Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune and a scandalous secret that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had...
Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…
Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Mary Balogh
Despite the fact that the late Earl of Riverdale had died without having made a will, Josiah Brumford, his solicitor, had found enough business to discuss with his son and successor to be granted a face-to-face meeting at Westcott House, the earl’s London residence on South Audley Street. Having arrived promptly and bowed his way through effusive and obsequious greetings, Brumford proceeded to find a great deal of nothing in particular to impart at tedious length and with pompous verbosity.
Which would have been all very well, Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, thought a trifle peevishly as he stood before the library window and took snuff in an effort to ward off the urge to yawn, if he had not been compelled to be here too to endure the tedium. If Harry had only been a year older—he had turned twenty just before his father’s death—then Avery need not be here at all and Brumford could prose on forever and a day as far as he was concerned. By some bizarre and thoroughly irritating twist of fate, however, His Grace had found himself joint guardian of the new earl with the countess, the boy’s mother.
It was all remarkably ridiculous in light of Avery’s notoriety for indolence and the studied avoidance of anything that might be dubbed work or the performance of duty. He had a secretary and numerous other servants to deal with all the tedious business of life for him. And there was also the fact that he was a mere eleven years older than his ward. When one heard the word guardian, one conjured a mental image of a gravely dignified graybeard. However, it seemed he had inherited the guardianship to which his father had apparently agreed—in writing—at some time in the dim distant past when the late Riverdale had mistakenly thought himself to be at death’s door. By the time he did die a few weeks ago, the old Duke of Netherby had been sleeping peacefully in his own grave for more than two years and was thus unable to be guardian to anyone. Avery might, he supposed, have repudiated the obligation since he was not the Netherby mentioned in that letter of agreement, which had never been made into a legal document anyway. He had not done so, however. He did not dislike Harry, and really it had seemed like too much bother to take a stand and refuse such a slight and temporary inconvenience.
It felt more than slight at the moment. Had he known Brumford was such a crashing bore, he might have made the effort.
“There really was no need for Father to make a will,” Harry was saying in the sort of rallying tone one used when repeating oneself in order to wrap up a lengthy discussion that had been moving in unending circles. “I have no brothers. My father trusted that I would provide handsomely for my mother and sisters according to his known wishes, and of course I will not fail that trust. I will certainly see to it too that most of the servants and retainers on all my properties are kept on and that those who leave my employ for whatever reason—Father’s valet, for example—are properly compensated. And you may rest assured that my mother and Netherby will see that I do not stray from these obligations before I arrive at my majority.”
He was standing by the fireplace beside his mother’s chair, in a relaxed posture, one shoulder propped against the mantel, his arms crossed over his chest, one booted foot on the hearth. He was a tall lad and a bit gangly, though a few more years would take care of that deficiency. He was fair-haired and blue-eyed with a good-humored countenance that very young ladies no doubt found impossibly handsome. He was also almost indecently rich. He was amiable and charming and had been running wild during the past several months, first while his father was too ill to take much notice and again during the couple of weeks since the funeral. He had probably never lacked for friends, but now they abounded and would have filled a sizable city, perhaps even a small county, to overflowing. Though perhaps friends was too kind a word to use for most of them. Sycophants and hangers-on would be better.
Avery had not tried intervening, and he doubted he would. The boy seemed of sound enough character and would doubtless settle to a bland and blameless adulthood if left to his own devices. And if in the meanwhile he sowed a wide swath of wild oats and squandered a small fortune, well, there were probably oats to spare in the world and there would still be a vast fortune remaining for the bland adulthood. It would take just too much effort to intervene, anyway, and the Duke of Netherby rarely made the effort to do what was inessential or what was not conducive to his personal comfort.
“I do not doubt it for a moment, my lord.” Brumford bowed from his chair in a manner that suggested he might as last be conceding that everything he had come to say had been said and perhaps it was time to take his leave. “I trust Brumford, Brumford & Sons may continue to represent your interests as we did your dear departed father’s and his father’s before him. I trust His Grace and Her Ladyship will so advise you.”
Avery wondered idly what the other Brumford was like and just how many young Brumfords were included in the “& Sons.” The mind boggled.
Harry pushed himself away from the mantel, looking hopeful. “I see no reason why I would not,” he said. “But I will not keep you any longer. You are a very busy man, I daresay.”
“I will, however, beg for a few minutes more of your time, Mr. Brumford,” the countess said unexpectedly. “But it is a matter that does not concern you, Harry. You may go and join your sisters in the drawing room. They will be eager to hear details of this meeting. Perhaps you would be good enough to remain, Avery.”
Harry directed a quick grin Avery’s way, and His Grace, opening his snuffbox again before changing his mind and snapping it shut, almost wished that he too were being sent off to report to the countess’s two daughters. He must be very bored indeed. Lady Camille Westcott, age twenty-two, was the managing sort, a forthright female who did not suffer fools gladly, though she was handsome enough, it was true. Lady Abigail, at eighteen, was a sweet, smiling, pretty young thing who might or might not possess a personality. To do her justice, Avery had not spent enough time in her company to find out. She was his half sister’s favorite cousin and dearest friend in the world, however—her words—and he occasionally heard them talking and giggling together behind closed doors that he was very careful never to open.
Harry, all eager to be gone, bowed to his mother, nodded politely to Brumford, came very close to winking at Avery, and made his escape from the library. Lucky devil. Avery strolled closer to the fireplace, where the countess and Brumford were still seated. What the deuce could be important enough that she had voluntarily prolonged this excruciatingly dreary meeting?
“And how may I be of service to you, my lady?” the solicitor asked.
