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"Jasper! You wretched beast!" Lady Hilary Merton sighed. Tossing down her trowel, she moved toward her dog. She eyed with disapprobation the rapidly enlarging hole in the soft soil enclosed by what might once have been stone walls. "Now look what you've done."
The animal thus addressed glanced up reproachfully from the patch of ground he'd been excavating. Well, yes, it must be admitted he was on the large side, and more than somewhat disreputable in appearance. Theoretically a cross between a lurcher and an Irish wolfhound, he looked more a mixture of Shetland goat and Welsh pony. Shrugging philosophically, he twitched his tail and continued digging.
"We will have no unauthorized quarrying, Jasper," said Hilary, belying the severity of her words by scratching him affectionately behind his ragged, platter-sized ears.
"We are here on sufferance," she continued, scolding gently, "and must mind our manners."
She made an odd picture, a small, slight figure shaking her finger in reproof at an animal the size of a moose calf. Jasper hung his head, but the next moment destroyed the effect by jumping up to lick her face with an entirely unreciprocated enthusiasm.
Hilary mopped her cheeks with her sleeve and, straightening her bonnet, glanced around with some satisfaction. She had, she felt, accomplished a great deal in the last few months. It was too bad the Roman villa, discovered some years earlier, was not on her father's property, but the boundaries of Whiteleaves lay just a few hundred yards away. In any event, Sir William had given her his tacit permission to work here. Now, she thought with a small surge of excitement, if only the new owner of the propertywould be so amenable. Surely, such a noted antiquary as Mr. James Wincanon would applaud her efforts and seek her out for further assistance in uncovering the remains.
Hilary stood for a moment in the stillness of the forest. A slanting ray of afternoon sun bathed her in a welcoming warmth, for the late September air was chill.
Mm, she reflected inconsequentially. It would be Halloween soon, her favorite festival of the year. Not just because it occurred during autumn and harvest time, but because of the hint of magic and ancient mystery that hung over the countryside. Best of all, one need not believe in any of it to enjoy the fun.
But never mind that now. She turned her attention back to the ruined villa and in her mind's eye, she pictured it, whole and prospering--a homestead for an owner and his family. A retired legionary, perhaps, who had decided to settle in Britannia after a lifetime of service to the emperor. There would no doubt have been a porch to welcome visitors, and spacious rooms inside where the estate holder and his family conducted the business of their lives. She had already found a few artifacts and surely there would be more--mosaics, and sculptures, and pottery, as well as coins and traces of all the other objects that made a house a home. She could hardly wait to begin working under Mr. Wincanon's guidance.
She became aware that the sun's rays were lengthening. Goodness! She should be home right now preparing for this evening's dinner party--and she had promised the vicar's wife she would stop for tea. She gathered the trowel and the other utensils she used for her digging and placed them carefully inside the small shed nearby that she had ordered constructed for this purpose. Then, Jasper loping after her like a fur rug caught in a windstorm, she mounted the little gig parked at the edge of the site. She slapped the reins against the horse's flanks and clattered off toward the ancient Roman boundary road, now known as the Fosse Way, that ran near the villa site.
The vicar's wife, Mrs. Thomlinson, awaited her on the front porch of the vicarage.
"I'm so glad you made time to stop, Hilary, for I know you're probably anxious to get home to ready yourself for the dinner party tonight. Goodness," she concluded, glancing about, "did you come out alone--again?"
Hilary smiled. She took no affront at Mrs. Thomlinson's tone of admonishment, for the older woman had, over the years since her mother's death, taken up a position as her surrogate mother. "Now, Mrs. T., you know Jasper is all the company I need when I go out--particularly on such a short jaunt as the one to Goodhurst."
Indeed, with a set of splendidly efficient teeth, Jasper was well-known throughout the neighborhood and provided a strong deterrent against any evildoer unwise enough to so much as consider an assault on the person of Lady Hilary.
"He certainly is devoted to you," said Mrs. Thomlinson, shutting the door gently but firmly in Jasper's face.
She led the way in to the vicarage parlor and ushered Hilary to a chair near the fire. Murmuring instructions to the maid who entered the room on their heels, she seated herself nearby.
