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She had arrived.
Julia's heart fluttered within her as the elegant burgundy traveling coach slowed, then turned through an imposing gateway. Great stone pillars guarded the avenue leading to the house beyond, and the iron tracery of the gate itself displayed the griffin that had symbolized the Blackford family through the years.
She leaned forward, eager to catch sight of the manor home where she was to spend the coming weeks. Ignoring the babbling of her twins, the soft-voiced urgings of their nursemaid, and her own abigail, Hibbett, she lowered the window to put out her head, just like any ordinary traveler in strange parts.
"Milady," Hibbett remonstrated, scandalized at her lady's behavior. The abigail had been with the Dancy family since girlhood, and took liberties denied to a newcomer. After all, she had known Lady Winton since her infancy, when she was merely Miss Julia Dancy. Hibbett had long administered reproaches along with brushing soft ash brown curls, quite ignoring the looks from limpid green eyes charmingly set in an oval face. Now, away from home, Hibbett meant to guard her young lady well.
"I want to see, Hibbett. I have read much of this house and its antiquity." Julia's gasp of delight when she espied the Italianate gem set on a velvety green lawn against the wooded hills brought the abigail to the coach window as well.
"Most impressive, would you not agree?" Julia shared a glance with her maid before settling back on the comfortable seat for the remainder of the drive, for it would not do for anyone in the house to see her gawking from the coach window. The soft autumn breeze that had swept into the coach from the open window now ceasedwhen Hibbett closed it.
The traveling coach sent to bring her to this estate had proven superb, and she had been extended all the consideration she might wish by his lordship's servants while on the journey of several days. It seemed that his lordship, at any rate, thought well enough of her to accord her the finest of treatment.
Her feelings regarding this trip had seesawed from anxiety to anticipation. She wondered how the viscount's mother would receive her, never mind that the gentleman had assured Julia his mother awaited her coming with eagerness. Julia had been about society too much to believe that any mother welcomed a young widow to her home when her widower son might well be hanging out for a wife. Uneasy, suspicious, cautious might be more applicable emotions rather than welcoming. The passing days would tell.
The traveling coach bowled down the long avenue to the house after crossing a meandering stream. As they neared the structure, Julia could see details missed from a distance. Sun struck the tall, sparkling, many-paned windows, setting them ablaze. The honey-colored stone building with a taste of the Renaissance was beautifully situated in a Capability Brown landscape. Numerous domed turrets dotted the roof, lending an exotic touch to the otherwise simple structure. To the rear of the house could be seen a rose garden with an orangery in the distance. Julia had looked up the history of the family, and the estate as well. Viscount Temple appeared to be an excellent guardian of the family home.
"The house was built at the time of Queen Elizabeth, you know," Julia informed the others. "I do hope it is not one of those haunted old places one hears about. You know, the sort with a wailing lady who carries her head tucked underneath her arm, or the ghost who lingers in the gallery." Julia chuckled.
Violet, the nursemaid, gave a small worried frown.
"While there are those who devoutly claim ghosts exist, I do not," Julia stated in a firm voice.
"You do not think there will be such here?" Violet asked timidly, not easily convinced.
"Nonsense. That sort of thing exists only in novels like The Castle of Otranto." Julia smiled kindly at the girl, then beamed a delighted look at the three-year-old twins, who appeared as fine as fivepence, not upset by the pace of their travel in the least. "We shall be there in a moment, darlings."
Julia gathered her reticule and smoothed her gloves as the coach drew to a halt before one of the flight of steps.
In a short time, a stiff-looking butler had marched across the terrace, then down the steps to greet the arriving guests in the process of being assisted from the traveling coach by the groom.
Julia, her five-foot-five-inch figure drawn properly erect, surveyed the haughty man, then in her most gracious manner said, "I am Lady Winton. I believe we are expected."
Shortly, she was following the butler, who identified himself as Biggins, into the house, her children and servants right behind her.
In the wood-paneled and flagstoned entry hall a proper-looking housekeeper, dressed in black bombazine with her chatelaine dangling from a plump waist, awaited them.