The countess, Avery noticed, was sitting very upright, her spine arched slightly inward. Were ladies taught to sit that way, as though the backs of chairs had been created merely to be decorative? She was, he estimated, about forty years old. She was also quite perfectly beautiful in a mature, dignified sort of way. She surely could not have been happy with Riverdale—who could?—yet to Avery’s knowledge she had never indulged herself with lovers. She was tall, shapely, and blond with no sign yet, as far as he could see, of any gray hairs. She was also one of those rare women who looked striking rather than dowdy in deep mourning.
“There is a girl,” she said, “or, rather, a woman. In Bath, I believe. My late husband’s . . . daughter.”
Avery guessed she had been about to say bastard, but had changed her mind for the sake of gentility. He raised both his eyebrows and his quizzing glass.
Brumford for once had been silenced.
“She was at an orphanage there,” the countess continued. “I do not know where she is now. She is hardly still there since she must be in her middle twenties. But Riverdale supported her from a very young age and continued to do so until his death. We never discussed the matter. It is altogether probable he did not know I was aware of her existence. I do not know any details, nor have I ever wanted to. I still do not. I assume it was not through you that the support payments were made?”
Brumford’s already florid complexion took on a distinctly purplish hue. “It was not, my lady,” he assured her. “But might I suggest that since this . . . person is now an adult, you—”
“No,” she said, cutting him off. “I am not in need of any suggestion. I have no wish whatsoever to know anything about this woman, even her name. I certainly have no wish for my son to know of her. However, it seems only just that if she has been supported all her life by her . . . father, she be informed of his death if that has not already happened, and be compensated with a final settlement. A handsome one, Mr. Brumford. It would need to be made perfectly clear to her at the same time that there is to be no more—ever, under any circumstances. May I leave the matter in your hands?”
“My lady.” Brumford seemed almost to be squirming in his chair. He licked his lips and darted a glance at Avery, of whom—if His Grace was reading him correctly—he stood in considerable awe.
Avery raised his glass all the way to his eye. “Well?” he said. “May her ladyship leave the matter in your hands, Brumford? Are you or the other Brumford or one of the sons willing and able to hunt down the bastard daughter, name unknown, of the late earl in order to make her the happiest of orphans by settling a modest fortune upon her?”
“Your Grace.” Brumford’s chest puffed out. “My lady. It will be a difficult task, but not an insurmountable one, especially for the skilled investigators whose services we engage in the interests of our most valued clients. If the . . . person indeed grew up in Bath, we will identify her. If she is still there, we will find her. If she is no longer there—”
“I believe,” Avery said, sounding pained, “her ladyship and I get your meaning. You will report to me when the woman has been found. Is that agreeable to you, Aunt?”
The Countess of Riverdale was not, strictly speaking, his aunt. His stepmother, the duchess, was the late Earl of Riverdale’s sister, and thus the countess and all the others were his honorary relatives.
“That will be satisfactory,” she said. “Thank you, Avery. When you report to His Grace that you have found her, Mr. Brumford, he will discuss with you what sum is to be settled upon her and what legal papers she will need to sign to confirm that she is no longer a dependent of my late husband’s estate.”
“That will be all,” Avery said as the solicitor drew breath to deliver himself of some doubtless unnecessary and unwanted monologue. “The butler will see you out.”
He took snuff and made a mental note that the blend needed to be one half-note less floral in order to be perfect.
“That was remarkably generous of you,” he said when he was alone with the countess.
“Not really, Avery,” she said, getting to her feet. “I am being generous, if you will, with Harry’s money. But he will neither know of the matter nor miss the sum. And taking action now will ensure that he never discover the existence of his father’s by-blow. It will ensure that Camille and Abigail not discover it either. I care not the snap of my fingers for the woman in Bath. I do care for my children. Will you stay for luncheon?”
“I will not impose upon you,” he said with a sigh. “I have . . . things to attend to. I am quite sure I must have. Everyone has things to do, or so everyone is in the habit of claiming.”
The corners of her mouth lifted slightly. “I really do not blame you, Avery, for being eager to escape,” she said. “The man is a mighty bore, is he not? But his request for this meeting saved me from summoning him and you on this other matter. You are released. You may run off and busy yourself with . . . things.”
He possessed himself of her hand—white, long-fingered, perfectly manicured—and bowed gracefully over it as he raised it to his lips.
“You may safely leave the matter in my hands,” he said—or in the hands of his secretary, anyway.
“Thank you,” she said. “But you will inform me when it is accomplished?”
“I will,” he promised before sauntering from the room and taking his hat and cane from the butler’s hands.
The revelation that the countess had a conscience had surprised him. How many ladies in similar circumstances would voluntarily seek out their husbands’ bastards in order to shower riches upon them, even if they did convince themselves that they did so in the interests of their own, very legitimate children?
Anna Snow had been brought to the orphanage in Bath when she was not quite four years old. She had no real memory of her life before that beyond a few brief and disjointed flashes—of someone always coughing, for example, or of a lych-gate that was dark and a bit frightening inside whenever she was called upon to pass through it alone, and of kneeling on a window ledge and looking down upon a graveyard, and of crying inconsolably inside a carriage while someone with a gruff, impatient voice told her to hush and behave like a big girl.
She had been at the orphanage ever since, though she was now twenty-five. Most of the other children—there were usually about forty of them—left when they were fourteen or fifteen, after suitable employment had been found for them. But Anna had lingered on, first to help out as housemother to a dormitory of girls and a sort of secretary to Miss Ford, the matron, and then as the schoolteacher when Miss Rutledge, the teacher who had taught her, married a clergyman, and moved away to Devonshire. She was even paid a modest salary. However, the expenses of her continued stay at the orphanage, now in a small room of her own, were still provided by the unknown benefactor who had paid them from the start. She had been told that they would continue to be paid as long as she remained.
