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"Gone!" Lady Binsted bristled, her fine eyes afire. "What do you mean, gone?"
"I meant just what I said, Elizabeth." George, the Marquess of Binsted, ran plump fingers around his collar and retreated to a corner near the fireplace. "Gone. Disappeared. The fellow has evaporated, apparently, into thin air."
The couple stood in the drawing room of Binsted House, which nestled sedately in a row of fashionable town houses in Mayfair's Mount Street. The chamber appeared even more elegant than usual. Great bouquets of hothouse flowers stood in vases about the room and each lustre on every chandelier had been washed and polished to diamond-like radiance.
"But the dinner party is only two hours away." Lady Binsted all but wailed. "Our guests will be arriving soon. The Rantrays will be here any moment! Where is he?"
If her husband harbored any thoughts on the subject, he kept them to himself, merely shrugging his shoulders. He turned swiftly when a tap on the door heralded the entrance of Blevins, the butler, with the intelligence that Mr. Wilfred Culver had just arrived at the house.
"Well, show him up," snapped Lady Binsted. "Perhaps he can tell us something."
"Doubt it," interposed Lord Binsted. "You know how Wilf and Cord feel about each other."
"I know," her ladyship agreed with a sigh. "One would never know they were brothers." A few moments later, the door opened again to admit a tall, slender gentleman in his late twenties. Every line of his person declared him the dandy in full flower. His mouse-colored hair was painstakingly arranged in the Brutus style affected by the Prince Regent. His coat of lavender superfine was carefully fashioned tomake the most of a rather meager chest and narrow shoulders. Pale yellow inexpressibles clung lovingly to carefully padded calves, and his tasseled Hessians were polished to blinding perfection.
"Gone?" he declared blankly in response to Lady Binsted's dramatic declaration. "What do you mean gone?"
"I should think my meaning is quite clear," Lady Binsted replied impatiently. "Cordray knows very well that the party is tonight. I spoke to him about it just yesterday. You remember, do you not, Binsted? We made a special trip to Curzon Street to speak to him about it."
"Mm, yes." The marquess rubbed his nose dubiously. "And do you remember, m'dear? He told you right then--the same as he did last week--that he had no intention of coming tonight--or of asking--"
"Tchah!" In anyone less exquisitely refined, the expletive might have been called a snort. "He inevitably refuses the slightest request on my part, but I cannot believe he would behave so shabbily on such an important occasion. As I recall, last week he said he would think about it."
"Mpf. As if that meant anything. If you ask me, he was in a strange mood."
"Cordray is always in a mood. Lord, how could my brother and dear Calista have produced such an aberration?"
"Come, now, Bessie," said the marquess, absently using an appellation that invariably set his wife's teeth on edge. "Cord ain't a bad fellow. He just has an aversion to marriage."
"Aversion!" Her ladyship sighed. "I just don't know what is the matter with the boy. Ever since he inherited the title, he has proved to be a lazy degenerate with no regard for his family obligations. Do you know how many years it took to bring him up to scratch--to actually promise to propose to Corisande? Well, of course, you do."
Lord Binsted acknowledged this last with a grimace.
Mr. Culver, examining a vase of pink chrysanthemums through his quizzing glass, murmured absently, "Don't know why you went to all the bother, Aunt. Corisande and Cord are completely unsuited to each other."
Lady Binsted gaped at her nephew. "Well, of all the unmitigated nonsense. Their union has been planned since they were in infancy."
Mr. Culver merely grunted.
"And now," continued Lady Binsted, "when the stage is set, so to speak, he is nowhere to be found. I suppose he is in one of those unspeakable hells he patronizes and will stroll into the room an hour after everyone is seated at table without so much as--" She halted abruptly, an expression of horror on her patrician features. "Dear heaven! You don't suppose he's bolted!"
Lord Binsted cleared his throat noisily. "Well, now, m'dear, it did occur to me that he was balking at the bit when we saw him yesterday. You know, I've told you more than once, you can't force a man, especially one like Cordray, into matrimony when he don't want to cooperate. However, I expect you're right," he concluded placatingly. "He simply found himself engaged in, er, other pursuits, and will show up ... if not on time, as least to do the pretty."
A discreet knock was followed by another appearance by Blevins, this time carrying a folded note on a small silver salver. He glided across the floor, coming to a halt before Lady Binsted. He proffered the salver.
"This was just delivered, my lady. It was brought by one of Lord Cordray's footmen." The marchioness snatched the missive and perused it, before crumpling it in her hand with an audible gasp.
