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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: The Stanforth Secrets
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“Only if absolutely necessary,” said Chloe. “This is her home. We are so fortunate to have found you, Miss Forbes.”
The little lady blushed. “Oh no. I consider myself the one blessed. A comfortable situation, and treated with such courtesy. And Sophronia can be a very pleasant companion at times, great fun. What will happen, though, now the new viscount is here?”
Chloe heard real anxiety in the woman’s voice. It had never occurred to her before that Justin might want to change the Dowager’s situation. She would just have to make sure he had no such idea.
“Nothing will change,” she said firmly.
Miss Forbes relaxed. “Oh, that is such good news.”
As she returned along the corridor, Chloe hoped she could make her words come true. She could not believe, however, that Justin would be harsh with the harmless old lady, or try to send her away from her home.
Chloe went back into the main part of the house and scratched at a door, to be admitted by a pretty young maid.
Chloe went over to drop a kiss on the cheek of her grandmother, who was sitting before a mirror, delicately applying rouge to her withered cheeks. Her dressing table was also crowded with jars and bottles, but this time they were all creams, perfumes, and cosmetics.
“Prettying yourself up for Justin?” Chloe teased as she perched on the padded bench beside the old lady.
The Duchess poked her with a bony finger. “Wait until you’ve fifty more years in your dish, gel. You’ll take to the paint pots too so as not to look like a death mask. It’s your color, anyway, which sets me off.”
Chloe looked at herself in the mirror and her eyes twinkled. “This pink does suit me marvelously well, doesn’t it?”
The Duchess dropped the brush carelessly among the pots and turned to her granddaughter. “What are you about, Chloe? Fancy remaining Lady Stanforth now you’ve seen him again?”
Chloe hoped the extra color she could feel warming her cheeks was not obvious. “Of course not. I told you. No more Dashing Delameres for me. I’m looking for sober respectability.”
“Gone off, has he?” said the Duchess dryly. “He used to be a handsome rogue and I didn’t hear he’d got scarred or anything, though it was touch and go with his leg at one time I understand.”
“In ’08. He was in England for a while to recuperate, but he stayed in Essex with his sister. Stephen went to see him and said he’d grown stuffy.”
“Grown stuffy? He was mentioned in dispatches not long after he got back to his company. Anyway,” the old lady added slyly, “I thought stuffy was what you wanted, my dear.”
As her grandmother stood to have her black gown slipped over her head by the pretty maid—“I always wear black because at my age someone’s always dying. One ugly face in a room is enough”—Chloe considered the matter.
“After your words of wisdom, Grandmama, I’m not sure I want stuffy by my fireside for the rest of my life. Besides, it was Stephen who said Justin had sobered, and perhaps it was just pain and a brush with death, for he does not seem so very changed to me. No, I still seek dependability, and Justin is not so changed as all that. I’ll lay odds he’s still ripe for adventures. Why else would he bring Randal along?”
The Duchess’s shrewd eyes took in her finery again. “Then it’s not Randal you’re seeking to impress either, I suppose. Dependable ain’t the word for him.”
Chloe tilted her head thoughtfully. “I’ve never known him to let anyone down.”
“There’s a lesson for you if you’ve wit to see it. I always said the two of you were dashed alike, but don’t set your cap at him. I don’t hold with cousins marrying, and you wouldn’t suit.”
“Set my cap!” exclaimed Chloe, feeling flustered. “Grandmama, really. I’ll have you know I have dressed so smartly merely to impress upon everyone that I’m a fully grown woman who has not totally lost her attractions.” She ignored a disbelieving snort from the old lady and carried on, “I assure you, however, that I think of Randal as a brother, and Dashing Justin Delamere is the last man I will marry.”
The old lady’s shrewd eyes twinkled in her wrinkled face. “I hope whoever you choose is, my dear, or you’ll be regarded as a bit of a jinx. Come along, then. Let’s go and inspect the new Lord Stanforth. I can’t wait to see what he makes of all the Ladies Stanforth he’s inherited.”
