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Authors: Janet Woods

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Angelina

BOOK: Angelina
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ANGELINA

 

Janet Woods 

 

Chapter One

 

1778

In London, James Wrey - Viscount Romsey, and heir to The Earl of Winterbourne - held up his port and watched the firelight dance through it.

“The damnedest thing, Rafe. Why should old Lady Pakenham want to see me?”

“Perhaps she intends to leave you her fortune.”

James grinned at Rafe Daventry’s words. “Hardly likely. On the last occasion we met I formed a distinct impression she disapproved of me.”

“I’m not surprised. You almost killed her dog.”

“It was the other way round. Her dog dashed under my mount and almost unseated me. When she screeched the animal took off with its tail between its legs.”

“And you followed in a likewise manner.”

“More or less.” James laughed. “A girl came from the house to persuade the old lady to go inside. Her niece I should imagine. She was a pretty little thing, not much older than sixteen.”

Rafe contemplated him over the rim of his glass for a moment. “It may not have occurred to you, James, but the old lady might be seeking a match for her.”

A sudden jerk, and a splotch of red appeared on the pristine whiteness of his stock. No, it certainly hadn’t occurred to him! He scrubbed ineffectually at the stain with the end of his finger and succeeded only in spreading it. “It’s rumoured Lady Alexandra didn’t have a younger sister, that the girl is an orphan she took a liking to. A man would be a fool to commit himself to such a match without a thorough investigation of her background, besides-”

“I know, I know. You’ve resolved to wed only for love. Some of us cannot afford to indulge in such romantic notions. Perhaps you’ll oblige me by putting a good word in for me with Lady Alexandra when you visit.”

James grinned. “You are not lacking suitors. You could have Caroline Pallister if you would but say the word.”

 “I doubt if she could incite in me the necessary incentive to provide an heir.”

“And you think the Pakenham girl might?”

Rafe’s eyes were alight with laughter. “Invite her to Rosabelle’s coming out ball. It might be amusing to look her over. There cannot be two heiresses lacking both intellect and beauty. If I cannot have both I’ll settle for intellect.”

“Will your sister be attending the ball,” James asked. It had been a long time since he’d seen Celine.

“Would that she could.” Rafe gave rueful sigh. “You forget the state of our finances. Our mutual father has drank and gambled away our inheritance and will not give either of us a penny piece. I doubt if Celine has a gown left unpatched, let alone a gown fashionable enough to wear to a ball.”

“Then you’ll buy her one.” James laughed when Rafe frowned. “A mutual neighbour of ours wants his library catalogued, and has asked me to recommend someone trustworthy to undertake the task whilst he’s abroad. He’s leaving shortly. The house is only twenty minutes ride from Ravenswood and the undertaking supports a renumeration. Both you and Celine will be able to reside there for the duration. What do you think?” 

“I’m beholden to you, James.” Rafe rose to his feet and stretched his tall frame. His smile broadened. “I shall take my leave of the Pallisters as soon as possible. They’ve been good hosts, but common decency prevents me taking advantage of their generosity indefinitely.”

Accompanying the Earl into the hall, James watched his friend shrug into his top coat. Rafe was looking a little threadbare, he reflected, and determined to slip an advance to his tailor, enough to purchase a new suit of clothes without causing him embarrassment.

“I hope your meeting with Lady Alexandra goes well,” Rafe said on parting. “I’ve heard she’s a creature of intellect, a female inclined towards reasoning. If the niece takes after her she will make an admirable wife for an attorney such as yourself.”

“Or you, Rafe,” he called out as Rafe strode off into the mist.

* * * *

Lady Alexandra Pakenham reclined in a large four-poster, her face the colour of parchment. Her eyes were fiercely alive, like those of a bird of prey. Her voice was strong.

   “I’m dying, young man.”

“My commiserations,” James stammered, disconcerted by her forthright manner.

Her glance impaled him. “There’s no need to commiserate when I mean nothing to you.” A wave of a claw-like hand sent a maid scurrying from the room. “I suppose you want to know why I’ve sent for you?”

