Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
The Masterful Mr. Montague
From the Casebook of Barnaby Adair
Cornwall, June 1831
Assisting Gerard Debbington, brother of
Patience Cynster, brother-in-law of Vane Cynster,
and Miss Jacqueline Tregonning
In: The Truth About Love
Newmarket, August 1831
Assisting Dillon Caxton, cousin of Felicity Cynster,
brother-in-law of Demon Cynster,
and Lady Priscilla Dalloway
In: What Price Love?
Somerset, February 1833
Assisting Lord Charles Morwellan, Earl of Meredith,
brother of Alathea Cynster, brother-in-law of
Gabriel Cynster, and Miss Sarah Conningham
In: The Taste of Innocence
London, November 1835
Assisting Miss Penelope Ashford, sister of Luc,
Viscount Calverton, sister-in-law of Amelia Cynster
In: Where the Heart Leads
’m dying and I want to do the right thing.” Agatha, Lady Halstead, set her lips in a determined line.
Straightening from plumping Lady Halstead’s pillows, Violet Matcham laid a reassuring hand over her ladyship’s frail one where it lay atop the counterpane. “You’re in perfect health—you know you are. The doctor said so only last week.”
It was midmorning, and the curtains were tied back, allowing weak autumn sunshine to wash into the large bedroom. The soft light was kind to Lady Halstead’s papery, mottled skin, to the fine, silvery wisps of her thinning hair, to the milkiness that was dulling her once-bright blue eyes.
“And what would he know, heh?” Lady Halstead slanted a shrewd if peevish look at Violet. “Young men—they always think they know. But I’m very old, Violet dear, and I feel the chill of death in my bones.” Sinking back onto the pillows, Lady Halstead looked up at the ceiling. “People used to say that, and I always thought it was pure fancy, but now I know what they meant—I feel it, too.” Without moving her head, Lady Halstead looked at Violet; turning her hand, she briefly—weakly—squeezed Violet’s fingers. “Most of my friends are long gone, and it’s been nearly a decade since Sir Hugo, bless his soul, passed on. I’m very ready to join him, my dear, but first I must do as he asked.”
Accepting that no good would come of trying to jolly Lady Halstead out of her mood—indeed, she seemed sober and composed and as rational as ever—Violet inquired, “What did Sir Hugo ask of you?”
She’d been employed by her ladyship as her companion since shortly after Sir Hugo’s death; she’d therefore never met the gentleman—a paragon by all accounts—but she had heard so much of him from Lady Halstead that Violet almost felt that she knew him, certainly well enough to ask her question without fear the answer would be something nonsensical. And so it proved.
“The dear man made me promise that before my time came, I would ensure all my affairs—both my personal affairs and those of the estate—were in order. He set great store by such things.”
you treasure his memory, so it’s important to you that you do as he wished.
Her previous employer, Lady Ogilvie, had been devoted to her late husband, too.
Lady Halstead raised her head, sitting straighter in the bed, her voice strengthening as she continued, “So despite my current health, as I know my time is approaching, I wish to ensure that all is as it should be regarding my will and the estate.”
Sir Hugo had made his fortune in India, and had been knighted for services rendered to the Crown on the subcontinent. Consequently, the Halsteads inhabited that nebulous social stratum of upper gentry-lower aristocracy, and were, in common parlance, comfortably well off. The Lowndes Street house reflected that; a highly respectable address in a well-to-do neighborhood. Even Lady Halstead’s bedroom, with its large modern bed, damask curtains, matching upholstery and counterpane, and the well-polished, good-quality furniture, attested to the family’s standing.
Although she didn’t know the finer details of the Halstead estate, Violet understood that on his death, Sir Hugo’s holdings had passed entirely to Lady Halstead for her use through her lifetime; on her death, the estate would be divided according to the provisions of Sir Hugo’s will, which gave equal portions to each of the four Halstead children. His request, therefore, and Lady Halstead’s desire made perfect sense.
Violet nodded. “Very well. What do you want me to do?”
Although her mind was still clear and surprisingly shrewd, Lady Halstead had grown increasingly frail and now remained abed for much of her days. Managing the stairs was an effort, one she undertook only when she deemed it necessary. Violet routinely managed the small household in Lowndes Street, just south of Lowndes Square. With only herself, Lady Halstead, Tilly, her ladyship’s maid, and Cook, it wasn’t an onerous duty, especially as all four women got along well. Violet’s years with Lady Halstead had been peaceful and untrammeled, a gentle, undemanding, if unexciting existence.
Sinking back once more, Lady Halstead sighed. “Sadly, old Runcorn, too, passed on last year, so I suppose we must summon that young son of his.” A frown passed over Lady Halstead’s face. “I really must decide if the boy is up to the task of managing my affairs.”
