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Rich and beautiful Claire Fairchild seeks diversion in Bath, desiring a change from her sister's children. En route someone abandons an infant in her carriage prior to her departure from a Marlborough inn. The mystery deepens when no parents or nanny can be discovered. What to do? Once in Bath, Richard Talbot, an old friend, offers his help to solve the mystery. But after they confront the suspected villain, they find their lives in danger. Following several assassination attempts, Claire discovers Richard's ...
Rich and beautiful Claire Fairchild seeks diversion in Bath, desiring a change from her sister's children. En route someone abandons an infant in her carriage prior to her departure from a Marlborough inn. The mystery deepens when no parents or nanny can be discovered. What to do? Once in Bath, Richard Talbot, an old friend, offers his help to solve the mystery. But after they confront the suspected villain, they find their lives in danger. Following several assassination attempts, Claire discovers Richard's strength most comforting! Richard finds Claire even more enchanting than when they first met, and longs to make her his. Between the gossips of Bath and the danger of their quest, will they survive to make this possible?
The Honorable Miss Clare Fairchild gazed from the window of her jouncing carriage with great patience. At her side the delicate and well-bred voice of Venetia Godwin droned on and on about the folly of a near spinster rattling off to Bath in such a harebrained fashion. Or was it called droning when the voice was high and clear ... and most penetrating?
Clare glanced across the carriage to meet the gaze of Priddy, her abigail. Not a word was exchanged, but Clare sensed she was in for a gentle reprimand later, the most Priddy ever allowed herself to vent, for inviting the delightful Miss Godwin along for company and to lend countenance to Clare's advanced age of twenty-three. It was not done for a young woman to set up an establishment on her own, and Clare was too prudent and proper to overlook the conventions of Society.
London had grown dreary in the heat of summer, and suddenly she had felt as though she couldn't bear another round of visits to her happy brothers and sister, all married. It was the children, actually. Although Clare loved them dearly, it pained her to see them and feel as though she would never have one of her own. It was her reward for being too choosy, she knew. Everyone scolded her ever and anon about it, Venetia being no exception.
Clare turned again to face the view, attempting to ignore the verbal ramblings of her chosen companion. The day was drawing to a close with still many miles to travel before they should reach their final destination. Venetia had set the pace, declaring they must proceed at an aggravatingly slow speed due to her sensibilities and a stomach that tended to queasiness when jolted about in rushing vehicles. Patiencebeing one of Clare's more admirable traits, she consented. If one sought company, one did not quibble at the tender susceptibilities of that person.
"I shan't wonder if we are set upon by highwaymen, dear Clare," Venetia stated in summation of her opinions on travel in the English countryside by young women without a gentleman to protect them, even if men in general were most annoying creatures. Although she had to admit they had their uses. Male servants did not figure in Venetia's estimation of possible saviors.
"Too early in the day," murmured Clare. "Besides, this road is far too well traveled for such. We have been passed by any number of carriages and coaches since departing London." A snail might have whizzed past them, but she refrained from that comment, lest Venetia become upset.
"Nevertheless, I daresay we shall all rest more easily once we are inside the Castle Inn at Marlborough." Venetia gave an emphatic shake of her head, and for once Priddy nodded her agreement.
The abigail, usually given to a sentence now and again, had remained silent since their departure from London. Clare guessed her long-suffering maid would welcome the peace of the inn, for Clare had bespoke separate rooms for herself and her friend, a decision she was coming to view as wise indeed. It was to be hoped that her invitation to Venetia Godwin, prompted partly by pity, was not destined to be regretted.
Bath had appealed to Clare, its choice being no whim of the moment, although Venetia seemed to believe otherwise. Clare had recalled her mother's fond recollections of the town in its prime, and decided it was time she paid the place a prolonged visit. It was still a pleasant city, or so she had been assured by Mr. Popham, her agent, who was to arrange suitable housing for the daughter of the late and exceedingly wealthy Viscount Seton. They were to be met by him at the Castle Inn with the results of his search.
"Oh, dear Clare, do look. I believe we approach the town of Marlborough. Can it be?" Venetia clutched at Clare's arm in her excitement.