Anna considered herself fortunate. She had grown up in an orphanage, it was true, with not even a full identity to call her own, since she did not know who her parents were, but in the main it was not a charity institution. Almost all her fellow orphans were supported through their growing years by someone—usually anonymous, though some knew who they were and why they were there. Usually it was because their parents had died and there was no other family member able or willing to take them in. Anna did not dwell upon the loneliness of not knowing her own story. Her material needs were taken care of. Miss Ford and her staff were generally kind. Most of the children were easy enough to get along with, and those who were not could be avoided. A few were close friends, or had been during her growing years. If there had been a lack of love in her life, or of that type of love one associated with a family, then she did not particularly miss it, having never consciously known it.
Or so she always told herself.
She was content with her life and was only occasionally restless with the feeling that surely there ought to be more, that perhaps she should be making a greater effort to live her life. She had been offered marriage by three different men—the shopkeeper where she went occasionally, when she could afford it, to buy a book; one of the governors of the orphanage, whose wife had recently died and left him with four young children; and Joel Cunningham, her lifelong best friend. She had rejected all three offers for varying reasons and wondered sometimes if it had been foolish to do so, as there were not likely to be many more offers, if any. The prospect of a continuing life of spinsterhood sometimes seemed dreary.
Joel was with her when the letter arrived.
She was tidying the schoolroom after dismissing the children for the day. The monitors for the week—John Davies and Ellen Payne—had collected the slates and chalk and the counting frames. But while John had stacked the slates neatly on the cupboard shelf allotted for them and put all the chalk away in the tin and replaced the lid, Ellen had shoved the counting frames haphazardly on top of paintbrushes and palettes on the bottom shelf instead of arranging them in their appointed place side by side on the shelf above so as not to bend the rods or damage the beads. The reason she had put them in the wrong place was obvious. The second shelf was occupied by the water pots used to swill paint brushes and an untidy heap of paint-stained cleaning rags.
“Joel,” Anna said, a note of long-suffering in her voice, “could you at least try to get your pupils to put things away where they belong after an art class? And to clean the water pots first? Look! One of them even still has water in it. Very dirty water.”
Joel was sitting on the corner of the battered teacher’s desk, one booted foot braced on the floor, the other swinging free. His arms were crossed over his chest. He grinned at her.
“But the whole point of being an artist,” he said, “is to be a free spirit, to cast aside restricting rules and draw inspiration from the universe. My job is to teach my pupils to be true artists.”
She straightened up from the cupboard and directed a speaking glance his way. “What utter rot and nonsense,” she said.
He laughed outright. “Anna, Anna,” he said. “Here, let me take that pot from you before you burst with indignation or spill it down your dress. It looks like Cyrus North’s. There is always more paint in his water jar than on the paper at the end of a lesson. His paintings are extraordinarily pale, as though he were trying to reproduce a heavy fog. Does he know the multiplication tables?”
“He does,” she said, depositing the offending jar on the desk and then wrinkling her nose as she arranged the still-damp rags on one side of the bottom shelf, from which she had already removed the counting frames. “He recites them louder than anyone else and can even apply them. He has almost mastered long division too.”
“Then he can be a clerk in a counting house or perhaps a wealthy banker when he grows up,” he said. “He will not need the soul of an artist. He probably does not possess one anyway. There—his future has been settled. I enjoyed your stories today.”
“You were listening,” she said in a mildly accusatory tone. “You were supposed to be concentrating upon teaching your art lesson.”
“Your pupils,” he said, “are going to realize when they grow up that they have been horribly tricked. They will have all these marvelous stories rolling around in their heads, only to discover that they are not fiction after all but that driest-of-all realities—history. And geography. And even arithmetic. You get your characters, both human and animal, into the most alarming predicaments from which you can extricate them only with a manipulation of numbers and the help of your pupils. They do not even realize they are learning. You are a sly, devious creature, Anna.”
“Have you noticed,” she asked, straightening the counting frames to her liking before closing the cupboard doors and turning toward him, “that at church when the clergyman is giving his sermon everyone’s eyes glaze over and many people even nod off to sleep? But if he suddenly decides to illustrate a point with a little story, everyone perks up and listens. We were made to tell and listen to stories, Joel. It is how knowledge was passed from person to person and generation to generation before there was the written word, and even afterward, when most people had no access to manuscripts or books and could not read them even if they did. Why do we now feel that storytelling should be confined to fiction and fantasy? Can we enjoy only what has no basis in fact?”
He smiled fondly at her as she stood looking at him, her hands clasped at her waist. “One of my many secret dreams is to be a writer,” he said. “Have I ever told you that? To write truth dressed up in fiction. It is said one ought to write about what one knows. I could invent endless stories about what I know.”
Secret dreams! It was a familiar, evocative phrase. They had often played the game as they grew up—What is your most secret dream? Usually it was that their parents would suddenly appear to claim them and whisk them off to the happily-ever-after of a family life. Often when they were very young they would add that they would then discover themselves to be a prince or princess and their home a castle.
“Stories about growing up as an orphan in an orphanage?” Anna said, smiling back at him. “About not knowing who you are? About dreaming of your missing heritage? Of your unknown parents? Of what might have been? And of what still might be if only . . . ? Well, if only.”
He shifted his position slightly and moved the paint jar so that he would not accidentally tip it.
“Yes, about all that,” he said. “But it would not be all wistful sadness. For though we do not know who we were born as or who our parents or their families were or are, and though we do not know exactly why we were placed here and never afterward claimed, we do know that we are. I am not my parents or my lost heritage. I am myself. I am an artist who ekes out a reasonably decent living painting portraits and volunteers his time and expertise as a teacher at the orphanage where he grew up. I am a hundred or a thousand other things too, either despite my background or because of it. I want to write stories about it all, Anna, about characters finding themselves without the hindrance of family lineage and expectations. Without the hindrance of . . . love.”
