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Dreycott Park, the north Norfolk coastApril 24th, 1815
'He' s coming!' Johnny, the boot boy, came tumbling through the front door, shirt half-untucked, red in the face with running from his post in the gazebo on top of Flagstaff Hill. He had been up there every day since the message had arrived that the late Lord Dreycott's heir was on his way from London.
Lina gave up all pretence of sewing and came out into the hall. Trimble the butler was snapping his fingers, sending footmen scurrying to assemble the rest of the staff.
She had not been able to settle to anything in the four days since Lord Dreycott's funeral. When she had fled from Sir Humphrey Tolhurst's house, terrified, desperate and wanted by the law, her aunt had sent her to an old friend's rural retreatto safety, so Clara had believed. But now her elderly protector was gone.
Lina smoothed down the skirts of her black afternoon dress and tried for composure. This was the end of her sanctuary, a brief seven weeks since she had fled from London, a price on her head for a theft she had not committed. The heir was coming to claim what was his and, no doubt, to eject hangers-on from his new houseand then what would become of her?
'Where are the carriages? How many?' the butler demanded.
'No carriages, Mr Trimble, sir. Just two riders and a pack horse. I saw them coming through the Cromer road gate. They're walking, sir, the animals looked tired. They'll be a while yet.'
'Even so, hurry.'
Hurry. Pack, take this money and hurry. The elegant square entrance hall blurred and faded and became a bedchamber. Aunt Clara, white-lipped, her face drawn after a week of racking sickness, dragged herself up against the pillows as Lina sobbed out her story.
'He did not touch you?' she had whispered urgently and they both glanced at the door. Makepeace's bully boy might be back at any moment. 'I swear Makepeace will suffer for this.'
'No. Tolhurst did not touch me.' The relief of that was still overwhelming, the only good thing in the entire nightmare. 'He made me undress while he watched. Then he took his clothes off.' It took a moment to push her mind past the image of indulged middle-aged flab, mottled skin, the terrifying thing that thrust out from below the swell of Tolhurst's belly. 'And he began to reach for me And then he gasped, and his eyes bulged and his face went red and he fell down. So I rang for help and pulled on my clothes and'
'He was dead? You are certain?'
'Oh, yes.' Lina hadn't been able to bring herself to touch him, but she could tell. The bulging blue eyes had seemed fixed on her, still avid with lust even as they began to glaze over. She had stared in horror as her fingers fumbled with ribbons and garters. 'They all came in thenthe valet, the butler, the younger son, Reginald Tolhurst. Mr Tolhurst knelt down and tried to find a pulsethen he sent the valet for the doctor and told the butler to lock me in the library. He said his father's sapphire ring was missing.'
'The Tolhurst Sapphire? My God.' Her aunt had stared at her. 'Wasn't he wearing it when you?'
'I don't know!' Lina's voice quavered upwards and she caught her herself before it became a shriek. 'I wasn't looking at his rings.
'I heard them talking outside. They said the ring was not in the room, not in the safe nor the jewel box. The butler said Sir Humphrey had been wearing it when I arrived. Mr Tolhurst sent a footman to Bow Street, to the magistrates.' She was gabbling with anxiety, but she could not seem to steady herself.
'He said I would be taken up for theft, that I must have thrown it out of the window to an accomplice. He said I would hang like the thieving whore I was.' She closed her eyes and fought for calm. Her aunt was ill, she must remember that. But she had nowhere else to go, no one else to help her. 'I climbed out of the library window and ran,' she finished. 'I didn't know what else to do.'
'You must go out of London until the truth can be discovered,' Clara said with decision, suddenly sounding more like her old self. 'I'll send you to Simon AshleyLord Dreycottin Norfolk, he will take you in.'
'If I go to the magistrates with a lawyer,' Lina said, 'they'll believe me then, surely? If I run away'
'You live in a brothel. No one will believe you are innocent, and once they have you, there will be no attempt to establish the truth,' her aunt said with all the bitterness bred of years of dealings with the law. 'The Tolhurst Sapphire is famous and worth thousands. Did you read about that maidservant who was hanged a fortnight ago for stealing a silver teaspoon? It was found a few days after the execution where her mistress had lost itdown the side of the sofa. If they didn't believe her, a girl with a good character, they are not going to believe you. Help me get up.'
