scandal at the dower house

 
SCANDAL AT THE DOWER HOUSE

 

Sally James

 

Chapter 1

 

‘You have very pretty manners, my dear. No trace of the shop floor.’

Lady Keith’s voice was penetrating, and the door to the dining room was still open. Catarina, Countess of Rasen, knew the men must have heard, and did not know whether to be offended, embarrassed, amused or furious. But recalling her pretty manners she refused to reply, instead leading the way into the formal drawing room. After just a few hours in the lady’s company she had concluded Lady Keith was the type of arrogant dowager who prided herself on always saying what she thought, however hurtful or silly. Though in her sixties, she dressed in clothes more suitable to a young girl, with far too many flounces of black satin ribbon and lace, and was adorned with a profusion of jet beads and mourning brooches.

Catarina felt dowdy in comparison. The only black gowns she possessed dated from six years ago, when Lady Unwin, the wife of Walter’s best friend, died. She had not had time or inclination to order more in the few days since Walter’s death.

Her young sister Joanna had no intention of letting the slur pass.

‘Papa never served in or owned a shop,’ she protested. ‘He was a very well-known wine importer, he sold wine to all the best people within a hundred miles of Bristol!’

‘But a merchant, my dear, is not so very different, though I understand your father came from a good family. It seems so vulgar for a gentleman to go into trade, even if he did make a vast amount of money.’

‘Joanna, would you be so kind as to fetch my shawl? I left it in the library earlier, when I was sorting out the papers for his lordship, and I find it grows chilly.’

Joanna, recalled to a sense of decorum by Catarina’s firm tone, blushed and made her escape. Catarina asked her guest if she had visited this part of Somerset before, and by the time Joanna returned the conversation was proceeding in the well-worn tracks of comparing opinions about places they had visited. It seemed that Lady Keith despised everywhere apart from London and Bath, her childhood home in Gloucestershire, and her late husband’s castle in Scotland.

Catarina tried to include the fourth member of the party, Olivia, in the conversation, but she seemed an exceedingly shy child, intimidated by her aunt, and stammered that she had never been anywhere except home and school. She still looked like a schoolgirl, in her simple gown and with her hair tied back in a long braid. Lady Keith’s injunction to sit up straight, speak up, and look at people when she was answering questions simply threw the poor girl into greater confusion.

Catarina hoped the men would not sit long over the port. All the arrangements with the Reverend Eade had been agreed that afternoon, and Sir Humphrey Unwin would wish to leave for Chase Manor, five miles away, before it grew dark. It was a moonless March night, and he was of a nervous disposition.

Her wishes were granted. Almost on the thought the door opened to admit the new Earl of Rasen, Nicholas Brooke, the most elegant man she had ever encountered in his tight-fitting pantaloons which showed not a crease, discreet waistcoat, intricately tied cravat and a coat which, like his pantaloons, showed every muscle of a trim, strong body. His brother Jeremy, equally elegantly attired, the Rector in a state of genteel shabbiness, and Sir Humphrey in clothes which had been fashionable twenty years ago, followed him. The latter immediately made his apologies and farewells, tried to deter Lord Brooke from escorting him to the stables, and in a flurry of thanks and promises of any further help he could give dear Catarina, backed out of the room.

Joanna cast a speaking look at her sister, but to the latter’s relief refrained from comment. Catarina could read her mind, and felt a great deal of sympathy. Lord Brooke had arrived at Marshington Grange just a few hours ago, for the first time, but was already assuming control. It was his right, she reminded herself, but she had been mistress of the house for so long it was hard to relinquish its management to another. It was, however, something she would have to accept, when she moved to the Dower House.

* * * *

Catarina tried to curb her impatience. Surely the funeral was over by now. She was seething with suppressed annoyance as she tried to reply politely to Lady Keith’s inane, often insulting comments. The woman was, she thought, rather like an inquisitive bird with her sharp nose, receding chin and scrawny neck. She had, since her arrival the previous day, found nothing but fault in the house, which was too small and furnished in such an old-fashioned way; the park surrounding it, which had too many trees and not enough deer for her liking; the church, which was undistinguished and at an inconvenient distance; and the servants, whose mourning clothes were shabby and who treated Catarina with far too much friendliness and did not keep the proper distance from their mistress who, even if her origins were suspect, was an Earl’s widow. At dinner she had picked at her food, tasted each dish and then pushed it away. It was too cold, too tough, too sweet or tasteless. No wonder she was so skinny.