Anna gazed at him in silence for a few moments, the soreness of what felt very like tears in her throat. Joel was a solidly built man, somewhat above average in height, with dark hair cut short—because he did not want to fulfill the stereotypical image of the flamboyant artist with flowing locks, he always explained whenever he had it cut—and a round, pleasant face with a slightly cleft chin, sensitive mouth when it was relaxed, and dark eyes that could blaze with intensity and darken even further when he felt passionately about something. He was good-looking and good-natured and talented and intelligent and extremely dear to her, and because she had known him most of her life, she knew too about his woundedness, though any casual acquaintance would not have suspected it.
It was a woundedness shared in one way or another by all orphans.
“There are institutions far worse than this one, Joel,” Anna said, “and probably not many that are better. We have not grown up without love. Most of us love one another. I love you.”
His grin was back. “Yet on a certain memorable occasion you refused to marry me,” he said. “You broke my heart.”
She clucked her tongue. “You were not really serious,” she said. “And even if you were, you know we do not love each other that way. We grew up together as friends, almost as brother and sister.”
He smiled ruefully at her. “Do you never dream of leaving here, Anna?”
“Yes and no,” she said. “Yes, I dream of going out there into the world to find out what lies beyond these walls and the confines of Bath. And no, I do not want to leave what is familiar to me, the only home I have known since infancy and the only family I can remember. I feel safe here and needed, even loved. Besides, my . . . benefactor agreed to continue supporting me only as long as I remain here. I— Well, I suppose I am a coward, paralyzed by the terror of destitution and the unknown. It is as though, having been abandoned once, I really cannot bear the thought of now abandoning the one thing that has been left me, this orphanage and the people who live here.”
Joel got to his feet and strolled over to the other side of the room, where the easels were still set up so that today’s paintings could dry properly. He touched a few at the edges to see if it was safe to remove them.
“We are both cowards, then,” he said. “I did leave, but not entirely. I still have one foot in the door. And the other has not moved far away, has it? I am still in Bath. Do you suppose we are afraid to move away lest our parents come for us and not know where to find us?” He looked up and laughed. “Tell me it is not that, Anna, please. I am twenty-seven years old.”
Anna felt rather as if he had punched her in the stomach. The old secret dream never quite died. But the most haunting question was never really who had brought them here and left them, but why.
“I believe most people live their lives within a radius of a few miles of their childhood homes,” she said. “Not many people go adventuring. And even those who do have to take themselves with them. That must turn out to be a bit of a disappointment.”
Joel laughed again.
“I am useful here,” Anna continued, “and I am happy here. You are useful—and successful. It is becoming quite fashionable when in Bath to have your portrait painted by Joel Cunningham. And wealthy people are always coming to Bath to take the waters.”
His head was tipped slightly to one side as he regarded her. But before he could say anything more, the classroom door was flung open without the courtesy of a knock to admit Bertha Reed, a thin, flaxen-haired fourteen-year-old who acted as Miss Ford’s helper now that she was old enough. She was bursting with excitement and waving a folded paper in one raised hand.
“There is a letter for you, Miss Snow,” she half shrieked. “It was delivered by special messenger from London and Miss Ford would have brought it herself but Tommy is bleeding all over her sitting room and no one can find Nurse Jones. Maddie punched him in the nose.”
“It is high time someone did,” Joel said, strolling closer to Anna. “I suppose he was pulling one of her braids again.”
Anna scarcely heard. A letter? From London? By special messenger? For her?
“Whoever can it be from, Miss Snow?” Bertha screeched, apparently not particularly concerned about Tommy and his bleeding nose. “Who do you know in London? No, don’t tell me—that ought to have been whom. Whom do you know in London? I wonder what they are writing about. And it came by special messenger, all that way. It must have cost a fortune. Oh, do open it.”
Her blatant inquisitiveness might have seemed impertinent, but really, it was so rare for any of them to receive a letter that word always spread very quickly and everyone wanted to know all about it. Occasionally someone who had left both the orphanage and Bath to work elsewhere would write, and the recipient would almost invariably share the contents with everyone else. Such missives were kept as prized possessions and read over and over until they were virtually threadbare.
Anna did not recognize the handwriting, which was both bold and precise. It was a masculine hand, she felt sure. The paper felt thick and expensive. It did not look like a personal letter.
“Oliver is in London,” Bertha said wistfully. “But I don’t suppose it can be from him, can it? His writing does not look anything like that, and why would he write to you anyway? The four times he has written since he left here, it was to me. And he is not going to send any letter by special messenger, is he?”
Oliver Jamieson had been apprenticed to a bootmaker in London two years ago at the age of fourteen and had promised to send for Bertha and marry her as soon as he got on his feet. Twice each year since then he had faithfully written a five- or six-line letter in large, careful handwriting. Bertha had shared his sparse news on each occasion and wept over the letters until it was a wonder they were still legible. There were three years left in his apprenticeship before he could hope to be on his feet and able to support a wife. They were both very young, but the separation did seem cruel. Anna always found herself hoping that Oliver would remain faithful to his childhood sweetheart.
“Are you going to turn it over and over in your hands and hope it will divulge its secrets without your having to break the seal?” Joel asked.
Stupidly, Anna’s hands were trembling. “Perhaps there is some mistake,” she said. “Perhaps it is not for me.”
He came up behind her and looked over her shoulder. “Miss Anna Snow,” he said. “It certainly sounds like you. I do not know any other Anna Snows. Do you, Bertha?”
“I do not, Mr. Cunningham,” she said after pausing to think. “But whatever can it be about?”