'Hurry, Lina.' Clara threw back the bedclothes and walked unsteadily to her desk. 'Put on your plain bombazine walking dress. Pack what you need in bags you can carry. Hurry.'
'There is no time to lose,' Trimble urged.
Lina blinked. This was the present and she had to focus on the present danger, not the past. The staff lined up, tugged cuffs and aprons under the butler's critical eye. Mrs Bishop, the cook, headed the row of maids; the footmen and the boot boy aligned themselves on the other side next to Trimble. It was not a large indoor stafften in allbut a reclusive and eccentric ninety-year-old baron had needed no more. Where should she, the cuckoo in the nest, stand?
'Miss Haddon?' Trimble gestured her to the front. It was uncomfortable using a false name, but her real one was too dangerous. Makepeace had considered that Celina Shelley sounded suitable for a courtesan, so the law had known her real name from the beginning.
Trimble seemed tense. Lina smiled at him in an effort to reassure both of them. In the days since her improbable protector had slipped away in his sleep, eased on his last journey by copious glasses of best cognac, an injudicious indulgence in lobster and too many cheroots, the staff had looked to her as the temporary head of the household.
She was, they accepted, Lord Dreycott's house guest, a distant acquaintance in need of a roof over her head because of the indisposition of an aunt. Her eyes filled with tears at the memory of his kindness, masked behind a pretence of cantankerous bad humour. He had read Aunt Clara's scribbled note, asked a few sharp questions, then rang for Trimble and informed him that Miss Haddon was staying for the foreseeable future.
Lord Dreycott had waved her out of his crowded, book-strewn library with an impatient gesture, but she had seen how his other hand caressed the note, the twisted, brown-spotted fingers gentle on the thick paper. He was doing this for Clara, for some memory of a past relationship, she realised, and Lina had not taken any notice of his gruffness after that.
Now she took her place and waited, her face schooled into a calm expressionless mask as she had learned to do for years in the face of Papa's furies over some minor sin or another. Her fingers trembled slightly, making a tiny rustling noise against the crisp black silk, and she pressed the tips together to still them. Somehow she had to persuade this man to let her stay here without telling him why.
At last, the sound of hooves on the carriage drive. Paul, the second footman, swayed back on his heels to keep an unobtrusive watch out of the narrow slit of glass beside the front door then, as the sound of male voices penetrated the thick panels, he swung it open with a flourish. The new Lord Dreycott had arrived.
'My lord.' Trimble stepped through on to the arcaded entrance and bowed. 'Welcome to Dreycott Park.'
Staring past the butler's narrow shoulders, Lina could see only glimpses of the horsesa curving dappled grey rump and a long white tail, the arch of a black neck, the bulk of oilskin-wrapped cases piled on a pack saddle. Then the grey shifted and she saw its rider fleetingly. A dust-coloured coat draped over the horse's rump; long soft boots without spurs sagged softly at the ankles; hair the colour of polished mahogany showed over-long beneath a wide-brimmed hat. He swung down out of the saddle and, even with the narrow view between butler and pillar, she saw the ease and suppleness of a fit man.
As he turned she dropped her gaze and Trimble backed into the hall to allow his new master entrance. Lina focused on where Lord Dreycott's mouth would be. That felt a safe place to look. It was becoming easier now, but ever since that night she had to make herself meet a man's eyes directly.
The male servants were deferential, trained never to stare, and she felt comfortable with them. Old Lord Dreycott's rheumy, long-sighted gaze had held no terrors for her, but when any other man met her eyes for more than a moment she felt the panic building, her heart pattered in alarm and her hands clenched with the need to control her urge to run. She must overcome it, she knew, especially with the new baron, lest he guessed she had something to hide.
