Authors: Maggie MacKeever
Tags: #Regency Romance
Sir Wesley Halliday glanced over his shoulder. An old man’s fancy, surely, this sense that he was not alone.
Halliday Hall stood smug and stately in the breaking dawn, a great Palladian brick-built structure with a central block and two symmetrical wings, arched Venetian windows and a steep-pitched dome. Smoke wafted from the chimneys to mingle with the chill morning air.
Nothing stirred, neither man nor beast. This queer foreboding was merely another of the odd notions that plagued him of late.
He rounded the corner of the house. Sir Wesley was proud of the Hall and its environs: the broad double avenue of beeches that marked the beginning of his property, the gateway designed by Inigo Jones; the rolling lawns and wood, the pond with its hexagonal pavilion, the grotto with its waterfall and the allegorical statuary placed artistically about. Winter was his favorite season, due not to the hunting, though in his youth he had spent countless hours strolling through the park with his gun on his shoulder and a spaniel at his heels. Today he derived more pleasure from rosy-cheeked carolers, mummers and wassailers, mistletoe and holly and the Yule log.
Another year was ending. And what a year it had been. The Corsican had lost his Empire while Sir Wesley gained a bride.
He’d left his young wife deep in slumber. She’d looked the merest child.
Down by the disused mill, the tinkers would not be sleeping. In memory, Sir Wesley heard the clang of cooking pots, smelled wood smoke and frying bacon, saw men feeding the livestock, women preparing their morning meal. He had not visited the tinkers’ camp in many years.
He entered his hothouse, a spacious building made up of stone and iron and glass. Three-and-twenty different kinds of pineapple grew here. Above them hung gigantic purple plums. Ivy and winter honeysuckle climbed up to the roof.
Here his precious orange trees sheltered, during the cold winter months. The building was steam-heated by an ingenious plan of Sir Wesley’s own devising, which involved pipes and valves and pressure that was increased or decreased by the turning of a cock.
He picked up a woven basket. His bride would be pleased to break her fast with out-of-season fruit.
There came a noise outside, as if someone had stepped on a fallen tree branch. Sir Wesley moved quickly toward the door.
It wouldn’t open. His heart quickened in his chest.
Sir Wesley told himself; the wood had merely swollen, warped, as result of the cold outside and the warm within. With unsteady fingers, he wiped the mist from one fogged pane of glass.
At first he saw only his reflection. Then his gaze fixed on the entrance to the secluded garden he had built for his first wife. Had he seen a cloaked figure there? Or merely an illusion caused by trees moving in the wind? Sir Wesley leaned his shoulder against the swollen wood and shoved. With a creak, the door gave way. He stumbled out into the chill air, gasping, one hand pressed against his chest.
The gate to Lady Margaret’s Garden opened easily, as if the hinges had been recently oiled. Sir Wesley stepped through it, and into the past.
Skeletal branches menaced. Dead leaves and debris clogged the fountain. The statue of Venus had toppled, shattered into jagged fragments. Vines smothered the marble benches set around the scum-skinned pond.
Sir Wesley made his way past weed-choked flowerbeds set in circles of faded sand; dwarf plants that had grown into bizarre misshapen forms. Originally, each flower and tree had been arranged in accordance with its symbolic meaning. Neglected, the place had grown into a grotesque parody of itself.
He crossed the whimsical arched bridge, followed a winding gravel path to the small red brick temple that stood at the garden’s far end. The small, high windows were broken, their wooden frames splintered and bleached. Sir Wesley pulled out the key that he carried always in his pocket. It turned easily in the lock.
Foolish, to feel so apprehensive. Grown men did not fear ghosts. He set his hand on the knob.
The door swung inward. Sir Wesley had taken but one step forward when an agonizing paralyzing pressure began behind his breastbone, spread to his arm, his neck, his jaws.
He doubled over with pain. From the shadows, a cloaked figure watched as Sir Wesley collapsed across the threshold of the temple he had locked behind him twenty years before.
“No and no and no!” protested Lady Dorset. “I will not harry that poor woman. They were married a mere six months.”