"Unless we have crawled off the London to Bath road, I suspect it is undoubtedly what you see." In preparation for their arrival, Clare gathered up her reticule and other impedimenta that had scattered about the coach.
Venetia sat with her gaze fixed on the approaching town, hoping for the first glimpse of the inn where they were to spend the night. When she saw the imposing structure, once the home of the Earl of Hartford, she ventured a broad and satisfied smile.
Clare's agent assisted her from the coach with obsequious attention, walking with her to the inn while Venetia was left to do with the attentions of the innkeeper and a groom. Priddy coped with the bandboxes and portmanteaus deemed necessary for an overnight stay, directing one of the servants with the faintly superior mien of an abigail to Quality.
"I believe you will be most pleased with your direction while in Bath," Mr. Popham declared. "I have managed to procure for you a highly respectable address. The gentleman who had engaged the house failed to appear at the specified time. Thus I am able to offer you a residence in the Royal Crescent," he ended with an expectant note.
Clare did not have the slightest notion as to whether this was good or not, but the man had the air of one who has performed the impossible, and now looked like a little boy who desired a pat on the head. She nodded graciously, saying, "How good of you to go to such great trouble for us. I am sure we shall be most comfortable. I recall my mother saying something about that place. It is convenient, I trust?"
"Most convenient, Miss Fairchild."
Clare suspected he was disappointed in her reaction. "I see. I gather this is more than a there house, but a residence that will give the proper countenance."
Her gentle irony was lost on the agent. He nodded eagerly, then handed Clare the keys and documents necessary to her settling in for two months.
When she at last closed the door to her room in the Castle Inn, she found she longed for nothing more than a light repast and her bed.
"How odd that such dreadfully slow travel should fatigue one so much, Priddy. I daresay I am showing my age, but I feel to be at least eighty.'' Clare tossed her bonnet onto a small table, then stared longingly at the bed. It was a massive affair, large enough for three, if need be. She cared not in the least about the rest of the world, if she could slip beneath the sheets and close her eyes in peace.
"'Tis that Miss Godwin," Priddy muttered in a barely audible voice.
"Now, Priddy," remonstrated Clare in an amused tone. She undid her pelisse and handed it to the waiting maid, then fluffed out her blond curls, her serene blue eyes only slightly troubled as they glanced in the looking glass to discover the effects of the journey on her appearance. Anyone might have assured her that her years sat lightly upon her attractive person.
A gentle knock at her door preceded the entrance of Miss Godwin, who promptly regaled Clare with everything that had occurred from the moment she entered the inn.
"And do you know," Venetia concluded, "I am told the Marquis of Aylesbury has a place not far from here. Savernake Lodge it is called. Does that not sound delightful?" Her hopeful gaze settled upon Clare, who wondered what she was supposed to do about the matter.
The question was set aside by a knock on the door. A young maid entered the room bearing a tray with appetizing dishes for their evening repast. Clare thought the maid's searching looks a bit forward, but said nothing. Surely two ladies traveling with an abigail was not so unusual a thing?
Venetia chattered all through the light meal while Clare concentrated on keeping her eyes open and tongue between her teeth. It was to be hoped that once Venetia discovered the delights of the Bath shops and tea parties, not to mention the charms of the Pump Room, the circulating library, and other social festivities, she would prove to be less taxing to the nerves.
"Do you know I feel it in my bones that something momentous is going to happen, dear Clare? I have this feeling at times, you see. 'Tis most exciting. I wonder should the marquis chance to visit this inn? Not that I am in the least interested in men myself, you understand. Mind you, they have their uses, but I chose my independence. From every observance of mine, they are tedious, tiresome, and most annoying with their lightskirts and gaming and hunting. Bothersome creatures, would that they all drop into the sea!" she declared in a high, plaintive tone.
Considering what might happen to the population in such event, Clare prudently kept her gaze fastened on her plate, lest she chuckle and provoke her friend. She quietly replied, "Now, Venetia, do not set your face against them all. One gentleman may just capture your heart, and you will change your opinion.''
