Authors: Allison Lane
Sir Nigel Fields snapped the book shut and returned it to its shelf. What the devil was he doing here? This visit served no purpose. Oh, he’d claimed to be seeking investment advice from a wealthy friend, but that was pretense. He had nothing to invest, which half of Exeter must know by now.
He ground his teeth.
This visit had only increased his blue-devils. The library’s opulence put his own crumbling manor to shame. Books packed the shelves, many of them rare, all of them richly bound with leather and gilt. Enormous globes flanked an elaborate marble fireplace. Italian stuccatori framed a pair of ceiling frescoes. Paintings by renowned artists dotted the walls.
In contrast, his own library was a converted bedroom with cracked paneling and unadorned ceiling. Half-empty shelves and dilapidated furniture completed a picture of genteel poverty.
It wasn’t fair.
His honors dated from the reign of Henry VII, a proud ancestral line. His forebears had survived wars, reformation, and revolution with their land and fortune intact.
Their ghosts tormented his nights, chastising him for each new disaster, though they ought to know that none were his fault. Lady Luck had deserted him with a vengeance. Failed crops. Diseased flocks. Dishonest steward.
He cursed the man yet again. Forsythe had fled just ahead of the magistrate, taking his spoils with him. He’d planned his escape well. Not a whisper of his actual whereabouts had turned up in eight years, though rumor was rife. Some swore he’d taken a smuggler’s boat to France. Others thought he’d disguised himself as a woman and escaped to America … Italy … Scotland … Ireland.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Forsythe was gone, and Sir Nigel was ruined. The death of his heir a year later had added the
coup de grâce
to his plight.
He’d tried to rebuild. The late war had offered opportunities for remaking fortunes. Yet Lady Luck never relented. The infallible canal venture had collapsed without a single ditch dug, its promoters doing a flit in the dark of night. They hadn’t purchased a foot of their supposed right-of-way.
He’d made sure his next investment was legitimate. The company had a War Office contract to produce rifles with interchangeable parts – a system reportedly successful in America. But when several of the weapons blew up in use, the War Office returned to its trusty Brown Bess flintlocks. Sir Nigel’s investment disappeared.
Then his surviving son had embarked on deep gaming, draining the family coffers at an alarming rate. Peter never passed up a game, and he rarely won. Now that he was the heir, he seemed bent on squandering his patrimony.
Had any man ever been so accursed?
Sir Nigel shook his head. Because of Peter, his estate was mortgaged, his accounts empty. If he didn’t make a profit soon, he would lose everything – the curse of owning unentailed land. His ancestors must be turning in their graves.
His living relatives’ displeasure was more immediate. They insulted him at every turn, calling him credulous, incompetent, and stubborn to a fault. His uncles cursed him for refusing to accept responsibility, when anyone of sense must know that his problems weren’t his fault. His brother even blamed him for Forsythe’s thievery, swearing that
would have detected the man’s dishonesty immediately. Leo’s demands that Sir Nigel hire a man of business to oversee his estate and investments – as if he’d trust another stranger after Forsythe – had forced Sir Nigel to send him away and forbid his return. Even his daughter had blamed him, her departure telling the world that she expected his imminent ruin.
Shoving his unproductive thoughts aside, he headed for the door. There was no reason to stay. Half an hour earlier an emergency had claimed his host’s attention. It must be serious to have kept him this long without a word.
His own time would be better spent searching his attics. Maybe he’d missed something saleable – not that a single item, or even a dozen, could cover Peter’s latest loss. Two hundred guineas. The boy had no sense.
Damn the bankers for refusing him a loan! And damn Peter for disobeying orders. How many times had he told the boy to stay away from the Golden Bull? It catered to smugglers, highwaymen, and cheats.
His coattails brushed his host’s desk as he passed, knocking a paper to the floor. He bent to retrieve it.
Fool! The salutation leaped from the page. Have you no regard for our necks? How can you commit such admissions to paper?
Shocked, he skimmed the rest, then unfolded the letter to which it responded.
“Cad! Fiend!” The curses burst out before he could stop them. No wonder the man was so rich. He was a thief, a swindler, and possibly a traitor.
Tucking both pages into his coat, he collected his hat and cane from the butler. “I can no longer wait. Please convey my sympathy for whatever misfortune has befallen.” With what he hoped was dignity, he hurried away to find a magistrate.
The nerve of the man, flaunting a fortune he’d acquired by fraud. He deserved to be hanged. How could he hold up his head in the company of worthier men?
Like you? asked Temptation. He is worse than Forsythe, stealing from those who trust him. And how does he differ from the sharps who fleeced Peter? Or the swindlers behind that canal scheme?
“He doesn’t,” Sir Nigel growled. “He is a cad and a scoundrel.”
So why not exact retribution before you turn him in? Recover some of your losses.
“Impossible.” But his snort wasn’t as firm as it should have been.
Was it truly impossible? He was at his wit’s end. He’d sold the last painting for half its value to meet a mortgage payment. Peter’s latest disaster would put him in the poorhouse. Perhaps Lady Luck had finally relented, offering him a chance to recoup.
He wouldn’t let the culprits escape punishment, of course. But convicting them would require more than these letters. He could investigate – find other evidence, learn the extent of this conspiracy, prepare the proof for the court. No one would object to paying him for such effort – a small sum that would cover Peter’s debts and buy shares in Weston Square. Building ventures were guaranteed winners; with so many men returning from war, housing was in short supply.
Smiling, he headed for his carriage, already composing the letter he would dispatch. He wasn’t greedy. Six hundred guineas was a reasonable amount. Two hundred to replace Chloe’s dowry – he would establish a trust this time so Peter couldn’t touch it. Two hundred to redeem Peter’s markers. Two hundred for Weston Square. Confining Peter to the estate until harvest would eliminate new trouble.