Catarina moved restlessly to the window overlooking the long sweeping driveway, but none of the returning carriages she hoped to see had yet appeared. The elms, still starkly bare of leaves, were swaying in the March wind, and overhead a canopy of grey cloud made it a fitting day for a funeral. She was paying less than full attention to Lady Keith, until a few stray words made her swing round and stare at that lady.

‘Jeremy?’ she asked. ‘But I understood he is in the army.’

‘Of course, but now that monster is secured on Elba I expect he will sell out. Nicholas has several houses, he can have no need of another. Marshington Grange is rather small, but will do admirably for his brother. I expect the rents from the estate will be enough for its upkeep.’

‘But Bonaparte has escaped from Elba! Sir Humphrey heard the news only yesterday. He told me before the men went to the church.’

Lady Keith went pale. ‘Escaped? But where is he? And why was I not told immediately?’

‘I believe he has landed in France, but Sir Humphrey considers there is no cause for alarm. He doubts the French will want to be involved in more fighting.’

‘What does he, a mere country squire, know about it?’

‘He is a Justice of the Peace, like Walter was. He may live in obscurity now, but he used to be sent on diplomatic missions, before his health broke down and he could not tolerate long journeys,’ Catarina said sharply, unable to hide her annoyance. Sir Humphrey had been a good friend ever since she had married Walter, and she would not allow this ridiculous old woman to belittle him.

‘The coaches are coming,’ Joanna interrupted, and Catarina gave a sigh of relief. It would soon be over, tomorrow Lord Brooke and his siblings, and their appalling aunt who had accompanied them, she had been informed, as a chaperone, would be gone, and she could be left to mourn Walter and begin to order her new life without him.

She had been married to him eight years ago, when she was barely sixteen. Her uncle, Sir Ivor Norton, who had become their guardian when their father had died a year earlier, had been only too glad to dispose of her so advantageously. It had not mattered to him that Walter, recently inheriting from his elderly father, was forty years her senior. He had an ancient title, was much respected, Marshington Grange was an old, prestigious house, and the connection gave Sir Ivor and Aunt Hebe a good deal of satisfaction. They expected her to introduce her sister to similarly grand prospective husbands, but Walter despised London Society, and very rarely visited the capital, so those hopes had been unfulfilled, and they blamed her for it. She had been naive, straight from the schoolroom of the Bath seminary, and had been told so often she had believed it, that parents and guardians knew best, and girls accepted any matrimonial arrangements made for them.

It had not been an unhappy eight years. Walter had treated her more as a favourite daughter than a wife, and she had been truly shocked, feeling lost and rudderless, when he had been brought home on a hurdle, having broken his neck in a fall from his horse.

She swallowed hard. For just one more day she had to be strong. Then Lord Brooke would be gone, Joanna returned to Sir Ivor’s house near Bristol, and she could make her own plans.

The coaches were at the door, and she had to show a calm demeanour until the neighbours and friends departed. Bracing herself, smoothing down her skirts with hands which had suddenly become clammy, she moved away from the window and sat in her accustomed chair to one side of the fireplace. Staines, the butler, followed by a footman and two of the housemaids, processed into the room carrying large trays of refreshments.

‘Bring the tea things to me, Staines, I will pour as your — Lady Brooke will be too upset,’ Lady Keith ordered, and Staines, casting an agonized glance at Catarina, hesitated.

Catarina, feeling that she was behaving in a pusillanimous manner, but unwilling to cause embarrassment by insisting on her rights, nodded. She was no longer the mistress of Marshington Grange. The estate was entailed, and soon she would not even live here.

The men who had attended the funeral came into the room, and all was bustle. The local farmers and landowners, who had not seen Catarina since Walter had died, came over to express their condolences, and then, as soon as they decently could, departed.

‘Phew, at last!’ Jeremy exclaimed. ‘I thought they would never go and leave us in peace.’

Catarina considered the man who was likely to be her new neighbour. The same age as herself, he was tall, dark, and looked every inch a soldier. He was in one of the top cavalry regiments, she knew, and no doubt turned many female heads when in his regimentals. Even in his mourning clothes he had a foppish air, with everything slightly exaggerated. But he seemed very young to her, used as she was to being with Walter and his friends.

