The stable boy took the horse away, and Frank went up to the house with the postbag he had collected from the village of Heysham. He entered the large graystone house by the kitchen door, wiping his boots carefully before stepping on Mrs. Pickering’s tiled floor, even though that lady had far too soft a spot for a handsome lad to scold.
“Morning to you, Frank. Here, have an Eccles cake. Fresh and warm, just for you.”
The cook was a buxom woman, with the smooth skin of a Lancashire lass despite her forty-odd years. She gave him a buss to flavor the pastry.
A slight smile eased the young man’s expression. “Go on with you, Mrs. P. It’s not me that pays the wages.”
“No,” said a wiry young footman sitting at the table polishing silver. He glanced at the groom with a smirk. “But it’s in the family, so to speak.”
An ugly scowl banished the humor from Frank’s face, and it looked as if he would take a swipe at the footman. Instead, Frank dumped the leather postbag on top of the other man’s work and stamped out.
“What did you have to say a thing like that for?” asked Mrs. Pickering.
As he removed his cuff-protectors and washed his hands, Matthew Riggles only said, “I have my reasons.”
The cook turned back to her pastry rolling, shaking her head. Troubled times at Delamere, troubled times. She’d come to work at the Hall as a girl, when the first viscount—and he’d been only a baronet then—had been newly married to a woman pretty as a picture and happy as a lark. Miss Sophronia Stacey, she had been, Toast of London. They’d called her Sweet Sophy.
A duke had wanted to marry her, or so it was said, but she’d chosen Sir Henry. There’d never been a sign she’d regretted it. Lady Delamere seemed as happy in this simple northern spot as traveling about Europe with her diplomat husband; happy to be anywhere as long as she was with her darling Henry.
See what times they were come to now, with the first viscount eight years in his grave, his sweet lady’s wits gone wandering, and his two successors dead within one year.
Stirred to philosophy by her thoughts, Mrs. Pickering said to the footman, “Life’s too short for quarrels, lad.”
“Life’s too short to let others spoil it,” he retorted.
With that, he shrugged into his braided jacket, picked up the postbag, and went in search of the person regarded by all as the mistress of Delamere Hall.
He found her, as he expected, in the Sea Room, the saloon with three large windows overlooking Morecambe Bay.
Chloe, Lady Stanforth, a widow at only twenty-three, thanked Matthew with her usual warm smile, but did not immediately investigate the contents of the bag. Instead, she let her gaze return to the grassy headland outside the large windows and the Irish Sea beyond.
She had been raised in Leicestershire and educated in Gloucestershire. Before her elopement from the schoolroom she had never seen the sea. When her late husband, Stephen, had brought her to his home, the vista of Morecambe Bay, backed by the distant hills of the Furness Peninsula and the Lake District, had stunned her. Delamere Hall—a simple, modest manor—sat square and strong on the cliffs above the sandy bay, just outside the ancient village of Heysham. From many of its windows the tableau could be enjoyed through the seasons, and that was one of Chloe’s greatest pleasures.
Changing moment by moment as the tide swept in to fill the bay or retreated to leave it as mud; as the distant shore shone clear in sunlight, fields and houses distinct, or became shrouded in mist so she could imagine the sea to go undisturbed all the way to America; as the vault of sky formed an arch of pure cerulean blue, or filled dramatically with the tumbling clouds of an approaching storm; this vista always enchanted.
Just now the tide was receding, and flocks of birds called as they picked over the exposed marine life. The blue October sky reflected in the deeper channels of water ruffling under a brisk autumn breeze. In pleasant weather Chloe often pulled on a pair of sturdy boots and walked far out across the pebbles and mud, investigating the tidal pools. This cool day, however, did not tempt her.
An observer would have found Chloe as entrancing a sight as the view beyond the windows, for she was that rarest of creatures, a natural beauty. Of medium height, her form was slender, but with nothing of frailty about it since she was by nature active. The only part of her that suggested weakness was her long neck, which appeared almost too delicate to hold her fine-boned head and mass of dark curls. She was even gifted with natural color—shapely lips of a deep pink and a fine-grained skin that showed the roses in her healthy cheeks. The penalty, of course, was that embarrassment could not be concealed, but Chloe Stanforth could not be easily discomfited.
