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Authors: Beth Andrews

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A Scandalous Secret

BOOK: A Scandalous Secret
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A SCANDALOUS SECRET

 

Beth Andrews

 

One night enjoy’d, the next forsook.

Yours be the blame, ye gods! For I

Obey your will, but with more ease,

could die.

 

(from
Dido and Aeneas;

libretto by Nahum Tate,

music by Henry Purcell)

 

 

Chapter 1

 

England, 1818

 

Someone had taken up residence in Lammerton Hall. As the carriage rolled swiftly by, Elizabeth tilted her head to look at the old house set up on a slight rise, just visible from the high road. The hedges had been trimmed, the windows and walls repaired, and fresh gravel laid on the drive. Altogether the place showed unmistakable signs of habitation. She must ask Dorinda who the new owner might be.

‘Are we almost there yet, Mama?’ Her son’s impatient words reclaimed her attention and put aside further speculation as to who might have purchased the derelict estate.

‘It will not be many minutes now, Nicky.’ She answered his question with a smile. He was bouncing up and down on the carriage seat with all the natural impatience of a seven-year-old who had been forced to endure a lengthy drive in a confined space. His eyes were bright with scarcely suppressed energy, and his chestnut curls, always difficult to manage, definitely needed combing.

Looking at him now, Elizabeth reflected for at  least the hundredth time on how he was growing more and more like his father with every passing day. The realization made her distinctly uneasy. If only she could forget....

‘Will Aunt Dorrie have any new kittens or puppies, do you think?’ Nicky asked, hanging precariously out of the open window.

‘For Heaven’s sake, Nicky, be careful!’ she admonished. He was certainly a handful. What he needed, she supposed, was a father. Elizabeth feared that she did not possess an authoritative nature and was unsuited to provide the necessary discipline for a strong-willed boy. She should have let her maidservant come with them, instead of sending her on ahead.

Nicholas was neither ill-mannered nor contrary by nature. But there were things which none but a man could teach a boy. The only males whom Nicky could emulate at present were the stable-hands at the castle, who were hardly suitable models of conduct for the young Earl of Dansmere. Of course, most of the titled gentlemen of her acquaintance who had sired heirs paid no more heed to their offspring than they did to their hounds. Indeed, not as much, for at least their dogs provided them with a certain degree of amusement.

With a shake of her head, she pushed aside these thoughts and prepared to reassure her son that there were always new animals of some kind at his aunt’s house. Nicky, however, had already been diverted from his original question.

‘Look, Mama!’ he cried, his violet eyes dancing. He pointed excitedly at a field which bordered the rough country road. ‘Two cows! Can you see them?’

‘Oh, yes.’ She followed the direction of his finger. ‘Are they not funny-looking creatures?’ They were indeed an oddly humorous couple -one brown and rather bored-looking, and the other a jaunty dame in mottled black and white, who bore a striking resemblance to Mrs. Plattridge, the wife of the local vicar. Elizabeth bit her lip at this unbidden - and most unchristian - thought. She determined to restrain her imagination in future.

‘How do cows make milk, Mama?’ Nicky asked.

This and many other unanswerable questions followed as their journey continued, for Nicky noticed everything. Once he even waved a cheery greeting to a little bare-headed farm boy seated atop a weather-beaten stile.

His incessant chatter was enough to weary the patience of even the most doting of mothers. Fortunately, they had not much farther to go. Just as Elizabeth felt certain that she must run out of answers - real or fabricated - to his comments and queries, she was rescued at last.

‘There it is!’ Nicky sang out gaily.

Elizabeth perceived before them the tall stone posts on either side of the entrance to Merrywood. They swept through the open gates to her sister’s home. In a very few minutes they were within sight of the house, which Nicky announced by heralding, ‘I see it! I see it!’

‘Very well, young man,’ she said, trying vainly to quiet his exuberant outburst. ‘Do be still, Nicky, and let me at least attempt to make you look presentable for your aunt.’

