Authors: Elizabeth Aston
Tags: #Single Authors, #Historical, #Holidays, #Romance, #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories, #Historical Romance, #Single Author
Other Titles by Elizabeth Aston
Mr. Darcy’s Daughters
The Exploits & Adventures of Althea Darcy
True Darcy Spirit
The Second Mrs. Darcy
The Darcy Connection
Mr. Darcy’s Dream
Writing Jane Austen
Mr. Darcy’s Christmas
The World, the Flesh & the Bishop
Children of Chance
Writing as Elizabeth Edmondson:
The Frozen Lake
Voyage of Innocence
Villa in Italy
The Art of Love
Night & Day
A Mountjoy Story
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Aston
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
Published by StoryFront, Seattle
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Cover design by Inkd
alentine stood on the deck of the
, ignoring the to and fro of the sailors as they docked the vessel. So this was England, the land of her birth, the land of her ancestors, the country that she had left as a small child and was now returning to at the advanced age of twenty.
She had been prepared for the climate; in India, everyone from England constantly spoke of the inclement weather as if they came from some benighted land, but England had remained a fairy-tale place in Valentine’s mind, full of magic and possibility. The reality was somewhat different, with dull grey skies and a steady drizzle. Far removed from the heavy monsoon rain she was used to, it seeped into the very seams of her clothes. Her hair, too long after the voyage from India, was frizzing and curling from the dampness, and by the time Mrs. Heron hurried on deck to bring Valentine to the cabin below, remonstrating with her for standing on deck in the wet so that she was soaked through.
Mrs. Heron said, “It will be a shocking thing if you mark your return to England by going down with a chill or some kind of fever. You have to learn to take care of yourself; you are not used to the cold and wet.”
It had been a long voyage and not a comfortable one for Valentine, who had discovered herself to be a poor sailor. To be confined at close quarters with a small group of other voyagers didn’t suit her at all, and she had found herself often exasperated beyond expression by her fellow passengers.
But that was all over. Here she was—the gangplank was being drawn up to the vessel, and at any moment now, her bandbox in her hand, she would walk down from the ship and stand on English soil.
There had been a little disagreement between Valentine and the Herons, the kind friends of her father’s who had escorted her from faraway India. She knew how long it would take them to get to their home in Dorset, and she didn’t want to put them to the additional trouble of having to escort her to her destination in London. It was ridiculous to suppose that she would not be perfectly safe on her own; this was London, not some village in an upcountry region where bandits might leap out to attack or garrotte unwary travellers.
She knew that argument would never win the day. This was a case for cunning. She would pretend that her hosts, Lord and Lady Mountjoy, had sent a manservant to meet her. Meanwhile, she must quickly make arrangements for the boxes and trunks that would be unloaded shortly from the hold of the vessel to be sent on to Mountjoy House.
Valentine knew just how to appear truthful and straightforward, especially when she was least so. She took matters into her own hands and bounced the Herons into a decision by embracing Mrs. Heron warmly, shaking Colonel Heron’s hands, and wishing them a good journey down to their house in Dorset. She left them arguing with an official about their luggage, and before they noticed her swift departure, she was out of sight.
She gave the necessary directions for the delivery of her boxes, although the port authorities seemed rather bewildered to deal with a single young woman, and they were inclined to ask whether her father or brother were not there to handle this.
Flushed with triumph at her eventual success, Valentine emerged from the custom sheds still unsteady on her legs, which were accustomed to the motion of the sea, and looked about for a means of transport into the centre of London. There was a hackney cab; it didn’t look very agreeable, but it would do. She had given her direction to the jarvie and was just preparing to climb in when a tall man appeared at her side.
He lifted his hat and said, “Do I have the honour of addressing Miss Welburn?”
She paused and looked directly at him; he had a dark countenance with a severe aspect, although she thought she could detect a glint of humour in his rather piercing grey eyes. “I am Miss Welburn, but I do not believe I know you.”
“I’m a friend of Colonel Heron’s. I’m here at the docks to bid farewell to a friend of mine, and Colonel Heron told me that you had made the voyage under his care. He thought you’d been met by a servant of Lord Mountjoy’s, who would escort you to Mountjoy House, but I happened to notice there was no such manservant with you.”
“You are right, and I congratulate you on your powers of observation. However, it is none of your business whether I have an escort or no.”
He bowed courteously. “True, but I would blame myself if, as a gentleman, I left a young lady to undertake the journey across London unattended.”
“You are being absurd. You have nothing to do with me, and I do not know why you suppose that this driver, who looks to me to be a perfectly respectable individual, will not do exactly what I ask him to do—and will pay him to do—which is to take me safely across London to Lord Mountjoy’s house.”
“Allow me to introduce myself; my name is Marbeck. I am well acquainted with Lord Mountjoy, and he would be angry with me were he to discover that I had failed to assist a young lady, his guest, in these circumstances. No, I will not prevent you from climbing into the hackney cab; indeed, I recommend that you do, for you will permit me to tell you that you have a very bedraggled appearance in all this rain. You look half-drowned.”
