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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: The Stanforth Secrets
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A memory, long suppressed, rose up of her wedding night when Justin had disappeared, leaving Stephen and Chloe alone for the first time. She had felt abandoned. She had told herself at the time it was merely the strangeness of the moment that had brought on that feeling, and yet there was the other time . . .
Chloe resolutely turned her mind. Justin was not the man for her and he would be horrified by the betrayal of his cousin it represented. If she decided she wanted another husband, Chloe would seek one far removed in type and geography from the Dashing Delameres.
5
C
HLOE AWOKE THE NEXT MORNING feeling poorly rested and unsettled in her mind. She tried to plan her departure from Delamere, but made little progress. She told herself a brisk ride would clear the cobwebs.
She pulled on her dressing gown, rang for her breakfast, then took her accustomed seat at the small table by the window. Her bedroom, like the Sea Room, gave a view of the bay.
She had longed so much to escape Delamere, but now there was sadness in her. What a contrary person she must be.
She had meant to leave once George married Belinda, but the young woman had asked her to stay a while to put her in the way of things at Delamere. Being in deep mourning at that time, Chloe felt no particular desire to go elsewhere and had agreed. Her parents would have thought it their duty to offer her a home, but would also have expected her to submit to their direction. Her only other choice would have been to set up her establishment in some spa or quiet town.
When George died after only a few months’ tenure, there had been no question of her abandoning Belinda and the Dowager, not just for their sakes but for Justin’s if he should inherit. There was no knowing what would happen without an experienced person in charge.
Now Chloe was free to go and yet . . .
It was fortunate that her maid arrived with her tea and toast before Chloe could think herself into a decline. She ate her breakfast, watching a few tardy fishing boats catch the tide.
Despite the distraction of the scenery, her mind still tended to slip into disturbing pathways, so she took a sheet of paper and began to plan a small dinner for the local notables. If she carried through with her intention to leave Delamere in the near future, it would only be fair to introduce Justin to his neighbors before she left. She set the date for Thursday. Short notice, but it would do for an informal gathering. She was nagged by a desire to be away, a sense of danger to her plans if she stayed.
Chloe looked over the list carefully. Though Delamere was not a particularly large house, the viscount was undoubtedly the social leader of the area. Anyone incorrectly left off this list would take offense. Satisfied, she quickly wrote out the invitations and sealed them. As long as Justin approved, she would have them off straightaway.
Agnes returned and helped Chloe dress in her habit. Breakfast and positive plans had brightened Chloe’s spirits. The sun was shining and the wind had dropped. It was time to show Mercury, the horse who had thrown her, who was in charge.
In the entrance hall she encountered Belinda, holding a flower basket, followed by the nursery maid carrying a well-bundled-up Dorinda. Chloe looked at the babe, marvelling at the big blue eyes that stared up at her. If only she had borne a child. . . . Perhaps she should marry, after all.
“She is so beautiful, Belinda.”
“Yes,” said the young woman complacently, “and healthy. We Massingers breed well. My mother bore eight and lost only one.”
“A good inheritance. I’m sure the clean sea air helps.”
“It could be. The Prince of Wales is taken with his Brighthelmstone, they say. I try to take Dorinda into the fresh air every day. Today I am checking the roses. If there are any blooms suitable for display should I cut them?”
“Perhaps not,” said Chloe. “If Justin approves, I intend to hold a dinner on Thursday for our neighbors. If there are blooms left, it would be pleasant to have them in a centerpiece then.”
Belinda nodded and went on her way, but Chloe had noticed her tensing. An event with the local gentry would be a trial to her. Chloe shrugged. If Belinda chose not to attend, that was up to her but it would be completely improper for Chloe to exclude her from the evening.
Chloe popped her head into the breakfast parlor. Both Justin and Randal were there. She asked Justin about the dinner.
“I suppose I must,” he said with resignation. “Need it be so soon, though?”