He consented reluctantly to having his unruly locks brushed into a more subdued style. He was obviously in high gig. As she buttoned his jacket and adjusted his collar, Elizabeth realized that she was almost as excited herself. Why this should be so, she did not know. Perhaps Nicky’s own pleasure had somehow communicated itself to her as well. She was happy, naturally, at the prospect of seeing her sister once again. But it was just an ordinary visit, after all - an annual event which was no different this year from any other. There was certainly no cause for this curious prickling of - of what? Anticipation? Apprehension? She was not sure. But there seemed to be something in the air on this bright and cheery English summer day. Or was it merely a foolish fancy?

The carriage had not quite come to a halt when Nicky flung open the door and sprang out to meet his beloved Aunt Dorrie, who stood smiling at the foot of the shallow flight of steps.

‘Nicky! Take care!’ Elizabeth’s warning went unheard. Her son was already being enveloped in a hearty embrace. Stepping gingerly down through the open carriage door, aided by a waiting manservant, Elizabeth proceeded to greet her sister in a more decorous, but not less heartfelt, manner.

‘My dear Lizzy!’ Lady Barrowe cried as they hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks. ‘How good it is to have you back with us.’

‘It is good to be here again,’ Elizabeth said sincerely. ‘A little quiet rustication is just what I need.’ Dorinda, she thought, was looking very well in a pale-green gown, her brown hair curling riotously - and quite naturally - about her heart-shaped face. But she fancied she could detect a faint shadow in those brown eyes of hers. ‘How is Alastair?’ she enquired artlessly. ‘And little Selina, of course.’

‘Where
is
my cousin, Aunt Dorrie?’ Nicky asked. He had been standing by somewhat impatiently during their greeting, and apparently could not hold himself in check any longer.

‘I am afraid,’ Dorinda answered, ‘that Selina is fast asleep, or you may be sure she would have been beside me to meet you. She has not been feeling very well.’ She gave a quick sidelong glance at Elizabeth. ‘I fear she may be coming down with a cold.’

Nicky was obviously downcast at this news. ‘Then I expect,’ he said, ‘that she will not wish to play any games this evening.’

The two women exchanged smiles at his tone. ‘I do not think it is anything serious, Nicky,’ Dorinda assured him. ‘She will soon be feeling much more the thing, I do not doubt, and will very likely be up and about by tomorrow.’

‘Is there anything which her aged aunt may do for her?’ Elizabeth enquired.

‘You are here for pleasure, not work.’ Dorinda was clearly grateful, but was firm in refusing this offer. ‘And, as for being aged, Lizzy,
you are but five years my elder.’

‘And you scarcely out of the nursery!’

This quizzing provoked a pinch on the arm from her sister.

‘Let us say, rather, that it is not so many years since I escaped from the schoolroom.’

‘But what of Alastair?’ They turned to enter the house, and she noticed that Dorinda hesitated slightly before replying.

‘Alastair was called away to London quite unexpectedly.’ It seemed to Elizabeth that her sister was choosing her words a trifle too carefully. ‘He left yesterday, and sends his regrets that he could not be here to welcome you himself.’

Elizabeth was really startled by this curious information, but managed - she hoped - to conceal it. Alastair was the most sedate of men, and had never been known to do anything unexpectedly. A typical country gentleman, he preferred the pleasures of his estate, an occasional fox-hunt or a game of billiards, to the feckless fashions of town life.

There was no time to dwell upon this unprecedented occurrence, however, as Dorinda had already led her down the hall and was continuing somewhat breathlessly: ‘But we are not quite deprived of male company, Lizzy. I would not have you think that. I have another guest, whom I am persuaded you will be as much pleased as surprised to see.’

This pronouncement was certainly intriguing. Elizabeth had not expected to find anyone else visiting at Merrywood. Dorinda generally informed her if there were to be any other guests. Who could this mysterious personage be?

Dorinda ushered them into the large, sunny drawing-room and Elizabeth was confronted by a figure that was very familiar indeed. A tall gentleman rose to greet her - a man with an imposing physique, raven-dark hair and eyes, finely chiselled features, and a rakish air, which was considered by many to be fatally attractive to the fair sex. Before her stood Lord Oswald Gulbridge, Viscount Maples. Good God!