The most interestingly uncolored part of Chloe’s features was her eyes—a clear silver gray, they were saved from insipidity by a dark outer edge to the irises and thick dark lashes. They shone brilliantly whenever she was in spirits, which was often, and so were commonly spoken of as her finest feature.
These days, however, Chloe was not often in spirits. She had been cooped up at Delamere since the summer of 1809, when she had come north for her annual stay. In September of that year she had been preparing for a return to her husband and the social life of the south, when she had received news of Stephen’s death in a carriage accident. She remained at Delamere for her year of mourning, so recently over. Now, despite the appeal of the scenery, she wanted to escape and build a new life for herself. She wouldn’t feel able to leave, however, until the new Lord Stanforth arrived to take responsibility for the Hall and all its dependents.
Justin Delamere, Stephen’s cousin . . .
Sliding away from thought of Justin, Chloe turned her attention to the postbag and unfastened the clasp. At that moment the door opened, and an ancient lady tapped her way into the room with the help of a sturdy cane.
“Grandmama.” Chloe smiled as she rose to escort the lady to her favorite straight-backed chair near the fire. “I might have guessed the postbag would bring you hot-foot.”
“Hot-foot!” snorted the Dowager Duchess of Tyne as she eased her body into a position of comfort. “It’s many a day since I’ve been even
-foot, my dear. But I confess I do like to read my letters.”
“And you always have some,” remarked Chloe. “What devoted correspondents you have, Grandmama.”
“The secret is to keep writing, gel. Then they must write back. Well. Open it up and see what we have.”
Chloe obediently pulled out the handful of letters and began to sort through them in search of something for the impatient old lady. “There,” she said at last. “And the frank suggests it’s from Lady Mackering in Bristol.”
“Saucy chit,” said the Duchess as she snatched her letter.
“Lady Mackering?” queried Chloe with a twinkle. “Why, I would have thought her at least sixty.”
The Dowager cackled. “Seventy-seven. She is a year older than I. What airs and grace she put on about that year when we were girls!” She broke the seal and began to read greedily.
Chloe sorted the remaining post more methodically. Three missives were clearly accounts and she placed them to one side. One was addressed to Lord Stanforth, and this too she put apart. There had been three Lord Stanforths within the space of one year, and the current viscount was still abroad with his regiment. Anyone unaware of the confusion could hardly have urgent news to impart. The remainder of the post presented more of a problem. Chloe sighed.
Her grandmother looked up. “Are you maundering again, Chloe? Why don’t you just open them all?”
Chloe shrugged. “It is so distasteful to be opening other ladies’ correspondence. I don’t know why people cannot learn to address them correctly. See, here is a letter from my old friend Emily Grantwich—we were at Miss Mallory’s together, you know. It is clearly and correctly addressed to Chloe, Lady Stanforth. Here is one simply addressed to Lady Stanforth. You know Belinda is hurt whenever I open her letters, but it does look as if it’s from Herr van Maes. He is doubtless hoping to wheedle a few more invitations to dine at the Hall.”
“Let him wheedle,” said the Duchess. “He springs for handsome gifts, I’ll give him that.”
Both ladies looked at the fine set of oil paintings which the Dutch antiquarian had presented to Chloe last Christmas. The four small landscapes represented the seasons with pictures of villagers around an apple tree.
“Yes,” said Chloe. “Almost too handsome. I admire the pictures but they seem excessive payment for a few quiet dinners.”
“Perhaps he was attempting an investment,” said the Duchess with a smile. “It wouldn’t be strange if he had an eye to more than your dinners, gel.”
Chloe shook her head, accustomed to her grandmother’s naughty tongue. “I never saw any sign of it. Anything younger than a half a millennium holds no interest for him at all. In fact, he probably just wanted to dispose of such modern pictures. Now, what should I do with these letters?”
“You could let Belinda handle all the business,” said the Duchess unsympathetically. “As the widow of the most recent viscount, it’s her responsibility.”
“Do you really think so?” said Chloe with a slight frown. “I am not sure . . .”
