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The first portmanteau dropped remarkably close to where he stood in the open courtyard of the Bear and Billet Inn. Lord Westcott brushed off an imaginary speck of dust from his impeccable dark blue Bath cloth coat, then looked about impatiently for the coachman to appear, quite ignoring the incident. His business in Chester finished, he was most anxious to return to his estate.
The second traveling case was more nicely aimed, from his point of view, for it landed further from where he stood. He didn't bother to glance up. After all, it was no matter of concern to the Earl of Westcott what unorthodox means a person used to move luggage about. A flash of frothy lace caught his eye when the soft case gapped open as a result of the impact. Very feminine and exceedingly expensive lace could be seen, even in the light of early morning.
It was the rope of sheets that finally captured his full attention. It cascaded down before his face like something from an East Indian fakir's show, undulating back and forth with a near-hypnotic sway. Now, this was too much for a man to tolerate. He looked up to see descending toward him a very shapely ankle above a trim little foot. A second foot could be seen peeping from the cloud of fabric that billowed about the woman, concealing her identity for the moment.
Glancing over to the exterior stairs that led to the courtyard, Westcott could see no earthly reason why the chit should take such a strange means of departure ... unless she was trying to escape the payment of her bill. Then he noted that the rope was most conveniently short of the ground. With a roguish gleam in his eyes he obligingly positioned himself in such a place that hewould be the one to catch the miscreant when it came time for her to let go her improvised means of exit.
He was most amused when the slight figure hanging in midair groped about for more "rope" with a tentative foot. That slender ankle was very trim, he observed with a connoisseur's eye, perhaps promising a fetching armful. Her unorthodox descent came to an abrupt halt. In a flurry of blue muslin and while silk, the figure gasped a startled exclamation that sounded suspiciously like a muttered "Drat and blast!" and tumbled directly into the arms of Drew Shalford, the Earl of Westcott.
The earl looked down his aristocratic nose at the delightfully charming bundle he held, to take note of a pair of wary eyes the color of blue gentian. In an oval face of classical proportions a straight nose drew his gaze down to her full mouth, now in a stubborn line, above a resolute chin. Over a smooth brow, ebony hair could be glimpsed peeping from beneath a fetching little bonnet--a bonnet his sister could have told him was at least a year out of date. The scent of honeysuckle teased his nose, wafting up in a delicate whisper from the young woman he so carefully held.
"If you would be so kind, suh, as to place me on my feet, I should be glad of it" The softly melodious voice held a foreign accent, attractively intriguing.
Westcott found he was oddly reluctant to allow that fascinating morsel of femininity to escape his clasp. He slowly set her on her feet, watching with amusement as she brushed down her skirt, then set her bonnet at a becoming angle. She certainly appeared proper enough at this moment.
However, if he hadn't seen her rather strange mode of departure, he would never have given her a second thought. Well ... taking another longer look, be admitted he might have permitted his eyes to linger on such an entrancing view just a trifle more than good manners allowed. But the fact remained that she was highly suspect in her behavior. Ladies simply did not do such outrageous things.
Miss Louisa Randolph met his searching, assessing gaze with determined eyes. After going to such lengths to assure private conversation, even possible assistance, with the Earl of Westcott, she was not going to let a mere stare from those rich brown eyes put her out of countenance. When she had glimpsed his familiar-seeming face last night, she had hastened to the innkeeper to discover his identity. It had been a shock to find that his father, the old earl, was dead. Yet she needed help.
"Well?" she said with her usual forthrightness. She tilted her head while awaiting his verdict, then added, "I assure you, Lord Westcott, I truly intended no harm to befall you with my somewhat precipitate leave-taking. But I hoped to meet you, you see." Her voice was hushed, as though to prevent being overheard.
He didn't miss her anxious glance to the door of the room at the head of the stairs. Nor did he fail to note that she knew who he was. When she hesitantly motioned him to the area below the wooden gallery that led to the room on the second floor, he followed, out of curiosity as well as politeness. Given the young woman's genteel speech, it was obvious she was Quality.
"You have the advantage of me, it seems, for I have no clue as to your identity." He observed with approval that she clasped her hands discreetly before her, and now seemed to be all that was proper. So intrigued was he that he quite forgot to check to see if her abigail waited close by.