“Speaking of which,” murmured her companion, wife of the fifth Baron Bligh of Greenwood Castle, in whose Great Hall this conversation was taking place. “How do
find marriage, Lavender?”
“Much to my taste, thank you,” Lady Dorset, most commonly known as Livvy, retorted. “You needn’t remind me of how deeply I am in your debt. If not for your efforts, Dickon and I would never have—”
“Nonsense,” interrupted the Baroness. “You and Dickon
have, eventually. I merely lent a hand.”
A hand, was it?
thought Livvy. Dulcie had in effect grabbed each by the ear and marched them to the nearest clergyman, detouring briefly to solve a murder along the way.
The Great Hall was a rectangular room three times as long as it was wide, and two stories tall, entered through a screen passage at one end, with a minstrel’s gallery above. Ancient walnut furnishings were scattered around the huge chamber. Two-tiered marble wall-fireplaces boasted mantelpieces held up by pairs of caryatids. Scattered on the stone floors were brilliantly colored carpets. Large mullioned windows let in great splashes of daylight.
A room so large being impossible to keep warm, its occupants had arranged themselves in comfortable proximity to the fire that blazed upon one hearth. Lady Dorset perched on a tall carved wooden chair, a tall slender woman with classical features and a mop of curly blue-black hair, wearing a high-waisted dress that almost perfectly matched the startling lavender eyes that had earned her name. A giant battle-scarred tomcat, Casanova, sprawled on her lap. The current Baroness Bligh had curled up on an old and stately settee of uncommonly rich gilding. A large hyacinth macaw, known respectfully as Bluebeard, perched on the back of the Baroness’s settee. With his assistance her hair, a startling bright rose pink, was in the process of escaping from its intricate coils.
Nothing in the Baroness’s patrician countenance, with its elegantly sculpted cheekbones, determined chin and arrogantly inquisitive nose, suggested that she was past fifty years of age.
Or in her conduct, either. “Greatly as it distresses me to refuse you,” Livvy repeated firmly, “in this instance I must. I cannot force my way into a house of mourning to pay a social call.”
“I daresay I am asking too much of a female in your delicate condition,” sighed Dulcie. “Forget I mentioned the matter. Don’t let it concern you for an instant that a poor young woman — her husband so abruptly snatched from her arms! Left so suddenly alone in the world! — must be left to grieve alone.” She scratched the parrot’s head. “And why, one has to ask, did Sir Wesley visit Lady Margaret’s Garden so early on the morning of his death?”
Livvy refused, absolutely refused, to be drawn in. “Cut line, Dulcie. Sir Wesley Halliday was an elderly man, and not in the best of health. Moreover, his widow resides with his family. She is hardly alone.”
“Considering the family’s opinion of her,” Lady Bligh retorted, “I’m not sure that she wouldn’t prefer to be. Have you no compassion, Lavender?”
Livvy stroked Casanova, who returned the compliment by rumbling like a small steam engine. “I rather fear that I must not.”
“Tsk!” said Lady Bligh. “Try and put yourself in the poor creature’s shoes. Sir Wesley Halliday, in the bitter winter of his years, suddenly contracted a marriage with a chit not even half his age, younger even than Connor, his son. Of course his family resents her. It must be most unpleasant to share a residence with people who wish one had never been born.”
thinking, but not along the lines the Baroness suggested. Mention of sharing residences with gentlemen had reminded Livvy of her spouse, currently engaged in stalking pheasants with the remaining members of the Baroness’s house party. Why gentlemen should so enjoy such uncomfortable and bloodthirsty pursuits as shooting ducks in wintry marshes, and fishing for salmon in icy streams, and harassing wild fowl and small animals and all manner of other poor defenseless creatures, she could not say. Still, such was Livvy’s devotion to her husband — who, prior to their marriage, had earned no small reputation as a rakehell, which experience he had put to such good effect that his wife found herself in an interesting condition in an astonishingly short time — that she would have allowed him to shoot
, without the least demur. Fortunately, the Earl of Dorset had thus far exhibited no inclination to dispose of his Countess, and in point of fact was at that exact moment engaged in a recital of her virtues, to the dismay of his long-suffering companions who, much as they admired Livvy, had grown weary of hearing her praises sung.
