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Fenella J Miller

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Fenella J Miller


ll rights reserved. No part of this
publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in
any form or by any method, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise,
without the prior written permission of The Author - Fenella J. Miller

A House Party Copyright Fenella J.
Miller 2013

This e-Book is a work of fiction.
While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters,
incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a
resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any
similarity is coincidental.

(Originally published by Robert Hale in 2008 as The House




Jane Dixon-Smith



design: Jane Dixon-Smith



England 1814


‘God damn it!
Am I to have no peace?’ Ned Weston, the Earl of Rushford swore without raising
his eyes from the paper he was studying.

‘Stow it,
Weston, I’m not one of your unfortunate servants. I’m here an official

what the devil are you doing here? Last time I heard you were in Paris with

The man in
faded regimentals folded himself on to the nearby chair and smiled. ‘It’s on
his command that I’m here. Don’t shoot the messenger, my friend.’

Ned pushed his
chair back and strode to the bell-strap. He was glad of the excuse to take a
break; estate business had never been a favourite pastime. ‘I must apologize
for my rudeness; I have been trapped at my desk for the past three days trying
to catch up with things.’

‘Well, your
estate will have to wait. I have an urgent commission for you.’ Major Richard Carstairs
stood up and joined his friend at the window. ‘This is not your usual mission –
Ned. It doesn’t involve travelling far.’

A timid knock
on the door prevented Carstairs from saying anything further.

‘Enter.’ Ned
turned to greet the footman who had answered his summons.’
here and some of that plum cake I had yesterday.
Tell Brown to make up a
room for the major.’ The footman bowed and nervously backed out of the room.

‘He obviously drew the short
straw,’ Major Carstairs said. ‘I’m amazed you retain your staff, you treat them
so badly.’

‘But I pay them far more than
they could get elsewhere. And don’t forget over the past few years I have been
absent more than I have been in residence.’ The earl towered over his friend,
his flaming red hair a warning to all that he was not a man to trifle with.
‘Shall we be seated? I’m eager to hear what my next task shall be.’

‘There’s a chance that the
smugglers who work around this coastline are carrying more than contraband in
their holds. Wellington believes that gold’s leaving these shores destined for
Bonaparte’s supporters. We don’t want the French to raise another army and
release their Emperor from imprisonment.’

Ned shook his head.
‘In Suffolk?
Surely not.
I’ve yet
to meet a man who supports the French. I doubt that anyone local could be

‘Have you heard of The Suffolk
Aeronautical Society?’

‘Indeed I have. In fact I gave
them permission to use my name and have donated far more than I’m prepared to
admit. However, I’ve had nothing to do with them since the outbreak of war.’

‘I’m relieved to hear you say so.
We believe Bonaparte’s supporters could be using balloon ascents all over the
county as a cover for something nefarious. No one is surprised to find the
pilots are Frenchmen. What better way for a spy to travel the country?’

They were interrupted by the
arrival of the refreshments. Ned waved the footman away impatiently. He wanted
to hear exactly what Wellington wished him to do. The coffee was
cold before either of them thought to
drink it.

‘Let me get this straight. I’m to
invite this particular bunch of aeronauts to a local event and by mingling with
them, discover if your suspicions are correct?’

‘Yes, that’s
exactly what we wish you to do. You have long had an interest in this
association so why should anyone suspect you’re more than a wealthy aristocrat
with more money than sense?’

‘I never attend public functions
and to do so now would be totally out of character.’

‘We’ve considered that
possibility and have the perfect answer. I’ve been reliably informed that a
year ago you danced attendance on a certain young lady by the name of Miss
Penelope Coombs, but were called abroad before you made the arrangement
official. Did you know Miss Coombs resides not five miles from Ipswich? No one
would think it odd of you to attend a balloon ascent in order to renew your
acquaintance, especially as you’re known to favour blondes with blue eyes.’

‘I hardly think the comparison to
my latest flirt is appropriate.’ Ned’s eyes were hard. The major didn’t look
away. Eventually Ned spoke again. ‘So, you wish me to break the heart of a
lovely young woman twice in as many years? I won’t do it. You must find someone

‘There’s no one else and it’s an
order. You’ve no choice. All you have to do is ensure Miss Coombs and her
aunt attend
the event. A man of your ingenuity should have
no difficulty with that.’


