Authors: Meg Brooke
“I suppose I ought to give you the grand tour,” Eleanor said brightly.
“If you are tired from the journey, it could wait until tomorrow.”
“Nonsense,” she said as Thomas disappeared down the servants’ stairs. She lowered her voice a little. “You want to know where all the entrances are, I suppose. Let me know if there are any other details that would be helpful.”
Lord Pierce stared after her as she turned to the left. “It would be good for me to know which windows are most visible from the hillsides, and if there are any windows that are accessible from the ground,” he said.
She nodded, leading him into the large salon that was set up to receive guests. Beyond it were the parlor, drawing room, and the large formal dining room. None of the spaces were quite as ostentatious as the rooms at Starling Court, but it was clearly a house that had been built to impress visiting nobility, including the monarchs. “The only windows accessible from the ground are those above the back terrace,” she said as they passed through a music room. “All the rest are at least seven feet off the ground. Oh, there are ten or eleven hopper windows that let light into the servants’ hall and kitchens, but they are only eight or nine inches tall. Will you want to see the servants’ areas?”
“I should think so,” he replied. “Those would be the easiest places for someone to go undetected.”
She shook her head. “Not here. The least senior member of the staff has been working for us for four years, and she is a scullery maid who came to us at the age of fourteen. All our staff are very loyal.”
“Anyone can be bought,” he muttered.
She froze at the entrance to the family dining room. “Is that really true?” she asked, not turning. Suddenly she was terrified that some member of their staff had been compromised, that there was a traitor in their midst.
“I promise you it is. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years with the Foreign Office it’s that every man has his price.”
Now she turned, finding herself standing very close to him, so close that she stepped back in surprise, her heel catching on the carpet. She teetered backwards, making a stifled sound of surprise, and suddenly his arms were around her, breaking her fall. His face was quite near hers, and he looked right into her eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
Her fingers were clutching his lapels. She released them as he brought her back to her feet. “With you to take care of us? Of course not.” She brushed the wrinkles she had made in his coat. His hands were still on her back. She looked up at him. “Your eyes are gray,” she said, and immediately she felt quite stupid.
“They are,” he said, nodding and smiling so that the cleft in his chin became deeper.
“I meant,” she said, breaking from his hold and turning away, hoping that he could not see her flush, “I had thought they were brown.”
He nodded. For a moment neither of them said anything. Then he cleared his throat.
“The solarium and the ballroom,” she said, “and then on to the library.”
Colin followed Miss Chesney through the rest of the ground floor and then up to the more private areas on the second floor. As he did, he cursed his stupidity. He had frightened her. He had made her suspicious of a staff that had appeared to him to be nothing short of thrilled to have the family for whom they cared back home again. And then he had seriously considered kissing her.
The last was perhaps his worst mistake.
What had he been thinking? What had made it worse was that she had not pulled away, had not seemed disgusted at the prospect of kissing him. Instead, she had clutched at his lapels and blushed. That had nearly undone him.
Then they had both come to their senses.
Ahead of him, Miss Chesney opened the last door on the second floor. “This was my father’s study,” she said softly.
The room looked as though it had been designed for a man of a previous era: dark wood paneling, bookshelves laden with heavy leather-bound volumes, a massive desk atop a thick carpet.
“Leo never uses it,” Miss Chesney explained. “He prefers to work in the library or the little sitting room in his chambers when he is here.”
“How long ago did your father die?”
She was resting her hands atop the back of the chair behind the desk. The light from the window cast a bright halo behind her. “Seven years ago,” she said, looking past him.
“I am sorry,” Colin said.
Her expression was pained. “He was the kindest and best of men,” she said. “He was our anchor.” Then she blinked a few times and met his eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It was long ago now.”
“I imagine one never gets over the loss of a parent,” he said. “Mine are both still living.”
“Where is Townsley?” she asked, clearly grateful for a change of subject. She moved past him to lead him down the hall.
As they came to a door that opened onto a narrow set of stairs, he said, “Townsley is in Staffordshire. There is a small village of the same name nearby and not much else. Certainly not the picturesque location you have here, nor the history. The house was barely built a hundred years ago. Not the classic Elizabethan arches and paneling of Sidney Park.”
She sighed as they came to the next floor. “It’s like living in a work of art,” she said, not sounding altogether enthused about that prospect.
On an impulse he grabbed her wrist, stopping her in the narrow hall. “It’s your history,” he said. “Be glad you can be proud of it.”
She blinked up at him, silent.
There was a noise down the hall. He looked up to see the gray skirt of a maid disappearing through a door. Eleanor pulled away. “The servants’ rooms are on the top floor of this wing, and there are attics at the top of the other,” she explained, leading the way. “The women are down here, and the men at the other end.”
“Are any of the servants married?”
