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"There's no point in lingering here." Adam Herbert turned from the window to face his father. "I could wait for years and years before I obtain a curacy. There are no vacancies to be found anywhere. And even where the minister is as old as Methuselah or often absent, it is impossible to get rid of a clergyman once installed. He can be dreadful!"
He thrust his hands in his pockets, wondering what his father would say. It wasn't that Adam truly wanted a parish. His father expected now that he had finished Cambridge he would begin his calling--if he indeed had such.
With a deep sigh, Mr. Herbert nodded a reluctant agreement to the undoubtedly factual conclusion, since he refused to ask favors. "What do you intend to do? You might consider law." This was a hesitant suggestion, diffidently made.
Adam turned slightly to stare out of the window again. How could he tell his father that more than anything he wanted to manage some land, to know the satisfaction of growing things? He had not opposed his father's assumption that he would follow in his footsteps. The problem was that those footsteps were ably occupied, and there was no sign of opportunity for a young, not-too-eager man for a decent position even as a curate--and the thought of living on eighty pounds per annum wasn't exactly appealing. If he were fortunate to obtain a vicarage, he might garner one hundred and fifty to begin. If he was lucky.
"What I would like to do," he mused aloud, "is travel a bit." Taking note of his father's alarmed expression, he added, "Oh, not out of the country into foreign parts. I would like to see where your family lives, where you grew up and spent your boyhood." He waited for areaction.
Mr. Herbert gave Adam an amazed look. "You have never expressed any wish to do something like this. I thought you cared nothing for the family tree or relatives."
"Well, perhaps not the tree, but I am intrigued by your uncle, the Earl of Stanwell. Priscilla mentioned meeting his grandson in London." He gave his father a hopeful look, for this elusive earl piqued his interest.
"Aye. Your sister said the viscount is a dandy of the first water." Mr. Herbert grimaced. "Although, she did say he had excellent manners and is accepted everywhere."
"However that might be, I should like to meet the earl, if possible. Even if I don't, it would be nice to see the estate, the village where you grew up. You approve?" he concluded as he observed a smile slowly crease his father's face.
"I think it a splendid notion." The rector thought a moment before continuing. "But if you intend to travel you will need your own vehicle. There is no point in trying to take a stage only to be afoot when you get there. It just so happens Lord Latham mentioned he wants to sell his cabriolet. It looks good to me and will only require one horse. We will find you a sound animal and you can be headed west before you know it."
Adam grinned. "I almost have the feeling you will be glad to see me gone!" He felt well nigh light-headed with relief that his suggestion was so well received.
"Never, you must know that. But a restless lad can too easily find trouble when not gainfully occupied. Go with my blessing. Who knows, perhaps you will meet my uncle. Stranger things have happened. The earl is considered to be a remote gentleman, more so since his son William died."
It seemed as though the trip was meant to be, for the cabriolet was in Adam's hands before another day was out, and the squire sold him a horse at what Adam suspected was a very low price. He thought the chestnut named Jigg looked rather fine pulling the shiny black cabriolet. He took a day to pick out the wheels with a bright yellow paint, liking the touch of color on the smart vehicle. He polished the glass-and-wood folding screen that added protection from the weather. The damaged leather apron was soon mended.
Adam's clothing was a sore point with his mother. She saw to it that his garments were washed and pressed, all the while complaining at the paucity of his wardrobe. His sister Tabitha brought him several new neckcloths. But fine Marcella waistcoats and coats of the best Bath cloth were beyond his purse. Still, he looked acceptable, his auburn hair neatly styled. He was taller than his father, but his gray eyes had the same keen look of intelligence in them.
He stowed his portmanteau behind the cabriolet seat on the small platform where a groom might be if he had one. His luggage was as modest as his clothes. He turned back to pat his mother on her shoulder. "I don't mind, you know. I have never been one to long for fine feathers."
"It was just in case you met your great-uncle. I'd not have him think your father a failure because he sees us as shabby-genteel sort of folk. First impressions can be lasting ones." She gave him a bright smile with a hint of tears.
"I'd soon set him straight on that." Enduring the hugs and handshaking with goodwill, Adam eagerly set forth west. Somehow he would manage to see the earl--one way or another. The letter of introduction handed him by his father might be the thing.
