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Arabella Mason trudged up the long drive leading to Ulverscroft Manor. It hadn't seemed such a long walk when she'd first begun it, but the house was so large it had appeared closer to the end of the drive when she started out. She kept her attention fixed on it, ignoring her weariness. The great towers on either side of the impressive façade showed an expanse of windows glittering coldly in the weak October sunshine. The gray exterior lowered balefully, an extension of the gray autumn sky above it. As if some celestial architect had wanted to create a completely gray landscape. Even the green grass looked washed out, a result of the heavy cloud cover, threatening rain before nightfall. Or before she reached the house.
Arabella was so engrossed in the great building before her she didn't see the silent watcher until she cannoned into him. Bouncing off a definitely male torso, she gave a little scream. His arms went around her to stop her from falling. Instead of releasing her, he studied her. Arabella found herself gazing up into a pair of eyes so dark they were almost black. It was impossible for her to read their expression, but the finely wrought mouth quirked up at the corners so it was a fair wager that the gentleman was amused rather than put out. And this was a gentleman. Plainly dressed, but the cut of his country coat and the fine wool fabric proclaimed its expense.
His voice, deeply amused, reached her stunned senses. "Nothing for miles and you managed not to see me? I only know one other female who could have done that. Can it be that you need spectacles, dear lady?"
Not at all sure she liked being addressed in such a way, Arabellasnapped, "Of course not! I've never visited Ulverscroft House before and its size took me aback." The gentleman must have stepped out of the looming shade of one of the great lime trees that bordered the drive. Unsporting of him not to announce his presence to her. She wondered how long he'd watched her before stepping into her path.
He kept all his attention on her. "Yes, the sheer size of the place does sometimes surprise the unwary visitor. A very arrogant Elizabethan built it. Whose descendant, by the way, is currently in residence, so if you were hoping this was a Public Day, you are sadly mistaken." His gaze slipped past her face to the body below it, "However if you wish, I'm sure I can manage a private tour. Just for you." His eyes glinted with wicked promise.
Arabella shook herself, but it only served to make him settle his grip more firmly about her waist. "I have business with the earl or perhaps his chief steward."
"You interest me." His voice slid over her skin like velvet.
Before Arabella realized what he was about to do, he dropped a quick, hard kiss on her mouth and released her before she could protest. "I beg your pardon, ma'am. I suppose a gentleman might have resisted, but I'm not always a gentleman and you are very hard to resist."
Arabella should have been outraged at his effrontery but she satisfied herself with shaking out the folds of her best green cloak like a ruffled pigeon. It wasn't every day she bearded an earl in his den, and she had dressed for courage and self-confidence. Now this man had shaken it.
She took the chance to take in his appearance. The hair tied back in a neat queue under the cocked hat was as dark as his eyes. The mouth that had briefly touched hers was finely delineated, and full of sin. Arabella wagered it had known many female caresses. He stood with a careless confidence that showed him as much the gentleman as his well cut country coat and breeches, and the gleaming black boots caressing his calves.
Arabella was too honest to deny that she found him attractive, but she was still ruffled and unsure. "I am, however, a respectable woman."
"I'm afraid I'm not a very respectable man." He swept off his hat and bowed to her, making an elegant job of it. He must be a member of the family or a high-ranking servant. She waited, one eyebrow lifted, for his explanation. His rueful laugh told her she was going to get it. "Peter Worsley, at your service, ma'am. May I enquire the nature of your business with my father?"
She bobbed a curtsey, aware of her lack of elegance. "Arabella Mason, sir. Mrs. Arabella Mason." He didn't seem in the least put out by her emphasis on the Mrs. "I think his lordship should know my news. I'm sorry, but it concerns his land steward."
"Tulling?" Mr. Worsley frowned. "What has he done?"
"No, sir, not Tulling. Mr. Lewis Worth."
The frown deepened. "We've never had a steward by that name, I'd swear to it." He stared at her, and then seemed to make a decision and held his arm out for her to take. "Come with me." Arabella placed her hand on it.
He led her to the broad front steps and through the front door, which was thrown open at their approach.
The interior wasn't what Arabella would call welcoming. The great doors led into a huge hall, its timbered roof far above their heads, the heads of long dead game animals mounted for display. Arabella couldn't repress a shudder.
"Yes," she heard him say sympathetically. "They have to burn several trees to make a difference to this room in the winter."
He urged her forward, towards a door at the back of the hall. Arabella planted both feet firmly on the marble floor. When he looked around, fine-drawn brows lifted in expectation, she lifted her hands to her bonnet strings.
A footman materialized at her elbow, correctly reading her desire. Mr. Worsley grinned and removed his hat and gloves, tossing them to the man. Arabella took her time removing her bonnet, cloak and gloves. It gave her time to compose herself. She needed it. It had taken a great deal of courage for her to travel here today, and now she felt her tension rise at the prospect of what lay ahead.