He would be thought handsome in almost any company, but his brother was in every respect more striking, though without the excesses of Jeremy’s costume. He was slightly taller, his hair a shade darker, with a deeper wave. His eyes were a darker brown, almost black, his nose more aquiline, and his lips more generous. Sometimes, though, he had a rather sardonic air which gave him a devilish look and made Jeremy’s teasing of him as Nick the devil seem apt. She found it odd that he was, at thirty, unmarried. Rich, handsome, and heir to an earldom, he would be a big prize on the marriage mart. Was he too aware of his own qualities to consider any girl a fitting mate? Though she had made herself content with Walter, in her girlhood dreams she had wished for a young, handsome suitor. She decided, however, she would not like one so apparently arrogant.

 Jeremy was full of smiles, and Catarina suspected he was having difficulties in suppressing his naturally high spirits in a house of mourning. Lord Brooke, on the other hand, seemed to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. Catarina had yet to see his face relax in a smile. Though perfectly correct in his manner towards her, he was cold, distant, and she wondered if he disliked her.

When all the guests had departed, Walter’s solicitor, Mr Mowbray, who had come down from London the previous day, gave a discreet cough.

‘Your lordship, perhaps it is convenient now to read my late client’s will?’

* * * *

Catarina barely listened as Mr Mowbray read out a long list of minor legacies, money to the servants and his tenant farmers, personal mementoes to his friends. He had discussed them with her several years ago, when the will was drawn up. Then she heard her own name, and glanced up.

Her father had been wealthy, she and Joanna were his only children, and she had brought a small fortune to the marriage. She knew she would have that as her jointure, and would have a perfectly adequate, indeed generous income from the funds where it was invested. She also had her share of the profits in the wine business, which Mr Sinclair, her father’s partner, still ran, and which Walter had always insisted she should have.

‘I leave Marshington Grange, Oaktree Manor and all other entailed property to my cousin, Nicholas Brooke, who will inherit my title. All the non-entailed property is to go to my wife Catarina, in gratitude for her love and patience during the years we have been together.’

Mr Mowbray pushed back his spectacles. ‘Oaktree Manor, where the late Earl lived before his father died, is let, as you may know.’

‘And just what does that unentailed property consist of?’ Lady Keith interrupted. ‘How much of the estate is entailed? I must say, these legacies to servants are unduly generous, in my opinion. How will simple folk know what to do with a hundred pounds or more? It’s asking for trouble to treat them above their station in life.’

‘It was cousin Walter’s wish,’ Lord Brooke interrupted, and to Catarina’s surprise, his aunt reacted to the sudden steely tone in his voice and sat back in her chair, lips pursed, but mercifully silent.

Mr Mowbray glanced from Lord Brooke to Catarina, in obvious embarrassment.

‘I would like to know too,’ Catarina managed. She’d known about the jointure, of course, and had expected some personal memento, perhaps, such as the portrait of her by Sir Joshua Reynolds Walter had commissioned soon after their marriage, but had supposed the bulk of the estate would go to the new Earl.

Mr Mowbray glanced down at his papers. ‘I have a schedule here. There is the London house in Mount Street, which has been let for some years now. The house in Bath, the hunting lodge, and half a dozen farms adjacent to the original estate which his lordship purchased many years ago. Then there are his commercial interests. He was, you may recall, very interested in the developments in the textile industries, and the mechanical innovations there and elsewhere. You will have, at a rough estimate, my lady, the same income from these sources as from your own jointure.’

It was a distressed Catarina who eventually escaped to the privacy of her room. Lady Keith, restrained while Mr Mowbray had been present, had vented her fury on Catarina the moment the solicitor had departed. None of Lord Brooke’s protests, Olivia’s startled tears, or Jeremy’s embarrassed declarations that it was nothing to do with him, could stem the venom as she insisted that Walter’s money should remain in his family, and help to support the cost of the estate. She accused Catarina of influencing a senile, besotted old fool, and hinted she would make it so unpleasant for her that Catarina would never again dare show her treacherous face to Bath or London Society.

Finally Catarina lost her temper and told Lady Keith she was an interfering, jealous old bat who had not cared a jot for Walter when he was alive, had never visited him or paid him any attention, and was resentful that he had found happiness with her.

‘He told me you tried to inveigle him into marriage when he was barely twenty,’ she said, ‘and how thankful he was to have escaped being married to a harridan. For the moment this is still my home, and you are no longer welcome here. I expect you to have left before I have to see you again in the morning.’

* * * *

Later that night, when all the guests had retired, Catarina crept downstairs. She could not sleep, and had left the book she was reading in the small parlour. It was a book of sermons, not something she normally chose to read, but it had seemed appropriate after Walter’s death. Perhaps that would send her to sleep.

