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Authors: Allison Lane

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A Clandestine Courtship

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A CLANDESTINE COURTSHIP

 

Allison Lane

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“Finally!”

Smiling, Mary Northrup laid the letter aside. Justin was coming home. At last she could send out invitations to the welcome party that would reintroduce him to the neighborhood after a seven-year absence. And the timing couldn’t be better. Her mourning period would end tomorrow.

But now that the reunion was imminent, she had mixed feelings about seeing him again. His return would throw her life into upheaval, and not just because she was the former baron’s widow rather than the current baron’s wife. Her diminished importance extended further than that. She had supervised both the house and the estate virtually unfettered since her marriage. Despite knowing for a year that it couldn’t continue, she was no more prepared to give it up now than she’d been the day Frederick had died.

Perhaps it was time to find that dream cottage. Losing control of Northfield Manor would be frustrating enough. Turning over her staff would be worse. She had selected and trained most of them. Many were friends, though there was never a question of who was in charge. Even if Justin kept her on for now, her authority could not last. He must eventually marry. She did not want to watch others meddling with
her
people and
her
home. The dower house was too close, so she needed to move clear away. Besides, she would never be fully accepted by local society anyway.

But that was for the future.

Her immediate problem was dealing with Justin, who had been barely fifteen when she’d wed his brother. Justin had resented her presence, ignoring her efforts to befriend him. They had passed a quarrelsome fortnight before he’d returned to school. His next visit home had been cut brutally short when he’d stormed off to buy colors following a week of ferocious arguments with Frederick.

It had been a relief at the time, for she had not known how to deal with him, but his transfer two years later to a regiment sailing to India had shocked everyone. He had not returned to Northfield before leaving. The news had arrived by post, devastating his young sisters, who had been anxiously anticipating an expected leave. Not once in the five years since, had he explained his decision. In fact, his letters had been remarkably reticent on many points, containing none of his thoughts and no hint of his character.

Now he was back. And at three-and-twenty, he was too old for mothering, too old to require a guardian, too old to need consent for anything he chose to do. So she had no idea what to expect. Even this latest missive contained little information beyond his arrival date. He had not disclosed his intentions.

I have sold my commission and will take up my new duties,
he had written in his only reference to Frederick’s death. Did his lack of condolences arise from antipathy toward his brother, or did he still distrust her? What was he like now?

Her greatest fear was that he would resemble Frederick. Not in looks, which she knew were different, but in interests and character.

She shivered, though a resemblance could work to her advantage. Frederick had hated the country, leaving her in charge of the estate while he lived in London. It was an arrangement that had suited them both, and one that might suit Justin as well.

She hoped. But the letter stated that he wished to take up his duties, which implied an intention to assume management of Northfield.

Or did it? Perhaps he was referring to Parliament. The barony gave him a seat in Lords, and a political career would keep him in town. Many of his youthful arguments had revealed an interest in current affairs and the future of the nation. Had that been a passing fancy, or had his years in India increased his concerns?

Stop this!
Such thinking was useless, revealing a cowardly refusal to face reality. He could just as easily be referring to his duty to marry and provide for the succession. After all, Frederick had wed within a month of achieving the title. It might be a family tradition.

And even if Justin hated estate work and postponed any thought of matrimony, he would hardly leave her in charge. Few men accepted women in positions of authority. Frederick had done so out of laziness, but an army officer who had earned two field promotions was not lazy. And Justin might be worse than his brother in other ways.

Again she shivered.

Turning over control of the estate would be tricky. He knew little about the Manor or its tenants. Though they had corresponded regularly, she had never described Frederick’s business or mentioned her hand in running it. He was probably unaware of her role.

Just as she knew nothing of his interests. He had not responded to news of his childhood neighbors. His letters had been friendly, but bland, touching only on the mundane. And even that could have been a façade. No gentleman would admit faults such as indiscriminate womanizing, unethical or illegal activities, brutality, uncaring selfishness, or any other failing, particularly to a lady whom he knew only by sight. So what was he really like? Saint or sinner? Caring or brutal? Industrious or incompetent?

The answers were important, for she had to plan how to approach him. A smooth transition required that she teach him about the estate’s problems, peculiarities, and limitations. And she must do so without implying that he was ignorant or suffering any other shortcoming. Men did not like criticism – even when warranted – and their anger terrified her.

Sighing, she read the letter again, hoping to find evidence that Justin was milder than Frederick. But nothing had changed.

Setting aside her fears, she rued her vivid imagination. It conjured too many potential disasters. Fretting over the future was pointless. She would discover the truth soon enough. Even if he turned out to be a brutal misogynist, she would have to accept it. For better or worse, her future was now under his control.

And she could not seek that cottage just yet. She had one last duty to the Northrups, one Justin would support. No gentleman wanted two aging sisters on his hands, so she must find husbands for Amelia and Caroline. Frederick’s death had interrupted the task, but she could postpone it no longer. Time was flying.

The girls were her only real family. Both of her parents were dead, and her brother was a destitute curate in Cornwall. She probably had several distant relations, but she wouldn’t know how to find them. Her father had not stayed in touch.

Footsteps pounded along the hall.

“Trimble says pst-fin-rvd Justin red-cm home,” exclaimed Caroline, bursting into the drawing room. As happened all too often, she was talking so fast that only a few words emerged ungarbled.

“Is he back in England then?” asked Amelia, quietly joining them. Amelia did everything quietly, having long ago adopted the relaxed movements and serene disposition that helped keep Caroline coherent.

