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Smiling, Mary Northrup laid the letter aside. Justin was coming home. At last she could send out invitations to the welcome party that would reintroduce him to the neighborhood after a seven-year absence. And the timing couldn't be better. Her mourning period would end tomorrow.
But now that the reunion was imminent, she had mixed feelings about seeing him again. His return would throw her life into upheaval, and not just because she was the former baron's widow rather than the current baron's wife. Her diminished importance extended further than that. She had supervised both the house and the estate virtually unfettered since her marriage. Despite knowing for a year that it couldn't continue, she was no more prepared to give it up now than she'd been the day Frederick had died.
Perhaps it was time to find that dream cottage. Losing control of Northfield Manor would be frustrating enough. Turning over her staff would be worse. She had selected and trained most of them. Many were friends, though there was never a question of who was in charge. Even if Justin kept her on for now, her authority could not last. He must eventually marry. She did not want to watch others meddling with her people and her home. The dower house was too close, so she needed to move clear away. Besides, she would never be fully accepted by local society anyway.
But that was for the future.
Her immediate problem was dealing with Justin, who had been barely fifteen when she'd wed his brother. Justin had resented her presence, ignoring her efforts to befriend him. They had passed a quarrelsome fortnight before he'd returned to school. His next visit home had beencut brutally short when he'd stormed off to buy colors following a week of ferocious arguments with Frederick.
It had been a relief at the time, for she had not known how to deal with him, but his transfer two years later to a regiment sailing to India had shocked everyone. He had not returned to Northfield before leaving. The news had arrived by post, devastating his young sisters, who had been anxiously anticipating an expected leave. Not once in the five years since, had he explained his decision. In fact, his letters had been remarkably reticent on many points, containing none of his thoughts and no hint of his character.
Now he was back. And at three-and-twenty, he was too old for mothering, too old to require a guardian, too old to need consent for anything he chose to do. So she had no idea what to expect. Even this latest missive contained little information beyond his arrival date. He had not disclosed his intentions.
I have sold my commission and will take up my new duties, he had written in his only reference to Frederick's death. Did his lack of condolences arise from antipathy toward his brother, or did he still distrust her? What was he like now?
Her greatest fear was that he would resemble Frederick. Not in looks, which she knew were different, but in interests and character.
She shivered, though a resemblance could work to her advantage. Frederick had hated the country, leaving her in charge of the estate while he lived in London. It was an arrangement that had suited them both, and one that might suit Justin as well.
She hoped. But the letter stated that he wished to take up his duties, which implied an intention to assume management of Northfield.
Or did it? Perhaps he was referring to Parliament. The barony gave him a seat in Lords, and a political career would keep him in town. Many of his youthful arguments had revealed an interest in current affairs and the future of the nation. Had that been a passing fancy, or had his years in India increased his concerns?
Stop this! Such thinking was useless, revealing a cowardly refusal to face reality. He could just as easily be referring to his duty to marry and provide for the succession. After all, Frederick had wed within a month of achieving the title. It might be a family tradition.
And even if Justin hated estate work and postponed any thought of matrimony, he would hardly leave her in charge. Few men accepted women in positions of authority. Frederick had done so out of laziness, but an army officer who had earned two field promotions was not lazy. And Justin might be worse than his brother in other ways.
Again she shivered.
Turning over control of the estate would be tricky. He knew little about the Manor or its tenants. Though they had corresponded regularly, she had never described Frederick's business or mentioned her hand in running it. He was probably unaware of her role.
Just as she knew nothing of his interests. He had not responded to news of his childhood neighbors. His letters had been friendly, but bland, touching only on the mundane. And even that could have been a façade. No gentleman would admit faults such as indiscriminate womanizing, unethical or illegal activities, brutality, uncaring selfishness, or any other failing, particularly to a lady whom he knew only by sight. So what was he really like? Saint or sinner? Caring or brutal? Industrious or incompetent?
The answers were important, for she had to plan how to approach him. A smooth transition required that she teach him about the estate's problems, peculiarities, and limitations. And she must do so without implying that he was ignorant or suffering any other shortcoming. Men did not like criticism--even when warranted--and their anger terrified her.