Not in any hurry, he took his time traveling, enjoying the sights to be found on his route, bent on taking care of Jigg. It was two weeks later that he slowly entered the picturesque village of Peetbridge, on the edge of his great-uncle's estate.
The sun warmed the honey-colored stone of neat cottages that lined the main road. Flowers bloomed beneath white-painted window frames where curious occupants peeped out to see who this stranger might be. It was much like home. He studied the various shops as he drove along the main street of the prosperous village. They were a handsome collection, with stone fronts and bowed windows to display the wares.
The Feathers, the village inn, appeared to be a successful concern. It had the look of a snug, comfortable place. He wheeled his cabriolet through the attached arch into the yard. An ostler hurried forth to take the horse and carriage, leaving Adam to take his portmanteau and venture through the large oak door. Once inside, he was impressed with the neatness and cleanliness of the place. Since he had progressed slowly so as to spare his horse, he had stayed in a fair number of inns. This was clearly superior.
"Good day to you, young gentleman." The innkeeper appeared from a back room, bustling to greet his new guest.
Adam felt he was being assessed. "I should like a room for an indefinite period. My father came from around here and I've a notion to see the country, perhaps look up relatives." He gave the man a straight look in the eye.
The innkeeper thrust the visitor's book toward Adam, then looked at his signature when he'd signed. "Herbert?" He studied his guest again. "Aye, you've the look of them--with that rusty hair and gray eyes. Whyn't you at Stanwell Hall? The earl's in residence."
"I've never met the man. Something I hope to rectify. I could scarce impose, not knowing my great-uncle."
The innkeeper nodded, then told a maid to usher Adam to his room. It seemed clean, with a fine-looking bed and a window with a view of the street below.
Adam disposed of his things in the wardrobe and chest, then tidied his clothes. A hasty glance at the looking glass showed his hair acceptable. The gray eyes gazing back at him revealed his inner excitement. At last he was really here. He set his hat on just so, and then hurried back down, wishing to see as much of the village as he could before dark.
At the foot of the stairs, the innkeeper caught his eye. He gestured to a man seated in the common room. "That be his lordship's steward there, just come in. Name of Chambers. Might introduce yourself." The innkeeper nodded to a lean gentleman of middle height and years wearing a brown coat and tan breeches. He was enjoying a mug of ale along with some bread and cheese.
Adam did just that at once, introducing himself with a modest bow. He pulled out a chair when motioned to sit down.
"A Herbert? You would be Robert's grandson, then? George's son, I reckon." Clearly knowledgeable of the family tree, the steward studied Adam, waiting for confirmation.
"My father is George Herbert. He is the rector at Rushcombe, Kent. One of my sisters has resided with our Aunt Mercy in London, where she met Viscount Rawlinson. Her talk of relatives prompted me to see where my father grew up, the countryside and all. And ... perhaps meet my great-uncle as well." Adam figured he might as well put his cards on the table immediately. This was not a moment to be shy and retiring.
Mr. Chambers asked a number of penetrating questions, in particular about Adam's plans for the future.
"Not having any secure post, I am at loose ends at the moment. I shall come about, I'm sure." Adam gave the man a forthright smile. He had no intention of pretending to be other than he was.
"Interesting. I shall mention your being here to his lordship later when I return." Mr. Chambers clearly was not a chatty chap, seeming quite reserved.
"If there is a possibility that I might see the estate, I should enjoy that very much," Adam added. "Even if I don't meet my great-uncle, I should like to see the house and land."
The steward nodded, but no reply was forthcoming.
Adam thanked the man, then excused himself on the pretext of seeing the village. He had no desire to intrude on the man's privacy. He probably had little time to himself if his life was anything like that of the steward at Latham Court.
The village of Peetbridge dozed peacefully in the midday suit. Adam sauntered along the well-swept pavement, pausing to admire the contents of the pastry shop window. The peace of the village was shattered when he heard an argument not far off. A woman was strongly protesting something. Not liking the sound of it, he headed that way. His steps brought him to a small herb garden beside the pastry shop, where a young lady fended off the advances of a chap Adam remembered from Cambridge.
"Polkinghorne! What a surprise to see you here!" Adam entered the garden, his long legs covering the ground in seconds. Claude Polkinghorne had been a fellow who liked to pick on the weak, those who could ill defend themselves against his strength. Adam hadn't liked him then, and liked him even less when he observed the beauty he intimidated.
