The Prologue, Chapter One and Two have already been posted.
Richelda hurried along an overgrown woodland path, which meandered through Bellemont, her neglected estate, to a disused charcoal burner’s hut where Dudley Wynwood waited for her.
‘Thank God you are safe. Now, tell me what Lord Greaves said,’ Dudley called when she drew near him.
Her mouth quivered. ‘I made a sorry mull of my business. I presented the petition to the wrong person.’
Dudley glared at her. ‘I wish you had taken my advice when I asked you not act like a madcap.’
For a moment, she feared Dudley’s bad temper and tried to placate him. ‘I beg you not to scold me. You know my reasons. Now, I must change before he reaches the manor.’
‘Who is going to Bellemont?’
‘The man I mistook for the tax collector. He took me up in his coach. After I handed him the petition and stated my case, he said he is not Lord Greaves. Dudley, what am I to do?’
‘If you are beggared, apply to your relatives. I doubt they would be willing to suffer the shame of one of their relations being forced by circumstance to live in the poor house.’
Richelda stared at Dudley, whom she had expected to marry since they first shared the schoolroom at his father’s vicarage. She looked at his curly, dark brown hair, expressive green eyes and oval face. Two years her senior, in her eyes he resembled a handsome angel with his regular features and slender, well-formed frame, a little above average height.
The corners of Dudley’s mouth turned down. ‘I should have made more effort to stop your foolery.’ He glanced at her censoriously. ‘I will escort you back to Bellemont.’
‘Thank you.’ She turned towards a path over which brambles crept. ‘I apologize, Dudley.’
‘For failing you. If I cannot make Bellemont productive, you must make your way in the world before we marry.’
His sudden pallor amazed her. ‘What is wrong? Why do you look-look --’
‘Surely you do not think I will marry you?’
‘Dudley, what do you mean? Did we not plan to wed? Now I am eighteen I thought you…’
‘Forget your childish prattle about our marriage.’
Wounded to the core, she stood still and squared her shoulders. ‘Foolish? I have loved you for as long as I can remember.’
Dudley opened the lichen-stained wooden gate. They entered the weed-infested drive, on either side of which only the hardiest of the untended ornamental plants survived.
Back straight, head held high, Richelda strode past parallel orchards towards Bellemont House. Embarrassed because she declared her love, she battled against the urge to weep.
‘Richelda, sentimentality has naught to do with marriage. I intend to court our school friend, Kitty.’
Shocked, she staggered. ‘Y-you want to marry Kitty Carlton?’
After a moment or two, Dudley replied in an unnaturally high tone, his fingers biting into her arm. ‘Yes, I must make my way in the world and beggars cannot be choosers.’
She pulled away from him. ‘If I was still an heiress I am sure you would marry me’
Dudley’s expression remained indifferent. ‘You are not an heiress and you dress like a rumpscuttle.’
How merciless of him to say that. Yet he was wrong. Poor quality clothes did not make her a hoyden. And Dudley knew she was not to blame for her poverty. If Father had not followed James II and if - oh, useless to blame her father. Impossible to alter the past! She hurried past the herb gardens and skirted a huge ornamental urn.
The cost of her father’s honor had been hard to bear. After Father went to France, Lord Greaves wanted to purchase Bellemont and lodged false charges of spying for the exiled king against her mother. Thanks to providence, Jack’s mother, the late Duchess of Hertfordshire, helped to prove Mother’s innocence.
Dudley drew her attention to the present. ‘My love, I do you no disservice by stating the truth. Lord knows everyone pities your penniless state.’
My love! Dudley called her his love. Did he love her or were the words meaningless? Her eyes widened. Perhaps he had sacrificed his love for her in the mistaken belief that their marriage would be folly? She suppressed a sigh. Whatever his reasons, she did not want Dudley’s pity. In fact, she did not want anyone’s pity.
Pride prompted her to address him formally. ‘Master Wynwood, as you pointed out, children say many foolish things. For now, I wish you well and am glad your father paid your debts and rescued you from debtor’s prison.’
They halted outside the mediaeval front door. Dudley’s angelic cheeks reddened. His exquisitely shaped mouth tightened. ‘There is no need to mention the gambling debts I incurred at Oxford,’ he snapped.
‘May I remind you some of us are unfortunate? We rely on our wits to aid us. I lied when I said I love you. I merely sought the protection of marriage.’ She bent her knee like a court lady who curtsied to one of equal birth. ‘Good day to you.’
Inside, Richelda rested her head against the wall in the dingy hall. If only Dudley’s love matched her own, he would marry her. She trembled, tears pouring down her cheeks. She fumbled for her ragged kerchief, blew her nose and sank to the floor. Elsie’s voice shattered the silence of the house and filtered through her misery. The sound drew closer until Elsie stood in front of her.
‘Where did you go, child? Lord, I have such news for you.’
To hide her tears, Richelda covered her face with her hands and put her head on her knees.