As she passed the door of Olivia’s room she heard sobbing, and paused. Was the child ill? She had looked pale and unhappy all the time she had been in the house. Catarina knocked gently on the door, and the sobbing ceased. She went quietly into the room, to find Olivia huddled on her pillows, looking with terrified eyes towards the door.

‘Oh, it’s only you!’

‘Who did you expect?’

‘Aunt!’

It was said with such heartfelt horror Catarina felt inclined to laugh. But the child was clearly afraid of Lady Keith. She closed the door softly behind her and went to sit on the side of the bed. Taking one of Olivia’s cold hands in hers, she stroked it gently.

‘Tell me. I won’t give you away. What has she done?’

Olivia sniffed. ‘She’s taking me to London, for the Season. She says that because of our cousin’s death I can’t have my comeout this year, I have to wear mourning, and I hate black, but she will make me go to call on her friends and things, and I know I’ll hate it! Her friends are all odious, and they spend all their time at the British Museum, looking at old stones and Roman things!’

Catarina tried not to laugh at her woeful tone. ‘What does your brother say? Is he willing?’

‘He says she knows best. But whenever I am with her I feel so stupid, and I never know what to say. She scolds all the time, and I seem to shrivel!’

‘I know just what you mean!’

‘I’d much rather go home to Brooke Court, and stay with Shippy.’

‘Shippy?’

‘Miss Shipton, my governess. I was sent to school for a year, but I hated it, and Nicholas asked Shippy to come back. He says she’s more of a companion, but she can still help me with my drawing and French. But Aunt Clara says she will be dismissed. She would have sent her away by now if we hadn’t had to change our plans and come here.’

‘Tell your brother how you feel, perhaps say you would like to delay going to London for another year. How old are you?’

‘I was sixteen in December.’

‘Much too soon to have to go to grown up parties, and perhaps be betrothed next year,’ Catarina said with feeling.

She had never been out in Society before she was married off to Walter, and afterwards, as his wife, she knew she had been awkward and not fully aware of all the proprieties when they went to stay for a few weeks in Bath, and once, on an occasion she looked back on with dismay at her naivety, to London, where she had known no one, and made so many gaffes she had pleaded with Walter to take her home. They had visited London only twice more, and Catarina thought she would be happy never again to set foot there.

‘He won’t listen to me,’ Olivia said, her voice breaking on a sob.

‘Tell him, and try not to weep as you do. Gentlemen hate to see females in tears. Explain you don’t feel you are ready. Say that if you are too shy to talk with anyone there is no chance of your making a suitable match. You do want to be married, in time, I suppose?’

Olivia blushed, and her hand in Catarina’s trembled.

‘Well, yes, if he is kind to me.’

Cynically Catarina thought that if Lady Keith had any say in selecting a husband for Olivia, kindness would be the least quality she would look for.

‘Have you any friends who may be making their comeouts next year? Friends from school, perhaps?’

‘I think so. I still write to some of them. It wasn’t the girls there I hated.’

‘Then tell him you would be so much more confident if you were able to be with them.’

Olivia looked doubtful, but she smiled slightly, and slid down under the covers.

‘Thank you, you’ve been kind.’

‘Go to sleep now.’

Catarina left the room and continued in her quest for the book of sermons, trying to decide whether it would do more harm than good if she were herself to speak to Lord Brooke, and explain how his sister felt.

* * * *

The sermons were of no help, and thoughts of Olivia’s distress kept Catarina wakeful. After such a sleepless night Catarina wanted nothing better than to breakfast in bed and stay there until the guests departed, but she knew that would be cowardly, and when Rosa, her maid, came in bringing hot water she forced herself to get up and dress. An apology for her outburst was due, and she would think less of herself if she avoided making it.

Her hope that Lady Keith would have breakfasted in bed was dashed when she entered the breakfast room. The lady was seated to one side of the long table, with nothing except a cup of coffee in front of her. Joanna was the only other person present, but the used plates indicated that the others had eaten and left.

Catarina took a deep breath. ‘My lady, I have to apologize for what I said last night. It was unpardonable of me, and I ask your forgiveness.’

Lady Keith glared at her. ‘You were abominably rude, but that is no more than I might have expected from a shop girl whose mother was a Portuguese peasant!’

Joanna gasped. ‘Mama came from a wealthy, aristocratic family! She was not a peasant!’

Catarina clung to the shreds of her temper. ‘Have you had breakfast, Lady Keith?’

‘Since I am so unwelcome here I do not care to abuse your hospitality by eating at your board. I have been persuaded to drink coffee, but soon, madam, we will leave. Nicholas has gone to see to the carriage. Then you may begin preparing to move to the Dower House, and the sooner you do so the better, so that my nephews may take possession, even though they have been cheated of much of the inheritance.’

