Authors: Barbara Taylor Bradford
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For Bob, with all my love always
It often happens that a character springs quickly to life in my mind. A wholly formed person, whom I know intimately, is hovering there.
That happened with Emma Harte, Blackie O’Neil, and later on with Paul McGill, inA Woman of Substance. InVoice of the HeartI knew exactly who Victor Mason was when he was suddenly my mental companion. And inThe Women in His Life,Maximilian West came to me well formed. The man was a crystal-clear image in my head. I certainly knew Serena Stone when I started to writeSecrets from the Past, and told that story in her voice.
About six years ago the same thing happened, when suddenly a lovely young girl called Cecily Swann was dancing around in my head. I not only knew her intimately, but I also knew what her entire life was going to be. I also had images of DeLacy Ingham and Miles Ingham in my mind’s eye. I knew that Cecily would be friends with the Ingham siblings all of her life. I worked on the outline of the book and saw that the story was covering many years. I understood that it should be a series.
Unfortunately, other projects and books intervened, and I put the Cecily Swann saga on hold. But finally, two years ago, it came to life once more, and I started to work on it after I finishedSecrets from the Past.
Certain things changed in the storyline as I wrote the first chapter, but the house, Cavendon Hall, was born in all its wonderful glory and historical past. And of course the Swanns and the Inghams became real people to me, as I hope they will be to you.Cavendon Hallis the first book. In the sequel, you will be able to follow the ups and downs, joys and sorrows, of everyone you are now going to read about. I can’t wait to startThe Cavendon Women,and to revisit these fabulous characters. For me, when I begin a book, it’s like going on a great adventure. I never know what to expect. Or what’s going to change, as inCavendon Hall.The Swanns and the Inghams will tell their own stories.
The Beautiful Girls of Cavendon
The Last Summer
Frost on Glass
River of Blood
February 1916–November 1918
A Matter of Choice
THE BEAUTIFUL GIRLS OF CAVENDON
She is beautiful and therefore to be woo’d,
She is a woman, therefore to be won.
Honor women: They wreathe and weave
Heavenly roses into earthly life.
—Johann von Schiller
Man is the hunter; woman is his game.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Cecily Swann was excited. She had been given a special task to do by her mother, and she couldn’t wait to start. She hurried along the dirt path, walking toward Cavendon Hall, all sorts of ideas running through her active young mind. She was going to examine some beautiful dresses, looking for flaws; it was an important task, her mother had explained, and only she could do it.
She did not want to be late, and increased her pace. She had been told to be there at ten o’clock sharp, and ten o’clock it would be.
Her mother, Alice Swann, often pointed out that punctuality might easily be her middle name, and this was always said with a degree of admiration. Alice took great pride in her daughter, and was aware of certain unique talents she possessed.
Although Cecily was only twelve, she seemed much older in some ways, and capable, with an unusual sense of responsibility. Everyone considered her to be rather grown-up, more so than most girls of her age, and reliable.
Lifting her eyes, Cecily looked up the slope ahead of her. Towering on top of the hill was Cavendon, one of the greatest stately homes in England and something of a masterpiece.
After Humphrey Ingham, the First Earl of Mowbray, had purchased thousands of acres in the Yorkshire Dales, he had commissioned two extraordinary architects to design the house: John Carr of York, and the famous Robert Adam.
It was finished in 1761. Lancelot “Capability” Brown then created the landscaped gardens, which were ornate and beautiful, and had remained intact to this day. Close to the house was a man-made ornamental lake, and water gardens at the back of the house.
Cecily had been going to the hall since she was a small child, and to her it was the most beautiful place in the world. She knew every inch of it, as did her father, Walter Swann. Her father was valet to the earl, just as his father had been before him, and his great-uncle Henry before that.
The Swanns of Little Skell village had been working at the big house for over 160 years, generations of them, ever since the days of the first earl in the eighteenth century. The two families were closely intertwined and bound together, and the Swanns had many privileges, and were exceedingly loyal to the Inghams. Walter always said he’d take a bullet for the earl, and meant it sincerely.
Hurrying along, preoccupied with her thoughts, Cecily was suddenly startled and stopped abruptly. A figure had jumped out onto the path in front of her, giving her a shock. Then she saw at once that it was the young gypsy woman called Genevra, who often lurked around these parts.
The Romany stood in the middle of the path, grinning hugely, her hands on her hips, her dark eyes sparkling.
“You shouldn’t have done that!” Cecily exclaimed, stepping sideways swiftly. “You startled me. Where did you spring from, Genevra?”
“Yonder,” the gypsy answered, waving her arm toward the long meadow. “I see yer coming, liddle Cecily. I wus behind t’wall.”
“I have to get on. I don’t want to be late,” Cecily said in a cool, dismissive voice. She endeavored to step around the young woman without success.
The gypsy dodged about, blocked her way, muttering, “Aye. Yer bound for that owld ’ouse up yonder. Gimme yer ’and and I’ll tell yer fortune.”
“I can’t cross your palm with silver, I don’t even have a ha’penny,” Cecily said.
“I doan want yer money, and I’ve no need to see yer ’and, I knows all about yer.”
Cecily frowned. “I don’t understand…” She let her voice drift off, impatient to be on her way, not wanting to waste any more time with the gypsy.
Genevra was silent, but she threw Cecily a curious look, then turned, stared up at Cavendon. Its many windows were glittering and the pale stone walls shone like polished marble in the clear northern light on this bright May morning. In fact, the entire house appeared to have a sheen.
The Romany knew this was an illusion created by the sunlight. Still, Cavendon did have a special aura about it. She had always been aware of that. For a moment she remained standing perfectly still, lost in thought, still gazing at Cavendon … she had the gift, the gift of sight. And she saw the future. Not wanting to be burdened with this sudden knowledge, she closed her eyes, shutting it all out.
Eventually the gypsy swung back to face Cecily, blinking in the light. She stared at the twelve-year-old for the longest moment, her eyes narrowing, her expression serious.
Cecily was acutely aware of the gypsy’s fixed scrutiny, and said, “Why are you looking at me like that? What’s the matter?”
“Nowt,” the gypsy muttered. “Nowt’s wrong, liddle Cecily.” Genevra bent down, picked up a long twig, began to scratch in the dirt. She drew a square, and then above the square she made the shape of a bird, then glanced at Cecily pointedly.
“What do they mean?” the child asked.
“Nowt.” Genevra threw the twig down, her black eyes soulful. And in a flash, her strange, enigmatic mood vanished. She began to laugh, and danced across toward the drystone wall.
Placing both hands on the wall, she threw her legs up in the air, cartwheeled over the wall, and landed on her feet in the field.
After she had adjusted the red bandana tied around her dark curls, she skipped down the long meadow and disappeared behind a copse of trees. Her laughter echoed across the stillness of the fields, even though now she was no longer in sight.
Cecily shook her head, baffled by the gypsy’s odd behavior, and bit her lip. Then she quickly scuffled her feet in the dirt, obliterating the gypsy’s symbols, and continued up the slope.
“She’s always been strange,” Cecily muttered under her breath as she walked on. She knew that Genevra lived with her family in one of the two painted Romany wagons which stood on the far side of the bluebell woods, way beyond the long meadow. She also knew that the Romany tribe was not trespassing.
It was the Earl of Mowbray’s land where they were camped, and he had given them permission to stay there in the warm weather. They always vanished in the winter months; where they went nobody knew.
The Romany family had been coming to Cavendon for a long time. It was Miles who had told her that. He was the earl’s second son, had confided that he didn’t know why his father was so nice to the gypsies. Miles was fourteen; he and his sister DeLacy were Cecily’s best friends.
* * *
The dirt path through the fields led directly from Little Skell village to the backyard of Cavendon Hall. Cecily was running across the cobblestones of the yard when the clock in the stable block tower began to strike the hour. It was exactly ten o’clock and she was not late.
Cook’s cheerful Yorkshire voice was echoing through the back door as Cecily stood for a moment catching her breath, and listening.
“Don’t stand there gawping like a sucking duck, Polly,” Cook was exclaiming to the kitchen maid. “And for goodness’ sake, push the metal spoon into the flour jar before you add the lid. Otherwise we’re bound to get weevils in the flour!”
“Yes, Cook,” Polly muttered.
Cecily smiled to herself. She knew the reprimand didn’t mean much. Her father said Cook’s bark was worse than her bite, and this was true. Cook was a good soul, motherly at heart.
Turning the doorknob, Cecily went into the kitchen, to be greeted by great wafts of steam, warm air, and the most delicious smells emanating from the bubbling pans. Cook was already preparing lunch for the family.
Swinging around at the sound of the door opening, Cook smiled broadly when she saw Cecily entering her domain. “Hello, luv,” she said in a welcoming way. Everyone knew that Cecily was her favorite; she made no bones about that.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jackson,” Cecily answered, and glanced at the kitchen maid. “Hello, Polly.”
Polly nodded, and retreated into a corner, as usual shy and awkward when addressed by Cecily.
“Mam sent me to help with the frocks for Lady Daphne,” Cecily explained.
“Aye, I knows that. So go on then, luv, get along with yer. Lady DeLacy is waiting upstairs for yer. I understand she’s going to be yer assistant.” As she spoke Cook chuckled and winked at Cecily conspiratorially.
Cecily laughed. “Mam will be here about eleven.”
The cook nodded. “Yer’ll both be having lunch down here with us. And yer father. A special treat.”
“That’ll be nice, Mrs. Jackson.” Cecily continued across the kitchen, heading for the back stairs that led to the upper floors of the great house.
Nell Jackson watched her go, her eyes narrowing slightly. The twelve-year-old girl was lovely. Suddenly, she saw in that innocent young face the woman she would become. A real beauty. And a true Swann. No mistaking where she came from, with those high cheekbones, ivory complexion, and the lavender eyes … Pale, smoky, bluish-gray eyes. The Swann trademark. And then there was that abundant hair. Thick, luxuriant, russet brown shot through with reddish lights. She’ll be the spitting image of Charlotte when she grows up, Cook thought, and sighed to herself. What a wasted lifeshe’dhad,Charlotte Swann. She could have gone far, no two ways about that. I hope the girl doesn’t stay here, like her aunt did, Nell now thought, turning around, stirring one of her pots. Run, Cecily, run. Run for your life. And don’t look back. Save yourself.
The library at Cavendon was a beautifully proportioned room. It had two walls of high-soaring mahogany bookshelves, reaching up to meet a gilded coffered ceiling painted with flora and fauna in brilliant colors. A series of tall windows faced the long terrace which stretched the length of the house. At each end of the window wall were French doors.
Even though it was May, and a sunny day, there was a fire burning in the grate, as there usually was all year round. Charles Ingham, the Sixth Earl of Mowbray, was merely following the custom set by his grandfather and father before him. Both men had insisted on a fire in the room, whatever the weather. Charles fully understood why. The library was the coldest room at Cavendon, even in the summer months, and this was a peculiarity no one had ever been able to fathom.
This morning, as he came into the library and walked directly toward the fireplace, he noticed that a George Stubbs painting of a horse was slightly lopsided. He went over to straighten it. Then he picked up the poker and jabbed at the logs in the grate. Sparks flew upward, the logs crackled, and after jabbing hard at them once more, he returned the poker to the stand.
Charles stood for a moment in front of the fire, his hand resting on the mantelpiece, caught up in his thoughts. His wife, Felicity, had just left to visit her sister in Harrogate, and he wondered again why he had not insisted on accompanying her. Because she didn’t want you to go, an internal voice reminded him.Accept that.
Felicity had taken their eldest daughter, Diedre, with her. “Anne will be more at ease, Charles. If you come, she will feel obliged to entertain you properly, and that will be an effort for her,” Felicity had explained at breakfast.
He had given in to her, as he so often did these days. But then his wife always made sense. He sighed to himself, his thoughts focused on his sister-in-law. She had been ill for some time, and they had been worried about her; seemingly she had good news to impart today, and had invited her sister to lunch to share it.
Turning away from the fireplace, Charles walked across the Persian carpet, making for the antique Georgian partners desk, and sat down in the chair behind it.
Thoughts of Anne’s illness lingered, and then he reminded himself how practical and down-to-earth Diedre was. This was reassuring. It suddenly struck him that at twenty, Diedre was probably the most sensible of his children. Guy, his heir, was twenty-two, and a relatively reliable young man, but unfortunately he had a wild streak which sometimes reared up. It worried Charles.
Miles, of course, was the brains in the family; he had something of an intellectual bent, even though he was only fourteen, and artistic. He never worried about Miles. He was true blue.
And then there were his other three daughters. Daphne, at seventeen, the great beauty of the family. A pure English rose, with looks to break any man’s heart. He had grand ambitions for his Daphne. He would arrange a great marriage for her. A duke’s son, nothing less.
Her sister DeLacy was the most fun, if he was truthful, quite a mischievous twelve-year-old. Charles was aware she had to grow up a bit, and unexpectedly a warm smile touched his mouth. DeLacy always managed to make him laugh, and entertained him with her comical antics. His last child, five-year-old Dulcie, was adorable, and, much to his astonishment, she was already a person in her own right, with a mind of her own.
Lucky, I’ve been lucky, he thought, reaching for the morning’s post. Six lovely children, all of them quite extraordinary in their own way. I have been blessed, he reminded himself. Truly blessed with my wife and this admirable family we’ve created. I am the most fortunate of men.
As he shuffled through the post, one envelope in particular caught his eye. It was postmarked Zurich, Switzerland. Puzzled, he slit the envelope with a silver opener, and took out the letter.
When he glanced at the signature, Charles was taken aback. The letter had been written by his first cousin, Hugo Ingham Stanton. He hadn’t heard from Hugo since he had left Cavendon at sixteen, although Hugo’s father had told Charles his son had fared well in the world. He had often wondered about what had become of Hugo. No doubt he was about to find out now.
April 26th, 1913
My dear Charles:
I am sure that you will be surprised to receive this letter from me after all these years. However, because I left Cavendon in the most peculiar circumstances, and at such odds with my mother, I decided it would be better if I cut all contact with the family at that time. Hence my long silence.
I did see my father until the day he died. No one else wrote to me in New York, and I therefore did not have the heart to put pen to paper. And so years have passed without contact.
I will not bore you with a longhistoireof my life for the past sixteen years. Suffice it to say that I did well, and I was particularly lucky that Father sent me to his friend Benjamin Silver. I became an apprentice in Mr. Silver’s real estate company in New York. He was a good man, and brilliant. He taught me everything there was to learn about the real estate business, and I might add, he taught me well.
I acquired invaluable knowledge, and, much to my own surprise, I was a success. When I was twenty-two I married Mr. Silver’s daughter, Loretta. We had a very happy union for nine years, but sadly there were no children. Always fragile in health, Loretta died here in Zurich a year ago, much to my sorrow and distress. For the past year, since her passing, I have continued to live in Zurich. However, loneliness has finally overtaken me, and I have a longing to come back to the country of my birth. And so I have now made the decision to return to England.
I wish to reside in Yorkshire on a permanent basis. For this reason I would like to pay you a visit, and sincerely hope that you will receive me cordially at Cavendon. There are many things I wish to discuss with you, and most especially the property I own in Yorkshire.
I am planning to travel to London in June, where I shall take up residence at Claridge’s Hotel. Hopefully I can visit you in July, on a date which is convenient to you.
I look forward to hearing from you in the not too distant future. With all good wishes to you and Felicity.
Sincerely, your Cousin,
Charles leaned back in the chair, still holding the letter in his hand. Finally, he placed it on the desk, and closed his eyes for a moment, thinking of Little Skell Manor, the house which had belonged to Hugo’s mother, and which he now owned. No doubt Hugo wanted to take possession of it, which was his legal right.
A small groan escaped, and Charles opened his eyes and sat up in the chair. No use turning away from the worries flooding through him. The house was Hugo’s property. The problem was that their aunt, Lady Gwendolyn Ingham Baildon, resided there, and at seventy-two years old she would dig her feet in if Hugo endeavored to turf her out.
The mere thought of his aunt and Hugo doing battle sent an icy chill running through Charles, and his mind began to race as he sought a solution to this difficult situation.
Finally he rose, walked over to the French doors opposite his desk, and stood looking out at the terrace, wishing Felicity were here. He needed somebody to talk to about this problem.Immediately.
Then he saw her, hurrying down the steps, making for the wide gravel path that led to Skelldale House.Charlotte Swann.The very person who could help him. Of course she could.
Without giving it another thought, Charles stepped out onto the terrace. “Charlotte!” he called. “Charlotte! Come back!”
On hearing her name, Charlotte instantly turned around, her face filling with smiles when she saw him. “Hello,” she responded, lifting her hand in a wave. As she did this she began to walk back up the terrace steps. “Whatever is it?” she asked when she came to a stop in front of him. Staring up into his face, she said, “You look very upset … is something wrong?”
“Probably,” he replied. “Could you spare me a few minutes? I need to show you something, and to discuss a family matter. If you have time, if it’s not inconvenient now. I could—”
“Oh Charlie, come on, don’t be silly. Of course it’s not inconvenient. I was only going to Skelldale House to get a frock for Lavinia. She wants me to send it to London for her.”
“That’s a relief. I’m afraid I have a bit of a dilemma.” Taking her arm, he led her into the library, continuing, “What I mean is, something has happened that might become a dilemma. Or worse, a battle royal.”
When they were alone together there was an easy familiarity between Charles Ingham and Charlotte Swann.
This unselfconscious acceptance of each other sprang from their childhood friendship, and a deeply ingrained loyalty which had remained intact over the years.
Charlotte had grown up with Charles and his two younger sisters, Lavinia and Vanessa, and had been educated with them by the governess who was in charge of the schoolroom at Cavendon Hall at that time.
This was one of the privileges bestowed on the Swanns over a hundred years earlier, by the Third Earl of Mowbray: A Swann girl was invited to join the Ingham children for daily lessons. The third earl, a kind and charitable man, respected the Swanns, appreciated their dedication and loyalty to the Inghams through the generations, and it was his way of rewarding them. The custom had continued up to this very day, and it was now Cecily Swann who went to the schoolroom with DeLacy Ingham for their lessons with Miss Audrey Payne, the governess.
When they were little Charlotte and Charles had enjoyed irking his sisters by calling each otherCharlie,chortling at the confusion this created. They had been inseparable until he had gone off to Eton. Nevertheless, their loyalty and concern for each other had lasted over the years, albeit in a slightly different way. They didn’t mingle or socialize once Charles had gone to Oxford, and, in fact, they lived in entirely different worlds. When they were with his family, or other people, they addressed each other formally, and were respectful.
But it existed still, that childhood bond, and they were both aware of their closeness, although it was never referred to. He had never forgotten how she had mothered him, looked out for him when they were small. She was only one year older than he was, but it was Charlotte who took charge of them all.
She had comforted him and his sisters when their mother had suddenly and unexpectedly died of a heart attack; commiserated with them when, two years later, their father had remarried. The new countess was the Honorable Harriette Storm, and they all detested her. The woman was snobbish, brash, and bossy, and had a mean streak. She had trapped the grief-stricken earl, who was lonely and lost, with her unique beauty, which Charlotte loved to point out was only skin deep, after all.
They had enjoyed playing tricks on her, the worse the better, and it was Charlotte who had come up with a variety of names for her: Bad Weather, Hurricane Harriette, and Rainy Day, to name just three of them. The names made them laugh, had helped them to move on from the rather childish pranks they played. Eventually they simply poked fun at her behind her back.
The marriage had been abysmal for the earl, who had retreated behind a carapace of his own making. And the marriage did not last long. Bad Weather soon returned to London. It was there that she died, not long after her departure from Cavendon. Her liver failed because it had been totally destroyed by the huge quantities of alcohol she had consumed since her debutante days.
Charles suddenly thought of the recent past as he stood watching Charlotte straightening the horse painting by George Stubbs, remembering how often she had done this when she had worked for his father.
With a laugh, he said, “I just did the same thing a short while ago. That painting’s constantly slipping, but then I don’t need to tellyouthat.”
Charlotte swung around. “It’s been re-hung numerous times, as you well know. I’ll ask Mr. Hanson for an old wine cork again, and fix it properly.”
“How can a wine cork do that?” he asked, puzzled.
Walking over to join him, she explained, “I cut a slice of the cork off and wedge it between the wall and the bottom of the frame. A bit of cork always holds the painting steady. I’ve been doing it for years.”
Charles merely nodded, thinking of all the bits of cork he had been picking up and throwing away for years. Now he knew what they had been for.
Motioning to the chair on the other side of the desk, he said, “Please sit down, Charlotte, I need to unburden myself.”
She did as he asked, and glanced at him as he sat down himself, thinking that he was looking well. He was forty-four, but he didn’t look it. Charles was athletic, as his father had been, and kept himself in shape. Like most of the Ingham men, he was tall, attractive, had their clear blue eyes, a fair complexion, and light brown hair. Wherever he went in the world, she was certain nobody would mistake him for being anything but an Englishman. And an English gentleman at that. He was refined, had a classy look about him, and handled himself with a certain decorum.
Leaning across the desk, Charles handed Charlotte the letter from Hugo. “I received this in the morning post, and I have to admit, it genuinely startled me.”
She took the letter from him, wondering who had sent it. Charlotte had a quick mind, was intelligent and astute. And having worked as the fifth earl’s personal assistant for years, there wasn’t much she didn’t know about Cavendon, and everybody associated with it. She was not at all surprised when she saw Hugo’s signature; she had long harbored the thought that this particular young man would show up at Cavendon one day.
After reading the letter quickly, she said, “You think he’s coming back to claim Little Skell Manor, don’t you?”
“Of course. What else?”
Charlotte nodded in agreement, and then frowned, pursed her lips. “But surely Cavendon is full of unhappy memories for him?”
“I would think that is so; on the other hand, in his letter Hugo announces he wishes to discuss the property he owns here, and also informs me that he plans to live in Yorkshire permanently.”
“At Little Skell Manor. And perhaps he doesn’t care that he will have to turn an old lady out of the house she has lived in for donkey’s years, long before his parents died, in fact.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t know how to respond to you. I haven’t laid eyes on him for sixteen years. Sincehewas sixteen, actually. However, he must be fully aware that our aunt still lives there.” Charles threw her a questioning look, raising a brow.
“It’s quite easy to check on this well-known family, even long distance,” Charlotte asserted. Sitting back in the chair, she was thoughtful for a moment. “I remember Hugo. He was a nice boy. But he might well have changed, in view of what happened to him here. He was treated badly. You must recall how angry your father was when his sister sent her young son Hugo off to America.”
“I do,” Charles replied. “My father thought it was ridiculous. He didn’t believe Hugo caused Peter’s death. Peter had always been a risk taker, foolhardy. To go out on the lake here, in a little boat, late at night when he was drunk, was totally irresponsible. My father always said Hugo tried to rescue his brother, to save him, and then got blamed for his death.”
“We mustn’t forget that Peter was Lady Evelyne’s favorite. Your aunt never paid much attention to Hugo. It was sad. A tragic affair, really.”
Charles leaned forward, resting his elbow on the desk. “You know how much I trust your judgment. So tell me this … what am I going to do? There will be an unholy row, a scandal, if Hugo does take back the manor. Which of course he can legally. What happens to Aunt Gwendolyn? Where would she live? With us here in the East Wing? That’s the only solution I can come up with.”
Charlotte shook her head vehemently. “No, no, that’s not a solution! It would be very crowded with you and Felicity, and six children, and your sister Vanessa. Then there’s the nanny, the governess, and all the staff. It would be like … well …a hotel. At least to Lady Gwendolyn it would. She’s an old lady, set in her ways, independent, used to running everything. By that I mean her own household, with her own staff. And she’s fond of her privacy.”
“Possibly you’re right,” Charles muttered. “She’d be aghast.”
Charlotte went on, “Your aunt would feel like … a guest here, an intrusion. And I believe she would resent being bundled in here with you, with all due respect, Charles. In fact, she’ll put up a real fight, I fear, because she’ll be most unhappy to leave her house.”
“It isn’t hers,” Charles said softly. “Pity her sister Evelyne never changed her will. My auntwillhave to move. There’s no way around that.” He sat back in the chair, a gloomy expression settling on his face. “I do wish cousin Hugo wasn’t planning to come back and live here. What a blasted nuisance this is.”
“I don’t want to make matters worse,” Charlotte began, “but there’s another thing. Don’t—”
“What are you getting at?” he interrupted swiftly, alarm surfacing. He sat up straighter in the chair.
“We know Lady Gwendolyn will be put out, but don’t you think Hugo’s presence on the estate is going to upset some other people as well? There are still a few who think Hugo might have been a bit slow in coming to Peter’s aid—”
“That’s because they don’t know the facts,” he cut in sharply. “He did not have anything to do with it at all.”
Charlotte remained silent, her mind racing.
Getting up from the chair, Charles walked over to the fireplace, stood with his back to it, filled with worrying scenarios. He still thought the only way to deal with this matter easily and in a kindly way was to invite his aunt to live with them. Perhaps Felicity could talk to her. His wife had a rather persuasive manner and much charm.
Charlotte stood up, joined him near the fireplace. As she approached him she couldn’t help thinking how much he resembled his father in certain ways. He had inherited some of his father’s mannerisms, often sounded like him.
Instantly her mind focused on David Ingham, the Fifth Earl of Mowbray. She had worked for him for twenty years, until he had died. Eight years ago now. As those happy days, still so vivid, came into her mind she thought of the South Wing at Cavendon. It was there they had worked, alongside Mr. Harris, the accountant, Mr. Nelson, the estate manager, and Maude Greene, the secretary.
“The South Wing, that’s where Lady Gwendolyn could live!” Charlotte blurted out as she came to a stop next to Charles.
“Those rooms Father used as offices? Where you worked?” he asked, and then a wide smile spread across his face. “Charlotte, you’re a genius. Of course she could live there. And very comfortably.”
Charlotte nodded, and hurried on, her enthusiasm growing. “Your father put in several bathrooms and a small kitchen, if you remember. When you built the office annex in the stable block, all of the office furniture was moved over there. The sofas, chairs, and drawing room furniture came down from the attics and into the South Wing.”
“Exactly.And I know the South Wing is constantly well maintained by Hanson and Mrs. Thwaites. Every wing of Cavendon is kept in perfect condition, as you’re aware.”
“If Lady Gwendolyn agreed, she would have a self-contained flat, in a sense, and total privacy,” Charlotte pointed out.
“That’s true, and I would be happy to make as many changes as she wished.” Taking hold of her arm, he continued, “Let’s go and look at those rooms in the South Wing, shall we? You do have time, don’t you?”
“I do, and that’s a good idea, Charles,” she responded. “Because you have no alternative but to invite Hugo Stanton to visit Cavendon. And I think you must be prepared for the worst. He might well want to take possession of Little Skell Manor immediately.”
His chest tightened at her words, but he knew she was correct.
* * *
As they moved through the various rooms in the South Wing, and especially those which his father had used as offices, Charles thought of the relationship between his father and Charlotte.
Had there been one?
She had come to work for him when she was a young girl, seventeen, and she had been at the fifth earl’s side at all times, had traveled with him, and been his close companion as well as his personal assistant. It was Charlotte who was with his father when he died.
Charles was aware there had been speculation about their relationship, but never any real gossip. No one knew anything. Perhaps this was due to total discretion on his father’s part, and Charlotte’s … that there was not a whiff of a scandal about them.
He glanced across at Charlotte. They were in the lavender room, and she was explaining to him that his aunt might like to have it as her bedroom. He was only half listening.
A raft of brilliant spring sunshine was slanting into the room, was turning her russet hair into a burnished helmet around her face. As always, she was pale, and her light grayish-blue eyes appeared enormous, and, for the first time in years, Charles saw her objectively. And he realized what a beautiful woman she was, and she looked half her age.
Thrown into her company every day for twenty years, how could his father have ever resisted her? Charles Ingham was now positive they had been involved with each other. And on every level.
It was an assumption on his part. There was no evidence. Yet at this moment in time it had suddenly become patently obvious to him. Charles had grown up with his father and Charlotte, and knew them better than anyone, even better than his wife, Felicity, and he certainly knewhervery well indeed. And he had had insight into them, had been aware of their flaws and their attributes, dreams and desires, and so he believed, deep in his soul, that it was more than likely they had been lovers.
Charles turned away, realizing he had been staring so hard she had become aware of his penetrating scrutiny. Moving quickly, saying something about the small kitchen, he hurried out of the lavender room into the corridor.
And why does all this matter now? he asked himself. His father was dead. And if Charlotte had made him happy, and eased his burdens, then he was glad. Charles hoped they had loved each other.
But what about Charlotte? How did she feel these days? Did she miss his father? Surely she must. All of a sudden he was filled with concern for her. He wanted to ask her how she felt. But he didn’t dare. It would be an unforgivable intrusion on her privacy, and he had no desire to embarrass her.
The evening gown lay on a white sheet, on the floor of Lady DeLacy Ingham’s bedroom. DeLacy was the twelve-year-old daughter of the earl and countess and Cecily’s best friend. This morning she was excited, because she had been allowed to help Cecily with the dresses. These had been brought down from the large cedar storage closet in the attics. Some were hanging in the sewing room, awaiting Alice’s inspection; two others were here.
The gown which held their attention was a shimmering column of green, blue, and turquoise crystal beads, and to the two young girls kneeling next to it, the dress was the most beautiful thing they had ever seen.
“Daphne’s going to look lovely in it,” DeLacy said, staring across at Cecily. “Don’t you think so?”
Cecily nodded. “My mother wants me to seek out flaws in the dress, such as broken beads, broken threads, any little problems. She needs to know how many repairs it needs.”
“So that’s what we’ll do,” DeLacy asserted. “Shall I start here? On the neckline and the sleeves?”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” Cecily answered. “I’ll examine the hem, which my mother says usually gets damaged by men. By their shoes, I mean. They all step on the hem when they’re dancing.”
DeLacy nodded. “Clumsy.That’s what they are,” she shot back, always quick to speak her mind. She was staring down at the dress, and exclaimed, “Look, Ceci, how it shimmers when I touch it.” She shook the gown lightly. “It’s like the sea, like waves, the way it moves. It will match Daphne’s eyes, won’t it? Oh I do hope she meets the duke’s son when she’s wearing it.”
“Yes,” Cecily murmured absently, her head bent as she concentrated on the hemline of the beaded gown. It had been designed and made in Paris by a famous designer, and the countess had worn it only a few times. Then it had been carefully stored, wrapped in white cotton and placed in a large box. The gown was to be given to Daphne, to wear at one of the special summer parties, once it had been fitted to suit her figure.
“There’s hardly any damage,” Cecily announced a few minutes later. “How are the sleeves and the neckline?”
“Almost perfect,” DeLacy replied. “There aren’t many beads missing.”
“Mam will be pleased.” Cecily stood up. “Let’s put the gown back on the bed.”
She and DeLacy took the beaded evening dress, each of them holding one end, and lifted it carefully onto DeLacy’s bed. “Gosh, it’s really heavy,” she said as they put it back in place.
“That’s the reason beaded dresses are kept in boxes or drawers,” Cecily explained. “If a beaded gown is put on a hanger, the beads will eventually weigh it down, and that makes the dress longer. It gets out of shape.”
DeLacy nodded, always interested in the things Cecily told her, especially about frocks. She knew a lot about clothes, and DeLacy learned from her all the time.
Cecily straightened the beaded dress and covered it with a long piece of cotton, then walked across the room, looked out of the window. She was hoping to see her mother coming from the village. There was no sign of her yet.
DeLacy remained near the bed, now staring down at the other summer evening gown, a froth of white tulle, taffeta, and handmade lace. “I think I like this one the most,” she said to Cecily without turning around. “This is arealball gown.”
“I know. Mam told me your mother wore it only once, and it’s been kept in a cotton bag in the cedar closet for ages. That’s why the white is still white. It hasn’t turned.”
“What do you mean?”
“White turns color. It can become creamy, yellowed, or faded. But the ball gown has been well protected, and it’s as good as new.”
On an impulse, DeLacy reached down, picked up the gown, and moved away from the bed. Holding the gown close to her body she began to dance around the room, whirling and twirling, humming to herself, imagining herself waltzing in a ballroom. The skirt of the gown flared out as she moved.
Cecily couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She was totally speechless, gaping at DeLacy as she continued to swirl and jump with the delicate ball gown in her arms. Cecily was in shock, unable to do anything. She was afraid to grab DeLacy in case the gown was damaged in the process and so she just stood there cringing, worried about the lace and the tulle. It truly was a ball gown, full-skirted like a crinoline, and it would easily rip if it caught on the furniture.
Finding her voice at last, Cecily exclaimed, “Please stop, DeLacy! The fabric could get damaged. It’s so delicate. Please, please put the dress back on the bed!”
Now Cecily took a step forward, moving closer to DeLacy, who immediately danced away, put herself out of reach. She continued to clutch the dress to her body. “I won’t hurt it, Ceci,” DeLacy said, still whirling around the room. “I promise I won’t.”
“Stop! You must stop!” Cecily cried desperately, her voice rising. She was on the verge of tears.
DeLacy Ingham paid no attention to Cecily Swann.
She was enjoying herself too much, dancing around the bedroom, lost in a world of her own for a moment or two. And then it happened. The accident.
Cecily saw it start as if in slow motion, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
DeLacy’s foot got caught in the hemline of the gown. She wobbled. Then lost her balance. And reached out to steady herself. She grabbed the edge of the desk, still holding the gown. But as she grabbed the desk, she knocked over the inkpot. It rolled across the desk toward her. She stepped back but she was not fast enough. The bright blue ink splashed onto the front of the skirt of the white lace ball gown.
Cecily gasped out loud, her eyes widening in shock. Horrified at what had just happened, and frightened at the thought of the consequences, she was unable to move.
DeLacy looked down at the ink, her face stricken. When she glanced across at Cecily her eyes filled with tears.
“Look what you’ve done!” Cecily said, her voice trembling. “Why didn’t you listen to me? Why didn’t you pay attention?”
DeLacy had no answer for her. She stood there holding the dress, tears rolling down her face.
“DeLacy! What on earth’s happened?” Daphne exclaimed from the threshold of her sister’s room, and hurried forward, making straight for DeLacy.
DeLacy did not answer, quaking inside, knowing how upset Daphne would be when she saw the ruined ball gown. It had been chosen for her to wear at the summer ball their parents gave at Cavendon every year. Tears brimmed, and she swallowed hard, pushing back her fear. She knew she was in trouble. How stupid she had been to play around with this fragile gown.
