies of his loved ones. Every morning, he woke to the raw need to find those responsible.
“Give me time to find some confirming evidence, Rede. You’ve waited for three years. Surely it’s worth another month or two so that you’re not revenging yourself on the wrong people?”
“Not revenge. Justice.” He waved off the uncomfortable thought that he was lying to himself. “I can agree to a month or two. When will you go to Bristol?”
“In a couple of days. I have some people to see while I’m in London. But I already have people in Bristol doing the groundwork. There’s not much I can do until they’re ready.”
Rede shook his head. “No, I’m not asking you to rush. I just thought I might head part of the way with you. The House has two more sittings, then I’ve nothing to keep me in London till after the election. I’ve two more estates to check in person—Longford Court and the one in Cheshire. George, as far as I can tell, hasn’t been to either estate for years.”
“I have fond memories of Longford Court,” David mused.
“It’s only a couple of hours from Bristol; I could be handy when you want to report on what you’re finding.”
“We spent some good holidays there with your other cousins.”
“We did,” Rede agreed. The two of them were quiet for a moment, thinking about long summer holidays with the large family of Rede’s youngest uncle.
“I’m meant to attend my aunt’s ball later this week,” Rede said, shaking off the nostalgia. “I can head down to Longford after that. Why don’t you come with us on Thursday? An extra man is always welcome; society is short of them, with the war.”
David looked amused. “Yes. Even we bastards occasionally find ourselves in demand. And a good-looking, wealthy earl. You’re a walking target, old friend.”
Rede shook his head, an expression of wonder rather than rebuttal. “Have they always been this bad and I just didn’t notice? And the marriage-minded are not as bad as the ones who desire… a less permanent liaison. What they do to get a man’s attention would make your hair curl!”
David laughed. “Are you seeking envy or commiseration?”
“Not envy. I wouldn’t touch that pack of harpies with a ten-foot pole. So will you come?”
“I already have an invitation from Her Grace, so I expect I’ll see you there. I will take you up on the offer of company down as far as Longford, though. What day do you plan to leave?”
“Next Monday, I thought. I’ll send a message today to tell the house to make ready. Heaven knows what state it’s in.”
“You’ve a steward to see to it?”
“A land steward, a distant connection of the family. He seems quite competent, but then so did the one in Kent who was fudging the accounts, and the one in Norfolk who spent most of his time chasing housemaids, and whose books and reports were a complete fiction. I’ve no idea what’s going on at Longford—or in Cheshire for that matter. George didn’t pay much attention.”
“From what I gather, he was only interested in spending his income.”
“Beyond his income, more like. None of the properties are returning what they could, but he still spent as if there was no tomorrow, most of it on credit. I’ve saved the earldom thousands a year just by paying off his mistresses.” And dug into his own personal fortune to give them a competence so that they could retire from the sex trade, if they so wished, but no need to mention that.
“I remember hearing about his mistresses! He kept mistresses near all his major houses and several in London, and visited them all by turn. Rumour has it that he sometimes entertained several at once.”
“Rumour exaggerates, as usual. From what I can gather, he ignored most of them most of the time. He’d call on the closest one when the mood took him. And when he didn’t call, they occupied themselves shopping and sending him the bills.
“There were two in London and one in Kent, near his favourite house. I don’t know of any near the other houses. If there’s one near Longford, she’s been buried down there on her own for years, though there is an anomaly in the records—a tenant who hasn’t paid rent in years. It’s one of the things I’ll be checking with the steward—Baxter, his name is.”
David nodded thoughtfully. “I remember Baxter. He’d be old now, surely?”
“This would be the son. You might remember him, too. He took us fishing a couple of times. Apparently he had an accident recently—hurt in a barn collapse, which sounds like Longford has at least a few maintenance problems. His own son is handling the work at the moment.”
“Father to son again.”
“As you say. But inheriting the position doesn’t mean he’s good at it, or that he’s honest. Though, to be fair, I’ve a stack of reports from him reporting on maintenance needs and a host of other things. Most of them still sealed shut when I found them on George’s desk.”
“So you’ll go down and take a look for yourself.”