Anna slid her thumb beneath the seal and broke it. And yes, indeed, the paper was a thick, costly vellum. It was not a long letter. It was from Somebody Brumford—she could not read the first name, though it began with a J. He was a solicitor. She read through the letter once, swallowed, and then read it again more slowly.
“The day after tomorrow,” she murmured.
“In a private chaise,” Joel added. He had been reading over her shoulder.
“What is the day after tomorrow?” Bertha demanded, her voice an agony of suspense. “What chaise?”
Anna looked at her blankly. “I am being summoned to London to discuss my future,” she said. There was a faint buzzing in her ears.
“Oh! By who?” Bertha asked, her eyes as wide as saucers. “By whom, I mean.”
“Mr. J. Brumford, a solicitor,” Anna said.
“Josiah, I think that says,” Joel said. “Josiah Brumford. He is sending a private chaise to fetch you, and you are to pack a bag for at least a few days.”
“To London?” Bertha’s voice was breathless with awe.
“Whatever am I to do?” Anna’s mind seemed to have stopped working. Or, rather, it was working, but it was whirring out of control, like the innards of a broken clock.
“What you are to do, Anna,” Joel said, pushing a chair up behind her knees and setting his hands on her shoulders to press her gently down onto it, “is pack a bag for a few days and then go to London to discuss your future.”
“But what future?” she asked.
“That is what is to be discussed,” he pointed out.
The buzzing in her ears grew louder.
Anna could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times she had ridden inside a carriage. Perhaps that explained one of the few memories she had of her infancy. The conveyance that drew up outside the doors of the orphanage early in the morning two days after the letter came and set every child dashing to the windows of the long dining room in which they were eating breakfast was perhaps not the grandest of equipages, but some of the girls declared that it was just like Cinderella’s coach. Even to Anna, who dreaded climbing into it, it looked far too impressive to be intended for her.
She was not to travel alone, it seemed. When she was summoned to Miss Ford’s sitting room, she was introduced to Miss Knox, a solid, gray-haired, large-bosomed woman of severe mien, who had Anna thinking of Amazons. Miss Knox had been engaged by Mr. Brumford to accompany Anna to London, since apparently it was not proper for a young lady to travel any great distance alone.
It was the first Anna had heard of being a lady. She was very thankful for the company, however.
A few minutes later, out in the hall, Miss Ford shook hands firmly with Anna while Roger, the elderly porter, lifted her bag into the carriage. It was neither a large nor a heavy bag, but what was there to pack, after all, but her spare day dress and her Sunday dress, her best shoes, and a few sundries? A number of the girls, released temporarily from the regular routine of their day, rushed about her to hug her and shed tears over her and generally behave as though she were going to the ends of the earth in order to face her own execution. Anna shed a few tears of her own, for she shared their feelings. A few of the boys stood at a safe distance, where they were in no danger of being accidentally hugged, and beamed at her. She suspected that they smiled, the rascals, because they hoped her going would mean no school today.
“I will be gone for a mere few days,” she assured them all, “and will return with so many stories of my adventures that I will keep you up one whole night. Be good in the meanwhile.”
“I will pray for you, Miss Snow,” Winifred Hamlin promised piously through her tears.
As the carriage pulled away from the curb a couple of minutes later, children crowded the windows of the dining room again, smiling and waving and weeping. Anna waved back. This all felt alarmingly final, as though she would never return. And perhaps she would not. What was it about her future that needed to be discussed?
“Why has Mr. Brumford summoned me?” she asked Miss Knox.
But the woman’s face remained blank of all expression. “I have no idea, miss,” she said. “I was hired from the agency to come here and fetch you and see you safely delivered, and that is what I am doing.”
“Oh,” Anna said.
It was a long journey, with only a few brief stops along the way for refreshments and a change of horses and one night spent at an uncomfortable, noisy inn. Throughout it all Anna might as well have been alone, for Miss Knox did not utter more than a dozen words, and most of those were directed to other people. She had been hired to accompany Anna, it seemed, not to provide any sort of companionship.
Anna might have been intolerably bored if her heart had not been palpitating with a nervousness bordering on terror and if her mind had not still been spinning quite beyond her control. Everyone at the orphanage had learned of the letter, of course, and everyone had heard it read aloud. There had been no point in trying to keep its contents private even if Anna had felt so inclined. If she had done so, Bertha would have recounted what she recalled with heaven-knew-what embellishments, and the most hair-raising rumors would have been shooting about the home in no time at all.
Everyone had had an opinion. Everyone had had a theory.
The one most likely to be true was that Anna’s benefactor, whoever he or she was, was ready to turn her loose upon the world and withdraw the monetary support she had relied upon for the past twenty-one years. He—or she—did not have to summon her all the way to London in order to inform her of that, though. But perhaps he had found her employment there. What could it be? Would she agree to take it and begin a new phase of her life, cut off from everyone she had ever known and the only home she could remember? Or would she refuse and return to Bath and try to subsist on her teacher’s wages? She would have a choice, she assumed. The letter had, after all, stated that her future needed to be discussed. A discussion was a two-way communication.
She wondered if there were enough coins in her purse for a ticket home by stagecoach. She had no idea what the fare was, but she had a little money of her own—a very little—and Miss Ford had pressed a whole sovereign into her palm last night despite her protests. What if it was still not enough? What if she found herself stranded in London for the rest of her life? The very thought was enough to make her feel bilious, and the state of the road over which they were traveling did nothing to settle her stomach.