“Why are you clutching the ball gown like that? My goodness, is that ink? How didinkget on the lace?” Daphne’s normally soft voice had risen an octave or two, and she was startled, her face suddenly turning pale.
When DeLacy remained silent, looking more frightened than ever, Daphne turned, her gaze resting on Cecily. “Can you offer an explanation? How did this mishap occur?”
Cecily, fiercely loyal to her best friend, cleared her throat nervously, not knowing how to answer Daphne without lying. That she could not do; nor did she wish to explain the series of events which had so unexpectedly taken place.
Her mind raced as she wondered what to say. Unexpectedly, she did not have to say anything, since her mother was now entering the room.
Cecily began to shake inside. She was well aware how angry her mother would be, andshewould be blamed. She had been in charge.
Alice walked over to join Daphne and DeLacy. When she spotted the ball gown in DeLacy’s arms she came to an abrupt halt, a dismayed expression crossing her face. Nonetheless, Alice was self-contained, and she said in a steady voice, “That’s ruined!It’s of no use to anyone now.” Glancing at her daughter, she raised a brow. “Well, what do you have to say? Can you please explain what happened to this unique ball gown?”
Unable to speak, her mouth dry, Cecily shook her head; she retreated, moving away, backing up against the window.
Alice was not to be deterred, and went on, “I gave you a task, Cecily. You were instructed to take the frocks and the ball gown out of the cedar closet in the attic. I asked you to look after them. They were in your care. However, it is obvious you didn’t look after this one, did you?”
Cecily blinked back the incipient tears. She shook her head, and in a whisper, she said, “It was an accident, Mam.” She was still protecting DeLacy when she added, “I’m sorry I let you down.”
Alice simply nodded, holding her annoyance in check. She was usually polite, particularly when she was in the presence of the Inghams. Then it immediately struck her that it was DeLacy who was responsible for this disaster. Before she could direct a question at her, DeLacy stepped forward, drew closer to Alice.
Taking a deep breath, she said in a quavering voice, “Don’t blame Ceci, Mrs. Alice! Please don’t do that. She’s innocent. It’s my fault, I’m to blame. I picked up the dress, waltzed around the room with it. Then I tripped, lost my balance, and knocked over the inkpot…” She paused, shook her head, and began to weep, adding through her tears, “I was silly.”
Alice went over to her. “Thank you for telling me, Lady DeLacy, and please, let me take the gown from you. You’re crushing it. Please give it to me, m’lady.”
DeLacy did so, releasing it from her clutches at last. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Alice. Very sorry,” she said again.
Alice carried the ball gown over to the bed and laid it down, examining the ink stains, fully aware how difficult it was to remove ink—virtually impossible, in fact.
At seventeen, Daphne Ingham was a rather unusual girl. She was not only staggeringly beautiful but a kind, thoughtful, and compassionate young woman with a tender heart. She stepped over to her sister and put an arm around her. Gently, she said, “I understand what happened, Lacy darling, it was an accident, as Ceci said. Mama will understand. These things do happen sometimes, and we all know you didn’t intend to do any harm.”
On hearing these words, and aware of Daphne’s sweet nature, DeLacy clung to her and began to sob. Daphne held her closer, soothing her, not wishing her little sister to be so upset over a dress, of all things.
Surprisingly, Lady Daphne Ingham was not particularly vain. She only paid attention to clothes because it had been drilled into her to do so because of her station in life. Also, she knew that her father could easily afford to buy a new dress for her.
After a moment, Daphne drew away. “Come on, stop crying, DeLacy. Tears won’t do any good.” Looking over at Alice, she then said, “Can the lace and the underskirts be cleaned, Mrs. Swann?”
Alice shook her head vigorously. “I don’t believe so, m’lady. Well, not successfully. I suppose I could try using lemon juice, salt, white vinegar—” She broke off. “No, no, they won’t do any good. Ink is awful, you know, it’s like a dye. And talking of ink, it’s all over the desk, m’lady, and on the carpet. Shall I go and find Mrs. Thwaites? Ask her to send up one of the maids?”
“That’s all right. I’ll ring for Peggy, Mrs. Swann. She’ll clean up the ink. None of us should go near it. We don’t want it on our hands, not when there are other frocks around.”
“You’re right, Lady Daphne. I was—”
“Mam,” Cecily interrupted. “I can make the ball gownright.I can, Mam.” Cecily turned around, stared intently at her mother, suddenly feeling confident. Her face was flushed with excitement, her eyes sparkling. “I’m sure I can save it. And Lady Daphne can wear it to the summer ball after all.”
“You’ll never get that ink off, Ceci,” Alice answered, her tone softer, now that she knew her daughter had, in fact, not been responsible for the ruination of the gown.
“Mam, please, come here, and you too, DeLacy. And you as well, please, Lady Daphne. I want to explain what I can do.”
The three of them immediately joined her, stood looking down at the white lace ball gown stretched across the foot of the bed.
Cecily said, “I’m going to cut away the front part of the white lace skirt from the waist to the hemline. I’ll shape it. Make it a panel that starts out narrow at the waist and widens as it goes down to the floor. I’ll do the same with the white taffeta underskirt, and the tulle. If the second layer of tulle has ink on it, I’ll cut that off too.”
“And then what?” Alice asked, gazing at her in bafflement.
“I’ll replace the panels of lace, taffeta, and tulle. It’ll be hard to find white lace to match the ball gown. You might have to go to London.”
In spite of her initial skepticism, Alice suddenly understood exactly what Cecily meant to do. She also realized that her daughter might have the solution. “It sounds like a good plan, Cecily, very clever. Unfortunately, you’re right about the lace, it will be difficult to match. I probablywillhave to go up to London. To Harrods.”
Alice now paused, shook her head. “There are several other things we must consider. First, a panel of lace that’s different from the rest of the overskirt would be extremely noticeable. Secondly, there would be seams down the front. They’d be obvious.”
“I’ve thought of that,” Cecily answered swiftly. “I can hide the seams with narrow ribbon lace, and sew the ribbon lace around the waist as a finishing touch.” She bit her lip, before adding, “Or we can make anewskirt out of new lace.”
“I understand,” Alice said. “But the new lace wouldn’t match the bodice. And don’t even think of trying to remake the bodice, Cecily; that would be far too difficult for both of us.”
“We don’t have to touch the bodice, Mam.”
“I think Cecily is right, Mrs. Swann,” Daphne said. “Her ideas are brilliant.” She gave Cecily a huge smile. “I believe you will be a dress designer yourself one day, like Lucille of Hanover Square.”
“Perhaps,” Alice said quietly. “I’ve always known Cecily had talent, a flair with clothes. And such a good eye.” Alice suddenly smiled, for the first time since entering the room.
Pragmatic by nature, and wishing to continue talking about the ball gown, Cecily now said, “The lace will cost a lot, won’t it?”
She had addressed Alice, but before her mother could answer, Daphne said, “Oh, you mustn’t worry about that, Ceci. I am quite certain you will be able to rescue the gown, and I know Papa will be happy to pay for the lace, and the other fabrics you require.”
Alice carried the ball gown over to Cecily, and gave it to her. She said, “We’ll go up to the sewing room now and put this on the mannequin, so that we can examine the stains properly. I’ll bring the beaded gown. It’s heavy.” Glancing across at Daphne, she said, “Will you join us, your ladyship? I think you should try on both of the dresses, so we can see how they fit.”
“I’ll be happy to, I’ll just go to my room and change into a dressing gown.” Turning to her sister, Daphne added, “I shall ring for Peggy, and once she arrives to clean up the ink, you can join us in the sewing room. She can, can’t she, Mrs. Alice?”
“Of course she can, m’lady,” Alice replied with a friendly smile, and then she and her daughter left DeLacy’s bedroom.
* * *
Cecily was relieved her mother was no longer angry with her. How foolish she had been, not trying harder to stop DeLacy, and DeLacy had been irresponsible, dancing around with the gown the way she had. They should’ve both known better. After all, they were grown-up.
“I think I’d better get the platform out,” Alice announced, walking over to the huge storage cupboard in the sewing room, opening the door. “It’ll make it easier for me to see the hemline when Lady Daphne stands on it.”
“I’ll help, Mam.”
Alice shook her head. “I have it, love, don’t worry.” She now upended the square white box she had pulled out, and pushed it across the room to the cheval mirror. Several years ago, Walter Swann had attached two small wheels on one side of the platform so that it was easy for his wife to move around.
At this moment, the door flew open and Lady Daphne came in wearing a blue silk dressing gown; DeLacy was immediately behind her older sister, creeping in, stealthily, almost as if she did not want to be noticed.
Cecily’s eyes flew to her friend, and she nodded.
DeLacy offered a smile in return, but it was a wan smile at that. The girl looked shamefaced, subdued, and even a little cowed.
Daphne glided over to Alice.
DeLacy, seemingly uncertain, hesitated, did not move, just stared at Cecily.
Cecily said encouragingly, “Let’s go and sit over there, Lacy, on the chairs near the wall.”
DeLacy inclined her head, followed her friend, but remained silent.
“Here I am, Mrs. Swann,” Daphne murmured, “I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“No problem, my lady. If you’ll just slip behind the screen, I’ll bring the beaded gown, help you get into it.”
Cecily felt sorry for DeLacy, and she reached out, took hold of her hand, squeezed it. “Mam’s not angry anymore,” she whispered. “Cheer up.”
DeLacy swiveled her head, looked at Cecily, and blinked back sudden tears. “Are you sure?” she whispered. “She was furious with me. I could tell.”
“It’s fine, everything’s settled down.”
Within seconds Daphne was standing on the wooden platform in front of the cheval mirror, and even she, who so lacked an interest in clothes, was impressed with the way she looked.
The blue, green, and turquoise crystal beads, covering the entire dress, shimmered if she made the slightest movement. It was eye-catching, and Daphne knew how well it suited her. Smiling at Alice, her bright blue eyes sparkling, she exclaimed, “It undulates, it’s unique.” She turned slowly on the platform, viewing herself from every angle, obviously taken with the long, slender column of beads and the magical effect they produced.
Alice was happy. The gown fitted this slender beauty as if it had been specially made for her, and also Daphne was finally showing an interest in clothes at last. Alice also realized how right the countess had been to choose this particular dress from the collection of her evening gowns and other apparel stored in the cedar closets. It was …wonderfulon Daphne. No other word to describe it, but then itwasa piece of haute couture from Paris. It had been made for the countess at Maison Callot, the famous fashion house run by the three talented Callot sisters, who designed stylish clothes for society women.
“The dress is most becoming on you, Lady Daphne,” Alice murmured, and went to stand in front of her. Very slowly, she walked around the platform, studying the dress, nodding to herself at times.
“The hemline dips in a few places; nothing to worry about, m’lady. That often happens with beaded gowns, it’s the weight of the beads. I’ll just put in a few pins where I need to adjust. It’s a perfect fit, Lady Daphne.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Alice.”
Cecily said, “There aren’t many beads missing, Mam.”
Alice swung her head, smiled at her daughter, and went on with her work.
Cecily sat back in the chair, watching her mother, always learning from her. Alice was now kneeling on the floor with a small pincushion attached to her left wrist. Every so often she put a pin or two in the hem, marking the exact spot for attention later.
Pins had a language of their own, Cecily was aware of that. It was a language her mother was going to teach her soon. She had made a promise, and her mam always kept her promises.
When Daphne finally got off the platform and walked toward the screen in a corner of the room, Alice beckoned to Cecily and the two of them took the bouffant white ball gown off the mannequin. Alice followed Daphne, carrying the gown. She was certain this would fit her too. It had been made at the same time as the beaded column.
Daphne emerged a few seconds later, looking so beautiful, so ethereal in the froth of white lace and tulle, that Cecily caught her breath in surprise. Then she exclaimed, “You look like a fairy-tale princess!”
Daphne walked forward, smiling. She swirled around, the skirts billowing out, and then swirled again, and nobody even noticed the ink stains, so entrancing was she.
“The perfect bride for the son of the duke,” DeLacy blurted out, and then shrank back in the chair when they all stared at her.
The phantom duke not yet found, Alice thought, and therefore no son to marry. But there will be one soon enough, I’ve no doubt. After all, she’s only seventeen and not quite ready for marriage yet. Still a child in so many ways. And such a beauty. But all of the four Dees are lovely, and so is my Cecily. Yes, they’re the beautiful girls of Cavendon, none to match them anywhere.
Alice stood there smiling, admiring them, and thinking what a lovely summer it was going to be for everyone … the suppers, the dances, the big ball, and the weekend house parties … a happy, festive time.
Although she did not know it, Alice was wrong. The summer would be a season of the most devastating trouble, which would shake the House of Ingham to its core.
“It’s extremely quiet in here, Mrs. Jackson,” the butler remarked from the doorway of the kitchen, surveying Cook’s domain.
“Did yer think we’d all died and gone ter heaven then?” Nell Jackson asked with a laugh. “I just sat down ter catch me breath before I start on the main course. Can’t cook it yet, though, not ’til the last minute. Dover sole is a delicate fish, doesn’t need much time in the pan.”
Mr. Hanson nodded and went on. “I’ve no doubt the hustle and bustle will start up again very shortly.”
“It will. Right now everyone’s off doing their duties upstairs, but they’ll soon be scurrying back down here, bringing their bustle with them. As for Polly, I sent her ter bed, Mr. Hanson. She’s got a sore throat and a headache. It’s better she’s confined ter her room until she feels better. I don’t want her spreading germs, if she does have a cold.”
“Good thinking on your part, Mrs. Jackson. Lord Mowbray is a stickler about illness. He doesn’t like the staff working if they’re under the weather. For their sakes as well as ours. You’ll be able to manage all right. It’s only three for lunch, with the countess and Lady Diedre in Harrogate today.”
“It’s not a problem, Mr. Hanson,” Mrs. Jackson reassured him. “Elsie and Mary will help me ter put the food on the serving platters, and Malcolm and Gordon will handle lunch upstairs with ease.”
“And I shall be serving the wine, and supervising them as usual,” he reminded her with a kindly smile. Then he nodded and walked on down the corridor, heading for his office. The room was one of his favorites in this great house, which he loved for its beauty, heritage, and spirit of the past, and looked after as if it were his own. Nothing was ever too much trouble.
Hanson had occupied the office for some years now, and it had acquired a degree of comfort over time; it resembled a gentleman’s study in its overall style. Henry had arrived at Cavendon Hall in 1888, twenty-five years ago now, when he was twenty-six. From the first day, Geoffrey Swann, the butler at that time, had favored him because he had spotted something special in him. Geoffrey Swann had called it “a potential for excellence.”
The renowned butler had propelled Hanson up through the hierarchy with ease, teaching him the ropes all the way. Starting as a junior footman in the pecking order, he rose to footman, eventually became the senior footman, and was finally named assistant butler under the direction of Geoffrey Swann. He had been an essential part of the household for ten years when, to everyone’s shock, Geoffrey Swann suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack in 1898.
The fifth earl had immediately asked Hanson if he would take over as butler. He had agreed at once, and never looked back. He ran Cavendon Hall with enormous efficiency, care, skill, and a huge sense of responsibility. Geoffrey Swann had been an extraordinary mentor, had turned Hanson into a well-trained majordomo who had become as renowned as he had been in aristocratic circles.
Sitting down at his desk, Hanson picked up the menus for lunch and dinner, which Mrs. Jackson had given him earlier, and glanced at them. In a short while, he must go to the wine cellar and select the wines. Perhaps a Pouilly-Fuissé for the fish and a Pommerol for the spring lamb which had been selected for dinner.
Leaning back in the chair, Hanson let his thoughts meander to other matters for a moment or two, and then he made a decision and got up. Leaving his office, he walked in the direction of the housekeeper’s sitting room.
Her door was ajar, and after knocking on it, he pushed it open and looked inside. “It’s Hanson, Mrs. Thwaites. Do you have a moment?”
“Of course!” she exclaimed. “Come in, come in.”
Closing the door behind him, Hanson said, “I wanted a word with you … about Peggy Swift. I was wondering how she was working out. Is she satisfactory?” he asked, getting straight to the point, as he usually did. “Is she going to fit in here?”
Agnes Thwaites did not reply immediately, and he couldn’t help wondering why. He was about to ask her if she was unhappy with the new maid, when she finally spoke.
“I can’t fault her work, Mr. Hanson. I really can’t. She’s quick and she’s efficient. Still, there’s something I can’t quite put my finger on … something about her doesn’t sit well with me.” Mrs. Thwaites shook her head, spoke in a lower voice when she finished, “She is a bit of a know-it-all, and argumentative.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Hanson replied in a pithy tone. “She did work at Ellsford Manor, and you did get an excellent reference, but then the manor is hardly Cavendon. It’s not a stately home.”
“Oh, yes, I understand that,” she answered, suppressing a smile. It was well known that Hanson believed Cavendon was better than any other house in the land, including Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Sandringham, all royal residences. “I have noticed there is a certain coolness between Peggy and the other maids. They appear to be wary of her,” Mrs. Thwaites added.
“Has Mrs. Jackson told you what she thinks of Peggy?” he asked, a brow lifting.
“Well, naturally Mrs. Jackson is pleased with her efficiency, her quickness. But in my opinion, she’s not exactly overwhelmed by her. It might be that Peggy is just not suitable for this house, a bit too outspoken and opinionated.”
“You’d better keep a sharp eye on her, since the maids are in your care, and are your concern, as the footmen are mine. And I also think two pairs of eyes see much more than one.” Hanson then left the sitting room, walked back to his office.
He sat at the desk for a moment or two, thinking about the situation in general. They were still missing a third footman, and if they had to let Peggy Swift go, they would be short a maid. This problem would have to be rectified by the summer, since his lordship and the countess had planned a number of events, and there would be weekend guests. Sighing under his breath, Hanson reached down, unlocked the bottom drawer, took out his keys, and went to the wine cellar.
A short while later, he was returning to his office, carrying two bottles of wine, when he ran into Walter Swann, husband of Alice, father of Cecily, and valet to Lord Mowbray.
“There you are, Mr. Hanson,” Walter exclaimed in his usual cheerful voice, smiling hugely. “I was just coming along to tell you that his lordship will make sure lunch finishes early today. He knows Alice and Cecily are joining us in the servants’ hall, and he doesn’t want us to be eating ‘in the middle of the afternoon’ was the way he put it. He wanted you to know.”
“Very considerate, I must say,” Hanson replied, glad to have this bit of pleasant news.
“I’ll go and tell Cook, and then I must get back upstairs. I’ve a lot of jobs for Lord Mowbray today,” Walter explained.
“I’ll see you later, Walter. I’m looking forward to having lunch with Alice and your girl. Everyone loves Cecily.”
Walter grinned and hurried toward the kitchen, where he hovered in the entrance, obviously explaining to Mrs. Jackson.
Once he was back in his office, Hanson placed the two bottles of wine on the small table near the window, and went again to his desk. He dropped the bunch of keys into the bottom drawer, glancing at the clock as he sat down in the chair. It was ten minutes to twelve, and he had a moment or two before he went upstairs to check on things. He looked down at the list he had made earlier, noting that the most pressing item on it was the silver vault. He must check it out, tomorrow at the latest. The footmen had their work cut out for them … a lot of important silver had to be cleaned for the parties coming up next month.
Leaning back in his chair, his thoughts settled on Walter. How smart he always looked in his tailored black jacket and pinstriped gray trousers. He smiled inwardly, thinking of the two footmen, Malcolm and Gordon, who had such high opinions of their looks. Vain, they were.
But those two couldn’t hold a candle to Walter Swann. At thirty-five he was in his prime—good-looking, intelligent, and hardworking. And also the most trustworthy man he knew. Walter brought a smile to work, not his troubles, and he was well mannered and thoughtful, had a nice disposition. Few can beat him, Hanson decided, and fell down into his memories.
He had known Walter Swann since he was a boy … ten years old. And he had watched him grow into the unique man he was today. Hanson had only seen him upset when something truly sorrowful had happened … when his father, then his uncle Geoffrey, and then the fifth earl had died. And on King Edward VII’s passing. That had affected Walter very much; he was a true patriot, loved his king and country.
The day of the king’s funeral came rushing back to Henry Hanson. It might have been yesterday, so clear was it in his mind. He and Walter had accompanied the family to London in May of 1910, to open up the Mayfair house for the summer season.
The sudden death of the king had shocked everyone; when Hanson had asked the earl if he and Walter could have the morning off to go out into the streets to watch the funeral procession leaving Westminster Hall, the earl had been kind, had accommodated them.
Three years ago now, May 20, that was the day of the king’s funeral after his lying in state. Hanson and Walter had never seen so many people jammed together in the streets of London. Hundreds of thousands of sorrowing, silent people, the everyday people of England, mourning their “Bertie,” the playboy prince who had turned out to be a good king and father of the nation. There had been more mourners for him than for his mother, Queen Victoria.
Hanson knewhewould never forget the sight of the cortège, and he believed Walter felt the same … the gun carriage rumbling along; the king’s charger, boots and stirrups reversed; and a Scottish Highlander in a swinging kilt, leading the king’s wire-haired terrier behind his master’s coffin. He and Walter had both choked up at the sight of that little dog in the procession heading for Paddington Station and the train to Windsor, where the king would be buried. Later they had found out that the king’s little white dog was called Caesar. They had wept for their king that day, and shared their grief and become even closer friends.
There was a knock on the door, and Hanson instantly roused himself. “Come in,” he called and rose, moved across the room. He touched the bottle of white wine. It was still very cold from being in the wine cellar. He must take it upstairs to the pantry in readiness for lunch.
Mrs. Thwaites was standing in the doorway, and he beckoned her to enter when she looked at him questioningly. As she closed the door and walked toward him he saw that her expression was serious.
Coming to a stop next to him, she said, “Instinct told me there was something about Peggy that wasoff,and now I know what it is that bothers me. She’s the type of young woman who’s bold, encourages men, lures them … you know what I mean.”
Hanson was startled by this statement and frowned, staring at her. “Whatever makes you say that?”
“I saw her just now. Or ratherthem.Peggy Swift and Gordon Lane. They were sort of … wedged together in your little pantry near the dining room. She was canoodling with him. I was coming through the back hall upstairs and I made a noise so they knew someone was approaching. Then I went the other way. They didn’t see me. Instinctively I feel that Peggy Swift spells trouble, Mr. Hanson.”
Hanson didn’t speak for a moment, and then he said, “There’s always a bit ofthatgoing on, Mrs. Thwaites. Flirting. They’re young.”
“I know, and you’re right. But I did see those two, and it seemed a little bit more than just flirting. Also, they wereupstairs,where the earl and countess and the young ladies could have easily seen them.” Mrs. Thwaites shook her head, continuing to look concerned. “I just thought you ought to know.”
“You did the right thing. And we can’t have any carrying on of that sort in this house. It cannot be touched by gossip or scandal. Let us keep this to ourselves. Better in the long run, avoids needless talk that could be damaging to the family.”
“I won’t say a word, Mr. Hanson. You can trust me on that.”
Daphne sat at the dressing table, staring at her reflection in the antique Georgian mirror. And she saw herself quite differently. For the first time in her life she decided shewasbeautiful, as her father was always proclaiming.
Unexpectedly, she now had a different image of herself, and it was all due to the two evening gowns she had just tried on.
She had been taken aback, even startled, by the way she looked in the blue-and-green beaded dress, that slender column glittering with sea colors, and also in the white ball gown. Even though this was stained with ink, it had, nonetheless, made her feel happy, buoyant, full of life, whilst the long, narrow dress of shimmering beads had given her a feeling of elegance and sophistication she had never known before.
Leaning forward, she studied her face with new interest, and saw a different girl. A girl a duke’s son might find as lovely as her father did.
She thought he might have someone picked out for her, even though he had never actually said so. But he was determined to arrange a brilliant match for her, and she was certain he would do so. Her father was clever, and he knew everyone that mattered in society. After all, he was one of the premier earls of England.
A little spurt of excitement and anticipation brought a pink flush to her cheeks, and her blue eyes sparkled with joy. The idea of one day being a duchess thrilled her. She could hardly wait.
Next year, when she was eighteen, she would come out, be presented at court in the presence of King George and Queen Mary, along with other debutantes. Her parents would give a coming-out ball for her, and there would be balls given for other debutantes by their parents, and she would go to them all. And after the season was over, there was no reason why she couldn’t become engaged to whichever duke’s son her father had selected.
A little sigh escaped, and she sat with her right elbow on the dressing table, her hand propping up her head. A faraway look spread itself across her soft, innocent face as she let herself float along with her romantic imaginings. Her mind was filled with marvelous dreams of falling in love, having a sweetheart, a true love of her own. A brilliant marriage. A home of her own. And children one day.
A sudden loud thumping on the door brought her out of her reverie, and she swung around on the stool as the door burst open.
A small but determined little girl with a flushed red face came storming in, heading straight for her. It was quite apparent the child was angry, and having a tantrum.
“Whatever’s the matter?” Daphne asked, going to her five-year-old sister, Dulcie, who was usually all sweetness and smiles.
“I don’t like this frock! Nanny says I have to wear it. I won’t! I won’t! It’s not for A SPECIAL OCCASION!” she shouted, and stood there glaring at Daphne, her hands on her hips, looking indignant.
Daphne swallowed the laughter bubbling in her throat, and endeavored to keep a straight face. Unlike her, who had always been offhand about her clothes, her baby sister had been concerned with her own from the moment she could express an opinion. Diedre, their eldest sister, called Dulcie “a little madam,” and in the most disparaging tone, and avoided her as much as she could.
“And what is the special occasion?” Daphne asked in a loving voice, crouching down, so that her face was level with her sister’s.
“I’m having lunch with Papa,” Dulcie announced in an important tone. “In the dining room.”
“Oh, isn’t that lovely, darling. I am too, and so is DeLacy.”
Dulcie gaped at her, a frown knotting her blond brows. “Nanny saidIwas having lunch with Papa. She didn’t say you were, and DeLacy.”
“Well, wewillbe there. But I do have to agree with you about the dress,” Daphne now said quickly, wanting to placate the angry child. “It simply isn’t appropriate, not for lunch with Papa. You’re absolutely right. Let’s go and find something more suitable, shall we?”
Instantly the stormy expression fled, and a bright smile flooded Dulcie’s face. “I knew I was right,” she exclaimed, and took hold of Daphne’s hand, her normal happy demeanor in place.
Together the two sisters went down the corridor to the stairs leading up to the nursery floor. At one moment, Daphne leaned down, and said softly, “You must be grown-up about this. Just tell Nanny you do like this dress, but that it’s not quite nice enough for the special lunch. And you can say I agree with you.”
“You must say it sweetly, you mustn’t be rude, or angry,” Daphne cautioned as they mounted the stairs together.
“I’m not angry, not now,” Dulcie murmured, looking up at her adored Daphne, her favorite sister. She liked DeLacy, and they were good friends, but she was wary of Diedre. Her eldest sister constantly looked and sounded annoyed with her, and this puzzled and worried the child.
Nanny was waiting in the doorway of the nursery, and exclaimed, “I was just coming to look for you, Dulcie!”
Dulcie was silent.
Daphne said swiftly, not wanting the nanny to scold, “I think we’ve solved the problem.” She smiled warmly, then gave the nanny a knowing look, and added, “It’s not often Dulcie has lunch with Papa, and it’s, well, rather a special occasion for her. And I do think she could wear a more appropriate dress. Something perhaps a little smarter. I’m sure you agree?”
“Of course, Lady Daphne, whatever you think is best.” The nanny opened the door wider, and they all went into the nursery sitting room.
Dulcie explained, in an earnest tone, her expression solemn, “I do like this frock, Nanny, but I really want to wear the blue one with the white collar. Can I?”
“Of course you can, Dulcie. Let’s go and look at it, and won’t you join us, Lady Daphne?”
“I certainly will.”
Dulcie was already halfway across the floor, making for her bedroom. “Come on, Daphne, come and look at my best frock. Mrs. Alice made it for me.”
As she followed her sister, Daphne smiled to herself. She had long ago learned that the best way to handle her rather stubborn and independent youngest sister was to immediately agree with her, and then negotiate.
* * *
“Oh, there you are, Hanson,” Lord Mowbray said, walking into the dining room. “I was just about to ring for you. Dulcie is joining us for lunch today, a special treat for the child. So would you please add another place setting.”
Hanson inclined his head. “Of course, my lord.” He excused himself and hurried into the adjoining pantry.
The earl swung on his heels and returned to the library, where he sat down at his desk and perused the list of guests he and Felicity were planning to invite to the annual summer ball in July. He added a few more names, and then sat back, pondering, wondering who had been left out, who they may have forgotten.
It was at this moment that he saw a pair of bright blue eyes staring at him. They were just visible above the edge of the huge partners desk. Then a moment later the whole face appeared, and he knew Dulcie was standing on her tiptoes.
She said, “I am here, Papa.”
“So I see,” he responded, laughing. “So come along, Dulcie, let me have a look at you.”
She did as he asked and he swung around in his chair and held out his hands to her. “You look very lovely this morning.”
“Thank you, Papa. Mrs. Alice made this frock for me. It’s new. It’s my favorite.”
“I can see why,” Charles answered, pulling her to him, bringing her closer. She truly was the most lovely child, with her almost violet eyes, and mass of blond curls. Her pretty little face was still plump with baby fat, and she reminded him of a Botticelli angel. But one with a will of iron, he reminded himself. None of his other daughters were as stubborn.
Dulcie leaned against his knee, and looked up into his face. “Can I have a horse?”
Her request startled him. “Why a horse? Isn’t a horse a bit large for you, darling?”
“No, I’m growing up fast, Nanny says.”
“I agree, but you’re still not quite ready.”
“But I can ride, Papa.”
“I know, and you’ve enjoyed your little Shetland pony. I have an idea. I shall buy you a new pony. A better pony. Just until you can handle a horse better, when you’re a bit older.”
Dulcie flushed with happiness at this suggestion, and nodded. “Thank you, Papa! What shall I call my new pony?”
“I’m sure you will think of the right name. In the meantime, we must join your sisters for lunch, and by the way, let’s keep the new pony a secret, shall we?”
“Oh yes. It’soursecret, Papa.”
She clung to his hand as they went out of the library together. I do spoil her, Charles thought. But I just can’t help it. She’s the most adorable child. As they crossed the vast hall together, hand in hand, Daphne and DeLacy were hurrying down the grand staircase.
Both girls ran to greet him, and then DeLacy bent down, kissed her little sister on the cheek. “I like your dress, Dulcie,” she murmured, smoothing a loving hand over the child’s golden curls.
Dulcie smiled back and opened her mouth to speak, and then immediately closed it. The news about the new pony was a secret, her Papa had said, and she must keep it.
After the special lunch, as Dulcie called it, the five-year-old was taken back to the nursery by DeLacy. Their father went off to the library to finish his correspondence, and Daphne, with nothing to do, decided to walk over to Havers Lodge.
The Tudor manor house was on the other side of the bluebell woods, and was the home of the Torbett family, old friends of the Inghams. Daphne and her sisters had grown up with the three Torbett sons, Richard, Alexander, and Julian. It was nineteen-year-old Julian who was Daphne’s favorite; they had been childhood friends, and were still close.
Crossing the small stone bridge over the stream, she glanced up at the sky. It was a lovely cerulean blue, and cloudless, filled with glittering sunlight. This pleased her. The weather in Yorkshire was unpredictable, and it could so easily rain. Fortunately, the dark clouds which usually heralded heavy downpours were absent.
There was a breeze, a nip in the air, despite the brightness of the sunshine, and she was glad she had put on a hat, as well as a jacket over her gray wool skirt and matching silk blouse. She snuggled down into the jacket, slipped her hands in her pockets, walking at a steady pace.
Julian wasn’t expecting her this afternoon, but he would be at the manor house. He always practiced dressage on Saturdays. He was a fine equestrian, loved horses, and aimed to join a cavalry regiment in the British army. In fact, his heart had been set on it since he was a young boy. He would be going to Sandhurst at the end of the summer, and he was thrilled he had been accepted by this famous military academy. He had once told her that he aimed to be a general, and she had no doubt he would be, in years to come.
Daphne wanted to tell Julian that her father had given her permission, over lunch today, to invite Madge Courtney to the summer ball at Cavendon. The Torbetts always came, and were naturally invited again this year. Her father had now thought it only proper and correct to include Madge. She and Julian were unofficially engaged, and when he graduated from Sandhurst, several years from now, they would be married.
Off in the distance in the long meadow, Daphne saw the gypsy girl, Genevra. She was waving; Daphne waved back, then veered to the left, walking into the bluebell woods, which she loved.
They were filled with old oaks and sycamores and many other species, magnificent tall trees reaching to the sky. There were stretches of bright green grass and mossy mounds beneath them and bushes that were bright with berries in the winter, others which flowered only in the spring.
A stream trickled through one side of the woods. Rushes and weeds grew there, and when she was a child she had parted them, peered into the clear pools of the water, seen tadpoles and tiddlers swimming. And sometimes frogs had jumped out and surprised her and her sisters.
Occasionally Daphne had seen a heron standing in the stream, a tall and elegant bird that seemed oddly out of place. She looked for it now, but it was not there. Scatterings of flowers could be found around the stream, and in amongst the roots and foliage. And of course there were the bluebells, great swathes now starting to bloom under the trees; they made her catch her breath in delight.
All kinds of small animals made their homes in the woods … down holes, in tree trunks, under bushes. Little furry creatures such as voles and dormice, the common field mouse and squirrels … she had never been afraid of them, loved them all. But most precious to her were the birds, especially the goldfinch. She had learned a lot about nature from Great-Aunt Gwendolyn, who had grown up at Cavendon, and it was she who had told her that a flock of goldfinches was called a “charm.” The little birds made tinkling calls that were bell-like and pretty. Her great-aunt told her they actually sang in harmony, and she believed her aunt.
Once, her mother had called the tops of the tall trees a “shady canopy” where their branches interlocked, and Daphne had used that phrase ever since. Bits of blue sky were visible today and long shafts of sunlight filtered through that lovely leafy canopy above her.
Their land was beautiful and she knew how lucky they were to live on it. Just to the left of these woods were the moors that stretched endlessly along the rim of the horizon. Implacable and daunting in winter, they were lovely in the late summer when the heather bloomed, a sea of purple stretching almost to the sea.