"I met your father while he yet lived. He visited our family home in Virginia. I am a Randolph, Miss Louisa Randolph," she stated with the confident air of one who is accustomed to recognition. "You resemble him quite strongly, as I suppose any number of people have told you. I will confess that when I inquired about you last night, I was dismayed to learn you are the new earl. It would have made things so much simpler for me were it otherwise, you see. Your father might have been able to tell me what I wish to know. However, the innkeeper explained that he is no longer among us."
"You would not have heard that he died shortly after his return from your country. If I can be of service to you in his stead...?" Westcott observed his coachman pull up to the Bear and Billet to wait with obvious curiosity. While it was not too unusual for Westcott to be detained by a pretty face, it was a rare sight for him to pause to chat with one in a common open area.
"My family died as well, suh," she said softly, her gentle Virginian accent pleasing to his ear. "Yellow fever struck them all, I fear. Before she passed on, my dear mama begged me to seek my papa's relatives in England. Since there was no one left to run the farm, I decided to sell up and take my chances with my English family. Papa was such a kindly man, can they be less?" Her face revealed none of the pain she had suffered during the long hours and weeks of nursing the sick, seeing her family die one by one, or the grief of her departure from her beloved home.
Lord Westcott gazed down into the ingenuous face that now beamed a hopeful smile up at him, and thought that the young miss knew very little of the world if she truly believed such foolish words. "What optimism you reveal." He noted the worry that suddenly flared to life in her eyes.
"My papa warned me I must be careful on that account. I fear I am ever the optimist, suh, yet I trust I am not impractical. I had so hoped to locate your father--for Mama kept his kind letters--sure that he might know the identity of my English relatives. My papa abandoned his family name when he left for America, using a second name instead. Dare I hope that 'Randolph' is not too common?"
Westcott shook his head in wonder. Looking around, he failed to see so much as an abigail. Such independence would not be considered seemly in an Englishwoman. "I find it hard to believe he never spoke of his family remaining in this country. There were no clues among his effects?" Yet Westcott knew that there were emigrants who had little love for the relatives left behind. Younger sons, in particular. "I fear it may be a difficult task you have set for yourself." He paused, wondering quite how to phrase his next query. In his experience, Americans were a mite touchy on the subject. One never knew how they would react. "Was your father of the ... nobility?" At her frown, he hastened to add, "I only ask because it does make the search easier, although I imagine most families keep excellent records. There are also the church accounts, you know, weddings, deaths, and births, not to mention family Bibles."
Miss Randolph appeared to digest this information. "Mama said she suspected his family were of the peerage, but beyond that I could not say. Failing to locate your father, I had expected to hire a solicitor. Is there an honest one to be found in this city that you might recommend, suh?" Soft blue eyes gazed up at Lord Westcott with great trust and hope.
He glanced about the area, his air of calm confidence sitting easily upon his shoulders in spite of his concern. What could one possibly do with such a babe? While her blithe demeanor was delightful, such a romantic outlook on life was hardly practical. She would need more to sustain her through the difficulties that he could foresee lay ahead of her. "Is there no one to care for you?"
She gave an impatient shrug of her shoulders. "Jessy, my maid, was supposed to have traveled with me. But she jilted me and hired herself elsewhere. There was no time to seek another. I did not appreciate that, you can be certain. It left me open to all manner of disagreeable trials." She compressed her mouth in annoyance at what she had been forced to endure in the name of compassion.
Louisa glanced upward to where she knew the overly kind Hannah Moss slept in the room at the top of the stairs. For the many weeks of the crossing, Mrs. Moss and her tall, thin son, Aubrey, had been Louisa's constant companions. Mrs. Moss had declared Louisa in need of her protection, what with no maid along on the voyage to lend propriety. It had been given in a near-smothering quantity. Scarcely a moment had been Louisa's own from the moment she had observed poor Mr. Moss after he hit his head on a passage door. She had applied a lavender-water-drenched handkerchief to his bump. Apparently he mistook her polite concern for true interest, for he was ever at her footsteps from that moment on.
The voluble Mrs. Moss had pried--ever so gently--into Louisa's financial standing until Louisa was quite convinced that Mr. Moss was in need of a fortune. That his mother was determined to get her hands on the sizable one Louisa possessed was also apparent. The lady's concern was supposedly due to worry that Louisa would need help once in England. Louisa surmised otherwise. She strongly suspected that Mrs. Moss aimed at a marriage for her son.