Sighing, she read the letter again, hoping to find evidence that Justin was milder than Frederick. But nothing had changed.
Setting aside her fears, she rued her vivid imagination. It conjured too many potential disasters. Fretting over the future was pointless. She would discover the truth soon enough. Even if he turned out to be a brutal misogynist, she would have to accept it. For better or worse, her future was now under his control.
And she could not seek that cottage just yet. She had one last duty to the Northrups, one Justin would support. No gentleman wanted two aging sisters on his hands, so she must find husbands for Amelia and Caroline. Frederick's death had interrupted the task, but she could postpone it no longer. Time was flying.
The girls were her only real family. Both of her parents were dead, and her brother was a destitute curate in Cornwall. She probably had several distant relations, but she wouldn't know how to find them. Her father had not stayed in touch.
Footsteps pounded along the hall.
"Trimble says pst-fin-rvd Justin red-cm home," exclaimed Caroline, bursting into the drawing room. As happened all too often, she was talking so fast that only a few words emerged ungarbled.
"Is he back in England then?" asked Amelia, quietly joining them. Amelia did everything quietly, having long ago adopted the relaxed movements and serene disposition that helped keep Caroline coherent.
"He is." Mary was grateful that her sisters-in-law had interrupted her useless fretting. The butler set a tea tray before her.
"Thank you, Trimble." She poured. "Justin will remain in London for a few days to deal with the legalities of his accession, but he expects to arrive here in a fortnight."
"What legalities?" asked Caroline carefully. Tea always slowed her speech. The concentration that kept her cup steady controlled her spirits as well.
"Among other things, he must meet with Frederick's solicitor and man of business."
"He will learn nothing new." Caroline set her cup on a table.
"Everything will be new to him," Amelia reminded her. "He has been gone for many years. I doubt he knew much about Father's finances and nothing about Frederick's."
"Fredik lost r dowries."
"Easy, Caro," murmured Amelia, pointing to the abandoned cup. Caroline retrieved it. "We can do nothing about that now. At least we still have a home. You should give thanks every day that it is entailed."
"Even if it is shabby beyond belief," muttered Caroline.
Which was true, Mary admitted. She needn't look to be aware of the threadbare spot in the carpet, the fraying seat on the chairs, and the peeling wallcoverings near the windows. But there was little they could do about it.
She relaxed as Caroline sipped her tea. Mary never knew what to expect from the girl. Some days she was nearly uncontrollable--though bad days were occurring less often as she matured. In contrast, Amelia was the most restful lady of her acquaintance--and the sweetest. She rarely made demands for herself, devoting her time to helping Caroline and easing the lives of their tenants. She deserved a husband and family of her own--which made the squandered dowries even more tragic and Mary's efforts more urgent.
Caroline was equally deserving, for despite her excitability, she shared Amelia's common sense. And she was a sparkling beauty who drew every eye. As her self-control strengthened, her vivacity charmed more often than it repelled, giving them hope that the problem would ultimately resolve itself.
"We will host a welcome party when Justin returns," said Mary. "He must meet everyone, for they will recall him only as a child."
"Wonderful!" Caroline jumped up to dance about the room. "Let's give a ball--he must marry now that he snw baron." Her twirling accelerated until she bumped dizzily into the fireplace.
Mary cringed, wishing she had eased into the subject. Was Justin aware of Caro's affliction? He had spent most of his time in school before joining the military, and she had omitted mention of it in her letters, not wanting to burden him with problems he could not address from India. "Sit next to me, Caro," she begged. "I need your good sense just now."
Caro gulped air, clenching her fists until she could walk across the room and take a seat.
"Can we afford something so grand?" asked Amelia.
Mary frowned. "I doubt it. Even a modest ball would involve upwards of two hundred guests. Those who traveled any distance would have to stay the night. But too many linens need replacing, and we haven't enough servants to handle the extra work. Then there is the expense of musicians, food--"
Caroline's face fell.