But as a family most of their time outdoors had been spent in the woods, where they had picnics in the summer. “Because of the shade, you know,” Great-Aunt Gwendolyn would explain to their guests. She was a genuine stoic, the way she cheerfully trudged along with them, determined never to miss the woodland feasts or any of their other activities. And the ball was her favorite event, one she would not miss for the world, she would say, explaining she never had, since being a young woman. “I was always the belle of the ball, you know,” she would add.
Daphne’s thoughts settled on the summer ball. For a split second, she thought of the ink stains, and the image of herself in the gown was spoiled. Then almost in an instant it was gone, obliterated. She was absolutely confident Cecily would make the gown as good as new, and shewouldwear it after all.
Over lunch, DeLacy had told their father about the terrible accident with the ink, which had been her fault. He had been understanding, and he had not chastised DeLacy. Although he had said she should have known better than to play around with a valuable gown.
The one thing he had focused on was the way Cecily had behaved, how she had been willing to take the blame to protect DeLacy. “She is a true Swann, instantly ready to stand in front of an Ingham. Remember our motto, DeLacy,Loyalty binds me. It is their motto as well. The Inghams and the Swanns are linked forever.”
It is true, Daphne thought. It always has been thus and it always will be. And then she stared ahead as the trees thinned, and she found herself crossing the road and walking onto Torbett land.
* * *
Daphne approached Havers Lodge from the back of the house, and she couldn’t help thinking how glorious it looked today. Its pale, pinkish bricks were warm and welcoming in the sunlight. The Elizabethan architecture was splendid, and there were many windows and little turrets, as there always were in traditional Tudor houses. And some privet hedges were cut in topiary designs.
The long stretch of manicured lawn was intersected by a path of huge limestone paving stones, which led up to the terrace. Once she reached this, she turned the corner on the right, and walked toward the front door. It was made of heavy oak, banded in iron.
She had only dropped the iron knocker once when the door opened. Williams, the Torbetts’ butler, was standing there, and he smiled when he saw her.
“Lady Daphne! Good afternoon. Will you come in, please, m’lady.”
She inclined her head. “Thank you. Good afternoon, Williams.”
After he had closed the door, he said, “Shall I tell Mrs. Torbett you are here? Forgive me, but is she expecting you, my lady?”
“No, she’s not, Williams. I stopped by to see Mr. Julian. If you would be so kind as to let him know I’m here.”
“Oh dear! He’s gone out, Lady Daphne. He didn’t say how long he’d be. But he didn’t go riding. I saw him walking.”
Daphne gave the butler a warm smile. “Just tell him I was here, Williams. And please ask him to come over to Cavendon in the next few days. It’s nothing important, just an invitation I want to extend.”
“I will, m’lady.” The butler walked her to the door and saw her out, and he couldn’t help thinking she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Going to marry a duke’s son, she was. At least, that was what he had heard.
Daphne had been walking along the woodland path for only a few minutes when she heard a strange rustling sound. Looking around, she saw nothing unusual, and simply shrugged and went on at her usual pace. Squirrels playing, she thought, and then came to a sudden stop when she saw the heron at the edge of the stream, standing high on its tall legs in the shallow water. It was such an elegant-looking bird.
A smile of delight flitted across her face. This was such an odd place for it to visit. She couldn’t help wondering why it kept coming back, but then perhaps it liked the stream and the woodland setting. Maybe it feels at home—
This thought was cut off when something hard struck her back, just between her shoulder blades. She pitched forward, hitting her head against a log as she fell to the ground. She lay still for a moment, stunned and overcome by dizziness. Realizing she had been attacked by someone, she endeavored to stand up; she managed to get onto her knees, was about to scramble to her feet, when she was unexpectedly pinned to the ground from behind, and with brute force.
She struggled to free herself but the weight on top of her was heavy, and then she was suddenly turned over somewhat roughly, and laid on her back.
Daphne stared up at her attacker, the man who was pinning her down with such strong arms. He had wrapped a dark gray scarf around his head and face, and all she could see were his eyes. They were hard, cruel, and because of the scarf she had no idea who he was. And she was terrified.
Understanding that she had no chance of escaping him, she began to shake, apprehension overwhelming her. In one last valiant effort, she pushed at him hard, but it was impossible to throw him off.
When he brought his hand close to her neck, she cringed and held herself still. She thought he was going to strangle her. Instead he ripped the front of her blouse and bent over her; he found her breasts, began to fondle and then pinch one of them harder and harder. He hurt her, and she screamed. This he immediately stopped by putting his hand over her mouth. With the other he lifted her skirt.
Rigid with fear, knowing there was no escaping him, understanding his intentions, Daphne snapped her eyes shut and prayed to God he would not kill her when he was finished with her.
He raped her.
The wild, rampaging man forced himself on her again and again. He was hurting her; pain flowed through her and she felt as though her insides were being ripped apart. She knew that to scream again would be useless, and gritted her teeth, turned her head to one side, straining away from him. There was nothing else she could do … except to shut it out.
All of a sudden the man began to move against her very quickly, shuddering and gasping. With a long groan he finally stopped moving, fell against her, all of his weight on her. And his body went limp.
In that instant Daphne seized the moment. She reached up, grabbed at the scarf around his face, tugged at it hard. When it came away, and she saw his face, she gaped at him in astonishment, horror, and disbelief.
The man who had just raped her was Richard Torbett, Julian’s older brother. Still stunned by the violent attack, aghast that someone she knew had done this to her, she was unable to speak.
As for Torbett, he was infuriated that his identity had been revealed. Bright color flooded his face as anger took hold of him.
He leaned down, brought his head close to hers. Against her ear, he hissed, “Speak of this to anyone andtheywill be killed. Your baby sister and your mother. I know men who’ll do the job for a few pounds. Not one word. Understand?”
Shock and genuine fear rendered Daphne speechless. She could only nod.
He pushed himself to his feet, stood looking down at her. “Remember, keep your mouth shut.”
Daphne closed her eyes. She heard him rustling through the bushes, obviously not wanting to be seen on the path. She felt as though her whole body had been bludgeoned. And so she lay very still, trying to breathe normally, hoping to get her strength back, wondering if she would be able to walk. She wasn’t even sure she could get up. Tears seeped from underneath her eyelids and trickled down her cheeks, as she continued to lie there dazed, unable to focus, hurting all over. He would not return, of that she was certain. He had taken what he wanted.
* * *
Daphne felt a gentle finger on her face, smoothing away the tears, and then a voice was saying her name. “Lady Daphne, Lady Daphne.”
She opened her eyes and saw the gypsy girl kneeling next to her, looking concerned.
“Genevra,” Daphne said, endeavoring to sit up.
The girl offered her hand, and helped Daphne into a sitting position. She said, “Come on … let’s go, m’lady. Dark clouds. Mebbe rain.”
With a bit of effort, Daphne managed to get to her feet, and immediately straightened her clothes, pulling her jacket around her torn blouse. Genevra handed Daphne her hat, which had fallen off in the struggle, and she put it on her head. Then she limped back to Cavendon, helped by Genevra all the way. When they came to the end of the woods, Genevra stopped, and gave Daphne a penetrating look. She said, “Yer fell down, my lady.”
Daphne stared at her, puzzled. She frowned at the gypsy girl.
Genevra said again, “Yer fell down, Lady Daphne. That’s wot ’appened ter yer.”
Daphne nodded. “I fell down,” she repeated, and realized immediately that Genevra had witnessed the attack on her. She shriveled inside at the thought, a shocked look on her face.
The Romany nodded, swung around, and pointed toward Cavendon on the hill. “Go, Lady Daphne, go on! There yer’ll be safe.” She smiled, raced off, heading for the long meadow.
Daphne watched her go, feeling grateful to her. I didn’t even thank her for helping me home, she chastised herself, annoyed at her thoughtlessness. On the other hand, she was still reeling from what had occurred, her horrific violation, stunned that she had been attacked by one of her own kind, an aristocrat, no less, who had known her all of her life.
Genevra had been right. It began to rain. Daphne felt the first drops on her forehead as she arrived at Cavendon. Avoiding both the kitchen and the front doors, having no desire to run into anyone, she slipped into the house through the conservatory. Only she and her mother used this room, and her mother was in Harrogate today.
Once she was inside the house, Daphne experienced an enormous sense of relief. She also wondered how she had managed to climb the hill. Walking had been difficult. It struck her that she would have never made it through the woods if not for the gypsy girl’s help. Genevra had supported her, held her upright all the way.
Crossing the terra-cotta tiles of the conservatory floor, Daphne went up the back staircase. Halfway, she had to sit down on a step for a moment. Her back hurt, and she was sore and bruised. What she needed was a hot bath to ease her aching body. She must also calm herself, take control of her swimming and troubled senses, come to grips with what had happened. She was filled with fear, as well as horror-struck by what had been done to her with such force and cruelty.
Taking a few deep breaths, she finally rose and continued up the narrow staircase. When she finally stepped out into the bedroom corridor, she found herself standing in front of DeLacy and Cecily. Both girls had their arms full of summer frocks, and Alice was immediately behind them.
“Daphne!” DeLacy cried, when she saw her sister. “Whatever’s happened? You look as if you’ve been pulled through a hedge backwards!”
Cecily was also gaping at Daphne, looking startled, but she did not utter a word.
Filled with dismay, her heart sinking, Daphne remained silent. She had been taken by surprise, and was flustered, rooted to the spot. Cringing inside, she shrank closer to the wall.
It was Alice Swann who immediately took charge. She had noticed Daphne’s disheveled appearance at once, knew something was terribly amiss, and was alarmed by Daphne’s stricken expression.
Turning to the girls, she said, “Please take the frocks upstairs to the sewing room.” She smiled at DeLacy. “And why don’t you try on a few of them, m’lady? You and Cecily can decide which ones you like the best. I will join you shortly.”
They did as she suggested, knowing it was best not to say anything, and they did not linger a moment longer.
Daphne had begun to edge toward her bedroom; Alice hurried over to her. Putting her hand underneath Daphne’s elbow, she gently guided her inside.
After closing the door behind them, Alice stood there, not only wondering what had happened to Daphne, but seeking a diplomatic way to approach the matter.
Although Daphne was trying to disguise the fact, Alice noticed that her blouse was torn and the jacket sleeve ripped at the shoulder.
It was Daphne who spoke first. In a shaking voice, she whispered, “Something happened—” She was unable to continue. She turned around and collapsed on a chair, her entire body shaking.
An exceedingly observant woman, Alice took in everything: Daphne’s dazed and troubled state, the bleakness in her blue eyes, the trembling mouth, the aura of fear surrounding her. It was obvious she was in shock, and Alice could not help anticipating the worst.
Her eyes swept over the earl’s daughter. Her clothes were in a mess, not only torn, but there were grass stains and dirty marks on the skirt, mud on the jacket, and, as she peered closer, she thought she spotted blood on the skirt. Her chest tightened in apprehension.
Walking across the floor, she said softly, “Something bad happened, didn’t it, Lady Daphne?” When Daphne did not answer, Alice said, “Am I correct, my lady?”
Daphne could not speak. She attempted to hold herself still, but the shaking would not stop. She wanted to confide in Mrs. Alice, just for the relief of it, but she did not dare tell her the truth. Not after Richard Torbett’s terrifying threat to have Dulcie and her mother killed. The mere thought of this brought tears to Daphne’s eyes, and she started sobbing as if her heart would break.
Alice ran to her, knelt down at her feet, and took hold of her hands. “Lady Daphne, I am here to help you. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. Tears help to release the tension.” She reached into her jacket pocket and gave Daphne a clean white handkerchief. Alice waited quietly, kneeling next to the young woman, wanting to give her support, and a measure of comfort, if that were possible.
At one moment, Alice rose and went to the door, locked it to ensure their privacy. Then she returned to Daphne’s side. Slowly the sobbing abated. Daphne wiped her eyes again, and finally sat up straighter. She looked at Alice, explained, “I fell down, Mrs. Alice, and I—”
“Don’t say anything else, my lady!” Alice interrupted. Drawing closer, she added, “I don’t need to know anything. Nothing at all.” In a lower tone, she murmured, “Tell no one. No one at all. Understand?”
Daphne looked at her intently. “Yes.”
Alice said, “Do not trust anyone in this house. Not ever.”
On hearing these words, Daphne was puzzled, and also a little frightened.
Observing her reaction, and wanting to allay any fears, Alice reached out, took her hand. “Only your parents. You can trust them. Naturally. And you can trust me. And Walter and Cecily.We are Swanns.We will always protect you.”
Daphne nodded her understanding, a look of relief entering her eyes.
“Our ancestors made a blood oath over one hundred and sixty years ago. It has never been broken. Please say the motto, Lady Daphne.” As she spoke, Alice stretched out her right arm and made a fist.
Daphne placed her right hand on Alice’s fist, and said in French,“Loyaulté me lie.”
Repeating the motto in English, Alice said, “Loyalty binds me,” and she put her left hand on top of Daphne’s, and the young woman did the same. “We are bound together into eternity,” they said in unison.
After a few moments of silence, Alice broke their grip, and stood up. She said quietly, “I think you must get undressed, and then take a hot bath, m’lady. A good soak will bring ease to your body. Shall I help you?”
“No, no, thank you, Mrs. Alice. I can manage,” Daphne said hurriedly.
Understanding that she wanted privacy, Alice nodded. “Please give me your hat, Lady Daphne.”
Daphne did so, and rose, limping toward the bathroom, her mind racing, filled with all manner of thoughts, not the least Alice’s comments about not trusting anyone except her parents and the Swanns.
Alice explained, “I’m going to take those clothes home with me later. I will clean and mend them, and no one will be any the wiser.”
Daphne paused, turned around, and stared at her. “But—”
“No buts, my lady. We can’t have one of the maids finding them, now, can we?”
Daphne simply nodded, realizing Mrs. Alice was right.
Alice said, “I shall go up to the sewing room and satisfy the curiosity of DeLacy and Cecily, put their busy little minds at rest. By the way, where did you fall, Lady Daphne? In the woods?”
“Yes,” Daphne replied, swallowing hard.
“I shall lock the door behind me, m’lady. You don’t need anyone walking in on you unexpectedly. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
* * *
“Is Daphne all right?” DeLacy asked as soon as Alice walked into the sewing room.
“Oh yes, she’s perfectly fine,” Alice answered, smiling. She added, “You look lovely in that rose-colored chiffon, Lady DeLacy. I think this one will work beautifully for you, for the spring supper dance later this month. Don’t you agree, Cecily?”
“I do, Mother, it is a wonderful color for DeLacy, and a change from blue.” Cecily began to laugh. “Everyone in this family wants to wear blue.” She glanced at DeLacy, and said, “I’m sorry, Lacy, but itisthe truth.”
“Oh, I know. Great-Aunt Gwendolyn says we’re all stick-in-the-muds, and unimaginative. She thinks we should all wear purple … theroyalcolor. She even wonders aloud why we want clothes to match our eyes.”
Alice also had to laugh. “She’s been saying that for as long as I can remember.”
DeLacy swirled, the chiffon evening dress flaring out around her legs. She said, as she turned again, “I suppose Daphne must have fallen in the woods. I know she was going to see Julian at Havers Lodge … to tell him he could invite his fiancée to the big ball. She must have been hurrying back because of the thunderclouds, and then tripped.”
“That’s exactly what happened,” Alice murmured, her mind instantly focused on the Torbetts. She knew the earl and the countess had never been too happy about Lady Daphne’s friendship with Julian, when they were younger. They were afraid the two of them might become too attached to each other. Fortunately, that hadn’t happened, because of Julian’s intentions to have a military career, and Daphne’s lack of interest in him romantically.
They had only ever been platonic friends. This was also because Daphne’s head was filled with dreams of a duke’s son and a brilliant marriage, planted there at a very young age by her father, the earl.
To Alice’s way of thinking, there was something odd about the Torbett family. They tended to put on airs and graces, and they weren’t as wealthy as they liked the world to believe. Hanson had always told Walter that they were pretentious, jumped-up nothings.
On the other hand, Hanson was a bit of a snob and tended to dismiss anybody without a title. However, his damning statements seemed to stick, remained in the head.
Going over to the rack of dresses, Alice looked at all of them with her beady eye; they were perfect for DeLacy, she decided. She took a honey-colored taffeta ball gown over to DeLacy. “I think this would be lovely—”
There was a knock on the door, and when Alice called, “Come in,” it was Walter who poked his head into the room. “Sorry to disturb you, ladies, but his lordship would like DeLacy to go down for afternoon tea. Lady Gwendolyn has just walked over, and they are waiting in the drawing room.”
Alice nodded, and exclaimed, “Tea, of course! You’d better hurry along, DeLacy.” And I’d better go and look in on Daphne, Alice thought, as she gave the honey-colored gown to Cecily, then hurried out to join her husband.
In the corridor, Alice took hold of Walter’s arm. “Has the countess returned from Harrogate yet?”
“No, she won’t be back for another hour or so.”
“I’ll see you at home tonight,” Alice murmured, and went down the stairs to the main bedroom floor. Walter followed her, and squeezed her arm affectionately, before they went in different directions. DeLacy was already halfway down the main staircase, on her way to tea.
Alice unlocked the door to Daphne’s bedroom, went inside, and quickly locked it behind her. Daphne was nowhere in sight. Alice noticed the small pile of clothes folded up on a chair. She went to examine them. The blouse was badly ripped; Alice thought she could mend it. As for the jacket, the back was smeared with green streaks from the grass, and splotches of mud. The skirt was in the worst condition, with dirty patches, and stains from grass and blood. She could clean them successfully. She had good products and special methods.
Carefully, Alice folded them up again, and finally picked up the underskirt. There was blood on it, and some other damp patches. Alice bent her head and sniffed, and then turned away, grimacing. Her worst fears had been confirmed. A man had attacked Lady Daphne out in the woods, no two ways about it. That male smell clung to the underskirt. Carefully, she folded it and put it under the pile, shaking her head.
Alice sat down heavily in the chair. She felt as if a lump of lead was lodged in her chest. Her mind floundered for a moment, and her heart went out to Daphne, so sweet, so lovely. Whoever had done such a thing to a seventeen-year-old innocent girl should be horsewhipped. She wondered then if any of the woodsmen or gardeners had seen anything; several Swanns worked on the outside at Cavendon. Walter would have to ask them if they noticed anything untoward this afternoon.
A moment later the bathroom door opened and Lady Daphne came out in her robe. She smiled at Alice, but then the smile instantly faltered. “I hoped I hadn’t bruised my face, but there’s a mark, here, on the cheekbone,” Daphne murmured, touching her face. “How will I explain it to Mama and Papa, Mrs. Alice?”
Alice hurried across the room, peered at her face. “It’s not so bad, Lady Daphne. I think it can be covered up with a few touches of powder and rouge. And you fell, remember, and if you fell forward then you would easily hit your face on a rock, a tree trunk, or roots. You’ll explain it that way. What about the rest of you, m’lady?”
“Just bruises, nothing broken. Did you see DeLacy and Cecily?”
“Yes, they were in the sewing room. I told them you’d tripped and fallen. DeLacy assumed it was in the woods, because she said you’d gone to Havers Lodge to see Julian Torbett this afternoon.”
“That’s true. I went to tell him his fiancée could come to the big ball. Obviously DeLacy heard me telling Father after lunch that I was going there.”
“By the way, DeLacy has gone down to tea to join your great-aunt and your father. Walter brought a message from his lordship. What about you? Do you want to join them, m’lady?”
Daphne shook her head. “I think I should rest. I’m hoping I’ll be able to go down for dinner later, but for now…” Her voice trailed off.
Alice nodded. “Yes, stay and have a rest. I’d get into bed if I were you, m’lady. If it’s all right with you, I will tell Walter to inform your father that you’re resting after trying on dresses most of the day. I’ll say you’re a bit tired.”
Daphne inclined her head. “Thank you, Mrs. Alice. I’d appreciate that. And thank you … for everything.”
Lady Gwendolyn Ingham Baildon stood in the center of the great entrance foyer at Cavendon Hall, glancing around, a beatific smile on her face. She had been in London for the past week, and this was her first visit since her return to Yorkshire two days ago.
To her, Cavendon was the most sublime place. There was nowhere else like it, and only here did she experience a feeling of euphoria … a sense of genuine happiness and contentment. So many memories, so many emotions were wrapped up in this house … her entire life had been spent here.
The smile lingered as her eyes rested on the oil paintings of her ancestors which lined the wall above the grand curving staircase. Looking down at her were her parents. Her beautiful mother, Florence, wife of Marmaduke, the fourth earl, her father. Next to her father was a striking portrait of her brother, David, the handsomest of men. He had been the fifth earl, and next to him was a lovely oil painting of his wife, Constance, who had died far too young. She sighed to herself. Her husband, Paul Baildon, had died young; she had been a widow for a very long time.
Turning away, Lady Gwendolyn walked across the hall in the direction of the small yellow sitting room, where afternoon tea had been served for years.
Gwendolyn had been born in this house seventy-two years ago, and brought up here with David and their sister Evelyne. She knew every nook, cranny, corner, and secret hiding place. In fact, there wasn’t much she didn’t know about Cavendon and the Ingham family. Well, that was not exactly true. She was ignorant about any number of things, as was her nephew Charles.
A small, amused smile struck her face fleetingly. Only the Swanns knew everything, and what they knew had been passed down from one generation to the next. There were notebooks filled with endless records, so she had been told once, and this information had come from the best source—a Swann, no less.
Ah well, Gwendolyn mused, what would we have done without the Swanns? And they’re on our side, thank God, stand sentinel beside us. She would trust a Swann with her life if she had to.
Her nephew was the only occupant of the yellow sitting room, and he jumped up, came toward her once he saw her appear in the doorway.
After kissing her cheek, he said, “It’s lovely to see you back at Cavendon, Aunt Gwendolyn.”
“Thank you, Charles, I feel the same.” She glanced around. “Am I the first?”
“Yes, actually, you are. I’m afraid our ranks are a bit diminished today. Felicity is still in Harrogate, visiting Anne, and Diedre accompanied her. But DeLacy will be joining us.”
At this moment Hanson glided into the room, and after greeting Lady Gwendolyn, he addressed the earl. “Do you wish tea to be served immediately, m’lord?”
“Yes, Hanson, thank you. But perhaps you could send a message to Lady DeLacy to come down.”
“I took the liberty of doing that a short while ago, my lord.”
Charles nodded. “Thank you, Hanson. Very astute of you. I’m afraid punctuality is not her strong suit.”
As Hanson left the room, Gwendolyn said, “Isn’t Daphne joining us as well, Charles?”
“I don’t think so. Apparently she has been busy with dress fittings for most of the day, and feels tired. She has asked to be excused.”
“Sorry I’m late, Papa!” DeLacy cried as she came racing into the room, a bright smile on her face. She ran over to her great-aunt, kissed her on the cheek, and then went to kiss her father.
“You are coming to the supper dances and the big ball, aren’t you, Great-Aunt Gwendolyn?” DeLacy asked a moment later, sitting down next to her. “It’s never the same when you’re not present.”
“How nice of you to say so, Lacy, and of course I plan to come, my dear. I’ve always thought the entertaining we do at Cavendon at that time of year, in the summer months, was the best, the most fun.” Leaning slightly closer, she said in a low voice, “Please do try to avoid sky blue this season, darling. The obvious is rather boring, you know?”
DeLacy stared at her, saw the amusement flickering in the deep-blue eyes, and began to giggle. “I will certainly do that,” she answered, still laughing, and then glanced at the door as the two footmen came in, both pushing laden tea trolleys, followed closely by Hanson, as always present to make sure nothing was amiss or went wrong.
As they went through the ritual of afternoon tea, Charles silently debated whether or not to tell his aunt that Hugo was about to make a visit. In the end, he decided he must do so. He preferred not to spring it on her at the last minute. But he would certainly avoid mentioning anything about property and Little Skell Manor.
After DeLacy insisted he try a piece of the Swiss roll, Charles tasted it, and then put it down. Looking across at his aunt, he said, “I had a letter from Switzerland today. And you’ll never guess who it was from.”
Lady Gwendolyn threw him a puzzled look. “No, I’m afraid I won’t … I don’t know anyone who lives in Switzerland.”
A smile touched his mouth, and was gone. “It was from Hugo Stanton,” he said in a level voice, wondering how she would react to this news.
“Goodness gracious me!” Lady Gwendolyn exclaimed. “Hugo Stanton, of all people, and after these many years of silence.” She frowned, and peered at Charles. “I thought he was sent to live in America?” A brow lifted.
“Quite the wrong move in my considered opinion,” Lady Gwendolyn cut in. “Very rash.”
“He was rather successful there, apparently, according to his letter, Aunt. He did well in business, and married well. However, sadly, his wife died last year. From what I gather, they had been living in Zurich for several years.”
“I see,” Lady Gwendolyn murmured noncommittally, and took a sip of her tea.
Charles continued, “In any event, Hugo wrote to tell me he has to come to London on business, and he asked me if he could come here for a visit. I suppose he was wondering if he would be made to feel welcome.”
There was a short silence, then Lady Gwendolyn said, “Of course he would be welcome, as far as I’m concerned. I always liked Hugo, and I never believed for one moment that he had anything to do with his brother’s death. Stuff and nonsense that was.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“When is he coming?” she asked.
“Oh, in the summer. I thought perhaps June or July. I’ll suggest that when I reply.”
“And I shall look forward to seeing him again,” Lady Gwendolyn announced with a warm smile.
Charles nodded, and decided to say nothing further. Why bring up Little Skell Manor or property, and who owned what, at this stage? “And so shall I,” Charles agreed amiably, and took a bite of Swiss roll. “He will always be welcome at Cavendon.”
A few minutes later, DeLacy cried, “Mama! Diedre! You’re back early, and just in time for tea.”
The earl glanced at the door, appearing to be as startled as DeLacy had sounded. He immediately rose, and walked across the floor to greet his wife and eldest daughter.
As he escorted them into the room, he asked Felicity, “I hope you had a lovely visit with Anne, my dear.”
“Yes, we did,” Felicity answered softly, endeavoring to keep her voice steady, her expression neutral, not wishing to display any of her flaring emotions.
Diedre said, “Hello, Great-Aunt Gwendolyn,” and went to kiss her.
Felicity followed suit, and touched DeLacy lightly on her shoulder as she passed her. Then she took a seat in a chair opposite them.
Hanson, as usual ever on the ready, appeared with a footman in tow, who proceeded to pour tea for the countess and Diedre. And the ritual of afternoon tea began all over again.
Moving slightly on the sofa, Lady Gwendolyn focused on her niece-in-law, thinking that she once again looked slightly on edge. Felicity’s face was taut, and Gwendolyn was instantly aware of the sorrowful look in her light green eyes. Something’s wrong, Gwendolyn thought.Terribly wrong. I’m looking at a troubled woman beleaguered by worries. What’s going on with her? She appears to be strung out, more nervous than ever.
Diedre Ingham, the eldest daughter of the earl, had a great affinity for Lady Gwendolyn, and they had always been good friends since she was a little girl. They were cut from the same cloth, had similar characteristics, both being practical, down-to-earth, and well organized. They also had a look of each other, and were of similar build.
Although Diedre did not have the alluring beauty of Daphne, nor the shining prettiness of DeLacy, she still was a good-looking young woman, with even features and those lovely blue eyes that were the Ingham trademark.
Tall like her great-aunt, she had inherited Lady Gwendolyn’s elegance and style, had her taste for strictly tailored clothes and understated jewelry, costly but not flashy or vulgar.
It was their down-to-earth natures that had bound them together over the years. They saw eye to eye on most things, and whenever Diedre had a problem, or a decision to make, it was to Lady Gwendolyn that she went.
At this moment, Diedre wished she could talk to her great-aunt, but that was not possible. She could hardly interrupt afternoon tea and lead her away to a quiet corner.
Perhaps later she could walk back with her to Little Skell Manor, and talk to her then. Earlier today a great difficulty had arisen unexpectedly. Their aunt, Anne Sedgewick, was dying; Diedre needed someone to confide in, and to ask for advice. Intelligent, and blessed with common sense, she was, nonetheless, only twenty, and sometimes wisdom from the older woman helped her to see things more clearly.
Suddenly, Diedre sat up straighter in the chair, and paid attention. Her father was speaking about something important, from the sound of his voice; she pulled herself out of her reverie to listen to him.
“And so, Felicity, my dear, I can’t tell you how surprised I was to receive this letter from Hugo, after his silence all these years. The crux of it is this. He will be visiting London shortly, and he asked if he could come to Cavendon to see us.”
Diedre, observing her mother, saw how her face instantly brightened, and there was a sudden flash of pleasure in her eyes. “How wonderful that you’ve heard from him at last, Charles,” Felicity said, her voice warm. “I’ve spent quite a few years worrying about little Hugo, on and off, and wondering how he had fared, hoping he was all right. Such a tragedy … being sent away.”
“Wasn’t it in disgrace?” Diedre ventured, looking at her father.
Before he could answer, Lady Gwendolyn said in a stern voice, “He was not at fault in any way, and my sister was wrong in her ridiculous attitude. And I told her so, and in no uncertain terms. It made no difference, but I’ve always regretted not being more forceful with her, or more persuasive.”
“It wouldn’t have made any difference,” Felicity remarked. “Aunt Evelyne had made up her mind that he had not helped his brother, and there was no changing her opinion. She was an extraordinarily stubborn woman, and needed a scapegoat, by the way.”
“Didn’t his brother die in the lake … drown?” DeLacy began, and stopped abruptly when she saw the warning look on Diedre’s face.
Charles said, “Enough of the past. We are now in the present, looking toward the future, and the future is very bright for us. And for Hugo. He has done well in the world, and although his wife died a year ago, I think he will bravely march on. He is an Ingham, after all, and we do that. We don’t crumble and give in. Also, he’s only thirty-two. He has his life ahead of him.”
“Quite so,” Lady Gwendolyn agreed in a firm voice.
“When is he coming?” Felicity asked softly, staring at her husband.
“That’s really up to me, or rather to us, darling. He plans to visit London within the next few weeks. So I am going to suggest he comes here later in July.”
Felicity simply nodded.
Lady Gwendolyn announced, “I believe a weekend visit would be most appropriate, Charles.” She glanced at Felicity. “Don’t you agree, my dear?”
“That would be nice,” Felicity murmured, leaning back in the chair, tired after the long and difficult day in Harrogate.
Charles beamed at them. “That settles the matter. I shall write to him after considering the engagements we have in the next few weeks, to ascertain the best weekend for him to come.”
“Oh Papa, please invite him here when there’s a supper dance. You know there’s always a shortage of men at these dances, and some of us have to partner each other.”
Always indulgent with DeLacy, Charles couldn’t help laughing at her eagerness for male dancing partners. “Now, now, DeLacy, you’re only twelve, you know,” he answered. But he could not keep the amusement out of his voice, nor did he ever chastise her when she was cheeky or forward. He just didn’t have the heart, and she was his favorite; he rather liked her cheekiness.
Lady Gwendolyn was also amused, and it showed on her face when she stood up. “Thank you, Charles and Felicity, I must go back to the manor, to rest. London was rather hectic, you know.”
“May I walk back with you, Great-Aunt Gwendolyn?” Diedre asked, also standing.
“Of course, my dear. I would enjoy the company.”
“May I come, too?” DeLacy jumped to her feet, and looked at Diedre pleadingly.
On the verge of refusing this request, Diedre instantly changed her mind. “You can come with us, if you wish.” DeLacy might as well know the truth, the way things are, Diedre thought as they trooped out of the yellow sitting room together. She’s old enough to know how hard life can be, and what we are facing … the imminent death of our mother’s sister … and a bereavement in the family which will make Mama more upset than ever.
* * *
Once they were alone, Felicity went and sat on the sofa with Charles, and leaning closer to him she said, “I have bad news … Anne is dying.”
A look of genuine astonishment crossed his face, and his brows drew together in a frown. “How can that be! You told me she was better! That she had said she was all right. You went to have a celebratory lunch with her today.”
“That’s what I thought it was. She told me on Friday that she had seen her doctors, that they had given her the results of the last tests. And then she added she was all right. The problem is, she didn’t mean it the way I took it.”
“How did she mean it?”
“That she was all right, because at last she knew what the outcome of her illness was going to be, and how long she has to live.”
Charles cringed at these words. He took hold of his wife’s hand, held it tightly. His expression was one of compassion. “I’m so sorry, so very sorry, Felicity. For Anne and for you, darling.” He gazed at her intently, took in the beauty of her delicately wrought face, surrounded by a halo of red-gold hair, and looked deeply into her light green eyes, and he felt himself choke up with emotion. He knew how much this bad news would affect her.
Felicity edged even closer to him. He put his arms around her and held her against him, fighting back the tears. His sister-in-law, Anne Sedgewick, was a very unique woman, a woman of intelligence, kindness, and humor. And an extraordinary artist. Her glorious still-life oil paintings had become collector’s items over the years, and she was now famous for her work. This aside, she was a lovely woman, and one of great depth, whom he cared about enormously. He wanted to ask how long she had, but he didn’t dare. His nerve had left him.
Felicity drew away from him, and looked up into his face. She said, “I’m so sorry I put it so bluntly, Charles. I just didn’t know how to break the news to you, since you believed we were celebrating her recovery at lunch today … I felt I just had to say it, and without any frills.” Tears flooded her eyes, and she began to weep.
Bending over her, Charles held her close once more, and wept himself. And so wrapped up were they in their pain and grief, neither of them saw Hanson silently gliding away, shooing the two footmen ahead of him, using his discretion, as he inevitably did.
* * *
Upstairs at Cavendon, in her darkened room, Daphne lay curled up in a ball in her bed. Sorrowing and bereft, she had cried until she had no tears left in her. And finally she had slept, exhausted from the assault on her body and on her senses.
Now that she was awake, her mind was racing with all kinds of worried thoughts, and raw anxiety had surfaced. She had no idea how to deal with the situation she found herself in. She could not confide in anyone, because of Richard Torbett’s threat. Also, Mrs. Alice had told her to tell no one, to trust no one, except her parents and the Swanns. She did not have the nerve to tell her parents, and she felt sure Mrs. Alice already knew what had happened. She had guessed when she saw the stained clothes, and took them away.
Right from the start of the attack in the bluebell woods, Daphne believed the man was going to murder her, after he had raped her. He had not killed her. But he had taken her life. And left her with nothing of value. Her virginity had been destroyed and so had the chance to become the wife of the son of a duke. Or wife of anybody, for that matter.
Her future was meaningless now … there was nothing left for her. There was only bleakness in store. And loneliness.