Catarina bit hard on her lip. She would not rise to these taunts. Turning away she helped herself to coddled eggs, all she felt she could force down her throat. As she sat down Joanna began to chat with forced brightness about their uncle, Sir Ivor, and his wife and family.

‘I need not return tomorrow if you would like me to stay and help you move, Catarina,’ she offered.

‘Let us decide later, when I have had an opportunity to inspect the Dower House and plan what needs doing there.’

‘I suppose it is furnished?’ Lady Keith asked. ‘To whom does that belong? Or do you propose abstracting furniture from this house?’

‘As it all belongs to Catarina, since as far as I know furniture cannot be entailed in the same way as houses, she could take what she wanted, and sell the rest!’ Joanna informed Lady Keith, accompanying her words with a triumphant smile.

Catarina was saved from having to rebuke Joanna by the door opening, and Lord Brooke’s entrance.

‘The coach will be at the front door in five minutes, Aunt Clara. I’ve informed your maid, and your luggage is being brought down. Lady Brooke, may I have a few words with you before we leave? Let us go into the library.’

‘I wish to speak to you on another matter, my lord.’

He held open the door for her, and Catarina, abandoning her cold eggs and full cup of coffee, escaped. Only a few more minutes, and the appalling old besom would be gone.

Lord Brooke closed the door of the library, ushered Catarina to a chair drawn up before the fire, and began to pace the room. He glanced across at her, one eyebrow raised, and she wondered if he was trying to intimidate her. She raised her chin in response and stared back unsmilingly.

‘I must apologize for my aunt,’ he said stiffly. ‘She was the only older female available, and I did not feel I could stay in your house without a chaperone. She is still suffering from the loss of her own husband two years ago, and the deaths of both her sons. They were with the army in Spain. It has embittered her, but she should not have said what she did.’

‘Neither should I, and I have apologized,’ Catarina told him, putting a slight emphasis on the second ‘I’.

She glanced up at him and was surprised to see a gleam of something like amusement in his eyes. When he was relaxed he could be a very attractive man. But it was so fleeting she wondered later if she had imagined it.

‘You will soon be left in peace. I intend to take some papers away with me that I have not had opportunity to study. I trust you have no objections?’

‘They are yours now, my lord.’

‘I also wanted to tell you there is no need for you to move yet. I understand the Dower House has been unoccupied for some years and will need work.’

‘Thank you, but I will go as soon as possible.’

Catarina knew she would feel uncomfortable if she thought she was in any way reliant on this man’s consideration. She was uneasy in his presence, and would be so in his house.

‘Please inform me when you do. There are a few matters I need to check, so I will come down for a few days when I can spare the time.’

‘Of course. Will your brother come to live here?’

‘It is one possibility, but he has his career in the army to consider, and would not be here most of the time, so I may prefer to find a tenant. Whatever is decided, I will keep you informed as to our plans. Now I must go, we are on our way to London, a long drive, and Aunt Clara does not like the coach to travel at much more than walking speed, for fear it causes her discomfort.’

There was what looked like another gleam of amusement, but it was gone so swiftly Catarina could not be certain.

‘What did you want to say?’ he asked.

‘I found your sister in tears last night. She is dreading being in London. My lord, she is not ready for Society! I should know, I was barely sixteen when I was wed to Walter, and I was utterly lost.’

He stiffened, and she was expecting a rebuke. His tone was cold.

‘My aunt can be trusted to know best.’

‘You have just apologized for her rudeness to me. Think how much worse it can be for a young girl who feels that, as she is a member of the family, she has to be obeyed!’

‘I hardly think that is your business, my lady.’

‘I agree, but at least give Olivia an opportunity to explain. She will be stiff and feel stupid, and gain a reputation she can never throw off. If you want her to make a good match she needs to be presented in a better light than your aunt is likely to provide for her. That is all I have to say, but I hope you will be considerate of your sister’s feelings!’

He did not reply, but pursed his lips, and she hoped she had not made things even worse for Olivia.

She went with him to the front door, to discover Olivia waiting to get into the ponderous travelling coach, while Jeremy, looking dashing in his breeches and riding boots, his coat lapels just an inch too wide, and his shirt collars an inch too high, held the reins of two magnificent riding horses.