“And I’ll be handy for anything that develops in Bristol. It’s not more than two hours’ ride.”
“You’ll be further away from the rest of your empire,” David waved at the laden desk. “It looks like you’re handling the whole thing yourself.”
“I am, in essence. My agent here in London died while I was still in Canada, and I got rid of George’s man of business as soon as I realised how incompetent he was—which took less than five minutes, I assure you. I’m looking for a couple of skilled and trustworthy people to replace them.”
“One for the estate, one for your business?”
“Or one really good man for both, if I could find the right person. Any ideas?”
“Not off the top of my head. I’ll think about it and ask around.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll set up a courier run. It’s a day’s hard ride each way, with post horses. I’ll get the information I need soon enough.”
“You could say the same about my investigation.”
Rede shook his head. “Your investigation is my priority. I’ve been hunting a long time, David. I’m so close now I can taste it.”
“Revenge.” David said the word without inflection, his eyes revealing nothing of his thoughts. Nevertheless, Rede felt the need to defend his quest.
“Justice. They’ll never pay in court for what they did. English justice doesn’t care about some half-breeds on the frontier, whatever evidence we find. But they’ll pay. I swore it on the graves of my wife and children.”
“I may find evidence of a crime against English law. If they’ve cut corners on the frontier, they’ll have cut corners elsewhere.”
“And if you do, you can take it to the law. That’ll be a nice seasoning to the retribution I have in mind.”
“I’ve never asked what you did have in mind.”
Rede smiled—a cold stretching of the lips that didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve no intention of killing them, if that’s your concern. They took my family for the sake of their business interests. I’ll take their business interests for the sake of my family, and of the other families we buried because of their greed.”
He could still see them: one burnt-out cabin after another, the bodies left carelessly for the carrion eaters. At every stop they’d had to decide whether to stop and hastily bury the poor broken remnants, or continue on the trail of the human scum responsible, perhaps in time to save a family further on. The rage that had consumed him when he finally learned that the killers had been employed to destroy his trapping enterprise rose in him again. So many died, and for what? To add a few gold coins to the coffers of the men he hunted.
“I’ll destroy them piece by piece: one ship, one warehouse, one deal, one pound at a time. I’ll strip them of everything they have, and see them begging in the dirt. I’ll take their families from them, if I can; convince their own wives and children to repudiate them. And I’ll do it all within the law, so—when they reach the bottom of the deepest pit I can dig—I can tell them why.”
At the mill school, the children had been impossible, chattering and poking each other. The Great House was being opened. For the first time in their lives, Longford Court would host its Earl. Anne Forsythe, who taught at the school three mornings a week, kept her private anxieties to herself. She bowed to necessity and set the children spelling and counting exercises that involved the Earl and Longford Court.
Some of the mothers came to pick up their children and stayed to help Anne tidy the room.
“Mrs Tyler, she do look for bodies to clean house,” one of them said. “I be going this afternoon.”
Mrs Tyler, the housekeeper, had closed most of the rooms thirteen years ago when the last of the Redepennings moved away.
Anne had spent the morning wondering what the Earl was planning, and how it would affect her and her sisters. “Will she be taking on a bigger staff permanently?” she asked.
Those who had been at the inn when the land steward’s son had announced the call for servants knew how many were needed—more maids, a footman and two grooms—but not for how long.
“Will he stay, Mu’um, think you?” one of them asked Anne, who was locking the schoolroom behind them. “ ’Twould be grand to have Court open.”
“I have no idea what the Earl’s plans are,” she told them. “What does Mr Baxter say?”
This made them giggle.
“Eee, he doesna tell likes of us.”
Another nodded. “Clamber-mouthed are t’ Baxters. Our Beks—she cleans for Missus Baxter—she says they doesna tell no-one.”
“Perhaps they do not know either?”
They set off along the river towards the bridge, the children running ahead.
Another comment on the benefits of having the Court open brought a warning from the prettiest of the young mothers. “Aye, if’n Earl will leave the maids be.”
This led to a discussion of the new Earl as a youth. There were seven cousins, Anne learned, the previous Earl, the current Earl, and the five children of their youngest uncle, whose wife had been châtelaine at the Court for many years.