And by harvest, he could send the results of his investigation to the magistrate. Six hundred guineas was a reasonable fee for such work. But he must collect it anonymously lest the culprits learn of their peril and flee.
Chloe Fields closed the door behind the vicar’s wife, then braced for Miss Laura Seabrook’s inevitable tirade – her employer would be furious that Mrs. Tubbs had accosted her without warning.
Mrs. Tubbs had all the finesse of a battleship under full sail. Once she made up her mind, there was no stopping her. So she’d shoved her way into the hall, then refused to wait while Chloe discovered whether Laura was receiving. She hadn’t even allowed Chloe to announce her.
“Stop dawdling!” snapped Laura.
Taking a deep breath, Chloe locked the front door. She’d known from the beginning that Laura would be a difficult employer – Laura had been willful since birth, her natural arrogance encouraged by an overindulgent father. The scandal that had sent her fleeing to Moorside Cottage had made her even worse.
Laura had spent the intervening years brooding because she was no longer the belle of Devonshire and the toast of London – though in truth, she had never been as perfect as she claimed. While she’d been blessed with golden hair, porcelain skin, sapphire eyes, and angelic features, she was a harridan who considered herself superior to everyone else. Men might have clustered around her, flirting and writing odes to her beauty, but few seriously considered wedding her.
Drawing in a deep breath, Chloe returned to the sitting room. It was elegantly furnished and would have been quite cheerful if Laura ever opened the velvet draperies. But she insisted on shutting out the world.
Laura’s displeasure crackled through the gloom as Chloe picked up her needlework.
“How many times must I remind you that no one is to enter this house without my permission?” Laura demanded. As usual, she kept her face turned toward the fireplace so only her right profile showed. On those rare occasions when she accepted callers, she caked the left side of her face with cosmetics to further hide her scars. “If you cannot follow simple instructions, I will find a new companion. I cannot tolerate incompetence.”
“I tried.” Chloe forced her voice into subservience – two years of abuse made respect impossible. “I could hardly ignore the knocker; the fishmonger’s boy is already an hour late. But you know Mrs. Tubbs as well as I do. She shoved me aside and refused to let me announce her. Why don’t you contribute some paltry sum to her altar fund and be done with it?”
“Never. It would encourage her to call more often, demanding even more money. Besides, where would I find even a paltry sum? You’ve wasted so much on the housekeeping that I’ve nothing left. This gown is two years old!”
“And still beautiful.” The jacconet muslin walking dress had been created by London’s finest modiste. “It is newer than Mrs. Tubbs’s, better made than Lady Tyburn’s, and admired by everyone who sees it. The embroidery is exquisite. But if you need a new gown, then order one. You can manage the cost by switching to tallow candles, eating barley bread at meals, and drinking coffee instead of expensive tea.”
“Never!” Laura hurled her book across the room. “No one of my breeding can consider such vulgarities.”
“Then spend your days in the garden instead of drawing the draperies and burning candles at high noon,” snapped Chloe, glaring at the seven candles Laura had lit after breakfast. It was an extravagance she could ill afford.
Unfortunately, Laura would never risk being seen. The sitting room windows overlooked the lane, and the garden walls were only six feet high. Anyone on horseback could look over them.
The budget had been a sore point even before the price of flour had risen. Now Laura’s purse truly pinched. And it could only get worse. The farmers expected a poor harvest this year, which would raise prices yet again. Laura’s income would stretch no further, but she refused to economize. As the daughter of a baron, she demanded the finest bread and cake, abundant wax candles – except when she had guests – and both meat and fish every day. The next rise in costs would surpass her income.
Chloe dreaded the day she would have to confront Laura’s guardian to request additional funds or ask permission to spend part of the trust’s principal. At best, William would be furious. At worst, he would move Laura back to Seabrook Manor, which would cause no end of trouble.
It was William, Lord Seabrook, who had hired Chloe to be his sister’s companion. Chloe knew him well, for they had been childhood playmates. Thus he trusted her to run the household. Laura had no head for figures and no concept of economy. Chloe hadn’t realized until later that he also expected her to calm Laura’s frequent megrims, teach her responsibility, and help her accept her changed fortune. So far, she’d managed only the first.
“Perhaps we should reduce your exorbitant salary,” Laura said now, turning so both eyes glared at Chloe. The scar slashed white across a pitted cheek.
“I have a contract,” Chloe reminded her, suppressing a sigh. Laura threatened to turn her off a dozen times a week. “And since I’m performing the duties of housekeeper and lady’s maid, as well as companion, I am probably underpaid.”
“Since William is the one who hired you, he should pay you.” Laura glowered.
Chloe bit her tongue. This argument was an old one and served no purpose. Laura neither listened nor cared about truth. Today’s petulance expressed her irritation that Mrs. Tubbs had seen her scars. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last – there wasn’t a soul in the village who hadn’t seen them, despite the heavy veils she wore in public – but Laura considered each incident a fresh insult. She could not forget her reign as a London diamond or her dreams of traveling the world so that people from all nations could admire her beauty and worship at her feet.
“Why don’t you sit in the garden for an hour?” Chloe suggested. Since the lane ended at Moorside, it was rare for anyone to use it. Their nearest neighbor, Mr. Rose, was harvesting wheat this week so would not ride in this direction. “It’s a beautiful day. The fish boy always walks, so you needn’t see him. I’ll bring you a tea tray.”
Laura grumbled, but finally agreed to take the air.
Chloe heaved a sigh of relief as she snuffed the candles. Handling Laura was more enervating than teaching fractious children or placating grumpy old ladies.