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Daniel, Lord Seaton, stared out of the window of his London house. It was situated in one of the best areas of the city, in a quiet garden square. It suited him when he visited the capitol. However, he would probably have to sell the property to meet his debts, rather than let it to a tenant, as he had intended when he came up to town.
'Damn you, Marcus,' he muttered. 'Why did you have to land me with your mess?'
He frowned at the letter in his hand. As if he did not have enough problems trying to bring his own estate back from the brink of ruin! His father had died of a putrid fever six months earlier, after foolishly losing more than ten thousand pounds at the tablesand to a man Daniel believed might be both a cheat and a rogue. Cheadle was known for his ruthless play, so what his father had imagined he was about, Daniel did not know. Yet it was not the only mistake the late Lord Seaton had made. Several poor investments meant that Daniel had mortgages on at least half the land. His father had settled the gambling debt, but the mortgages meant that Daniel would struggle for years to put the estate back on its feet again. While his father had every right to spend his fortune as he pleased, Cousin Marcus was another matter.
Daniel scanned the letter again.
Only you can help me, Daniel. His cousin had written the letter two days before the accident that had caused his death just three months previously.
My debts are more than ten thousand and I cannot pay unless I sell my estate. Father might cough up the readies, but he has been ill for months and I think if he knew what I have been about, it would kill him.
To tell the truth, cousin, I have been a damned fool. I got in over my headthings I am ashamed to own. If you knew all, you would consign me to the devil and think that I deserve whatever is coming. I may be in some danger and if you hear I have died in an accident, I give you leave to doubt it.
There is someone I fear, but I dare not write his name. He would certainly kill me then. Believe me, cousin, I have done things of which I am ashamedbut I did not know the worst of him when he persuaded me to help him. I want to get away, to start again, but I fear he will not let me go. The debt is another matter and the marquis must be paid. Your father was not the only one to fall foul of Cheadle's damnable luck. Forgive me for asking if you can help.
Your wretched cousin,
What was he to make of the letter? Marcus had sent it to Daniel's London club and, busy at his estate, he had not received it until he paid a flying visit to town to speak with lawyers about his London property. Now he would have to contact Cheadle and ask for the extent of his cousin's debt to him. At this moment he was not sure if he could find the money without reference to his uncle, but he would certainly speak to the marquis.
However, the remainder of his cousin's letter was a riddle. What had Marcus been trying to tell him? He knew Marcus well enough to be sure that his cousin would not write such a letter without good cause. Who was the man who would not let him goand, more importantly, had his cousin's death truly been an accident?
At the time of the funeral he had not questioned it. The Earl of Standish told him it was a riding accident, and Daniel had accepted his uncle's explanation without question. Now, his cousin's letter had made him suspect foul play. Marcus had always been an excellent rider. As young men they had been great friends, though in past years they had grown apart. Daniel had chosen to take up a military career and spent eight years fighting with Wellington in various campaigns. It was during his time away that his mother had died and his father had started to drink and gamble. He blamed himself for not being at home when he was needed, and though he had returned when his father became ill, resigning his commission, it had already been too late.
The last thing Daniel needed or wanted at this moment was a mystery to uncover. Yet he knew that he could not simply ignore his cousin's cry for help. Marcus was dead, and perhaps he had done things that would not bear the light of day, but if he had been murdered
Daniel's mouth thinned. His memories of a young man he had loved as a brother demanded that he seek out Marcus's murderer and bring him to justice.
As for Cheadle, well, he would pay a visit to his club that evening and discover if the marquis was in town.
'You said I could come to you, Betty,' Eliza said when her mother's former maid opened the door of her cottage that evening. 'I am sorry to ask, and I will find work as soon as I canbut may I stay here for a few days?'
'Put you out of the cottage has, he?' Betty shook her head sadly. 'You've no need to ask, my lovely. Come you in and sit by the fire while I make you something to eat. I was afraid Mr Jones would say you couldn't stop there alone once your dearest mother was gone. It only surprises me that he let you stay this long.'
'It isn't his fault,' Eliza said. 'I know the earl would have told him it was his duty to put me out and take another tenant. I can't afford to pay the rent now that Mama's allowance has stopped unless I workand I shall not find work here. I have asked but no one will take me on. They take one look at my hands and say I'm not suitable.'
'Your hands are not as white as they once were,' Betty replied with a fond glance. 'You worked hard to keep your mama neat and clean and do the cooking. It wasn't easy at the last.'
'Poor Mama. I fear she suffered a great deal,' Eliza said and sighed. She had grieved for the past six months, but knew now she must put her personal feelings aside and look for work. 'What do you think I should do, Betty? If I am not suitable as a maid what can I do should I try for a governess?'
'I don't think most mothers would take you on, Eliza.
You are too pretty and you might tempt their husbands or their older sons.' Betty looked thoughtful. 'If I were you I should advertise. Offer your services as a companion to an elderly lady.'
'Yes, I suppose that might answer ' Eliza sighed. Her mama's illness had kept her tied to the house for many months, and though she didn't begrudge her mama a minute of her time, she had hoped for something a little more lively in her future. 'I suppose I might find it difficult to find work as a governess, for I have no trainingexcept that I know how to make pillows comfortable and how to mix tisanes that ease discomfort and induce sleep.'
'You are also a good little cook, for I taught you myself,' Betty told her. 'If you take your time and choose the right position, it might be just the thing for you.'
