Prologue – 1693
Nine year-old Richelda Shaw sat on the floor in her nursery. She pulled a quilt over her head to block out the thunder pealing outside the ancient manor house, while an even fiercer storm raged deep within. Eyes closed, she remained as motionless as a marble statue.
Elsie, her mother’s personal maid, removed the quilt from her head. “Stand up child, there’s nothing to be frightened of. Come, your father’s waiting for you.”
Richelda trembled. Until now Father’s short visits from France meant gifts and laughter. This one made Mother cry while servants spoke in hushed tones.
Followed by Elsie, Richelda hurried down the broad oak stairs. For a moment, she paused to admire Lilies of the Valley in a Delft bowl. Only yesterday, she had picked the flowers to welcome Father home, and then arranged them with tender care. Now, the bowl stood on a chest, beneath a pair of crossed broadswords hanging on the wall.
Elsie opened the massive door of the great hall where Father waited at one side of an enormous hearth. Richelda hesitated. Her eyes searched for her mother before she walked across the floor, spread her skirts wide, and knelt before him.
Father placed his right hand on her bent head. “Bless you, daughter; may God keep you safe.”
He smiled. “Stand up, child. Upon my word, sweetheart, your hair reminds me of a golden rose. How glad I am to see roses bloom in these troubled times.”
Richelda stood but dared not speak, for she did not know him well.
Putting an arm round her waist, he drew her to him. “Come, do not be nervous of your father, child. Tell me if you know King James II holds court in France while his daughter, Mary, and William, his son-in-law, rule, after seizing 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 knee. “Richelda, I must follow His Majesty, for I swore an oath of allegiance to him. Tell me, child, while King James lives, how can I with honour swear allegiance to his disloyal daughter and her husband?”
Unable to think of a reply, she lowered her head, breathing in his spicy perfume.
Father held her closer. “Your mother pleads with me to declare myself for William and Mary. She begs me not to return to France, but I am obliged to serve King James. Do you understand?”
As she nodded, her cheek brushed against his velvet coat. “Yes, I understand, my tutor told me why many gentlemen will not serve the new king and queen.”
“If you remain in England, you will be safe. Bellemont is part of your mother’s dowry, so I doubt it will be confiscated.”
If she remained in England! Startled, she stared at him.
Smiling, he popped her onto her feet. “We shall ride. I have something to show you.”
* * *
Before long, they drew rein on the brow of a hill. Father pointed at a manor house in the valley.
“Look at our ancestral home, Field House. The Roundheads confiscated it soon after the first King Charles’ execution. 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, I have failed to keep my oath,” He wheezed.
Richelda not only yearned to help him keep his promise to her grandfather, she also wanted to find the gold and jewels which legend said her buccaneer ancestor, Sir Nicholas, had hid.
She waited for her father to breathe easy before she spoke. “If we found the treasure trove you could buy Field House.”
“Ah, you believe Sir Nicholas did not give all his plunder to Good Queen Bess,” he teased.
“Elsie told me legend says he hid some of his booty in Field House.” The thought of it excited her. “In his old age, when Sir Nicholas retired from seafaring, is it true that he put 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 would like to see it.”
“One day, perhaps you will. Now, tell me if you know our family motto.”
“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, and excited by the possibility of discovering treasure, she nodded.
Fothering Place, London, England ~ 1702
At ease in his lodgings, Alban, Viscount Chesney, 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.
Why did His Grace’s dark square face, with its cleft chin, look tense while he toyed with his periwig?
His dark amber 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 wine. “I would have bought it but for my fool of a bailiff who informed me too late of the sale.”
The viscount beckoned to Roberts, his servant. “More wine for His Grace.” He placed a hand over his glass when Roberts moved toward him
Chesney glanced round his small but comfortable book-lined room. Although Jack was the most influential man and largest landowner in Hertfordshire, it had naught to do with their friendship.
Jack stretched his legs out toward the fire. “Will you sell Field House to me? After all, both house and land have fallen into a sad state of neglect.”
“No, I look forward to restoring my estate. 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. He bowed with mock formality. “I shall call on you with pleasure.”
They smiled at each other as Jack stood.
Chesney looked at Roberts. “Fetch our cloaks.”
With an arm draped over Jack’s broad shoulders, Chesney stepped out of his lodgings. He glanced at the darkened street, bade goodnight to Jack, and then hired a sedan chair to take him to his mistress’ lodgings.