Olivia dropped Catarina a curtsey and muttered shy thanks for her hospitality, then gripped her hands convulsively and tried to say something else. She could not speak, and turned guiltily in obedience to her aunt’s command to stop dawdling and get in the coach. The maid followed, the steps were raised, the doors shut, and the two sturdy horses set the coach moving in lumbering motion.

Catarina turned to the men to bid them farewell, just as Joanna came out of the house.

‘Has that dreadful old woman finally gone? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,’ she said, giggling and looking from under her eyelashes at Jeremy, who grinned back at her.

‘And we must be gone too, though at the speed that coach moves we could spend another few hours here and still catch them up long before they stop for the night,’ Jeremy said. ‘How about your showing me more of the gardens than I have seen so far, Miss Norton?’

To Catarina’s relief his brother vetoed the idea. ‘You will have plenty of time to see the gardens in the summer, when there will be more to see. Now we must escort the ladies. Goodbye, Lady Brooke, Miss Norton, and thank you for your hospitality.’

He took the reins of a black, strong-looking stallion from Jeremy and swung up into the saddle. Jeremy seized Catarina’s hand and raised it to his lips, looking at her with laughing eyes as he did so.

‘Farewell, cousin. You too, Miss Norton,’ he added, releasing Catarina and taking her sister’s hand. ‘I trust we will have many more meetings, on less sad occasions.’

Joanna dimpled. ‘Oh, yes, so do I.’

Catarina wanted to chastise Joanna, tell her such flirtatious behaviour was indecorous, but she was feeling too stressed from the past dreadful few days to take the risk of another argument. They watched the brothers ride after the coach, and Joanna gave a little skip of excitement.

‘Let’s go and inspect the Dower House. I’ve never been inside, but it looks a pretty house, square and compact, not rambling like the Grange. I love planning rooms and decorations. There is a big double drawing room, isn’t there? What fun! You will let me help, won’t you?’

 

Chapter 2

 

Lord Brooke said little in reply to Jeremy’s comments as they rode away from Marshington Grange. There was a great deal to think about. He was angry with his aunt for her unfortunate remarks, with Catarina for her interference over Olivia, even angrier with himself that he had not made more effort to find a different chaperone. He knew what Lady Keith was like, and might have anticipated her abrasive behaviour. He had few female relatives, but if he had stopped to consider he could surely have found a suitable older woman from the ranks of his late mother’s many friends. It had been an unfortunate introduction to his cousin’s widow. Perhaps he should reconsider the plan for Olivia to stay in London. Then he felt angry again that he was permitting someone else’s opinion to influence him.

He tried to think of other things, but the vision of Catarina telling his aunt some much deserved home truths made him want to laugh. She had looked just a slip of a girl, in her rather outdated mourning clothes. He could scarcely believe she had been married for eight years. And she had faced him at his most imperious, flinging up her chin in defiance when she had expected him to scold her. No other girl he’d met had done that to him. Most were too anxious to make a good impression. Perhaps that was why he had never wished to make any of them an offer. Once again he tried to force himself to think of other matters.

Marshington Grange would be an ideal small estate for Jeremy, and he could probably break the entail in order to gift it to him, but his brother had no intention of quitting the army. With Napoleon at large again, there was every prospect of more fighting, and too many of the crack troops from the victorious Peninsular army had been sent to far off corners of the globe. Others had been pensioned off. He himself had left the army when his father died a few years before, but he was seriously wondering whether he ought to re-enlist. Wellington might need all the experienced men he could find.

Ought he to ask Catarina — he couldn’t think of someone so young and beautiful as a Countess — to remain at the house, in charge of the estate, or could he find and install a suitable tenant? Despite his annoyance with her over her criticism of his plan to send Olivia to London, he accepted that she had seemed to him a superbly capable young woman. The tenant farmers had spoken well of both his cousin Walter and Catarina. The house had run smoothly, the servants were well trained and from the brief tour he had made of the estate it was obviously in good heart, though there were a few matters he hadn’t had time to investigate which worried him slightly, and he meant to deal with them as soon as possible.

Most of the villagers were still using the old three field system, which was wasteful and inefficient. That would need to change. Yet if he did ask her to oversee everything she might resent it, consider he was imposing on her. She was much younger than he had expected. He’d known Walter had married a much younger wife, but he was surprised at how beautiful she was, despite the unflattering and outmoded black gown. The two branches of the family were so distantly connected, he himself had been in the army at the time, and Walter rarely went to London, so he had not known more than the barest facts. Had she wanted to marry a man so much older? Had the title persuaded her?