“As soon as I have you established,” Chloe said lightly, “I can be on with my life. Now, I am for riding. Do you want to come?”
“I feel I should devote myself to duty,” said Justin with a grimace. Again, Chloe thought how unlike Stephen he had become. “I’ll spend the morning looking at the neglected correspondence. Can I not persuade you to assist me?”
For a moment, Chloe felt an absurd temptation to say yes. “Definitely not,” she said, with perhaps a little too much fervor. “You’ll manage very well, I’m sure,” she hurried on, “and Scarthwait can always be found if you need him. This afternoon I will be at your disposal, but this morning is far too fine to stay indoors. Randal? I believe we have a couple of horses would do you if you wish to accompany me.”
“With pleasure,” said that young man, rising. “If I stay here, Justin’ll try to drag me into his affairs, and there’s nothing I’d like less.”
Chloe was relieved to make her escape before she fell into folly. She hadn’t, however, been able to ignore a bleak look on Justin’s face. She felt as if she had abandoned him. She hardened her foolish heart.
As they walked down to the stables Chloe asked, “What on earth would you do, Randal, if Chelmly were to die and you became the heir?”
“Put a period to my existence?” he suggested. “My dislike of managing things is only one of many reasons I wish to God my brother would marry and get himself a nursery full of boys.”
“Surely you can find someone to suit him. After all, there is no shortage of ladies willing to marry the handsome heir to a dukedom.”
“None at all,” said Randal with a laugh. “It’s Chelmly who jibs. Heaven knows what he’s looking for, but he ain’t found it yet.”
They arrived at the stables and Chloe gave Garford, the head groom, the invitations.
“I’ll send the lad with them, if that’s all right, ma’am,” said the man. “He’ll enjoy a jaunt on a day like this and he’s reliable.”
“Very well. Mercury for me, Garford, and Dorset, I think, for Lord Randal.”
While Garford saddled the gray, Frank, the undergroom, led out a rangy chestnut gelding for Randal’s approval.
“He’ll do,” said Randal, eyeing the young man, who was decidedly surly.
With a scowl, the groom took the horse off to be harnessed.
“Pleasant individual, I’m sure,” remarked Randal.
“Oh, don’t mind Frank,” said Chloe, feeding an apple to Mercury. “He’s a good worker—been with us since he was a boy, and his father worked on the home farm. But he’s some kind of connection of Belinda’s, and he’s been in a strange mood ever since she married George. It must have put his nose out of joint. Fortunately she doesn’t ride and they rarely have to deal directly.”
Lord Randal looked at the sturdy, handsome young man. “Odd setup. I’m surprised he doesn’t find work elsewhere.”
Chloe looked at him. “Find work elsewhere? Randal, really. These people have been here forever. They consider going to Lancaster a mighty enterprise. When I found a kitchen maid an excellent position as undercook in Carnforth, it took me weeks to convince her to take it up.”
At that moment a fine Irish setter bounded into the stable yard and up to Chloe.
“Hello, Pepperpot,” she said, pulling its ears as it gambolled around her. “Want to run too?”
The dog clearly expressed its assent, then went over to inspect the newcomer. Randal allowed the dog to check him out and was soon accepted. “A fine dog,” he said.
“Yes, Stephen gave him to me but he’s not a town dog, of course. He deserves to get more hunting than he does here, especially now. Perhaps Justin will keep him, and take him out now and then.”
A few moments later, Randal’s mount was brought forward by the still surly Frank. Randal checked the straps and girth before dismissing the man, then tossed Chloe into the saddle of the gray before swinging up onto the bay.
As soon as they were out the gate, Chloe said, “What were you about? Frank knows his job and I’m afraid you offended him.”
“Be damned to that,” said Lord Randal. “If a discontented servant wants to play tricks, it will not be at my expense.”
Chloe laughed. “As if he would. It’s the sort of thing
you
would do, you mean.”
