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The Fugitive Heiress
By Amanda Scott
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1981 Lynne Scott-Drennan
All rights reserved.
When one is running away from home, thought Miss Catheryn Westering idly, one ought to suffer at least a twinge of guilt. One certainly had no right to expect such delicious thrills of adventure and excitement as she was presently experiencing. To be sure, there had been that brief moment of doubt back at the posting house near Maidenhead where they had stopped for lunch, when it had suddenly occurred to her that the Earl of Dambroke might not be in London at all, that he might just as well be at his country seat in Hertfordshire instead. But her driver-companion, Bert Ditchling, had reassured her.
"There now, Miss Catheryn, don't fret yourself," he had said affectionately in his gravely baritone. "His lordship will be in London right enough. Where else would he be this time of year? Use your head, lass. Why, the social season's just beginning. All the smarts'll be in town." It was true enough, and Catheryn remembered as well that Dambroke's sister, the Lady Tiffany, would probably be out this year. Indeed, except for the youngest, a mere schoolboy, the whole family should be in town.
She settled back now against the squabs and surveyed the passing countryside. She and Bert had left Caston Manor during the small hours and, though excitement kept her awake for a while, she had slept most of the way as they rolled through the towns and villages nestled at the foot of the Berkshire Downs. Dear Bert had been scolding off and on all day, of course, first about being dragged from his bed in the dead of night and then about dining alone with her in a private parlor. He thought her journey a purely impulsive start and an altogether improper one at that.
"Traveling the Bath Road in a shabby carriage with none but a groom to look after you!" he had sputtered at one point. "And you call yourself a gentlewoman!"
Well, she was a gentlewoman. And if the chaise was shabby, at least it was her own. The chaise and pair, her grandmother's emerald necklace, and about a hundred pounds were all that remained once her grandfather's debts had been settled after his death the previous year. As for Bert Ditchling, he was certainly more than a common groom, for Catheryn had known and depended upon him all her life. It had seemed perfectly natural that he follow when she went to live at Caston Manor with her aunt and uncle. That thought caused her to wonder what the Castons might be doing now. Sir Horace had had business that took him to Bath the day before, but surely he had returned to the manor by now and had heard of Catheryn's departure. He would be worried and angry and probably think her ungrateful.
"Which I'm not," she muttered aloud. "Not a bit." After all, the Castons had offered her a home when her grandfather died and had treated her as kindly as though she had been their own daughter. But they also clearly approved of their son Edmund's intention to marry her, and Catheryn had no wish to marry Edmund. She had explained her feelings carefully, but to no avail. Her Aunt Agatha, placid as always, had simply folded plump hands at plump waist, smiled, and told her not to be a goose.
"For you will not wish to be left forever upon the shelf, my dear Catheryn. And no man in these parts is looking about for a twenty-one-year-old female who has spent her formative years dashing about the countryside on horseback and who knows less than nothing about keeping house. I myself," she added with a certain loftiness, "would oppose the match were Edmund not so set upon it; for, despite the training I have endeavored to impart this past year, I do not consider you a suitable bride for him. However, that is as may be. Dear Edmund has said he will marry you, so marry you he shall."
As for Edmund himself, Catheryn liked him well enough, but even his friends referred to him as the "estimable Edmund," and "estimable" was an excellent description. He had done well at Harrow and Cambridge and had never been sent down from either school for misbehavior, a fact that did not impress his cousin Catheryn. She would have preferred to see some spirit in him. Nowadays, he spent his time learning about the estates which would one day be his, was always tastefully if conservatively attired, had excellent manners, and was, in fact, a dead bore. For some reason, beyond Catheryn's understanding, he had chosen to fall head over ears in love with her most unworthy self. Constant discouragement seemed to make little impact, but she had never really doubted her ability to deal successfully with his suit, even if life at the manor should become a trifle difficult in the meantime. The matter of Uncle Daniel's money proved to be another matter altogether.
Daniel Westering, her grandfather's younger brother, had died in India three years before. Having never met him, Catheryn did not think much about it at the time, so when Edmund had inadvertently mentioned the previous afternoon that Uncle Daniel had left her ten thousand pounds, she had been astounded.
"Why was I never told of this?" she had cried.
Edmund explained simply that her grandfather, a joint trustee with Sir Horace for the money, had not wished Catheryn to know of her fortune, lest she insist that some of the money be used to restore Westering. He preferred that it be saved for her dowry. "When he died," Edmund had gone on rather condescendingly, "we never thought about informing you, what with one thing and another, and later there seemed no reason. After all, your coming of age made no difference to the trust, and females know nothing of money matters. My father handled everything, as he will continue to do."