“God’s sake, gel. Don’t take me seriously! It’s bad enough having that farmer’s daughter around the place, ingratiating herself. She wouldn’t know how to run a hedge-tavern, never mind a place like Delamere.”
Chloe had to fight back a giggle. Daughter, wife, and mother of dukes, the Duchess had a low opinion of the local girl married by Stephen’s successor, his Uncle George.
“Really, Grandmama, how can you say such things? Be fair. Belinda was educated at a respectable seminary. She does not disgrace herself, and I believe she genuinely likes to help. She’s not without sense, you know, and if necessary she could learn to manage the Hall. With George dead, however, we all know there’s no point. If her child had been a boy and inherited the title, I would have trained her, but with a daughter she will not reign here. As soon as Justin arrives he will doubtless marry, and then we will all be free of the burden.”
“Ha,” said the Duchess. “The sooner the better. Can’t wait to see you upon the Town again. There won’t be a man in London with his wits left.”
“Grandmama!” said Chloe, blushing very prettily. “Among all the latest blossoms?”
“I haven’t seen one to match you in a decade, my dear. You know I never condemned you for eloping from the schoolroom, but you deprived me of an anticipated delight—seeing you take Society by storm. I can’t say it won’t be better this way, though. You were a pretty little thing at seventeen, but your beauty has grown stronger over the past six years. Your character has matured too.”
“Goodness, you’ll give me an altogether too exalted opinion of myself. Besides,” added Chloe thoughtfully, “I am not entirely sure I want to marry again.”
“You trying to tell me you’re still grief-stricken?” asked the Duchess skeptically.
Chloe’s hands fluttered as if she would protest. “Oh, Grandmama, I did grieve for Stephen. Truly I did. But it was
him. He was so young and he loved life. I confess, though, I have not missed him so very much. We had grown apart. He continued to love a rackety sort of life which ceased to appeal to me once the novelty had worn off. And when we were together he was so infuriating. I could never depend on him for anything. We would make plans, then some idea would pop into his head and he would forget all about it. He was . . .”
“A charming, feckless half-wit,” supplied the old lady bluntly. “So why don’t you want to marry again?”
Chloe sighed. The Duchess might be nearly eighty but her wits were needle-sharp and there was no chance of deflecting her. “Stephen at least had sense enough to arrange matters so I am comfortably situated and have no need to marry. Having been rash the first time, I am determined to be cautious the second. If I meet a man who is sensible and dependable, I will consider remarriage.”
The Duchess pulled a face at this, but beyond a “humph” she made no comment and returned to her letter. A few moments later an exclamation distracted her again.
“At last,” said Chloe, looking up from a letter. “Grandmama. It’s from Justin. He must be in England.”
The new Lord Stanforth had been, until his succession, a major with the dragoons in Spain. Upon the untimely death of Stephen, the first viscount’s son, the title had passed to George Delamere, his uncle. As George was childless, Justin, son of the first viscount’s third brother, had been the heir presumptive. George, however, had promptly scandalized the County by marrying the young daughter of a local farmer, Belinda Massinger. Everyone had expected him to produce an heir of his own.
Perhaps this intent had been unwise in a man of his years and girth, for George only lived as Lord Stanforth for six months before succumbing to a seizure. That had been long enough, however, to get Belinda in the family way. The title of Lord Stanforth had been in abeyance from February until August, while everyone waited to see whether Belinda would give birth to the next viscount or to a daughter. The twenty-third of August 1810 had seen the arrival of little Dorinda—an outcome which caused considerable relief throughout the area. Since then the Hall had awaited the arrival of its new master.
Chloe broke the seal and unfolded the crisp sheet. She quickly scanned the strong, clear script. “He writes from London. He means to stay there, at Brookes, for a few days to take care of business and then come up. We can expect him any day, I suppose. What a relief it will be to turn this whole
over to him and escape.”
Chloe put down the letter and gazed into the flames of the fire. “I love Delamere, Grandmama, but it just hasn’t been the same this last year. It has been a house of mourning, of course,” she mused, “but it is more than that. Things just haven’t seemed right. . . . I will be glad to be away.” She looked up, smiling, her fine eyes twinkling mischievously. “Perhaps I will go adventuring—Italy, Turkey, Africa. Would you come with me, Grandmama?”