'Yes, I dare say you are right. I have little choice; there is no one to help me.'
'Are there no relatives of your papa who might take you in?' Betty asked. 'You are welcome to stay with me, my love, but it isn't fitting for you. I am sure your mother would like you to mix with people of your own class. She was the daughter of country gentry, as was your father.'
Eliza did not answer fully. Betty had never been told that she was not the birth child of her parents, and therefore had no claim on their families, though there was a letter from Mama's brother in India. She had found it at the bottom of her mother's sewing box with the ring. Of course she would not dream of approaching him, for they were in no way related.
The ring was valuable. Fashioned of a thick band of gold in which a large deep red ruby had been inset, it had an inscription on the gold band. It was a romantic inscription, which made her think that her parents must have loved each otherbut why had they given her up? Leaving her behind the altar on a Sunday had ensured that she was found quickly, but the person who placed her there could not have known that the Bancrofts would adopt her. Had the mystery gentleman been so ruthless that he did not care?
Who had put the ring on the ribbon and hung it about her neck, hiding it beneath her baby clothes? It must have been a womanher mother? Had she wanted her child to have something of herssomething that Eliza suspected must have been very precious to her?
Why had her mother given her away? Her mama had had no knowledge, of course, but had told Eliza during one of their last discussions that she believed Eliza was a love child.
'Your mother may have been forced to give you up, Eliza. Indeed, I am sure she was, for no woman would give up her baby willingly. I know that I should not, whatever the consequences.'
Eliza had tried to brush the subject under the carpet. Her mama was the only mother she had known and she loved her dearly. While she lived, Eliza had given hardly a second thought to who her birth parents were, even if she could not help wanting to know more about her mother. Now her thoughts turned more and more to her true mother and she wondered if she ever thought of her wished to see her. Yet how could she hope to discover the truth? Living in the country quietly, as she did, she had no chance of meeting anyone who might recognise the ring.
'I shall send my advertisement to the papers in London and Bath,' she told Betty with sudden decision.
'The kind of position you suggest may be found amongst fashionable ladies who can afford to employ a companion to run around after them.'
'That is the spirit, my love,' Betty said and smiled at her. 'The curate was here earlier. He asked me if I had seen anything of you recently, Eliza.'
'I usually help with the church fete,' Eliza said and looked rueful. 'He has been a little too attentive of late and I have tried to avoid seeing him other than on Sunday morning, when it is impossible not to meet.'
Betty arched her brows at her. 'Your papa was a vicar, Eliza. Young Mr Stanley will have his own living one day. You could do worse than encourage him. Not that you need think of marriage just yet, of course. You are only twenty this summer and there is plenty of time, but being the wife of a clergyman may be better than a companion's life.'
'If I liked Mr Stanley, I should think it an ideal life, Bettybut he is too prissy in his ways. Had he been like Papa, I should have encouraged him long since.'
'Well, I suppose he has some odd mannerismsand he isn't good enough for a lovely girl like you.'
'I am not pretty, Betty.' Eliza blushed delicately. She was tall and slender, her hair a rich dark brown and her eyes the colour some people called hazel. Her complexion was a little on the pale side, but she had a wonderful smile, and it was when she smiled that she was at her best.
'No, you're not pretty in the accepted sense,' Betty agreed. 'But you have a beautiful nature, Eliza. Any man worth his salt would be fortunate to have you for a wife.'
Eliza laughed, her eyes bright with amusement. 'Betty, you are so good for me. I feel much better being here. I should have given up the cottage sooner instead of trying to keep it on. I have arranged for the few things that I decided to keep to be brought here on the cart. The rest of it will be sold at the market and I shall use it to pay for my keep until I can find work.'
'That you will not unless you want to have a falling out with me and my Ted,' Betty said stoutly. 'He's as fond of you as I am and he won't take a penny of your money, Eliza. You write out your advertisement, my love, and Ted will take it to town this very afternoon when he goes, and send it off for you, but take money for your keep he will notand that's final.'
Eliza felt tears sting her eyes. She was so lucky to have such good friends. 'I do not know what I should have done without you both while Mama was ill.'
'You would have managed, for you bore the brunt of it,' Betty told her. 'I helped where I could and so did my Ted. He was only saying last night as it was time you had some luck, and so it is.'
'Well, who knows what may happen?' Eliza said. 'I shall advertise for a post and perhaps fortune will smile on me.'
'Go through to the parlour and write your letter in peace and I'll make us some toast and a nice pot of tea for a treat.'
Eliza thanked her and did as she was bid, going into the neat room that was used on Sundays and for company. She sat down at the writing table in front of the window and picked up the pen. There was paper and ink in the drawer; Ted worked as a clerk at the office of the Earl of Standish's estate manager and occasionally brought his work home to finish in the evenings.
She wrote out two adverts, one for The Times in London and another for a paper that published in Bath.
The receiving office in Norwich would send them off and accept the fee on behalf of the paper.
Eliza sat for a moment, staring out at the view. Betty's garden was a riot of early summer flowers and their perfume floated in through the open window. While she was here she could at least help with the gardenit was one of her chief pleasures.
Should she also write to Mama's brother and tell him of his sister's death? She was not sure if he already knew or even if he were still alive and living in India. She did not wish to appear as if she were asking for help. However, perhaps it was only polite to inform him.