"He is gone!" she shrieked, handing the note to her husband. "Binsted, he has bolted! I simply do not believe it!" She tottered to a cherry-striped satin wing chair and dropped into it, limp and red-faced.
"'My dear Aunt,'" read the marquess aloud, "I find it necessary to leave Town for a few days on business. I hope my departure will not cause you any inconvenience, and I hope your dinner party will be a success.'"
"I cannot believe it. The wretch knew we were expecting him. He knew how important his presence was tonight."
"By God, he ought to be horsewhipped!"
At the sound of the angry voice, Lord and Lady Binsted whirled to stare at Wilfred. The young man reddened, shuffling his feet against the carpet.
"I just meant ... well, it is extremely uncivil of him to serve Corrie such a turn. She has her heart set on marrying Cord, after all."
"Ah, well, m'dear." Lord Binsted waved an expansive hand. "We must carry on. P'raps he'll turn up after all. You never know with Cord. He changes his mind as often as his cravat, y'know."
As time plodded inexorably forward, however, the marquess's words echoed hollowly in his wife's ears. The guests arrived, dinner was served, eaten and the covers removed, all without the desired arrival of the man with a duty to perform that evening.
At about the time when the Marchioness of Binsted was making yet another apology, by now bordering on the frantic, to her guests, a solitary rider made his way over the rolling landscape of East Anglia. The skies were clear and starry, and he was grateful that the moon shone full as well.
Why in God's name, wondered Christopher Culver, the Earl of Cordray, had he chosen to make his journey in the dead of night on horseback? A sensible man would have embarked in broad daylight, in his eminently serviceable--to say nothing of dashing--curricle, complete with valet and tiger. The answer, of course, was obvious, he reflected with a grimace. He was in full flight, haring off from London in the dead of night like a thief with the family silver in his pockets. Cord sighed. And it was all because he simply could not face the prospect of marriage, particularly not marriage to the Honorable Corisande Brant.
"Corisande," he muttered. Was his aversion to the wedded state in general, or Corisande in particular? He knew the answer to that one, too. It was Corisande, oldest daughter of the Viscount Rantray. A perfectly decent female, he supposed, but she'd been a tedious little girl, and now possessed the capability of boring him to paralysis after five minutes in her company. She was intelligent enough, for a woman, but her thoughts rarely strayed beyond her wardrobe, her relatives, the latest on dits--and, of course, the thinly veiled references to her plans for him after they were wed.
For their future union had been considered a confirmed fact. Since their estates marched together, the two had been constant companions all during their formative years. He liked the chit well enough, he supposed, but ... well, actually, no, he didn't. She was a tad too grasping, a bit too set up in her own estimation, and a great deal too smug in her expectations, which centered on her future position as the Countess of Cordray.
This evening was to have been the culmination of their lifelong understanding. Corisande and her parents had been invited to a dinner party at his aunt's house. Corisande's older brother and younger sister, Lionel and Hyacinth respectively, were also to have been on board. After dinner, despite Cord's best efforts over the past several years to avert disaster, he was scheduled to ask formally for Corisande's hand.
He'd told his Aunt Binsted that he had no intention of proposing to Corisande, indeed, that he would not put in an appearance at the dinner party. As usual, of course, she hadn't believed him--and as usual, he nearly capitulated. This time, however, the noose was too visibly in place above him, and in the end, he just couldn't do it.
He'd awakened this morning with a bit of a head. All right, to be honest, after a night at the Beefsteak Club and the revels that had followed, the little men with pickaxes inside his skull were in full form, threatening to burst through his eyeballs. He'd forgone breakfast, electing instead to take himself off for a meditative ride in the park. The coming festivities at his aunt's home and their unpleasant results had weighed heavily on him, and on his return home he'd ordered Hopkins, his man, to pack a portmanteau and sent him off. A few hours later, knowing his aunt would soon be on site to chivy him further into attending the proposed dinner party, he dashed off a note to her. He knew this was an act of sniveling cowardice, but he'd then crept stealthily from Cordray House. Now, here he was, well on his way to sanctuary.
Sanctuary, in this case, was a pleasant estate outside the village of Great Shelford, which, in turn, was only a few miles from Cambridge. The estate, Wildehaven, had been a bequest from a fond uncle several years ago. Cord had visited the place upon being notified of the gift, but had never returned, content to leave it in the hands of its competent manager. The Earl of Cordray was an urban creature and had never experienced the slightest desire to "let the countryside and the gliding valley streams content him."
Until now, that is.