“I await your indulgence.”

 Lady Alexandra shifted slightly on the pillows. “My niece is the purpose of this consultation. It’s her eighteenth birthday soon.”

James gazed at her with some nervousness. “Before you continue. I must inform you I’ve resolved not to marry for convenience.”

Lady Alexandra’s cackle was reminiscent of a hen. “The union of marriage between you is out of the question, anyway. Angelina is your sister.”

The woman was stark staring mad! James rose to his feet. “Perhaps I should ask your maid to call your physician. You seem a trifle overwrought.”

“You don’t have to humour me, young man,” she snapped. “I’m neither insane nor overwrought.” She pointed at a bureau. “There’s a package in the drawer addressed to you. Kindly fetch it.”

When he attempted to hand it to her she pushed it back at him. The effort of seeing him seemed to have exhausted her. Her eyes were half closed, her hands shaking. Her voice dropped to a whisper.

“You have a reputation for being a fair and honest man, Viscount Romsey. Promise you’ll read the contents. Judge them fairly, then come again when you’re sent for.” Her fingers plucked at his sleeve. “You must promise!”

The desperation in her voice intrigued James, despite his conviction she was mad. “My word of honour.”

She seemed satisfied, for she smiled and relaxed against her pillows.

A light rain was falling when James left the house, but he didn’t notice as he mounted his bay gelding and guided it through throng. Angelina Pakenham his sister? It was preposterous! What was Lady Alexandra inferring, that his father had indulged in an affair with her sister and a child had been a result of the union? 

James frowned. Was it so impossible? The Earl had fathered the son of a woman who’d been wet nurse to his sister Rosabelle. His father still saw Mary Mellor, and supported her financially. He didn’t disapprove of the liaison, but he did disapprove of the woman living in close proximity to Wrey House.

He liked his stepmother, Elizabeth, and knew her to be deeply embarrassed about the whole affair. If she discovered another past infidelity ... ? He shook his head. It didn’t bear thinking about.

  It took James but ten minutes to reach his residence in Chiswick. He turned the package over a few times. As a man he was reluctant to open it, as a lawyer, curious to know what it contained. Taking a deep breath he slid his thumb under the Pakenham seal, extracted a wad of papers and began to read.

Fifteen minutes later he crossed to the sideboard. Hands trembling, he poured himself a large brandy and sank into his favourite chair in front of the fire.

  “God’s truth!” he muttered, staring at the dancing flames. “This could cause no end of a fine scandal if it’s not handled properly.”

 

Chapter Two

 

Unaware of the changes about to take place, Angelina Pakenham finished embroidering a border of yellow roses on the hem of her chemise. Her sharp white teeth bit through the silk and she smiled as she held it up to her maid.

“There, Bessie, doesn’t that look pretty?”

Taking the chemise from her charge, Bessie carefully smoothed the creases from it before placing it on a shelf in the armoire. “Pretty it might be, my love, but if Lady Alexandra sees it she’ll make you unravel every stitch for your vanity.” 

“I doubt if my aunt will lift up my skirt and inspect my under-garments,” Angelina said practically. Amusement set the serene green eyes sparkling for a moment. Rising gracefully from her seat she crossed to the window and stared out at the garden. It was one of those mornings when the sun chased after showers, and the whole garden sparkled with glittering raindrops. As a rainbow arched beyond one of the spreading elms, her smile became blissful.

“The sun through the raindrops is brighter than a hand covered in sparkling gemstones. Come and see how pretty it looks, Bessie.”

Bessie slipped an arm around her waist. “And how would you know that, missy? When did you last see a hand covered in gemstones. Not on Lady Alexandra, I’ll be bound.”

“The cloth merchant’s wife wears a diamond ring to church on Sunday. It sparkles so in the candle glow.’

Bessie snorted. “Glass, most like. Those who can afford diamonds aint fool enough to flaunt ‘em like that there uppity madam. They keeps them locked away so some plaguey highway robber don’t thieve them.”