Once there, Chesney skirted a pile of noxious matter, spilled from a leather bucket, put out for night-soil men to collect, before beating 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. “Welcome, my lord.” Dimples deepened on either side of her mouth. “Madam told me 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’s more than kind of you to ask.”
Chesney took off his hat. He tucked it under his arm, careless of a dashing white plume curled round the black brim. “No need to announce me.”
Susie did not protest when he marched up a short flight of stairs to Madeleine’s bedchamber.
He lingered on the threshold, remembering when he first met sensuous Madeleine on the day her late husband, old Mister Purvey, came with a delegation to the French court. Chesney sighed. He knew she had hoped to marry him after Mister Purvey died in defence of her tarnished honour in a duel in Leicester Fields, but he suspected he was not her only lover, so it would be out of the question to marry her for fear she would cuckold him, and pass a bastard son off as his heir. Chesney rapped on the door, sure of his welcome. Without waiting for permission, he entered the small room, took a taper from the mantelpiece, and touched the lighted wick to the fire. He used the same flickering flame to light tall wax candles in wall sconces. Immediately thick rugs, tapestries, and brocade curtains were illuminated.
Madeleine remained abed. “My lord.” She brushed back her wavy brown hair before she extended her carefully tended hand to him.
“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 and cheeks the colour of apple blossoms, and almond-shaped hazel eyes, he still appreciated her attractive features. As for her long, elegant limbs and full breasts, he found no fault with them.
She giggled while smoothing the lace-edged ruffles at the neck of her nightgown. “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. Though he feared her hysterics, he refused to be swayed. Coming 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—he spoke. “I am sorry to grieve you, my dear, but to quote Shakespeare, ‘parting is such sweet sorrow.’”
Thrusting the covers aside, Maddy sprang out of bed. With her tiny hands outstretched, she rushed toward him. “What do you mean, Chesney? Why 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 floor.
“I doubt you love me.” He 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.”
If she had never taken any other lover, he would have more sympathy with her, but Maddy had been unfaithful to her elderly husband since she first married. His nostrils flared. He doubted Maddy’s nature allowed her to remain faithful to any man.
She jumped up and rushed across the room to fling herself face down on her bed. “I am not yet done with you for I do love you. I do! I do!” She sobbed, pounding a plump pillow with clenched fists.
He hesitated. Had he misjudged her feelings for him, by believing them to be shallow? Even if he had, he could not marry such a woman.
“Have I not made you happy?” Maddy twisted round to face him, hostility in her eyes.
Chesney sought a way to help her accept his decision. “We enjoyed our bed sport, yet you never quickened with child. As you know, duty requires me to father an heir. No more tears. You told me a score of times you cannot abide puking babes. What’s more, you always claimed thoughts of motherhood dismay you. If you are honest, you will admit you could not tolerate your body thickening so 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. Her words were as false as her modesty. “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, out of consideration as well as duty.”
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. He did not doubt that before long she would 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.”
Chesney kissed her cheek before he left the house. Should he leave town to prevent Maddy pestering him?
* * *
The following day, Chesney rapped his cane on the front door of Isobel Ware’s London mansion. Sister of his late father’s friend, he did not know her well. He wondered why she had summoned him.
“Lord Chesney?” Bennet, Lady Isobel’s middle-aged butler, looked at him respectfully.
Chesney inclined his head.
“This way, my lord. You are expected.” Bennet led him up the stairs to a beautifully appointed parlour on the first floor where he announced him to Lady Isobel.
Chesney raised his voice above the barks of six King Charles Cavalier spaniels. “Your servant, Lady Isobel.”
Lady Isobel waved a hand at her little dogs. “Be quiet.” Her ladyship inclined her head to him.
“My lord, I am pleased to see you.”
Full glass in his hand, Chesney sat.
“My lord, I shall come straight to the point. I summoned you to propose marriage to my niece, Richelda Shaw. In all honesty, I assure you it would be to your advantage.”
While she waited for his reply, the petite lady patted her silvery hair with one hand. With her other hand she fluttered her fan which she peeped over girlishly.
“You flatter me, Madam,” he drawled.
Lady Isobel’s dainty shrug released her cloying perfume of lavender mingled with roses and vanilla. She snapped her fan shut and then tapped his arm with it. “You are mistaken. I do not flatter you. I offer you and my niece a solution. My late brother, the earl, and your father followed King James to France. You are gossiped about. People eye you as distrustfully as I think my niece will be eyed when I bring her to London.”