"I am Mrs. Crumpton, milady. If you will be so good as to wait in the great hall, I shall take your children to their room, ma'am." She dipped a proper curtsy, then motioned the little group who had entered with Julia to follow her.
Exchanging a speaking look with Hibbett, Julia signaled her maid to shepherd the children and Violet on their way upstairs. Then Julia followed the sour-looking Biggins across the hall to a severely austere room.
She slowly entered the large room designated as the great hall and strolled to the center of it, looking about her with curious eyes.
"Supposed to intimidate one, I fancy," she murmured to the magnificent marble fireplace surround. On the far side of the room, which was indeed great in size, she saw a shuffleboard table that looked nearly as old as the house.
The Dancy country home, while quite nice, did not run to such antiquities. Carpets of great beauty and age splashed gentle color across the floor, and the tapestry-covered and elegantly carved oak chairs set near the fireplace were stiff relics of bygone years. But, as lovely as they were, they appeared somewhat lost in the large room.
A soft, scraping noise brought her attention to the Minstrel's gallery. Through the elaborately carved railing, she could make out the piquant face of a young girl. This must be Anne, the daughter of Viscount Temple, one of those whose face Julia was expected to paint in the coming weeks. About to call out to her, Julia was forestalled by the entry of an elderly lady dressed in pale gray challis, stripped in black and violet, and an exquisite white lace cap.
"Lady Winton? I am Lady Temple. Welcome to Blackford Hall. I trust you are not done in by your journey. But then, perhaps you are accustomed to jauntering about the countryside in your pursuits? I suppose one can become accustomed to most anything if needs be. I think it admirable that you resort to painting miniatures to augment your income. It is so tiresome when husbands die and fail to adequately provide for their widows." Lady Temple sighed as though put-upon. She did not appear encouraging in the least, much to Julia's dismay.
Intrigued by the odd manner of welcome, Julia stepped forward to politely acknowledge the greeting. "My trip went well, thank you. The coach your son sent to convey us was all we might desire in comfort. May I say that I look forward to doing your portrait. And Miss Anne's as well," she added with a flicker of a glance at the Minstrels' gallery. As to the oblique reference to her late husband, Julia said not a word, but firmed her lips at the thought of him.
A stir to her left caught Julia's attention. The man who entered brought a guarded smile to her lips. It was evident from her initial confrontation with Lady Temple that her path while in this house was not to be smooth. How he would handle the matter remained to be seen.
"My Lord, it is pleasant to see you again," she said in the most polite and somewhat distant of manners following an exceedingly proper curtsy. With things being what they were, she had no desire to further annoy anyone.
His black hair was neatly brushed back from a smooth brow above those incredible, meltingly dark eyes Julia had painted while in London. He captured total attention when in a room. Dangerously handsome, she reluctantly admitted.
"Lady Winton. I am glad to see you have arrived without injury, and looking as fresh as a rose. The roads being what they are in these parts, one never knows." Noel Blackford, Viscount Temple crossed the room with swift steps to reach Julia's side. He bowed over her hand most correctly, then turned to his mother. "I am pleased you were here to greet Lady Winton on my behalf, mother. I had requested to be notified at once." That Lord Temple was not best pleased at his butler's neglect seemed evident.
Julia decided she would not wish to be Biggins. The lapse of one who is usually devoted to his master also offered her a clue as to the butler's loyalty. One had best learn these things if one were to visit for a time. She wondered if Mrs. Crumpton was also in Lady Temple's pocket.
"But why are we in this room?" Lord Temple looked about him with a puzzled air. "Come, Lady Winton, join us in the drawing room, where"--he tossed a mystified glance at his mother--"we usually gather."
Julia accepted his arm, then walked at his side up an elegant flight of stairs while wondering what manner of bumblebroth she had tumbled into. The undercurrents were such that one would easily be swept along in them.
The drawing room was a spacious, comfortable-looking room with many windows overlooking the countryside. Commodious chairs Julia knew to be eighteenth-century French were scattered about, with interesting tables, magnificent paintings, and a cozy fire to take the chill off the early autumn day.