The late Arthur Runcorn had been the Halsteads’ man-of-business for many years. Violet had only met Mr. Andrew Runcorn—the boy—once, when he’d come seeking her ladyship’s signature on some form; although young to the extent of being several years shy of Violet’s own thirty-four years, she’d formed a favorable impression of the earnest Mr. Runcorn Junior. He’d seemed honest and sincere, and willing to please, but as to whether he was capable of managing finances, she had no way to judge. Moving to the tallboy in which Lady Halstead’s traveling writing desk was stored, Violet bent and drew out the deep bottom drawer. “When would you like to see him?”
“Tomorrow.” As Violet straightened, the portable writing desk in her hands, Lady Halstead nodded decisively. “Write a note and ask him to call tomorrow morning. And he should bring a listing of all the properties and investments that make up the estate. Tell him I wish to conduct a full review.”
Violet carried the writing desk to the small table before the armchair on the other side of the bed. After laying out paper, ink, and pen, she looked at her ladyship. “Would you like to dictate?”
Lady Halstead waved the suggestion away. “No.” Her lips lifted in a smile. “You know how to phrase things better than I.”
Violet smiled back, dipped the nib in the ink, and bent to her task.
ady Halstead had been frowning for the last five minutes.
In the sitting room downstairs, seated in an armchair to her ladyship’s right, Violet wondered what in Andrew Runcorn’s summation of Lady Halstead’s estate was at fault.
The young man-of-business had responded immediately to the summons Violet had dispatched yesterday with a brief note, and, today, had duly presented himself at the house on the dot of eleven o’clock, as requested. Of medium build, with a boyishly round face, brown hair, and wide brown eyes, the younger Runcorn had lost none of the eager sincerity Violet recalled from earlier in the year, and to her ears, at least, his recitation of the details of Lady Halstead’s estate had sounded confident, and remarkably clear and concise.
He had, she’d thought, made a good fist of it, and, indeed, Lady Halstead had seemed to concur, nodding in gracious approval. But then her ladyship had asked to go over her current finances—the state of her various deposits in the Funds, and her account with Grimshaws Bank.
Seated bolt upright in the straight-backed carver she preferred, still frowning, Lady Halstead lifted one sheet from the five spread over her shawl-draped lap. “The balance of my bank account is not correct.”
Young Runcorn looked shocked. “It isn’t?” Lady Halstead held out the sheet and he took it, briefly perused it, then, slanting a glance at Violet, somewhat diffidently said, “This balance has been confirmed by the bank, my lady.”
Lady Halstead’s frown deepened. “I don’t care if some clerk said it’s right—it’s not.” She waved. “Go and get it checked properly.”
Detecting the querulous note in her ladyship’s voice that indicated true upset, Violet reached out and laid one hand over her ladyship’s fingers, now restlessly picking at the shawl. “Is everything else as you believe it should be?”
“Yes, yes.” Her fingers stilling under Violet’s, her frown lightening, Lady Halstead unbent enough to say to Runcorn, “You’ve been most precise. I have no fault to find with any other aspect, but that bank balance is not correct.”
“Perhaps,” Violet said, catching Runcorn’s eye, “you might recheck with the bank?”
Runcorn got the message; in the wider scheme of the Halstead estate, checking a bank balance was a minor thing. “Yes, of course. No difficulty at all.” He reached for his satchel and stowed the offending statement. “I’ll go around to the bank immediately.”
That was exactly the right thing to say. Lady Halstead calmed and graciously nodded. “Thank you, young man.”
With Violet’s help, Runcorn gathered the papers he’d brought, then very correctly took his leave of Lady Halstead.
Violet took pity on him and showed him out.
omewhat to Violet’s surprise, by the time she returned from seeing Runcorn out, Lady Halstead appeared to have put the question of the bank account balance out of her mind; Violet got the impression that her ladyship was certain that, when Runcorn questioned the bank more thoroughly, he would receive a revised balance and all would be as her ladyship had expected.
Consequently, when Runcorn returned at three o’clock the next day with the news that the bank insisted the account balance as he’d originally reported it was correct, Violet was somewhat taken aback.
Having descended the stairs for luncheon, Lady Halstead was once again seated in her carver in the sitting room. On hearing Runcorn’s news, her expression grew oddly blank. “That’s . . .