‘Do get up, Mistress.’
Richelda wiped her face but did not stand.
‘How many times have I told you not to roam alone?’ Elsie asked. ‘Why are you crying? Why didn’t you take your dog with you? Puck’s howled all morning.’ Elsie crouched down to put her arms round Richelda’s shoulders. ‘D-did someone assault you?’
‘No one assaulted me and to answer your question, Master Wynwood dislikes Puck so I did not take him with me.’
‘Haven’t I warned you over and over again about the young gentleman’s true nature?’
‘Despite your opinion of Dudley, I think well of him, Elsie. Indeed, today he waited to raise the alarm if harm came to me while I met Lord Greaves at the inn.’
‘By mistake, I approached another man who put up there.’ She sighed. ‘On the way home I told Master Wynwood…’
‘Master Wynwood? He’s always been Dudley to you.’
Richelda hung her head. ‘Now I am no longer a child, it is not fitting for me to use his Christian name.’
Elsie stood. She narrowed her eyes.
Richelda looked down at the floor. ‘I made a fool of myself. I thought Master Wynwood wanted to marry me. He does not. He wants to marry Kitty for her fortune.’
‘Oh, Mistress, don’t break your heart over a man who…’
Richelda put her hands over her ears. ‘Yet again, do not repeat spiteful gossip about him.’
‘Some of the rumors about Master Wynwood might be exaggerated. Those about his insolence, excessive drinking and gambling are not,’ Elise persisted.
‘They are lies.’ Richelda did not believe the worst about Dudley. Anger boiled inside her.
The sour taste of bile rose to the back of her throat. ‘Elsie, for his sake I wanted to make Bellemont profitable. Now, I am tired of struggling. I will sell all but a snug cottage and a few acres of land for my own use to live in to Jack.’
‘Sell Bellemont to His Grace!’ Elsie shifted her bulk from one foot to the other and twined her work-roughened fingers together. ‘Lord above, my wits have gone begging? I’ve forgotten to say a visitor awaits you.’
Richelda wiped her face on her coarse apron. ‘Visitor?’ She forced herself to her feet.
‘Yes, a fine gentleman, Viscount Chesney by name, is waiting for you in the parlor.’
Heavens above, the gentleman must be the man whose identity she mistook for Lord Greaves.
A long male shadow fell across the dark oak floor before the parlor door closed. She caught her breath. Either Elsie left the door ajar by mistake or her uninvited guest had opened it and eavesdropped.
After washing and changing, Richelda went down the broad flight of oak stairs, looked at Elsie and raised her eyebrows.
Elsie nodded her approval and pointed at the parlor door. ‘He’s still in there. I’ll fetch some elderflower wine.’
‘No, come with me…’ she began, but Elsie, with speed surprising in one of her size, bustled into a passage that led to the kitchen.
He will not recognize me, Richelda reassured herself again. She mimicked her late mother’s graceful walk, entered the room and coughed to attract attention.
The gentleman turned away from the window and gazed at her intently. ‘Mistress Shaw?’
Richelda curtsied and wished she also wore exquisitely cut black velvet and silk instead of the threadbare gown fashioned from one of her mother’s old ones. He bowed and extended a perfectly manicured hand.
Ashamed of her rough hands, she permitted him to draw her to her feet. ‘You have the advantage of knowing my name.’ She looked into gray eyes reminiscent of still water on an overcast day.
‘Lord Chesney at your service, Mistress.’
‘I am honored to make your acquaintance, my lord. Please take a seat.’
He laughed. ‘Mistress Shaw, although I did not introduce myself to you earlier, I hoped you would say that you are pleased to renew your acquaintance with me.’
She tilted her chin. ‘You mistake me for someone else, my lord.’
‘I do not. Your eyes and voice are unforgettable.’
‘What can you mean?’
‘Why are you pretending to misunderstand me,’ he drawled. ‘Shall we sit? No, do not look at me so distrustfully. I did not seize the opportunity to manhandle you earlier today and promise you that there is no need to fear me either now or in the future.’
Somewhat nervous in spite of his assurance, Richelda sat opposite him. While she regained her composure, she arranged her skirts and put her feet side by side on a footstool.
‘Confess and I will not tell your aunt.’
‘Yes, at her insistence I am here to make your acquaintance.’
Her mother’s family shunned her. They feared the taint of her late father’s politics. The viscount must have referred to father’s only close relative, his sister Lady Ware.
‘Aunt Isobel?’ she queried suspicious because she knew her mother, born into a family with slightly puritanical inclinations, despised Aunt Isobel’s frivolity.
‘But my aunt…’
Burdened by a tray, Elsie entered the room and served them elderflower wine, before she sought Richelda’s permission to withdraw.
Chesney eyed his glass of wine with obvious mistrust. ‘Why did you sigh, Mistress Shaw?’