Harry Swann, Cecily’s fifteen-year-old brother, had her full attention, and she was listening to him closely, impressed by his knowledge.
“And so,” he said, “it was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, who put Edward Plantagenet on the throne of England, and when he was very young. Only eighteen. Imagine that!” he ended in an excited voice.
“You certainly learned your history well, Harry,” Cecily responded, giving her much-adored brother a warm smile. “No wonder you were top of your class when you were at school.”
Harry grinned at her. “The Earl of Warwick lived at Middleham Castle. We once went there, if you remember, with Aunt Charlotte. Do you think we could go up there again sometime? Would she take us? It’s such an historic place. And history is my hobby.”
“It’s not very far away. We can ask her tomorrow when we go to tea. Perhaps she’ll go with us in the summer.”
Harry nodded, bent his fair head, finished his baked apple in silence, savoring it. Ever since childhood, it had been his favorite dessert. The two of them were sitting in the kitchen of their home, finishing supper.
Sitting back in her chair, watching him, Cecily couldn’t help thinking that he looked older than his age, perhaps because of the intelligence in those light gray eyes, and his serious nature. And also his build. Like his father, he was tall; certainly there was no mistaking that Harry was a Swann. Not only because of his looks, but his bearing, his self-confidence, and his natural charm as well.
Cecily was aware that he had always been diligent, and he was quick, clever, and articulate. She knew he would go far in life, given the opportunity. Aunt Charlotte had told her the same thing: they were in agreement about his abilities and his talent as a landscape gardener, working with his cousin Bill at Cavendon.
Suddenly, he glanced up at her, asked, “When is Miles coming home from Eton? For the summer, I mean.”
“I don’t know, but it’ll be soon. By the end of the month.”
“I hope we can all go fishing one weekend. What do you think, Ceci?”
“Yes, we’ll go fishing, and bird-watching, do other things, and we’ll have picnics in the woods. DeLacy will come with us.”
“We always have fun together,” Harry said.
“Now then, how are you both doing?” Alice asked, sounding as cheerful as usual when she came hurrying into the kitchen. But her heart was heavy with worry about Daphne, and she felt unsettled, at odds with herself. She could not get the girl’s predicament out of her mind.
“We’ve enjoyed our supper, Mam. Haven’t we, Ceci? The cottage pie was nice, and thanks for my baked apple.”
Alice stood looking at them, filled with sudden joy. They were her adored children. She knew they were special, each in their own way, at least to her and Walter. They would have good lives. She smiled at them, picked up their empty plates, and carried them to the sink. As she began to run the tap water she thought once more of Lady Daphne, and sadness flooded through her. She simply couldn’t bear to think of her pain.
“We’ll help you, Mam!” Cecily jumped up and so did Harry, and the three of them washed and dried the dishes together. They chatted to their mother about what they would do the next day with Walter. Their father had tomorrow off, as he did every other Sunday. This was a privilege given to any Swann who was the earl’s valet.
* * *
Much later that evening, when Walter had returned from Cavendon to Little Skell village, he and Alice went to see Charlotte. She lived across the street from them, and it was a late-night ritual they often enjoyed. They would have coffee and cognac as they chatted about the goings-on at Cavendon, and caught up with each other in general. They were close, and bonded to each other.
Although it was May, it was a cool evening. Charlotte had a fire blazing in the parlor; the coffee and brandy were ready for them on the sideboard, and she was waiting with a smile on her face.
Once they were settled in front of the fire in the cozy room, sipping their coffee, Charlotte said, “I have a bit of news. Something unexpected, and it upset the earl this morning. I happened to be going down the terrace steps, when he saw me, and came out of the library to speak to me about it.”
“What kind of upsetting news?” Walter asked, eyeing her keenly, concerned as always about anything affecting Cavendon.
“You’re not going to believe this, but Hugo Stanton’s coming back here to see the earl.”
“That’s a turn-up for the books!” Walter exclaimed. “What’s prompted him to come home? He was packed off without so much as a good-bye.”
“I always liked Hugo, and he didn’t kill his brother,” Alice interjected, sounding defensive.
Walter burst out laughing. “No one ever said that he did, Alice.”
“But they thought it,” she shot back swiftly. “It was never even a possibility. Just his mother talking nonsense.”
“Why was his lordship so upset?” Walter asked, focusing on his aunt.
“Because he thinks Hugo wants Little Skell Manor, which is his by rights, and that he’ll turf Lady Gwendolyn out.”
“Hugo wouldn’t do that,” Alice protested. “He’s not that kind of person.”
Charlotte gave Alice an odd look, puzzlement surfacing.
Walter explained. “Don’t you remember, Aunt Charlotte? Alice’s father worked for the Stantons.”
“How silly of me. I’d forgotten for a moment. Your father was a trainer, Alice. He looked after the Stanton yard near Ripon, helped Major Gaunt train their racehorses. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Alice nodded. “Yes, and Hugo wouldn’t turf her out. His aunt was always on his side.”
“If he does, Lady Gwendolyn can move into the South Wing. It’s like a self-contained flat, and large. She would be comfortable there. I explained this to Charles,” Charlotte told them.
“Good thinking on your part.” Walter took a sip of coffee. “Anyway, it might not come to that.”
Alice said, “No, it won’t.”
“I have a bit of news too,” Walter now announced. “But it’s rather sad, I’m afraid. Mrs. Sedgewick has not recovered from cancer, after all. She’s dying…” Walter paused, looking genuinely sorrowful. “His lordship told me tonight. The countess is devastated; she thought her sister was better, and that they would be having a celebration luncheon today, believing her to have years ahead of her. Seemingly, that’s not so.”
“How terrible for her ladyship. She must be suffering. She and her sister are very close.” Charlotte reached for her glass of cognac, took a swallow. She was filled with sympathy for Felicity Ingham.
Alice murmured, “What an unfortunate mistake to make.”
The three of them sat in silence for a short while, sipping their cognac, lost in their own thoughts. There was no sound except for the crackling of the fire, the ticking of the clock, and the rustling of the trees outside. They were wise enough to understand that the unexpected frequently happened, and inevitably it was unfair. Life had a way of making its own rules, dealing its own cards, and the cards were rarely lucky.
It was Alice who finally roused herself, knowing that she would have to inform her husband and Charlotte about Daphne’s terrible ordeal. After a moment, settling herself, she said in as steady a voice as she could muster, “I’m afraid I have the worst news of all—” Alice glanced at her husband, and then Charlotte, who was the matriarch of the Swann family. Sotto voce, she announced, “Lady Daphne was attacked this afternoon.”
“What?”Charlotte exclaimed, her voice rising. She sounded shocked, and gaped at Alice. “Attacked?What do you mean bythat?”
“Someone attacked her. Physically.”
“I hope you don’t mean what I think you do, Alice?” Walter gave his wife a penetrating look, frowning at her.
Alice glanced from one to the other. She saw that Charlotte was aghast, a stricken expression on her face, and Walter had a look of disbelief in his eyes, and she knew he was filled with apprehension. It showed in the tautness of his face, the way he held his body so rigidly.
Swallowing, her mouth dry with anxiety, Alice said slowly, carefully, “When Lady Daphne came back to the house this afternoon I ran into her. She was disheveled. Once I got Cecily and DeLacy out of the way, I ushered her into her bedroom. She told me something had happened. I asked her if it was something bad, and she didn’t answer me. Later she said she’d fallen.”
“But are you certain she wasassaulted,” Walter probed, finding this hard to believe.
“I am positive.”
Charlotte asked quietly, “Are you telling us she wasraped?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Oh my God!” Charlotte was horrified, and then suddenly a look of fear spread across her face. She sat there unable to speak, so shaken was she.
Walter was also shocked into silence for a moment, as the words sank in, and then he cried, “Who would dare to go near Lady Daphne? Touch her? In God’s namewho? Where did this happen, Alice? Did she tell you?” His voice sounded harsh in the quiet room.
Alice shook her head. “No. However, later, when I explained to DeLacy and Cecily that Daphne had had a bad fall—remember, Daphne was disheveled—DeLacy said that it must have been in the woods. She added that Daphne had gone to see Julian Torbett after lunch, and that she always went to Havers Lodge through the bluebell woods.”
“Our land! She was raped on our land!” Walter cried angrily. “By God, whoever did this, I’ll beat the living daylights out of him.”
Charlotte was as white as bleached bone, and she spoke in a low, worried voice. “You are verysureof this, aren’t you, Alice? She did tell you she was raped?”
“No, she didn’t, Charlotte. When she confirmed that something bad had happened to her, I silenced her at once. I said I didn’t need to know any more. And that she must not tell a living soul about it. I also warned her to trust only her parents, and us, the Swanns.”
“She’s ruined,”Walter lamented in a sorrowing, almost mournful voice. “Her life is over. Gone, just like that, in a flash.”
Alice said quietly, “Although she didn’t confide in me, I know it’s true, because of her clothes. Her jacket and blouse were torn, and there were stains on the jacket and skirt.” Alice paused, gave Charlotte a meaningful look, then added, “Her underskirt was stained as well.”
“Where are those clothes?” Charlotte asked, concerned.
“I brought them home, washed and cleaned them earlier this evening. I will repair them, they’ll be as good as new.”
“Wise move,” Charlotte answered, and sat back in the chair, her mind racing. She was thinking of Felicity and Charles Ingham, and all of their plans for Daphne, and the anguish they would suffer if they ever got to know about this.
A sudden thought struck Charlotte and she took a deep breath. “She’s not necessarily ruined, not as long as nobody knows about the rape but us. Because there are ways of concealing the loss of virginity … we’ll have to go to the old medical books, Alice.”
“You have them all, don’t you?” Alice asked, sitting up alertly.
“Yes. They are locked up with the record books covering generations of our history … the history of the Inghams and the Swanns and their intertwined lives.”
Walter turned to his wife. “Are you positive she won’t tell anyone, Alice? Sometimes a young woman has a need to unburden herself.”
“Who can be sure of what anyone will do?” Alice replied. “On the other hand, I’ve known Lady Daphne all of her life, and she’s a loner, not one given to confessions about anything. And who would she confide in? Not Diedre, there’s a certain distance between them. And frankly, she would think DeLacy is too young. She won’t talk, I just know this. Don’t ask me how, but I do.”
“We Swanns must close ranks, and do all we can to keep her safe in every way,” Charlotte announced in a strong voice. “Walter, talk to our other Swanns, those who work outside, and let’s throw a ring of protection around her.”
“It’s done,” Walter said at once. “I’ll see our lads tomorrow, and the woodsmen. I’ll tell them to be on the lookout for trespassers. I’ll talk about poachers, suggest we’ve spotted one, and I’ll tell the earl the same thing.”
Charlotte leaned forward. “We can’t have anyone wondering why Lady Daphne has to be protected, therefore rumors of poachers on our landisthe best reason to give. Use it.”
Alice said, “Lady Daphne was distraught, still in shock when I helped her this afternoon. She was … dazed and fearful … the poor girl. I tried to do everything I could to comfort her, Charlotte.”
“Keep on doing that, Alice. Stay close to her.” Charlotte stood up, went and brought the bottle of cognac to the fireside, poured the golden liquid into their glasses. “We’re going to make everything right. Expunge that rape … make her whole again. As best we can. And shewillmarry the son of a duke if we have anything to do with it.”
“That’s the right way to think,” Walter asserted. “And don’t forget, the Swanns always win.”
Alice said a silent prayer, hoping that this would be the result, that they would save Daphne’s future. The problem was, she wasn’t sure the Swannswouldwin this time.
Daphne sat at her dressing table, studying her face in the mirror. The bruise had finally faded away. It had only been a scrape really; powder and rouge had done the trick. No one had noticed it except Dulcie, who had prattled on about it but had fortunately been ignored. Everyone else was focused on other things.
Her aunt had been given only six months to live at the most, and so her mother and father had been preoccupied with this tragic news all week. They had also been concerned about the upcoming visit of Hugo Stanton, her father’s cousin, and making plans for his weekend visit in July.
And so they had not paid much attention to their four daughters these past few days, much to her relief. They had not noticed the bruise; she had not mentioned her fall in the woods. Neither had DeLacy. She had asked her younger sister not to bring it up, and DeLacy had agreed to keep silent.
So all in all, she had managed to get through the week without any explanations. But it had not been easy for her. Her body had begun to heal, the bruises and scratches calming down, but her mind was extremely busy.
It was virtually impossible for her to expunge that violent physical attack from her mind. The angry face of Richard Torbett, when she had pulled off his disguise, and his deadly threat to have her mother and Dulcie killed, were engraved on her brain.
When Mrs. Alice had returned her clothes in perfect condition, and put them away in her wardrobe, she had thanked her, but made no reference to them. And neither had Mrs. Alice. Instead she had said in a low voice, “I understand that there are poachers on our land, so don’t be surprised if you see more woodsmen around than usual. They’re keeping their eyes open for trespassers.”
Daphne had nodded, and later wondered about this comment. Yet she fully understood that no Swann would ever discuss an Ingham to someone else. Her secret was safe, there was no question about that. Still, it had occurred to her that the woodsmen were out and about because of her, without any of them knowing it. The Swanns were making sure she was protected. That was the way they worked. In clever ways. Secret ways.
Smoothing her hand across her hair, Daphne then dabbed a bit of powder on her cheeks, and adjusted the jabot of her white blouse.
Last week, when Madge Courtney and Julian Torbett had come to call, she had passed on her father’s invitation to Madge to come to the summer ball. And she had agreed to go riding with them this morning. It was Saturday morning, May 10, and she was dreading it all of a sudden. Julian was nothing at all like his dangerous older brother, who was known to be a reprobate and a gambler. But, nonetheless, she couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable, even though Julian was her childhood friend. Being near him made her think of the rapist.
Madge was joining them, and she had asked DeLacy to come along as well. Her sister was delighted to be invited to go riding with this older group, and had accepted with alacrity and pleasure.
There was a knock on the bedroom door, and DeLacy, her face full of smiles, came in, asking, “Are you ready, Daphne? Everyone’s waiting for you.”
Daphne reached for her elegant lady’s bowler hat, and, looking in the mirror, smoothing her hand over her bun, she then perched the bowler on top of her head. “Yes, I’m ready,” she answered, and stood. Picking up her gloves, she pulled them on, and continued, “I don’t feel like riding today, but I didn’t want to disappoint Julian and Madge.”
“You don’t want to disappoint Papa, either,” DeLacy exclaimed.
“Papa! Is he joining us?” The thought of her father being with them cheered her up enormously, brought a smile to her bright blue eyes.
“Yes, he is. He told me a good gallop would do him good, that he needed to clear his head. Mama is not going to Harrogate today, and she invited Julian and Madge to join us for lunch, after our ride.”
“That’s nice,” Daphne murmured, endeavoring to shut out the vivid image of Richard Torbett’s angry, snarling face as they went downstairs together.
* * *
The earl, Julian, and Madge were waiting outside, standing next to their horses and chatting amiably. Daphne and DeLacy went over to join them, and after greeting her father, Daphne stepped over to welcome Julian and his fiancée.
Madge Courtney was a striking redhead, good-looking, forceful in her manner, and taller than Julian; she had a friendly, outgoing personality, and was good company.
Daphne had always thought they looked odd together. Julian, of medium height, fair of coloring, and with soft features, appeared to be much younger than her. Yet they were the same age; Julian was introspective, less flamboyant.
Julian hugged Daphne, as always gentle and loving with her, and told her she looked beautiful. “So elegant, Daphne, in your dark blue riding habit. An unusual color. And I love the bowler. That’s a snappy touch.”
“Thank you, Julian,” she answered graciously, and said to Madge, “I’m so glad you can come back for lunch with us.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” Madge answered, and then turned to DeLacy to speak with her.
A few minutes later, they were all mounted. DeLacy was riding Dreamer, a horse she had long favored, whilst Daphne was on Greensleeves, a beautiful roan, which she had owned for several years, a gift from her father.
Within minutes they were trotting out of the stable block, heading for the long stretch of fields where they would be able to enjoy their gallop, racing each other, and giving their horses a good run.
As they swept across the open fields, Daphne began to feel better. Her father was right, fresh air cleared the head. Blowing the cobwebs away was a grand idea, she decided, and settled into her saddle, handling her horse with her usual skill and finesse.
Once they came to the end of the fields, exhilarated by the race, they slowed down, and wheeled their horses to the left. They headed along one of the wide bridle paths which ran along the right side of the bluebell woods, slowly progressing back to Cavendon.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and mild, with a blue sky, and no hint of rain for once. Daphne blocked out the image of her assault in the woods last week. These weretheirwoods, and she would not avoid them, even if she had to grit her teeth to forget her ordeal. But she would put it behind her. It wouldn’t happen again, she was certain of that. Their land would now be patrolled regularly by their own men, thanks to the Swanns.
As she trotted along the path behind DeLacy, enjoying the shade created by the overhanging branches of the trees, Daphne noticed that her lovely heron was back. It was standing in the pool of water in the middle of the woods, and it brought a brief smile to her face. It had found a home, she decided.
Unexpectedly, she caught sight of Walter’s brother, Percy, who was head gamekeeper at Cavendon. She saw her father beckoning him over, and Percy started to run toward them. Then he stood talking to the earl for a few moments, before he hurried off.
Suddenly, in the distance, there was the sound of gunfire. Shots rang out, startling them all, especially the horses. Greensleeves snorted and reared up on her hind legs, tossed her head, frightened by the sudden noise. Daphne tightened the reins, endeavored to calm her, to gain control of her. Somehow she managed it. And then she saw, much to her horror, that Julian’s horse had not only panicked but bolted.
It was galloping down the bridle path hell for leather, obviously totally spooked by the rifle fire. And then she was filled with fear when Julian was thrown off his horse. He landed heavily, hit a large boulder, rolled over onto his back, and lay still.
Daphne noticed that the other horses were in the same state of great agitation, pawing, tossing their heads, and rearing up. DeLacy was still struggling with Dreamer, trying to calm her. But finally her father had his stallion Blackstar under his control, much to Daphne’s relief.
Julian’s horse ran on, galloping down the bridle path, still a terrified animal.
DeLacy and Daphne galloped forward. As they drew closer to Julian they reined in their horses and jumped to the ground. Their father was running toward Julian, where he lay on the ground not moving. He was obviously badly hurt.
Only Madge remained on her horse, frozen by shock and fear, and unable to move a muscle. She had lost all color, her eyes wide with horror.
Glancing around, DeLacy asked no one in particular, “Where did those shots come from?” And then she went to join her father, who was kneeling next to Julian.
The earl shook his head. “I’ve no idea, DeLacy. But we never have guns out at this time of year.” He felt Julian’s pulse. It was faint but it was there. The young man was deathly white, and Charles noticed that the gash on his forehead was deep, bloody. His eyes were closed; blood was splattered on his fair hair. He was still, very still indeed, hardly breathing. Charles was filled with sudden fear for the young man. The fall had been bad, awkward, and his legs were skewed, looked as if they were broken.
Percy Swann was suddenly back with them, panting from running hard. “Our lads weren’t shooting, m’lord. None of our men have guns out here. I’m not sure where those shots came from, m’lord.”
“Torbett land,” Daphne interjected, certainty ringing in her voice. Half turning, she pointed behind her. “Definitely back there.” She couldn’t help thinking it was Richard Torbett up to his tricks. Then she looked down at Julian, and was struck by his total inertness, his extreme pallor. She was suddenly afraid for him. She knew he was in a bad way. Her chest tightened, and anxiety flared in her as she wondered if he would recover. She doubted it. He looked so …damaged. He lay there like a broken doll.
The earl said, “I don’t think we should move Mr. Julian, Swann. Or carry him away. It could be dangerous to do so. He’s lying in a funny way. His neck could be broken, or his spine. If I remember correctly, don’t we have some sort of makeshift stretcher at Cavendon?”
“We do, Lord Mowbray. It was made for Sir Redvers Andrews, when he had a heart attack on the grouse moor last August. And it’s still there in the cellars, as far as I know. I can get it, m’lord, and be back in a few minutes with some of the woodsmen.”
“Thank you, Swann. Have Hanson make a phone call to Dr. Shawcross. He should tell the doctor we need an ambulance. Mr. Torbett will have to be taken to hospital. Harrogate’s the nearest.”
“Right-o, m’lord,” Percy answered, and began to move away.
Daphne said, “Papa, Swann should take my horse, it’s faster riding than running, surely.”
“Good idea, Daphne. Take her ladyship’s horse, Swann,” the earl said.
DeLacy was kneeling on the ground next to her father, and she now asked in a concerned tone, “Do you think Julian is going to die, Papa?” She thought he might actually be dead already, but didn’t dare say that out loud.
“I’ve absolutely no idea. I pray to God not. He took a terrible, very hard fall. He must have damaged his spine, and he must have a bad head injury. Look at all the blood on the grass. He’s certainly unconscious.”
“I know,” DeLacy said. As her sister spoke, Daphne walked back to Madge. Always kind and thoughtful, she knew she must offer some sort of comfort to the young woman, who was still sitting on her horse, as if frozen in place. She was like a statue. Her face was the color of chalk, and looked unnatural. It was stark against her vivid auburn hair.
Touching her on the arm, Daphne said gently, “Can you dismount, Madge? Or do you need my father to help you?”
Madge gazed at Daphne and, observing her sympathetic expression, she began to weep. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t need help, I can manage now. But I’ll need help later … of that I’m quite sure.” She threw Daphne a sorrowful look, shaking her head in disbelief.
After she had managed to dismount somewhat awkwardly, Madge and Daphne walked back to the earl and DeLacy. They were still kneeling on the grass, their eyes riveted on Julian, who looked like a corpse to them.
Madge crouched down next to her fiancé. She touched his face, smoothed her hand over his brow. “It’s me, Julian,” she said, drawing closer. “I’m here, my darling, I’m here for you.”
He did not answer her. She began to weep, and Daphne comforted her as best she could.
Even though Percy Swann, the woodsmen, and Hanson, as well as the other staff at Cavendon, moved with great swiftness and efficiency, it was two hours before Julian Torbett arrived at the hospital in Harrogate. He had suffered a fractured skull and a broken back, but he was still alive. By six o’clock that same evening he was dead, having never regained consciousness.
* * *
The funeral of Julian Baxter Torbett was held at Ripon Cathedral by his family four days later. The great families of Yorkshire were in attendance, and other friends came in droves.
The Earl and Countess of Mowbray, their three oldest daughters, and other Inghams were present, seated at the front of the cathedral.
The women were dressed in black from head to toe, and all wore hats, some with veils. It was Lady Daphne Ingham who had chosen a large-brimmed hat with a black tulle veil, one which totally obscured her face. She made sure she was seated between her father and mother in the pew, where she felt totally protected and safe.
Not once did she look at the Torbetts.
At the end of the service, accompanied by her sisters Diedre and DeLacy, she paid her condolences to Julian’s mother, and to Madge. And then the three of them left the cathedral, crowded out by everyone else, Diedre later explained.
She felt sad that her childhood friend had died the way he had, and so young, but she had no feelings at all for the Torbetts, except hatred, of course, for the rapist in that family.
THE LAST SUMMER
There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate.
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird,
And all a wonder and a wild desire.
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
—W. B. Yeats
“Is there something wrong with Daphne?” Miles Ingham asked, looking across at Cecily, giving her one of his very direct stares. “Everyone in the family I’ve asked says that she’s perfectly fine, but I don’t think she is. In fact, I know she’s not.”
Cecily moved her position slightly on the thick car rug spread out on the ground, silent for a moment, then she shrugged. “She does seem sort of distant … far away. But I don’t think there’s anythingwrongwith her.Honestly.”
Miles sighed. “I believe you, because we’ve always told each other the truth. You know I’m close to her, Ceci, and she’s just not herself. Whatever anyone says.” He poured lemonade into two old silver mugs, forced on him by Cook, who didn’t like the family using glasses outside, because of previous accidents.
He handed one of the mugs to Cecily, who thanked him. Miles took a long swallow of the lemonade, then reached for a cucumber sandwich. His mind was racing. He had been home from Eton for almost a week, and he had known the instant he’d arrived at Cavendon that his sister was troubled. He had even wondered if she was ill. There was a listlessness about her, she was paler than usual, and she appeared preoccupied. When he’d questioned her, she had vehemently denied there was anything wrong. Buthewasn’t convinced.
Miles and Cecily were sitting under a large sycamore tree in a glade at the edge of the bluebell woods, having one of their special picnics. It was a beautiful morning in mid-June, and all was well at Cavendon. At least on the surface. The family was coping with Anne Sedgewick’s fatal illness, and the sudden unexpected death of Julian Torbett, which had been so upsetting to them.
Daphne’s horrendous experience had remained a secret known only to the Swanns, and was, therefore, buried deep. Her parents didn’t even know that Daphne had “fallen” in the woods. Daphne had kept quiet and so had DeLacy. Cecily, a Swann, knew not to utter one word about it.
With Miles home from Eton and Guy from Oxford, the entire family was in residence. Normally they would all have been at the London house for the summer season, but the countess had asked the earl if they could remain in Yorkshire for the summer. She was concerned about her sister, and wanted to be nearby in case she was needed.
The earl, who adored his wife and wanted to please her, had agreed. They had not even gone up to London for Royal Ascot Week in June.
Suddenly, Miles said, “Do you think that perhaps she’s so quiet because of Julian’s death? Surely not, Ceci. After all, they were only chums, and childhood chums at that.” He frowned, threw her a puzzled look. “She can’t be grieving, can she?” Miles, at fourteen, was unusually insightful for his age, and had always understood that Daphne had no interest in Julian.
“No, of course not, don’t be silly. She’s sad, but no more than you or me…” Ceci stopped abruptly, looked off into the distance.
Miles probed, “What is it? I know that look on your face only too well.”
“It’s just that … well, she had a fall in the woods a few weeks ago. She was worried about a bad bruise on her face. It got better quickly, but she didn’t want your father to know. Daphne kept quiet about her fall, so it must be our secret, Miles. Promise me.”
“I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die. I understand about her problem, you know. Father has his heart set on her marrying the son of a duke, and she’s acutely aware of her great beauty. But then who isn’t. Anyway, she wouldn’t want Papa to know she’d fallen. He’d chastise her for being careless. He’s drilled it into her for years that her beauty is her greatest asset.”
“That must be a big responsibility for her to carry,” Cecily muttered, making a face.
Miles nodded. “It’s made Daphne cautious, very careful. She knows she can’t damage her face, or any part of her body.” He looked at Cecily with his warm, steady gaze, added in a lower voice, “You’re beautiful, too, Ceci.” Leaning across the food in the middle of the car rug, he kissed her on the cheek. “And you’re my special girl. You are, aren’t you?”
Whenever he kissed her like this, or spoke in this affectionate manner, Cecily turned bright pink, and she did so now, really blushing. Looking at him from under her long, dark eyelashes, she whispered, “Yes, and you’re my special boy, aren’t you?”
He offered her a loving smile, nodded, and finished his sandwich.
Cecily picked up the silver mug, which she knew Hanson had relegated to the kitchen because it was dented. She drank some of the lemonade, and then glanced at the crest engraved on the side. “Loyalty binds me,” she said. She knew that motto by heart; she had heard it all her life.
Miles smiled at her, his blue eyes full of admiration for Cecily, whom he had grown up with and couldn’t imagine being away from for very long. He heard a faint noise and glanced behind him. Footsteps were coming down the path, and he wondered who it was. He sat up, fully alert.
It was Genevra who appeared, and came to a sudden stop the moment she saw them, obviously taken by surprise.
“Aw, liddle Miss Swann. And Master Ingham himself, come a courtin’.” She laughed, pirouetted, drew closer to them, peering at Miles. Suddenly she asked, “The Lady Daphne? How be she?”
Miles simply stared at her, speechless, not knowing how to answer her.
Cecily jumped to her feet. “What do you mean, Genevra?” she demanded.
“Be she better?” Genevra asked.
“She’s not better, because she’s not been ill!” Cecily exclaimed sharply, glaring at her.
“I know that, liddle Cecily.”
The gypsy girl looked from Cecily to Miles. She held his gaze for the longest moment, and she saw the light around him, saw his destiny in a flash. Immediately her eyes settled on Cecily, and her heart leapt when she caught a glimpse of her future, as she had only a month ago.
Without saying anything, Genevra turned around and walked away. She stood for a moment, when she came to the edge of the bluebell woods, gazing up at Cavendon sitting there high on the hill. Her eyes swept over its glittering windows; the sheen on its walls was like a coating of silver. Blinking in the intense brightness, she closed her eyes.
When she opened them a moment later, the great house looked dark, ominous, and the future was so clearly visible to her she was startled. A shiver ran through her. Nothing had been so clear to her ever before.
Genevra, the Romany girl with the gift of sight, ran into the fields, tears blinding her as she ran. She could not change anything. What was meant to be was meant to be.Que sera sera.
Alice Swann walked down the corridor to Lady Daphne’s bedroom, carrying three lovely summer frocks for her. They had been altered to fit her, were freshly ironed, and Alice hoped they would bring a smile to her face, cheer her up.
Over the last week Alice had become concerned about the seventeen-year-old, who seemed lost, helpless, and lacking in enthusiasm for anything, even everyday, simple things.
Arriving at the room, Alice knocked, and when there was no answer she turned the knob, only to discover the door was firmly locked. Drawing closer to it, she said in a low, urgent voice, “Lady Daphne, it’s me, Mrs. Alice. Please let me in. I have your dresses.”
When there was no sound, Alice knocked again, rapping a little harder. There were muffled sounds from behind the door and finally she heard the key being turned. The door was opened just a crack, and Alice slipped in swiftly. When she saw the state Daphne was in, she was alarmed and locked the door immediately.
The girl was standing there, looking forlorn and somewhat disheveled. She had obviously been crying and her eyes were red rimmed, her hair rumpled, and her clothes seemed to have been thrown on without much care.
“Whatever is it, Lady Daphne?” Alice asked as she walked across to her.
Daphne said nothing, simply stared blankly at Alice, her face a picture of dismay. She started to say something, and stopped abruptly.
Alice showed her the dresses. “Look, Lady Daphne, the summer chiffons. They’re ready for parties coming up. You’ll look lovely in them, I’m certain of that.”
“Thank you,” Daphne whispered, and immediately fell silent again.
Walking across to the wardrobe, Alice put them inside, sliding the hangers onto the rail, and closing the door. She returned to the middle of the room, and firmly took hold of the young woman’s elbow, ushered her over to the sofa.
“Please sit down, Lady Daphne, and tell me what’s the matter. You know I will help you if I can, and you know you can trust me.”
Daphne became distressed. Tears began to run down her pale cheeks, splashing onto her hands clasped in her lap. Alice noticed at once that she was trembling, and there was such a stricken look in her eyes Alice was afraid. Something was terribly, terribly wrong. Her heart plummeted, and she hoped to God her worst fear wasn’t about to come true. Pulling a side chair over, Alice sat down in it, and reached out, took hold of Daphne’s hand, held it tightly in hers.
Her voice was low, gentle, when she said, “Take a deep breath, Lady Daphne, and tell me why you are so troubled.”
Lady Daphne Ingham, second daughter of the Earl of Mowbray, the family’s great beauty of whom so much was expected, whom everyone believed would one day marry a duke’s son, could not speak. For days she had been in a stunned state of disbelief, hardly able to function, and now she was running out of excuses for spending so much time alone in her room. She did not know what to do, or where to turn, except to Mrs. Alice, who had told her not to trust anyone except her parents and the Swanns. But she could not go to her parents. That was unthinkable.
Endeavoring to control her swimming senses, Daphne groped for the handkerchief in her pocket and dried her eyes. She looked at Alice Swann, and nodded, but once again she discovered she could not speak. The words just wouldn’t come out. She was unable to say them.
Leaning closer to the young woman, Alice murmured, sotto voce, “Are you pregnant?”
Daphne drew back swiftly, staring at Alice, a terrified expression settling on her face. She began to shake uncontrollably. Tears swam in her bright blue eyes. Suddenly she began to sob. Then unexpectedly she reached out to Alice, who pulled her closer, held her tightly in her arms, endeavoring to calm her, fully understanding the girl’s dilemma.
Daphne whispered, “I’ve missed two periods, and I’m now sick every morning.”
Oh my God, Alice thought, this is a disaster. Whatever are we going to do? An earl’s daughter pregnant out of wedlock. That was ruinous to any family, and the grander the family the worse it was. The Inghams would be shattered when they found out. Charlotte, she thought, I’ve got to go to Charlotte. Only she can work this out, help the earl and the countess. They trust her implicitly, and she’s very clever, brilliant in certain ways.
Releasing Daphne from her tight embrace, Alice said, “This is a dreadful problem, you know that as well as I do. But I think we can prevent a huge disaster for the family if we handle it correctly.”
“What do you mean?” Daphne asked, patting her eyes with her hankie. “Handle it how? My … condition is not going to go away.”
“No, it isn’t, but there are ways toconcealthe condition, shall we say. Ways to make certain things …invisible.”
Daphne bit her lip, shaking her head. “My parents are going to be furious, Papa in particular—”
“Let’s not think about that at this exact moment, Lady Daphne,” Alice cut in. “Just leave things to the Swanns for the moment. I have to speak to Charlotte. She will come up with a plan, I promise you. In the meantime, I want you to do something for me, and for yourself. And it’s very important.”
“What do you wish me to do, Mrs. Alice? I’ll do anything if it helps.”
“I want you to take charge of yourself. And at once.Now.This afternoon. I want you to put up a front, and a good one at that.”
Frowning, Daphne said, “I’m not sure I understand.”
“You’ve always been a good little actress when we’ve put on the family plays over the years. I want a performance. The performance of your life. You must behave as normally as possible, and look extremely beautiful. Radiant, in fact. You have to fool your family. They must not think that anything is wrong, or that you’re ill or unhappy. You can’t mope around, or remain in your room. Otherwise they’ll become suspicious, wonder about your health.”
“Yes, yes, I see what you mean. And I will be my normal self, I promise. But what will we do about … the other thing?” she asked, sounding worried and anxious.
“As I told you, I shall speak to Charlotte, and she will deal with everything. That’s all I can tell you just now. Listen to me carefully, m’lady. Everything depends on you and your behavior. Nobody, and I do meanno one at all,can suspect anything. Secrecy is the key. You do understand, don’t you, Lady Daphne? You can’t confide in anyone.”
“I do know that, Mrs. Alice.” She sat straighter in the chair. “Tell no one. Trust no one.”