Two young women were seated on a cream damask sofa to the far side of the room, and rose as Julia entered with Lord Temple and his mother. They were exquisite creatures, gowned in the highest fashion, groomed to within the inch, and most likely possessed of a fine pedigree, Julia concluded with amusement.
Lady Temple drifted across to join the beautiful girls, then faced Julia and her son with a gracious--and somewhat defiant--look on her face.
"May I present Lady Pamela Kenyard and Miss Edythe Sanders, Lady Winton." She turned to them and added, "Lady Winton is to paint my face, if you can fancy such a thing. She did a miniature of Noel's eyes for me not long ago."
Miss Edythe Sanders was a petite blonde with baby blue eyes and dressed in a white muslin that had a profusion of delicate blue ribbons decorating it. The slender and somewhat taller Lady Pamela had magnificent chestnut hair dressed a la Sappho and wore a gown of the palest peach jaconet trimmed in deep russet. Neither girl seemed pleased to see Julia.
Miss Sanders tittered behind a dainty hand. "I cannot imagine staring at another's face so long. Do you paint many gentlemen? That seems excessively improper for a lady." She exchanged a sly look with Lady Pamela.
Annoyed at the little barb directed her way--not to mention the narrow look from Lady Pamela--Julia stiffened, then replied with a smile, "I am fascinated with the faces I paint. No two are identical. One can learn much about the character of a person while studying their visage. Young girls are particularly pleasing, for they reveal such charm. I shall enjoy doing the portrait of Miss Anne. I have painted quite a few children as of late."
Then she smiled at Lady Temple and said, "You have the same excellent bones your son has. I believe you shall transfer to ivory very well. Most elegantly, in fact."
Her glance strayed back to the other guests. Lady Pamela and Miss Sanders both gazed at his lordship as though he were a particularly succulent dish, and they were starved for food. Ah, so that was the lay of the land. Julia was not the least surprised that Lady Temple sought to nudge her son's steps in a particular direction. It was done all the time. Which girl might end up with the prize?
Lady Temple gestured to the cluster of chairs, and they all arranged themselves with varying degrees of grace. Julia made no attempt to appear artful. She found the coy glances and darted admiration of Miss Sanders and Lady Pamela rather amusing. Actually, Julia ought to feel flattered, she decided. Apparently those "Diamonds of the First Water" believed that Julia was competition. There could be no other reason for such silly behavior.
"Mother thought you might enjoy the company of other young ladies while you are here," Lord Temple said, capturing Julia's attention.
So that was the excuse the velvet dragon had given her son for the house party. There was no doubt in Julia's mind that Lady Temple intended to guard her son well from any dangerous dalliance, particularly with a widow of undistinguished background. It really was not the thing for Julia, even if she was Lady Winton, to be painting, and for a fee. Julia bestowed a serene smile on Lady Temple.
"How very gracious of you, my lady. However, I would wish to concentrate on my painting. I shall have no time for socializing. I could not permit myself to impose upon you a moment longer than necessary." Julia could not miss the flicker of elation in Lady Temple's eyes. Quite as Julia had suspected, the dowager had plans.
"Lady Temple said you are widowed." Lady Pamela remarked. "How tragic for such a young woman. And with children as well. So very sad," she concluded with just the proper degree of sympathy.
"Indeed," Miss Sanders agreed. "You must miss your husband very much." She darted a look at Lord Temple, then appeared assured by the bland expression she saw on his face. "What a pity you did not have a son to carry on the line, then you might have remained at your home." Miss Sanders made it subtly evident that she, for one, would welcome Julia's absence.
"Actually, my husband and I were not together for long. I married Giles shortly before he left for the Peninsular War. He never returned." Julia's face concealed her opinion of her loss quite admirably.
"Yet you did not remain with his family?" Lady Pamela queried, a look of avid curiosity crossing her face.
"No. I preferred to reside with my sisters, for they had need of me." Julia well knew that it was customary for a widow to live with her husband's family, particularly if there were children. That had proved impossible when she failed to produce the requisite heir, but she had no intention of making her marriage tea table conversation. She caught a glimpse of the tea tray being carried in by Biggins, and welcomed the interruption.