Mary continued. "I was thinking of a dinner for our neighbors, followed by cards, but perhaps we could include informal dancing. Now that my mourning is over, no one could accuse us of frivolity. You have been very patient with me."
"It has been no hardship," claimed Amelia before Caroline could protest. "Lady Carworth escorted us to most gatherings."
Caroline nearly snorted, for Lady Carworth disliked her excitability. Taking a deep breath, she spoke slowly. "Informal dancing will be quite enjoyable, so whom shall we invite?"
"The Carworths, Squire Church, the Redfields," said Mary.
"The vicar, the doctor, Miss Hardaway, Miss Sharpe," added Amelia.
Caroline made a face.
"Weren't the Adams boys once Justin's particular friends?"
Discussion eventually produced a list of fifty and an agreement that they were honoring both Justin's return and Mary's emergence from mourning.
"Can we seat so many for dinner?" asked Amelia.
Mary frowned. "Cook will need help, and we will have to find more footmen, but it should work."
"Perhaps Lady Carworth will loan us some footmen."
Mary suppressed a grimace. The lady would agree. It would enhance her reputation for generosity while drawing attention to the Northrup failings.
"I wonder if Lord Ridgeway will arrive by then." Caroline was again holding her teacup.
"I am surprised that he has not inspected his seat before now," said Amelia. "It has been six months since he acceded to the title."
"He is visiting those properties near his own estate first," Mary reminded them.
"But how long can that take?"
Forever, if that was what he wanted, but Mary wasn't about to embark on that topic. His movements were of no interest. "If he arrives before the party, we will invite him, but I doubt he will do so. According to the Times, he is spending the Season in London."
"Poor man. He must have been horrified to learn of his brother's death. How could anyone murder a lord on Christmas Day?"
Mary ignored Caroline's observation, unwilling to discuss--yet again--Shropshire's ongoing scandal.
The murder of the ninth Earl of Ridgeway still dominated every conversation from the Lusty Maiden's taproom to the most exclusive drawing rooms. The lurid tale tumbled forth hourly, daily, weekly, with no sign of waning interest. But despite the lip service paid to civilized outrage, every voice conveyed satisfaction, for Ridgeway had been the most hated man in the shire.
Shuddering, she pushed thoughts of the murder aside. The new earl had always been very different from his brother. That should not have changed, for he had been a grown man when he had last visited Ridgeway.
Perhaps he would be interested in Amelia. Acceding to the title left him in need of a wife. His sojourn in London proved that he knew it, but he had not yet met with success. The Season was nearly over, without an announcement.
Amelia would make a perfect countess. She was sweet, kind, well-trained, and competent. The earl's fortune was vast enough that her lack of dowry should pose no problem. With luck, he would visit Ridgeway Court soon.
Mary bit back a sigh over such air-dreaming. The problem of finding matches for her sisters grew more urgent every day. Amelia was already twenty, and Caroline eighteen. Despite her own dissatisfaction with marriage, she did not want them to dwindle into spinsters. Showing them to advantage was another reason for this gathering. Hopefully, Caroline could control her excitement long enough to impress at least one gentlemen.
James Underwood, tenth Earl of Ridgeway, motioned his friends to fall back so he could enjoy a moment of solitude. Not that he was bored by their conversation. He had deliberately sought their company to provide a distraction from his thoughts.
But for the moment he needed to be alone. He was losing control of his face, revealing too many private feelings. Let them think he was anxious for the first glimpse of his boyhood home. Let them conclude that he was moody and unpredictable. Their beliefs didn't matter as long as they never discerned the truth: He dreaded this visit.
What was he doing here?
Ten years ago he had escaped along this very road, vowing never to return. Grief, shock, fury, and a pain he had tried to deny had accompanied him. It had taken years to banish those emotions, but he had done it, building a life he enjoyed and establishing a reputation he could be proud of. Setting the past behind him had removed its influence over his future. Or so he had thought.
Until John's murder.
His first reaction had been rage. Not at the death--he and John had been too estranged to feel aught but relief--but because it forced him to break that vow and return home.