Alice nodded, stood up. She walked across the room, but paused just before reaching the door. Turning, she said softly, “The Swanns will protect you, m’lady. You must remember that when you feel despondent or worried.”
* * *
The kettle was whistling when Alice opened the front door of their cottage in Little Skell village and went inside. Cecily was in the kitchen preparing their tea, and Alice noticed how nicely the table had been set. Everything was ready for the two of them, and there were delicious smells permeating the air.
“You’re a bit late, Mam,” Cecily said, smiling at her mother. “I expected you ages ago.”
“I had to help Lady Daphne try on the summer chiffon frocks,” Alice improvised. “And I must say she looked beautiful in them.”
“She is beautiful. But Miles is worried about her,” Cecily blurted out, and stopped, wishing she hadn’t mentioned this.
Alice was startled by the comment, although she did not allow her expression to change. Instead she took off her light cotton jacket and began to potter around in the kitchen, allowing Cecily to finish her preparations. But Alice’s mind was in a whirl; Miles was very close to Daphne, and it was only natural that he would spot any differences in her. She could only hope no one else had. We must be quick, nip this in the bud, she thought, and sat down at the kitchen table.
She said casually, after a moment or two, “Why is Miles worried about Lady Daphne?”
“He thinks she doesn’t seem like herself. ‘Listless’ was the word he used,” Cecily explained, not wishing to make things worse by repeating everything. She certainly didn’t want her mother to know she had told Miles that Daphne had fallen in the woods. Alice would be angry if she knew.
“I think shehasbeen under the weather a bit,” Alice finally remarked, trying to sound offhand. “She told me she’s been fighting a cold … I can only add that she was in blooming health when we tried on the dresses,” Alice lied, and immediately changed the subject.
Later, Alice couldn’t help thinking that it was a good thing she had talked to Daphne today. In doing so she had probably averted a family crisis, and an explosion of no mean proportions.
Cecily had made bacon-and-egg pie for their tea, and as they ate Alice complimented her daughter, exclaiming how delicious it was. A bit later she got around to Miles Ingham, wanting to probe, find out more.
“So how was your picnic with Miles?” Alice asked with a warm smile.
“Nice, Mam. DeLacy wasn’t allowed to come though. She had to go with her mother and Diedre … to see the dentist in Harrogate.”
“Yes, so I heard. The countess went to visit her sister while the girls were with Dr. Potts. Poor Mrs. Sedgewick. I hear she hasn’t been too well over the past few weeks. Quite ill, Cook told me.”
“Miles said his aunt’s poor health is affecting his mother, and that she doesn’t seem to be interested in anything else except her sister’s condition.”
Alice sipped her tea thoughtfully. As heartbreaking and sad as it was, this illness in the family was a blessing in disguise, in a sense. It was distracting the countess, and she had obviously not noticed her daughter’s listlessness, as Miles had apparently called it, or that anything was amiss with the family beauty. Daphne had been lucky to have avoided her mother’s scrutiny.
“Miles told me that the earl’s cousin Hugh Stanton will be arriving soon. For a weekend visit,” Cecily confided to her mother, then finished her piece of bacon-and-egg pie.
“Your father told me that the other day,” Alice answered, and continued, “I have to go across to see Aunt Charlotte shortly, Ceci. But first I’ll help you clear the dishes.”
“No, no, Mam, I can do it. You’ve been sewing all day. You must be worn out. You know your eyes get tired.”
Alice smiled at her lovingly. Cecily was such a good girl. And she would leave Cavendon one day, and make a name for herself in the big wide world out there. She would design extraordinary clothes and be somebody. Alice knew that in her bones, just as she knew how truly gifted her daughter was, and bound for success.
Hanson sat in his office, staring at the calendar on his desk. It was Friday, the eleventh of July, and next Friday, just one week from today, they would be holding the first supper dance of the summer season. The first event was usually met with great anticipation and excitement. That was absent this year, and he was disappointed, and a little worried.
The butler sighed as he stared down at the date, wondering what sort of evening it was going to be. The countess, very sadly, was focused more on her sister’s cancer than the upcoming dance, whilst the earl was worrying about his wife and her state of mind, and was preoccupied.
Lady Diedre was more aloof and distant than ever, and appeared distracted, whilst Lady Daphne had spent days moping around and looking tearful. He wondered now how much her demeanor had to do with Julian Torbett’s death. He didn’t have an answer for himself.
Thankfully, the family’s favorite had somehow sprung back to life in the last couple of days, and was more like her old self. Looking beautiful, sounding cheerful, giving everyone smiles, being the charming Lady Daphne they were accustomed to, and loved.
Hanson was saddened that young Julian Torbett had died in such a tragic way. The woodsmen and gardeners were still talking about the rifle shots, which had been so unexpected, and hadn’t come from any of their men. It was a mystery, and troubled them all.
But shots had been fired by somebody, and as a result a young man was dead … because his horse had been spooked by the shots, had bolted and thrown him.
The Torbett family had sent their regrets that they were now unable to attend the supper dance. The whole family was in mourning and had canceled all engagements.
Everyone in the area was wary of the Torbetts, considering the family to be arrogant, snobbish, and far too big for their boots. And so, in one sense, he was not particularly displeased that they would be absent. He was just sorry the young man was dead before he had lived his life. He had been the nicest of the three Torbett sons. Alexander was a pathetic drunk and Richard, the eldest, was something of a martinet, highly disliked by the entire staff.
Henry Hanson picked up a red pencil and put a line through their names, crossing them off the list. Good riddance to bad rubbish, he thought.
Next, the butler studied the champagne and wine lists, which he and the earl had created last week. He nodded to himself. Their choices were good; he moved on, picked up the menu for the supper. It had been prepared by Cook, who knew the family’s tastes and preferences, and those of their guests. The earl had approved it, because the countess had been in Harrogate.
A sudden rapping on the door made Hanson lift his head. “Come in,” he called.
A second later, Lady Daphne was standing in the doorway. The moment he saw her, he jumped to his feet. “Good morning, m’lady,” he exclaimed, surprised, and then he stared hard at the young woman with her, who was holding a baby in her arms.
Aware that he was taken aback, Daphne explained, “I’m sorry to trouble you, Hanson, but I ran into this young lady in the backyard. She was looking for Peggy Swift. She’s Peggy’s sister, and she needs to speak to her about a family matter.”
“I see,” Hanson responded, walking around the desk, his eyes riveted on the young woman. She was simply but neatly dressed, and did indeed have a look of Peggy.
“Please come this way. I will take you to the servants’ hall, and you can sit there whilst we find Peggy. And what is your name, may I ask?”
“It’s June, Mr. Hanson. Mrs. June O’Sullivan. My husband brought me over to Cavendon from Ripon. In the horse and trap. He’s waiting outside.”
Inclining his head, Hanson said, “Follow me,” and led the way down the corridor. He was surprised to see that Lady Daphne was still with them, and turned to her. “Thank you, my lady, for bringing Mrs. O’Sullivan to me, but I can take over now.”
“Oh, that’s all right, Hanson. I don’t mind staying with Mrs. O’Sullivan until Peggy arrives.” She smiled at the young woman, who looked pale, rather wan. “Please sit down. Could I get you a glass of water, or something else to drink?”
“Oh no, thank you, my lady. I’m all right. But I will sit if I may, thank you very much. The baby’s a bit heavy.” She half smiled. “Boys are.”
Although Hanson was slightly put out, not liking the idea of Lady Daphne lingering here downstairs with a relative of the help, he was clever enough not to display his feelings. He hurried away in search of Mrs. Thwaites.
Daphne continued to stand in the doorway of the servants’ hall, and as the silence lengthened she said, “How old is your baby?”
“He’s eighteen months, and doing well, Lady Daphne.”
“And what’s his name?”
“It’s Kevin, m’lady.” There was a pause, and then she said, again with the small smile, “Patrick, that’s my husband, is Irish. So obviously we picked an Irish name.”
Before she could respond, Daphne heard clicking heels running down the corridor, and suddenly Peggy Swift was rushing into the room, slightly flustered, her expression anxious. When she saw her sister she rushed over to her, flung her arms around her and the baby. And then looked down at the child, touched his cheek with a finger.
And in that instant Daphne knew that Peggy was the mother of this child, not June. There was such adoration and motherly love reflected on her face, it was patently obvious. Daphne continued to watch her, wondering what her situation was.
As if Peggy had somehow become aware of Daphne’s fixed scrutiny, she swung around and stared at Daphne, and then her face flushed bright red.
She knows what I’m thinking, Daphne realized, and instantly wanted to put the young maid at ease. “Your nephew’s a lovely little boy, Peggy,” she murmured, and edged out of the doorway. “I’ll leave you both alone now. You’ve things to discuss.” With another smile and a gracious nod of her head, she hurried down the corridor to the back stairs and went upstairs.
A few seconds later she was gliding into the conservatory, her favorite room, where she sank down into a chair, still thinking of Peggy Swift and June. She couldn’t help focusing on June, who she had found wandering around at the back of the house. She had known that something was amiss from the moment June had spoken to her, asking about Peggy. And she was even more convinced of this now. Everyone knew better than to seek out a relative who was in service. It never happened. So there was a problem. A big problem. Her heart went out to Peggy. Perhaps the O’Sullivans could no longer look after the child …
Daphne’s mind drifted as she leaned back against the cushions … and thought about her own predicament. She was pregnant, and single, as Peggy more than likely had been. The difference was that she came from a rich and powerful family who could help her through her trouble, and would do so lovingly. At least Charlotte Swann had assured her of that. But was Charlotte right? She was not sure. Throw a pebble in a pool and watch the ripples spread out, Daphne thought. I am a pebble, and the ripples are about to spread and spread. And my life will never be the same ever again. Rape she could have perhaps hidden. But pregnancy? That was hardly likely.
* * *
“She’s nice,” June said, sipping the cup of tea Peggy had just brought to her from the kitchen.
“You mean Lady Daphne?”
“Yes, of course. But Cook’s nice too. Can you take Kevin for a minute, Peg? So I can drink my tea.”
“Here, give him to me,” she answered, and took the child in her arms. But she did not sit down. Cook had already told her to get her business done quickly. Visitors were frowned on, she’d said. “Mrs. Thwaites came to the kitchen to ask why you’re here,” she explained to her sister.
June nodded her understanding. “What did you tell her?”
“I said you needed my signature on a piece of paper to do with Dad’s farm. So I’ll sign it when you’ve finished your tea.”
“Thanks, Peg, it’s good of you to give up your share, and we appreciate it. Patrick’ll make a go of the farm, and it’s a home for you, too, when you need it.”
“I know,” Peggy murmured, having understood right from the beginning of their marriage that they’d want the farm one day. Anyway, what use was a farm to her? She wouldn’t be able to run it. Still, they were using the baby as a tool, to get her to give them her half. A fool she wasn’t. She’d only been a fool giving in to Andy Newson, who’d got her in the family way and then run a mile. Three thousand miles, actually, since he’d gone to America.
Peggy looked down at her son and smiled at him, touched his cheek, kissed his nose. He was a gorgeous baby. She was suddenly glad June was taking care of him. She trusted her sister when it came to the child. June would love him, nurture him, keep him safe. She had no qualms about that.
“Is it Lady Daphne you look after, then? Are you her maid?” June asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“No, I’m more of a general parlor maid. All of the four Dees are nice, but—”
“Who are the four dees?”
Peggy grinned. “Diedre, Daphne, DeLacy, and Dulcie. The four daughters of the earl. All beautiful, in their own way, but the terror is Dulcie. Five going on fifteen, and very cheeky.”
This comment made June smile, and she shook her head. “Some little girls are like that, grown-up before their time. So youdolike it here at Cavendon?”
“Sort of, the housekeeper’s quite nice, and so is Cook.” She shrugged. “The footmen are full of themselves, think they’re the bee’s knees.”
“I thought there was one you liked.”
“Yes, Gordon Lane, he’s pleasant, and has been kind to me, and he’s not too conceited.”
“Be careful, Peg,” June warned, staring at her sister pointedly.
Peggy flushed. “I won’t be going that route again, I can tell you that.” Peggy paused, listened, and then swiftly handed the baby back to June. “Give me the document to sign. Come on, be quick. I can hear Hanson coming down the corridor. He runs this place with an iron hand. He won’t like it that you’re still here. He’ll say I’m wasting time.”
“We have to have two witnesses when you sign,” June cried as she put the envelope on the table.
“Oh my God! No!” Peggy became flustered as Hanson hurried into the servants’ hall, looking somewhat put out.
“Now, now, what’s all this?” he asked, eyeing Peggy suspiciously. “Your sister’s begun to outstay her welcome. You’re in dereliction of your duties, Swift.”
“Yes, I know. I’m ever so sorry, Mr. Hanson. I need to sign this paper, a legal document. But I need two witnesses,” she wailed, looking suddenly panic-stricken.
Anxious to remove the woman and the baby, and get Peggy Swift back to her work, Hanson exclaimed, “Well, then let me get a pen, and I’ll sign, and I’ll bring Mrs. Thwaites with me. Once the document is dealt with your sister must be on her way. Immediately.”
“Yes, sir, thank you, Mr. Hanson, I’m ever so grateful.”
The Inghams were on the very edge of a precipice. One false step would prove fatal. If they fell they would be doomed forever.
The fall of the house of Ingham, Charlotte thought. No, no, I can’t allow that to happen. I can’t be the only Swann in over 160 years to fail in my duty. Since 1749 the Swanns have protected the Inghams, starting with my ancestor James Swann, liege man to Humphrey Ingham, the First Earl of Mowbray.
I must pull some tricks out of the hat, she told herself. I can’t be shamed, can’t be a failure.
But she knew she couldn’t make the pregnancy go away, just like that, with the snap of her fingers. There was only one solution: She had to conceal it, camouflage it, and keep it a secret. And she needed a foolproof plan.
Charlotte sighed to herself as she walked on, her mind turning swiftly, endless possibilities occurring to her. She glanced around, thinking that the park was lovely on this sunny July morning. She usually took this route, avoiding the dirt road from the village. That happened to be the quickest way, but not as pretty to traverse.
When she came to the walled rose garden, she pushed open the heavy wooden door and went in, sat down on a garden seat, breathed in the fragrance of the roses. They were blooming well, and their scent was very heady, almost overpowering, but then roses were her favorite flowers.
Leaning back against the wooden seat, Charlotte closed her eyes, relaxing a little, focusing on an almost insurmountable problem: A pregnant, unwed girl, the seventeen-year-old daughter of one of England’s premier earls, from a preeminent and most powerful family; the great beauty expected to achieve important things for them, through a brilliant marriage to a duke’s son.
Her father’s dream … a dream now destroyed, and in an instant of unthinkable violence.
An involuntary shiver ran through Charlotte, and she squeezed her eyes tighter, not wanting the welling tears to seep out. And shewason the verge of tears. This was a terrible tragedy, heartbreaking, and the girl wasn’t to blame at all. She was the innocent victim. A raging maniac, a pervert, had committed rape on an innocent young woman, had taken her life away. Daphne’s futurewouldbe gone … if she didn’t save her.
Daphne. Poor Daphne, Charlotte thought, seeing her in her mind’s eye … the image of her yesterday had been memorable. She had looked truly beautiful, and so much so Charlotte had been stunned for a moment, had caught her breath in surprise when Daphne had come out onto the terrace to speak with her that morning.
She had been wearing a peach-colored afternoon dress, with a cowl neckline, full skirt, and long flowing sleeves. The soft color had emphasized her peaches-and-cream complexion, the blueness of her eyes. Charlotte had realized, at that precise moment, that a young man, any man, would be completely bowled over by her, caught up in the sheer loveliness of her.
The floaty dress, its warm peach color, her smiling face, her cheerful demeanor … all had to do with Alice, who had told Charlotte everything immediately after she had found out about the pregnancy. “I explained to Daphne that she had to give the performance of her life for the next few days, until you came up with a plan. I told her she could not fail.”
And I can’t fail either, Charlotte reminded herself as she left the rose garden, hurried on up to Cavendon sitting high on the hill above the Dales, its windows gleaming in the bright northern sunlight.
She knew that Charles and Felicity were expecting her. Yesterday she had asked if she could see them both the next day, to discuss something very important.
In his usual easygoing way, Charles had agreed, and had not even asked what she wanted to discuss. He had also said that Felicity would be at Cavendon, because she was not going to Harrogate. Apparently, Anne Sedgewick’s only child, Grace, and Grace’s husband, Adrian, had arrived from Cairo at last, and were staying with her.
Later, Charlotte had met with Daphne on the terrace again, and had asked her to be available the following day. The girl was terrified of facing her parents, even though she was totally innocent of any wrongdoing. So much so, she was a nervous wreck, and when Charlotte had volunteered to talk to them first, Daphne had leapt at the idea. Anxiety-ridden though she was about the meeting, she was much calmer when Charlotte had finally gone home later that afternoon.
Charlotte glanced at her fob watch as she walked around to the back door of the house. It was just ten minutes past ten. She had time for a quick cup of tea, and a word with Hanson before her meeting.
When she walked into the kitchen, Cook’s face brightened at the sight of her. “Charlotte! It’s grand ter see yer, luv! I knows yer always popping in and out, but yer never pop in here, not these days, yer don’t.”
Charlotte went over to Cook, took hold of her hands affectionately, held them in hers for a moment. “I hate to come bothering you when you’ve so much to do. But I’ve a few minutes to spare today, before a meeting with Lord Mowbray, so I knew I just had to come and say hello.”
“Well, then, let’s have some tea. Or would yer prefer a cup of coffee? I’ve just made a pot.”
“Why not? That sounds nice, Mrs. Jackson.”
“Do yer know, young Cecily gets ter look more like yer do every day, Charlotte, and she’s going ter be as beautiful,” Cook said, as she went over to the stove, poured the coffee, then brought the cups to the table. “A lovely girl, that she is.”
“Yes, I know, she’s a darling,” Charlotte agreed, and took a sip of the coffee. “And she’s so talented, I can’t believe how clever she is with a needle and thread.”
“Lady Daphne thinks she’s going ter be a designer one day, making frocks. In London, she said. What do yer think of that then?” Mrs. Jackson gave Charlotte a knowing look. “And she really did manage ter repair that there frock that got damaged with ink.”
“So I heard,” Charlotte murmured.
Stepping closer, Cook whispered, “Mrs. Sedgewick’s been really poorly, that she has! And the countess has been out of her mind with worry. But things seem ter be calming down. Oh, and the countess’s niece has come back from Egypt.”
“Yes, I know.” Charlotte picked up the coffee cup again, took another sip. “There aren’t many secrets around here.”
“Only too true. No doubt yer’ve heard that Master Hugo’s coming back for a visit. I always liked that boy, I did that. Pity he got shipped off to heathen lands.”
Charlotte laughed. “He went to New York, Mrs. Jackson, not darkest Africa. From what I gather, everyone’s rather looking forward to seeing him again.”
“That’s so, yes.” Cook hurried over to her boiling pots, took the lids off, peered inside, stirred one of the pots.
Charlotte said, “I’m afraid I’ve got to be off, Mrs. Jackson. Thank you for the coffee. It really hit the spot.”
Cook beamed at her and blew her a kiss as she slipped out of the kitchen.
Charlotte found the butler in his office, as usual poring over a collection of papers on his desk. He glanced up as she knocked and went in, saying, “Good morning, Mr. Hanson. I just wanted to let you know I am meeting the earl and countess in the South Wing in a few minutes. For a private meeting. I didn’t want you to be alarmed if you saw a lot of lights on in there on a Saturday morning.”
“Thank you, Miss Charlotte. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. But I did know about that. His lordship told me earlier.”
Charlotte smiled and retreated. She went down the back corridor, and upstairs to the front entrance hall. Then she headed in the direction of the South Wing, and she braced herself for her encounter with the earl and countess.
Charlotte heard steps behind her, and she recognized them. She paused, swung around, and, just as she had thought, Hanson was hurrying after her, a determined look on his face.
“I do apologize, Miss Charlotte,” he said when he came to a stop. “I didn’t ask if you would like some refreshments served during your meeting. The earl didn’t give me any instructions, and it was remiss of me not to mention it a moment ago.”
“I don’t think we do, Mr. Hanson, but thank you for thinking of it.” She smiled at him warmly. He was special to her; she had a soft spot for him, and took comfort from his calm authority. His constant presence had been reassuring in times of trouble and problems; also, his devotion to Cavendon, and the family, was commendable. Although Hanson could be stern with the staff, he never raised his voice, nor was he unkind. It was a gift, the way he managed the staff. And the family, she added to herself, smiling inwardly.
Hanson said, “If you don’t mind, I will accompany you to the South Wing. I can help you put on the lights. There are a lot of switches, you know. Still, I’m thankful the fifth earl put in electricity. We couldn’t do without it now.”
“Please come with me, Hanson, you’ll be a great help.” Realizing that he was riddled with curiosity about the meeting, and wanting to allay any concerns he might have, Charlotte said, in a confiding tone, “I suggested to his lordship that we should consider using the South Wing again. To open it up would be useful, because there’s so much wear and tear on the East Wing. However, I also brought the matter up because I thought the earl should consider it for Lady Gwendolyn.”
Hanson stopped abruptly, stared at her, obviously surprised. “I don’t understand. Lady Gwendolyn is happy where she lives now, isn’t she?” He sounded genuinely puzzled.
Charlotte nodded. “She is, yes. But I will confide in you, Mr. Hanson. However, this has to be between us.”
“But of course. I would never break a confidence, you must know that after all these years.”
“I do. I’m afraid the earl is rather troubled, in a sense, about Mr. Hugo’s return. You see, Little Skell Manor is actuallyhis.It belonged to his mother, but Lady Gwendolyn continued to live there after her death. However, it is his legally.”
A look of comprehension crossed Hanson’s face. “Lady Evelyne never changed her will in favor of her sister. That’s the problem, isn’t it?”
“I’m afraid so. Mr. Hugo would be within his legal rights to claim the house. I’ve been trying to find a solution, if that should happen. Where could we put Lady Gwendolyn? Obviously the South Wing came to mind. What is your opinion, Hanson?”
“It’s the perfect solution, Miss Charlotte. Lady Gwendolyn does enjoy her privacy, and the South Wing is beautiful, and very comfortable. Ah, here we are. Let’s go in and put on the lights.”
As he spoke Hanson opened the double mahogany doors and ushered Charlotte inside. Together they went around the rooms, flipping light switches, and discussing the different spaces. Charlotte knew this wing inside out, because she had worked in these rooms for years with David Ingham, the fifth earl.
“Thank you for helping me,” she said in an undertone, when she heard footsteps and voices. She and Hanson went out to meet the earl and countess as they came into the gallery of the South Wing.
Hanson immediately excused himself and hurried off.
Charlotte said, “Hanson volunteered to help me turn on all the lights. Quite a task.”
Lady Felicity was glancing around the pale green living room, and she exclaimed, “I’d forgotten what a lovely room this is, Charles, and the antiques are quite extraordinary. Aunt Gwendolyn would be happy here. Who wouldn’t? You had a good idea, Charlotte.”
“You might have forgotten, but the other rooms are equally as lovely. Let’s walk around, your ladyship, shall we?” she suggested.
The countess agreed at once, and hurried ahead, leaving Charles and Charlotte to follow. “The more I see this wing, the more I like it,” Charles murmured to Charlotte. “I’m seriously thinking of opening it up for the summer events, even if Hugo doesn’t want the manor.”
Charlotte simply nodded.
He mentioned this to Felicity as they caught up with her, and she immediately agreed.
They returned to the pale green sitting room, and Felicity said, “Thank you again, Charlotte, and now I must be off. I have so many—”
“You can’t leave, darling,” the earl interrupted swiftly. “When I told you earlier I wanted you to see the South Wing, I also explained that Charlotte wished to speak to us. About something important.”
The countess looked at Charlotte, frowning. “Do you have some sort of problem?”
“No, I don’t, my lady. You and the earl do. And when the Inghams have problems, so do the Swanns.”
“What is it, Charlie?” the earl asked, reverting to his childhood name for her, suddenly aware of her troubled expression, the worry flooding her eyes.
Taking a deep breath, she replied, “I think it would be a good idea if you both sat down…” Her voice trailed off.
Felicity appeared to hesitate, obviously longing to go about her own business, but Charles knew instinctively that something was awfully wrong. “Come along, Felicity, sit next to me here on the sofa,” he insisted.
Reluctantly, Felicity did so, her eyes now riveted on Charlotte. “What is it you want to discuss? Surely it can’t be that bad?”
Lowering herself into a chair next to them, Charlotte answered quietly, “It is indeed very bad, Lady Mowbray. You are both facing a situation that is almost insurmountable. It could be ruinous. It could easily bring down the House of Ingham.”
Felicity was gaping at her, her eyes filled with bafflement, obviously unable to come to grips with such a preposterous suggestion.
Charles Ingham, the Sixth Earl of Mowbray, trusted Charlotte Swann with his life. He knew she was not exaggerating. That was not her way. His face paled and apprehension filled his light blue eyes as he focused on her.
“Let’s have it, Charlotte,” he said, bracing himself.
Taking a deep breath, Charlotte said, “Daphne’s pregnant.” Her eyes did not leave their faces as she uttered these fateful words.
They fell into the room like an exploding bomb.
For a moment Charles and Felicity could not say a word, so stunned and shocked were they. They looked at each other in alarm, and then gaped at Charlotte, obviously filled with total disbelief, based on the expressions on their faces. It was as if they couldn’t comprehend what she had announced so bluntly.
“No! No! That can’t be!” Charles exclaimed in a loud, angry voice. “Not Daphne! That’s not possible! She doesn’t know any men. So how can she be pregnant?” He shuddered as he said that word, shaking his head vehemently. Charlotte is mistaken, he thought; she has to be. There is no truth in her statement. Daphne cannot be pregnant. Not my Daphne.
Felicity found her voice at last. “I agree with Charles,” she exclaimed, her voice shrill, harsh. She brought a trembling hand to her mouth in an effort to stifle the sobs bubbling up in her throat.
“She would never break her code of honor, or let us down. She is part of Charles’s plan; she wants to marry the son of a duke. She has integrity, and it’s true, she doesn’t know any men, other than Julian Torbett, but—”
Felicity could not control her raging emotions, and she began to sob once more, tears coursing down her cheeks.
Charles moved closer to her on the sofa, and put his arm around her, endeavoring to calm her. But she was distraught, just as he was himself. He was still suffering from shock, and he felt as though his strength had drained away. For the first time in his life he was floored, so startled by this horrendous news that he was undone.
Holding his weeping wife in his arms, he looked across at Charlotte helplessly, and cleared his throat. His voice shook when he finally asked, “Who did this to her?”
Charlotte swallowed, and answered unsteadily, “I don’t know. We don’t know, and—”
“Do you mean she hasn’t told you who her … lover is?” Felicity cried, the pitch of her voice higher than ever, her face white as bleached linen.
“There is no lover, your ladyship. Daphne did not have a liaison with a man. She is the innocent victim. She was either attacked by a stranger, or forced by someone she knew. She was raped.”
“Are you saying Julian Torbett raped her?” Charles exclaimed, his voice echoing with anger. He was astounded, and added, “Surely not Julian … he was so meek.”
“I don’t know that itwashim. She hasn’t been very forthcoming about what actually happened—”
“When did this take place?” Charles demanded.
“On the Saturday you had lunch with her and the girls. May the third. She went to Havers Lodge after lunch—”
“I remember that!” he interrupted, cutting her off. “Daphne told me she was going to Havers Lodge to see Julian, to tell him that he could invite Madge Courtney to come to the annual summer ball. Perhaps I’m wrong about him. Maybe he did force her; yes, that’s what happened.”
“You’re right, Charles, I concur with you,” Felicity said quietly, now endeavoring to control herself. “It must have been at the lodge, when she was there.”
“No, no,” Charlotte interjected. “It was in the bluebell woods…” She let her voice trail off when she saw the shock on their faces once again. This was hard for them to bear.
“On our land!” Charles shouted, his usual constraint evaporating. His anger was spiraling once more.
Felicity, looking thoughtful, murmured in a low voice, “I know Julian was engaged to Madge Courtney, but mostly that was because Daphne never showed any interest in him romantically. Her heart was set on following the plans Charles had made for her. However, I always believed Julian was enamored of her. In my opinion, Madge was second choice. Anyway, Madge is rich, let’s not forget. The Torbetts favor women with great fortunes, you know.”
There was a long silence.
Charlotte broke it when she said, “I think I should tell you everything I know. After that you must talk to Daphne. She is terrified, and beside herself with grief and sorrow. She’s trying to keep up a good front, encouraged by Alice to do so. But she really needs you, needs your comfort, your love and understanding.”
“Of course she does,” Charles agreed, endeavoring to calm himself. The shock had not entirely receded. “Daphne is a wonderful young woman, and obviously she is totally innocent. We must reassure her that we are on her side, and that we will help her in every way we can.”
Felicity took a deep breath. “We will make sure she gets through this, Charlotte, but what are we going to do about her condition? How will we keep it a secret? Hide her pregnancy? Lead a normal life? What if the secret leaks out? She’ll be ruined. The family will be ruined, as you warned. And what about next year? She’s supposed to come out as a debutante, be presented at Court? What can we do to sustain the family’s reputation?”
“I’ve come up with a plan. First, I would like to fill you in about Daphne’s ordeal.”
“Yes, do that, Charlie, tell us everything.” Charles sat back, waiting, an expectant expression on his face.
Charlotte, leaning forward, her hands clasped together, did exactly that … told them everything they had to know, however unpalatable this was.
* * *
Once she had concluded her story, Charles rose. After thanking her, he looked at his wife. “We must now go and find Daphne to console her, and give her our support. She must be beside herself.”
“Yes, she must be.” Felicity also stood up, but at that precise moment there was a knock on the door of the South Wing. It was Charlotte who ran to open it.
Daphne was standing there, looking truly beautiful in a pale blue outfit, and it was obvious she was apprehensive.
“Come in, come in, Lady Daphne. Your parents were about to come looking for you,” Charlotte told her with a wide smile. “They understand you are totally innocent,” she finished in a slightly lower tone.
Daphne stepped into the gallery. Her mother ran to her at once, embracing her. Charles followed swiftly, and put his arms around both women, holding them close to him protectively.
After a moment, Charlotte said quietly, “I shall be in the lavender bedroom, here in the South Wing. And when you are ready to hear them I will tell you my plans for Daphne. For the moment you must be together to discuss this problem, and comfort each other.”
Charles simply inclined his head, half smiled at Charlotte. “Thank you,” he murmured softly, and turned back to his daughter and his wife. His concern for them was apparent, as was his deep love.
* * *
Sitting at the small antique writing desk in the lavender bedroom, Charlotte used this time to refine the plans she had made in her head over the last few days. She thought they would work; she prayed they would. Once they were put into operation, she believed she and the Inghams could save Daphne, and their reputation as a family. That was her aim, and her duty. She was a Swann. And there were other Swanns to assist her.
* * *
A short while later, Daphne found Charlotte in the lavender bedroom and they went back to the sitting room together. She could tell that the Inghams were supportive of their daughter, very loving with her. Daphne was more relaxed, and looked relieved.
Once they were seated, Charles asked, “Who else knows about this situation, Charlotte?”
“The four of us, and Alice and Walter.”
“So we’re safe, it’s a secret.” He glanced at Daphne. “You haven’t told any of your sisters, have you?”
“No, Papa, I haven’t. Mrs. Alice told me that I shouldn’t … she said, ‘Tell no one. Trust no one in this house, except your parents and the Swanns.’ I listened to her, and I did as she said.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Daphne.” Turning to Charlotte, he asked, “So, what plans have you developed?”
“Maintaining the secret is the firstvitalrule,” Charlotte replied. “If you feel the need to talk, if you’re troubled—” She looked pointedly at Daphne and Felicity, then continued, “Talk to each other, or to Alice, or me. Try to speak in a private place where you can’t be overheard. All right? Remember, there must be no gossip about you, Daphne.”
They both nodded, and Charlotte went on. “The next thing is your demeanor. You must behave as normally as possible. All of you. Not one single person should think something is wrong or amiss. That is especially important as far as you’re concerned, Daphne. As Alice told you, please keep up that happy front.” She sat back in the chair, and paused for a second before saying, to Charles, “Your father once told me something I’ve never forgotten, and it’s this:Never show weakness, never lose face.”
Charles nodded. “He said the same thing to me, and it’s good to remember his words, and to follow his advice.”
“Now, let’s get to the pregnancy. The attack on Daphne was May the third, today is July twelfth. By my calculation that’s around two months into the pregnancy. So, for the next four months I feel certain we can conceal Daphne’s condition.”
“How is that possible?” Charles asked, raising a brow questioningly.
“Daphne will be able to wear the clothes she has now, and for quite a few weeks. During that time Alice will make some very well-cut outfits for her, that will hide her condition. Also, Daphne is tall and slender like her mother, which helps. As I recall, her ladyship didn’t show for a long time.” As she said this, Charlotte looked at Felicity for confirmation of her statement.
The countess nodded and said to Charles, “I didn’t actually show until at least six months into my pregnancies. Let’s hope Daphne is the same.”
He was silent, hoping his wife and Charlotte were right.
Charlotte leaned forward, and focused again on Felicity. “I believe Daphne can safely stay here at Cavendon through the summer season, and attend all of the events without anyone knowing a thing, your ladyship. The clothes she wears, her demeanor, and the way she’s built will all work in her favor. Don’t you think?”
“I certainly do, and it’s good that things continue in a normal way.”
For a moment Charlotte sat thinking, before finally saying, “Daphne will have to disappear at one moment, and I came up with another idea. Why not have her take a European tour? Many young women do that before becoming debutantes, and being presented to the king and queen at Court.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” Felicity replied, and glanced at Charles. “Don’t you agree?”
“Yes, I do. But who will accompany her?”
“If you wish, your lordship, I could do that, act as a chaperone and companion. I do think there will come a time when Daphnemustleave here, when she begins to show.”
“I would like her to do a European tour,” Charles answered, finding himself more at ease the more Charlotte talked this out with them. “How do you feel about it, darling?” he asked Daphne, smiling at her, resisting the impulse to grab hold of her, keep her close, and safe, always.
“I would like that, Papa, and anyway there aren’t many other solutions. I couldn’t live at the Mayfair house, because of the staff. So this tour sounds like the answer.” Turning to look at Charlotte, she added, “I would enjoy being with you, Miss Charlotte, and certainly it would mean I could relax. Because I would be showing by October, don’t you think?”