“He were a fine young man, were that Stephen Redepenning as is Earl now. Not like last Earl or his Pa.”
“The old Earl and his Pa before him, they didn’t come here much. But they was two of a kind.”
“After anything in skirts.”
“Yes, and the drinking, and the cards.” Fanny added.
“Best to stay in a group, my Ma said. And so I did.”
As they crossed the bridge from the mill side of the river and turned towards the village, they went on to reminisce about those who hadn’t stayed in a group, and what had become of them as a result.
The walk passed quickly, and they were soon at the row of cottages where they lived. One girl was telling the story of an angry father confronting Lord Chirbury with his daughter’s baby. She finished with a flourish. “And he couldna deny the truth any longer, for the baby had the Redepenning eyes!”
“I have to go, Mu’um,” one of the others said hastily, not meeting Anne’s eyes. The storyteller flushed and put both hands over her mouth.
Anne smiled calmly. She knew what they thought, but no-one had ever said it out loud, and after she and her sisters had spent more than five years being the most respectable women in the village, they weren’t going to. “Thank you for your help. I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.”
They mumbled farewells and hurried away.
Anne continued to her own porch at the far end of the row of cottages. Did it matter that the new Earl, as a stripling, behaved far better than his dead cousin? Thirteen years on, he might have changed.
In any case, a rakehell in London might be less of a danger to her family than the most respectable of gentlemen right here on her doorstep. It all depended on how deeply he intended to enquire into estate business—and what he would do with any knowledge he gained.
If he suspected who they were… George had, to her surprise, kept their secret. Perhaps he really had been sorry. But a new Earl could decide it was his duty to let their cousin know where they were hiding. As long as her little sister was still underage, the danger continued.
She gave herself a small shake as she reached home. She had saved them before and, if she needed to, she would find a way to save them again. Time to be cheerful for Meg and Daisy.
She opened the door to the smell of warm bread, with undercurrents of stew and some other kind of baking.
“Mama!” Daisy shouted, dropping the cutlery she was putting on the table to run across the room and hug her mother. Meg was close behind, reaching out for her own hug and kiss. Anne handed Daisy her bonnet and Meg her cloak, and sat on the bench by the door to undo her boots, calling out a greeting to Hannah, who was stirring something at the fire.
Daisy was a delightful little elf of a child, thought her fond mama. Not yet six years of age, she was clever and charming. She reminded Elizabeth of Meg at the same age some sixteen years ago, before a fever killed their mother and robbed Meg of her wits. Daisy had the same intense curiosity, the same eager approach to life. And—apart from her colouring—she looked the same, too, with Meg’s slender body, oval face, arched brows, and sweet snub of a nose.
Daisy couldn’t wait to tell Anne about her morning. “I made bread with Hannah, and I helped cut the apples for the pies, and Meg made the marks on the pie lids, didn’t you Meg?”
“Meg made bread, too!” Meg added, dropping the cloak in her eagerness to have her say. Daisy, who had clambered onto the other end of the bench to reach the coat hooks, turned from hanging the bonnet. “Pick it up and pass it to me, Aunt Meg. I’ll hang it for you.”
“Meg hang it,” Meg insisted.
Just then the door opened again, letting Kitty and Ruth into the warm.
“Water’s warm,” Hannah told them, “and t’meal be served as soon as may be. Miss Meg, Miss Daisy, up to table, my lovelies.”
From the scullery as she washed her hands and face, Anne listened to her daughter reporting on her morning, with Meg chiming in to echo and agree. They had, it seemed, spent a morning in the kitchen, ‘helping’ Hannah prepare the dinner.
As always, the family said grace before they ate. Anne smiled around at her family. Growing up in luxury as she had, she couldn’t have imagined eating such a simple meal in the kitchen—or eating with servant, children and adults all together. Even her nursery fare had been more elaborate than stew and bread, with apple pie to follow. When she left the schoolroom, dinners had been in the evening, not in the middle of the day, and had commonly boasted several removes with a dozen dishes at each.