Hilary laughed in agreement with Mrs. Thomlinson's words. "Still," continued the vicar's wife, "now that Goodhurst has a new owner--a bachelor--it really is not the thing for you to be haring off there on your own. I know you don't care what people think--"
"No, I don't, Mrs. T.," Hilary interposed with some asperity. "In any event, the villa is some distance away from the main house. In fact, it is much closer to my home than to Mr. Wincanon's, and since I haven't even met the gentleman, I don't see where my visits provide any grist for the gossip mill. Tell me," she continued in an effort to turn the subject, "have you decided on a costume for the Halloween Ball? You and the vicar are so inventive every year."
Mrs. Thomlinson laughed. "Oh, we're still mulling over the possibilities. I did tell the vicar that he'd make a splendid Henry the Eighth, but he said he thought Mr. Fenwick had already chosen that one."
"Well, Mr. Fenwick is a trifle on the spindly side for Bluff King Hal, but--oh! Did you notice, by the by, that he escorted Miss Shelburton home from church last Sunday? I do believe they're going to make a match of it."
Mrs. Thomlinson chuckled. "And I can see that you're immensely set up over that development. Ah, thank you, Betty," she said to the maid who brought a tray of tea and cakes.
"Well, it was time someone took a hand." Hilary accepted a steaming cup from her hostess and selected a cake. "Anna Shelburton was not happy as the Bardrake's governess, for she is not the type of female to make a career of minding other people's children. And poor Walter Fenwick has been at loose ends since his mother passed away last year. He needs a woman to look after him, and Anna is the perfect candidate. Mr. Fenwick just needed someone to give him a push."
"So, that's what you did. Literally. The poor man--it was lucky he didn't end up in Holiday Pond with the shove you gave him, almost into Anna's lap."
"Well, it plunged them into a conversation, didn't it?" Hilary laughed unrepentantly. "I know I'm a terrible busybody, but I just cannot abide seeing people living unhappily all for the want of a little determination. I mean, just look at Meg. She's my sister and I love her dearly, but she and Richard were making such a mull of their lives."
"Until you convinced Lord Willerton to hire Richard as his agent."
"Precisely." Hillary inclined her head smugly. "Meg professes her gratitude every time she comes home to visit."
She swallowed the last her of tea and rose to her feet.
"And now, I know this has been a shabby short of visit, but you and I do not stand on ceremony and I really must leave. As you said, I must hie me home and don my finery for the party this evening--and I suppose you will be doing the same."
"Gracious, yes. We don't want Mr. Wincanon to think his new neighbors a parcel of bumpkins."
"Even though that's what we are," Hilary replied prosaically. Kissing Mrs. Thomlinson lightly on the cheek, she left the vicarage, a packet containing one of the lady's famous seedcakes in her hand. With a mild remonstrance, she suffered Jasper's exuberant expressions of joy at their reunion.
Back in the gig, Hilary contemplated the evening that lay ahead. Little was known of Mr. Wincanon except that he was the favored nephew of the Duke of Dolmain and related to half the noble houses in the country. He was also a wealthy man, being worth not a penny less than thirty thousand a year, if reports could be believed. And, though no one hereabouts except herself was interested, James Wincanon was considered one of the foremost antiquarians in the country.
In a few moments she entered the bounds of her father's estate. The Earl of Clarendon's country seat, Whiteleaves, was not vast, but it was, as he always stated with ill-concealed pride, large enough and beautifully situated.
Just inside the wall that surrounded the estate, Hilary passed a crumbling stone tower. She smiled. It was not far from the villa, and it, too, dated from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain. Oddly, it had been constructed inside the perimeter of a "dance," one of the many circles of standing stones that were scattered about England, created thousands of years before the advent of the Romans.