"Herbert! What the devil are you doing here?" The bully took a step from the young woman, giving Adam a cold, condescending stare designed to send him away.
Adam smiled and bowed to the woman who eyed him with patent misgivings. She was the prettiest girl he could recall seeing anywhere ever, with dark blue eyes and a sweet mouth in a classically oval face. Soft brown hair framed her face in a very fetching manner. A few curls teased his eyes where they escaped from her bonnet, a fine affair of chip straw and ribbons.
Ignoring Claude, he gazed into her eyes and announced, "I am Adam Herbert, as Polkinghorne would tell you if he had his wits about him." Glancing at Claude, then back to the unknown beauty, he continued. "I thought to visit this area to discover something of the place where my father grew up."
"You are related to the Earl of Stanwell," she declared. Seeing his faint surprise, she added, "You have the Herbert looks--the auburn hair, gray eyes, and the nose. Not that your nose is anything remarkable, but it is a nose you see again and again in the family." She attempted to shake off Claude's hold and failed.
"Well, I am not ashamed of having a family nose. Besides, from all I have heard, the earl is a very esteemed gentleman. Unlike some others." The look he sent Claude was meant to remind him that Adam was privy to any number of unsavory incidents in Claude's Cambridge days. But Claude stood firm, unwilling to yield an inch. Only after Adam took a step in his direction did Claude release his hold on the young lady's arm.
The beauty took several steps away from Claude to stand by Adam, something that pleased him mightily.
"Claude is my cousin," she said, glaring at the affronted gentleman. "And you truly had no need to come to my aid, although I suppose I must thank you anyway. I am quite able to handle the nitwit. I have been doing so for years." Her sniff was clearly one of disdain.
Adam didn't know what to think of her outspoken manner. He had to admit that Claude would cut a fashionable swath in any village with his well-cut coat of peacock green over tan breeches and a bronze waistcoat. His boots had a blinding shine, reminding Adam that he needed to polish his before tomorrow. Claude's hat was of the finest beaver and tilted at a rakish angle over his brow. But Adam also knew the sort of fellow he was under all that polish.
"Since my dear cousin has lost his manners, permit me to say that I am Miss Lawrence of Brook Court." She dipped a proper curtsy. It wasn't all that often that a handsome gentleman visited Peetbridge or the area, for that matter. The chaps who came to see her cousin were a dreadful sort, dandies all of them. Or worse. She had no use for any of them, but particularly cousin Claude.
Claude sputtered. "Dash it all, Emma, 'taint proper for you to introduce yourself."
Emma flicked him a look that should have felled him on the spot. "Well, perhaps in the future you might learn some conduct, Claude." If he thought that she would yield to his crude notions of a courtship he was far and away off. She would as soon be a spinster the rest of her life!
"Might I escort you to wherever your destination might be?" Mr. Herbert asked with a bit of reserve, as though not sure what she might say to him. Emma liked his reticence, something her stupid cousin had never learned.
"I was bound for the pastry shop when Claude tried to ... what were you trying to do. Cousin?" She firmed her lips and tapped a daintily shod foot.
"Dash it all, Emma, I seldom get a chance to talk to you." His mouth turned down in a sulky pout, as petulant as a thwarted boy who has had his toy taken from him.
"You have nothing to say that I wish to hear." She narrowed her eyes. "Simply leave me alone. Cousin."
Sensing there was a great deal more to this scene than he was being told, Adam offered his arm without comment. She accepted with amusing reluctance. He liked the sensation, though, feeling like a regular knight-errant.
"Now see here, Herbert." Claude took a threatening step forward. "No need to interfere with that madcap."
"I believe I will, however." Adam bestowed a triumphant smile on a man he cordially detested. He then escorted Miss Lawrence from the miniscule garden to the door of the pastry shop, ushering her safely inside.
"My thanks to you, Mr. Herbert." She curtsied again, offering a polite smile. "Although, I repeat that I could have managed my cousin without your intervention." Her chin tilted up in what appeared to be defiance. Adam was tempted to tell her what Polkinghorne had done while at Cambridge, only it wouldn't be fit for her tender ears.