When he had begun searching for a bolt-hole, an image of Wildehaven had appeared in his mind like a line thrown to a drowning man. All the time he'd been aware that he was going completely beyond the pale, that Corisande would never forgive him and that her father would no doubt come after him with a horsewhip. Indeed, Rantray would no doubt be obliged to stand in line behind his Aunt Binsted. But, dear God, he had to do something before he made the betrothal official by a formal proposal. When the engagement was announced, papers sighed, and settlements arranged, it would be too late. He would be trapped forever in a union he knew to be doomed at the start.
He could not avoid the unpleasant consideration that his flight was an exercise in futility. He must return to London sometime, and when he did, Corisande would still be waiting for him to appear on bended knee. His family would still be at his back, wedding gifts in hand. All he was doing, he reflected gloomily as he picked his way along the rocky path that led to Wildehaven's formal parkland, was postponing the inevitable. All he would have accomplished was to make a great many people furious with him. Not that this bothered him a great deal. He was accustomed to carrying on his life at his own pace and pleasure, and had been the object of his family's schemes on many previous occasions. This was different. He knew very well that his position behooved him to marry. He must preserve the line. This fact had been drilled into him with great thoroughness by his father--and grandfather before him. God forbid the title should go to Wilfie was the general consensus among his relatives, and Cord could not but agree. Wilf was a nice chap, but had the judgment of an infant. He had some years ago formed a connection with Lord Brinhaven, a close associate of the Regent, and had drifted into the Regent's set. Wilf had apparently somehow made himself indispensable to the Regent. He had told Cord once of tactfully retrieving a packet of indiscreet letters for the Prince. However, keeping up with this rackety conglomeration of elderly roués was rapidly bringing him to point non plus.
A flood of guilt washed over Cord. The thing was, that through all this, he had conceded long ago, in his own mind, that he would marry Corisande. Not just because she was the choice of his family, but he had come to accept the notion that if he must marry, he might as well marry Corisande. He knew her well, and would no doubt become accustomed to her presence in his life. She had been bred to fill just this position, and she would be a credit to his house. She knew the mores that guided life in the ton and would make no attempt to interfere in the pleasurable tenor of his life. She would make no unpleasant scenes over his cher amées, nor, as long as his expenses did not impinge on her own comfort, would she object to his gambling losses--or the time spent away from home in these amiable pursuits. There was certainly no other female to whom he'd ever had the slightest inclination to become leg-shackled. Lord knew he wasn't stupid enough to look for love. Love was for fools and poets and the writers of those god-awful novels. But, was it too much to ask that the woman with whom he must spend the rest of his life, would be someone whose company he could enjoy?
Cord sighed and turned his reflections to his present predicament. On the bright side, it would be some weeks before the madding crowd would track him down. The only person to whom he had confided his plan was his man of affairs, Geoffrey Tomlinson, and good old Geoff could be relied upon to keep his mouth shut. Perhaps in that space of time, mused Cord hopefully, he could come up with something--perhaps even a plain statement to Corisande that they simply would not suit. He should have said this long ago, of course, instead of putting it off while Corisande's expectations swelled to unignorable proportions. If he had only--
His dubious reflections were interrupted by a flash of movement caught from the corner of his eye. He observed a horse and rider emerge from a small spinney crowning a nearby hill. Silently, they slid through the shadows into the moonlight before disappearing into a winding dale. The horseman was slender, seeming too small for his mount, a huge, long-tailed gray. What the devil...? thought Cord bemusedly. He was sure he was now on Wildehaven property. What was this fellow doing, crossing it in the middle of the night? A trespasser? A thief? Cord hastened after the figure, bringing both the rider and the Wildehaven manor house into sight at the same time as he rounded the curve of the hill. To his surprise, the rider swung away from the house, taking a path that led far to the right and over another knoll. Anxious to remain unseen, Cord followed more-slowly this time, with the result that when he crested the rise, the rider was nowhere to be seen.
Pursuit, of course, was impossible. Even if he were to catch sight of the stranger again, he would make his presence known in doing so. Thoughtfully, Cord retraced his path. He had almost come into view of the manor house when he spotted something glittering on the ground ahead of him. Dismounting, he scooped up the small object.
To his surprise, it appeared to be an ornamental comb, such as a woman would use to catch up her hair. The sparkle had been a shaft of moonlight reflecting from one of the tiny gems that adorned it. On closer inspection, it was apparent that the comb had not lain long in its present position. It was smooth and bore no traces of dirt. In fact, Cord could swear a trace of warmth from its wearer lingered in his fingers.