‘What did you say, Aunt Lucy?’
Penelope Coombs stared at her aged aunt with undisguised amazement. ‘Attend a
balloon ascent?’

‘My dear, have I not told you how
enthralled I have become of late with all things aeronautical?’

‘No, Aunt, you have not. Indeed I
can say without fear of contradiction that this is the very first time you have
ever expressed so much as a passing interest in the matter.’

Lady Dalrymple patted the
making the feather on her
maroon turban flutter. ‘Do come and sit down, my dear, your pacing is making me

Penny paused at the far side of
the drawing-room, the hem of her pale green muslin skirt swirling around her
ankles. ‘I cannot sit still. I’m certain the letter from London will come

Aunt Lucy snorted. ‘In my opinion
the whole thing is fustian. Your poor father would turn in his grave if he knew
how you intend to spend his money.’

‘That’s doing it too brown, Aunt
Lucy. I only intend to invest half my funds in shipping - and there will be
more than enough left over to keep us both in luxury for the rest of our
lives.’ Penelope walked over to join her aunt. ‘What is all this about
balloons, Aunt? Tell me more?’

‘If you stop perambulating around
the room for five minutes I shall be happy to do so.’

‘Very well.
I suppose your tale will pass the time’

‘I came by a poster advertising the
ascent a week ago and quite made up my mind to attend. There are to be rides
for the public and I am determined that I shall be first in the line.’

Penny gazed at her elderly aunt
with affection. ‘You’re almost eighty years old, Aunt Lucy. Ballooning is for
the young and agile.’

‘Stuff and
I am fitter now than some people half my age. It is because of
my approaching name day that I wish to do it. The good Lord might call me back
at any moment. Can you think of a better way to go than when one is already
half way to heaven?’

Penny chuckled. ‘Now I know
you’ve run mad. Are you trying to tell me in a roundabout fashion that you hope
to perish in the basket of the balloon?’

‘What a ridiculous notion?
Of course not.
I have a list here of ten things I wish to
experience before I depart this world and a ride in a balloon is but third on
it. I am determined that I shall accomplish them all before I meet my Maker. ‘

Penny held out her hand. ‘Please
show me, Aunt. My heart quails at the prospect of discovering the two items
that precede the ascent.’

Her aunt placed the paper in the
outstretched hand, her eyes lowered, not wishing her astute great-niece to see
her expression. She considered that her imaginary list was a masterstroke. When
Penny had been obliged to return to the family home, on the sudden demise of
Sir John Coombs just over a year ago, it had been in the happy expectation of
receiving an offer from Edward Weston.

Lady Dalrymple smiled as she
recalled the exact words on the bill advertising the forthcoming balloon

event has been fully funded by the Earl of Rushford. Lord Weston is a founder
member of The Suffolk Aeronautical Association

With any luck his lordship would
attend the event bringing several of his gentlemen friends. Whatever her
personal feelings on the matter she was of the firm opinion that any earl was
better than none.

Penny scanned the neatly penned
list with growing consternation. Number one was a visit to Paris, number two a
trip along the canals of Venice and number three, an ascent in a balloon. ‘Aunt
Lucy, I know Bonaparte is imprisoned on Elba but I don’t believe it to be safe
to travel abroad at the moment.’

‘Which is why, my dear, I intend
to start with number three. It is fortuitous that such an event is to take
place in our neighbourhood. It’s high time you were seen in public again. What
is the point of having a new wardrobe in the first stare at fashion if you do
not intend to be seen wearing it?’

‘Very well, I
concede. Tomorrow we shall drive into Ipswich. However reluctant an aeronaut I
am, I cannot allow you to take a flight unaccompanied. If you insist on this
folly then we shall suffer the experience together.’ Penny grinned. ‘Don’t look
so smug, Aunt Lucy, I promise you might well regret your determination to cheat
the laws of nature. From what I have read on the subject many people experience
nausea and all return frozen to the marrow.’