"Well, I must say that you are very courageous to venture out, painting portraits. How businesslike of you, I daresay," Lady Pamela concluded.
Julia suppressed a grin with great difficulty. If this young--and exceedingly pretty--chit thought she was going to discommode Julia by making her seem like the veriest cit, she missed her mark by a long chalk. Julia had been about in the highest Society, and had observed presumptuous young girls set down by masters of the art. Instead, Julia patiently smiled at Miss Sanders, one of the famous Dancy smiles that had left more than a score of young men dazzled by its beauty. By her sudden blink, it was clear that the beauteous Miss Sanders had not expected such an amiable response.
"I hardly think one might consider Lady Winton as a merchant," Lord Temple chided ever so gently, unexpectedly coming to Julia's defense.
"Goodness me, no!" Julia laughed softly in agreement. "No self-appreciating businessman would keep records like I do. I fear I would make a shockingly bad person of business."
"Artistic temperament?" Edythe Sanders suggested in her soft, sweet voice that bordered on a lisp.
"Perhaps," Julia replied, growing bored with this silly sparring.
"Your little girls traveled well?" Lady Temple inserted, possibly not wishing her protégées to reveal themselves as unworthy of her dear son.
"Quite well, thank you. I am an odiously doting mama, I fear," Julia revealed with a fond smile. "You were most kind to suggest that I bring them with me, for I am most reluctant to part with them for any length of time."
Lady Temple smiled thinly at this disclosure of Julia's excellent example of mother love, then set about pouring tea while Lady Pamela assisted her with the milk, sugar, and paper-thin slices of lemon.
Lord Temple had shifted uneasily in his chair a number of times, reminding Julia of her younger brother when he was about to reveal something he suspected would annoy his parent.
"Whatever is it, Noel, that has you so edgy?" his mother inquired at long last, when the social nothings that so frequently are heard over the tea table dwindled away.
"I trust you do not mind that I invited a couple of particular friends to join us," he said at last.
Julia thought it odd that the head of the household would be reluctant to invite anyone he wished, but then, not every home had a velvet dragon guarding its doors.
"I am sure you may ask anyone you please, my son," Lady Temple declared with a slight softening in her eyes.
Julia smiled to herself. Evidently Lady Temple truly cared for her son, and only sought the best for him. Julia could understand this, being a mother herself. But it was to be hoped that Lady Temple would not resort to drastic lengths to nudge her son into a marriage that might prove distasteful to him. Julia tried to imagine either Miss Sanders or Lady Pamela as fond mothers, and failed utterly. And, after all, was that not the prime reason for marriage? To produce the required heir?
A stir in the hallway caught the attention of those assembled before the tea table. A dashing dandy entered the drawing room with the familiarity of an old friend sure of his welcome.
Julia thought his waistcoat admirable, although most colorful, with its puce and gold stripes on a cream background. It certainly complemented his corbeau coat and the fawn pantaloons tucked into shining boots.
"Reggie," Lady Temple exclaimed, but whether in fondness or not Julia couldn't decide.
The newcomer sauntered forward, making an elegant leg to the group. Lady Temple in particular. He raised a highly fashionable quizzing glass that had dangled from a simple gold chain to view the ladies.
Julia thought his pretensions amusing, if perhaps a trifle overmuch. She had glimpsed the dandy here and there while in London, but he did not often frequent the same sphere that she did.
"Allow me to present Reginald Fothingay to you, ladies. Better known as Reggie to his friends. Lady Pamela Kenyard, Lady Winton, and Miss Edythe Sanders are visiting with us, Reggie."
"Charmed, I'm sure," the elegant dandy replied, then turned his gaze upon his friend. "Jolly glad you wrote, Temple. Always enjoy a stay at your little place. A bit of shooting coming up, perhaps? Partridge are said to be excellent this year." The dandy dangled his quizzing glass from his fingers, his keen gaze now flicking from one lady to the next in a most assessing look.
"Perhaps," Lord Temple replied. The shortness of his answer was belied by the warmth of his smile when he greeted his good friend.