"Of all the muttonheaded, idiotish, high-handed, infamous, damnable things to do!" Catheryn had exploded. "How could you be so unnatural, so ... so deceitful! Do you mean to tell me that all the time we scraped and pinched to put food on the table and keep Grandpapa comfortable, ten thousand pounds were just idling away in some stupid banking house!"
Edmund calmly pointed out that the money had been drawing interest and hardly sitting idle, but Catheryn was unimpressed. She demanded to know where the money was located and how she could get her hands upon it so that she might leave Caston Manor at the earliest opportunity. Her cousin had been amused.
"The money is in trust until you are twenty-five, Catheryn, or until our wedding, of course, since you are of age. Come now, and be sensible. We would have told you perhaps had it crossed our minds to do so. It just never did."
That had been the final straw. Furious, Catheryn had restrained herself, knowing it would be useless to argue further with him. It was bad enough that they expected to marry her to Edmund at all, but to think they had meant to do so without informing her that she carried a dowry of ten thousand pounds was outside of enough. She had known that neither her uncle nor her aunt would support her feelings in the matter. Uncle Horace would agree with Edmund about females and money, and Aunt Agatha would tell her that she must consider her good fortune and not bother her head about the details.
Who, she had wondered, would support her? It was then that she bethought herself of Richard, seventh Earl of Dambroke, the head of her family. Her grandfather and his, according to the family Bible, had been first cousins. Obviously, that meant she and the earl were also cousins, though to what degree Catheryn was uncertain, having never understood the difference between a second cousin and a first cousin once removed, let alone anything more complicated. The remote kinship and the fact that the family was large made it more than likely that Dambroke was unaware of her very existence, but could she not, with all propriety, apply to him for aid? Of course she could.
She was not perfectly certain how trusteeships worked, but surely Dambroke could at least advise her as to the best course, and he would be bound to help keep her from being forced into an unwanted marriage. On the other hand, might he not consign a letter from an unknown female relation to the nearest fire? After brief consideration, she had rejected the thought. He might think about the fire, but his duty would require that he return some sort of answer. It was much more likely that he would simply order her to trust the judgment of her aunt and uncle and obey their wishes in the matter.
Having convinced herself that a letter would be a waste of time, she determined to confront him in person and took advantage of her uncle's absence to act upon the impulse at once. When she woke Bert, she told him only that she was leaving in order to escape Edmund's undesirable attentions and that she hoped Dambroke would support her cause. Despite his grumbling, Bert had asked no questions, but she could not delude herself that the earl would be so accommodating. Indeed, it would not surprise her if he demanded her immediate return to Caston Manor. With a confidence born of experience, she hoped she might depend upon her own resourcefulness to avoid that end.
Smiling, she straightened, stretched herself much as a cat does, and settled back with these thoughts for company to admire the view. When they had passed through Heyword Village, Bert shouted back that it would not be long now, and the excitement welled up within her again. Eventually a house flashed by and then another, and the carriage wheels clattered on cobblestones. They were in London. Bert slowed the horses to a walk and soon pulled into the flagway to hail a passing pedestrian for direction to Grosvenor Square. Her long journey was coming to an end.
It did not occur to her until the chaise actually turned into the lovely square with its enclosed garden and tall, imposing homes that her initial meeting with the earl might be a trifle awkward. Her aunt would thoroughly disapprove of calling upon a gentleman without benefit of chaperone, regardless of his being the head of her family; and, though Catheryn was not perfectly certain what the proprieties were in a case like this, she had an odd notion that she was not living up to them. Briefly, on the front step, she considered asking for the countess instead of the earl before rejecting the notion as a mere waste of time. Only the earl could help her.
A very proper butler answered the door and, to her relief, did not turn a hair when Miss Westering requested speech with his master. He merely bowed his head a fraction and ushered her into a pretty saloon, furnished with elegant taste and no apparent regard for cost. Catheryn declined to sit and, perceiving a mirror over the fireplace, stepped toward it with fluid grace. Removing her cloak and gloves, she straightened her hair and white muslin tucker and smoothed the skirt of her pomona-green morning frock, then paused to gaze directly at her reflection.
The face in the mirror was not beautiful, being heart-shaped rather than fashionably oval and much too brown. Since Catheryn stayed indoors only when it was impossible for her to be outdoors and rarely wore a hat, her blond curls had been streaked nearly white by the sun, but her charcoal-gray eyes were set wide apart with long, dark lashes and were wont to sparkle irrepressibly with merriment or mischief. They narrowed now as she grimaced. Very likely, the great and powerful earl will feel exactly as Sir Horace and Edmund do about females handling money and will refuse to help you at all, my girl, she told herself. She shook her head and the grin peeped out again. One could only try one's best.