“And after the tour?” Felicity asked, eyeing Charlotte. “What is the next step?”
“Perhaps Daphne could come home to Cavendon for a couple of weeks, and then she would tell you she would like to attend a finishing school in either Paris or Switzerland. Obviously, she won’t be going to a finishing school, but she will have the proper tutors, and will learn a lot. We would be using assumed names.”
“And Daphne could come home in the new year well polished, with French on the tip of her tongue, and a bit of real Parisian chic?” Charles threw Charlotte a questioning look.
“That’s exactly what I had in mind, Lord Mowbray.”
“Where will Daphne give birth?” Charles inquired quietly.
“In a good hospital in the south of England, maybe in Kent, one of the southern counties, anyway. And again, under an assumed name.”
“And what happens to the baby?” Felicity asked in a low, troubled voice.
“That’s up to the family, but I think you have plenty of time to make a decision about adoption. I’m not sure you have any other choice,” Charlotte answered gently.
“Well, I think you’ve helped to ease our worries,” Charles said, giving Charlotte a faint smile. “We’re very grateful to you. We’ll be discussing things and making the right decisions when the time is appropriate. Now, Charlotte, won’t you join us for lunch?”
“Thank you, your lordship, but I did make an arrangement with Alice that is a bit hard to break. However, if you like, I could come to tea this afternoon. Would that be all right? I would love to see Guy.”
“That would be perfect,” Felicity said swiftly. “Aunt Gwendolyn is coming; in fact the whole family will be present. And naturally you are welcome.”
Later that afternoon, Charles Ingham, the Sixth Earl of Mowbray, climbed the moors to an outcropping of giant-sized rocks. They dated as far back as the glaciers that had covered Yorkshire in the time of the Ice Age, and they were known as High Skell.
The monolithic rocks were formed in a semicircle and created a secluded and protected area. It was a place Charles had always favored since his childhood.
The weather had clouded over slightly, and as he strode toward the rocks he glanced up at the sky. Despite its leaden aspect, he knew it wouldn’t rain. He went and sat down on one of the flat stones and leaned back against a wall of rocks, closing his eyes for a moment, relaxing his taut muscles. He thought of High Skell as his private place, where he could think more clearly and sort out all of the machinations rumbling around in his head.
In this vast and desolate stretch of moorland, he found a certain tranquility, a deep sense of peace. There was nothing here but sky and moors, and the keening of the wind coming off the North Sea when the weather was inclement.
The vast emptiness was a blessing. Nothing intruded. He had only his thoughts to contend with. Here he could sort them out, find the focus to solve his problems. And so he had come up here to be alone. And to mourn.
He had been shaken to his very core by Charlotte’s revelations a few hours ago. What had happened to his beloved daughter, his darling Daphne, had been a million-to-one chance. For a child of his to be raped on his own land was unimaginable, utterly appalling. It had broken his heart today, destroyed all of his plans and dreams for her. And her dreams as well.
She had led a quiet, sheltered life within her own family, and never been exposed to the world, and was inexperienced in every way … and then she had been assaulted in the most savage and cruel manner.
How shocked and frightened she must have been, and still was, if the truth be known. She had been courageous and strong, and that told him just how much of an Ingham she truly was. He was proud of her stoicism.
Charles sighed under his breath, thinking of the worst possible scenario. She could easily have been murdered after the rape; that man, whoever he was, could have ended up killing her to protect himself.
Every time he thought of this his mind froze at the mere idea of it, and now he pushed the thought away once more.
They were lucky she was still alive, that the rapist had not taken that ultimate step and killed her. Fortunately her facial beauty was unmarred. She had begun to recover physically, if not mentally; obviously that would take time, and she would need very special care. He and Felicity would give her all of the help she needed, as would Charlotte and Alice.
Apparently Alice had been stalwart and wise in her handling of the dreadful situation she had stumbled into accidentally, on that fateful Saturday in May. And, as it turned out, it had been most propitious for them. Alice had found out first and clamped down on it. Now they would protect Daphne, nurture her, until the baby’s birth.
And what to do about the baby? When all was said and done, the child was part Ingham, blood of his blood through Daphne. He closed his eyes, let his thoughts float.
Who had raped her? It seemed unlikely that it was a stranger, some man who had wandered onto the estate and randomly attacked her, and then fled.
When he had mentioned Julian Torbett to her, Daphne had dropped her head, looking down at her clasped hands in her lap, and she had wept. At that moment, as he now looked back, he had genuinely believed she had been acquiescing, silently naming Julian.
Julian Torbett.Charles focused his mind on the young man. He had always appeared meek, gentle, even a little wishy-washy, as Felicity put it. How would he have found the nerve to force Daphne into a sexual act?
The answer came to him quite suddenly. The meekest of men often found enormous inner strength and purpose in order to gain something they longed for. Frustration, desire, love, and lust could be forged together to become a powerful force. Had this happened on that May day? He did not know. He would never know. But it occurred to him now that Julian was the most likely candidate, the man who had done this to Daphne. Well, he was dead and buried. And that was that. They had to cope with the reality.
According to Charlotte, Daphne would be able to pick up her life in February of 1914, as if nothing had happened. If they followed the plans Charlotte had made. It would be their secret.
Daphne would come back from her sojourn in Europe, where she would have acquired lots of new knowledge about history and art; a new language, French; and that special kind of chic that was totally Parisian. She would have a new wardrobe of clothes from the best couture houses in Paris, and she would be launched as a debutante, just as they had always planned. She would be presented at Court to the king and queen, and he and Felicity would give her a coming-out ball. And shewouldmarry the son of a duke.
Charlotte had told them everything could be fixed, and he trusted Charlotte Swann. He always had. His father had relied on her judgment for years, and so had he. Whenever he looked back, he realized how much he had depended on her in his childhood.
He knew she would not accept his lunch invitation when he had asked her earlier. That was too formal. But she would come to tea, because it was more casual. She wasn’t a servant, and she wasn’t an aristocrat, she was a loyal retainer. In between, in a sense, and she was aware of her place.
Charles took out his watch, glanced at it. Then he stood up, and walked away from the little enclave of rocks, taking the moorland path back to the house. As he did so he ran across two of the woodsmen walking together along a lower ridge, and he raised a hand, waved. They waved back.
Ever since the morning meeting with Charlotte he had fully understood why there were so many of his woodsmen roaming the property these days. Percy Swann, the head gamekeeper, had told him recently that there were rumors of poachers on the estate. That was not true. Charlotte had thrown up protection for the entire family by making sure the outside workers were everywhere. That was now patently obvious to him. He approved of her actions; the presence of his employees gave him comfort.
* * *
Walter Swann was waiting for Charles when he hurried into the dressing room adjoining his bedroom a short while later.
“I’m afraid I’m running late, Swann. Has the countess gone down for tea?”
“Yes, m’lord, about ten minutes ago. Lady Gwendolyn arrived a little earlier than expected.”
Charles nodded as Walter helped him off with his tweed jacket. “As usual,” he muttered, shaking his head knowingly. “My aunt is always afraid of missing something, hence her overdone punctuality. She’s been doing it for years.”
“Hanson gave me a message for you, m’lord. Mr. Hugo Stanton telephoned from London. Hanson gave me the number.” Walter handed Charles a piece of paper; Charles glanced at it and put it on the chest of drawers.
“I’d better get dressed first,” Charles said, walking over to the bathroom. Over his shoulder, he added, “I’ll wear a gray suit, Walter, and would you be good enough to select a suitable tie, please?”
“Right away, m’lord,” Walter replied, and went over to the wardrobe.
In the bathroom Charles washed his hands and face, and then stared at himself. He thought he looked strained, and immediately reminded himself to relax, and to behave in the most normal way. He couldn’t help wondering why Hugo was telephoning him. Hopefully he might be canceling his trip. Now that would be a bit of good news for a change. The thought of Hugo’s impending visit was upsetting, especially under the present circumstances. Any houseguest would be a nuisance at the moment. He wasn’t going to cancel Hugo’s planned visit; with luck, Hugo himself might do that.
* * *
DeLacy sat down on the small sofa next to Miles. She said, “It’s a lovely tea today, isn’t it? And Mama seems so much better.”
“That’s true,” Miles answered, glancing around the room. In the Ingham family, he was the most observant of anyone and he missed nothing. He had already made a note of his mother’s mood. She had gone from being worried and concerned about his aunt all week, to a woman who was now laughing and smiling far too much. She, who was never frivolous, now appeared to be just that. Miles frowned and glanced over at Daphne. She, too, had improved. Her demeanor was calm, she was no longer moping or looking weepy. As for his father, he was positively genial.
Extremely intelligent and clever for his age, Miles decided they were not behaving normally. He couldn’t help wondering why they were so different this afternoon. What was going on? He couldn’t even hazard a guess.
“Penny for your thoughts,” DeLacy said, nudging him. “You’re very preoccupied. What’s the matter?”
“Nothing, Lacy, honestly. I was just thinking about the supper dance next Friday. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it,” he improvised.
“Oh, please, don’t be stuffy, Miles. It’s fun. And I’ll dance with you, and Diedre and Daphne will too. Then you’ll escape all those giggling girls who swoon all over you.”
“No, they don’t!” he shot back, and then blushed. “Stop teasing me. I don’t like it, and you know that. Anyway, I’m not interested in any of those silly females from the local families. I don’t understand why they’re even invited.”
“Because Mama and Papa understand that they have to give a few social events in the spring and early summer. Don’t forget, we are the premier family in Yorkshire.”
“I saw Harry Swann this afternoon, and I promised him that we’d all go fishing in the Skell next Saturday,” Miles announced, moving on, changing the subject. “We can have a picnic in the bluebell woods. I know you and Ceci will enjoy it. Isn’t that a grand idea?” Miles smiled at her, wanting to be affable, and a good brother. DeLacy was his favorite sister; also, he didn’t want to arouse her suspicions about the family. He knew how curious she was, always poking her nose into everybody’s business.
DeLacy exclaimed, “That will be nice!” Her attention had been caught by the parlor maid, Peggy Swift, who was standing in the hall just outside the yellow sitting room. She was edging closer to the footman, Gordon. DeLacy had to stifle a giggle. They thought no one could see them.
To avoid the sight of the two of them flirting, DeLacy jumped up and went over to sit with Daphne. She was looking wonderful this afternoon, wearing a lime-green silk afternoon dress. DeLacy thought it must be the latest model from Mrs. Alice, and the color was perfect. “Is that a new frock?” she asked, gazing at her sister admiringly. “It really suits you, Daphne.”
“No, it’s not new. Mrs. Alice made it for me last year, I only wore it once.”
“Look at Peggy flirting with Gordon,” DeLacy whispered, catching sight of them again.
Daphne followed the direction of her gaze. “I don’t think she’s flirting, is she?” Daphne said softly, feeling the need to defend Peggy. Seeing the young woman with her baby had touched Daphne’s heart, and she had felt sorry for the girl’s predicament. “I think they’re probably checking if they should serve more food.” Daphne smiled at DeLacy. “The white evening gown looks beautiful, brand new, Lacy. Cecily did a fantastic job, created something quite extraordinary.”
DeLacy smiled back, thrilled to have this news, and thought of the ink blotches. She pushed the bad memory away, and began to talk to Daphne about the coming supper dance, and what they would wear on Saturday night.
Across the room, Charlotte was seated next to Guy Ingham, and she was enjoying being with him. She was glad she had come to tea. She usually had a good time, mainly because the teas were more relaxed than the family dinners, which were formal and far too long. And often a little pretentious.
Guy, who usually managed to make her laugh, did so now when he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “Aunt Gwendolyn just informed me she has found the most suitable girl for me. She is going to introduce me to her at the supper dance next weekend. You can bet she will be as ugly as sin, but an heiress with a vast fortune at her disposal.”
Once her laughter had subsided, Charlotte remarked, “Lady Gwendolyn does try hard to be the matchmaker, and let’s face it, she does manage to dig up heiresses, that’s absolutely true.” There was a pause, and then Charlotte asked, “But what happened to Violet Lansing? I thought you were rather taken with her, Guy. At least that’s the impression you gave me at Easter.” She sat back in the chair, gazing at him. He was special to her; she had known him since he was born. Now she noticed that his face had suddenly changed. His expression was unexpectedly sorrowful, his light blue eyes stricken.
After a moment, taking a deep breath, Guy said, sotto voce, “It was brought to my attention that Violet wasn’t quite suitable for the heir to an earldom.” He sighed heavily. “I was on the verge of … well, becoming rather involved with her, and just caught myself in time. So I let the situation…” He shrugged, and went on softly, “… just drift until it drifted away. I felt the need to be kind to Violet. I didn’t want to hurt her.”
Guy sat back, and then offered Charlotte a warm smile. “No point in bashing my head against steel. That’s not going to do any good. They didn’t want her in my life.”
“I’m so sorry,” Charlotte murmured, then touched his arm lightly. “You’ll meet someone who is exactly right in every way. One day. You’ll see, it will happen.”
“I know. That’s what Papa said to me. But there will never be anybody like Violet…” He allowed his sentence to trail off, knowing his life had been settled for him long ago. So why belabor the point about his lost love … probably the love of his life.
Charlotte was about to sympathize with him, when Diedre came and sat down next to Charlotte. Addressing Guy, she asked, “Did Papa say anything about the London season? Or aren’t we going up to town this year?”
“I don’t know, and frankly, Didi, I don’t care,” her brother answered. “I personally love it here at Cavendon in the summer. The tennis, the cricket, the swimming, the fishing, the supper dances and summer entertaining. And the shooting when it starts on the Glorious Twelfth.”
“But we’re always here for the Glorious Twelfth in August. That’s a given. I’m talking about now, Guy, July,” Diedre protested.
Guy said, “I don’t think we’ll be going to London this year. At least not as a family, for the season. Because Aunt Anne is too ill, and Mama doesn’t want to be too far away. At least that’s what Daphne told me.”
“Oh, what does old Daphers know, she’s only interested in how she looks.”
Guy threw his sister an odd look, wondering why she was being mean, and changed the subject. He started to talk about Hugo Stanton, who was coming to visit them soon, asking Charlotte a lot of questions about Hugo, whom she had known years ago.
There was a sudden explosion of noise as a small figure, intent on making her presence felt, came rushing into the room, exclaiming, “I’ve come to tea, Papa! I can, can’t I? I have to be at the party.”
At the sight of Dulcie flying across the floor as fast as her little feet would carry her, Charles jumped up from the sofa where he was sitting with his aunt. He immediately grabbed hold of his youngest child and swept her up into his arms. She had been about to entangle herself in the feet of the parlor maid, Mary, who was carrying a tray of fresh tea sandwiches over to Hanson, waiting near one of the tea trolleys.
“There we are, my darling,” Charles murmured, holding Dulcie against his chest. “Yes, you’re going to have tea. But first, how would you like to come with me to make an important telephone call?”
“Oh yes, Papa, I would. Can I speak on the teffolone?”
Everyone laughed, enjoying the antics of the pretty, if somewhat boisterous, child. Charles laughed too as he hurried off to the library, relieved he had managed to avert an accident with the maid.
He placed Dulcie in his desk chair, and said, “Now be a good girl, darling, and once I have made the telephone call we will go back and have tea. You’d like a piece of jam roll, wouldn’t you? And strawberries and cream?”
“Ooh, yes, Papa. I’ll be a good girl,” Dulcie told him, smiling up at him brightly. She loved Papa and she was glad she was here with him. Now her sisters would knowshewas his favorite. She settled back against the leather chair, still smiling broadly, her little face radiant.
Picking up the telephone, Charles asked the exchange for the London number on the piece of paper. A moment or two later, an operator was announcing that this was Claridge’s Hotel on the line. He asked for Mr. Hugo Stanton.
A moment later a masculine voice said, “Hello. Stanton speaking.”
“Your cousin Charles here, Hugo. I received your message of earlier, and called you back as soon as I could.”
“How wonderful to hear your voice after all these years!” Hugo exclaimed, sounding genuinely pleased. “I telephoned you because I was hoping I might be able to change the date of my visit to Yorkshire.”
For a moment Charles was taken aback, but he said evenly, “Yes, of course. When would you prefer to come?”
“I was wondering, and rather hoping, that you would agree to this coming Friday. For a few days, as we’d always planned.”
Charles, somewhat startled, hesitated before saying, “I think it will be all right, Hugo. I must warn you, we have a supper dance this weekend. If that does not disturb you, I think the change will be suitable. I must check with Felicity, of course. However, I don’t see why not, old chap,” he finished, wanting to be cordial.
“Thank you, Charles. And by the way, I do like to dance, so I’ll dance for my supper, so to speak. I would just like to add that I don’t usually do this sort of thing, change dates. However, I have just been informed I must attend an important meeting in Zurich that very weekend I was due to come to Yorkshire. The dates clash, I’m afraid.”
“I do understand, I assure you. These things happen occasionally. No problem at all. It’s white tie, of course. I will telephone you tomorrow morning to confirm everything with you.”
“Thank you so much, Charles, and I can’t wait to come back to Cavendon. Good night.”
“Good night,” Charles answered, and put the receiver down. He then picked up Dulcie and left the library.
She exclaimed, “You didn’t let me speak.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Dulcie, the man was in a hurry. So now we can go and have jam roll and strawberries and cream.Scrumptious.”
From the doorway of the yellow sitting room, holding Dulcie in his arms, Charles announced, “Now listen to this bit of news, all of you.”
Everyone turned to stare at him.
“I just spoke to Hugo Stanton and he’s arriving here next Friday afternoon instead of later in July.”
“How wonderful!” Aunt Gwendolyn exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see him again.”
“Someone new to dance with, Papa!” DeLacy cried.
Felicity asked, “How did this come about, Charles?”
“Hugo telephoned earlier, when I was out walking. I just spoke to him. He’s staying at Claridge’s Hotel. And he has a conflict with dates. It is all right, isn’t it? Next weekend?”
“Yes. It’s not a problem. And DeLacy is correct. It will be nice to have a new guest, and especially a cousin we haven’t seen for so long. He can dance with all the young ladies, as Lacy suggested. And perhaps some of the older ones, too.”
“Want to go out for a stroll?” Gordon Lane asked, smiling at Peggy. “I feel like a cig, and a breath of air.”
She smiled back. “Why not? I’ll just tell Cook.”
Gordon nodded. He took off his tie, waistcoat, and jacket, hung them on a peg, and pushed the packet of cigarettes and matches into a trouser pocket.
“Cook says it’s all right,” Peggy told him, coming back into the servants’ hall. “But she says not to stay out too long. She’ll wait for us.” Peggy grinned. “Mrs. Jackson says she doesn’t want Hanson locking us out.”
“And he would too, the silly old bugger.”
“Gordon, be careful,” Peggy hissed, taking off her cap and apron and hanging them on another peg. “Come on, let’s have that stroll before he arrives on the scene and stops us.”
The two of them went out of the back door, and Gordon, taking hold of Peggy’s hand, said, “Let’s walk down to the bluebell woods. I’ll have a cig, and then we’ll walk back. Half an hour at the most. All right with you?”
She nodded. “I don’t want to go into the woods, though, Gordon. It’s scary in there in the dark.”
He looked down, grinning at her. “You’ve got me to protect you, my lass, and anyway it’s not so dark tonight. Look at that there full moon shining down on us. Romantic, eh?”
Peggy was silent for a moment, then she said quietly in a firm voice, “I won’t do it, Gordon. I hope you understand that. I don’t mind a bit of a cuddle and a few kisses, but that’s all.”
“I know. You’re always telling me that. Just a kiss and a cuddle, then. Anyway, we can’t be outside for too long, we don’t want to get locked out. Then we’d have to sleep in the stables.”
Peggy just smiled, said nothing.
They walked on in silence, lost in their own thoughts. They had no way of knowing it, but they were thinking about each other.
Peggy had grown more and more enamored of Gordon Lane over the last few weeks. He was tall, strongly built, and a handsome young man, but what appealed to her also was his kindness. He had been on her side ever since she’d started at Cavendon Hall, always ready to defend her when necessary.
Malcolm Smith, the head footman, was also nice-looking, but not as nice a person as Gordon. And she’d seen him flirting with both the other maids, Mary Ince and Elsie Roland. Gordon had told her that Malcolm was a skirt chaser, and it was true.
Even though he knew she and Gordon were becoming close, he’d tried to feel her breast in the pantry, and she’d slapped his face hard. He hadn’t come near her again.
Peggy knew she was infatuated with Gordon, and that he was with her. However, there was a problem. He wanted her to go all the way, and she wanted this too. But because of her last bad experience she was afraid, had vowed to herself that she would not get herself into trouble a second time.
And so she was on her guard tonight as they walked toward the woods. She must not let her desire for him get the better of her. She must be chaste, but without hurting his feelings.
For his part, Gordon was completely involved with Peggy Swift. He had fallen hard for her almost the moment she had started working at Cavendon. She was a good-looking woman, with expressive eyes, lovely curves, and an extremely nice nature. She was also intelligent, and clever, in many different ways.
He wanted to seduce her, yet he had also begun to realize she was a woman he would be happy to marry. He would have to curb his raging emotions, his lust for her; otherwise things could go horribly wrong.
Although she didn’t know it, he was well aware she had a child. There was always gossip downstairs. He also knew the man had left her in the lurch, and run off to America.Bastard,he cursed under his breath, came to a stop, and got out his cigarettes.
Once he lit the cigarette, the two of them ambled on. “I’ll be a good boy,” he suddenly announced. “I won’t hurt you in any way, or get you into trouble. Just a few kisses though, eh? You don’t mind that, do you?”
“No,” she said. “I’d like that, too. Nothing else though.”
By the time they came to the bluebell woods, Gordon had finished his cigarette. He stubbed it out on a log, and led her toward the edge of the woods, where the grassy glade was located. They sat down on the grass and Gordon put his arm around her, began to kiss her neck, and then unexpectedly he pushed her down, bent over her, and kissed her passionately. He let his tongue linger against hers, and then brought his hand to her dress, opened the top buttons, feeling for her breast.
Peggy struggled. “No, Gordon, don’t. Please don’t. You’ll get me far too agitated.”
He paid no attention to her words.
Bending his head, he sucked on her nipple, and at the same time he pulled her closer, crushing himself against her body.
He was hard against her thigh, obviously highly charged, and she was melting inside as he sucked on her breast. Then a red flag went up in her head, and she knew she must keep a grip on herself.
“Let’s stop,” she whispered. And he did at once, knowing he had no choice. He did not want to scare her away.
Gordon brought his mouth to hers, and devoured it. At the same time, he lifted her skirt with one hand, and was working his fingers inside her knickers until he found the core of her womanhood.
Pushing himself up on one elbow, Gordon looked down into her face, murmured lovingly, “You look so beautiful in the moonlight, Peggy. I want to touch you. I want you, but I won’t force you … just say I can touch you … here, like this.” He stroked her, his fingers lingering inside her.
Her mouth was dry and she could only nod. He kissed her face and then slowly continued to stroke her until she was moaning.
Against her face, he whispered, “Let go, relax, come on, let me give you pleasure. I just want to please you, Peg.” She did as he asked and within seconds she was stiffening, and then she began to spasm, calling his name.
Gordon clutched her to him with both his arms, holding her tightly as if never to let her go. “Did I please you? I did, I know that, because I saw your face. I saw how much you enjoyed my loving touches.”
“Yes,” she whispered, sounding suddenly shy. “You did please me, but that wasn’t really fair to you. And I—” Peggy did not finish her sentence. She broke off, and stiffened in his arms, alert all of a sudden.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, frowning, knowing something unusual had suddenly caught her attention.
“Shhhhh,” she said softly. “There’s someone else here in the woods, Gordon.”
They both sat up, listening attentively. They heard twigs snapping again. Therewassomeone coming through the trees, heading in their direction, and hurrying faster.
Gordon jumped up, pulled Peggy to her feet, and together they fled out of the woods and rushed up the hill to Cavendon. They ran all the way there, and were out of breath when they reached the backyard.
The two of them stood panting near the stone wall, staring at each other. After a moment, Peggy said, “It was a man, that I’m sure of, Gordon. His step was heavy; that’s why we heard the twigs snapping. Knowing someone was there, maybe watching us, frightened me. Do you think it was a Peeping Tom?”
“Who’d be out there at this hour?” Gordon wondered aloud.
“Well, we were,” Peggy replied, and smiled at him, her love shining on her face. “Thank you for being … respectful, Gordon.”
Bending closer to her, he took her face in his hands and kissed her lightly on the lips. Then he finally made an important decision, and said, “Will you marry me, Peggy Swift? Will you be mine forever? Will you be my wife?”
She was so taken by surprise, so startled by his proposal, she couldn’t speak for a moment. Finally she said, “I will, Gordon Lane. I will! I will! I will!” She flung her arms around him, hugged him. And they kissed, then drew apart.
Peggy stood looking up at him, fully understanding that she loved this man with all her heart, and she knew she had to tell him the truth about herself. It would be deceitful not to explain about Kevin.
She said quietly, “There’s something I must tell you, Gordon. I have—”
He cut her off when he said, “A child. Yes, I know that. And it doesn’t change my feelings. I love you, Peggy, and when we can do it, he’ll come and live with us. I’ll be his father as well as your husband.”
Peggy drew close to him again, tears filling her eyes. She blinked them away. “Thank you for saying that, Gordon. And I promise I’ll be the best wife.”
At this moment the back door opened, and Cook stood in the corridor of bright light shining out from inside the kitchen. She beckoned to them urgently.
Holding hands, they ran toward her. She ushered them into the kitchen, and said, “Hanson’s on the prowl. Light a cigarette, Gordon, real quick, me lad. Now listen … yer’ve been outside in the yard for a few minutes, for a smoke. I just called yer to come in. Which I did, didn’t I?”
Gordon nodded, quickly lit up.
Hanson appeared in the kitchen several seconds later, and nodded when he saw them. After going over to the back door and locking it, he turned and went toward the corridor. “Good night. Good night to you all,” he called, and headed off.
“Good night, Mr. Hanson,” Gordon and Peggy said in unison with Cook.
* * *
Much later that night, as she lay in her bed in the maids’ quarters, thinking of Gordon and about marrying him, Peggy was filled with growing happiness. She knew they would be good together, and that they’d make a good team. After a while, her thoughts went back to the bluebell woods. She was certain someone had been there, hidden in amongst the trees, and so was Gordon. She couldn’t help wondering if he’d seen Gordon fondling her.
A Peeping Tom? But who? Surely not one of their woodsmen? Or a villager? She wondered if she should tell Cook or Mrs. Thwaites? Perhaps even Mr. Hanson? Then Peggy decided against this, instantly changed her mind. That would be revealing too much about where she had been with Gordon. Besides, what good would it do? She must warn Gordon tomorrow morning, tell him not to mention the man in the woods. No one must know they had been down there when they were not supposed to go out of the house at night. The rules were strict at Cavendon. And Hanson made sure they were kept.
* * *
Peggy was the first maid in the kitchen the following morning. She was so happy she felt like singing. But she couldn’t do that. She had a smile firmly in place as she said good morning to Cook.
“Yer looking bright and cheerful, lass,” Nell Jackson said, returning her smile. “He’s a nice lad, that there Gordon Lane. Sincere, for one thing, and kindhearted. Which is more than I can say about Malcolm Smith. He fancies himself, that one does. Vain as a peacock.”
“That’s true, Cook,” Peggy agreed. Walking over to join her near the stove, she whispered, “It’s a secret, but we’re serious about each other.”
“That’s nice for yer, Peggy. Couldn’t wish for a finer young man for yer, lass.” Still smiling, the cook turned back to her stove and picked up a wooden spoon.
A moment later, Mrs. Thwaites appeared. “Good morning, Cook, morning, Swift. Since you’re down first today, I think you had better pop upstairs and light the fire in the library for the earl. As soon as Ince arrives I’ll send her up to help you set the breakfast table. Come on, lass, hurry yourself along. We don’t have all the day.”
Peggy did as she was told, and seconds later she was kneeling in front of the fireplace in the library, sweeping up yesterday’s ashes into a dustpan.
After laying the grate with kindling, extra chips of wood, and the round newspaper circles made by the footmen, she struck a match and brought it to the paper. She soon had a roaring fire in the grate, and added several small logs, then stood up.
Peggy realized that her hands were dirty, and she ran downstairs to wash them.
Mary Ince and Elsie Roland, the two other maids, were standing near the china cupboard in the corridor, whispering together. They stopped speaking abruptly when they saw her.
“Good morning,” Peggy said, smiling at them.
They mumbled good morning in return, but both looked sullen, even unfriendly. Peggy couldn’t help thinking they’d been talking about her and Gordon. They often made funny remarks these days.
There was a rush of footsteps, and Malcolm Smith came flying down the stairs, exclaiming, “Mr. Hanson wants another silver chafing dish. Hurry up, one of you, find one. Quick.”
Peggy was close to the small silver cupboard, and she opened the door, reached inside. Suddenly she felt Malcolm standing right behind her, breathing down her neck. “Got you in the family way yet? I bet he has, you little trollop.” Before she could respond he squeezed her bottom, and stepped away from her quickly, as the back door opened and Gordon walked in.
In a flash, Peggy turned around and said in an icy tone, “Don’t ever do that to me again, Malcolm Smith. If you do, I’ll report you to Mr. Hanson for being overly familiar.”
Malcolm burst out laughing. “Every man around here’s familiar with you, Peggy Swift, to open her legs.”
There was a gasp, a sudden disturbance, a rush of air as Gordon flung himself across the kitchen and into the corridor in a giant leap. He fell on Malcolm and began to pummel him on the chest.
The head footman fought Gordon as best he could, but he was not as strong as his junior. When he threw a punch at Gordon, he missed, then slipped and fell down on his back, his arms flailing. Gordon was about to jump on him, when Peggy grabbed one arm and Cook the other. Together they pulled Gordon away from the fray.
A moment later, an irate Hanson was standing staring at them. “What’s all this about? Fighting like common street lads! And you both footmen in the employment of one of the premier earls of England. The Earl of Mowbray would be appalled. This is the most reprehensible behavior I’ve ever seen. You should know better. Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” He looked down at Malcolm, and added in a scathing tone, “Get up at once! And straighten your livery, Smith. As for you, Lane, explain yourself.”
Before Gordon could respond, Cook interrupted in a strong, determined voice, “I was witness to this scene, Mr. Hanson, and it was Malcolm’s fault. He provoked Gordon no end. Take my word for it.”
“How?” Hanson demanded coldly, eyeing Cook. “I need more details.”
“He insulted Peggy, who will one day be Gordon’s wife. And Gordon was defending her good name.”
Hanson frowned and glanced across at Gordon. “What did he say that created this ghastly uproar? Come along, speak up, Lane. Let’s have it.”
Gordon remained silent, still angry with the other footman, and now growing nervous under Hanson’s stern scrutiny. He shook his head. “I’d rather not repeat it, Mr. Hanson.”
“Please take my word for it,” Nell Jackson interjected. “I heard every word. Oh my goodness!” She began to smile at a small, neatly dressed woman with bright red hair under a green hat, who had just entered the kitchen from outside, and was carrying a suitcase.
Nell rushed over to her, exclaiming, “Miss Wilson! What a lovely surprise. Welcome back. Aren’t yer a sight for sore eyes. I thought yer wasn’t coming back to us ’til next week.”
“I managed to get everything straightened out sooner than I expected,” Olive Wilson responded. Smiling warmly, she took hold of Cook’s outstretched hand and shook it, then squeezed it affectionately. They were old friends, good friends; both had worked at Cavendon for years.
With a glare at the two footmen, Hanson went over to greet Olive Wilson himself. She was lady’s maid to the countess, and he was well aware how much she had been missed. “Welcome back. I trust all is well, Miss Wilson?” the butler said, shaking her hand.
“It was, Mr. Hanson, until I walked into Bedlam here.”
Hanson grimaced. “Bedlam indeed … or any other madhouse. Excuse me for a moment.” He swung around, looked at the footmen. “I’ll deal with the two of you later,” he announced. “Now get a move on, both of you.” He stared at the kitchen clock. “Get upstairs at once, and set the table for breakfast, prepare the sideboard. Ince, Roland, you’d better go with them and help to get the dining room up to snuff.”
The two footmen and the maids rushed out, and Hanson looked across at Peggy and said, “You’d better stay down here. I think that’s more appropriate today. You can help Polly—” He looked around for the girl, saw her cowering in a corner, and went on, “You and she can get the food into the chafing dishes as soon as it’s ready, help Cook in general.”
“Yes, Mr. Hanson. And thank you very much, sir.”
He nodded. “Stay out of Smith’s way.”
“I will, sir. Itwashis fault, you know.”
Hanson sighed heavily. “Speak to you later, Miss Wilson.” He walked out of the kitchen; he was angry and humiliated that the countess’s personal maid had seen this ridiculous display.
Olive Wilson came into the middle of the kitchen and looked at Peggy. She smiled. “Were they fighting over you?” she asked. There was a hint of laughter in her voice, and her green eyes were full of merriment.
“No. Gordon’s my boyfriend, you see, and Malcolm made a nasty crack. Gordon took offense. So did I, to be honest.”
“Typical. He’s a lout and a bottom-pincher, that one. Watch out for him. I’m Lady Mowbray’s lady’s maid, by the way.”
“I realize that. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Only nice things, I hope?”
“That’s right, they only said nice things, sang your praises.”
Nell Jackson, always a bit nosy, said, “So yer got it all sorted, and here yer are.” Suddenly puzzled, she remarked, “It’s very early. How did yer get here from the railway station in Harrogate?”
Olive Wilson began to laugh, explained, “I arrived from London last night, and her ladyship had arranged ahead of time for Mrs. Sedgewick’s chauffeur to meet me at Harrogate station. He drove me over here, and I spent the night at Miss Charlotte’s. We knew it would be after ten when I got to the hall, and that was prearranged too. I didn’t want to disturb the whole household.”
“Well, I’m glad yer back, Miss Wilson. It’s seemed much longer than two months, though. More like two years.”
“I know what you mean, Mrs. Jackson. I’ve missed all of you, too.”
He had been sixteen when he left, a slightly callow Eton schoolboy preparing to go to Oxford, and looking forward to it. He had returned to Yorkshire for the first time in sixteen years, a man in his prime at the age of thirty-two. Hugo Ingham Stanton was good-looking, ambitious, highly motivated in whatever he did, and extremely successful.