Could it belong to the rider who had passed by here just a few moments ago? The rider was a woman? Well, well, he mused, his little mystery was becoming more fascinating by the minute. He would certainly lose no time in ascertaining the identity of the female who rode the contours of his estate in such an unseemly fashion.
Clambering atop his mount once more, he came soon to the yew alley that led to the manor's great front door. He wielded the knocker absently, and the door swung open at once to reveal two figures, apparently awaiting him in some dudgeon.
"Hopkins!" exclaimed Cord. "When did you assume butler duties? At any rate, I'm glad you arrived in such a timely fashion. Hullo, Moresby," he said to the butler, who was engaged in wresting the door handle from his valet.
"Yes, sir," replied Hopkins, releasing the handle to usher Cord ceremoniously into the house. "I arrived several hours ago, and I have made everything ready for you to assume residence here. You will find your bed made up and a nice fire burning in your chambers."
"Actually, sir," Moresby said in a testy voice, "the staff has maintained the house in accordance with your direction since you became its owner. When we were apprised of your imminent arrival, it was necessary merely to remove the covers from the furniture. Mrs. Moresby, of course, has placed flowers in all the rooms and has prepared a small nuncheon for you--in the library, also with a nice fire burning. We had no need"--he paused to cast an austere glance in Hopkins's direction--"of further direction."
Cord smiled placatingly. "Thank you, Moresby, I knew you would manage everything." He turned to Hopkins with another, equally ingratiating grin. "And thank you, Hopkins. If you will return upstairs, I'll be up presently."
With a lofty bow, Hopkins turned and moved up the staircase, the picture of complacent dignity. Cord glanced around the manor's main hall. The house was, perhaps, not what he would have chosen for himself, had he decided to take up permanent residence in the country, for it was heavily baronial in style. The hall was hung with weighty tapestries and strewn with the requisite suits of armor and the occasional halberd on the walls. It was a pleasant abode, however, comfortable and spacious, and Cord found himself looking forward to a brief stay. The operative word, he supposed, was "brief." His thoughts returned to the inescapable knowledge that he was mad to have come. Still, he was resolved not to be caught in parson's mousetrap--at least, not yet--and particularly if Corisande Brant was to be his trap mate.
His reflections continued in this vein, even as he consumed the cold collation provided for him by Mrs. Moresby. The library was warm and comfortable, furnished with upholstered chairs so large one could take up housekeeping in them. Even so, the silence, to a dedicated city dweller, was oppressive. The only sounds to be heard were the clink of silver on china and the crackling of a brisk blaze in the hearth.
Cord sighed. He was not given to ruralizing. He agreed with Dr. Johnson's famous sentiment that he who tired of London was tired of life. He enjoyed the companionship of friends, the entertainment to be found in Town, even the endless, frivolous round of socializing that comprised life in the ton. On the other hand, he mused, a little rustication might do him good. He had discovered within him recently a certain disenchantment with his routine. Too many late nights, he supposed. Too much wine, women and song--though not necessarily in that order. He frowned. Perhaps it was wrong of him to leave the management of his affairs in the very competent hands of his agents and stewards, but he had done so for years. Why should he bother with such mundane affairs when there was a world of gratification to be explored? The frown deepened. When had it all begun to pall? he wondered--and what was he to do now to fill his time?
He wondered idly if there were neighbors in the area with whom he might strike up a convivial acquaintance. Surely, being so near to Cambridge, there must be more than a few choice spirits ripe for any spree with whom he could liven the tranquility of quiet country evenings.
This train of thought led him to his near-encounter earlier with the mysterious rider. He removed the comb from his pocket and subjected it to a meditative examination. The gems were faux, as he had expected, but he was more than ever convinced that the comb had been dropped recently.
"Tell me, Moresby," he inquired of the butler, who had just entered to remove his tray. "Who are our nearest neighbors?"
"That would be Squire Trent, my lord. His estate marches with yours in an easterly--or no, strictly speaking, your very nearest neighbor would be Sir Henry Folsome. He lives right on your property."
"Indeed?" asked Cord in some surprise.
"Yes, my lord. He and his sister and niece live in Rose Cottage, about three miles from here--not far from the river. Sir Henry," continued Moresby chattily, "is a fellow of Magdalene College. He and Sir Frederick were great friends, and upon Sir Henry's retirement. Sir Frederick offered the use of the cottage to him on a lifetime basis. In other words, he will be living there until both he and his sister pass on."
Cord's pulse quickened. "Indeed. I remember the agent--what's his name?--Jilbert, telling me about them. Yes, I agreed to let the commitment stand. But I don't remember a niece."
