Hampshire, England, 1817
Lucy Stiles made her way through mounds of overgrown shrubbery, returning to Aldershaw’s maze by her original path. If there was a more direct route to the house, she could not find it. So once again she passed by the shaggy home orchard before plowing through dense undergrowth to finally reach what was now an unrecognizable maze in the form of a tangle of yew shrubs.
She had just stepped into a clearing, which used to be the edge of a vast lawn, when she collided with the master of Aldershaw himself. “Robert!” she cried. How quickly her cheeks grew warm.
“Lucy?” He stepped back. “I do beg your pardon.”
Did she see a look of welcome relief in his eyes?
“Hallo, Robert.” Had it really been three years? How different he seemed, yet wholly the same. How different she felt. “How do you go on?”
“Tolerably well, thank you.”
A sudden silence rose up between them. She wanted to speak but all she could think of at the moment was that he was as handsome as ever, more so if that were even possible. He doffed his hat and in doing so a strand of wavy black hair touched his forehead. She knew the most ridiculous impulse to lift it gently back in place. Instead, she clasped her hands in front of her. Unsettled by the familiar if ridiculous
she had always felt for him, and afraid the gap would become uncomfortable, she spoke hurriedly, “I know that I should have sought you out at once upon my arrival but no one was about and I chanced upon your head gardener, Mr. Quarley. He insisted upon giving me a tour of the succession houses, which I must say were the only part of the grounds, save for the front drive, I found in tolerable order. I have been with him just now for this past half hour and more. Robert, the tales he told me of Aldershaw. I am still in a state of shock.”
He smiled faintly, settling his hat back on his head. “Quarley always did favor you, but do you mean to tell me he took you through this terrible tangle of vines and shrubs?”
She smiled and nodded. “I was not in the least afraid. Besides, he wished to show me some improvements he hopes to make in your gardens, once he is given permission, of course.” What would Robert say to that, she wondered.
He sighed. “I see he has been attempting to garner your support. I am well aware that he is grown frustrated that the acreage closest to the manor remains in this wretched state. However, I fear I cannot concern myself with his wishes at this point.” His gaze drifted over her gown. “I trust in all this rambling about you have not snagged or torn your skirts?”
“I do not think so,” she said, glancing down at the hem of her gown. Lifting her gaze to his face, she looked into his brown eyes and felt several butterflies flit suddenly about her stomach. How unfortunate that he was so very handsome and that, except for the anxious lines at the corner of his eyes, she thought he had never looked better. He was taller than most men and in her opinion had the perfect blend of lean athleticism and strength in his figure. His shoulders were broad, tapering to a narrow waist, and his legs were quite well turned. Whether in riding gear or formal black attire, he struck a commanding presence when he crossed any threshold, or appeared suddenly as he had just now, in a garden.
His face was bronzed, undoubtedly from riding about the estate, as Mr. Quarley had already told her he was wont to do for the majority of each day, but somehow his features seemed enhanced rather than diminished by the effect. His brows were nicely arched, his cheekbones high and strong, his nose straight, his jaw line a trifle mulish as it had always been, and his expression firm and confident. “You seem to be in excellent health,” she stated, a new blush rising on her cheeks. Could she not think of something more interesting to say?
“I am well,” he returned in an oddly quiet voice. He was staring at her but she was unable to determine in the least what his thoughts might be.
Robert Sandifort could not escape the quite poignant sensation he was presently experiencing at seeing Lucy Stiles again. He had been expecting her all morning, hoping to speak with her before the others in order to give some manner of explanation for what was going forward at Aldershaw. Now words escaped him, for all he could think was that he had forgotten how utterly beautiful she was, even wearing a frivolous bonnet with an enormous white ostrich feather curling over the front of the brim. Her features were far too delicate to bear the enormity of ostrich feathers and this one seemed inordinately grand.