He was a real estate tycoon of no small measure, a go-getter, a dealmaker, and a supremely talented businessman. Fast moving and decisive, he was blessed with a charming manner as well. People easily fell under his spell, men as well as women, and children were instantly captivated by his marvelous ability to treat them as equals.
Now as the Rolls-Royce moved smoothly along through the center of Harrogate, Hugo sat looking out of the window. He couldn’t help noticing that the town had changed. He was seeing new buildings and far more hotels. Harrogate had been a spa town for centuries, after the discovery in 1571 of underground wells filled with healing water. And apparently it was currently booming. From what he had read inThe Timesthe other day, the first week of July had been spectacular with concerts, events, all kinds of other entertainments, and a flock of royal guests visiting to sample the water and take the baths. It seemed that Harrogate was at its best this summer, and very social.
It pleased Hugo that Charles had sent his Rolls-Royce and the chauffeur, Gregg, to pick him up at the railway station. The gesture was an indication that a warm welcome awaited him, although he had never really doubted that.
Charles Ingham had always been a first-class guy. Hugo smiled to himself, wondering if the family would find him too Americanized. He didn’t believe he was, but others might think so.
He settled back against the leather seat, at ease with himself, and looking forward to visiting Charles, Felicity, and the rest of the family.
Hugo had no qualms about returning to Cavendon, where he had grown up. He had not done anything wrong when he was abruptly sent away by his mother because she needed someone to blame for the loss of her favorite son. She hadn’t been able to accept that his sibling was his own worst enemy, a daredevil, and spoilt.
Lady Evelyne Ingham Stanton, sister of the fifth earl, and his mother, had behaved unfairly and irrationally. Everyone thought that. His father had backed him up, and together they had decided it would be better for Hugo if he went to New York, to work with his father’s good friend Benjamin Silver. “If you stay, she’ll only punish you in some way or other, and pick on you constantly,” his father had said. Hugo had agreed, and plans were made for his trip to New York City.
To Hugo’s relief his father had never cut off contact. He wrote every week, and visited him in New York every year until his death eight years ago. They had remained close, the best of friends.
His parents had lived separate lives long before his brother’s terrible accident, but they had never divorced. Sixteen years ago his mother’s treatment of him had so enraged his father, it had driven yet another wedge between them. They were very different people, and had lived in their own worlds. His mother had been wrapped up in Cavendon, where she had been born, and had become something of a recluse, her music and garden her only real interests.
His father had lived in the world of racehorses and horseracing, and the highly successful stud he owned in Middleham, not far from Ripon. The Stanton yard at Endersby House had been run for years by Major Gaunt, a breeder and trainer employed by his father. Since his father’s death the yard had belonged to him, but it continued to be under the control of Major Gaunt, which suited Hugo.
He loved horses, but not quite as much as his father had, and he did not want to be involved with the yard on a daily or even weekly basis. He left it to Gaunt. Hugo planned to go over to see him during this visit. He wished to congratulate him on his continuing success, and reassure him about the future. Hugo had no plans to close the yard. It was a moneymaker.
Endersby House was one of several properties Hugo owned in Yorkshire, but he would never sell the house and the stud as long as the major was alive. It was his home, meant everything to him, and it was there that he had bred so many racehorses for them. Then there was Little Skell Manor, which his mother had left to him, as well as his father’s house in East Witton.
Oh, I’ll deal with all that later, Hugo decided, pushing these thoughts to one side. As he settled back against the soft leather of the Rolls, Hugo thought of the last time he had driven through these great iron gates looming ahead. The gates of Cavendon Hall, which opened onto the long tree-lined drive.
He had been with his father, and they had been on their way to Liverpool. It was from there he would set sail for New York.
As it turned out, Manhattan had been the perfect place for him. Benjamin Silver had taken to him at once, and it was not long before he had begun to treat him like the son he’d never had. And what a training Hugo had been given in the real estate business, and in banking, and wheeling-and-dealing on Wall Street. Hugo had been an avid pupil; Benjamin an inspired teacher. They became close, and inseparable.
And then one day he had become Benjamin’s son-in-law, after marrying Loretta Silver, Benjamin’s only child. It was through his own intelligence and talent that Hugo had become a millionaire many times over. Then Loretta had made him even richer, after her untimely death. He had inherited her entire estate, which Benjamin had bequeathed to her.
Benjamin and his daughter had been his best friends, and he had loved them both dearly, and he knew how much he owed to them. And it was because of his loss, his loneliness, he had decided he needed to come back to Yorkshire, where he had grown up, and had family ties. He had been filled with optimism when Charles had been so warm and welcoming, first by letter and then on the telephone.
He had ended his youth here. In New York he had found himself, and started afresh, to become the man he was today. And now perhaps he would find a new beginning here, where he had once belonged, and where he wanted to belong again.
Asense of excitement gripped Hugo as the Rolls-Royce finally pulled up at the huge, double-fronted door of Cavendon Hall. As he alighted from the motorcar, and stood looking up at one of the greatest stately homes in England, countless memories flooded him and, momentarily, he was carried back into the past.
A split second later the front door opened and Charles and Felicity appeared in the doorway. Together they came hurrying down the few steps to meet him, followed by Hanson, who in turn was accompanied by two footmen to carry the luggage.
Charles embraced him, shook his hand, and exclaimed, “Welcome, Hugo, welcome home!”
“It’s wonderful to be here, Charles,” Hugo answered, and turned around to embrace Felicity, who, it seemed to him, had not changed one iota. She was still the beautiful strawberry blonde he remembered from his teen years, warm, friendly, and as elegantly dressed as always. As they drew apart, Hugo said, “You haven’t changed, haven’t aged, Felicity. You’re as lovely as ever, and not a line, not a wrinkle. I don’t know how you do it.”
She laughed. “It’s the Yorkshire climate, Hugo, darling. But I must admit,youhave changed. You were a schoolboy when you left here, and look at you now. A grown man, and a successful man of the world, I sense.”
He nodded, and winked at her, then turned to greet Hanson, who had a huge smile on his face. “How good it is to see you, Hanson,” he said, shaking Hanson’s hand.
“And you too, Mr. Hugo.” Leaning closer, the butler said in a lower tone, “You’ve been missed by many. Your father usually filled me in when he got back from New York. You see, he knew I wanted to know how you were. All of the staff did.”
“He told me, Hanson,” Hugo responded, and nodded, as Felicity and Charles led him up the steps and into Cavendon.
In the front hall Hugo glanced around, his throat tightening with emotion. It was as he had remembered it over the years, but somehow it was just better in reality, more golden and embellished, if that were possible.
The hall had a gleam to it, and its beauty gave him great satisfaction … the grand staircase flowing down, with his ancestors’ portraits on the walls, the crystal chandeliers, the mellow antiques, and the urns filled with flowers. He had yearned to be back here over the years, and now here he was, welcomed as family, and with enormous affection. He was filled with relief, and glad he had finally had the courage to take this step, to come back to his roots.
“Would you like anything?” Charles asked. “A refreshment? Are you hungry, do you want something to eat? Or do you prefer to wait for tea?”
“Oh yes, I’ll wait. There’s nothing like afternoon tea at Cavendon, not anywhere in the world.”
“Let me take you up to your room, Hugo,” Felicity murmured, slipping her arm through his. “The Blue Room. I know you always liked it.”
“It’s my favorite.”
Charles said, “Come down whenever you like, Hugo. I’ll be in the library. There’re a couple of things I would like to discuss with you, before you get surrounded by women at teatime.” Charles chuckled.
“I’d enjoy that. See you shortly, Charles.”
The moment Hugo stepped into the Blue Room his face broke out in smiles. It was exactly the same as it was the day he left for America. White walls, blue-and-white fabrics, and everything so fresh and appealing to him. And, of course, the big bowls of flowers everywhere, including his favorite pink peonies. Felicity’s trademark. He looked at her. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be back at Cavendon.”
“And we’re happy too, Hugo.” She smiled at him and walked to the door, added, “Hanson has assigned Gordon Lane to be your valet. He is most suitable, you’ll find.”
“Thank you, Felicity.”
She simply nodded, and slipped out, leaving him alone, as usual aware of other people’s need to have their privacy for a while.
He strolled around the room, looked out of the windows at the rolling lawns and the stand of trees near the rose garden. And then went into the bathroom to freshen up.
He was just about to go downstairs when there was a tapping on the bedroom door. He strode across the room and opened it, and gaped in surprise. Standing before him was the most beautiful child he had ever seen. A Botticelli angel. She was gazing up at him with great curiosity.
Crouching down to her level, he found himself staring into saucer-sized blue eyes that were very serious indeed.
“Hello,” he said gently.
“I didn’t speak on the teffalone because Papa said you were in a hurry,” she explained earnestly. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment he was baffled, but said, “Well, now we can speak in person. I am Hugo.” He held out his hand.
She took it, and answered, “And I am Lady Dulcie Agatha Ingham. Pleased to meet you.” She made a small curtsy, and went on in a solemn tone, “Am I the first of the sisters to meet you?”
Hugo swallowed a smile, and standing up, he opened the door and said, “Please come in, Lady Dulcie, and yes indeed, you are the first one to meet me.”
Her face filled with radiance and then she giggled. “I like to march a steal on them.”
“Steal a march,” he corrected, enjoying this unique little girl, who followed him into the room, looking him over, obviously assessing him.
“Oh dear, I got that wrong. I sometimes do get things wrong. But DeLacy says it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it doesn’t.”
“There you are!” a female voice cried, and a moment later a young woman who was obviously the nanny arrived in the room.
“Please do excuse Dulcie, Mr. Stanton. I’ve been looking all over for her. I’d no idea she had found you so easily.”
Hugo began to laugh. “That’s all right,” he answered, still laughing, finding the situation amusing.
“She was longing to meet you first, before her sisters,” the nanny explained. “And she did, I do believe.”
“That is correct. And she wasn’t a nuisance. On the contrary she was rather … charming.”
Dulcie flashed him a big smile. “I shall have to go, Hugo.” She bobbed another curtsy and left with the nanny.
He stood there, shaking his head for a moment, and then he chuckled to himself. The child was beautiful and charming; obviously competitive with her sisters, and a go-getter. I’d better keep an eye on her, he thought to himself, still chuckling as he went out into the corridor. That child’s going places.
As Hugo strode into the library a moment later, Charles immediately stood up and walked around his desk. “There you are, Hugo. Come on, let us sit near the fire, and chat for a while. We’ve a lot of catching up to do.”
Hugo nodded, and stepped over to the fire, suddenly remembering how this room was always cold, even when there was a heat wave outside, and that there was a fire blazing whatever the time of year.
Turning to Charles, he asked, “Did you ever discover what makes the library so cold all year round?”
Charles shook his head. “Never managed that, old chap, although there are all sorts of old wives’ tales … that Cavendon is built on an ancient druid cemetery; that far below Cavendon, in the bowels of the earth, there are hidden wells of water left over from the Ice Age … you name it, we’ve got it. But nobody really has an answer.”
Once the two men had settled down in the armchairs, Charles said, “You mentioned your property in Yorkshire, in your letter to me from Zurich. Which particular house were you talking about, Hugo?”
“All of them. Well, not exactly. I mustn’t include Endersby House, where Major Gaunt lives. That’s his home for as long as he’s running the yard. But my father left me Beldon Grange in East Witton, which I believe I’m going to sell, and then there’s Little Skell Manor, here on the estate. I was—”
“You do know that Aunt Gwendolyn still lives there, Hugo,” Charles cut in. “And she has for as long as I can remember.”
“Oh yes, I do know. And I must set her mind at rest as soon as I see her this afternoon.” He looked across at Charles and raised a brow. “She is all right, isn’t she? She is coming to tea?”
“Oh yes, wild horses couldn’t keep her away. She can’t wait to see you, and she hasn’t stopped talking about your visit since I informed her you were coming to see us.”
“And perhaps to make my home here,” Hugo said. “But getting back to Little Skell Manor, I want to reassure her that she can live there for as long as she wants. Until the day she dies, in fact. After that, I’ll give it back to you. I know it has to stay in the family, and that it usually passes to a girl. And you havefourdaughters … one of them might need a roof over her head sometime, Charles, and it’s really your call.”
“But your mother left Little Skell Manor to you in her will, Hugo. And now you’re telling me you don’t want it?” Charles was surprised, but pleasantly so.
“Not for myself, to live in, no, I don’t. It’s not really large enough or grand enough. I aim to find a potential stately home, if there’s one available around here, Charles, and I’m going to need your help to find it.”
“I’ll do the best I can,” Charles replied, so filled with relief he would do anything to help Hugo acquire a grand property. How thrilled Aunt Gwendolyn would be, and Charlotte as well, that Little Skell Manor was safe. He was pleased an old lady wasn’t going to be turfed out of her home, and also genuinely happy that the South Wing would remain unoccupied, so that they could use it themselves from time to time.
Charles said, “I’ve opened up the South Wing, by the way, Hugo, and you’re going to get a thrill seeing it again. It’s perfectly beautiful, and we’re holding the supper dance there tonight. The first of the season.”
“That’s great to hear. I always thought it was one of the best parts of Cavendon. And I’m delighted I’m here for this event, so pleased you were able to accommodate me, that you agreed to the change in dates.”
“No problem, Hugo, none at all. Getting back to homes, are you planning to keep your villa in Zurich?”
“Oh yes, for the moment. I might give it up, if there’s a war, but even then it would be safe, since Switzerland is a neutral country.”
Charles was frowning, his eyes tight on Hugo’s face. “Why do you mention war? Everything has been peaceful for a long time now. England is safe; we are the greatest empire the world has ever known, and the richest. London is the center of the world, of the universe really. Prosperity reigns, don’t you think?” His eyes remained riveted on his cousin.
Hugo said carefully, somewhat slowly for him, “Yes, there is a lot of truth in what you say, Charles. The Empire with a capital E is the greatest there has ever been, no question about that. But I think this is the last summer … the last summer we’re going to enjoy for a long time. There is trouble in the world. Trouble afoot.”
Noting the seriousness of Hugo’s voice, the solemnity of his face, Charles felt a shiver run down his spine. “Tell me more, Hugo. No one I know in London has spoken to me like this.”
“Nor would they. They don’t want to face reality, or perhaps they don’t know what I do. Remember, I live in Zurich and New York, I hear things, I’m told things.”
Hugo let out a long sigh, and settled back in the chair. He made a steeple out of his hands and brought the point to his mouth. After a moment or two he said quietly, “Germany is rearming. They want to rule the world. Kaiser Bill is on the march, or about to be. And quite soon. There’s a heaviness in the air in Europe, and it spells war, trouble, problems. Russia is in danger. Nicholas hasn’t ruled well, too much influence from his queen. Alexandra is not the best advisor. The country is divided … the aristocracy and the serfs. Too many inequities. And then there are the Bolsheviks … watch out for a revolution in Russia. It’s almost unavoidable, inevitable.”
“And it will affect us, won’t it?”
“It will. That’s one of the reasons I must go to Zurich for that meeting I mentioned. I can’t miss it … the gnomes of Zurich more often than not call the tune.” Noticing the bafflement on Charles’s face, Hugo felt bound to explain. “The gnomes of Zurich are the international bankers, and they are frequently considered to be the puppet masters of the world. However, I wouldn’t swear to that. They are most powerful though, and I never miss a meeting. Also, I always listen without saying too much. Remember what my father used to say?”
“I do indeed. A still tongue and a wise head,” Charles was quick to say.
There was a knock on the door, and it opened immediately. A young woman came in, exclaiming, “Papa, about tonight, I’ve—” She stopped when she saw that Charles was not alone, and paused waiting in the middle of the floor.
Hugo stood up and turned around. All speech left him. He felt as if he had been punched in the belly. The young woman he was staring at was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. Breathtaking. She appeared to shimmer, from the top of her golden head filled with sunlight, to the hem of her satin dress. It was an unusual color, not yellow, not peach, more like apricot. And it made her cornflower blue eyes seem even bluer.
She came toward him, smiling, her hand outstretched. “Hugo, I presume. I am Daphne, the second daughter.”
Hugo still could not speak, and his legs felt weak. He took her hand in his, and felt its silkiness, and he said, “I’m pleased to meet you again, Daphne. When we first met you were only twelve months old.” To his total surprise his voice sounded normal.
Daphne merely smiled, and managed to extricate her hand from his, and walked across the room to her father.
Hugo watched her, noticing her grace and fluidity, the swirl of the clinging satin dress against her long legs, the proud set of her shoulders, the elegant tilt of her head.
He wanted her.Not for a night, not for a week, not for a month.Forever.He wanted to possess her. Keep her next to him. He had to have her, had to make her his entire life. And he would.
Sapphires,he thought. I want to drape her in sapphires that match those wondrous eyes. Sapphires around her neck … on her ears … encircling her arms. Sapphires, and diamonds, and anything else she wants … I will give her the world.
Clearing his throat, Hugo managed to say, “Will you excuse me for a moment, Daphne, Charles.” He inclined his head to them both, smiled, and hurried out.
Once he was in the Blue Room he took off his jacket and threw it on a chair, then went into the bathroom, where he soaked a towel in cold water. This he held against his burning face for a good few minutes. He noticed, later, as he looked in the mirror, that his shirt was damp. He had broken out in a cold sweat downstairs.
After a moment, he went and lay down on the bed, and closed his eyes. Schoolboy, he chastised himself. You’re behaving like a silly schoolboy. It was true, he was, but he couldn’t help himself.
He had never seen a woman who was as beautiful as her. Nor had he ever wanted a woman as much as he wanted Daphne. What was he going to do?
Hugo was startled by his reaction to Daphne. He had just met her but she had affected him most forcefully. He believed he was decidedly too old for her. She was seventeen; he was thirty-two, and a widower, a man of experience. A big age gap. Also, they were second cousins, although he knew that had no legal bearing on anything in England. Still, the fifteen-year age difference was a stumbling block.
Then there were her feelings. He had fallen instantly for her … love at first sight. She was hardly aware of him, had been polite, pleasant, and that was all. There had not been a flicker of interest.
She was probably in love with some dashing young man. Probably not, come to think of it. For it was more than likely that Charles had plans for her. She was, after all, a great beauty, and was obviously set to make a brilliant marriage.
Her father would want nothing less than an earl’s son. Perhaps Charles already had his sights set on a duke’s son. That was the way the Inghams thought and acted. Onward and upward. Ambition was endemic.
Hugo sighed to himself. Lady Daphne Ingham was beyond his reach. It would be best if he put her out of his mind, concentrated on buying a fine house and estate in Yorkshire, and focused on his business interests. Yes, that would be the thing to do. And money eased the pain.
* * *
There was a lot of excitement in the yellow sitting room. When Cecily arrived it was already half full, and anticipation was high. Everyone wanted to meet Hugo, either for the first time, or to become reunited with their long-lost cousin.
Cecily was thrilled to have been invited by DeLacy, who had been given permission to ask her by the countess, and Alice had been invited by the earl.
She looked across at her mother, who was seated next to Daphne. The latter looked as lovely as always; this afternoon she was wearing a delphinium-blue silk afternoon dress, made by Alice, and it matched her eyes.
Automatically, Cecily glanced at Lady Gwendolyn, who was staring ather.Great-Aunt Gwendolyn winked, and looked at Daphne, then shook her head.
Cecily had to swallow the laughter rising in her. Lady Gwendolyn was forever chastising the Ingham women for wearing dresses to match their eyes. Cecily thought it was funny, and always had to suppress her laughter when Lady Gwendolyn was on the warpath.
Diedre was sitting with Lady Gwendolyn; DeLacy was standing with Guy and Miles, near the doorway, waiting for Hugo. They had all been anxious to meet him, but he was still absent.
A moment later, the earl entered the yellow sitting room, holding Dulcie’s hand, and the countess followed, accompanied by Charlotte Swann. Everyone had arrived. Only Hugo, the guest of honor, was missing.
Suddenly Dulcie broke free of her father’s hold, and ran across the room. She came to a standstill in front of Diedre. “I met Hugo first!” she announced proudly. Although she was afraid of her eldest sister, Dulcie was brave, and could be defiant at times; she was oddly combative for a little girl. Also, she enjoyed making announcements which were challenging.
Diedre merely raised an eyebrow eloquently, murmured off-handedly, “As if anybody cares.”
Dulcie was instantly offended, and flounced away on her plump little legs, making for Daphne, whom she adored. “Youare the most beautiful of the big sisters,” she exclaimed in a very loud voice.
Daphne reached for Dulcie, her face soft with love for her little sister, and she embraced her. “And you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” Against her hair, she whispered, “I’m going to give you one of my jewelled tortoiseshell hair slides later, and a new lace hankie.”
“Ooooo, thank you, Daphne.” Lowering her voice, Dulcie confided, “Diedre’s angry because I met Hugo first.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, darling. Just because he chose to meet you first is not your fault.”
Dulcie frowned for a second, and then laughed. “Oh! I must tell Mama that, and—”
The earl reclaimed Dulcie, and said, “You’d better come with me to say hello to Great-Aunt Gwendolyn. You know she enjoys talking to you.”
“Oh yes, let’s do that. I have a present for her, Papa.”
The earl glanced down at Dulcie, frowning. “Where is it?”
“In my pocket.” She patted the side of her flounced organdy frock, and walked sedately across the room with her father.
“Ah, here you are, Dulcie, and in such a nice party frock,blue,of course,” Lady Gwendolyn said, smiling at her, thinking how lucky Charles and Felicity were … the four Dees were all lovely, and the two boys were handsome. “I can understand why everyone says you’re like a Botticelli angel,” she added.
“With a will of steel,” Diedre murmured, and got up, went to talk to her mother, who was standing with Charlotte and Cecily near the bay window overlooking the lawns.
The earl, surprised by this comment, raised a brow and glanced at his aunt. He shrugged, shook his head. “She just can’t resist making that kind of nasty remark,” Charles murmured, sounding slightly put out.
“I know what you mean,” his aunt responded, and wondered if Diedre had inherited that trait from her.
Dulcie said, “She doesn’t like me. I’m a nuisance, the little madam, that’s what she says.”
Both Charles and Lady Gwendolyn were taken aback by these comments from the child, and simply stared at each other.
Drawing closer to her great-aunt, Dulcie now gave her a huge smile, and announced, “I have a present for you.”
“Oh how nice, you’re such a darling child. I like presents, you know. I suppose everyone does.”
Reaching into her pocket, Dulcie took out a barley-sugar hard sweet, and handed it to her great-aunt.
Lady Gwendolyn took it gingerly, gazing at it curiously for a moment, detecting bits of fluff and lint stuck to it. The candy looked to her as if it had been around for days without its paper wrapper. And who knew where, since it was decidedly grubby. “How kind of you, Dulcie,” Lady Gwendolyn said at last, and smiled at her. She put the candy in her handbag. “I’ll save it for later,” she explained. “I don’t want it to spoil my afternoon tea.”
“But don’t forget the sweetie, will you? I saved it specially for you, Great-Aunt Gwendolyn.”
“I won’t. And thank you again. You’re very generous.”
Amused, Charles grinned at his aunt, then escorted his youngest child over to her mother, now sitting on the sofa in the bay. He wondered where Hugo was, when he suddenly appeared in the doorway of the yellow sitting room.
“I’m so sorry I’m late!” Hugo exclaimed, glancing around the room, taking in everyone. Some he knew, others he didn’t. He went on, “Well, here I am at last! Hello, everyone!”
They answered, “Hello,” in unison, and laughed, and a few clapped as he strolled forward, greeting those he knew with a kiss, or a shake of the hand, and introducing himself to those he didn’t know with ease and charm.
He was pleased when he saw Alice Swann, and stopped to speak to her for a few moments. He smiled at Daphne, who was seated next to her, and murmured, “You look exceptionally beautiful, Daphne.”
She smiled back. “Thank you, Hugo.”
Hugo felt himself growing hot all over, and he quickly stepped away, headed across the floor to join his aunt. He took charge of himself at once, knowing he must not display any emotions in front of his family, especially if Daphne was present. He had to be calm and collected; the absolute gentleman. Nothing must appear to be improper.
Lady Gwendolyn had a loving smile on her face when he bent down to kiss her cheek, and she squeezed his arm. He sat down on the sofa next to her, and took her hand in his.
There was a tremor of emotion in her voice when she murmured, “Thank God you’ve come home at last. I’ve worried about you for years, Hugo.”
“Well, here I am, Aunt Gwen, and glad to be back. I’ve missedyou … missed everybody really. Butyoumost of all, you know.”
She was unable to speak for a moment, and he noticed the glint of tears in her blue eyes.
He said quietly, “Before we start catching up, I just want you to know I haven’t come here to claim Little Skell Manor. I don’t want it; you can live there as long as you want, for the rest of your life, Aunt Gwen.”
“I never thought you were going to turf me out, Hugo. You were the kindest of boys, and I didn’t think you’d changed. I loved you, and I still love you. You’re rather like the son I never had, and I was devastated when you were sent away. It was unconscionable of your mother. She really was mentally unhinged after Peter drowned. Still, there was no reason to blame you.”
She sighed. “I grieved for you, but your father told me he often saw you … I knew Ian would never abandon you. He loved you.” She smiled and squeezed his hand. “Here you are now, and thank you, by the way, for Little Skell Manor. But I never thought you’d want it.”
Hugo was silent for a moment, touched by her words. At last, he said, “So, tell me everything that’s happened since I’ve been gone.”
Lady Gwendolyn chuckled. “Not much, darling. I just carry on, potter around, go up to town occasionally, to see friends, have quiet dinners and, of course, I can’t do without the theater. So I’m quite sure you have more to tell me. Oh and Hugo, I must offer you my deepest condolences. Charles told me you were widowed a year ago. I am so very, very sorry, my dear.”
“Thank you, Aunt Gwen. I must admit, it has been hard. Unfortunately, Loretta was ill with consumption, which is why we moved to Zurich, for the mountain air, and the good sanatoriums.” He let out a sigh. “She was too far gone, too ill to get better.”
He shifted slightly on the sofa, and looked off into the distance. “I realized how lonely I was in Zurich, and one day I just knew I had to live in England again. It was such a strong desire I finally made up my mind to come home … you see, I yearned for my own people, for all of you, and for this Yorkshire land I know so well.”
* * *
Later, once the afternoon tea was over, Charlotte, Alice, and Cecily walked back to Little Skell village together, taking the path through the park.
At one moment, Alice said, “Hugo wants to buy a property here, as close to Cavendon as possible. But there isn’t anything around, at least not for sale.”
“He told me the same thing,” Charlotte remarked. “I mentioned a couple of estates near Middleham, but he wasn’t interested.”
“I know he wants to settle in Yorkshire, he told me so. Now that he’s widowed, he’s lonely. He wishes to be with his own people,” Alice said. “In the last year he’s yearned for Yorkshire, at least so he confided.”
Charlotte nodded. “Maybe he wants to get married again. After all, he’s only thirty-two. He’s good-looking, very eligible, and extremely successful in business.” She suddenly began to laugh. “He’s not only looking for a house, but a wife most probably.”
Cecily pricked up her ears, and looking at her mother, she said, “I think he’s found her already.”
Alice was taken aback. She came to a standstill, stared at Cecily. “What do you mean?”
“I think Hugo has found someone to be his wife.”
“Don’t be so silly! He’s only been here for a day!” Alice exclaimed.
“Yes, I know that, Mam, but I watched him, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her. You were all talking to each other, eating, and mingling. I was sitting alone on the seat in the other bay window. I just sat and watched everyone, all of you. But it was Hugo who I watched most, because whenever he thought no one would notice, he was staring at her … sort of … longingly.”
“Butwhowas he staring at?” Charlotte asked, sounding a little impatient.
Charlotte was flabbergasted, and she exchanged a glance with Alice, who was also shocked.
There was a small silence.
Cecily broke the silence when she cried, “Don’t you believe me, Mam? I’m not inventing it. I’m not. I’m not!”
“Yes, yes, I do believe you,” Alice was quick to answer, giving Charlotte a sideways glance, raising a brow. “I just don’t know how I could have missed his interest in her, that’s all.”
“I do. He was very … clever about it, throwing her a glance, staring, eyeing her, sort of …secretly,” Cecily explained.
“Do you mean surreptitiously?” Charlotte asked.
“Yes, that’s the word, Aunt Charlotte.”
“Did Daphne notice, do you think?” Alice wondered out loud.
Cecily shrugged. “I’m not sure … maybe. No, I don’t think so. She’s used to people staring at her, because she’s so beautiful. She probably didn’t think anything about it, even if she did notice, and just took it for granted, that’s all.”
“And why doyouthink differently, Cecily? What made you say Hugo might have found a wife already?” Charlotte asked softly.
Cecily stared at her great-aunt, who she knew was very clever. After all, she’d worked for the fifth earl for twenty years, and was considered very intelligent.
Better be careful, Cecily warned herself, and thought very hard. She cast her mind back to the tea; in her mind’s eye, she pictured the yellow sitting room, Daphne in the blue dress, sitting with Alice. And Hugo. Handsome. Charming. Moving around the room. She focused on him intently, and closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she said, “It was written all over his face.”
“What was?” Charlotte asked. Although she thought she knew what Cecily meant, she needed to probe deeper, to be sure.
“What hefelt,” Cecily murmured. “It was … like alonging…” Cecily shook her head. “I don’t know how to describe it, not really.”
“I do,” Charlotte said softly, turning her gaze on Alice. “I believe it’s called love at first sight.”
Alice nodded. “Perhaps,” she said noncommittally, but her mind was racing.
Charlotte was silent. She began walking again, and Alice and Cecily kept up with her until they arrived in the village. Once her house came into view, Charlotte said, “I’d like you to come inside for a moment, Alice, and you too, Cecily.”
They did as she asked.
Charlotte led them into her sitting room overlooking the garden, and after turning on a couple of table lamps, she said, “Please sit down for a moment. I won’t keep you very long.”
Alice said, “It’s all right, Charlotte, we have plenty of time.”
Once Alice and Cecily were settled on the sofa, Charlotte took the chair opposite. Leaning forward intently, she looked from Alice to Cecily, and said quietly, “I believe you, Cecily, because I know you are extremely observant. What you saw on Hugo’s face was emotion … he probably is unusually attracted to Daphne.”
Cecily nodded. “I know he is,” she asserted confidently.
“You cannot tell anyone what you’ve just told me and your mother. This must remain a secret. It must be our secret.”
“Oh,” Cecily said, sounding puzzled, then asked, “Why?”
“At this moment, Daphne Ingham has to be protected. By the Swanns. Don’t ask me why, because I cannot tell you. Eventually you will know, because your mother and I may well need your help. Do you understand?”
“You mean I can’t tell Miles or DeLacy that I saw Hugo ogling Daphne all the time?”
“That is correct.”
“But they’re Inghams.”
“That does not come into play here,” Charlotte responded adamantly. “And if they noticed anything, and mention it to you, dismiss the idea as silly. What you told us about Hugo is our secret. No one else must know. Tell no one. Trust no one. Trust only the Swanns. You do understand this, don’t you, Cecily?”
Cecily realized that her aunt was in deadly earnest, and extremely serious. She said, “I understand that I cannot tell anyone anything. And I know what I saw must be a secret.”
“Correct. You know the motto? The oath?”
“You will take it now, for the first time. And you will honor it all of your life.”
“Yes, I will.” Cecily stretched out her arm and made a fist. “Loyalty binds me,” she said.
Charlotte stiffened her arm, clenched her fist, and put her hand on top of Cecily’s. “Loyalty binds me,” she repeated. Alice followed suit, and did exactly the same thing.
“It is done,” Charlotte said. “You are sworn to protect the Inghams. You must never fail. No Swann ever has.”
* * *
It was twilight when Charlotte walked across the street to speak to Alice. She was opening the white garden gate when Alice appeared on the doorstep of her house, and walked down the path to meet her.
Charlotte said, “I’ve been thinking … I believe it would be better for the Swanns to stay on the sidelines for the moment.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Alice said, leaning against the gate.
“Ceci said that Hugo was ogling Daphne; that was the word she used. It doesn’t really mean anything, does it? Men ogle women all the time.”
“That’s true … you said you thought it was love at first sight, though,” Alice remarked, giving her a very direct look.
“Yes, because Ceci said Hugo had a look oflongingon his face. Maybe I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”
Alice bit her lip. “I understand, but you know she can’t get involved with him on any level, Charlotte, not in her condition. My God, what if he somehow found out … discovered our secret? That would be disastrous!”
“You’re up at the house all the time, handling the clothes, and I shall be there more often. Charlie asked me to do some secretarial work for him. We’ll just have to keep our eyes wide open, Alice, and mostly focused on Daphne.”
“Yes, you’re right. It’s the only thing we can do really.”
A reflective look crossed Charlotte’s face, and she said quietly, “When I had a problem, or David had a problem, and we couldn’t solve it, he’d just shrug and say, ‘Life usually takes care of itself.’ And in this instance, I suppose we must have that same attitude. Let’s just leave it alone, and let life take care of itself.”
Alice reached out, touched her arm affectionately. “That’s right, we just have to wait and see what happens. You could be right, maybe itwaslove at first sight. Then we’ll be in a pickle, won’t we?”
Charlotte shook her head. “Not necessarily,” she murmured, and gave Alice a knowing look.
Felicity knew within the first few minutes that the supper dance was going to be a great success. First her three eldest daughters, and then her two sons, had exclaimed about the beauty of the rooms in the South Wing, as they arrived in the pale green drawing room. And now Hugo was doing exactly the same.
“I don’t know how you managed to do it, but you’ve turned the green drawing room into a fantastic garden, Felicity,” Hugo said, glancing around. “It’s quite magical, Charles, isn’t it? And so are the other two rooms.”
Her husband smiled, nodded, and looked pleased, but made no comment, because he knew as well as she did that she had not had anything to do with it.
Swiftly, Felicity explained, “I can’t take any bows, Hugo, and neither can Charles, for that matter. Hanson and Mrs. Thwaites had the foresight to clear the three main public rooms. They moved some pieces of furniture into various bedrooms, and then the gardeners took over. They brought in the plants and flowers that bedeck this room, the pink dining room, and the blue drawing room as well.”
“And that room looks fantastic, too, Mama,” Guy interjected. “It never occurred to me that it could be turned into a ballroom. But it works perfectly. It’s just the right size. Now we’ll know for the next time.”
Felicity smiled. “Thank you, but as I said, I can’t take any accolades this time.”