She wondered what Dambroke would be like. Her grandfather had spoken little of his family and had written the young earl off as a "damned Corinthian." Catheryn had attended an occasional assembly in Bath and knew a Corinthian to be an elegant gentleman more interested in sport than in dancing attendance upon simpering belles at fashionable squeezes. Some had a tendency toward foppishness, which she despised; many of them were fond of deep play, and she herself had seen more than one strolling down Milsom Street in the company of dashing ladies of questionable repute. On one such occasion, when she had been with her aunt, that redoutable lady had insisted upon crossing the street in order to avoid meeting such a couple. Just as she was smiling at the memory and wondering if Dambroke would prove to be the type of gentleman disapproved of by Lady Caston, the doors were flung open and, in sonorous tones, the butler announced his lordship.
Dambroke paused on the threshold and lifted his quizzing glass. Thus, her attention was drawn first to the deep-set ultramarine eyes, then to the firmly chiseled features and sun-darkened skin; but, from the top of his carefully disordered locks to the tips of his glossy Hessian boots more than six feet below, the earl was a fine figure of elegant masculinity. There was not a wrinkle or loose thread to be seen. His snowy cravat was stiffly starched but simply tied, his collar points were of moderate height, his dark blue coat fit snugly across broad shoulders, and buff stockinette breeches complemented every rippling muscle in his legs when he moved. His jewelry included only a gold watchchain with a single fob and the Dambroke signet worn on the third finger of his right hand. She knew him to be twenty-seven and, despite the quizzing glass, Catheryn decided approvingly that this man was no fop.
She did not move from her place near the mantle, nor did she take her eyes from him. If he expected to stare her out of countenance with that chilly, rather aloof gaze, he would be disappointed, for she was made of sterner stuff than that. Dambroke seemed to recall himself and turned sharply to his patently interested butler, letting the glass fall. "Refreshments, Paulson," he ordered in a pleasantly deep voice. "Uh ... ratafia and biscuits, I think."
Catheryn chuckled, interrupting the butler's dismissal. The earl turned quickly enough to catch sight of the decided twinkle in her eye as well as her still twitching lips. His eyebrows lifted in silent query, and she made a sterner attempt to control herself. "Forgive me, my lord," she said, "but you do not seem the sort of gentleman who would relish ratafia. I am certain you would prefer Madeira or port, and I myself should much prefer a glass of lemonade."
His own lips twitched responsively, so perhaps the gentleman possessed a sense of humor. He stifled it, however, and moved toward her, speaking over his shoulder. "See to it, Paulson." The door shut softly and Catheryn sank into a belated curtsey. "Shall we be seated, Miss Westering?" The words were uttered crisply, more like a command than a suggestion, as he led her to a comfortable chair in the window and seated himself in its twin. A low buhl table stood between them. "Paulson must have told you that my mother is expected momentarily, but perhaps, in the meantime, I may be of service."
A slight frown disturbed her features at this subtle insistence, despite her specific request to the butler, that she must have come to see his mother. "My business is with you, my lord, though I should be pleased to meet her ladyship, of course. However, perhaps I impose altogether. I'm certain you don't even know who I am."
He smiled faintly. "On the contrary. I believe you are the granddaughter of Sir Cedric Westering, my grandfather's late cousin, and that you have come to London from somewhere in the neighborhood of Bath." Catheryn was amazed till he went on blandly, "I am head of the family, Miss Westering. It behooves me to know its various members." Her eyes narrowed as amazement shifted to suspicion. "Have I said something wrong?"
Demurely, she gazed at her folded hands. "No sir. Only, you're doing it much too brown—as my grandfather would say." She peeped at him from under her lashes.
This time the smile was rueful but warmer than before. "You are perceptive. I'm forced to admit that Mr. Ashley, my excellent secretary, was present when Paulson brought word of your arrival. I have him to thank for my knowledge."
Catheryn smoothed her skirt carefully, grateful for the pause made necessary by the arrival of their refreshments. She could usually size people up quickly, but the earl presented something of an enigma. Though he seemed to maintain an aloof dignity, there had been those brief, encouraging flickers of humor. Paulson set a tray containing glasses of lemonade and Madeira as well as a plate of small, delicious-looking cakes on the table, effectively breaking her train of thought. He then executed a bow rather deeper than the one with which he had greeted her and inquired whether there would be anything further. Dambroke waved him away.
Excerpted from The Fugitive Heiress by Amanda Scott. Copyright © 1981 Lynne Scott-Drennan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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