“Since when have there been highwaymen here?” Pressing her nose against a cool diamond of glass Angelina gazed in the direction of the road and laughed. “No self-respecting highwayman would brave Aunt Alexandra’s wrath by setting foot on her land. Her tongue is sharper, and certainly more lethal than any weapon he might care to brandish.”

“Don’t be impudent, young lady,” Bessie said sternly. “You’re aunt’s been good to you. If it weren’t for ‘er ladyship you’d be dead right now. Poor wee scrap you were when she brought you ‘ere. As pale as death, and as small as a skinned rabbit. “Her name is Angelina, Bessie,” she says, “She’s my own dead sister’s child. Give her comfort until the good Lord takes her soul.”

Angelina kissed Bessie’s cheek. “Cook told me you set me on the window seat in the sunshine and fed me milk sweetened with honey. Cook said that’s how my hair got its funny colour. From too much sunshine and honey.”

“Funny colour, indeed.”  Bessie sent a dark look in the direction of the kitchen. and stroked the shining amber braid that hung to Angelina’s waist. “Angel’s hair is what you’ve got. The angels had already picked you for their own when God decided to spare your life.”

“Would that God had given me wings as well. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to fly amongst the clouds with the birds?”

“Well I never.”  Bessie gazed at Angelina with wondering eyes. “You ‘ave the most peculiar ideas. Tis all them books Lady Alexandra makes you read. Being ejercated aint natural for a woman, and no good will come of it. No man wants a clever woman for a wife.”

Angelina smiled. “I have no intention of becoming a wife. My aunt has promised I may help out at the hospital when I turn eighteen. She said it will not harm me to learn a midwife’s skills. I’ve been studying the books in the library to such end.”

“Could be your aunt will change her mind, my bonny. She aint getting any younger. Perhaps she’ll find a nice young man for you to marry instead. Someone who can protect you, and run the estate after she’s gone.”

“Mr Cottrill runs the estate for Aunt Alexandra, and I run the household. I see no reason why the arrangement cannot continue.”

“You’ll have every fortune hunter in the land after you.” Bessie shuddered. “Some of them men can do terrible things to a maid when the scent of money is in their nostrils. Why, just the other day I heard of a young woman abducted from her bed in the dead of night by some rake. By the time she was found by her relatives, it was too late. The poor child had killed herself from the shame of it.”

Angelina’s eyes rounded. “What did the rake do to her, Bessie?”

“Best you not know, my love.” Enfolding Angelina in her arms Bessie rocked her charge back and forth. “Lady Alexandra is a good women, little one. No harm will come to you if you respect and obey her wishes. Promise old Bessie you will.”

“I cannot promise.” Wriggling from her maid’s arms Angelina pulled off her apron and threw it on to the stool she’d recently vacated. Her eyes held the stubborn expression Bessie knew so well. “Aunt Alexandra has already said she will not make me wed against my will. I’ll expect her to honour her words.” 

“You was only young then, my love. You’re of marriageable age now, and it aint natural you should stay a spinster.”

“Nevertheless, I shall wait until I meet a man I wish to wed.” Tiring of the conversation Angelina headed towards the door. “I’m going to the stream to see if the otters are at play.”

“Not without me, you aint. I’ll sit on the bank and let the sun warm my bones.”

Angelina didn’t protest, Bessie wouldn’t walk as far as the stream, she never did. There was a feeling in the air, like when the season changed from summer to autumn. It unsettled her. She was happy at Chevonleigh and didn’t want anything to change.”

“Don’t you think it odd that my aunt doesn’t have a likeness of her sister?” she murmured. “I wonder which of my parents I resemble.”

“Your aunt said her sister married beneath her and was cast out by the family.” Bessie lowered her voice. “Lady Alexandra has forbidden either of them to be mentioned. She gave you her name to save you embarrassment.”

“What was I called when I was born?”

“I can’t say I ever knew.” Bessie pushed a stray wisp of grey hair up under her bonnet. “And don’t ever ask your aunt that question. Her ladyship isn’t likely to look kindly on it. She might think you’re ungrateful.”

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