All Louisa could think of at the moment was to escape the overpowering woman and her docile son before such a dreadful event came to pass. Knowing that dear Hannah, as she insisted Louisa call her, was an exceptionally light sleeper, Louisa had determined to escape her vigilance for once to see Lord Westcott without those eager ears close to hand. Now it seemed Louisa's efforts were in vain.
She clasped neatly gloved hands before her, giving a sign of resignation. Looking up at him, her anxiety clearly revealed in her eyes, she explained, "I have found the caring of some people to be a burden. There were two such souls on the voyage to England. I scarce had a moment to myself. I believe I should fare better were I to place myself in the hands of a good solicitor. If you could recommend one to me, I should be most grateful. I am finding it a troublesome thing to be alone in a strange country. As well as assisting me in locating my relatives, he might be able to advise me as to hiring a maid, for you must know I am in need of such immediately." She gave him a sunny look, her hope clearly revealed in her eyes.
Lord Westcott suddenly had an image of this sweet young woman being imposed upon by a pair of mushroom upstarts determined to use her for their own purposes. Who knew what their intent might be? If his own father had been a guest of her family, how could he then refuse to assist her? Why, it practically amounted to a duty. His duty. He gave her a reserved smile, placed one of her dainty hands on his arm, then offered, "I shall do better than that. We shall locate that gentleman, find you a maid, and then I will take you to my mother. She knows everyone who is anyone, and can remember more family trees than you would believe."
Louisa glanced at the still-closed door at the top of the stairs, a glance not missed by Lord Westcott, and smiled at him with patent relief. "I should be most grateful to you, suh. I had thought our Virginians to be fine examples of gentlemen. I see they shall have to look to their laurels. You are most kind to a poor stranger. But I really ought not impose on your mother. No. If you will but take me to the solicitor so I may place my case before him, then find a maid, that is all I dare ask of you." She gave him a tremulous smile, then added, "I shan't wish to return to this inn, however. There must be another place where I can stay for the time being. If I might take those two portmanteaus with me, I could send for my trunks later on." She flicked another glance at the stairs, fearing she might see the gaunt figure of Mrs. Moss coining down the steps toward her.
"Is it that bad?' he murmured, her statements settling the matter as far as he was concerned. Having had some experience with encroaching people, he doubted Miss Randolph possessed the ability to fend them off. With the thought that his father would have been most pleased with him, Westcott beckoned to a groom, gave him a few directions, then ushered Miss Louisa Randolph to the waiting carriage.
John Coachman raised an expressive brow at the sight of a pretty miss entering his master's carriage. Since 'twas no business of his, he flicked his whip and they were off.
Neither Louisa nor Westcott observed the door at the top of the stairs crack open to reveal the curious eyes of Hannah Moss.
Hannah watched the departure with rising anger. She had been so certain that little Miss Randolph would not escape her. It had taken a bribe to ensure that Miss Randolph got a room far down the gallery so Hannah could be certain not to miss any attempt to depart. That was gratitude for you. The girl obviously did not appreciate true kindness. Why, Aubrey had seen to it that Miss Randolph's every need was tended to from dawn to dark. They had made sure that the dear girl had not been left to insults from the other passengers for the entire trip. Aubrey, poor lamb, would be rendered heartsick at the thought that the wealthy young woman had been whisked away by some stranger. Unless ... Hannah's faded blue eyes grew thoughtful. There had been some fancy crestlike design on the door panel of that carriage. Nobility? She placed a hand to her thin breast at the very idea. She envisioned an earl or even a duke.
Why shouldn't she and her dear worthy son be the ones to help poor Miss Randolph to locate her family? Doubtless they were to be found in some romantic castle or country estate, or, delight of delights, London. Hannah desired entree to the topmost limits of English society. Her letters of introduction were well and good, but she suspected one could never have enough of that sort of thing.
Determined to get Miss Randolph from the clutches of that noble, whoever he was, she bestirred herself. Dressing hastily, she scurried down to her son's room, where an urgent conference was held. Aubrey was informed in no uncertain terms that he was to search the town of Chester until Miss Randolph was found.
"Check with the innkeeper. I want you to find out who that man with the carriage is. Poor Miss Randolph, Louisa, that is," Hannah moaned. "Such a dear girl, but most assuredly needing us to look after her. Go!" she ordered her bemused son. "I shall not rest until we have found the poor child and have her safely under our protection once again."
Louisa felt cushioned and protected as she had not since her dear papa died. It was truly gratifying to have found a gentleman who appeared to have Papa's attitude toward ladies. She was escorted to the solicitor's office with every attention. He accepted her commission to uncover her relatives, although expressing some doubt at the speed of inquiry owing to the small amount of information provided.