She had always been interested in the stone circle, having divined that one of the huge, recumbent stones set between two upright boulders had been intended as an altar. In her fanciful teens she had even laid offerings of fruit and flowers there. However, it was the tower that had fascinated her. How many times had she played there, picturing in her mind the Roman troops, banners flying, marching and fighting so far from home? It was at this time that she had conceived a burning interest in the ancient empire and the men who had guarded its frontiers. Over the years, despite other demands on her time and energy, she had perused the works of historians such as Tacitus and Livy. She had even studied Latin with the vicar, and could translate a funerary inscription or a scrawled prayer without assistance. Now, at the ripe age of four and twenty, she felt confident in calling herself a skilled antiquary.
Not that she did not face some difficulties in the pursuit of her passion. Her family, consisting of her father and her brothers and sisters and their progeny, felt that she was in danger of turning into a bluestocking. In addition, her studies and her fieldwork took time away from what they considered her primary duties as chatelaine of Whiteleaves and resident relative-on-call for whatever crises might appear on the family's horizon.
She certainly did not resent her role as mistress of her father's house, but she longed to accomplish something just for herself, to attain some small measure of competency and recognition in an area outside her domestic domain.
Perhaps, Hilary thought with another glance at the tower, she might gain that recognition through an association with the renowned James Wincanon.
"For I am certain," she said briskly to Jasper, who sat beside her, ears flying and half a yard of tongue lolling from his mouth, "that he will appreciate the contribution I can make to his efforts."
She nodded hopefully at Jasper's bark of agreement, then, on a whim, she paused and dismounted from the gig. She did not enter the tower, but ran to the altar stone at the edge of the circle where she uttered a small prayer to whatever spirits might have lingered there through the millennia. Quickly, almost furtively, she broke off a piece of the seedcake and laid it on the altar. Feeling remarkably foolish, but somehow strengthened, she hurried back to the gig, unnoticing of the breeze that, just for a moment, sighed through the clearing and rustled the trees that hung over the altar stone. Nor did she observe the shadowy presence that watched for a moment before sliding silently away through the trees. Smoothing the skirts of her serviceable and sadly mud-stained muslin, she slapped the reins and resumed her journey.
An hour or so later, she sat, bathed and gowned before her dressing table.
"If you don't hold still, my lady, you're going to get this here pin stuck in your ear."
Emma Barker spoke as severely as she was able with her mouth full of hairpins. Her admonition, however, produced little result. Hilary wriggled impatiently under her maid's ministrations.
"Emma, for heaven's sake, you're not rigging me out for an audience with the Queen. It's only a dinner party."
Emma snorted. "Only a dinner party, indeed. As if you've talked of anything else for days. Now sit still. Do you want this Winkum-whatsizzname feller to see you looking as though you'd just crawled through a knothole?"
"His name is Wincanon," retorted Hilary with dignity. "James Wincanon, and I am not trying to impress him with my hairstyle."
"No? You'll snare him with your big, brown eyes, then?"
Really, thought Hilary. She had allowed Emma too much freedom of expression of late. That's what came of employing as a lady's maid a young woman with whom she'd made daisy chains as a child.
"I am not," she said with some asperity, "trying to snare him at all. I hope he and I will become colleagues--nothing else."
"Hmph." Emma snorted again, unfazed.
In fact, mused Hilary, contemplating her image in the mirror, it was a very good thing she was not planning to ensnare Mr. Wincanon, for her physical assets would certainly never promote such a goal. She eyed her hair with disfavor. Through the years she had tried to think of it as auburn, or titian, or even strawberry, but it was none of these exotic tints. It was, to describe it in painful truth, an unattractive, orangey-red. As in underdone bricks, or carrots, or a blazing conflagration. In addition, it was absolutely unmanageable. No amount of brushing and anointing it with pomade could tame its tendency to escape in undisciplined tendrils that sprang in all directions at once. Hilary felt that by right she should have been endowed with heavy, darkly mysterious tresses, fashioned into one of those polished chignons that lent one such dignity and poise. Her eyes were a disappointment, too. They could at least have been an exotic green; instead they were an indeterminate shade of light brown, with odd flecks of a lighter color. And, while she was cataloging her list of dissatisfactions, she could use a few more inches as well. Lord, she was such a dab of a woman, skinny as a bed slat and just as sadly lacking in curves.
