“And what sort is this Matthew?” said Justin. “Honest?”
“I think so, or I would have dismissed him. He seems to have settled in here very well, and I have no reason to think he sneaks around the pantries stealing fruit. For one thing, the staff are well fed at Delamere. Now, however,” Chloe added with satisfaction, “it is entirely your problem, thank goodness, and you will do as you think best.”
She saw his lips twitch with amusement.
Chloe felt a surprising spurt of satisfaction to have made him smile. He was too solemn for a Dashing Delamere and there were shadows in those warm brown eyes. She remembered the Justin of six years before, bubbling with lighthearted enthusiasm for life, just like Stephen. In the short time before she left to make a new life for herself, it wouldn’t hurt to brighten his spirits.
Justin swung the curricle between the gates of Delamere Hall and sighed.
“It must be strange for you,” Chloe said softly, “coming here like this.”
“Yes it is. I can’t accept yet that Stephen is dead. He was always so full of life. But then I sometimes feel a hundred years old. At least I’ve had this year to accustom myself, though it must have been an awkward time here. Was George’s wife distressed to give birth to a girl?”
“Belinda is not given to drama but she was disappointed, I think. As mother of the viscount, she could have ruled at Delamere. She thinks little Dorinda gives her a right to live at the Hall, and I suppose she may be correct—Oh dear.”
The last two words were caused by a figure that had just stepped out from the rhododendrons into the middle of the drive—an elderly lady in the flowing skirts of the last century. Justin reined in his horse and glanced at Chloe.
“That’s your Aunt Sophronia,” she said quietly. “It must be one of her bad days. Wherever is her companion?”
Justin looked at the Dowager Lady Stanforth with astonishment, and she glowered at them.
“What are you doing that is evil?” she asked fiercely.
“My God,” muttered Justin.
Chloe leapt down from the carriage. “Oh dear. Why don’t you drive her up to the house?”
“While you walk?” he said in consternation, and then shrugged. “If you can persuade her up here.”
The elderly lady greeted Chloe with a sharp, “Hussy!” and made as if to pull away from her hands. Then she recognized her daughter-in-law and her mood changed. She happily allowed herself to be hoisted up into the curricle. Justin looked over her head at Chloe.
“I feel terrible at leaving you here.”
“You feel terrible at being alone with her,” she replied quietly with a grin. “Don’t worry. She’s harmless. And no, I am not driving your team even if they are tied. It is no distance. When you get to the Hall, they’ll take care of her.”
He accepted his orders and drove on.
“A very pleasant gel,” said the Dowager in the best manner of a Society Lady. “Niece of the Duke of Tyne, you know.”
Justin looked at her and found that, apart from her clothes, she seemed completely normal. Many elderly ladies clung to the styles of their youth, not liking the high waists and straight skirts of fashion. He was shocked, however, at the deterioration in her since he had last been at Delamere. Aunt Sophronia looked to be well over sixty and yet he doubted she had reached fifty yet. He remembered when he had first visited Delamere at age ten. Then his aunt had been a plump and pretty woman with a merry sense of humor.
“Yes, I know,” he said in reply to her comment, and got no response. He remembered the lady’s hearing had been failing for years.
“How are you, Aunt Sophronia?” he shouted.
“Very well, thank you,” she said. “But I am your mother, Stephen. Try to remember these things. I am sure I don’t know where you have been recently but you are far too brown. I have a lotion. . . .” Her voice trailed off. After a bewildered pause, she said, “
is quite delightful.”
Justin stared at the Dowager, wondering what response to make. As the lady was looking ahead and humming a little song to herself, he decided to make none. He had to confess, however, that the thought that he was now responsible for her terrified him more than enemy fire.
They arrived in front of the house and servants came forward. As soon as someone was at the horses’ heads Justin went around to assist his aunt to the ground. “I’m not Stephen,” he shouted, feeling more than a little foolish, “I’m Justin.”
The Dowager looked at him. “I suppose you are,” she said with a frown. Then she smiled sadly. “First Stephen, then George, now you. You see,” she said, with a smile that hinted at the teasing beauty of her youth, “I do know what is going on. Do you want an apple?”