When the woman at the employment agency where they were directed first looked at the outmoded--though quite pretty--dress Louisa wore, her nose rose a trifle with evident disdain. Then Lord Westcott stepped forward. Louisa stifled the desire to laugh at the rapid change in the woman's expression. There had been nothing less than a gracious bow and an obsequious smile. Louisa had a suspicion that the applicant produced for her inspection was far superior to any she might have found on her own.
Outside the agency, Louisa faced her benefactor. "I thank you for your assistance, suh. I confess that without your help I would have found this morning a severe trial." While she had managed the farm at home during the siege of illness, that had been a series of familiar tasks. This had been altogether different. "That solicitor certainly asked a multitude of questions. I hope the answers I was able to give him will be of help." The search for her family had seemed such a simple thing back in Virginia. It was turning out to be far more complicated than she could have ever anticipated. She edged away from Lord Westcott, preparing to walk with her new abigail, Tabitha, to the inn she intended to patronize.
"I have the distinct impression that you are about to bid me farewell. May I suggest you reconsider?" asked Westcott with great circumspection. Between his sister and mother, he had learned a thing or two in handling women. "Why not take a stroll about the town and enjoy the rather interesting sights to be viewed? Not far from where we stand begin the famous 'Rows.' And you must see the cathedral. After we pause for biscuits and hot chocolate, of course."
Looking up at this gracious man, Louisa felt quite justified in sailing across the ocean to hunt for her family. If this stranger could be so kind, would her relatives not be even nicer? "I believe that would be just lovely," she replied in the soft, melodious voice that the Earl of Westcott clearly found enchanting. The three set off along the neatly paved walk to a nearby cake shop.
Over a selection of lovely biscuits and a pot of delicious chocolate, Louisa gave Lord Westcott a contrite look. "I fear I have overset your plans quite dreadfully. I am certain you wished to depart for some point this morning, and you have devoted yourself to my concerns for hours. That simply will not do. I declare, when I urged you to proceed about your business, I truly meant it. As pleasant as it might be to have you show me about the town of Chester, I would never wish to delay you on an important trip. You must have concerns of your own." The gentian blue of her eyes deepened as she gazed wistfully out of the cake-shop window. How she yearned for her own family to love and cherish.
The thought had crossed Lord Westcott's mind that he was impatient to head for his estate. He knew full well that his mother would be anxious for the parcels she had ordered, the lace and linen from Ireland, and a list of sundry other items. As well, there were other matters claiming his attention. Since his father's death, he had refrained from the petty delights of society, although he certainly felt he had not become a stick, as his sister avowed on her infrequent visits. Yet he refused to leave this tender bud of womanhood to her own devices. Anyone with eyes could see that she needed someone to watch over her. His normal cynicism evaporated in her cheerful presence.
At the look of worry on her face, he patted her nicely gloved hand in an avuncular manner. "Now, there, young lady, do not worry your head about a thing. I am certain you will get on famously with my mother, and she will be delighted to have such a project to undertake. Since my sister married and I have not, Mother has been often at a loss for something to occupy her time."
"How lovely for you to have a married sister. Does she have children?" Louisa softly smiled at him. She had sorely missed her dear brother and three little sisters since they had been taken from her by the yellow fever.
He frowned. "Two. Toby is seven and Pamela is five. I rarely see them, so I couldn't tell you much about them," he added as he observed the flare of curiosity in her eyes.
"I envy you," she replied, then finished the last bite of her crisp biscuit. "I expect we had better hurry along. I do feel quite guilty at keeping you, you know."
"I assure you that it is my pleasure. After all, I have the honor of English gentlemen at stake." He allowed an amused smile to escape at this small sally, then escorted her from the shop.
Louisa was enchanted with the "Rows." At street level, shops crowded together in usual fashion. Above these was an open-sided roofed gallery overlooking the street, with more clever little shops to be found. The covered gallery provided an attractive walk, and Louisa delighted in peeping into shop windows to see interesting displays, some similar to home, some vastly different. Wine merchants, jewelers, and goldsmiths, together with toy shops and other merchants, rubbed cheek by jowl along the walk.
"You must enjoy purchasing toys for your niece and nephew," she declared as they looked at the colorful display in a toy-shop window.
"Hadn't given it much thought," he admitted. "My mother usually sees to that sort of thing."