Home. The word no longer applied to Ridgeway Court--if it ever had. Long before his actual departure, he had ceased belonging there. In the years since, he had called many places home--rooms in Paris, a palazzo in Naples, the house in Bombay--but his true home now lay in Lincolnshire. His estate might be smaller than Ridgeway, but it welcomed him as the Court never would. So he would be the first Ridgeway in centuries to live elsewhere.
But before he could return to the comfort of home, he had to inspect the family seat. It was not a task he could delegate to others. His steward was busy at the Haven. His man of business was trying to make sense of the Ridgeway financial affairs. His secretary was investigating John's misdeeds in London. They were the only men he wholly trusted. So he must do this himself. And he could put it off no longer.
He had already visited the other Ridgeway properties. After correcting their problems, he had spent two months in London, pretending to search for a bride. Both activities had revealed horrifying accounts of John's misuse of power. Even discounting half the gossip, he had to accept that John's behavior had worsened in the last ten years. Every person he met looked at him askance, every eye holding the same question: Was he another John?
He had convinced most of them that he was not. Accomplishing that had given his London sojourn a purpose, but he could stay there no longer. The Season was drawing to a close, the most desperate matchmaker was plotting his downfall, and he had heard that Ridgeway's tenants were in dire straits.
So he could no longer postpone this visit. Further delay would hurt innocent people and expose his fears and irresponsibility to the world. But facing the ghosts from his past would be difficult, which was why he had invited Harry and Edwin to accompany him.
They were not close friends--he had met Harry while inspecting a small estate in Kent four months ago and had met Edwin when he'd arrived in London--so they could not discern his thoughts. Nor would they see through his public facade. But they would provide company.
Or so he had thought. If his face was slipping before he even reached Ridgeway land, how was he to protect his secrets and hide his shame?
Somehow, he would manage it, he assured himself, shifting in the saddle as the road twisted uphill into the forest. And it should not be difficult. He had deliberately chosen companions who rarely questioned surface appearances.
At nine-and-twenty, Harry Crenshaw had made a name for himself as a carefree rakehell. He was a younger son whose fortune allowed him to enjoy life with willing women, good wine, and intriguing wagers--such as whether a man who had just consumed a bottle of brandy could stand on one foot for a quarter hour. Few knew Harry's serious side--his work to abolish the use of climbing boys and his support of young mothers widowed by the war. James had stumbled across the information quite by accident and had never mentioned it. But Harry's own secrets would keep him from prying.
Sir Edwin Stokes was Harry's opposite. Though only six-and-twenty, he eschewed ballrooms and boudoirs in favor of books and music. While not serious enough to be considered a scholar, Edwin was fascinated by the Romans and was convinced that significant remains were buried on his estate. He planned to search for them once he returned home. In the meantime, his preoccupation blinded him to other men's concerns. Even when he talked and laughed with friends, a portion of his mind remained with the Romans.
James nodded in satisfaction. A rake and a dreamer. Neither would pay attention to his moods. And the entertainment they provided would allow him to mask any unseemly emotions this confrontation with the past might raise.
"Is it true that you know Napoleon?" asked Edwin when James paused to allow their mounts to catch up.
"We have met, but I can hardly claim to know the man. I was in France during the Peace of Amiens ten years ago," he added, seeing the question trembling on Harry's lips.
Paris had been his first stop after leaving England--and the beginning of a Grand Tour few of his friends had managed. The remnants of the French aristocracy had welcomed the English flocking across the Channel, suppressing their doubts and hiding their woes behind determined celebration. The gaiety had pulled him out of his own pain and turned his eyes to the future.
France had offered delightful diversions, though even a cursory examination had convinced him that the peace could not last; Napoleon had been using it to consolidate his power, resupply his army, and enflame the populace into supporting new campaigns. But the memories could still make James smile. From there, he had traveled to Austria, Italy, Egypt, and finally to India, where he had acquired a fortune that made his inheritance seem paltry.
"How were the Parisian ladies?" asked Harry slyly.
"Sophisticated, but just as willing as that serving girl you ogled in the taproom last night."
"I do enjoy a lusty wench, and she was certainly lusty." Harry let out an exaggerated sigh, then burst into laughter at Edwin's flushed face.