A few times she tried determinedly not to think. She tried instead to marvel at the unfamiliar sensation of being in a carriage, of actually leaving Bath, climbing the hill away from it until it was no longer in sight behind her when she peered back. She tried to marvel at the passing countryside. She tried to think of this experience as the adventure of a lifetime, one she would remember for the rest of her life. She imagined how she would tell the children at the orphanage about it—about the tollbooths and the villages through which they passed; about village greens and taverns with quaint names painted upon their swinging signs and small churches with pointed steeples; about the posting inns at which they stopped, the food they ate there, the lumpiness of the bed in which she tried to sleep, the bustle of hostlers and grooms in the innyards; the deep ruts in the road that rattled the very teeth in one’s head and even occasionally made Miss Knox look less like a sphinx.
Soon enough, however, her mind would spin back to the great, frightening unknown that lay ahead of her. What if she was about to meet the person who had taken her to the orphanage all those years ago and paid to keep her there ever since? Would it be the man with the gruff voice? What if she really was a princess and a prince was waiting to marry her now that she was grown up and out of danger from the wicked king—or witch!—from whom she had been carefully hidden all these years? The absurd thought made Anna smile despite herself and almost laugh aloud. That had been nine-year-old Olga Norton’s theory after she had listened to Anna’s letter the night before last. It had been eagerly espoused by several of the other little girls and soundly ridiculed by most of the boys.
All she could do, Anna thought with great good sense for surely the two hundredth time in the last few days, was wait and see. But that was more easily said than done. Why had the summons come through a solicitor? And why was she traveling in a private carriage when stagecoach tickets must cost far less? And why had she been provided with a chaperon? What was to happen when she arrived in London?
What did happen was that the carriage kept driving and driving. London was endlessly large and endlessly dreary, even squalid, for what seemed like miles and miles. So much for the story of Dick Whittington and the gold-paved streets of London town, though admittedly it might all look more inviting in full daylight instead of the dusk that was falling upon the outside world.
But the carriage did stop eventually outside a large, imposing stone building that turned out to be a hotel. They stepped inside a reception hall, and Miss Knox spoke with a man in uniform behind a high oak desk, was handed a large brass key, and led the way up two broad, carpeted flights of stairs and along a corridor before setting the key in the lock of a door and opening it wide. There was a spacious, square, high-ceilinged sitting room beyond it with doors on either side, each standing open to show a bedchamber within. There was a lamp alight in each of the three rooms, a great extravagance to Anna’s weary mind. It was a huge improvement over last night’s accommodations.
“I am to stay here?” she asked, moving sharply to one side when she realized that another man in uniform had come along behind them, her bag and Miss Knox’s in his hands. He set them down, looked expectantly at Miss Knox, who ignored him, and withdrew with a scowl.
“The bigger room on the left is yours, miss,” the older woman said. “The other one is mine. Dinner will be fetched up soon. I shall go and wash my hands.”
She disappeared into the bedchamber to the right, taking her bag with her. Anna carried hers into the other room. It was at least three times larger than her room at the orphanage. The bed looked wide enough to accommodate four or five sleepers lying comfortably abreast. There was water in the jug on the washstand. She poured some into the bowl and washed her hands and face and combed her hair. She ran her hands down her dress, which was sadly wrinkled after two days of sitting.
By the time she stepped back into the sitting room, two servants had come to set the table with a crisp white cloth and gleaming china, glass, and cutlery, and to deposit several covered tureens of something hot and steaming and delicious smelling. At least, Anna assumed it would smell delicious if only she were hungry and not so desperately tired.
She wished with all her heart that she was back at home.
Having a superlatively efficient secretary, Avery, Duke of Netherby, mused, was both a good thing and occasionally a bothersome one. On the one hand, one came to rely upon him to conduct all the troublesome and trivial business of one’s life, leaving oneself free simply to live and enjoy it. On the other hand, there was the odd occasion when one found oneself forced into something tedious that might have been avoided if one had been left to one’s own devices. It did not happen often, admittedly, for Edwin Goddard was well acquainted with what might be expected to bore his employer. This, however, was one of those infrequent occasions.
“Edwin,” Avery said with a pained sigh late one afternoon as he appeared in the doorway of the secretary’s office. “What is this, pray?”
He held aloft between a thumb and forefinger a card Goddard had left on the library desk with two other memos, one reminding His Grace of a ball he would wish to attend tonight because the Honorable Miss Edwards was to be there, and the other informing him that a pair of new boots for which he had been fitted last week was awaiting his pleasure at Hoby’s whenever he chose to go and try them on to make sure they fit like the glove that was always said to be so comfortable upon one’s foot. If it were really so, Avery mused, then it was strange that men persisted in wearing boots rather than gloves. But his thoughts had digressed.
“Mr. Josiah Brumford has requested an hour of your time here tomorrow morning, Your Grace,” Goddard explained. “Since he is the Earl of Riverdale’s solicitor and his lordship is your ward, I assumed you would be happy to grant his request. I have given instructions that the rose salon be prepared for ten o’clock.”
“Happy,” His Grace repeated faintly. “My dear Edwin, what a very peculiar choice of word. You have indeed mentioned here that this, ah, audience is to be granted in the rose salon at the time you stated. I can read. But you omitted a reason for the choice of room. The rose salon seems rather a large chamber for just one solicitor and my humble self to rattle about in. He is not bringing along with him any large sort of retinue, is he? The other Brumford, perhaps, or some of the “& Sons”? Or the whole lot of them? That would be too, too much, I am moved to inform you.”
“Mr. Brumford mentioned in his letter, Your Grace,” Goddard said, “that he has taken the liberty of requesting the attendance too of more persons, including the earl and the countess, his mother, and other members of his family.”
