Read an Excerpt
The Blanchland Secret
By Nicola Cornick
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMr Julius Churchward, representative of the famously discreet London lawyers of the same name, had a variety of facial expressions he could draw upon, depending on the nature of the news he was imparting to his aristocratic clients. There was sympathetic but grave, used when breaking the news that an inheritance was substantially smaller than expected; there was sympathetic but rueful, for unsatisfactory offspring and breach of promise; finally, there was an all-purpose dolefulness, for when the precise nature of the problem was in doubt. It was this third alternative that he adopted now, as he stood on the doorstep of Lady Amelia Fenton's trim house in Bath, for if the truth were told, he knew nothing of the contents of the letter he was about to deliver.
Mr Churchward had travelled from London the previous day, stopped overnight at the Star and Garter in Newbury and resumed his journey at first light. To undertake such a journey in winter, with Christmas pressing close upon them, argued some urgency. The morning sun was warming the creamy Bath stone of Brock Street but the winter air was chill. Mr Churchward shivered inside his overcoat and hoped that Miss Sarah Sheridan, Lady Amelia's companion, was not still at breakfast.
A neat maid showed himinto a parlour that he remembered from a visit three years before, a visit during which he had conveyed to Miss Sheridan the disappointing news that her brother Frank had left no estate to speak of. At the back of his mind was an occasion some two years before that, when he had had to proffer the even more depressing intelligence that Lord Sheridan had left only a small competence to keep his daughter from penury. Miss Sheridan had borne the news with fortitude, explained that she had very few material needs and gained Mr Churchward's admiration in the process.
He still felt the inequity of her situation keenly. A lady of Miss Sheridan's breeding should not, he felt, be reduced to acting as companion, even to so benevolent a relative as her cousin, Lady Amelia. He was sure that Lady Amelia was too generous ever to make Miss Sheridan feel a poor relation, but it was simply not fitting. For several years Mr Churchward's chivalrous heart had hoped that Miss Sheridan would make a suitable match, for she was young and looked well to a pass, but three years had gone by and she was now firmly on the shelf.
Mr Churchward shook his head sadly as he waited in Lady Amelia's airy drawing-room. He tried hard not to have favourites; it would have been quite inappropriate when he had so many esteemed clients, but he made an exception in the case of Miss Sarah Sheridan.
The door opened and Sarah came towards him, hand outstretched as though he was a great friend rather than the bearer of doubtful news.
"Dear Mr Churchward! How do you do, sir? This is an unexpected pleasure!"
Mr Churchward was not so sure. The letter he carried seemed to weigh down his document case. But such misgivings seemed foolish in the light of day. The parlour was bright with winter sunlight; it shone full on Miss Sheridan, but she was a lady whose face and figure could withstand the harshest of morning light. Indeed, her cream and rose complexion seemed dazzlingly fresh and fair and her slender figure was set off to advantage by a simple dress of jonquil muslin.
"How do you do, Miss Sheridan? I hope I find you well?"
Mr Churchward took the proffered seat and cleared his throat. He was astonished to find that he was nervous, too nervous to indulge in talk of the weather or the journey. He bent to unbuckle his case and extracted a letter in a plain white envelope.
"Madam, forgive my abruptness, but I have been asked to deliver this letter to you. The manner in which the request came about is quite extraordinary, but perhaps you would wish to read the letter first, before I explain ..." Mr Churchward was unhappily aware that he was rambling. Sarah's wide and beautiful hazel eyes were fixed on his face with an expression of vague puzzlement. She took the letter and gave a slight gasp.
"But this is -"
"From your late brother. Yes, ma'am." Mr Churchward groped for his all-purpose solemn expression, but was sure he was only achieving the anxious look of a man who was not in complete control of the situation. "Perhaps if you were to read what Lord Sheridan has written ..."
Miss Sheridan made no immediate attempt to open the letter. Her head was bent as she examined the familiar black writing and the sunlight picked out strands of gold and amber in the hair that escaped her cap.
"Are you aware of the contents of the letter, Mr Churchward?"
"No, madam, I am not." The lawyer sounded slightly reproachful, as though Francis Sheridan had committed a decided faux pas by leaving him in ignorance.
Miss Sheridan scanned his face for a moment, then walked slowly over to the walnut desk. Mr Churchward heard the sound of the letter-opener slicing through paper and felt relief wash over him. Soon they would know the worst ...
There was silence in the little room. Mr Churchward could hear the chink of china from the kitchens, the sound of voices raised in question and answer. He looked around at the neat bookshelves laden with works he remembered from Blanchland; books that Sir Ralph Covell had dismissively thrown out of the house he had inherited from his second cousin, Lord Sheridan; books that Sarah had gladly retrieved for her new home.
Miss Sheridan did not speak at all. Eventually she crossed to the wing chair that mirrored Mr Churchward's on the other side of the fireplace and sat down. The letter fell to her lap; she looked him straight in the eye.
"Mr Churchward, I think I should read you the contents of Frank's letter."
"Very well, madam." Mr Churchward looked apprehensive.
"Dear Sal," Miss Sheridan read, in a dry tone, "if you get this letter I shall be dead and in need of a favour. Sorry to have to ask this of you, old girl - fact is, I'd rather trust you than anyone else. So here goes. I have a daughter. I know that will surprise you and I'm sorry I never told you before, but to tell the truth, I hoped you'd never need to know. Father knew, of course - made all the usual arrangements, all right and tight. But if he is gone and I'm gone, then the child needs someone to turn to for help, and that's where you come in. Churchward will tell you the rest. All I can say is thank you and God bless you. Your loving brother, Frank."
Miss Sheridan sighed. Mr Churchward sighed. Both were thinking in their different ways of the insouciant Frank Sheridan who would have fathered a child so lightly, made cheerful provision for her future perhaps, but not really given the matter the thought it deserved. Mr Churchward could imagine him dashing off such a letter before he went off to join the East India Company on yet another mad attempt to make his fortune ...
Sarah's voice broke into Mr Churchward's thoughts. "Well, Mr Churchward, can you, as Frank suggests, throw any more light on this mystery?"
Mr Churchward sighed for a second time. "I confess, madam, that I did know of Miss Meredith's existence. Your late father ..." He hesitated. "Lord Sheridan came to me seventeen years ago to ask me to make arrangements for a certain child. I thought ..."
Excerpted from The Blanchland Secret by Nicola Cornick Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.