“Are you not gossiped about, Lady Isobel? 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 Isobel shuddered. “Do not mention the matter, 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 his head is not displayed at the Tower of London.”
Chesney shifted his position, smothering a yawn behind his hand before he made a cautious reply. “I am neither a Jacobite nor a Papist. I apologise for mentioning the matter of your brother’s conversion.”
“Some more wine, Viscount?”
He shook his head, leaning back to deliberately present a picture of a man completely at his ease.
Lady Isobel arched her eyebrows. She sipped her wine. “All London knows I am a wealthy woman.” She blinked the sheen of tears from her eyes. “My lord, ‘tis cruel not only to suffer widowhood thrice but to also lose my only child.”
Acknowledging her grief, he bowed his head. “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. She opened her fan and plied it restlessly while she scrutinised him.
“What do you think of my proposal, my lord?”
Chesney sat straighter. She had not minced her words. He smiled with his usual 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 tapped her fan on the arm of her chair.
“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 by acquiring my niece’s mansion, Bellemont House and all the land around it. As for my niece, she would become mistress of Field House, my childhood home.”
He inclined his head, curious now as to what the old lady’s motive was. Ah, did she want him to marry her niece because she had a sentimental attachment to his estate?
Undeterred by his silence, Lady Isobel 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. They expected him to marry well and produce an heir. Confound it, not one of them had regained their positions, lands, or fortunes after the first King Charles’s execution. His grandfather’s fortunate marriage to a French heiress had saved him from poverty.
Her ladyship’s Roman nose twitched. 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 Lady Richelda, he nodded. “I will do no more than consider it.”
“Good, I shall not press you further.” She hesitated with her fan mid-air, only to flutter it agitatedly. “I would 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 honour, I will not mention it to anyone. By the way, when will Lady Richelda arrive?”
He stood. Each of the small dogs wagged their tails, stirred, and yapped for attention round his ankles. Deep in thought, he ignored them. Although no thought of imminent marriage had entered his head when he arrived, he might change his mind after meeting her ladyship’s niece. It was time he married, and if she proved pleasant enough, maybe—
Lady Isobel clapped her hands. “My poppets like you, and believe me, my lord, they are good judges of character.”
Chesney restrained an incipient chuckle at his sudden 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 she and I are suited.”
With a rustle of black silk, Lady Isobel rose. “I believe you and Lady Richelda are well matched.”
Chesney stepped from Lady Isobel’s spacious house into King Street and walked toward Whitehall. Although the proposal to marry Lady Richelda had taken him by surprise, he gave further thought to accepting it. Yet he would not wait for Lady Richelda to come to town where she would doubtless parade in the latest fashions, powder and patch. Where did she live? He searched his memory. Ah, now he remembered. She lived at Bellemont which Lady Isobel had mentioned lay close by his newly purchased property. Why not hazard a journey there to cast an eye over both domains?
His stride quickened to keep pace with his racing mind. Was the young lady tall or short, plain or pretty, fair-haired or brunette, meek or shrewish, illiterate or well educated? Cocksure, Chesney took her acceptance of his proposal for granted. After all, why should she refuse a well-educated, not ill-favoured viscount?
He knew it was time to settle down and have a family. If she proved suitable, he would wed her. After all, he could not deny he would welcome her inheritance. For his part, he would try not to give her cause for complaint by ensuring she lacked naught. They would refurbish Field House, improve the estate, and purchase a house in London.
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 or passion. A wife’s happiness and satisfaction should be derived through ensuring her husband’s comfort, good deeds, plying her needle, and raising children.
He sighed. A man in his position must marry if only to father heirs.
“Look, an Adonis! Who is he?” A high-pitched female voice interrupted his thoughts.
Chesney looked round at a powdered and patched lady with rouged cheeks who was 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, rode, and walked to keep his body fit.
The older lady inclined her head, the younger one winked before they went about their business.
Chesney whistled low. What would Lady Richelda think of him? He contemplated his future with pleasure. With a smile, he thought of London’s coffeehouses, theatres, parks, concerts, and pleasure gardens. Lady Richelda’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 my 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?” He clapped his hands, his mind racing with thoughts of the future.
Roberts bowed low. He straightened, regarding him with his face creased in familiar lines of despair.
“What?” Chesney sighed. Why did he always feel disheveled in his manservant’s presence?
Roberts was only six years his senior but Chesney could not remember a day when the man did not wear an immaculate black cloth suit, a neat black waistcoat, and unwrinkled stockings.