Diedre had been glancing around for a moment or two, and now she said, “I love the way this room looks, Mama. It’s like a … painting, yes, that’s it. All the colors work together. The pink peonies, the white roses, the blue delphiniums and foxgloves all blend well together. It’s very artistically done. I didn’t think Bill Swann had that kind of talent. I know he’s the head landscape gardener, but this is…” Her voice trailed off when she saw her father staring at her curiously, and frowning.
Charles said, “Bill is a good head gardener. However, this room was created by someone with genuine artistic ability. Charlotte Swann built this gorgeous indoor garden, as she often used to do for my father when he was alive. I suddenly remembered that the other day, and Charlotte got to work immediately when I asked her. And you’re correct, Diedre, it is like a painting.”
“Oh my goodness!” Daphne exclaimed, and they all followed her gaze, saw Dulcie standing in the doorway in her nightgown, her face covered in chocolate, and her hands as well.
“I’ve come to the party,” she said, and smiled at them.
Felicity took a step forward and stopped, looking down at the lavender chiffon gown she was wearing, thinking of the chocolate on her child. Then she shook her head as she saw DeLacy make a move to hurry to Dulcie. “Don’t go to her,” she said.
“We’ve either got the greatest escape artist in the world, or we need a new nanny,” Charles exclaimed, glancing at Miles. “Go and find Miss Carlton, please, and ask her to come for Dulcie.”
“Why don’t I just take her to Nanny?” Miles suggested.
“Because somehow she’ll manage to get chocolate all over your white shirt and tie,” Charles explained, and shook his head, wondering how Dulcie had found her way to the South Wing.
At this moment, much to everyone’s relief, Maureen Carlton, the nanny, appeared, looking flustered and upset. “I’m so sorry, your ladyship,” she said, addressing Felicity. “I turned my back for a moment and she managed, somehow, to vanish. I’m so very sorry. Really so sorry.”
“It’s all right, Nanny,” Felicity answered in a low voice. “But I think it would be a good idea to scoop her up right now, and take her back to the nursery. Guests are about to arrive at any moment.”
“Yes, m’lady,” the young woman answered, and swept Dulcie up into her arms; she disappeared as fast as she could.
It was Hugo who broke the silence when he started to chuckle, and soon they were all laughing.
“Thank goodness you didn’t go and pick her up, DeLacy,” Miles said. “Your rose chiffon frock would have been ruined.”
The thought of another ruined frock made DeLacy wince, and she remained silent. The ink-stained white dress would haunt her forever.
Hugo said, “One must admit, she is rather adorable, though.”
Charles laughed. “True. And I must admit, I dread to think what she will be like when she’s fifteen, and not five.”
“Still a little madam, I’ve no doubt,” Diedre muttered.
Great-Aunt Gwendolyn, who was standing next to her, whispered, “Sshhhh, sshhhhh,” and drew her across the room toward a bank of lilies.
Hugo heard Diedre, and he quickly jumped into the conversation, when he said, “I must compliment you, Aunt Gwen, you do look wonderful in your royal purple tonight. So do all of you, ladies. Very beautiful indeed.”
His eyes lingered a moment too long on Daphne, who was a shimmering sliver of sea colors, in an extraordinary evening gown made entirely of blue, green, and turquoise beads. Her beauty was incomparable.
Suddenly feeling self-conscious, he walked swiftly across the room to Felicity, and took hold of her hand, kissed it. “You’re as lovely as you were sixteen years ago. Charles is an awfully lucky man, Felicity, awfully lucky indeed. How I envy him.”
She smiled, and touched his arm in an affectionate manner, then answered in her low, soft voice, “Thank you, Hugo. You always were very gallant, and hopefully you’ll meet a fine woman one day who will become a lovely companion, and your wife perhaps.”
“I hope so, yes.”
At this moment Hanson arrived, accompanied by two footmen.
Charles looked across at him questioningly. “Are the guests arriving?”
“Yes, my lord, they are. And all at once, it seems.”
* * *
Felicity sat with Lady Gwendolyn on a sofa at one end of the blue sitting room, which had been transformed into a ballroom.
Furniture had been moved around so that it encircled the room. It was set against the walls, and the large Persian rug had been removed to reveal a wood floor. An array of potted palms, flowering shrubs, and urns of flowers gave the room a garden feeling, as in the pale green drawing room and the rose-pink dining room.
“The supper was particularly delicious,” Aunt Gwendolyn said, turning to Felicity, giving her a warm smile. “I must say Cook outdid herself tonight. The salmon mousse was perfect, and I loved the tiny lamb chops. As for the desserts, they were mouthwatering.”
“Everythingwasdelicious,” Felicity agreed. “And Cook did have the foresight and experience to get in extra help from the village. So it all went smoothly. Altogether, we were sixty-two people at supper, you know. Quite a lot to cook for.”
“And most of them now appear to be dancing, and having a grand time. Where did you find this rather good little orchestra?”
“Hanson discovered them in Harrogate, and they are good, I agree with you.”
“Daphne has outshone herself tonight, Felicity,” Gwendolyn said admiringly. “She looks wonderful, and her dress has caused quite a sensation. She only has to breathe and it shimmers. And this is certainly one time I’m not going to complain that it’s blue.”
Felicity shot back, “You can’t, because it’s also got green and turquoise beads in it. It was mine, you know. I had it made in Paris. I always thought it was a rather special piece of haute couture, and I kept it for that reason. Luckily, it fit Daphne perfectly.”
Both women gazed at Daphne dancing with her father. Charles enjoyed dancing, and it showed. He moved around the ballroom gracefully, and Daphne was in perfect step with her father. Because they were tall, they looked wonderful together, and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
A silence fell between the two women, and Felicity fell down into her thoughts. Her eyes were focused on Daphne, and for a few moments she was totally mesmerized by the girl’s incredible beauty. Unexpectedly her heart clenched when she thought of the rape, and her daughter’s terrible dilemma.Their dilemma. They were in this together, the three of them. She was also thankful the Swanns were in the background, to help in any way they could. Daphne needed as much support as possible, and they would all give it to her, get her through. Hopefully her reputation would not be damaged in any way, and she would be able to pick up her life in the early part of 1914.
A rush of overwhelming guilt about many things made Felicity slide further down into herself. This awful guilt invaded her frequently, because she knew she had been overly preoccupied with her sister’s illness, and another dire and disturbing problem. She had neglected her family. And yet deep inside herself she knew she couldn’t have prevented the rape; she wasn’t outside in the bluebell woods when Daphne was so brutally attacked.
She and Charles had seized on the suggestion that Julian Torbett was to blame, and Daphne had done nothing to dissuade them otherwise. And yet Felicity had her doubts, and so did Charles. She had always thought Julian was a bit wishy-washy, and slightly feminine in certain ways.
She stifled a sigh. And what did it matter now? Julian was dead. And if it was some other man who had assaulted her, he was long gone. Far away.
In her opinion, her daughter might easily have been spotted by a poacher, a stranger on the estate … Aunt Gwendolyn was saying something to her, and Felicity let the thought go.
“I’m sorry, my dear, I didn’t quite catch that,” she said, turning to Gwendolyn.
“I was asking you if you thought Diedre might be unhappy in some way?”
Frowning, Felicity asked, “Why do you say that?”
“It’s just that she has a way of saying odd things,” Lady Gwendolyn murmured, and lowered her voice. “Rather mean things. And often people do that when they are discontented.”
“She’s always been a little acerbic, you know, that’s just her way.”
Lady Gwendolyn gave Felicity a long, pointed look and said, “I hope it isn’t a trait she has inherited from me. I’ve always been rather acerbic myself, and often had my knuckles rapped for it, I might add.”
Before Felicity could answer, Hugo appeared in front of them, looking impossibly handsome in his white tie and tails. “Can I steal my aunt away, Felicity?”
“Of course,” she answered, and smiled as he led Gwendolyn onto the dance floor. She couldn’t help thinking how graceful and elegant Gwendolyn looked in her purple evening gown and her amazing array of diamonds. Her back was straight and she stepped out with confidence, held in the arms of her nephew.
I hope I’m like her when I’m seventy-two, Felicity thought, and slipped back into her distressing ruminations. One of her main concerns was keeping her own secrets, as well as keeping the secret about Daphne’s pregnancy. She realized much of that would have to do with her clothes. They would conceal a lot. Tonight had been the best time for her to wear the slender column of beads, whilst she was still as thin as a reed.
“Mama, may I have this dance, please,” Guy said, stepping closer to her, offering her his hand.
“But of course, I’d love it,” she replied, and stood up, let him lead her onto the floor and whirl her into a waltz.
* * *
Hugo found he could not sleep. He had tossed and turned in his bed for two hours, and finally, in frustration, he got up, put on his dressing gown and slippers, and went downstairs to the library. After switching on the light, he went over to the drinks table and poured himself a large cognac.
After returning to his bedroom, he sat down near a window and sipped the brandy, thinking about Daphne. He was a sophisticated man of the world, and he had certainly behaved as one tonight. He had been the epitome of polished charm and good manners, attentive to all of the women, not only to Daphne. He had danced with them and with her. She had been pleasant and warm. And he had been totally in control of himself. No more schoolboy reactions. However, he did have one reaction to her he did not let show. Hehadfallen in love with her, and he wanted her for the rest of his life.
Hugo was smart enough to know the situation had to be handled properly and with discretion. He would speak to Charles within the next few days, to ascertain what the situation was with his daughter. He needed to know if she was spoken for.
After another few swallows of the brandy, Hugo stood up to take off his dressing gown. As he did so, he happened to glance out of the window, and then stepped closer. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. There were flames in the stable block.A fire.My God, the horses, he thought, and rushed out of his room to raise the alarm.
Hugo was horrified when he reached the stable block. The first stall, with Diedre’s brass nameplate on it, was empty except for bales of hay. It was the hay which was burning furiously, the flames shooting up into the night sky, turning it red.
In the next stall, Daphne’s horse, Greensleeves, was panicked, rearing up on her hind legs, thrashing at the stall door with her front hooves. The horse was terrified, and Hugo knew he must release it at once. The horse’s nostrils were flaring, and there was froth on her mouth.
In the process of trying to lift the latch, Hugo burnt his fingers on the hot metal, but hardly noticed. Someone had wedged a piece of wood behind the latch, to keep it in place. Unable to move the wood, Hugo pulled off a shoe, and began striking at the latch with the heel, until it flew up and the door sprang open. Swiftly, Hugo stepped to one side as Greensleeves galloped out furiously and headed down the yard toward the meadows.
Immediately, Hugo ran to the next stall, where DeLacy’s horse, Dreamer, was also panicked and rearing up on its back legs. He released the latch, opened the door, and another horse sped away, heading after Greensleeves.
As he moved on to the third stall, he heard Charles shouting, “Miles, get the fire extinguishers! Guy, pull out the pump and hose. We’ve got to stop the fire spreading! Walter, help him.”
Charles ran up to Hugo. “Thanks for that warning. If you hadn’t seen the blaze all of this would have soon burnt to the ground.”
“I couldn’t sleep, and got up. Lucky, wasn’t it? When I saw the flames, everything I knew from my childhood rushed back to me. I knew I had to get here as fast as possible to save the horses.”
Charles nodded, and then, when he saw Hanson running into the yard, followed by two footmen, he cried, “Please rescue Dulcie’s little Shetland pony in the stall here, Hugo. I’ll get Hanson and the footmen to free the horses on the other side of the yard. We must move them into the meadows for their safety.”
“Shall I take the pony into the fields?” Hugo asked.
“Good idea,” Charles shouted over his shoulder, already on his way to give Hanson and the footmen their instructions.
* * *
Within three hours all of the flames had died down, most of the stalls had been hosed and cleaned out, and the burnt and wet hay removed. Most importantly, none of the horses had been hurt, or injured in any way.
The stable boys, who lived in the annex near the estate offices at the far end of the stable block, had arrived soon after the fire started. Awakened by the furor, they had quickly come tumbling and running onto the scene. And they had done their fair share of work. Eventually, the horses had been led back to the yard, carefully examined, and then put in their stalls where they were watered and fed.
As the stable lads sat drinking their mugs of hot sweet tea and eating bacon sandwiches, they talked amongst themselves, wondering aloud how the fire had started. It had been huge. Hanson, Walter, and the two footmen were doing the same thing in the servants’ hall. The fire was a mystery to them all; therefore it stayed in their minds.
* * *
Once they had cleaned themselves, and changed their clothes, Charles, Guy, and Miles went down to the dining room for breakfast, where they found Hugo nursing a burnt hand. He had wrapped a towel around his fingers, but he kept anxiously looking at the burns, a frown on his face.
“Come on, old chap, let me take a look at that hand,” Charles said, striding over to his cousin at the other side of the dining table.
“It’s nothing serious, Charles, but it does sting a bit, I must admit.” He lifted the towel.
Charles nodded. “Wilson, Felicity’s lady’s maid, is a very good first-aid person. Miles, do me a favor, and go down to the kitchen. Ask Wilson to please come up and look at Hugo’s hand. I think she will have the right salve and a bandage.”
“Right away, Papa.”
“You’ll be fine in a couple of days,” Charles murmured. “They’re only surface burns. However, you were lucky.”
Hugo merely nodded. After a moment, he said, “I can’t fathom how that fire started … that hay wasn’t merely smoldering, it was really burning … like a great bonfire. You don’t think it was arson, do you?”
For a moment Charles was startled, and he sat up straighter, stared at Hugo. “It hadn’t crossed my mind. Why do you bring it up?”
“I thought of it when I was changing in my room. You see, Charles, I burnt my fingers on the metal latch, which was hot from the fire. The latch on the stall door wouldn’t open, and when I looked closer I saw a piece of wood wedged behind the latch. I had to take off my shoe and use it as a hammer, to get the wood out. Only then could I open the stall door.”
Charles gazed at him. A worried expression had now settled on his face. His brows drew together in a frown, and he shook his head. “Now why would anybody do that? A latch doesn’t have to be so tightly shut. The horse isn’t going to leave the stall. And you of all people should know that only too well. You grew up in the yard of your father’s stud in Middleham.”
“That’s why I wondered about the wedge. Which then led me to the thought of arson. Do you think you ought to call the police?”
“Perhaps I’d better, if only because of the insurance. Anyway, a fire must be reported.”
Inspector Michael Armitage of the West Riding Police and his sidekick, Sergeant Tim Pollard, were standing in the stable yard with the Earl of Mowbray, surveying the stall where the fire had started.
“I wasn’t the first on the scene, Inspector,” Charles explained. “It was my cousin, Hugo Stanton. He was the one who saw the flames from his bedroom window, and he literally banged on my door, shouted ‘fire,’ and ran straight out here. Ah, here he is now.”
When Hugo came to a standstill next to Charles and the policemen, Charles introduced the three men to each other, and said to Hugo, “I was just explaining that you were the first on the scene.”
“That’s right,” Hugo agreed. “This particular stall was on fire, or rather, I should say a large bale of hay was burning furiously. Fortunately, the stall was empty. But there was a horse in the adjoining stall.”
“And so you released the horse before doing anything else, am I right about that, Mr. Stanton?”
“You are, Inspector. Greensleeves, the horse in this stall…” He moved toward the second stall, indicated it, and continued. “… the horse had been spooked, she was up on her hind legs, frightened out of her wits.”
He told the inspector how he’d discovered a piece of wood wedged behind the latch, and had knocked it out with his shoe. “I didn’t quite understand that, why it was there, since a horse isn’t going to move out of a stall, even if the door is open. I grew up in a professional yard, my father’s, and naturally I was puzzled. I suddenly wondered if the fire had been caused by arson. Perhaps someone with a grudge against the family? A person who had purposely trapped that horse.”
“I see what you mean. Tell me, Mr. Stanton, did you smell anything when you arrived, petrol perhaps? Anything like that?”
“No, nothing. Just the stench of burning hay. Do you agree with me that it might have been arson, Inspector?”
“In one sense I do, because I can’t quite fathom how hay would burst into flames of its own accord. Someone might have been out here in the stables, of course, having a smoke, and thrown the match away. Carelessly. But then I don’t think a smoldering match would start that kind of huge fire.” He turned to the earl, and said, “From what you told me earlier, it was a big blaze before you got here, Lord Mowbray.”
“Almost out of hand, and the second stall had already caught fire when I arrived with Walter Swann, my valet, and my sons. They tackled the fire with extinguishers and the water pumps, and when the butler and the footmen came we were able to control it.”
“No strangers seen on the property, Lord Mowbray?”
Charles shook his head. “Not the kind you mean, Inspector. However, we gave a supper dance last night, and we did have a number of guests. Approximately fifty friends. Naturally they came here in chauffeur-driven cars.”
“So, in a way, therewerestrangers on the estate. The chauffeurs,” Inspector Armitage asserted.
“That’s correct,” Charles replied. “But I seriously doubt that one of them came into the stable block and started a fire.”
“Where were the motorcars parked, m’lord?” Sergeant Pollard asked politely.
“Mostly at the front of the house, and down the front drive. However, there were fewer cars than you might think. You see, our fifty guests were mostly made up of married couples, and some brought their daughters. So there were a number of people in most of the motorcars.”
“I understand, m’lord,” Pollard answered.
Charles and Hugo walked around the yard with the two policemen, answering any questions they asked. But it was soon obvious that the professionals were at a dead end, just as Charles and Hugo had been earlier that morning. Quite simply there were no real clues which could point to arson. How the fire had startedwasa mystery, as it had been right from the beginning.
* * *
Hugo was sitting on the terrace, readingThe Times,when suddenly Daphne was standing there next to him, as if she had walked up to him in silken slippers, so quietly had she arrived.
“I hope I’m not interrupting you, Hugo,” she said in her soft, light voice.
“No, no, not at all,” he answered, putting the paper down, pushing himself to his feet.
“I just wanted to thank you again for saving Greensleeves. Father gave her to me, and I love her,” Daphne explained, and then glanced at his bandaged left hand. “Does it hurt very much?”
He shook his head. “No, just a few burned fingers, nothing too bad. They’ll be healed in a couple of days, according to Dr. Shawcross. Please, sit down for a moment, won’t you?”
Smiling at him, she did so, settled back in the chair next to his. “I am in your debt. If ever you need anything, you must let me know.”
I need you. Marry me. Be my wife … Those were the sudden thoughts running through his head, but he did not turn them into words. Instead he said, “There is one thing I would like you to help me with, Daphne.”
She leaned forward slightly, and said swiftly, “Please, tell me what it is. Of course I’ll help you, Hugo.”
The scent of her freshly washed golden hair, the hint of roses emanating from her skin, the very closeness of her, made him feel weak. If he had to stand up at this moment, he knew he wouldn’t be able to. He was also unable to speak. He simply stared into her deep blue eyes, smiling at her, and feeling dizzy, almost light-headed.
“What is it?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, and before he could stop himself, he blurted out, “It’s you, Daphne. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever set eyes on.” A small smile flickered on his mouth, and lifting his hands in a helpless gesture, he said in a jocular manner, “I am your devoted slave and always will be.”
His joking tone and his exaggerated words made her laugh out loud, and she exclaimed, “Oh don’t be silly, Hugo! I’m just another girl, and there are several of us in this house.”
Leaning toward her, wanting to breathe in the intoxicating scent of her yet again, he said, “I’ll tell you a secret … it’s Dulcie who’s really enslaved me.”
This comment made her laugh even more, and then she murmured, “You haven’t told me what you want me to help you with.”
“Ah yes, that’s perfectly true.” Adopting a more serious tone, he explained, “Last night Aunt Gwendolyn told me there is a house I should see nearby, that I should go there this afternoon. And I was wondering if you would accompany me? I think a second pair of eyes is always necessary, and most helpful, especially when looking at bricks and mortar. Don’t you agree?”
“I do indeed, and I will certainly come with you. What is it called?”
“Whernside House, and it was the home of Lady Muschamp, widow of a local politician and member of Parliament. She died, a few months ago. Her daughter told Aunt Gwendolyn she would sell to me, if I wanted it.”
Daphne had a beatific expression on her face when she said, “I have only been there twice, but it is one of the most beautiful houses in Yorkshire. Not too far away from Cavendon, about twenty minutes in the motorcar. Have you checked that Gregg can take you there this afternoon?”
“I have indeed. I also mentioned it to your father, and he told me he will be here all day. Because of the fire, and other matters he has to attend to. What time shall we plan to go there, Daphne?”
“Immediately after lunch, I think. I know you’re going to fall in love with it, Hugo.”
I’m already in love. With you. Forever,he thought, but did not utter a word. He was filled with longing for her, wanted to hold her to him, keep her close, keep her safe. Make her his. Stop it, he told himself sternly. Get ahold of yourself. And he did.
They sat on the terrace chatting about casual things, totally at ease with each other. And at one moment, Daphne couldn’t help thinking what a truly lovely man he was. And most engaging.
Downstairs in the kitchen, there was an edginess in the air: raw nerves, free-floating temperament, tiredness, and concern. Cook was well aware of this, and understood. The fire had upset everyone, and most of the staff had been up half the night, as she had herself. What an end to the gorgeous supper dance.
The mystery of how the fire had started was worrying, and she had already heard whispers and bits of gossipy talk about arson.
Now who would want to purposely set fire to the stable block and put those beautiful animals at risk? Only a maniac. Or somebody who harbored hatred for the family.
The latter did not seem possible to her. The earl was a fine man, a good employer, loyal to his workers. And he was honest, straightforward, and compassionate, felt responsible for everyone who worked on the estate, and those who lived in the villages of Little Skell, Mowbray, and High Clough. There wasn’t a better man alive, in her opinion, and Hanson and Mrs. Thwaites agreed with her, as did Olive Wilson, the countess’s maid.
They were the longtime employees, understood that Cavendon was a superior place to be in service. The family behaved impeccably, and never gave the staff problems. Tempers and tantrums were unheard of, unless little Dulcie was carrying on.
It was Mrs. Thwaites who squashed the idea that arson was involved, because she said there was no one alive who could possibly hold a grudge against Lord Mowbray.
They had gone along with her, put the matter to one side. But there were mutterings amongst the maids and the footmen. Although Nell Jackson had noticed that Peggy Swift and Gordon Lane were quiet on the subject, had attended to their duties efficiently, and in silence.
Cook knew Malcolm Smith was a troublemaker, a bit of a rabble-rouser, and that he had influence over Mary Ince and Elsie Roland, who seemed to think he was a matinée idol who had stepped off the London stage and into their midst, just to entertain them.
Hearing a small mewling sound, Cook now turned away from the stove, where she was boiling pots of leeks and potatoes for a vichyssoise soup, and spotted Polly standing near the pantry door, weeping.
Hurrying over to the little kitchen maid, she looked down at her and said in a kindly tone, “Whatever is it, Polly? What’s upset yer?”
“It’s Malcolm. He says t’house is goin’ ter burn ter cinders next. When we be asleep. Is it?”
“No, it’s not. Malcolm’s daft. Wait ’til I see him, he’ll soon know wot’s wot around here. Come on, sit down, and I’ll get yer a glass of lemonade.”
Several moments later the footman came into the kitchen carrying several silver trays, which he placed at the end of the long kitchen table. He was turning to leave, when Cook said, “A word, Malcolm, if yer don’t mind.”
He swung to face her, muttered in a surly voice, “I do mind. Hanson’s on me back. He needs me upstairs. I don’t have time to mess around here.”
Nell Jackson moved across the kitchen floor at great speed, stood looking up at the footman, her face set in grim lines. “Listen ter me, my lad. And that’s all yer are, just a lad. So drop the airs and graces. If yer don’t stop scaring Polly, I’ll have yer guts for garters. Worse, I’ll tell Hanson, then he’llreallybe on yer back. Then you’ll know what trouble is. Leave the little one alone, or yer’ll be sorry, my lad.”
“Who the hell do yer think yer are?” Malcolm growled in an angry voice, his face suddenly flushing. “Yer just a cook. I’ll do what I want, when I want to do it.”
“You certainly will not. Not here. This bit of Cavendon Hall ismydomain, and I run it. I make the rules. Don’t ever think otherwise. Go on, do what yer have ter do, but leave the little lass alone in future.Understand?”
Still bright red in the face, the footman left, ignoring Elsie and Mary, who were coming down the stairs. They were giggling when they walked into the kitchen, but immediately sobered when they saw the stern look on Cook’s face.
Cook paid no attention to them. Instead, she went over to her small desk, picked up the menu the countess had made yesterday for today’s lunch. First course, vichyssoise cold soup. Second course, cold poached salmon with mayonnaise and potato salad, and for dessert, a summer pudding made of red fruits with clotted cream. She nodded to herself. It was a lovely lunch for a warm day. Good choices.
* * *
Upstairs in the dining room, Gordon Lane glanced up and down. When he saw that he and Peggy were alone, he hurried over to her. “What sort of questions did Inspector Armitage ask you, Peg?”
“He was mostly interested in trespassers on the property, any strangers loitering. I told him I hadn’t seen anybody.”
“You didn’t mention the woods then? The night we heard someone rattling around. You know, the Peeping Tom, you called him.”
“I didn’t. We’d decided to keep quiet about that. You remember, don’t you? We’d have been in trouble with Hanson if he’d known we’d been out that night, and we’d still be in trouble if word got about.”
Gordon nodded. “I know, it’s against the rules of the house. Anyway, the inspector asked me the same thing.Arson. That’s what they’ve been thinking. The bobbies, I mean.”
“The bobbies might be right, Gordon. I grew up on a farm, and I’ve never seen a bale of hay catch fire unless a match has been put to it.”
She stopped abruptly when she saw Hanson hurrying into the butler’s pantry, just outside the dining room. Immediately she picked up some service plates, started to place them around the table.
Gordon took his soft, white cloth and began to polish a crystal wine glass.
After Hanson had uncorked a bottle of good white wine, a Pouilly-Fuissé, to let it breathe, he walked into the dining room. “Thank you, Lane, and you too, Swift. You’ve both carried out your duties in a most appropriate manner. Anyway, no trespassers have been seen, according to the inspector, so we must assume the fire was an accident.”
Peggy was silent, wondering if he was correct.
Gordon said in a quiet voice, “You know something, Mr. Hanson, one of the chauffeurs might have gone to the stable yard for a smoke. It was a long night. Maybe a smoker was gagging for a cig, had one, then threw the tab end away when it was still alight.” Gordon shrugged. “You never know what people can do. Careless, that they are.”
Hanson ignored these words. He went over to the table, surveyed it with an eagle eye, then nodded in approval. “Nine for lunch, Lane, so you and Smith will have to be on your toes.”
“Yes, sir,” Gordon answered, glad that he was in the butler’s good books at the moment.
* * *
Walter Swann was putting order in one of the earl’s wardrobes in the dressing room when Olive Wilson poked her head around the door.
Walter smiled the moment he saw her laughing green eyes, bright auburn hair, and cheeky grin.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
Walter nodded. He liked Olive. They had always worked well together and she was reliable and diligent. Furthermore, she didn’t have one bad bone in her body.
“I need to be filled in,” Olive explained, slipping into the room.
“What do you mean?” Walter asked, a brow lifting.
“I’m curious … what’s been happening while I’ve been in London?”
“As you know, Mr. Hugo finally came back, and he’s had a very warm welcome. The most tragic thing is that the countess’s sister is very ill. I’m sure you know that, Olive. The countess must have told you already.”
“Yes, she has, and it’s very sad indeed. Her ladyship indicated to me that her sister doesn’t have much time left on this earth.”
“So I’ve heard.” Walter carried a blue suit to the window, where the light was better, to inspect it. He said carefully, “No other news, though, all has been normal. How was London?”
“I didn’t get to see much of the city, I’m afraid. I was stuck in Croydon. After burying Mum, I had a lot to deal with, selling her house, all that sort of stuff. But her affairs weren’t too complicated after all. And to be honest I was pleasantly surprised by the legacy she left me.”
“A windfall?” Walter said, smiling at her.
“Yes, and a good one.”
“Dare I ask how your chap is, Olive? Mr. Dayton?”
There was a moment of silence, and then Olive said in a low, somewhat saddened voice, “You’ll never believe this, Walter. Ted left me. He ran away. With a married woman. They went to Canada … emigrated.”
Walter was flabbergasted, and couldn’t speak for a moment, and then he said, “What a rotten thing to do. I’m sorry, Olive, very sorry. You must be really upset.”
“No, I’m not, to tell you the truth, Walter. I’m relieved, actually. Can you imagine if we’d been married? Since we’re not, I can say good riddance to bad rubbish. And mean it.”
The house was Georgian. It had been built over 250 years ago, and it was beautiful. It was designed in the style of Andrea Palladio, the great Italian architect, and was the perfect Palladian villa standing on top of a small hill. Immediately below the house there was a man-made ornamental lake in which was reflected an image of the house.
“How clever they were, those architects of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” Hugo said as he and Daphne walked around the lake. “They usually did put a great house on top of a hill, if the topography was correct, and then made a lake to create a reflection, a mirror image. A bit of clever trickery. Two houses for the price of one. Well, let’s say a house and the perfect image of it.” He laughed, added, “So imaginative.”
Daphne looked closely at Hugo, thinking how intelligent he was. She had never heard anyone say this before about Whernside House. People only ever talked about the beauty of the interiors. She told him this, and went on, “The rooms are lovely, perfectly proportioned, spacious and airy, but the outside is important too, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely, and especially for me,” Hugo confided. “I love an English park like Cavendon, and this park is very similar, although not as large. Let’s go inside, shall we? I can’t wait to see what’s behind those walls. Maybe this place will be my new home.”
Together they walked the short distance up the hill, and were met on the terrace by the caretaker, Mrs. Dodie Grant. “The park’s gorgeous, isn’t it, Mr. Stanton?” she said as Hugo and Daphne walked with her down the terrace to the French doors.
“It is indeed,” Hugo replied. “And I’m impressed with the many ancient trees. They’re just magnificent, most especially the oaks.”
“Yes, they are, and the only other trees I’ve seen like them are in the park at Cavendon,” the caretaker remarked.
“That’s so,” Daphne murmured, walking after the caretaker, going into the library, which opened off the terrace.
“I shall leave you alone to explore,” Mrs. Grant now said. “Lady Daphne has been here before, and I think she knows her way around the house. I’ll be in my little office, off the kitchen, if you need me.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Grant,” Hugo answered, offering her a pleasant smile. “I plan to take my time, though. I hope that’s all right?”
“It is. Take as long as you wish.”
Once the caretaker had hurried off, Hugo stood in the middle of the library and slowly turned around, taking everything in. “I understand what you meant about perfect proportions, Daphne; this is a wonderful room. The windows and the French doors let in such an amazing amount of daylight.”
“The paneling helps too, Hugo. Mahogany is always too dark, in my opinion. I prefer pale wood.”
After strolling around the library, discussing various aspects of it, they moved on, went to the drawing room, then the dining room, and toured every room on the ground floor. It seemed to Hugo that they became better and better.
The bedroom floor also had many lovely rooms, as spacious and airy as those downstairs. At one moment, he couldn’t help thinking that the house was rather big … perhaps too big for one man. But then he wasn’t going to be alone forever, was he? He would have a wife.
Only Daphne,he thought.She is the only one I want. The house suits her. She looks perfect in it … but then she would be perfect anywhere. She’s so beautiful. A truly luscious woman.
He watched her intently as she walked down the master bedroom to the other end, and looked out one of the windows.
She said, “There’s a lovely view of the lake from here, Hugo. You could have swans, like we do at Cavendon. Yes, what this lake needs are two white swans. They mate for life, you know.”
“I did know that, yes,” he murmured, thinkingweshould mate for life. Totally preoccupied with his thoughts about her, he fully understood he couldn’t get her out of his mind. Would he ever?
This afternoon she was wearing a peach silk dress, similar in tone to the one she had worn when he first met her … yesterday.Was it only yesterday?It was. He had arrived here on Friday and today was Saturday. How was that possible? He felt as if he had known her for years. They had spent an evening together at the supper dance; they had breakfasted with the family this morning. There had been the chat on the terrace before lunch, then lunch, and later the drive over to Whernside House in the close proximity of the motorcar. And the long wander around these beautiful rooms for the past hour.
In a truly short space of time they had been in each other’s company rather a lot … and he wanted to be with her constantly. She was not only the most beautiful of women, but intelligent, caring, and charming. He felt completely at ease with her, but had no idea how she felt about him. However, shewascomfortable with him, he was certain of that. Because he noticed she was relaxed.
He glanced around the bedroom. It was large, but then all of the rooms were. This was a house meant for a man and his wife and their family. Not for a lonely man, a widower, all alone and mooning over a woman far too young for him. A woman he was not likely to ever possess.
She turned around, came walking back, smiling. Sunlight gilded her golden hair, gave it a shimmer, cast a bright radiance across her face. The peach silk rippled around her long legs, was draped across her shapely bosom.
The dizziness returned; his mouth went dry. There had been women before he married; after all he was a virile man. But he had not felt like this about any of them, not even his lovely Loretta, whom he had loved and been faithful to throughout their marriage.
Hugo, fully aware he was besotted with Daphne Ingham, did not know what to do about it. He, a sophisticated, experienced man of the world, was flummoxed.
“Let’s go up to the nursery floor,” Daphne suggested, breaking into his thoughts about her.
Pulling himself together, Hugo said, “Why not?”
They climbed the stairs quickly, and once they entered the nursery, Daphne exclaimed, “Oh! A rocking horse! Just like the one we have at Cavendon.”
She rushed across the room and started pushing the horse. It moved back and forth, and Hugo suddenly remembered the one in the nursery at Cavendon, which he’d ridden on as a child.
“Your rocking horse was a friend of mine, too,” he said in a hoarse voice. “It’s called Dobbins.”
Daphne nodded and laughed. She stopped the horse moving, and unexpectedly she flung one leg over its back and sat down on it. She started to rock back and forth. Her dress was caught on the horse’s back and had ridden up to expose her leg.
He thought he would go mad with desire for her as she rocked to and fro. The movement had become highly suggestive to him, and he had to turn away. His desire was growing unbearable.
A moment later, Daphne left the horse and joined him near the window. Putting her hand on his arm, she said, “Thank you again, Hugo, for saving Greensleeves.”
“It was a good thing I remembered to put on my shoes when I was running out of my bedroom.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, puzzled.
“I was in my slippers when I saw the flames out of the window. I started to run, but stopped to put on my shoes. So when I couldn’t get the stall latch open, I used one of my shoes as a hammer,” Hugo explained.