Julia repressed a smile. Reggie Fothingay out shooting? But then, it was an acceptable sport to a gentleman. The beaters did the work, the gentleman walking through the woodland to shoot the partridge that fluttered to the sky in alarm. Or did the elegant Reggie have a different sort of pursuit in mind?
Reggie declined to settle in a chair, most likely to afford the ladies a better view of his elegance. Instead, he politely took his cup and saucer, then lounged against the fireplace mantel, sipping and surveying the others. If he might have preferred something a bit stronger than tea, he gave no indication.
"Anyone else due?" Reggie lazily inquired during the next lull.
"Dick Vansittart wrote he'd be stopping by, but for how long, he couldn't say. His sister Constance has demanded his presence at the upcoming baptism of a little niece or nephew, as the case may be."
"Quite so," Reggie mused. "Family very important to Dicky. Good lad," he declared with a touch of condescension.
Lord Temple gave a bark of laughter. "Not fair, Reggie, old fellow. Dick would have your hide if he heard you call him a good lad."
"Aye, that I would, if I thought it might do me any good" came a comment from the doorway.
Whereas the dandy had tousled sandy hair and piercing gray eyes, Mr. Vansittart possessed kindly brown eyes and rather nice brown hair with a tendency to curl. He had not the pretensions of a dandy, but was rather like Lord Temple in his dress. Neat but not gaudy, thought Julia with appreciation.
Dick Vansittart strolled across the room, his neat blue coat fitting him with elegant ease over gray pantaloons. His waistcoat, Julia noted, was a simple affair of plum cassimere. Restrained style, indeed. She felt more warmly toward this gentleman, with his easy charm and ready smile.
"We are complete?" Reggie inquired of his host in a soft side.
"But for a couple my mother has invited to keep her company. Lord and Lady Lacey."
Reggie darted a look at the dowager, then nodded. "I suspect she intends to seal your fate, old fellow." He spoke in a voice that just barely reached Julia where she sat a trifle apart from the other ladies.
Lord Temple shrugged, then turned to Dick. 'Tolerable trip?"
"Tolerable, barely. My carriage lost a wheel on the way, or I'd have been here before."
The gentlemen fell to a discussion of the road conditions, wondering when the improvements on the main roads out of London would reach the more remote communities.
Julia tore her attention, albeit strained, from the men to concentrate on the ladies. It seemed they had given up enticing the men with their charms and had turned to more familiar topics. Fashions.
"Do you have a favorite mantua-maker in London, Lady Winton?" Lady Pamela inquired with an appraising study of Julia's very modish traveling gown.
Julia blessed her decision to take the time to pause for refreshments, and change from the rumpled carriage gown she had been wearing before arriving at the house. Anticipating trouble was good for something, especially one's self-esteem.
Serene that she looked well, Julia nodded. "My sisters and I patronize Madame Clotilde. I find her designs so original and always in good taste. Have you heard of her?" Julia concluded in dulcet tones.
Since the madame was among the premier mantua makers of Town, it was unlikely that Lady Pamela had failed to hear of her, unless she had not entered Society.
"Or are you not out?" Julia added with a motherly smile.
"Of course. My mother presented me at court, then gave me a lovely ball. What a pity I did not know you then." Lady Pamela said with sly politeness.
"I fear I tend to indulge in Lady Tichbourne's conversaziones rather than come-out balls," Julia said with commendable ruefulness.
Perhaps slightly intimidated by the knowledge that here was a lady who was accepted by the highest sticklers of Society, for only the most interesting people were invited to such doings, Lady Pamela fell into uncertain silence.
Lady Temple asserted herself by suggesting that dear Lady Winton must be exhausted from her journey and would most likely wish to have a quiet lie-down in her room. She abruptly rose, then shepherded the three young women from the drawing room with remarkable speed.
The two other girls were swept along down the stairs with Lady Temple. Julia could hear their clear high voices floating up as they drifted to the lower floor, away from the gentlemen.