Justin looked at her with close attention.
“Why?” he said loudly, wishing he could whisper as seemed more appropriate. “Do you have one for me?”
She looked at him with well-bred astonishment. “Why would I have an apple with me? I haven’t the teeth for one. But Stephen was coming here to pick apples, and George kept laughing whenever anyone asked for an apple. I don’t think eating apples is particularly humorous, do you? George was dicked in the nob, though, and greedy. Even the Duchess is always asking for apples. Personally, I like a grape. Remind me to give you that lotion, dear. . . .”
With a fond tap on his cheek, the Dowager Lady Stanforth allowed herself to be led off by her anxious companion, leaving Justin staring after her.
He thought about driving back to pick up Chloe but saw she was already in sight, walking at her usual brisk pace. She had never been a dawdler.
Chloe had been hurrying directly toward the house. She was later than expected and there would be matters to be handled, especially with the advent of two young men of fashion.
When she saw Justin still standing by his carriage, however, she slowed her pace. She didn’t want to speak to him again just yet. It wasn’t only her grubby habit, but the effect he was having on her. She tried to tell herself it was just his resemblance to Stephen, but that wasn’t so strong, not now Justin had toughened. . . . Perhaps it was simply that she’d grown unaccustomed to having gentlemen around. Sir Cedric Troughton from nearby Troughton House was the only regular caller, and there was no comparison between formal Sir Cedric and Justin Delamere.
When Chloe saw Justin turn to Randal and take him into the Hall she speeded up again but changed course to use the conservatory door. She could make her way to her room from there without any chance of bumping into the new Lord Stanforth.
How strange the words “Lord Stanforth” had become. She had always associated them with her warm-hearted, feckless butterfly of a husband. Then they had designated fat, greedy, sneaky Uncle George. Now they described Justin, an enigma to her.
She shook her head at her woolgathering and hurried up to her room. A sharp tug on the bell-rope brought Agnes, her maid, and soon Chloe could soak her bruises in a bath and get rid of the sand and mud. When she was clean she surveyed her wardrobe.
She was not long out of mourning and had not yet bothered to order new gowns. Her choice was between the somber colors of half-mourning and her old clothes. Never having been a slave of fashion, she cheerfully selected a pink silk gown which was fully two years out of date. It had always been her favorite, though, and if she couldn’t dress up for the arrival of two of the most handsome men in England, what could be a cause for celebration?
From the fashion magazines Chloe knew the styles were becoming more elaborate than when this gown had been made in London. Perhaps, she thought, it could be refurbished by the addition of some lace or beads, but for all its simplicity she was not dissatisfied with her appearance. Her maid had dressed her dark curls high on her head and threaded them with pink and white ribbons. Chloe had chosen a pearl necklace and eardrops as her only ornament other than her wedding and betrothal rings. It was a simple ensemble, suitable for country dining, and yet she knew, with satisfaction, that she wouldn’t be ashamed to be seen at the most fashionable affair.
She left her room and went first into the north wing, to the Dowager Lady Stanforth’s rooms, to check on that lady’s health. By the time Stephen’s mother had become a widow in ’02, she had already been failing, given to spells of forgetfulness and anxiety. Her beloved husband’s death from cholera had been a further blow to her mental stability, one from which she had never recovered. She had been given a companion and a suite of rooms in the north wing, over the conservatory. There was a veranda opening off her
where she could sit in the sun. The Dowager was generally content to spend her time in her rooms with her companion Miss Forbes, inhabiting whichever strange version of reality occurred to her each day. Chloe hoped the poor lady had not been too upset by her afternoon’s adventure.
Miss Forbes admitted Chloe. She assured her that the Dowager was feeling well and intended to go down to dinner.
Chloe’s heart sank, but she made it a practice not to interfere with her mother-in-law unless the lady’s actions seemed hazardous. This had, after all, been the Dowager’s home far longer than it had been hers. The oldest Lady Stanforth was smiling happily, dressed in wide-skirted green satin.
Chloe went to kiss her on the cheek. “How are you, Mama?”
“Very well, my dear,” said the Dowager brightly. “Isn’t it delightful to have young men in the house again?”