4
C
HLOE THOUGHT JUSTIN looked a little dazed at times and glancing around at the women in the room, she couldn’t blame him.
There was something to be said for the fact the Dowager could still fit in the green gown, which must surely date from before Stephen’s birth, but it would have been improved by the hoops it must originally have had. Their lack, and some loss of height over the years, meant the gown trailed around her in a very hazardous manner. Chloe wished she had noticed earlier. She made a mental note to have all the Dowager’s clothes shortened. In a quiet word to Miss Forbes she reminded her to make sure the Dowager went nowhere near the fire.
At least the oldest Lady Stanforth had not attempted the high hairstyle of her youth, but had contented herself with a voluminous cap decorated with love knots of matching green ribbon.
By comparison, the Dowager Duchess of Tyne, in her smart black with discreet diamonds, looked positively decorous—if one ignored the rouged cheeks and tinted lips. After a startled look, Justin seemed able to do just that. He was slightly acquainted with the Duchess, as most aristocracy were with each other, and Chloe was pleased to see them both conversing in an unexceptionable manner.
Belinda, Lady Stanforth, widow of George, was officially in half-mourning, but insisted in holding to deepest black. Chloe was not sure of the reason, as the young woman made no pretense of grief. Perhaps Belinda thought black suited her, though it did not in fact enhance her rosy cheeks and gingerish curls. Perhaps she thought it gave her dignity, and established her place at the Hall. She could not be unaware of how peculiar most people thought it of George to have married her.
Justin treated her with perfect civility. “I am very pleased to meet you,” he said. “As there is a confusing number of Lady Stanforths, I wonder if you would permit me to call you Belinda, or Aunt Belinda if you would prefer.”
“Aunt Belinda, I think, Stanforth,” said the young woman stiffly, younger than the man she was addressing. Her voice was quite well-bred, though it still held a trace of Lancashire. She lowered her eyes as she added, “I would not like any impression of familiarity between us, us being of an age and living in the same house, perhaps alone together when Chloe leaves.”
Chloe stared. Was this nervousness, or was Belinda perhaps thinking she could remain Lady Stanforth? She had not thought the girl so foolish as to think Justin would marry her. She was aware of a spurt of outrage at the thought. She was also reminded of something.
“Justin. A letter came a few days ago from Humphrey Macy, Uncle George’s friend, asking leave to visit. Knowing you would be arriving soon, I put it on one side for you.”
“Humphrey Macy likes apples too,” said the Dowager in her piercing voice, causing a slight hiatus in the conversation.
“Most people do, Aunt Sophy,” said Justin after a moment, and Chloe admired his kindness to the older lady. “What would he want here?” he asked of Chloe.
“Well, he was here nearly all the time George was viscount, you know. He . . . er . . . well, to be straight about it, he says he wants to become better acquainted with Belinda.”
Belinda colored at this but did not appear unequivocally pleased. In fact, she looked a little alarmed, though her voice was calm. “He is a very pleasant gentleman, I’m sure. But old.”
This was accompanied by a glance at Justin, and a rather more cautious flicker of the eyes toward the glittering Lord Randal. Chloe saw that young man’s lips twitch, and resolved to have a word with him as soon as possible. It would not do for him to tease Belinda.
“No older than George,” Chloe responded pointedly. “They were at Harrow together.”
Belinda did not reply but her eyes shifted. She still looked worried, as she had since the mention of Humphrey Macy. She could be worried about her future, though George had provided handsomely for her and her daughter in his will. Perhaps, thought Chloe, Belinda believed they would use Macy as a means of forcing her out of Delamere. Chloe couldn’t help experiencing a twinge of guilt because, in a way, that had been exactly her purpose. She did think, however, that providing Belinda with a good second marriage would be a kindly act.
“Would you object to Mr. Macy visiting, Aunt Belinda?” Justin asked.