Runcorn hurried into speech. “My lady, I do assure you we—that is, my firm, Runcorn and Son—haven’t touched the account at all. The bank will confirm. Other than requesting statements from time to time, as per our duty as your agents, we have never drawn so much as a penny, I swear—”
“Young man!” Lady Halstead spoke with the authority of a woman who had sons; Runcorn’s panic had snapped her out of her abstraction. “Do compose yourself—and do sit down. I entertain no suspicion whatever of your honesty—I do not for a moment believe Runcorn and Son have stolen from me. That, sir, is not the problem.”
Subsiding onto the edge of a chair, Runcorn blinked. “It isn’t?”
“No, indeed. The problem with that account balance is that it is too much—significantly too much—not too little. Money is being paid into that account by someone, presumably for some reason, but who that someone is or what that reason might be, I have no notion.”
“Ah.” Rather than looking mystified, Runcorn’s expression lit with relief. “There must be some long-ago investment that has only recently started paying dividends—that happens quite frequently. Sir Hugo might have bought into some concern two decades ago and it’s only just started paying a return.” Reaching for his satchel, Runcorn rose and bowed, his youthful face radiating his signature eager earnestness. “Rest assured, my lady, that I will review the account, identify the unexpected payments, and trace them to their source.”
“Hmm.” Lady Halstead was frowning again. “I suppose it might be some mistake—that someone in the bank has mistaken the account.”
Runcorn dipped his head. “That, too, is possible, but considering the breadth of Sir Hugo’s investments, I suspect the former possibility will be found to be the case. Regardless, I shall analyze the account and make the appropriate inquiries, and will report to you once I have identified the source of the unexpected funds.”
Lady Halstead’s expression suggested she wasn’t quite as convinced as Runcorn of his prowess, but she graciously inclined her head and bade him a good day.
hat evening, when Violet went to check on Lady Halstead before retiring to her own bed, she found her ladyship uncharacteristically fretful. Since Runcorn had left, she’d grown progressively more unsettled.
Straightening the coverlet over Lady Halstead’s gaunt form, Violet soothingly murmured, “Are you still worrying over that money in your bank account? I’m sure Mr. Runcorn will get to the bottom of it.”
Leaning forward to allow Violet to rearrange her pillows, Lady Halstead humphed. “Would that I had your confidence.” Then she sighed. “No, that’s not fair. The truth of it is that I do have confidence in Runcorn and Son, possibly more confidence than young Mr. Runcorn himself, and it’s precisely because of that that I cannot see how these payments could possibly be due to some overlooked investment.”
Sinking back onto her resettled pillows, Lady Halstead met Violet’s gaze. “I may not know everything about financial dealings, but I do know that investments have umpteen pieces of paper attached—certificates, notices, statements of their own. If some investment had started paying a return, Runcorn and his people would have known. They would have seen the notices or been advised in some way. Perhaps if we had changed our agent, something might have slipped past, but Runcorn and Son have been our agents since we returned to England, and that was nearly thirty years ago. I can’t imagine Hugo would have missed passing any advice of investment to Runcorn, so . . . well.” Lady Halstead spread her hands. “Where is this wretched money coming from?”
Soothingly, Violet murmured, “I daresay Mr. Runcorn will report in a few days, then we can see what he’s found. No need to borrow trouble, as my father always said.”
Lady Halstead grimaced. “The late reverend was no doubt wise, but that money isn’t the only odd thing.”
Detecting a certain grimness in Lady Halstead’s eyes, Violet realized that there was, indeed, something else contributing to her ladyship’s anxiety. “What else has happened?”
Lady Halstead regarded her as if debating whether or not to reveal what she so clearly wished to share. Then her lips firmed and she tipped her head toward the tallboy. “Bring me the writing desk.”
Violet obliged. When she set the cedar box with its sloping lid beside Lady Halstead and opened it, her ladyship reached in, rummaged for a second, then drew out a creased sheet covered in cramped writing. “This came a week ago. I still don’t know what to make of it.”
She paused, staring at the letter clasped in her gnarled fingers.
Half a minute ticked past, then Violet gently prompted, “Tell me. If it’s worrying you, perhaps we can work out what to do about it.”
Lady Halstead blinked, met Violet’s eyes, then smiled. “That’s why I mentioned it—you’re always one who will do what you can to make things better.” She glanced at the letter, then tucked it back in the box and closed the lid. “It’s from the vicar’s wife who lives near The Laurels, our country house. Even though I haven’t been back to the village since Sir Hugo passed, and the house has been closed up for all those years, she and I exchange letters every now and then. She wrote to tell me about the new occupants of the house, who are apparently reclusive, and to ask to whom we’d let the property, or whether we’d sold it.” Lady Halstead met Violet’s eyes. “I haven’t sold the property, and I haven’t leased it, either. As far as I was aware, the house was still closed up. So who is living there, and what are they using my house for?”