Authors: Sally James
Tags: #Regency Romance
HEIR TO ROWANLEA
“Go to bed, Mama, and your headache will be better.”
Lady Weare held her hand to her forehead.
“I meant to take you shopping for new clothes today, Charlotte.”
“I have a good book to finish. But I wish we could shop for some modern furnishings. These rooms are so old-fashioned.”
Lady Weare nodded.
“So do I, my love, but Norville House belongs to Frederick. Your uncle Henry will not permit me to change anything.”
“If cousin Frederick is still alive. Nothing has been changed since great-grandfather’s day, and nothing thrown out. We have this horrid old furniture acquired by his ancestors, where nothing matches, and hangings that are falling to shreds. Grandfather didn’t mind, and Uncle Frederick spent most of his time in France until they killed him.”
“Well, at least we have been spared the more outlandish fantasies of the last generation. Go and read your book. I will go to my room and rest.”
Charlotte went into the green saloon on the entrance floor of Norville House and looked around. There was none of the delicate, elegantly fragile furniture of the sort made popular before the turn of the century by Hepplewhite and Sheridan; none of the inlaid or painted styles of Robert Adam; and no modern hangings. But she was almost at the end of her novel, and soon forgot her unfashionable surroundings. She scattered cushions on a straight-backed walnut sofa until she decided it would be comfortable, and then, oblivious to possible creasing of her simple but elegant sprig muslin gown, curled up so that she could support her head on one hand while the other steadied a book from the circulating library against one of the cushions, in such a position that the reader could follow the adventures of her heroine through the last dozen or so pages of the final volume.
With a deep contented sigh, for she much preferred a novel to shopping, Charlotte turned over a page, and at the same moment there came a knock on the front door. She looked up, her eyes, of a deep blue that was almost violet, enormous in her pale, delicately complexioned face. People said her eyes were her greatest charm, fringed as they were with unbelievably long lashes, and usually sparkling with mischief, but in her opinion her nose was a trifle too short, and her mouth a shade too wide for classical beauty. Not that she cared, and she laughed when people called her pretty. Her only regret was for her black, curly hair, which was as unruly as her behavior tended to be. Although she tried to control both, especially this season, when she was to make her come-out, she was honest enough to admit she did not always succeed with her behavior.
Frowning now at being disturbed by morning callers, she slipped from the sofa and stole across to the window, peeping out to see what visitors were arriving. A landaulet had halted before the door, and a footman was at that moment assisting two ladies to alight. Charlotte exclaimed in annoyance and sped across to the door, intending to ask her uncle’s butler to inform the visitors she was out. As she opened it, however, she paused, for Rivers, the portly butler, was already at the front door. Escape was impossible and Charlotte could only hope that, on hearing her mother was indisposed, the visitors would merely leave their cards and she would not herself be called upon to entertain them.
It was a vain hope. Mrs Maine had no intention of being denied, and from the fact that she was a neighbour in Sussex, considered herself too old a friend to be turned away. Charlotte could hear her rather loud, imperious voice clearly.
“Good day, Rivers,” she was saying as she mounted the steps, followed by her daughter Elizabeth, a ravishing blonde beauty some ten months older than Charlotte.
“Ma’am,” Rivers replied, and Charlotte detected the overly polite tone in his voice which he employed towards people he did not like.
“Is Lady Weare at home?”
“I fear she is indisposed, Ma’am, and has retired to her room with the headache.”
“Headache? Unlike Sophia!”
“It is no doubt the effects of the journey from the country, and of shopping. My lady asked me to apologize should anyone call,” Rivers informed her, but Mrs Maine swept past him, nodding sympathetically.
“Indeed yes, if she’s not feeling the thing she won’t want to be bothered with gossip. However, I’m persuaded she will wish to see me for a moment, as she desired me to bring her the direction of an excellent milliner. Pray send her maid to inform her I am here, Rivers, but will not disturb her above five minutes.”
Rivers attempted to dissuade her, saying his mistress had been most positive she was not to be disturbed, by anyone, but Mrs Maine smilingly shook her head.
“Yes, of course, and normally I would not dream of insisting, but there is something I must say to her ladyship which cannot wait, and she would doubtless have left orders to admit me had she expected me to call. Elizabeth, you can wait for me, for poor Lady Weare will not want both of us intruding on her.”
“I believe Miss Charlotte is in the green saloon. Perhaps you would care to leave your message with her?” Rivers suggested.
“No, that won’t do, I’m afraid, but you can sit with her, Elizabeth. Now, Rivers, must I announce myself?”
Bowing to the inevitable, in the knowledge that Mrs Maine was fully capable of doing just that, Rivers turned to usher Elizabeth into the saloon. Charlotte, who had been standing just inside the slightly open door, looked round swiftly for a means of escape. It presented itself in the double doors leading to a small saloon at the back of the house, and Charlotte whisked herself through and pulled them almost closed, but did not dare close them completely for fear the click of the latch would betray her.
She was about to steal into the hall and escape by way of the back stairs when Rivers, who had handed Mrs Maine over to Lady Weare’s abigail, could be heard opening the front door again. To Charlotte’s dismay she realized the coach containing their luggage, which had followed them from Sussex, had just arrived, and footmen were being summoned to assist in the unloading of it. There was no escape now, and Charlotte silently expressed the hope Mrs Maine would not exceed the five minutes she had promised, for she was most anxious to discover how the heroine of her romance, trapped bound and gagged in the blazing tower of a remote Scottish castle, which was surrounded by a pack of ferocious wolves who were curiously unaffected by fear of the flames, would escape from the vengeance of the wicked cousin who sought to destroy her and steal her fortune.