Regardless of her hat, however, she seemed to have undergone some inexplicable change in the past three years. She had an air about her, which bespoke “the woman” rather than “the young miss.” Of course she was four and twenty now, no longer a chit just out of the schoolroom, but had her eyes always been so blue and her complexion nearly the color of cream and sublimely ripe peaches? Her features were as they had always been, utter perfection. Her brows were light and beautifully arched, her lashes thick and full, her lips sweetly curved and the most beautiful shade of pink, ripe for kissing, surely.
She pushed a blond curl away from her cheek and smiled, if faintly. “I confess I am happy to see you again, though I hope we may not brangle as we were used to do in the past.”
“I am certain we shall not,” he responded. The strangest urge, full of affection and perhaps something stronger still, came over him. He wanted to embrace her, even to kiss her. Good God, where had such a reckless thought come from? Not that he would in any manner act upon his thoughts or urges, however strong. Lucy Stiles was, after all, his ward. His guardianship of her, as ridiculous as that happened to be, was a relic from the bond between their military fathers, something that should have been altered in his father’s will when he became so ill. As it was, he was responsible for her until the end of the summer when she would turn five and twenty and come into her inheritance. After that she would be free to live however she desired.
“Robert, I must know,” she said, interrupting his reverie. “What has happened at Aldershaw these past three years? I was never more shocked by the sight which met my eyes when the carriage turned up the long avenue.”
He frowned. The question, as innocent and properly formed as it was, served to overset him. He desired nothing more of the moment than to strike something very hard with his fist. Dictates of his father’s will prevented him from acting as he desired, as he believed was right and proper. Worse still, the cause of all the trouble lay at the door of his stepmother, Lady Sandifort, who still resided beneath his roof. To Lucy, however, he could not say these things. Instead, he expressed but part of the complexity of the problem. “My father was ill for a very long time, longer I believe than any of us knew. During that time, he allowed a great deal of his fortune to be drained away in rather useless pastimes—”
“You must be referring to the very tedious task of keeping Lady Sandifort content.”
“Did Hetty tell you as much in her letters?”
Lucy nodded. “But Mr. Quarley also explained some things to me about your stepmother, that she ‘rules the roost,’ as he put it.”
“My stepmother,” he cried bitterly. “She is but a year older than myself!” Lucy grew very quiet, perhaps in the face of his obvious frustration. “Well, I see that you are as perceptive as ever. As for Aldershaw, the staff is reduced to scarcely a tenth.”
“A tenth,” she cried, obviously shocked. “Well, that certainly explains much of the condition of the estate. I could not help but notice that all the furniture in at least two of the larger receiving rooms are covered in cloths.”
“Aye,” he returned, releasing a sigh. “I had hoped to make more changes once, well, once my father passed away, but the inheritance he left me had been depleted sorely.”
There was a great deal more to the situation than he felt he ought at present to say to Lucy. Lady Sandifort ruled the roost, as his head gardener had so aptly put it, not just because she had used up most of the resources of the estate, but because his father had imprudently given Lady Sandifort power over his younger twin sisters, Anne and Alice, even to the arranging of their marriages, if she so desired. How often had he heard her threaten to do so when she did not get her way? At least she was forbidden any such course of action until they reached their eighteenth birthdays, but there was nothing to stop her from having betrothal papers drawn beforetimes. There was only one circumstance by which her power could come to an end: she would have to voluntarily quit Aldershaw, something she absolutely refused to do. At least she had agreed to refrain from making known the exact nature of his father’s will, although he knew quite well she was simply waiting for the exact moment to reveal the truth to the twins. She was, if nothing else, calculating in every way.
Hetty and Henry both knew of the conditions of the will, so they understood quite to perfection how frequently he was prevented from giving his stepmother the dressing down she so greatly deserved. At the same time, he could not bear to have this information known generally. He did not want either Anne or Alice learning the truth about their father’s truly hateful decision. It was hard enough that he was gone from their lives forever, but even worse that he had left each of their fates in the hands of a punitive, irrational stepmother.