“Has he indeed?” Avery’s fingers curled about the handle of his quizzing glass as he strolled toward his secretary’s desk, dropped the memo upon it, and held out his hand. Goddard eyed it for a moment and then rummaged through a neat pile of papers on one corner of his desk in order to produce Brumford’s letter. It was as pompous as the man who had penned it, but it did indeed request the honor of addressing His Grace of Netherby at Archer House at ten o’clock tomorrow morning upon a matter of grave importance. It also begged His Grace’s pardon for having taken the liberty of inviting his ward and his lordship’s mother and sisters as well as other close family members, including Mr. Alexander Westcott, Mrs. Westcott, his mother, and Lady Overfield, his sister.
Avery returned the letter to his secretary without comment. Three weeks had passed since Brumford had stridden from Westcott House like a crusader bent upon the mission of sending forth his most trusted investigator to run one bastard orphan to earth in order to press riches upon her in return for her written promise never to appeal to Harry for more. Had not the arrangement been that Brumford report privately to Avery when the woman was found in order to discuss the exact sum to be settled upon her?
Was this meeting about something else altogether?
It had better be, by thunder, if Brumford did not wish to find himself strung up from the nearest tree by his thumbs. It had been the countess’s express wish that Harry and Camille and Abigail never know of the existence of their father’s by-blow. And why the devil had Alex Westcott been invited? And his mother and his sister? They were cousins of Harry’s—second cousins, to be exact, with maybe a remove or two. Westcott was also the heir to the earldom until such time as Harry settled down to marriage and the dutiful production of an heir of his own body and a couple of spares to be on the safe side. And who were the other close family members? What was this meeting? Had some secret will been unearthed after all?
Avery left the room and went in search of the duchess, his stepmother. She would be interested to know that they were to expect her sister-in-law and nephew and nieces tomorrow, as well as her cousins and other unidentified relatives. She had a mother and two sisters in town. Though perhaps she had received her own personal invitation and already knew. She would certainly wish to attend the meeting, as no doubt would Jess—Lady Jessica Archer, his half sister, who at the age of seventeen and three-quarters already had all ten toes lined up firmly at the threshold of the schoolroom doorway, ready to bolt free the very moment she turned eighteen. This time next year, perish the thought, he would probably be squiring her about to all the parties and balls and breakfasts and picnics and whatnots at which the great marriage mart conducted its business during the Season.
She might as well attend the meeting, he thought, since it was to be here in her own home. He looked into the drawing room and found her there with her mother, admiring a pile of brightly colored embroidery silks they must have just purchased. It would be hard to keep Jess away tomorrow anyway when she was informed that Abigail was coming. It would be well nigh impossible when she knew Harry was to be here too. She did not, Avery hoped, see him as future husband material since he was her first cousin, but she did worship and adore at the altar of his youthful good looks. However, her presence or absence would be for her mother to decide. Thank heaven for mothers.
A matter of grave importance, Brumford had written. The man ought to be on the stage. He really ought.
Both ladies looked up and smiled at him.
“Oh, Avery,” Jessica said, hurrying toward him, her face brightly eager, her hands clasped to her bosom, “guess who is coming here tomorrow morning.” But she did not wait for him to participate in the game she had set up. “Abby. And Harry. And Camille.”
In order of importance, it seemed.
“Brumford has a decided flair for the dramatic,” Alexander Westcott remarked to his mother and his sister as they dined together at home that same evening. “This gathering cannot be for the reading of Riverdale’s will. There apparently was no will. Besides, the solicitor would not have chosen Archer House for such a reading even if Netherby is Harry’s guardian. Why our presence is necessary for whatever the business happens to be, heaven knows. I suppose we had better put in an appearance, however.”
“I have not seen either Louise or Olivia since the funeral,” his mother said, naming the Duchess of Netherby and the Countess of Riverdale. “I shall enjoy a chat with them. And if we are invited, perhaps Cousin Eugenia and Matilda and Mildred will be there too.” Cousin Eugenia was the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, the late earl’s mother, the other two ladies her eldest and youngest daughters.
“And you must admit, Alex,” Elizabeth, Lady Overfield, said with a twinkle in her eye, “that a mystery is always intriguing. You at least are Harry’s heir. Mama and I are not closely related to Harry.”
“Your papa and Harry’s papa were first cousins,” her mother reminded them, “though they were never close. Your papa detested the man. So did everyone else, it seemed to me, and that probably included Viola, though she was ever the loyal wife.”
“Being Harry’s heir is not something I covet,” Alexander said. “Perhaps I am peculiar, but I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I have. He cannot be expected to marry soon, of course. He is not even of age yet. But I devoutly hope he marries young and fathers at least six sons in as many years to put the succession beyond doubt. In the meanwhile I hope he remains in perfect health.”
Elizabeth laughed and reached out to pat the back of his hand. “It is not peculiar at all,” she said. “You have worked hard to restore Riddings Park to prosperity after Papa ran it into the ground—pardon my bluntness, Mama—and you have succeeded and can be proud of yourself. You are much respected there, even loved, and I know you are contented. I know too that you are not overfond of being dragged to London just because it is the Season and you knew Mama and I fancied sampling some of the frivolities it has to offer this year. You did not really need to come with us, but I appreciate the fact that you did, and that you have leased this very comfortable house for us.”
“It was not entirely for your sakes I came,” he admitted after sipping his wine. “Mama is always urging me to live a little, as though being home on my own estate, which I love, were not living. But occasionally even I feel the urge to set aside my manure-encrusted boots and don dancing shoes instead.”
Elizabeth laughed again. “You dance well,” she said. “And you invariably cause a stir among the ladies whenever you set foot inside a ballroom, for you are always the most handsome gentleman in attendance.”
“Is there any hope,” their mother asked, looking at her son in some despair as though this were not the first or even the twenty-first time she had posed the question, “that somewhere among all those ladies you will find a bride, Alex?”