He had never expected to inherit the title. There was such a shortage of men in the family it had been a tenuous relationship. Walter’s grandfather and his own great-grandfather had been brothers. And once Walter married a young wife he would have expected him to sire his own sons. An ancient dispute between his grandfather and Walter’s father had ensured the families were not on more than terms of civility when they accidentally met. They never paid visits, even though their principal houses were but a day’s ride apart.

Unlike Lady Keith, he had no quarrel with Walter’s will. He was wealthy enough to be able to maintain the estate, even if the revenues from the entailed property proved insufficient. His father and grandfather had both married heiresses who had brought substantial fortunes into the family.

His thoughts swung to Catarina again. She was a difficult woman to dismiss from his mind. He knew little about her, but his aunt’s strictures on her parentage were, he suspected, spiteful guesses. A younger son, her father had made his own fortune by importing wine. He knew that much, and that her uncle was well-regarded in Bristol where he was influential in the town. If Joanna’s remarks were accurate, their mother was from a good family. Both girls seemed well educated, and ladylike, despite Joanna’s tendency to flirt with his brother.

He glanced at Jeremy. The boy was handsome, popular amongst his fellow officers, a welcome guest in Society whenever he was on leave, and had an adequate income from what his mother and grandmother had left him. He was, however, too young at four and twenty to contemplate marriage. He himself, six years older, did not yet feel the need to marry and set up his own nursery. There were too many complaisant young matrons bored with their husbands and offering distractions for him to want to lose his freedom just yet.

When they reached the inn where they planned to spend the night he shrugged off his preoccupations. There he might hear more news about Bonaparte’s escape.

* * * *

It was a lovely morning in May and Catarina, having admired the spring flowers in the meadows as she walked to the Dower House, and picked some bluebells to brighten up the drawing room, had been talking to the estate carpenter about the final details to the changes she was making there. She had just turned to walk back to the Grange when Sir Humphrey Unwin appeared.

She sighed. He and Walter had been friends since childhood, had done the Grand Tour together, and when they had both settled down on their estates, been fellow Justices. He rode over almost every day, offering all sorts of advice and help, and looking hurt and woebegone when she refused. He often brought news of what was happening in France, the progress of Bonaparte and the mobilising of the Allies in Belgium, but he pooh-poohed the idea that it would come to a battle.

‘You should not worry, my dear. The French will see sense.’

She could hardly tell him she was not worried. It all seemed rather far away from her present concerns.

As she was wondering whether she ought to invite him to take a nuncheon with her the sound of an approaching carriage made her glance towards the lane.

A very smart curricle was turning into the driveway to the Grange, which ran past the Dower House. Seeing her, the driver, wearing a many-caped coat, halted his equipage and alighted. Catarina recognized Lord Brooke, and her pulse began to beat rapidly. It was the shock of suddenly seeing him, she told herself. Before she could wonder what brought him here he had handed the reins to his tiger and was striding up the path towards her.

‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I’m pleased to have met you, as I have very little time, I have an appointment with my agent soon. Your servant, Sir Humphrey. Lady Brooke, may I have a few words?’

Sir Humphrey, looking disgruntled, acknowledged the greeting and turned to Catarina.

‘I had better take myself off, my dear, if you have business with his lordship. You won’t want me to interfere. Perhaps I will ride over again tomorrow, if there is further news. Goodbye.’

Before she could prevent him, he seized her hand and raised it to his lips. Over his shoulder Catarina could see Lord Brooke’s sardonic gaze, and resisted the temptation to snatch her hand away.

Eventually he was gone, and Catarina turned to Lord Brooke.

‘Come inside, my lord, and take a glass of wine. What brings you back now? The Dower House is almost ready for me, and I will be moving in next week.’

‘It was about some other houses I came. One of my reasons. I have discovered your late husband was contemplating removing the villagers from their present cottages to a point a mile away. He intended, I understand, to provide himself with a better view by so doing. I came to stop it.’

‘Stop it? But why?’

‘I didn’t know your husband, but from all I have heard he was a good landlord, so I find it desp — disappointing, to hear he is dispossessing the villagers of their homes.’

‘Have you seen those homes?’ Catarina asked.

‘No, except for seeing their roofs from the house.’

‘Those pretty thatched roofs are full of vermin, and the nearest water, apart from the river, is half a mile away. They are floored with earth, low lying, near the marsh, and very damp in winter. Occasionally they are flooded. A dozen houses share one privy.’

‘Those things can be improved, and I mean to see to it. I do not wish to criticize Walter, but I would have thought, as he was reputed a good landlord, that he would have done something about it.’