“First, my lord, the sooner you purchase a London House and employ a cook the better it will be. Second, 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. He chuckled. “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 Chesney’s coach to travel faster than usual. Protected by armed outriders and postilions, he did not fear highwaymen. Besides, equipped with his sword and firearm, he trusted his ability to deal with any miscreant.
They reached St. Albans before dark and then proceeded to Bellemont Village where they put up at The King’s Head.
In the morning, Chesney delighted his manservant by being more particular than usual about his appearance.
Chesney took note of the look of satisfaction on Roberts’s face as he drew up Chesney’s black silk stockings before he adjusted the black velvet garters.
Chesney twitched the lace frothing at his wrists into place. “My waistcoat.”
He took the cream satin waistcoat from Roberts. With rough movements, he pulled it on, only to pause in response to Roberts’s pained voice. “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 a periwig, as black as Chesney’s natural hair, from a stand. With care, he settled the periwig on his master’s head.
Ready to depart, Chesney held a black hat, trimmed with gold lace and a curled plume, in one hand. In his other hand, he grasped a cane ornamented with a knot of black and gold ribbons.
Now, Chesney thought—his curiosity intense—to seek out Lady Richelda. He went down a flight of narrow stairs to the hall where the innkeeper 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.”
Chesney looked round the yard with the expectation of seeing Lord Greaves, the corrupt, greedy tax collector for the area. A hand tugged his sleeve. He frowned. “I fear you mistake—”
“My lord, read it.” The female concealed by a voluminous cloak and hood drew closer. She held out a scroll sealed with red wax stamped with the mark of a pomegranate. “Doubtless you think I am impertinent to approach you. However, your landlord expected you to pass the night here so I seized my chance to speak to you.”
One of his outriders dismounted and grabbed the woman’s arm. “Off with you.”
Chesney frowned. “Release her and remount.” His interest aroused, he hesitated by his coach. “Who are you?”
“I serve Lady Richelda of Bellemont. I promise you, she intends no mischief.”
By her accent, he judged she was not a servant. “You may enter my coach to discuss the petition,” he drawled with feigned indifference. He held the door open, his curiosity piqued. What could be in the petition to make her so devious?
She scrambled up the steps. A fold of her cloak slipped away from her hand in which she clutched a pistol. He sat without betraying his fear of her being a dangerous lunatic. “How sad to see someone of your tender years brandishing a firearm.”
“I am not brandishing it,” she protested. “My mistress’s friend, Master Wynwood, told her I must be armed.” She lowered the pistol. “You did not answer her letters. This is the only way for her to present her case.”
What to do or say? He doubted the baggage knew of the licentious tax collector’s vindictive nature or about the cruel bullies he engaged.
“My lord, have you not received the letter informing Lady Shaw—God rest her soul—supported the Established Church and attended its services twice on Sundays? Like her mother, Lady Richelda is not a papist. I implore you to reduce the illegal taxes on Bellemont. If you do so, she will have sufficient wherewithal to excavate a short canal to float oak logs downriver 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 gripped in both her hands.
“She will not be able to support herself. Oh, you cannot imagine how hard Lady Shaw found it to maintain herself while her husband, the earl, lived in France.”
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 her and-”
The pistol wobbled. “Cannot help her! It is not true. You can help her, even if she will not sell Bellemont to you.”
“‘Tis not a matter of cannot but a matter of will not.”
Chesney eyed her from head to toe. Her full cloak revealed little of her person. “Has Lady Richelda no relatives to save her from…er…want?”
“Her mother’s family ignore her. Lady Isobel, her closest relative—her father’s sister—takes no interest in her, although her ladyship has enough money to—”
“Did neither Lady Shaw nor her daughter apply to Lady Isobel?”
“No my lord, Lady Shaw wanted nothing which 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. In spite of a jolt which threw her across the coach she managed to clutch the pistol with one hand. Breast to breast with her, Chesney held her upper arms to prevent her tumbling onto the floor. For the first time he saw the girl’s face, one of such classical beauty it would be likely to haunt his dreams. Enchanted, he inhaled her fragrance, redolent of fresh air and herbs; a delightful contrast to Lady Isobel’s cloying scent and Maddy’s spicy perfume.
“Release me, my lord.”
Chesney shuddered. The pistol pointed toward 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.
The girl’s defiant sapphire blue eyes glared at him. “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. He 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.”
The coach drew to a halt. Chesney flicked open his gold snuffbox. He feigned interest in its contents before he grinned. “Perchance we will meet at Bellemont.”