Frustrated of this satisfaction, she put her eye to the crack of the door and contemplated Elizabeth. She had not penetrated far into the room, but had seated herself primly in a chair beside a heavily ornate table in the centre, and was occupied in smoothing out the fingers in her gloves.
Generally held to be the greatest beauty in their part of Sussex, Elizabeth had perfectly cast features, a pink and white complexion, softly rounded figure, and silky blonde curls which were, like their owner, very correctly behaved.
Although they had known one another from babyhood, the two girls had never been great friends, and Charlotte pondered the reasons. It was not, she assured herself, that she was jealous of Elizabeth’s beauty or the invariable elegance of her appearance, for Charlotte did not care a jot about her own looks, and considered the inordinate amount of time most of the young ladies of her acquaintance spent discussing the latest fashions a shocking waste. Nor was it the fact that Elizabeth, the only child of fond and wealthy parents, was a considerable heiress, for Charlotte had a large expectation herself, although her brother James would inherit the bulk of her father’s vast fortune when he came of age.
It must, she concluded, be Elizabeth’s excessive propriety, and entire lack of willingness for the unconventional exploits Charlotte herself delighted in. That, and her habit of looking at all men with what Charlotte scornfully termed sheep’s eyes, while she simpered and agreed with all they said. Elizabeth would be horrified if she knew Charlotte was at that moment hiding, as a child might, from an unwelcome visitor.
There was no time for further reflections, however, as the door burst open and Harry, Charlotte’s cousin, came impetuously into the room. Harry Norville was a tall, well-built young man of four and twenty, as dark as Charlotte, though his hair was less curly, and his complexion tanned from all the time he spent in the open. He was attired in pale fawn buckskins and gleaming boots, with an excellently fitting superfine coat, and he carried a greatcoat with at least half a dozen capes, and a whip. He cast these and his gloves onto the table and turned to Elizabeth.
“I saw your mother as I was coming downstairs. She told me I would find you in here with Charlotte. Where is she? Why has she left you alone?” he demanded, taking the hand she extended to him and carrying it reverently to his lips.
“Oh, she was not in the room when I came in, though she appears to have been reading here not long since, for surely no one else would wish to read that sort of nonsense,” Elizabeth replied, smiling demurely up at Harry through what Charlotte was convinced were artificially darkened lashes, and indicating the book Charlotte had left open on the sofa.
“Well, that’s all to the good, for I wanted to speak with you. I was just about to call on you. Have you an answer for me? I beg of you, Elizabeth, cease tormenting me and say you will agree to marry me! Why do you not answer me?”
Charlotte stood beside the connecting doors, rigid with dismay. She had just reluctantly decided she must, whatever the chagrin she would feel at having to confess to hiding away from the visitors, reveal her presence, and was wondering if an excuse about looking for something in the small saloon would be believed, but before she could open the door she had heard enough to be certain that Harry, were he to learn his entreaties to Elizabeth had been overheard, would be mortified and justifiably incensed. It had been the fashion amongst the young men of Sussex to profess adoration of Elizabeth, but none had, to Charlotte’s knowledge, offered for her. How could her beloved Harry have chosen such a girl, when there must be dozens more girls more worthy of him? Appalled, Charlotte moved away from the doors, seated herself on a small chair, and tried to cover her ears, but Elizabeth’s clear tones and Harry’s deep ones still came to her.
“You know it is useless, Harry, and I have told you above a dozen times papa would never permit me to marry you, not as matters stand,” Elizabeth replied, patting her immaculate curls and smiling provocatively at him.
“What has he against me? I’ll admit I have no title, and my expectations from my father are no match for your fortune, but there might be Rowanlea! Is that the difficulty? I know it’s uncertain now, but it seems more than probable my father is the real Viscount!”
“Might be Rowanlea,” Elizabeth repeated. “That is the rub. Although I have no need to marry a rich man, papa says it is wrong to marry anyone who cannot equal my fortune, and he, or rather it is mama, has set her heart on my acquiring a title. There is no certainty, Harry, that your father is heir to Rowanlea or the title, should your cousin prove to be still alive.”
“It seems unlikely after all these years when we have heard nought. The Peace was agreed six months ago, and surely they could have contacted us by now if they were alive. That’s the devil of it, we don’t know! Father might have been Viscount Rowanlea these nine years, after his brother was killed in ninety-three, and we might have been living at Rowanlea, but he will not do so until he is assured beyond all doubt young Frederick is not alive too! Instead he spends most of his time keeping up the estate against his possible return!”
“And perhaps for himself and you, if Frederick also died in the Terror,” Elizabeth reminded him gently. “Have you heard aught new?”
“No more than we heard years since, that my uncle had contrived to smuggle his wife and son to safety out of Paris when the King was murdered, but then he went back to help someone else and was taken and killed. The man who told us that much, an émigré, knew no more, for he left them at Versailles to make his own way to the coast. Without Uncle Frederick’s protection they may have been taken too, for we have had no word since. It has been impossible while this war continued.”
Elizabeth regarded him speculatively.
“But it is over now,” she remarked. “The treaty was finally signed at Amiens last month. They could have waited until it was ratified, or whatever they do with these things. Perhaps you will hear soon, for people are flocking to France.”
“Much good the Peace has done us!” he commented. “But you are right, we ought to be able to discover the truth of it at last.”
“Then possibly,” she smiled up at him, “you would be acceptable to my father.”
“Is that all that matters? If I become heir to Rowanlea, you would accept me? Does love not come into it at all?”
“It cannot,” she said with a slight sigh. “If love were the only thing that had to be considered all would be different.”