“We should have a party.”
Chloe thought this was a surprisingly good idea. It would be a way to introduce Justin to the local gentry.
“Don’t you be naughty, though.” The Dowager waggled a finger archly. “Remember Stephen.”
Chloe had never decided how far the reality of the death of her only child had penetrated the Dowager’s mind. She had spoken of it, even cried a little, but since then had often seemed to expect him to visit her, write to her.
“I will, Mama. I see you are ready to come down tonight.”
“Oh yes. It would be so rude not to. How is the prince?”
Chloe ignored the latter question and looked for another topic. “How sweet a smell there is in here, Mama. It must be one of Belinda’s blends of
“Yes,” said the Dowager. “The Massinger girl is very willing, but forward. It is a while since she refreshed it, though. Perhaps you could cover it now as we will be going down. Then it will last better, you know.”
The Dowager always referred to Belinda as the Massinger girl, or Miss Massinger, if she had to address her. Chloe could never decide whether this was snobbishness, or an inability to remember George’s marriage. Belinda certainly did her best to be obliging to the older lady.
Chloe went obediently to the container which sat on the mantelpiece. “Why this is a different pot, Mama. How pretty.”
“Yes it is, isn’t it? The Massinger girl brought it.” The Dowager wore the pleased smile of a young child. “Pretty.”
The white china urn was in the Japanese style, delicately painted. It was straight-sided, with a silver wire grid set in the top, the wire wound together into ornate patterns. Inside, Chloe saw the dusky jewel colors of the dried blossoms. She smelled the delicious fragrance again before placing a lid over it to preserve the aroma.
, and the collection of pots for its use, was Belinda’s hobby. Chloe thought one day soon, before she left Delamere, she should have the young woman share some of her knowledge. This particular pot was the loveliest yet, and it was kind of Belinda to put it in the Dowager’s room. As she turned it, however, Chloe thought it was not a very good design. The wires of the grid were set into the clay and clearly immovable. The mixture would have to be dribbled in. Time-consuming.
The Dowager’s voice broke into her thoughts. “That girl brought me something for my lumbago too. Amy,” she said to Miss Forbes, “show Stephen’s wife that stuff.”
Chloe went over to join the companion at a table crowded with jars and potions. Miss Forbes passed a wide-mouthed earthenware bottle to her, and she unclipped the cap to be assailed by the reek of camphor and turpentine.
“Ugh.” She hastily capped it again. “If smell is any indication, it must be powerful enough. Does it work, Miss Forbes?”
“I rubbed it in and it seemed to ease the stiffness, but Sophronia doesn’t like the smell. I’m sure it is effective, though. My mother used just such a mix for my grandfather.”
Chloe looked at all the jars and bottles. The numbers seemed to be growing every day. “Surely all this cannot be necessary.”
“Oh, it’s more like a collection,” said Miss Forbes comfortably. “Sophronia is very well most of the time, but she likes to talk of this and that problem, and Belinda always knows of a lotion or potion. Very kind of her really.”
Chloe looked at the collection doubtfully. “I leave it to your judgment, Miss Forbes. Please be careful with anything to be ingested, though.”
“Oh I am. And so is Belinda. She only ever gives such things as coltsfoot drops, or licorice cough lozenges. Quite harmless.”
“Do you think I should wear my red slippers, Mama?” said the Dowager suddenly in a girlish voice. Chloe glanced at Miss Forbes, who clucked.
“Certainly not, dear,” she said, as if speaking to a child. “Not with green.”
“But I like my red slippers.” The Dowager’s lips began to pucker and Miss Forbes hurried over to hold her hand.
“You shall wear them tomorrow,” said Miss Forbes firmly, and the Dowager sighed.
Then she smiled. “That’s right. That’s when Henry’s coming to call,” she said. “He may not be a duke but he is so distinguished.”
Chloe again looked questioningly at the companion. It seemed as if her mother-in-law was sliding into one of her bad times. Miss Forbes stepped aside to talk with her.
“She will be better in company, you’ll see, Lady Stephen. She’s so looking forward to new faces. If she is any trouble at all, I will take her away.”