James Wincanon, she considered in disgust, would take one look at her and dismiss her as a scatterbrained tomboy. And who could blame him? How could he know that beneath her hoydenish exterior reposed the soul of a scholar?
It would help, she supposed, if she could dress in clothing more suitable to a female of superior intellect, but her father insisted she affect the frills and furbelows he considered appropriate to a gently bred maiden on the hunt for a husband. She was not always so dutiful, but Papa had been supportive of her academic interests, so that she felt she must give in on what was, after all, a fairly minor point. Still, she hated appearing before the world looking like a circus pony in a gown of pale blue sarcenet, trimmed with several tiers of ruffles and embroidered with enough flowers to deck a church.
She jerked as yet another hairpin was thrust into the arrangement of curls that teetered unsteadily atop her head.
"Emma," she said at last through gritted teeth, "I am as presentable as you can make me. Mister Wincanon has probably already arrived, along with all the other guests, and Father will be wondering what has become of me."
"Humph," grumbled Emma. "I don't see that you can afford to pass him over sight unseen, for you're not getting any younger."
Hilary bit back a retort. Really, this was most unbecoming--brangling in such a manner with her own maid.
"If you're quite finished with me," she said frigidly, glancing into the mirror once more, "I'll take my aging, decrepit self off. Mister Wincanon is probably striding up the front steps right this minute."
Turning a darkling glance on her maid, she hurried from the room.
As it happened, James Wincanon was still some distance from the front steps of Whiteleaves, to which stately residence he had been invited for dinner. He was, in fact, traveling in his curricle at a somewhat desultory speed along the road that connected his new home, Goodhurst, to that of the earl. It was apparent from the slight frown that marred the gentleman's aquiline features, that he was not looking forward to the evening's festivities.
And why should he? he mused sourly. It was bound to be a replica of a hundred other evenings he had suffered through since he had come in to his majority some ten years ago. Among the phalanx of neighbors to which he would be presented there would be at least three unmarried females present--eager young damsels, attended by calculating mamas, all of them ready to pounce like vixens on a plump rooster dropped in their midst.
His unease did not spring from an inflated estimation of his own attractions. He knew himself to be endowed with an eminently ordinary set of features. He was of reasonably upright moral character, and possessed of a personality that could hardly be called scintillating. Thus it might be difficult for some to account for his unvarying success with the fair sex. He smiled cynically. Ah, the blessings of wealth and exalted connections.
He sighed. He had been pleased at the opportunity to purchase Goodhurst. He had been after the estate for years, ever since he'd learned of the Roman villa that lay in its forested hills. Having now acquired the property, he anticipated bringing his treasure to light.
His plans for his stay in Gloucestershire did not include socializing with the local gentry. He would lose no time in donning the aspect that had served him so well over the years--that of an eccentric recluse. He would make it clear that while he would accept whatever community responsibilities were required of him, he was not in the market for a bride, and, after these few initial forays, he would not be available for appearances on the social scene.
"Ho, guv'nor, that looks to be the place, up ahead."
Thus recalled by his tiger, James turned his curricle at a massive set of gates, flanked by stone pillars. A few moments later, after traversing a winding drive, bordered by flourishing beeches, he arrived at his destination, a sprawling manor house of Tudor origin. As he mounted the front steps, the door swung wide before he could lift his hand to the bronze knocker that adorned it, and a butler of imposing mien ushered him into a hall that, while it featured the requisite suits of armor and the odd halberd or two on the walls, bore a welcoming air.
Smiling benignly, the butler guided him up the staircase that ascended in a flowing crescendo of marble and wood, and, ushering him into a spacious salon, announced him in mellifluous tones to those assembled inside.
He recognized his host immediately, one of the few persons in the room he had already met. The earl hurried toward him with hand outhrust. He was a tall, hearty man with graying hair and a benevolent expression. As he moved across the room, he beckoned to a young woman who stood near a window, chatting with a group of ladies. A very young woman, indeed, surmised James as she approached. She could not possibly be his hostess, was his next thought, unless--A sense of foreboding swept over him.
"Mister Wincanon!" exclaimed Lord Clarendon. "Welcome to Whiteleaves. May I present my daughter, Lady Hilary?"
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