“He is.” Mary was grateful that her sisters-in-law had interrupted her useless fretting. The butler set a tea tray before her.

“Thank you, Trimble.” She poured. “Justin will remain in London for a few days to deal with the legalities of his accession, but he expects to arrive here in a fortnight.”

“What legalities?” asked Caroline carefully. Tea always slowed her speech. The concentration that kept her cup steady controlled her spirits as well.

“Among other things, he must meet with Frederick’s solicitor and man of business.”

“He will learn nothing new.” Caroline set her cup on a table.

“Everything will be new to him,” Amelia reminded her. “He has been gone for many years. I doubt he knew much about Father’s finances and nothing about Frederick’s.”

“Fredik lost r dowries.”

“Easy, Caro,” murmured Amelia, pointing to the abandoned cup. Caroline retrieved it. “We can do nothing about that now. At least we still have a home. You should give thanks every day that it is entailed.”

“Even if it is shabby beyond belief,” muttered Caroline.

Which was true, Mary admitted. She needn’t look to be aware of the threadbare spot in the carpet, the fraying seat on the chairs, and the peeling wallcoverings near the windows. But there was little they could do about it.

She relaxed as Caroline sipped her tea. Mary never knew what to expect from the girl. Some days she was nearly uncontrollable – though bad days were occurring less often as she matured. In contrast, Amelia was the most restful lady of her acquaintance – and the sweetest. She rarely made demands for herself, devoting her time to helping Caroline and easing the lives of their tenants. She deserved a husband and family of her own – which made the squandered dowries even more tragic and Mary’s efforts more urgent.

Caroline was equally deserving, for despite her excitability, she shared Amelia’s common sense. And she was a sparkling beauty who drew every eye. As her self-control strengthened, her vivacity charmed more often than it repelled, giving them hope that the problem would ultimately resolve itself.

“We will host a welcome party when Justin returns,” said Mary. “He must meet everyone, for they will recall him only as a child.”

“Wonderful!” Caroline jumped up to dance about the room. “Let’s give a ball – he must marry now that he snw baron.” Her twirling accelerated until she bumped dizzily into the fireplace.

Mary cringed, wishing she had eased into the subject. Was Justin aware of Caro’s affliction? He had spent most of his time in school before joining the military, and she had omitted mention of it in her letters, not wanting to burden him with problems he could not address from India. “Sit next to me, Caro,” she begged. “I need your good sense just now.”

Caro gulped air, clenching her fists until she could walk across the room and take a seat.

“Can we afford something so grand?” asked Amelia.

Mary frowned. “I doubt it. Even a modest ball would involve upwards of two hundred guests. Those who traveled any distance would have to stay the night. But too many linens need replacing, and we haven’t enough servants to handle the extra work. Then there is the expense of musicians, food—”

Caroline’s face fell.

Mary continued. “I was thinking of a dinner for our neighbors, followed by cards, but perhaps we could include informal dancing. Now that my mourning is over, no one could accuse us of frivolity. You have been very patient with me.”

“It has been no hardship,” claimed Amelia before Caroline could protest. “Lady Carworth escorted us to most gatherings.”

Caroline nearly snorted, for Lady Carworth disliked her excitability. Taking a deep breath, she spoke slowly. “Informal dancing will be quite enjoyable, so whom shall we invite?”

“The Carworths, Squire Church, the Redfields,” said Mary.

“The vicar, the doctor, Miss Hardaway, Miss Sharpe,” added Amelia.

Caroline made a face.

“The Grangers.”

“Colonel Davis.”

“Weren’t the Adams boys once Justin’s particular friends?”

Discussion eventually produced a list of fifty and an agreement that they were honoring both Justin’s return and Mary’s emergence from mourning.

“Can we seat so many for dinner?” asked Amelia.

Mary frowned. “Cook will need help, and we will have to find more footmen, but it should work.”

“Perhaps Lady Carworth will loan us some footmen.”

Mary suppressed a grimace. The lady would agree. It would enhance her reputation for generosity while drawing attention to the Northrup failings.

“I wonder if Lord Ridgeway will arrive by then.” Caroline was again holding her teacup.

“I am surprised that he has not inspected his seat before now,” said Amelia. “It has been six months since he acceded to the title.”

“He is visiting those properties near his own estate first,” Mary reminded them.

“But how long can that take?”

Forever, if that was what he wanted, but Mary wasn’t about to embark on that topic. His movements were of no interest. “If he arrives before the party, we will invite him, but I doubt he will do so. According to the
Times,
he is spending the Season in London.”

“Poor man. He must have been horrified to learn of his brother’s death. How could anyone murder a lord on Christmas Day?”

Mary ignored Caroline’s observation, unwilling to discuss – yet again – Shropshire’s ongoing scandal.

The murder of the ninth Earl of Ridgeway still dominated every conversation from the Lusty Maiden’s taproom to the most exclusive drawing rooms. The lurid tale tumbled forth hourly, daily, weekly, with no sign of waning interest. But despite the lip service paid to civilized outrage, every voice conveyed satisfaction, for Ridgeway had been the most hated man in the shire.

Shuddering, she pushed thoughts of the murder aside. The new earl had always been very different from his brother. That should not have changed, for he had been a grown man when he had last visited Ridgeway.

Perhaps he would be interested in Amelia. Acceding to the title left him in need of a wife. His sojourn in London proved that he knew it, but he had not yet met with success. The Season was nearly over, without an announcement.

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