Venetia darted a quick glance at her benefactress and snapped her mouth closed. After a moment of silence, she ventured to say, "And what about you, dear Clare? Were the marquis or any other proper gentleman to appear, what would you do?"
"I have been introduced to every proper gentleman in the realm. They are all a lot of dead bores. If I must marry, and I daresay it is not mandatory, it shall be to someone who is different from the norm."
"Clare!" Venetia cried in horror. "Men are disagreeable enough without resorting to one who is beyond the pale."
"I never said I would do the improper. But," Clare replied in a patient voice, "I should like to think that somewhere in the world exists a man, a gentleman, who has a lively curiosity about life. A man resolute and steadfast in his affections, yet good-natured and possessed of a sound intelligence, one I could admire."
This shocking declaration proved too much for Venetia to tolerate. Her hand fluttered to her brow as though to ward off an evil blow. "Well!" She sniffed loudly, then continued, "Men are grief and trouble. I detest the lot of them. Mark my words, one will bring you tribulation, and then you shall understand what I mean.'' Venetia gracefully rose from her chair. Looking down at Clare, she added, "I only hope you never know that pain." Then she whirled about and left the room, taking the last of the sweets with her.
"Rubbish," pronounced Priddy with a wry twist of her face.
"I have never heard of an affair of the heart that deeply affected Venetia, but one never knows," Clare said with a thoughtful look in her eyes. She erased the frown from her forehead and pushed away from the small table where they had eaten their light meal. "Why do you not leave the now and seek your own dinner? I shall fare well enough, for I want nothing more than sleep."
Priddy silently nodded, then assisted Clare out of her traveling gown and into her night rail before going down to her own hearty meal.
In the quiet of her room, which was a relative matter given the noisy nature of public inns, Clare slipped beneath the covers and stared up at the ceiling while she contemplated the conversation. Was there such a man, she longed to know? She had found the pretensions of the fops and dandies of Society too, too dreadful for words. Venetia was right in her estimation that most of them seemed to care more for their sports and entertainment than a wife and family. Perhaps...
A crash of china and cutlery in the hallway woke Clare from a sound sleep. Peering out the window to the rear of the inn, she noted it was quite early in the morning.
Priddy softly entered the room shortly following the domestic disaster, nodding with annoyance when she saw her mistress awake. "I knew that silly girl would wake everyone on this floor."
"I might as well get up and be gone from here, although this is an excellent bed and I slept like a baby. I wonder, did Miss Godwin hear the racket?"
"She would have to have cotton wool in her ears, and even then I suspect it would wake her," Priddy grumbled as she went to assist her mistress to dress for the trip.
Clare swung her feet over the edge of the bed and began to prepare for the day ahead. She prayed nothing would delay their arrival in Bath. She had a longing for the quiet of her own home, even if it was a temporary lodging.
Thus is was that within two hours the ladies were able to enter the carriage, Clare having personally complimented the innkeeper on their excellent accommodations. She climbed into the traveling coach, then paused before sitting down. A strange basket reposed on the seat Priddy usually occupied. Clare knew it did not belong to any of her party.
Hesitantly she stretched out a hand, leaning forward to see the basket's contents. Inside, she discovered a soft woolen blanket over white linen sheeting. Probing further, she saw what appeared to be a tiny hand. Alarmed, she hastily pulled apart the coverings to see a sleepy baby nestled deep within. A fringe of pale red curls peeped from beneath a starched white cap trimmed with delicate lace. The infant now quite awakened, Clare found she was being studied by a somber child with enormous eyes as blue as her own.
"What is it?" Venetia cried. "I knew something was going to happen. What is wrong?"
Clare poked her head back out through the coach door to give Venetia a wide-eyed stare. "There is a baby in here! How do you suppose it got in our coach?"
Before Venetia could begin to vocally contemplate the various possibilities, Clare disappeared again. The infant had decided to exercise its lungs with terrifying intensity. With her experience as an aunt to draw upon, Clare expertly picked up the baby, cradling it gently in her arms, patting and stroking its back with soothing results.
"We must find the mother, Priddy. There has to be some mistake here. Surely no one would simply place their child in a traveling coach and go off?"