Valentine’s indignation was turning to anger. Who was this authoritative man who not only calmly planned to take over her arrangements, but was so ill mannered as to comment on her appearance?
“I beg you will not take the trouble. I do not need your assistance, I do not ask for it, and I do not believe that Lord Mountjoy cares in the least bit just as long as I arrive safely on his doorstep, as I surely will.”
Inside, the cab smelt fusty and stuffy. The dampness from outside seemed to have penetrated the interior of the carriage, and Valentine wrinkled her nose at the noisome atmosphere, wondering what sort of person had been the previous occupant of the seat. She didn’t care to take this thought any further, and instead peered out of the tiny window smeared with grime and rain.
Good gracious—that officious gentleman, Mr. Marbeck, had mounted what she had to admit was a rather splendid horse and seemed to be preparing to ride alongside the hackney cab. Valentine thumped back into the seat, still indignant, annoyed, and longing to give this persistent man a setdown, until her sense of humour got the better of her and she began to laugh.
ho the devil is that?” Lord Mountjoy said, as the sound of the door knocker resonated through the house. Disturbed in the nice arrangement of his cravat, he paused, then twitched it into place and stood up.
Nempnet, his valet, said, “Unusually early for a caller, my lord, and too uncouth and loud a noise to be a servant with a message.”
Downstairs, the butler went to the front door, a look of disapproval on his usually impassive face. Two curious footmen hovered behind him.
He stared in disbelief at the young woman who stood on the doorstep, far from fashionably dressed. Her hair was long and rather tangled beneath a hat that made him shudder. Her hand was raised, doubtless ready to repeat her performance with the knocker. Rigby made to close the door, but he was too late; the stranger had placed her foot in the way.
“I’ve come to see Lord Mountjoy. In fact,” she said, gesturing to a bandbox set down at her feet, “I’ve come to stay.”
Rigby’s eyes nearly started from his head, but he was too well trained to show more than a passing look of alarm, then distaste.
“His lordship is not at home.”
“In which case, I’ll come in and wait until he is.”
Lord Mountjoy said to his valet, “What the devil is going on down there?”
“Shall I go and see, my lord?”
“Yes. Although if it’s an unwelcome visitor, I can’t for the life of me think why Rigby hasn’t got rid of him.”
Two minutes later, Nempnet was back. “It is a young person, my lord. She claims she knows you and says she has come to stay.”
Lord Mountjoy and his valet looked at one another. Nempnet had been with Mountjoy since he was a young man, and twenty years in his service meant that he knew the many dark and rakish secrets of his lordship’s past.
But those times were surely a thing of the past. Lord Mountjoy was now a married man; a reformed man, in Nempnet’s opinion, although there were many of his lordship’s acquaintance who didn’t believe it for a moment, holding that once a rake, always a rake.
“Does this young person have a name?”
“She says she is a Miss Welburn, my lord.”
Lord Mountjoy clapped his hand to his forehead. “Did you say Welburn? Valentine Welburn? Good God, what is she doing here?”
“She is a young person of some persistence, Rigby says, but I daresay he will be able to eject her from the premises.”
“She isn’t a young person, Nempnet. She’s a young lady, whatever appearances show. She’s my goddaughter, but I can’t think what she is doing in England, in London, and on my doorstep. She lives in India.”
Shrugging himself into a well-fitting blue tailcoat, Lord Mountjoy descended to the hall.
Valentine looked up as he came down, and she dropped a curtsy, holding out her hand and saying with perfect politeness, “Lord Mountjoy? I’m sorry to arrive so early in the morning, but I think you are expecting me.”
“Good heavens, is it really you, Valentine?” Lord Mountjoy said, looking her up and down. The last and only time he’d set eyes on his goddaughter, she was a month old and protesting furiously as a wary parson splashed water over her head.
She gave him a wide smile. “Yes, I am Valentine. We have never been properly introduced except at the font, which of course I don’t remember. I hope I find you well.”
“Perfectly well, thank you, but somewhat surprised at your arrival, which is unexpected.”
Valentine removed her hat, and her hair tumbled over her shoulders. She shook herself, unconcerned by the eccentricity of her appearance. “I suspect you never received my letter. I sent it when I embarked at Bombay so you might know which vessel I was travelling on. But Papa said he had already written to you. Those wretched mails; probably both letters are at the bottom of the ocean.”
“I’ll have to ask my secretary, but I am sure that if any letter had come from India, I would have been informed of it. Have you only just arrived in this country? And on your own? No, don’t say anything more for a moment.” He instructed Rigby to tell the housekeeper to make ready a room for Miss Welburn and to bring some refreshments. Then he ushered her into the library, where a cheerful fire was blazing in the grate. “We shall be more comfortable in here; pray take a seat.”