The swirling skirts of his riding coat filled the doorway and the booted feet stopped just inside, set apart with a confident stance that seemed to come naturally, rather than as a deliberate statement of ownership. Lina found herself staring, not at his mouth as she had expected, but at the carelessly tied neckcloth at his throat. This was a tall man. Her eyes shifted cautiously up to his jaw, darkened with several days' stubble. When he pulled off the heavy leather gauntlets and slapped them against his coat it became apparent that it was dust-coloured because it was covered in dust.
'My lord.' Trimble coughed slightly as he took gloves and hat. 'On behalf of the staff, may I offer our condolences at the loss of your great-uncle? I am Trimble, my lord.'
'But I remember you,' Lord Dreycott said with a wide smile of recognition, his teeth very white in his tanned face. 'It is good to see you again, Trimble. Many years, is it not?'
'It is indeed, my lord. And this ' he turned as he spoke ' is Miss Haddon, his late lordship's guest.'
Lina dropped into a curtsy. 'My lord.'
'Miss Haddon. I was not aware that there were any Haddons in the family.' His voice was deep and flexible with a faint touch of a foreign intonation and more than a hint of enquiry.
'I am not a relative, my lord.' The stubble on his chin was darker than his hair, except for a thin slash of silver that must trace a scar that had just missed his mouth. Be persuasive and open, an inner voice urged. He must believe that you will be no trouble to him and might be useful. 'Lord Dreycott was an old friend of the aunt with whom I used to live. When I had nowhere to go he was kind enough to take me in. I have been acting as housekeeper and companion for the past seven weeks, my lord.'
'I see. I am sorry to put you to inconvenience so soon after the funeral, Miss Haddon. The date of my arrival in the country was uncertain, but fortunately I called on my agent at once. He had received the news, but it was, I regret to say, the day of the service. We simply rode on.'
'All the way from London, my lord?' That was more than one hundred and forty miles. She remembered the interminably long stagecoach only too vividly.
'Yes.' He seemed surprised at the question, as though it was normal for the aristocracy to take to the high roads on horseback rather than in a post-chaise or private carriage. 'The horses were fresh enough and they are used to long distances.'
There was a bustle outside as the grooms arrived and led the animals away, Lord Dreycott's man striding behind them. The baron half-turned to see them go and Lina risked a rapid upwards glance. Overlong hair, deeply tanned skin, and, from the sharp angle of his jaw, not a spare ounce of flesh on him. He was tall, but not bulky: a thoroughbred, not a Shire horse, she thought, the sudden whimsy breaking through her anxiety. He radiated a kind of relaxed natural energy as though something wild and free had been brought into the house. Lina felt oddly fidgety and unsettled as though that quality had reached her, too.
'You will wish to retire to your rooms, I have no doubt, my lord. Your, er valet?' Trimble eased the dust-thick coat from his lordship's shoulders.
'Gregor is my travelling companion,' Lord Dreycott said and turned back. 'I assume one of the footmen can look after my clothes.'
Lina contemplated his boots. It should have been a safe place to look if it were not for the fact that the swirling pattern of stitching that spiralled round them took the eye upwards, leading inexorably to legs that were long and well muscled. The boots did not look like English work.
Where had Lord Dreycott been? She tried to recall what his great-uncle had said about his heir. A traveller, like I used to be. Only one of the family with any backbone, the old man had grunted. Only one with an original thought in his head. Scandalous rogue, of course. Shocking! He had chuckled indulgently. Never see the boy. He writes, but he's the decency not to come sniffing round for his inheritance.
But this was not a boy. This was a man. Her stomach clenched as he moved to stand in front of her. Lina forced herself to look into his face for a second and wondered how gullible he was likely to be. Green eyes, cool and watchful in contrast to the easy smile he wore. Not blue eyes, not bulging, not filled with the need to use and take. The fear subsided to wary tension. But his scrutiny of her face was not indifferent, either, it was searching and intelligent and masculine and she glanced away to focus on his left ear before he could read the emotion in her own eyes. No, not gullible at all.