“Take care you don’t provoke me, wench,” said Randal. “I promise you, if I ever find myself working as undergroom in an establishment of which you are the lady, I’ll play you every trick in the book.”
They trotted along the coast road and down a path onto the sweeping sands of Half-Moon Bay, then they gave their horses their heads, even going down to splash along the shallows where the sea was beginning to recede. Turning, Chloe could look back at the reddish cliff with the Hall atop it, slightly obscured from this angle by a windbreak of high bushes.
When he pulled up, Randal exclaimed, “This is marvelous fun! I never realized how good it was to ride the sands.”
“Isn’t it?” said Chloe, her eyes shining like the sun-flecked sea and her color heightened by exertion.
She saw Randal stop and stare. “God, Chloe. You must be the most beautiful woman in England.”
Chloe was taken aback. “Don’t be silly. I do well enough—”
“Well enough! You’ll have the pick of the eligibles, now you’re on the hunt again.”
“On the hunt!” Chloe echoed. “I do wish everyone would stop harping on my next marriage. I have very high standards. Only a handsome, intelligent gentleman not too advanced in years, who is to be relied on in all matters of importance, would be even worthy of my consideration. Unless you know such a one, do not mention the matter again.”
Randal bowed slightly. “There is myself.”
Chloe looked at him in amazement. “Randal, is that an offer?”
“God no!” he said in alarm, which made her break out laughing. “Don’t scare me to death, Chloe. I merely point out that such as you describe are not rare. Justin would fit the bill too.”
“Just get that bee out of your head, cousin,” said Chloe firmly, “or I’ll accept your next flippant offer and make your life a misery.”
She turned Mercury’s head sharply and set him to the trot again, but Randal soon caught up, completely undeterred.
“In what way does Justin fall short? Think how convenient, too. You wouldn’t even have to change your stationery.”
Chloe began to wish her favorite cousin hadn’t come up to Delamere after all. If he took the notion to interfere, he was capable of anything.
She changed the subject. “Where’s Pepperpot gone?” They looked around. Finally, Randal spotted the dog at the base of the sandy cliff upon which Delamere stood. Pepperpot was pointing as he had been trained to do, clearly indicating something of interest among the rocks there.
“Race you!” called out Chloe, and was off.
They thundered over the dark brown sands toward the setter.
“What’ve you found, boy?” asked Chloe. “A dead fish? A gull?”
Randal was already off his horse and handed his reins to her. “I’ll just make sure it isn’t a wounded animal.”
The headland was twenty feet or so high at this point, and where it met the sand there were many rocks and boulders. Some were half as tall as a man and, piled together in places, they formed caverns. Having gained their attention, the dog dashed ahead, but it took Lord Randal a little longer to negotiate the rocks.
“Hold on, you damned hound . . . Good God!”
There was silence. Chloe wished she could abandon the horses to follow her cousin, but Mercury in particular was not to be trusted. Then Randal reappeared from behind a clump of boulders.
“It’s the groom, Frank,” he said soberly. “I’m very much afraid he’s dead, Chloe.”
“Dead.” Chloe was stunned. “But how? It’s scarce an hour . . .”
“Yes. It looks as if he fell off the cliff. There are any number of injuries, but I’m fairly certain it’s a broken neck that’s finished him.”
Chloe looked at the reins in her hands with impatience. “Come and hold the horses so I may look, Randal.”
He came forward but said, “Nonsense. He’s dead. There’s nothing to do here. I’ll stay. You ride back to the Hall for help. Who’s the local Justice? He should probably be informed.”
“Sir Cedric Troughton,” said Chloe automatically, offended by this high-handedness. “I don’t see what right you have to give me orders, Randal.”
Randal looked up at her. “You’ve become damned uppity, my girl. I can hardly ride off and leave you to guard the corpse, and there’s no point in your viewing the remains. So do as you’re told.”
BOOK: The Stanforth Secrets
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