There was only one ray of light through this dark expanse of clouds. For whatever his father’s reasons for having jeopardized the future happiness of his twin daughters, Sir Henry had assigned to Robert the legal guardianship of his three youngest children, the offspring of Lady Sandifort: Hyacinth, William, and Violet. Lady Sandifort had no hold on them whatsoever. She could make no decisions for them concerning their education, nor could they be removed from Aldershaw unless Robert gave his permission, something he would never do, not so long as he drew breath.
Robert sighed heavily and continued, “I have every confidence that in time . . . Oh, the devil take it, you cannot know how frustrated I am.”
“Since your complexion has changed more than once upon the introduction of this subject, I believe I have a glimmering of understanding.”
Yes, Lucy was as perceptive as ever. “Beyond this,” he continued, “the house is quite overrun at present and what servants have remained are sorely overworked.” Instantly he regretted saying as much, since a new blush rose on her cheeks and a concerned light entered her eye.
“It was not by my choice that I am here,” she stated quickly. “And if I could change this ridiculous arrangement of our fathers, I most certainly would. But my solicitor said the will was quite explicit, that I must be under your roof until my birthday for a period of no less than three months if I am to receive my inheritance.”
“Yes, yes, I know. My words were thoughtless. When I said the house was overrun I was not in the smallest way referring to your arrival, but to others. My brother George, his wife Rosamunde and daughter Eugenia have been living here for the past two years, and without end I am begun to fear, but of course Hetty would have told you as much in her letters to you. Lady Sandifort remains ostensibly because of her children, but I vow I have never seen a lady with less affection for or interest in her offspring.” He regarded her for a moment, thinking that he was very happy she had come and that he could not recall why it was they used to brangle. He could not remember.
Lucy frowned slightly. “I must know, Robert. Is Lady Sandifort as cruel to your sister, to Hetty, as she was used to be?”
“Abominably so, made worse because they are of an age. It is a daily trial for Hetty, who is, by the way, quite looking forward to your stay at Aldershaw, but Lady Sandifort is never content unless she has said or done something to cause my sister to fly into the boughs at least once during the course of a day. Yet, I must confess to a degree of frustration with Hetty. She still shows no interest in matrimony even though, despite being four and thirty, she is still the prettiest lady in four counties and commands all degree of notice and attention. Of course, it is quite helpful that she is well dowered. At least my father was unable to touch the girls’ dowries. Hetty, Anne, Alice, Hyacinth, and Violet, all are provided for.” He was aware he was speaking to her as though they had last met but yesterday and that they were the greatest of friends. He wondered how it was he had fallen so easily into conversation with her.
“I am glad to hear it. You have not spoken of Henry, though. Hetty wrote to me in the spring saying he was going to take holy orders.”
Robert felt nothing but disgust. “In May,” he cried angrily. “He said he would do so in May, but nothing ever came of it and now it is June! He is one and thirty, he has lived in the same house all his life, he has refused the army, the navy, the law, and now it appears he is vacillating on the priesthood. I am out of all patience with him.”
Lucy shook her head, her concern obvious. “Does Henry not wish to be a priest?” she asked.
“I have not the faintest notion. I have never understood him. I never shall. He rides like the devil but has refused a hundred times my offer to purchase a pair of colors for him. But come let me escort you back to the house. I know Hetty and the twins are longing to see you.”
He offered his arm and she took it.
“So, Hetty is still steadfast in her refusal to take a husband?”
“Quite so,” he said, wondering again why it was Henrietta, so pretty and lively, would have become a spinster. “She has a large enough dowry to tempt at least two hopeful suitors every year but she never allows any to approach her heart. I cannot for the life of me comprehend why she has not by now given up . . . that is . . . even if she had reasons earlier in her life for not marrying, I do not understand why she does not desire more than anything to have a home of her own, a family. Is that not what every woman desires?”
“I suppose to some degree, yes,” Lucy responded. “And I believe you are perfectly justified in your bewilderment. Hetty is a delightful creature. She would have made any man an excellent wife these many years and more, for she is not only good-natured but knows how to speak her mind when necessary, which I believe a lady ought to do.”