Priddy's eyes had softened at the sight of her mistress holding the infant in such a maternal and skillful manner. What a pity she did not have a clutch of her own to nurture. She merely nodded, holding out her arms to accept the child so Clare might get out of the coach.
"Come into the inn. We must make inquiries.'' Clare led the way inside followed by a curious Venetia and a wary Priddy. Priddy was not accustomed to being around infants, not that she minded them. She had hoped long before this that her mistress might present her with such a one to admire ... from afar.
The infant took exception to Priddy's less than tender hold and began to howl once again. With a rueful smile, Clare paused her steps, took the baby in her arms, then charged into the common room in search of the innkeeper.
That gentleman looked askance when Clare approached him, obviously recalling that the ladies had come sans infant yesterday.
"Sir, we need your help. It seems there was a confusion in the inn yard. Someone placed their infant in our coach by mistake. Could you direct us to the family, please?" She jiggled the baby in her arms to quiet it, hoping that soon she would be rid of her increasingly odiferous and damp bundle.
The innkeeper looked even more distressed. "No one came with a baby yesterday, Miss Fairchild. Leastways, none I recollect."
Venetia inserted herself into the conversation. "Someone obviously came here with an infant, sirrah. I cannot believe you could fail to take note. Think, sir, think."
At this point the infant began to cry again, more loudly than ever. "It has an admirable set of lungs," Clare murmured to Priddy. "See if you can find out anything for the in the servants' area. I shall cope the best I can until we decide what must be done." Turning to the innkeeper, she added, "I believe the best thing for the to do is return to the room I occupied last night to see if the baby can be made more comfortable." As her abigail headed toward the kitchen door, Clare prompted, "And inquire about a wetnurse, Priddy, do."
The parade up the stairs would have been amusing had someone been around to appreciate it. Clare sailed forth with the squalling infant in her capable arms, followed by a distraught Venetia complaining that she was about to have vapors at the very least due to the delay in their plans. Clare heroically refrained from any comment about the slowness of the journey to this point.
Once in the privacy of her room, after firmly closing the door behind the ranting Venetia, Clare efficiently stripped off the outer garments from the baby, noting as she did the exquisite quality of each item. All were handmade of finest cambric and flannel with lace trim and embroidery worked with skillful fingers.
A gentle rap on the door brought a young maid with the basket from the coach. "Your coachman says as how you might wish this, miss."
Leaving the maid to keep an eye on the squirming infant, Clare dove into the basket to discover a packet of clothing in the bottom. Upon opening it she found shirts, caps, bed gowns, blankets, bindings, petticoats and stays, and last, but scarcely least, at least two dozen napkins.
"Thank heavens. This does simplify things considerably." Armed with the necessary item in hand and the maid holding a basin of water, Clare performed the needed change while Venetia, after one peek, took herself off to the windows.
When the baby was again neat and sweetly clean, though inclined to whimper unless Clare cosseted it against her shoulder, Venetia declared roundly, "You might know it would be a boy. It is always the male of the species who causes trouble!"
"I doubt the baby had a thing to say about it, my dear," Clare answered serenely.
The maid gathered up the soiled napkin and bathwater, promising to return with the washed and dried item as soon as possible.
"What do you plan to do?" Venetia asked, a frown creasing her forehead as she stared at the unwanted guest in Clare's arms. "Really, it is too bad of you to fuss so over him."
"I could not be so heartless as to dump him on the inn. It seems to the there was a reason this baby was placed in my coach." Clare dug about in the basket to see if there was anything to pacify the increasingly hungry babe, if his nuzzling against her was any evidence. She found nothing, so permitted him to gnaw on her finger.
"Nonsense!" Venetia cried in alarm.
"Explain, if you please, how an infant in a large basket could be tucked into any coach by mistake and not noticed immediately. I saw him at once."
"Well," drawled Venetia while eyeing the delicate embroidery on the petticoat and gown now worn by the boy. "That looks like remarkably fine work. It is probably stolen," she concluded smugly. "The baby might belong to anyone."