By now Catarina was fuming. ‘He did do something about it! Those hovels are a disgrace, and you will find the villagers are only too anxious to move, to the new cottages Walter has caused to be built near the church. Good stone cottages, with roofs of slate, each with its own privy, and a well within a few yards.’

‘Such improvements could be achieved where they are at the moment. Don’t the people work on the farms or in the house? Will they appreciate a long walk, at least a mile, to and from work?’

‘They will be closer to their friends and families who already live in the cottages Walter has been building for the past eight years. They will be close to the church, and there are shops in the village. They are closer to the commons and their animals. And to their taps.’

‘Taps?’

‘The strips in the common fields. Ask them, my lord, and listen to what they want before you prevent them from acquiring better houses, at the same rents as before!’

* * * *

The estate room, when Nicholas went into it, was untidy, with papers scattered all over the desk, and others lying on the floor. There seemed no kind of order. He sat behind the desk and was reading some of the papers when the agent, a young man of his own age, rushed into the room.

‘My lord! You should have told me you meant to visit, and I would have had it all tidy for you.’

‘Should have told you?’ Nicholas drawled, his tone icy.

The other man’s eyes widened, and he swallowed hard.

‘I — I only meant, well, that I’d have been prepared for you!’

‘It should be tidy at all times. You might then even find it possible to hide your depredations of the estate.’

‘I — I don’t know what you mean, my lord!’

‘No? Then perhaps I had best explain. Your late master was building new houses in the village. You had the task of paying the builders, but I find from comparing the amounts you put in the accounts books and the receipts from the builders that you seem to have been stealing small but steady sums from the late
Earl
, and I presume, from me. I have not been able to compare the books since the funeral, but I intend to.’

‘I must have made an error in calculation, my lord,’ the wretched man said. ‘If you permit me to check them, I will soon discover the mistake.’

‘A systematic cheating is no error. How did you become agent here at Marshington? You are young for such a responsible position.’

‘I’m old enough,’ the man replied, looking frightened. ‘I came when my father died. A year ago, that was. He’d been agent here for many years, and the late Earl had promised him I would have the position after him.’

‘What did you do before?’

‘I worked for a merchant in Bristol, as a clerk in the counting house.’

‘Then I suggest you apply to have the post back, for I will not permit you to remain in my employment, cheating and lying to me. I will not, of course, be able to give you a reference.’

* * * *

Nicholas helped Catarina into the curricle, and she directed him towards a side path which led towards the cottages. He stole a glance at her to confirm his memory. For some reason he had not been able to forget her. She was truly lovely, though the stark black mourning dress did not flatter her golden skin. Her face was oval, her eyes a golden brown, and her mouth wide and kissable. She seemed to have gained weight since March, and her cheeks were fuller, as was her bosom, partially revealed by the lighter gown she wore and visible under the shawl casually draped round her shoulders. He felt a frisson of desire. Why on earth had such a girl married a man so much older? There must have been other suitors, for her money as well as her delicious person, apart from Walter, even when she was only sixteen. Recalling Sir Humphrey’s unctuous leave-taking he had an unwelcome thought. Surely Catarina was not contemplating a connection with him? Not with another elderly man. She deserved something better. In any case it was far too soon for her to be contemplating another marriage.

Then he recalled a conversation with Olivia soon after they reached home,  when he had agreed to her pleas that she might return to Brooke Court and Miss Shipton for another year. He had, besides, promised that he would find someone other than Lady Keith to sponsor her debut into Society. She had been in a confiding mood, such was her relief.

‘Joanna was expelled,’ she had told him.

‘Expelled? From your seminary? I didn’t know she had been a fellow pupil.’

‘Yes, but she is two years older than I, and we had little in common. She had her own friends. She remembered me, of course, but I don’t think she’d have recalled my name if I had not been with you.’

‘Was she as outspoken there?’

‘Yes, she never cared what she said, but that wasn’t the reason she was expelled.’ Olivia blushed. ‘She was caught climbing out of a store room window to meet a young man!’

Somehow that had not surprised Nicholas. All the time they had been at Marshington Grange for Walter’s funeral Joanna had been flirting, discreetly but with intent, with Jeremy. Was Catarina similarly inclined, another flirt? She had not seemed like that. Had there been some scandal which had induced her guardians to marry her off? It was not unusual for girls to wed straight from the schoolroom, and Walter, though so much older, had been a good match, but from what he had seen of Catarina’s spirit, he would have expected her to protest. Yet she seemed to be encouraging Sir Humphrey.