Though Edwin never openly criticized other men's liaisons, he was a bit of a prude who blushed like a schoolgirl when embarrassed. It was not a reaction he could hide, for he was cursed with the pale, transparent complexion common among redheads, so he provided endless entertainment for his fellows.
"We are nearly there," said James unnecessarily, to protect Edwin's feelings. The lad was good-natured about his affliction, but James disliked jokes at anyone's expense. He had been the victim of teasing too often to ignore the pain that usually accompanied it. His brother had been a master at using subtle barbs to undermine an opponent's nerve or tarnish his reputation.
"Did you visit Rome in your travels?" asked Edwin.
"No, but I was in Naples for several months." He saw the question on Harry's lips, licked his own in appreciation, then described the Roman sites he had visited. Even Harry asked thoughtful questions, immersing them in antiquity and diverting his mind from his last day at the Court.
His description of the catacombs enthralled his companions as they passed the gates to Northfield Manor. His visits to Avellino and Benevento--where he had admired the Roman theater and the exquisite artistry of Trajan's Arch--carried them beyond a dozen tenant farms.
But his reprieve couldn't last forever. They rounded a corner and crossed a bridge. Ridgeway dust now swirled around his horse's hooves and billowed behind the baggage carriage wheels.
Memories swept over him, making his hands tremble. Panic clawed at his chest, worse than he had expected, gripping him with an airless tension that would not dissipate. Evil eyes bored into his back.
He cursed under his breath, for his reaction made no sense. It was the people he had fled, not the place. And the people were gone. What evil could remain now?
The park gates stood open, offering an unlikely welcome, but the house was hidden behind its hill. Secretive. Furtive. Like so many of its masters. That had certainly been true of John. What would James find here?
Harry was again waxing poetic over the tavern wench, but James no longer cared. Memories of his brother lodged a lump in his throat. This was why he had procrastinated. He could not face Ridgeway without also coming to terms with his feelings for John Underwood, ninth Earl of Ridgeway, and his elder brother by ten minutes.
Their relationship had always defied description. He had wanted to believe that their shared blood was more than an accident of birth and that family meant something. Twins were supposed to be closer than normal brothers, able to read each other's thoughts, willing to support each other against any threat. So he had made excuses, offered forgiveness, and ignored even blatant treachery for more than twenty years. When that failed, he had left, repudiating both blood and family.
His unswerving trust had blinded him until it was too late. Now he was faced with cleaning up the wreckage John had left behind and with trying to understand what had gone wrong. The first step was to figure out why John had died.
What had he done to incite murder?
James closed his eyes in a futile attempt to quell a mounting headache. The question had too many answers. He had accepted John's venality ten years earlier. Their shared blood tied him to a man he could never respect, tarnishing his own image and drawing suspicion onto his head that would never fully dissipate.
But despite that, he could not allow John's killer to escape. So how was he to discover which vice had triggered the final attack? And how many new transgressions would he uncover at the Court? They would be legion--which was another reason he had postponed this visit; he had not been ready to face the worst.
John had never visited his other estates, so his orders there had merely inflicted general hardship as he milked the properties of every shilling. But his motives at Ridgeway would have gone far beyond his quest for wealth.
James shivered. He had already found evidence in London that John had used the power of his position to avenge perceived slights. Had he expended his fury at his twin by striking out at anyone James had cared for? It wasn't an idle fear, for John had threatened to do just that.
Edwin was retaliating against Harry's sexual braggadocio with a discourse on Roman viaducts that had Harry gnashing his teeth, but James hardly heard it. Traversing this road, seeing these hills, and hearing the stream boil over a rocky fall recalled every horror of his last visit.
He forced the memories away by scrupulously examining every tree and shrub in his path, but the battle to forget only increased his feeling of doom. He dreaded this return, dreaded facing the breadth of John's anger and the ashes of his revenge, dreaded meeting tenants who would blame James for calling disaster onto their heads.
But he had no choice. He was now the earl, responsible for the welfare of Ridgeway and all its people. He could evade his duty no longer.
Rounding the hill, he led the way to the house.