Clare gave her friend a narrow look. "I doubt it. It is precisely the proper size and is all of a kind. I mean to say, the fabric is of the best, the embroidery the same quality. No, all of these items," she gestured to the contents of the packet now spilled across her bed, "were made just for him."
At that moment Priddy entered the room, a young woman cautiously edging into the room behind her. "No word at all belowstairs, miss. Seems like the babe just dropped from the sky." Behind her, the young woman peeped at the baby, her eyes round and questioning. Her hands twisted her starched white apron with quiet anxiety.
"That is errant nonsense," Venetia declared.
"He is far too real to be a figment of our imagination. What else did you find out?" Clare glanced at the stranger, hoping that she proved useful.
"This is Jenny. She recently lost her babe to a fever, but still has her milk. She's agreed to be wet nurse, for I know we have need of one and promptly."
"How wonderfully convenient, Priddy," murmured Clare while Venetia flounced from the room at the there thought of feeding an infant. Disgusting. Too, too shocking.
Once the shy Jenny was settled in a chair by the window, Clare drew Priddy to the far side of the room, keeping an eye on the gentle young maid all the while. "Does it not strike you as odd that she would be so handy?"
"Aye, that it does. But the cook swears to the truth of the matter. Not a soul would admit to knowing a thing about a stranger with a babe."
"Did Tom Coachman learn anything of interest?"
"No. 'Tis like I said. The babe seems to have dropped out of the sky."
Clare glanced at the baby nursing heartily away, a small fist waving about in the air, and shook her head. "He does not look to be an angel."
"You sound like Miss Godwin," Priddy muttered.
"I do not intend to rail against the male sex. I mean, he is too real, too substantial to be other than what he appears. But to whom does he belong is the question. And why in my coach? There were others before the inn this morning. We were not the first about to depart, thanks to the crash in the hallway."
"True," agreed the abigail.
"We have a mystery on our hands, I believe," Clare murmured, then walked to the maid. Seating herself on a nearby chair, she softly inquired, "Could you travel with us to Bath? I fear I must get there tomorrow at the latest. Your husband?" Clare hated to probe. The death of a new baby was difficult to accept, and it must be painful for this young woman, scarcely more than a slip of a girl actually, to handle another's child in her arms.
"I don't have a husband," the shy creature replied, dropping her gaze to the baby in her arms. "I was got with child by one of them swells that was stuck here last October when we had that terrible rain. 'Twas lucky for the that the cook let the stay on. I didn't need no baby, though she was that sweet, she was." While Jenny's face remained impassive, she exhaled a gentle sigh.
"I see," Clare replied, seeing a great deal. Venetia would find this a prime example of the thoughtlessness of the male species. Take their fun regardless of the consequences. The idea that servants were somehow less than human had always been repugnant to Clare, and she found herself very angry with the man who had treated this shy girl so badly.
The baby sated, he let out a resounding burp when placed against Jenny's shoulder. The sound brought smiles to all faces. Priddy surveyed the scene from behind Clare's shoulder.
"Will you come with us, then? I cannot leave the baby here, untended and unwanted. I have this feeling, you see. I believe there is a reason that a baby so obviously belonging to someone of refined background would be placed in my coach, my care as it were."
"Yes, miss. I think it be mighty fine of you to take him on," the maid declared boldly, then subsided in blushing confusion at her audacity.
"You will remain in here with the, I believe," Clare announced decisively. "I trust no one will harm the lad, but one cannot be too careful." She glanced about the room, then turned to Priddy. "Order up a cot for Jenny, and anything else you and she deem necessary. I believe I shall wander about the area to do my own bit of searching."
In the hall Clare found Venetia about to go downstairs. She joined her, encouraging her to take a stroll in the inn's charming garden.
"I am told there were fish ponds here at one time and a bowling green as well. That appears to have been kept at any rate," she observed as they strolled along a path. "No doubt something to while away the hours should one be delayed." She thought of young Jenny, and her mouth firmed.
"'Tis a rather rambling place, is it not? Charming, however." Venetia paused, then went on. "Do you actually intend to take that child with us in the morning?"
"What else can I do?"