"Yes, my lord--or rather, no, my lord. Her name is Miss Gillian Tate, and she's the daughter of yet another sister, I believe. Mrs. Ferris--Mrs. Louisa Ferris, that is--Sir Henry's sister--kept house for her brother for years, but, the frailties of age having caught up with them. Miss Tate came to stay. She will, of course, be obliged to leave when both the Folsomes are gone. However, they are still in reasonably good health, so--"
"Yes, I understand, Moresby," said Cord, his thoughts on the unknown niece. "But, tell me," he continued, determined to cover all the possibilities, "might there be a family living--say, in a westerly direction--who number in their household a young man, possibly in his twenties, or younger?"
Moresby fingered his chin dubiously. "N-no, my lord. There's the Winslows. Their son, Tom, is two and twenty, but they live at some distance. Might I inquire, my lord, why you ask? Perhaps, I--"
Cord waved a hand. "Never mind, Moresby. Just an idle question." He gestured to the tray and the remains of his meal. "Do thank Mrs. Moresby for an excellent repast. And now, I believe I will seek my bed."
With great ceremony, Moresby conducted Cord to the master's suite and deposited him tenderly into the keeping of a waiting Hopkins. Thereupon, with due reverence, the valet prepared his master for his night's repose. Cord's last thought before sliding into sleep was that on the morrow one of his first priorities would be to visit Rose Cottage to make the acquaintance of Sir Henry and his little family. To be sure, the presence of a lithe stranger, possibly--or even likely--a female, on his property in the dead of night did not present a problem of earth-shaking proportions, but solving the puzzle might provide a bit of piquancy to the tedium of his sojourn in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. The presence of a young female, apparently unbound by social convention, almost guaranteed a fascinating mystery to explore.
Not far away, in Rose Cottage, Miss Gillian Tate was also making herself ready for bed. The knot she had so carefully crafted to keep her thick mane of brown hair concealed under a bulky hat had come loose and had been hanging below the hat brim for the last half hour. The reason for this defection became immediately apparent. Drat! She had lost one of her favorite combs. Not that she used it much, since it was suitable only for evening dress, but it was sturdy and serviceable--just the thing for binding up one's hair for unauthorized activity.
She discovered that her hands were still trembling slightly. Who the devil, she wondered, had been on her trail? No, no. Surely, it was purely by accident that another rider had happened along the same path as she. There was no doubt that having seen her, the man had attempted to follow, but she had successfully eluded him. Had he recognized her? Dear Lord, if anyone so much as suspected that she was given to ... to midnight excursions, she would be ruined--to say nothing of Uncle Henry. But, no, the rider could not possibly have so much as determined she was not a man, let alone make out her features. She certainly had seen nothing of his.
Who could he have been? The staff at Wildehaven consisted of Mr. Moresby and his wife, plus Mr. Standish, who tended the garden. Standish was seventy if he was a day, and she'd absorbed the distinct impression of a tall, muscular stranger who was, if not precisely youthful, certainly a strapping figure.
Bundling her hair into a plait, Gillian climbed into bed. Tomorrow she would have another chat with Uncle Henry on the unwisdom of his current activities. She would no doubt be wasting her breath, as she had on all the other occasions she had expostulated with her uncle. He was a dear soul, but sure as she sat here fretting, one day he would cause a scandal that would get them all tossed out of the university on their ears, and the cottage, as well.
They were fortunate, Aunt Louisa had told her, to have a roof over their heads. Aunt Louisa had never met the new owner of Wildehaven personally, although she had heard that he was a titled gentleman. Mr. Jilbert, the estate agent, had told her that since he had no real obligation to honor Sir Frederick's gift of tenancy, it was only out of the goodness of his heart that he had done so. Uncle Henry, of course, had experienced not a twinge of concern, but Aunt Louisa had breathed a sigh of relief.
"I mean, where would we have gone, child?" she had asked with a sniff. "We could certainly afford our own domicile, but we are comfortable here, and removing to another location at our age would be such a strain. Lord Cordray must be a good Christian gentleman, and so I told Sir Henry. Not that he paid me any heed."
Of course, he would not have, reflected Gillian ruefully. Uncle Henry's thoughts, scattered as they were, rarely strayed from his studies these days. And his studies, of course, rarely strayed from that wretched diary. Dear Heaven, she wished the poor old soul had never heard of Samuel Pepys.
Gillian breathed one last hope before closing her eyes for sleep that she would never again encounter the tall rider who had nearly been the ruination of her and her two elderly charges.