"Oh." She impulsively placed a hand on his sleeve. "Do let us go inside. I should be right pleased to buy a gift for them. Your mother can direct it to their home." Louisa left Lord Westcott's side to hurry into the shop. Once there, she debated between a French puzzle and a Noah's ark complete with every animal imaginable. She settled on the ark for the boy, and then turned to select a beautifully dressed doll. Glancing at the stern gentleman at her side, she said, "Every little girl wishes for such a doll. You notice I prudently overlooked a drum. My brother had one and drove my mother nearly wild with the noise of it."
A bemused Lord Westcott nodded, watching as she confidently walked to the shopkeeper to pay for the purchases. He had intended to intervene, to pay for them himself. She had mentioned living on a farm; perhaps she was not well-to-do. Yet she looked charming and was so eager to please. Too eager? a small voice whispered. He pushed that cynical thought aside and approved the transfer of parcels to the short, rather plain Tabitha's capable arms.
Their stroll took them along to the lovely old cathedral.
Lord Westcott First insisted she walk along the old city wall for a good perspective of the church.
Louisa was charmed with the sights to be seen from the wall, especially the many examples of old timbered buildings. Then she stiffened as a familiar figure came into view. Mr. Moss. He appeared to be searching for someone or something. Louisa had a sinking feeling that she knew full well who it was he sought. Herself.
"Is something the matter?" Lord Westcott noticed her intent stare. He permitted her to withdraw from him and into the shadows cast by a tree. He caught a glimpse of a tall, thin man who appeared to be looking for someone. Could there be some manner of connection?
"'Tis nothing, I assure you. I thought I saw someone I know. Please, let us continue, suh." Resolutely she turned away from the sights of the town to face the cathedral.
Lord Westcott worried that whoever Miss Randolph had fled from would appear to create trouble. From what little she had said, it was apparent these people were encroaching types, the kind to make more than a spot of bother. He detested people who created scenes in public. It was so ... common. He felt it beneath his dignity to engage in argument. Cynically, he also felt it achieved nothing.
The tour of the cathedral was brief. Louisa made no demur at the hurried viewing. She dutifully noted the portions of the building that she was informed were Norman in origin, then murmured appropriate comments on the intricacy of many of the wood carvings to be seen.
"'Taint fittin'." Tabitha gave a wide-eyed look at a small image of an old monk with the devil tipping up his tankard.
Louisa quite agreed with her whispered remark.
If Lord Westcott heard that small observation on the decoration of the cathedral, he showed no sign. Instead he propelled both women out the tall wooden door and hurried them along to where Louisa had chosen to stay.
Louisa was relieved to escape into the pleasant interior of the old inn. The danger outside made it imperative that she remain hidden. But would Mr. Moss come searching for her in here? She turned to Lord Westcott, wishing that it was his jovial father rather than this somewhat reserved young man.
"I fear detection, Lord Westcott. I confess I am at a loss as to what I had best do." Running the farm back in Virginia was a great responsibility, but it hadn't prepared her for the present situation. Now, if someone was needing a recipe for preparing a tasty dish, or instruction on housewifely matters, Louisa was happy to oblige, for she had been well taught.
"I believe we ought to proceed with my plan. The solicitor has my direction and will send any communication to my estate. I am certain my father would wish you to travel with me to reside under my mother's protection." Westcott's mien of modest assurance served to convince Louisa. Although he seemed to be somewhat the cynic--she had caught those expressions that flitted across his face--he also appeared to be a dutiful son. And she trusted him. He had that aura about him of utter respectability.
Louisa capitulated. She knew when to quit gracefully.
"Suh, if I may change my mind, I believe I will do as you suggest. Since my luggage has not been unpacked, it should not take Tabitha and me long to be ready. It is but for you to appoint the time."
Lord Westcott quickly considered where they might stop overnight should they leave within the hour, and nodded decisively. "Immediately."
Thus it was that within an incredibly short time the elegant carriage bearing the noble design that Hannah had observed early that morning drove out through the east gate of the city of Chester, bound for Westcott Park.
Westcott had taken pains to avoid mentioning their destination in the hearing of the ostlers at the inn. The innkeeper knew nothing, either. Only the solicitor knew where Miss Louisa Randolph had disappeared to, and he was as mute as a fish when Mr. Moss came to inquire if he knew the whereabouts of a Miss Randolph.
For all intents and purposes, Louisa Randolph had vanished from the face of the earth.