She’d been lonely when she left her sisters on the nursery floor. She’d dined with her brother when he was home, but she and Sam had little to talk about. She didn’t miss the solitary splendour of her girlhood. She preferred it here in this warm kitchen, surrounded by the women she loved.
“How was your lesson today?” she asked Kitty.
Kitty’s smile lit the whole of her lovely face. “Rose and I practised our duet. Ruth said we are coming along very well, did you not, Ruth? She says we may sing it at the Redwoods’ on Tuesday.”
“If you are asked to sing,” Ruth warned.
Kitty waved off this reminder with another smile. “Lady Redwood likes to hear us—she says we brighten her day.”
“Pride goeth before a fall. Perhaps you should embroider that on a sampler?” Ruth raised one eyebrow, and tried to look stern, but her eyes betrayed a twinkle. Anne chuckled. Kitty could sing like an angel, especially with Rose Ashbrook, the Rector’s daughter. But her fancy sewing was truly abysmal, and even in plain sewing her stitches often had to be unpicked and done again.
“I am not being proud, Ruth, truly I am not. But I like singing for Lady Redwood. Poor lady. Fancy never being able to walk, and never going anywhere unless someone carries you. And I would not be honest if I pretended that Rose and I did not make quite a pretty noise together, especially when Emma plays for us.” Emma Redwood was the daughter of Sir Thomas Redwood, the squire, and his invalid wife.
Ruth relented. “Indeed you do, my dear. Even if it is unbecoming to say so.
At this point, Daisy—who had made great inroads into her stew—started into another story about her morning, again ably supported by Meg.
On Kitty, the same features that blessed Daisy had matured into true beauty, the nose straight and the large eyes fringed with the same absurdly long lashes as her small niece. The tiny mirror they all used told Anne that she was, if not a beauty, at least not an antidote. Meg still looked a child, though she was fully grown. She was three years Kitty’s senior, but something in her expression spoke of her innocence and lack of understanding.
Kitty, Meg and Anne shared the same light brown hair and hazel eyes. Ruth and Daisy were complete contrasts to one another. Ruth was dark and light: hair almost black and eyes of a deep brown against a porcelain complexion. Her head was currently bent close to Daisy’s golden curls while the child’s intensely blue eyes watched the piece of apple pie Ruth was sliding onto Daisy’s plate. The startling colour was set off with dark lashes, a surprising combination with the golden hair. Redepenning eyes, the Longford residents called them, though not to Anne’s face.
Hannah rounded the table to clear the stew bowls, before taking her own place again on the other side of Daisy. Dear Hannah. She’d come to them as Daisy’s wet nurse, and stayed these five and a half years as maid-of-all-work. She was as much part of the family as any of the sisters.
“Mmmm,” Kitty said, having swallowed her first bite of pie. “This is good.”
“Meg pricked the crust. Meg pricked the crust.” Meg was jiggling in her seat with excitement.
“Eat your mouthful, Meg darling. Ladies do not speak when they have food in their mouths.”
Meg gave another couple of chews and a mighty swallow. “Meg pricked the crust.”
Anne leaned over to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Well done, Meg.”
“Anne,” Kitty asked, “Did you hear the new Earl is coming?”
“They did mention it at the school.”
“The whole village is talking about it. The last Earl never visited, not since he was a boy. But the new Earl is going to be here this weekend, and Mr Will Baxter has told Mrs Tyler to prepare for him to stay until the end of June. Do you think we’ll meet him?”
Anne exchanged glances with Ruth. “If he is a good landlord, he will want to meet all his tenants, darling.” If their luck held, he would not be a good landlord.
If only he had waited another two years, until Kitty was of age. If only he planned to stay a few short days. If only he would leave without ever setting eyes on Daisy or questioning the rent rolls.
Meg, who had been listening with a frown on her usually happy face, suddenly scrambled up from the table and rounded it, heading for the door.
“Meg!” Anne shot out a hand to catch her pinafore. “Where do you think you are going?”
Meg tugged at her pinafore, trying to get free. Her face was distorted with fear. “Meg going to hide. Earl is coming.”
In an instant, Anne was out of her seat and folding her sister in her arms. “Not the bad Earl, darling. This is a different Earl.”
“The Earl is a bad man,” Meg insisted.