"Leave it here," Venetia declared with a disdainful air.
"That I will not. Perhaps my destiny is bound up with this baby?" Clare gave a musical little laugh at this preposterous idea. "I am being fanciful, I fear. But truly, I must see this matter through. Surely you can see my point of view?"
Venetia sniffed, a very telling sound revealing her total opinion of the scheme. "If you must. I can see that nothing I may say will sway you from your tenacity. You realize that creature must travel with us in the coach ... unless," she said with hope in her voice, "you hire a conveyance to take them to Bath?"
"Rubbish," Clare said, her even temper frayed just a bit. "If we speed up our pace a trifle, we can be in Bath in a trice. Hiring a carriage is an expense I will not stand. However, should you care to...?" Clare allowed her voice to trail off suggestively. Tom Coachman would be overjoyed to increase their speed. It must have galled him yesterday to have every vehicle on the Bath road rattle past him.
"Mercy, no," Venetia stated fervently. The condition of her finances was such that only the needful was acquired. "I daresay we shall manage."
Clare appreciated the die-away air Venetia affected for what it was, a grateful, if grudging, yielding.
Thus it was that come the following morning, after Clare had made repeated efforts to locate the true parents of the baby, the little troop entered the coach. Within a very short time, the vehicle rumbled off toward Bath watched by the ostler, a couple of grooms, and an elderly nursemaid who happened to be passing by at the moment of departure.
"Fine leddy,'' commented the ostler to a groom as he headed toward the stables to prepare for the next customer.
"One of a kind, oi'd say," came the reply.
The journey was strained to say the least. Venetia remained in wounded sensibilities the entire trip. Jenny did her best to keep the baby quiet, but infants being what they are, it was not always possible.
Priddy was torn between her loyalty to her mistress and her growing affection for that scrap of humanity that, whenever she picked him up, tugged at the ribbons on the gown that covered Priddy's flat bosom.
"We shall have to think of a name for him. I mean, we simply cannot go on calling him the baby or whatever comes to mind." Clare gave the infant a fond look, then turned to Venetia. "Do you have any suggestions?"
"No!" Venetia snapped. Then, seeing the annoyed expression on her friend's face, she shrugged. "John?"
"Was there nothing in the basket? No other clue I might have missed?"
Jenny frowned, then shook her head. "Only a scrap of paper in the bottom."
Guessing the girl could not read, Clare gently asked, "Is it there still? I cannot think how I missed seeing it."
"Yes, miss. I never threw it out." Jenny fished around, then came up with a small piece of fine hot-pressed paper from which Clare read to the others, "'My name is William. Please care for the.'"
"William? Common enough," Venetia said.
"Our beloved king thought it good enough to bestow on one of his boys. William it is," Clare said thoughtfully. "Although, I believe I shall call him Willy, for he is such a small fellow."
With the increased speed, and no apparent ill effect on Miss Godwin, the coach rumbled down the hill into Bath in far better time than Clare had expected. They coped with the jolting ride over the cobbled streets with a degree of composure, then, when they stopped before a handsome edifice, got out to look about them.
The door opened, and a dignified man came out to greet them. "I am Bennison, Miss Fairchild. We welcome you to the Royal Crescent."
Clare had taken William from Jenny and stood before the house, appraising it with shrewd eyes. It looked to be just the sort of place her family would approve. A lady passed them by, bowing slightly with an inquiring look in her gaze.
"I believe we shall quite like this house, Bennison. Please show us in, for we are all quite fatigued." Turning to Jenny, she added, "See to Willy's things, and tell the if you think anything is needed."
"Yes, Miss Fairchild," replied the wet nurse with a happy glow about her. She had landed on her feet, she had. The lady was kind and gentle, not the least condemning. There was nothing Jenny would not do for the patient and plucky lady who had hired her from the kitchen.
Along the street, the woman who had lingered to overhear the identity of the newcomer to the crescent raised her delicate eyebrows. A single lady with an infant? Here? Disgraceful. Mrs. Robottom huffed off to spread the latest tittle-tattle to her neighbors. Why, she might dine off this news for a week, at least.
Posted April 29, 2011
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