“Two—well, three, actually—two of them are married to each other. The butler and cook, Mr. and Mrs. Parkinson, live off the kitchens downstairs. Elsie, one of the upstairs maids, is married to the blacksmith, and they live on the edge of Porter-on-Bolling.”
“That’s the village we saw beyond the Park when we came into the valley?”
“It is. The only village for miles, really. She walks up every morning. It’s not far, just twenty minutes on foot.”
“All the others live on this floor?”
She nodded. “Oh, all except John Mowbray. He lives above the stables. He won’t leave his horses, he says.”
“I see. When Strathmore gets here—”
He gaped at her. Had he forgotten to tell her about the men from the Foreign Office? He must have, and it was a foolish mistake, for any minute now Simon Strathmore would be appearing on the doorstep wondering where his room was.
He had no talent for this sort of espionage. Other men, men who had more experience, would have had Strathmore masquerade as a valet or a secretary. Colin had not thought of that detail. “Simon Strathmore,” he said, seeing that there was no possible way to avoid telling her, “is one of the men from the Foreign Office. He should be arriving shortly—he rode on our heels the whole way here. Another man is already in the area, and a third is coming with the princess.”
“Oh.” She leaned against the whitewashed wall. “Well, we will have to think of something to tell Mama. I don’t suppose we could claim that he is here on behalf of the princess?”
He almost kissed her then, out of sheer gratitude. She might actually have made a better agent than he did. “That’s brilliant,” he said when he had managed to restrain himself. “Tell her a letter came from London informing you that a man working on behalf of the Privy Council will be arriving to advise you prior to the princess’s visit.”
She frowned. “I don’t believe I’ve ever lied so much in my whole life as I have the last two days,” she said, and she put a hand on his forearm. “Please tell me. Is the princess in danger? Are we?”
He looked her in the eye. “I don’t know yet, not for certain,” he lied. “When I do, I will tell you, I swear it.”
She nodded grimly.
A rush of relief swept over him as he followed her back downstairs. He had a little more time, at least. A little more time to discover the extent of the threat, to be able to tell her that she was safe when he revealed the truth. He ignored the fact that he had been expressly told not to tell anyone besides Leo his true purpose, or the nature of the threat to the princess. He knew he could trust Miss Chesney.
As they came back down into the salon, the butler, Mr. Parkinson, entered. “Excuse me, Miss,” he said. “A Mr. Strathmore has arrived.”
“Thank you, Parkinson,” Miss Chesney said smoothly, as if she had been expecting the man for weeks. “We’ll put him in the yellow room, I think.”
“Shall I take him there directly, Miss?”
“Oh, no, show him in if you would.”
Simon Strathmore strode into the room. He was a man of medium height, with dark hair cropped close to his head making him look young and daring. He was still wearing his dusty traveling clothes. “Miss Chesney,” he said, smiling and holding out a hand. “Lord Pierce,” he added, nodding to Colin.
“Welcome, Mr. Strathmore. I trust you will enjoy your stay with us,” Miss Chesney said pointedly. “I suppose you and Lord Pierce have some things to discuss.”
There was a low droning sound out in the hall. “That’s the bell to dress for supper,” Miss Chesney said.
“It didn’t sound like a bell,” Colin said.
“Oh, it isn’t,” she said as she made her way towards the door. “It’s a gong. One of the previous Viscounts Sidney brought it back from China.” When she reached the door she turned. “I suppose you’ll want to see the grounds and the valley tomorrow,” she said.
“That would be helpful.”
“Then I’ll take you and Mr. Strathmore out in the morning. I’ll see you both at dinner.”
When she was gone, Strathmore let out a low whistle. “Are all the Chesney girls that pretty?”
“Be careful, Strathmore,” Colin cautioned him, thinking of Maris, who he believed given his limited interaction with her would flirt with anything wearing pants. It would not do for there to be a compromising situation involving a member of the Foreign Office and the daughter of a family he had been sent to protect, and Colin would likely take the fall if there was.
Strathmore looked chastened. “Of course, My Lord.”
He was young. He would learn. “We are going to tell Lady Sidney that you are here on behalf of the Privy Council, to help plan the princess’s visit. Tomorrow morning you and I will accompany Miss Chesney around the valley, and then split off to interview the servants. We’ll talk more after dinner.”
“Certainly,” Strathmore said. “I would have arrived sooner, but I went down to the village first to see if Yates was there.”
Shaking his head, Strathmore said, “He wasn’t, though I was able to find out that he stayed at the inn last night.”
“He’ll find us as soon as he’s able,” Colin assured him, seeing that he looked rather worried. “For now we have bigger things to worry about, like making it through supper without either one of us getting engaged to a Chesney daughter.”
Eleanor had always been an early riser, and so she had expected to be the first down to breakfast. She was surprised to find Lord Pierce and Mr. Strathmore both sitting at the table, eating heartily and speaking quietly.