Julia remained in the hall, awaiting the attention of the housekeeper and wondering what sort of room she was to occupy. Would she be placed next to the nursery and have a governess type of room far from the guest suites? Or might she be near the others? She must have presented Lady Temple a dilemma. As Lady Winton, Julia deserved a room of quality. As a painter of portraits, she rated a lesser accommodation. How interesting to see the solution Lady Temple had reached.
Mrs. Crumpton bustled up, motioning to the stairs. "Follow me, milady."
As she walked slowly up the stairs behind the housekeeper, Julia heard the sound of additional voices down in the entry hall. No doubt the remaining couple in the house party had arrived, the Laceys.
In a way, Julia found it comforting that there would be people about, and things to do. Her feelings for the elegant Lord Temple were too hazy, and most likely exceedingly foolish, for her to desire the intimacy of just his family, not to mention his frequent company.
Lord Temple was a most intriguing man, rather uncommunicative, even abrupt in his speech, although his voice was rich, and what he did say was usually of interest. He possessed beautiful eyes. When Julia had painted a miniature of one of his eyes--a ridiculously popular rage at the moment--for Lady Temple, she had become an expert on the color, depth, expression, and utter beauty of Lord Temple's eyes. The emotions stirred within her when she had touched his face while adjusting his position during the painting sessions had not faded from her memory. It was best she set aside such impossible sensations.
At the absurdity of her thoughts, she smiled to herself at the moment the housekeeper paused before a door, then opened it. The charming room quite put an end to her evaluation of Lord Temple for the moment.
Julia politely thanked the housekeeper following that woman's kind explanations, then shut the door, grateful to be alone for a moment.
The bedroom appeared exquisite, with handpainted wallpaper of a delicate Oriental pattern. The twins would adore looking at the multitude of birds and flowers, not to mention the quaint figures of Chinese here and there along the border just above the cream wainscoting.
Drifting to the chaise longue, nicely done up in blue print to match the chairs and pelmet above the window, Julia settled down to rest a bit. Surprising elegance, for the artist. So Lady Temple decided she belonged here. Most interesting. Would the lady lend her cooperation in regards to the painting? Julia wondered, considering the thinly veiled hostility observed.
As to Miss Anne Blackford, his lordship's seven-year-old daughter, Julia would wait to assess her chances with her.
The door of her dressing room opened, and Hibbett entered with Tansy clasped in her arms.
"She wants to see you," the abigail declared.
"Let them join me for a while. I fear the days to come will be busy ones, and I shan't have as much time for them as I might wish." Julia exchanged a rueful look with Hibbett, then sat up on the chaise.
Putting aside her fatigue, Julia welcomed her precious Tansy with open arms, and smiled at the sounds of an imperious Rosemary in the next room.
Although the twins had yet to speak an intelligible word, they made their wants known with amazing clarity.
One of these days something would happen, and they would speak. Julia knew they would. She just wished it would be sooner than later. It frustrated her that they remained silent.
Perhaps while here..." She sensed that this might be a far different visit than she had anticipated, and wondered what was coming her way.
Turning thoughts to the practical, she considered that nice Mr. Vansittart of the lovely brown eyes. Not the entrancing black pools Lord Temple possessed, but warm, friendly ... eager? Perhaps. The coming days would reveal whether or not he might prove to have potential. Julia was tired of living alone, and when her younger brother returned from the war, she might well marry. Julia had no desire to share a house with newlyweds. She needed a husband. Someday, before too long.
A rustle of skirts in the doorway, and Violet entered the bedroom. "Miss, I surely do hope this house will be a welcoming one. I like to tell you that I feel vibrations already." The young nursemaid's eyes were huge in her pointed little face.
"Pooh," Julia said, chuckling at the nursemaid's imagination. "Nothing in the world is going to go wrong."
"But what about the otherworld?" Violet whispered just loud enough for Julia to overhear.
It vexed her to think the nursemaid might frighten the girls by foolish talk. They might not speak, but they could hear well enough. Julia ought not to have mentioned the possibility when in the coach.
"Violet, listen to me. Everything will be fine. Do you hear?"
"Yes, mum," the nursemaid mumbled dutifully. But she sounded far from convinced.