* * * *

‘My dear Lady Dansmere,’ the viscount said, coming towards her with his most beguiling smile, ‘it is a pleasure almost too exquisite to meet you once again.’

Elizabeth reluctantly held out her gloved hand. He carried it - with undue ceremony, she thought - to his lips.

‘I certainly had not expected to see
you
here, sir,’ she replied, quickly withdrawing her hand. ‘I thought you still in London.’

Actually, she wished him in London - or, better yet, in Timbuktu - but was constrained by good manners from saying so. Adieu to her peaceful interlude in the country. She might as well resign herself to martyrdom at once.

‘I arrived here only an hour ago myself,’ the gentleman admitted ingenuously. ‘When I received your sister’s kind invitation to spend a month here, I could hardly refuse - particularly with the prospect of sharing such congenial company.’

‘Was it not an inspired notion of mine?’ Dorinda’s face was flushed with triumph.

‘A stroke of genius,’ Elizabeth agreed. So, that was it: Dorinda was matchmaking again. Really, it was high time her sister abandoned these schemes of hers. It must be obvious to any nickninny alive that these tactics would not serve. Elizabeth had lost count of the eligible men her sister had pushed forward for her delectation. It was some time since Dorinda’s last unsuccessful campaign, though, and Elizabeth had been convinced that she had learned her lesson and yielded to reason. It seemed that this was not the case. But of all men to choose—!

‘I quite thought,’ Dorinda said to the viscount, ‘that we had settled on your staying for six weeks.’

‘Pray, do not importune your guest.’ Elizabeth had never protested anything more earnestly. ‘We would not want Oswald to think that we are so careless of his other friends that we would deprive them of his company for our own selfish pleasure.’

‘I have no other engagements,’ the gentleman informed them. ‘Nor do I need any inducements to remain for as long as I am welcome.’

Elizabeth suppressed the urge to add, ‘Or even longer.’

‘You see, Lizzy?’ Dorinda was as full of pride as a plum pudding is full of plums. ‘Oswald’s wishes and mine are in complete accord.’

‘You are quite a pair,’ Elizabeth agreed.

‘And how is the young earl?’ the viscount said next, apparently noticing Nicholas for the first time.

‘Very well, sir. And yourself?’ The young man replied for himself. He spoke with a kind of unchildlike formality which Elizabeth noted that he reserved for anyone he particularly detested.

‘You look a little thin and pale, lad!’ Lord Maples said too heartily. ‘I believe you are inclined to cosset him, Lady Dansmere. But it is always so when a woman has no male about to supply a firmer hand.’

Nicky’s face darkened at this sally. ‘I have Uncle Alastair for that,’ he declared stoutly.

Oswald laughed, though he looked a trifle taken aback at such a forthright response. ‘I am sure your uncle is a fine example for you. But he is not always at hand, is he?’

Elizabeth thought it best to intervene at this point, before her son could become more annoyed - and possibly more impertinent as well.

‘But I do not see our old friend Achilles about,’ she said, turning the subject. ‘Where is he?’

‘Oh, yes!’ Nicky cried at once. ‘I’m longing to see him.’

Dorinda bent over her nephew. She ruffled his hair with one slim hand, undoing all his mother’s handiwork.

‘I believe you will find Achilles in the kitchen. It is his favourite retreat,’ she said. ‘The poor animal mopes about the house like a lost soul whenever Alastair is away. I know he will be happy to see you again, Nicky.’

‘Why do you not run along and find him,’ Elizabeth urged her son. ‘And remember to pay your respects to Mrs Madgewick and Sally. I am sure they will have a nice treat put by for you.’

‘May I go now?’ he asked, his eyes alight at the prospect.

‘Of course you may,’ his aunt answered indulgently. ‘I wonder I did not think of it before. Be off with you! You know the way.’ But he was already at the door and in another moment had disappeared from view.

BOOK: A Scandalous Secret
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