He hesitated before answering, and she looked hopeful enough to set down her knife and fork across her plate and lean slightly toward him.
“Yes, actually,” he said. “It is the next logical step for me to take, is it not? Riddings is prospering at last, everyone dependent upon me is well looked after, and the only thing lacking to make all secure is an heir. My next birthday is my thirtieth. I came here with you and Lizzie, Mama, because I cannot like either of you being here without a man to lend you countenance and offer escort wherever you wish to go, but I came too on my own account to . . . look about me, if you will. I am not in any hurry to make a choice. It may not even happen this year. But I do not need to marry money, and I am not so highly ranked that I am obliged to look high for a bride. I hope to find someone who will . . . suit me.”
“Someone with whom to fall in love?” Elizabeth suggested, leaning slightly to one side so that the footman could refill her water glass.
“I shall certainly expect to feel an affection for the lady,” he said, flushing slightly. “But romantic love? Pardon me, Lizzie, but is that not for females?”
His mother tutted.
“Like me?” Elizabeth sat back in her chair and watched him eat.
“Ah.” His fork remained suspended halfway to his mouth. “I did not mean it that way, Lizzie. I did not mean to offend.”
“And you did not,” she assured him. “I fell head over heels in infatuation with Desmond the moment I set eyes upon him, silly girl that I was, and called it love. It was not love. But the experience of a bad marriage has not made a cynic of me. I still believe in romantic love, and I do so hope you discover it for yourself, Alex. You deserve all that is good in life, especially after all you have done for me.”
Sir Desmond Overfield, her late husband, had been a charming man but a heavy drinker, the sort who turned uglier the more he drank and became verbally and physically abusive. When Elizabeth had fled back to her childhood home on one occasion, her face scarcely recognizable beneath all the swelling and bruises, her father had sent her back, albeit reluctantly, when Desmond came for her, with the reminder that she was now a married lady and her husband’s property. When she had fled there again two years later, after her father was dead, this time with a broken arm as well as bruises over most of her face and body, Alex had taken her in and summoned a physician. Desmond had come again to claim his property, sober and apologetic, as he had been the first time, but Alex had punched him in the face and broken his nose and dislodged a few of his teeth. When her husband had returned with the nearest magistrate, Alex had blackened both his eyes and invited the magistrate to stay for luncheon. Desmond had died less than a year after that, stabbed in a tavern brawl in which ironically he had been only a spectator.
“I will choose a bride with whom I can expect to be comfortable and even happy,” Alex promised now, “but I shall ask your opinion, Lizzie, and Mama’s too before making any offer.”
His mother gave a little shriek of horror. “You will not marry just to please your mother,” she said. “The very idea.”
“Oh, you will do no such thing,” Elizabeth protested simultaneously.
He grinned at them. “But you will both have to share a house with my wife,” he said. “All this is purely hypothetical, however, at least for now. I have talked and danced with a number of ladies in the couple of weeks since the Season began, but none have tempted me to courtship. I am in no great hurry to make a choice. In the meantime, we have a soiree to attend tonight and had better be on our way within the half hour. And tomorrow we will discover what earth-shattering disclosures Harry’s solicitor has to make that necessitate our presence. I am sure neither of you is under any obligation to go with me, though.”
“But Mama and I have been invited too,” Elizabeth reminded him. “I would not miss it for worlds. Besides, I have not seen any of the cousins since the funeral either, and their enforced seclusion must be quite irksome to them, especially when the Season is tempting them with so many entertainments. Camille must be hugely disappointed at having been forced to postpone her wedding to Viscount Uxbury, and poor Abigail must feel even worse done by at having to wait until next year to make her come-out when she is already eighteen. Perhaps we will see young Jessica too since, this meeting is to be at Archer House. Oh, and I must confess, Alex, that I look forward to seeing the Duke of Netherby. He is so deliciously . . . grand.”
“Lizzie!” Alexander looked pained as he nodded to the footman to remove their plates. “He is nothing but bored artificiality through to the very heart. If he has one.”
“But he does it all with such magnificent flair,” she said, the twinkle back in her eyes. “And he is so very beautiful.”
“Beautiful?” He looked thunderstruck before relaxing and shaking his head and chuckling. “But the word does fit, I must confess.”
“Oh, it does,” their mother agreed. “If I were but twenty years younger.” She sighed and fluttered her eyelashes, and they all laughed.
“He is the very antithesis of you, Alex,” Elizabeth said, patting his hand once more while they all got to their feet. “Which fact must be an enormous relief to you, since you really do not like him one little bit, do you?”
“The antithesis?” he said. “I am not beautiful, then, Lizzie?”
“Absolutely not,” she said, linking her arm through his while he offered the other to his mother. “You are handsome, Alex. Sometimes I think it is unfair that you got all the stunning good looks—from Mama’s side of the family, of course—while I have never been anything but passably pretty. But it is not just your looks that disqualify you from being called beautiful. You never look bored or haughty, and you definitely have a heart. And a conscience. You are a solid citizen and a thoroughly worthy gentleman.”
“Good God,” he said, grimacing. “Am I really such a dull dog?”
“Not at all,” she said, laughing. “For you have the looks.”
He was, in fact, the quintessential tall, dark, handsome man—with an athletic, perfectly toned body and blue eyes to boot. He also had a smile that would melt frozen butter, not to mention female hearts. And, yes, he had a firm sense of duty to those dependent upon him. Elizabeth, four years his senior, was beginning to recover some of the bloom she had lost during her difficult marriage, though she was neither as dark nor as strikingly good looking as her brother. She did, however, have an even temper, an amiable countenance, and a cheerful disposition that had somehow survived six years of disappointment and anxiety and abuse.
“Lizzie!” her mother exclaimed. “You have always been beautiful in my eyes.”