Richelda refrained from explaining she longed to eat something other than the daily fare of coarse bread and boiled puddings. In spite of the flavor of herbs, mixed with vegetables and served with or without game birds or rabbits, which Elsie sometimes snared, she longed for a change of diet.
Bowstring taut, Richelda drank some of the pale wine. She looked at the viscount, whose posture depicted a man at ease. ‘Please taste the wine, my lord, although you might not be accustomed to home brewed beverages, I think you will enjoy the flavor.’
He sipped some. ‘An excellent tribute to the housewife’s skill. Now, tell me, child, how long have you lived alone with Elsie?’
‘Since Mother died nearly a year ago.’ The pain of her mother’s death always made her mouth tremble when she spoke of her.
‘Why did you remain here?’
‘I hoped to improve the estate. Oh, I know everything has deteriorated, but if I could …’
He concluded her sentence. ‘transport oak to the shipyards?’
She widened her eyes. ‘Thank you for your excellent advice, my lord, I daresay you noticed my valuable stands of oak when you approached Bellemont?’
Although he chuckled, his eyes remained serious. ‘Never forget I do not allow anyone to play me for a fool, not even a rumpscuttle of an actress as pretty and worthy of note as you are.’
Outraged by being called a rumpscuttle for the second time that day, she stood. ‘Please leave.’
Chesney rose and approached her. The muscles across the breadth of his shoulders rippled beneath his coat, a testament to his tailor’s skill. When he put a hand on either side of her waist, she trembled. His lordship was tall, taller than Dudley. Her head only reached his throat. She looked up at Chesney and trembled again when his breath warmed her forehead.
‘Child, if my lightest touch frightens you, imagine the effect of Lord Greaves’ greedy hands on your person. I took this liberty to warn you not to endanger yourself. Who knows what harm might have befallen you in Lord Greaves’ company? He is known for his dishonor.’
His proximity unnerved her but as though a spell had been cast over her she remained still. ‘Are you known for your honor?’
‘Though I had the opportunity, I did not assault you and will never do so.’
His eyes darkened and a curious light flickered in them. ‘Although I cannot resist the temptation to tease you, do not be frightened of me.’
‘I am not afraid of you.’
He chuckled. ‘A good start.’
‘You are impertinent to hold me close.’
‘Does Master Wynwood hold you closer?’
Oh, he had overheard her discussion of Dudley with Elsie. Her cheeks burned. ‘Dudley does not-I mean you cannot know much about Master Wynwood.’
‘Perchance he is a fool and you are a country innocent. The question is, do I prefer nature to powder and patch?’
Surely he did not prefer her to sophisticated ladies? ‘Please do not address me as a child. I cared for my mother after she became ill when I was fourteen.’
‘My apologies, I did not mean to offend you. Poor Mistress Shaw, I will not call you a child again.’
Richelda twisted free of him and forced herself to breathe slowly. She resented any man’s pity. After she sold Bellemont, she would dress so elegantly that no one would ever taunt her in the future.
She curtsied. ‘Good day to you, my lord. I doubt there is more for us say to each other.’
‘Your performance is suited to the playhouse where the actors - like courtiers - deceive. But believe me, if Master Wynwood cannot separate gold from dross, he is unworthy of you.’
‘You have not the right to insult him.’
He applauded. ‘Let no secrets lie between us, Mistress Shaw. I overheard you when you confided in your servant.’ His expression hardened and his eyes glittered like ice. ‘No gentleman worthy of his name allows a slip of a girl to endanger herself. Instead of playing the coward’s part, he would be prepared to lay down his life to prevent her accosting a man of Lord Greaves’ ilk.’
Her temper rose. Yet she wanted to be a lady of her mother’s fine caliber and refrained from childishly stamping her feet and raging: Dudley is not a coward. ‘My lord, you are an eavesdropper and in spite of your fine clothes you are not a gentleman.’
‘Mistress Shaw,’ he said, his tone icy.
Ashamed of questioning his breeding, she apologised. ‘I beg your pardon, my lord.’
‘We will not refer to the question of my honor again.’ He smoothed his coat sleeve ostentatiously. ‘Alas, I am ashamed, for I hoped to impress you.’
Richelda ignored his comment. She peeped at him through her lashes. Ready laughter lurked in the depths of his eyes. Her lips twitched. The wretch did not look contrite. Did he know the meaning of shame? Did he have even the smallest understanding of the miseries of loneliness and poverty?
‘How rude you were to listen to a private conversation, my lord.’
‘Do not be angry, Mistress Shaw. I said I would help you and I will. Allow me to express my sincere admiration of you.’
Did he mock her? In spite of her harsh words, she thought him fine, very fine.
He raised her hand to his lips and warmed her skin with a kiss. Unfamiliar tingles ran up her arm and down her back. ‘I must leave.’ His tone caressed her. ‘My horses have waited long enough. I do not doubt we will meet again.’
He bowed and departed too quickly for her to ask.