Belinda hesitated, and that confirmed Chloe’s suspicions.
With noble motives, Chloe pleaded the gentleman’s case. “There is no hurry, of course, for you to make a second marriage, Belinda,” she said. “And when you are ready, I am sure there will be no shortage of gentlemen wanting to offer for your hand. But the interest of a man like Mr. Macy is very flattering. He comes from an old family and is an intimate of the Prince of Wales. You would move in the highest circles.”
In a betraying movement, Belinda’s fingers rose to touch the frill at the high neck of her black gown. Then her hand was returned to its place in her lap. “No,” she said at last, looking down and turning her wedding ring on her finger. “I wouldn’t object. He probably wants to look at Dorinda. I know George wanted him for godfather. Perhaps we should have the christening while he’s here.”
“That would be an excellent idea, Aunt,” said Justin.
Chloe noted with admiration the clever way Belinda had divested Macy’s visit of any amorous intent. Ah well, if Macy wasn’t to her taste, there would be others. But likely not so eminent.
“Do you know,” said Belinda, with a slightly flirtatious smile at Justin, “I think it would be better if you called me by my name. Aunt sounds monstrous strange.”
The minx
does
have designs on him, Chloe thought.
“On the contrary,” said Justin with an implacable smile, “it so neatly delineates our relationship, doesn’t it?”
Belinda flushed and Chloe felt rather sorry for her. Her country wiles were no match for men like Justin. She hoped the girl had learned her lesson.
Perhaps not, for she retorted rather pertly, “And what then are you to call Chloe?”
“Chloe, I think,” said Justin with a mischievous light in his eyes as he turned to her. “If that is acceptable, cousin?”
Faced with this confusion Chloe retorted, “You may call me whatever you wish.”
Justin grinned, a wide grin that took her straight back six years, to a time of recklessness and blood-stirring excitement. She felt her pulse speed.
“May I?” he said. “How kind.” He strolled toward her and placed a finger beneath her chin, the better to study her features. “Dulcinea, perhaps. Queen Mab? Gloriana? Brilliana? Did you know,” he added lightly as he released her, “that Brilliana, Lady Harley, was so called because she was born in Brill?”
Chloe laughed out loud, her head light as if with champagne. “How disenchanting. What if she had been born in Flushing?”
Randal hooted with mirth.
“Or Dieppe?” suggested Justin.
“Rome?” offered Chloe.
“Brest?” shot back the viscount, and Chloe was amazed to feel herself blush.
Randal, damn him, burst out laughing again and was joined by the Duchess, while Belinda looked shocked in a mildly bewildered kind of way. Chloe, struggling against laughter herself, sought the words to put Justin severely in his place. . . . But for heaven’s sake, this was his home. . . .
Fortunately, at that moment, dinner was announced and the small party, five ladies and two gentlemen, went in for the meal. Lord Stanforth took in the two older ladies, Lord Randal the two younger, and Miss Forbes trailed behind.
 
 
Chloe thought that, for such a strange group, the meal went surprisingly well. The Dowager Lady Stanforth was in one of her better states and, apart from her deafness, presented no problem. Meanwhile, the most recent Lady Stanforth was generally quiet, and Chloe was glad to see that Belinda’s interest in the two young men did not bring her to act boldly. In fact, Chloe had to acknowledge that Belinda never behaved in a way to make one blush for her. If she were wise enough to leave this area, where no one would ever forget her origins, she would doubtless do quite well for herself. Chloe resolved, if Belinda was not interested in Mr. Macy’s suit, to encourage her to live elsewhere once her mourning was done.
Most of the conversation was between the Duchess, Chloe, Justin, and Randal, and it was witty and flowing. Apart from the considerable social expertise of the participants, there was plenty of ground to cover. Justin was eager for
on-dits
of society, and everyone else was keen to hear his amusing stories of the lighter side of the war, and his personal recollections of such heroes as Wellington and Sir John Moore.
BOOK: The Stanforth Secrets
6.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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