“The bad Earl is dead,” Anne soothed. “He will never come. The bad Earl is dead.”
Ruth joined them, to run a soothing hand over Meg’s hair. “The bad Earl will never come,” she agreed.
“A good Earl comes?”
Anne met Ruth’s eyes, and her own thoughts were reflected. In their experience, a good Earl was an unlikely beast indeed.
“A different Earl,” Anne said.
“You’ll have to watch your nephew with the maids,” David observed to Rede, as they sat in the late afternoon sun on Monday, sampling a mug of the local brew.
They’d made an easy ride of it, leaving London at first light that Monday morning, and making their last post of the day from Newbury in the mid-afternoon.
John Price, Rede’s man, had written ahead so horses had been waiting for them at each stop, and he’d booked rooms for them at the Red Lion in Hungerford.
It was a good choice. Newbury was crowded with families departing for Bristol, Bath, or points further west. The King’s decision to call an election had chopped at least six weeks off the Season.
“So I’ve been told,” Rede replied to David’s warning. “Nasty Nat, my cousins call him. But my sister assures me that the girls at Oxford were quite willing, whatever the Chancellor says.” He raised his mug in an ironic salute to the illusions of a doting mother.
“Sent down, was he?”
Rede took a contemplative sip of his beer. Not at all bad. “Yes. And his father won’t take him to Brighton to stay with Prinny, and his mother is off to Bath and is reluctant to leave him without a keeper. He has fallen in with a bad crowd, apparently.”
“So Uncle Rede to the rescue.”
“How bad can a seventeen-year-old be, after all?”
“How bad was George at seventeen?” David asked, wryly. “You do know that young Bexley was George’s acolyte?”
“Yes, my cousins made sure to acquaint me with that small fact.”
“On the bright side, three of my cousins have invited themselves down to help me keep him out of trouble,” he said.
They sat in silence for a while, sipping their beer and watching the sunset. “I see you were much in demand at the Haverford ball,” David said after a while.
Rede gave a short bark of laughter with little amusement in it. “The mothers with daughters to market were bad enough. But the married women… Is no-one in London faithful? If I had one invitation to cuckold some poor unsuspecting husband, I had a dozen.”
“Very likely neither poor nor unsuspecting. Just busy doing the same to some other woman’s husband.”
“Possibly. Likely, in fact. Bunch of rakes and harpies. They undoubtedly deserve one another.”
He shuddered. He’d thought he would be safe enough dancing with Baroness Carrington, whose husband held a barony near Longford Court. He vaguely remembered her marriage while he was still at Eton, and figured she must be old enough to leave him be. But either the willowy blonde had worn exceptionally well, or she was a mere child when she married. Each time the figures of the dance brought her close, she whispered innuendos in his ear, her ‘accidental’ touches reinforcing the hidden meaning.
Even if he’d had time for dalliance, even if he didn’t draw the line at adultery, he’d avoid a predator like the Baroness, with her hard-edged glitter.
She hadn’t taken the hint from his non-committal answers, however.
“There’s no need to be shy, my Lord Chirbury. We’re both adults. If you take my meaning.”
The situation had called for a blunt instrument. “I don’t dally with married women, Lady Carrington. If you take my meaning.”
He shook off the memory. It was too pleasant an evening to think about the Baroness and her ilk.
“Who was your lady friend?” he asked David.
“Just someone I know,” David replied.
Not something David wanted to talk about, then. Interesting in itself. Rede changed the subject again.
“John should be here with the luggage soon.”
David, though, was following his own train of thought. “You’ll have to pick one of them, you know—one of the maidens with the marriage-minded mothers. The title must go on.”
Rede shook his head. “I don’t need to marry for that, David. I have two uncles to inherit, and after them four cousins, one of whom has already set up his nursery. The title is safe for another generation.
“And I’d rather be single. For one thing, marriage wouldn’t be fair to the woman. My vengeance has to come first. Anything left of me goes to my business interests and the earldom.
“For another… I’m a trader, David. I invest where I can expect a good return at a reasonable risk. I’ve been married once, and had children. Hostages to fortune. The risk is too high. I’ll not ever marry again.”