Arabella shook out the skirts of her modest blue wool gown. She'd always been proud of this gown, but suddenly it seemed plain in this magnificent setting. When she turned to Mr. Worsley, he was watching her with a slight smile. She felt sure he was laughing at her.
Arabella put her chin up defiantly and stared back, provoking him into genuine laughter. "Enchanting!"
She wasn't sure she liked it, but it sent a thrill of awareness right up her spine.
Mr. Worsley led her to a door at the back of the hall, which a footman hurried over to throw open. Worsley threw him an irritated glance and Arabella wondered if the inhabitants of this house walked into doors if they weren't opened for them. Passing through a couple of smaller but no more hospitable rooms they turned and then the décor changed. "This is the family wing," he said.
Although the corridor held some very grand items, they weren't as daunting as they were in the rooms they'd just left. "The public don't usually get to see this part."
"Am I the public?" she queried acidly.
He smiled. "No, I don't believe you are."
Nearly at the end of a corridor, another door was thrown open and Mr. Worsley led Arabella through.
Two people occupied the room. The gentleman had one foot propped up on a substantial footstool, and a dark-haired lady sat on a small sofa close to him, engaged in embroidery, which she put down when they came in.
"Mother, this is Mrs. Arabella Mason, who wishes to see us on a matter of business."
Arabella made a creditable curtsey to the countess who graciously inclined her head then turned a quizzical look on to her son. Arabella felt awed, but far from cowed. She began on her prepared speech, sticking rigidly to what she had rehearsed all the way here.
"I'm sorry to disturb you but I was told to come here if anything happened. The matter concerns one of your servants, a Mr. Lewis Worth. He said he was your land steward."
The earl gave his son a questioning glance. Mr. Worsley shrugged. "I suggest we hear the lady out. Meanwhile, may I ask her to sit?"
The countess graciously gave permission and Mr. Worsley saw Arabella seated on a comfortable sofa before taking his place by her side. Somehow, his presence gave her some courage because he didn't seem half as lofty as the rest of his family. She had the feeling she could talk to him and he'd listen.
Arabella took a deep breath. "Mr. Worth married my sister five years ago. They have a son. On Saturday last, Mr. Worth fell from the top of the tower of St. Margaret's Church in Leicester. He was killed." She paused and clenched her fist in her lap until her knuckles turned white. It hadn't been pleasant to imagine that. "My cousin was with him but he could not prevent the tragedy. My sister is distraught, so I agreed to come on her behalf." She fought the trembling of her chin when she thought of that day.
The earl spoke. "While we commiserate with you in your loss we fail to see what business this is of ours. We have never had a steward or any other upper servant by the name of Worth, of that I am sure. I think you are mistaken."
She knew she was not. Perhaps Lewis wasn't as senior as he made out, but in that case, he couldn't have afforded the house and the comforts he provided for his wife. "Indeed I beg your pardon if that is the case, but he gave me a letter he asked that I give you personally." She reached into her pocket and drew out a sealed note. Mr. Worsley got to his feet and handed it to his father.
Arabella wondered if they would offer her some tea, and assumed it would only be in the kitchen with the housekeeper. She didn't much care where, as long as she got some soon. She'd come a long way and nervousness had made her mouth dry.
An oath from the earl shattered her musings.
"Father?" All Mr. Worsley's attention was riveted on the earl. "What is it?"
The earl had paled, his ruddy complexion overcast. "Look!" He brandished the paper.
Mr. Worsley strode across the distance between them and twitched the paper from his father's fingers. He studied it and then looked up sharply. "This is Gerald's writing. Would you mind, ma'am, telling us what your late brother-in-law looked like?"
Everyone in the room stared at her. Arabella felt distinctly uncomfortable, but she did her best. "He was a tall gentleman." With an effort, she kept the quaver out of her voice. "His hair was naturally light brown, but he wore it short with a wig over it. His figure was good." She paused, conjuring a picture of Lewis to draw on. "He said he was a land steward here and often spent time away from home. He spoke very well and once said he went to Eton."
Mr. Worsley regarded her solemnly. "What color were his eyes?"
"Bright green. Piercingly so. Oh yes, and a small scar above his left eyebrow. Gained, he said, in a childhood altercation with his brother." Mr. Worsley stood completely still, his eyes wide, staring at her.
"Oh God!" The countess showed the first indication of emotion, putting her hand to her mouth. She swiftly controlled herself, and she folded her hands in her silken lap over her fan. "How old was he?"
"He said he was five and thirty."
The countess dropped her embroidery and stared at Arabella, her eyes wide.
Stunned by the dramatic reaction, Arabella didn't know what to say or do. When she ventured to look up, she saw the earl's dark eyes fixed on her. "I'm sorry. If I'd known how much Mr. Worth meant to you I wouldn't have broken the news so precipitately."
The earl stared at her, his eyes hollow and emotionless. "It very much seems," he told her, in an unsteady voice, "that the man you knew as Mr. Worth was in fact my oldest son Gerald, Lord Bredon."