“Bellemont! Why are you going to Bellemont?”
Apprehension lurked in her eyes. Her lips 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 take my leave.”
An outrider let the steps down for his bold but delectable companion.
“You forgot something.”
“What?” Her voice sounded as 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 say so earlier?” Her eyes darkened like 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. He 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. 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 my petition to the wrong person.”
Dudley glared at her. “I wish you had taken my advice when I told you not to act like a madcap.”
For a moment, fearing Dudley’s bad temper, she tried to placate him. “I beg you not to scold me. You know my reasons.” She forced herself to smile. “I must change before he reaches my home.”
“Who is going there?”
“The man I mistook for the tax collector. He took me up in his coach. After I handed him my petition, I stated my case, but he informed me 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 a poor house.”
Richelda stared at Dudley who 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 regular features and a slender, well-formed frame.
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 to Bellemont.”
“Thank you.” She turned toward a path over which brambles crept. “I apologise, Dudley.”
“For failing you. If I cannot make Bellemont productive, you must make your own way in the world before we marry.”
His sudden pallor amazed her. “What is wrong? Why do you look so surprised?
“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.”
His curt tone shocked her. Wounded, she squared her shoulders. “Foolish? I have loved you for years.”
Dudley opened a lichen-stained wooden gate which led to a weed-infested drive, on either side of which only the hardiest of untended ornamental plants survived.
Back straight, head held high, Richelda strode past parallel orchards toward Bellemont House. Embarrassed because she had declared her love, she battled against an urge to weep.
Dudley’s deep sigh only added to her pain. “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, beggars cannot be choosers. I must make my way in the world.”
She pulled away from him. “If my family had not lost their money, I am sure you would marry me.”
Dudley’s expression remained indifferent. “You are not an heiress and you dress like a hoydenish beggar.”
How merciless of him to speak so unkindly. He was wrong. Poor quality clothes did not make her a hoyden. She hurried past the herb gardens and skirted a huge ornamental urn.
The cost of her father’s honour had been hard to bear. After Father went to France, Lord Greaves wanted to purchase Bellemont. When Mother refused to sell it to him, he lodged false charges of spying for James II against her mother. Thanks to providence, Jack’s late mother, the Duchess of Hertfordshire, helped to prove her own mother’s innocence. Dudley patted her back. “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 their marriage would be unwise? 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, you said 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 her front door. Dudley’s angelic cheeks reddened. His exquisitely shaped mouth tightened in unspoken anger. “There is no need to mention gambling debts I incurred at Oxford.”
“May I remind you some of us are unfortunate? We rely on our wits to aid us. I lied when I claimed I love you. I merely sought the protection of marriage.” She curtsied formally. “Good day to you.”
Indoors, Richelda rested her head against a wall in the dingy hall. If only Dudley’s love matched her own, he would marry her. She trembled. Tears poured down her cheeks. She fumbled for her ragged kerchief as she struggled to regain control, blew her nose, and sank to the floor. Elsie’s voice shattering the silence filtered through her misery. The noise 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, my lady.”
Richelda wiped her face and looked up.
Elsie frowned. “How many times have I told you not to roam alone? Why are you crying? Why didn’t you take your dog with you? Puck’s howled all morning.” She crouched down to put her arms round Richelda’s shoulders. “D…did someone assault you?”
“No one assaulted me. 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. Indeed, today he waited to raise an alarm if harm came to me while I met Lord Greaves at the inn.”
“By mistake, I approached another man who put up there.” Richelda sighed. “On the way home, I told Master Wynwood—”
“Master Wynwood? He’s always been Dudley to you.”
“I am no longer a child. It is not fitting for me to use his Christian name.”
Elsie stood. She narrowed her eyes.
“I made a fool of myself. I thought Master Wynwood wanted to marry me.” Unable to look at Elsie she bowed her head. “He does not. He wants to marry Kitty for her fortune.”
“Don’t break your heart over a man who—”
Richelda put her hands over her ears. “Must I tell you yet again not to repeat spiteful gossip about him?”
“Some rumours about Master Wynwood might be exaggerated. Those about his insolence, excessive drinking, and gambling are not,” Elise persisted.
“They are lies, Elsie.” She did not believe the worst about Dudley. Anger boiled inside her. Bile rose to the back of her throat. She swallowed it. “Elsie, for his sake I wanted to make Bellemont profitable. I am tired of struggling. Except for a snug cottage and a few acres of land for my own use, I shall sell the estate to Jack.”