She was dismissing him, and he was reluctant to leave her with Polkinghorne lingering about outside. Yet, if she persisted in being so dratted uppity, perhaps she merited her cousin's attentions.
"You will be safe?" Adam queried, although why he should be concerned with this impudent piece eluded him.
"A maid is with me. Claude had told her to go away." She gave a small woman garbed in gray a narrow look. "I will not have her accompany me again. Claude has a way of intimidating the servants. They seem to think I will succumb to his blandishments and marry the clod."
"You do not hold your cousin in high regard, I gather." Adam waited while she selected an assortment of pastries, then walked at her side when she left the fragrant warmth of the little shop.
Once outside and away from the inquiring eyes and ears of the baker's wife, she answered him. "No. He was an utter toad as a child and age has not improved him. I have the feeling that you know him fairly well." She turned to gaze at him with patent curiosity.
Adam glanced off to see Polkinghorne in the distance, not far from The Feathers inn. 'True. We were at Cambridge at the same time."
She grimaced. "How fortunate for you. I suspect you could offer some famous tales of his exploits." Her voice held a dry note. She walked a few steps to where a gig awaited her, the groom watching Adam with suspicious eyes. "You intend to meet the earl?"
"I would like to. I have heard such interesting stories about him. He is my great-uncle, and from what my rather has said, that house is just as fascinating as he is."
"If you like collections and old things and the like, it is. You plan to remain here for a time?" She paused by the carriage, turning to face him.
Adam repressed a grin at her forwardness. It wasn't the done thing for a young lady to be so curious about a stranger. She was indeed a madcap. If staying in Peelbridge meant he might see her again, he would stay as long as possible. "Yes. Even if my great-uncle is not interested in meeting me, I should like to explore the area."
She entered the gig and with capable hands took the reins from the groom. "I would not be the least surprised if he summons you to Stanwell Hall. He is not given to much entertaining, but he is a curious man. You wait and see. You will have the opportunity to go through the entire place."
The maid went around to the far side and climbed into the gig, waiting with sullen patience.
Adam tipped his nicely brushed beaver hat. "I shall look forward to seeing you again, Miss Lawrence. Perhaps you can instruct me on the history of this area?"
"There is a decent guide book available. The Feathers ought to have a copy." Her gaze swept over him, reminding Adam that he had been a bit too forward with a young woman he didn't know, never mind that she had done the same.
Adam stepped back, acknowledging her curt, but admittedly proper, set down. He earned it. No matter how much he would like to spend time with this beautiful creature, he was a stranger about whom she knew nothing, other than that he was a member of the Herbert family. He watched as she deftly flicked the reins, departing without so much as a glance in his direction. Miss Lawrence did not flirt.
Emma capably guided the gig from the village back to her home. Brook Court might not be as splendid a place as Stanwell Hall, but the manor house was old and supposedly had entertained some famous people at one time or another.
While they clipped along at a smart pace she considered what had happened in the village. Really, she must persuade her father to convince Cousin Claude to leave her alone. Unless dearest Papa had succumbed to the notion that Claude would make an acceptable husband for her. Horrors!
This thought was so dire that she nearly dropped the reins. Only the dismayed gasp of the maid brought her to her senses.
Once at Brook Court, she left the gig in the care of the groom and ignored the subdued maid as she went to seek out her father. She found him in his study, a paneled room with ample space for his desk and books.
"Papa, I have returned from the village with your special pastries." She placed the neat parcel on his desk. 'Tell me, what do you think of my cousin Polkinghorne?"
"He's not a bad sort of chap." He frowned at his only child from beneath bushy gray brows. "Have you had a run-in with him again?"
"I want you to know that no matter what, I will not marry Claude Polkinghorne. He is an utter toad!"
"Looks well enough to me."
"I met someone this afternoon who knew him while at Cambridge. He did not appear to have a high opinion of my cousin."
Mr. Lawrence leaned back in his chair, one finger marking his place in the book he had been reading. "A stranger here? Who?"
"George Herbert's son, Adam. He rescued me from Claude."
"He did, eh? Well, we shall see about that."
"What do you mean by that. Papa?"
"Er, nothing," he said, his gaze sliding away evasively. "You know the earl. Mr. Herbert will be called there in a trice."
Emma was pleased at the thought. Any man who could put Claude Polkinghorne out of countenance was one she could admire!