Saturday, the day of the
expedition, dawned fair and cloud free. According to Tom, the coachman, this
was the perfect weather for a balloon ascent. The barouche selected for the
journey was waiting outside the house when Penny emerged dressed in her finest.

‘It is a perfect May day, my
dear,’ Aunt Lucy said, pushing up her parasol. ‘Let us hope it does not become
too hot.’

The carriage eventually joined
the throng of like-minded vehicles on the main road into the bustling market
town of Ipswich. As usual the streets were packed with vendors, pedestrians,
carts, wagons and coaches, making progress slow.

Eventually they arrived at their
destination and looked around the already crowded field with interest. Penny
climbed down from the carriage glad they had chosen one that didn’t require

‘Come along, Aunt Lucy; if you
seriously intend to travel in the balloon then we must go and put our names
down. We’re rather later than I would have wished and I can see the balloon is
almost ready to fly.’ Arm in arm the two ladies, accompanied by a groom, headed
in the direction of the balloon. They stopped to greet various acquaintances as
they progressed.

‘It is far bigger than I
expected. And what is that hideous hissing and gurgling I can hear?’

‘I have no idea, Aunt Lucy. I
believe it’s coming from those barrels placed around the balloon. It must be
the noise of the gas they’re putting inside that we can hear.’ Penny was
relieved to see a large notice pinned to a wooden frame. ‘Look, there’re to be
no rides today. It appears it’s too dangerous to take passengers aloft.’

Aunt Lucy schooled her features
into the appearance of disappointment.
‘How vexing!
was so looking forward to it.’

As they watched, the sphere
securely tethered by several cast-iron anchors, strained and pulled like a dog
on a leash wishing to be free from restraint. The pilots scrambled in to the
basket and a dozen men began to release the restraints. As the last tether
dropped to the ground the magnificent air balloon shot skywards. It rose at a
remarkable rate wafted by a thermal of warm air.

‘Well, that was exciting, Aunt
Lucy, but hardly worth the effort of coming so far. We’ve only been here thirty
minutes and the spectacle is over. Shall we wander around the field and view
the various sideshows?’

Her aunt was still gazing up
following the progress of the balloon. ‘I wonder what happens when they wish to
descend, my dear. I suppose those carts must trundle after them. What did you
ask me, my dear?’ The elderly woman stopped and exclaimed dramatically. ‘Good
heavens! Look, Penny. Well I never did!’

Penny glanced over her shoulder
to see what it was that had so excited her aunt. ‘If you have arranged this,
Aunt Lucy, I shall never forgive you.’

Striding towards them was the
very man she had convinced herself she never wished to see again. She was
tempted to give him the cut direct, turn her back and walk briskly in the
opposite direction, but something compelled her to remain where she was.

Her heart thudded painfully in
her chest as Lord Weston approached. She wished this arrogant man did not still
have the power to overwhelm her. She straightened her shoulders and
deliberately looked in his direction. His green eyes bored into her. She
lowered her head, hiding her face in the deep brim of her poke straw bonnet,
hoping to break the connection, give herself time to regain her composure
before she was obliged to greet him and the flock of fashionable ladies and
gentlemen that trailed in his wake.

‘Lady Dalrymple, Miss Coombs,
what a delightful surprise.’

The voice had not changed. It
even now had the power to turn her from a sensible, level-headed young lady
into a dizzy debutante. Reluctantly she raised her head.

‘Lord Weston, I had not expected
to see
here today.’ She did not
offer a hand, merely dipped her head in greeting. It was as if no one else
stood near them. She might as well have been alone with him, not standing in an
open field surrounded by milling crowds.

He stepped nearer; too close. The
smell of leather and lemon soap washed over her, a painful reminder of his
callous rejection last year. He was a monster. He had all but proposed to her
then abandoned her to grieve for her beloved father alone. He wasn’t getting a
second chance. She had learned her lesson. Only fools put their hands back in
the fire for a second time.

‘Miss Coombs, I owe you a most
sincere apology. Last year I was called away on business and when I returned
you had vanished. I was bitterly disappointed until I discovered that your
father had died and that was the reason you were no longer in town.’

BOOK: Fenella J Miller
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