“Sell Bellemont to His Grace!” Elsie 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 parlour.”
Heavens above, he must be the man whose identity she mistook for Lord Greaves.
A long male shadow fell across the dark oak floor before the parlour door closed. She caught her breath. Either Elsie had 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. Looking at Elsie, she raised her eyebrows.
Elsie nodded her approval and pointed at the parlour 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 which led to the kitchen.
He will not recognise me, Richelda reassured herself. She mimicked her late mother’s graceful walk, entered the room, and coughed to attract attention.
Viscount Chesney turned away from the window. He focused on her intently. “Lady Richelda?”
She curtsied, wishing she also wore exquisitely cut black velvet and silk instead of a 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 full height. “You have the advantage of knowing my name.” She looked into grey eyes reminiscent of still water on an overcast day.
“Lord Chesney at your service, my lady.”
“I am honoured to make your acquaintance, my lord. Please take a seat.”
He laughed. “Lady Richelda, although I did not introduce myself to you earlier, I hoped you would say you are pleased to renew your acquaintance with me.”
She tilted her chin. “You mistake me for someone else.”
“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 avail myself of the opportunity to manhandle you earlier today. Word of a gentleman, there is no need to fear me either now or in future.”
Somewhat nervous in spite of his assurance, she sat opposite him. While she regained her composure, she put her feet side by side on a footstool.
“If you confess, I will not tell your aunt.”
“Yes, she wishes me to make your acquaintance.”
Her mother’s family shunned her. They feared being tainted by her late father’s politics. The viscount must have referred to Father’s only close relative, his sister, Lady Isobel.
“Aunt?” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, 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. She put it down and served them with elderflower wine before she withdrew.
Chesney eyed his glass of wine with obvious mistrust. “Why did you sigh, Lady Richelda?”
She refrained from explaining she longed to eat something other than her daily fare of boiled puddings, flavoured with herbs, mixed with vegetables, and served with or without game birds or rabbits, which Elsie sometimes snared.
Bowstring taut, Richelda drank some pale wine. She looked at the viscount, whose posture depicted a man at ease. “Please taste this wine, my lord, although you might not be accustomed to home-brewed beverages, I think you will enjoy it.”
He sipped some. “An excellent tribute to Elsie’s skill. She made it, did she not?” She nodded before he spoke again. “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 my 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 hoyden of an actress, worthy of note though you are.”
Outraged by being called a hoyden for the second time that day, she stood. “Please leave.”
Viscount Chesney rose to approach her. 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. When she looked up at Chesney, his breath warmed her forehead. She trembled again.
“Child, if my lightest touch frightens you, imagine the effect Lord Greaves’ greedy hands on your person would have. 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 dishonour.”
His proximity unnerved her; yet as though a spell had been cast over her she remained still.
“Are you known for your honour?”
“In spite of my opportunity, I did not assault you. Believe me, when I say I will never do so.”
His eyes darkened. 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 would never prefer her to sophisticated ladies? “Please do not address me as a child. When I was fourteen, I cared for my mother after she became ill.”
“My apologies, I did not mean to offend you. Poor Lady Richelda, I will not call you a child again.”
Richelda twisted free of him and then forced herself to breathe slowly. She resented any man’s pity. After she sold Bellemont, she would dress too elegantly for anyone to taunt her. 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 actors—like courtiers—deceive. But believe me, if Master Wynwood cannot separate gold from dross, he is unworthy of you.”
“You have no right to insult him.”
He applauded. “Let no secrets lie between us, Lady Richelda. I overheard you when you confided in your servant.” Chesney’s expression hardened. His eyes glittered like ice. “No gentleman worthy of his name allows a slip of a girl to endanger herself. Instead of playing a 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 so she refrained from childishly stamping her feet and raging: “Dudley is not a coward.”
“My lord, you are an eavesdropper, so in spite of your fine clothes you are not a gentleman.”
“Lady Richelda, one does not need fine clothes to be a gentleman, but it does assist one.”
“I beg your pardon, my lord,” she apologised, ashamed of questioning his lack of breeding.
“We will not refer to the question of my honour again.” Ostentatiously, he smoothed his coat sleeve. “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 a small understanding of the miseries caused by loneliness and poverty?
“How rude you were to listen to a private conversation, my lord.”
“Do not be angry, Lady Richelda. I shall help you,” he smiled. “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. “My horses have waited long enough. I do not doubt we will meet again.”
He bowed and then departed too quickly for her to ask. How will you help me?