“Lavender!” Lady Bligh said sternly. “Do pay attention. Your assistance is required.”
Livvy reminded herself that she was no longer the Baroness’s paid companion, subject to the Baroness’s every whim. “No,” she repeated. “I will not meddle in this matter, browbeat me as you may.”
“Browbeat you, indeed.
Lady Bligh swung her feet to the floor. Bluebeard inched sideways along the back of the settee, bright eyes fixed on Livvy. “Lazybones,” said he.
Livvy made no comment. Her position would not be improved by engaging in conversation with a bird.
With a deft maneuver of one hand, Lady Bligh flicked open her snuff-box. “One might think you are accusing me of involving myself where I’m not wanted. Or of setting out to make mischief, which is hardly the case: mischief exists already, whether or not I seek it out. I can only conclude that your fecundity is interfering with the proper working of your brain.”
Lady Bligh was a mistress of manipulation, and a proponent of plain speech. Livvy was suffering the various miseries of an expectant mother, which included headaches and fatigue and going in an instant from casting up her accounts to craving truffles and pigs’ feet.
“Women in your situation are notoriously prey to odd humors.” Dulcie continued. “Such as the notion that I might pose myself conundrums where none in fact exist.”
Livvy waited as Lady Bligh took a pinch of snuff, inhaled, and sneezed, a genteel little expulsion of air that caused yet another bright curl to break loose from its moorings and tumble forward on her cheek. “Trying to stir coals, Dulcie? You should save your breath. If you are so anxious to know what is happening at the Hall, you must inquire there yourself. I repeat, it’s none of my affair.”
“It’s not what is happening currently at the Hall that concerns me.” The Baroness tucked away her snuffbox. “But what
happen there a few weeks past.”
Please God, not another of Dulcie’s premonitions! Livvy buried her fingers in Casanova’s thick fur. “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that Sir Wesley’s death wasn’t a straightforward heart attack?”
In her usual aggravating manner, Lady Bligh made no direct reply. “I have known Sir Wesley Halliday for many years, ever since I came to Greenwood as a bride. He made many improvements in the neighborhood, with the assistance of his first wife, Lady Margaret, whose nature was as philanthropic as his own. He established decent housing for his tenants and made sure they were warmly clothed and adequately fed; arranged that all the local children received an education far above what might otherwise have been their lot in life. He also made grievous errors in misjudgment, but for all that was a good man.”
“ ‘Grievous errors’?” echoed Livvy. “From all you’ve said, Sir Wesley led a blameless life.”
“None of us are blameless,” Dulcie said tartly. “As for errors in judgment, need I remind you that Sir Wesley married a skitterwitted little twit? I believe she made him quite happy, so one should not hold it against her that she is cockle-brained. It is not difficult to understand how an elderly gentleman might become besotted with a charming chit less than a third his age. Just as one can understand why her sudden arrival should have set Connor to frothing at the mouth. Connor, you will recall, is Sir Wesley’s heir. I cannot help but think what Sir Wesley’s death would have meant to Cade.”
Livvy couldn’t help herself. “Who is Cade?”
“He was Sir Wesley’s son.”
“I thought Sir Wesley’s son was Connor.”
“Cade was the other one.”
Livvy felt quicksand tugging at her slippers. She clamped her teeth together. Casanova, annoyed by her lack of attention to himself, dug sharp claws into her thigh.
A brief silence descended on the Great Hall. Greenwood Castle had come into possession of a previous Baron Bligh, through some doubtless underhanded manner, several generations past. Each successive owner had made alterations to the structure, one not necessarily compatible with the last. Since the current owner’s interests ran toward the barbaric, the walls of the Great Hall were adorned with weaponry: crossbow and longbow, protective shield or pavise; medieval German mace and Turkish scimitar; a Spanish harquebus which ejected a projectile that smelled like rotten mud; an Indian khanda, a weapon as prestigious as the sword of a Samarai warrior, which was also on display.