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31 December 1816
Snow drifted softly onto Julian DeChambelle's shoulders, so unlike the crushing weight of his newly acquired responsibilities. He stared at the cavernous hole of the open mausoleum while the rector's voice rolled over snow-blanketed graves and echoed off distant monuments.
Chilly summer had given way to frigid autumn and even more bitter wintera winter of despair and deprivation, of desperation as the poor harvest brought scarcity and strife. Julian shoved his freezing hands into his greatcoat's pockets, his fingers fisting around the anonymous note that suggested the "accident" which overturned his father's carriage had been something more than accidental.
His gaze shuffled around the shivering throng gathered to pay their last respects. Did the author of the note even now slouch among the mourners where a few local gentry huddled in woolen cloaks and brushed shoulders with yeoman farmers? The late Earl of Chambelston had been universally loved by the common folk.
Or not, as the letterdelivered only this morningtestified.
Indeed, even his eldest sister Elizabeth had scorned the opportunity for one last chance at reconciliation.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust " The clergyman's familiar words carried Julian back to countless burials at sea, all those services on all those ships during his two decades of war. Death had struck with unnerving unpredictabilitytaking young powder monkeys and experienced sailors equally and respecting neither the lowliest seamen nor the great Admiral Nelson himself.
"Our Father, who art in heaven " The rector led the people in a cold, wavery recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
Julian's youngest sister Caroline followed as best she could, her reedy voice lagging a word or two behind the others. She was twenty years old, but with a mind forever childlike. Another burden bore down on him as he glanced at the top of her head. Caro was his responsibility now, for the rest of her life.
Of the six DeChambelle siblings, only threeFelicity, Caro, himmourned here today. His brother Kit lived in America now and wouldn't even learn of these events for weeks. Elizabeth preferred her resentment to her relatives. And Gregory
The rector snapped the prayer book shut, the clap of pages echoing as loudly as a cannon salute.
His father had been proud of Captain DeChambelle the officer, but what about Julian the man? The new earl? Anxiety once again closed around his mind with paralyzing fingers.
Baron Trethewey, his sister Felicity's husband, paused before Julian, hand outstretched. "He was a good man, Cham-belston."
Julian blinked as he mechanically shook his brother-in-law's hand, only now realizing that with his father's death he'd inherited not only the properties and responsibilities but his father's very name. The title fit him with all the discomfort of his civilian wardrobe. "Yes, he will be much missed."
"If there's anything you need, anything I can do to assist, send for me."
Felicity wrapped a black-clad arm around him in an embrace of sympathy and shared sorrow. "Have faith, Julian."
"I " The frigid wind stung his eyes, causing Felicity's features to waver. It wasn't supposed to be this way. Julian knew everything about commanding a frigate and nothing about overseeing an estate. His olderand now deceasedbrother Gregory had been raised for this position, had been trained for the responsibilities of managing the Chambelston holdings. He would have known what to do to ease their people's suffering, what steps Parliament needed to take to becalm the brewing unrest as the poor and hungry petitionedsometimes violentlyfor the government to intervene in the intensifying crisis.
"I know you'll make the right decisions when the time comes."
"Thank you." With an equanimity achieved by years of practice concealing his emotions from the men under his command, Julian squared his shoulders and fixed a resolute expression on his countenance for Felicity's benefit.
A few other intrepid mourners paused to offer their respects. Julian accepted their condolences with murmurs of thanks, then sent them on their way to escape the bitter conditions.
Maman touched his sleeve. Flakes of white glazed the top of her black bonnet. "We must get Caro home before she takes ill."
Julian glanced at his sister's pinched face, her nose reddened from cold and sorrow, her eyes reflecting the confusion of one swept up in events she didn't understand. "Come.
There is nothing more for us here." He grasped his mother's elbow and escorted the women to a carriage with its Cham-belston coat of arms on the door. The waiting horses stomped their feet in the packed snow, their harnesses jingling as they shook their heads.
Maman climbed in first, then Julian assisted Caro while Maman held her hand. His little sister tottered once, and Julian tightened his grip while she regained her equilibrium. Steps had always beenwould always bedifficult for his sister. Like most other things in life.
Julian kicked the snow off his boots and hoisted his weary frame up behind them. As he dropped onto the plush upholstery, the paper in his pocket crunched, demanding answers. Demanding action. Demanding he travel to the one house in England where he was least welcome.
Maman tucked a woolen blanket around Caro. "A pity Felicity could not stay, no?"
"Indeed. It would have been nice for you to have some feminine companionship during my absence."
"You are not staying in Somerset with Caro and me?"
"I must go to Northamptonshire." Rowan Abbey, to be precise.
Maman's lips tightened, her only betrayal of how keenly she felt her eldest daughter's antagonism. "You do not need to defend me, Julian. I made my mistakes and offered my apologies. There is nothing more I can do. I have made my peace. Elizabeth knows she is welcome whenever she wants to put aside her grudge."
"Actually I'm not going to see Elizabeth. I'm going to meet with her husband." The undersecretary to the Home Secretary, the man whose job it was to ameliorate the people's suffering during this winter of famine before hardship and hunger drove them to outright rebellion. Perhaps he was aware of the relationship between Julian's father and the petitioners.
"We have business." Business involving an anonymous letter and a mysterious death.
The bare branches of a nearby rosebush shivered forlornly as the bitter wind whipped across the dormant garden and through the threadbare elbows of Leah Vance's coat. The gust whisked up snow from yesterday's storm and chafed her face with the sharp crystals. She leaned toward her warmly dressed charge, allowing herself to feel a bit of envy for Lady Teresa Sotherton's heavy cloak.
"Mother says I am to go to London in the springif the situation calms." Enthusiasm beamed in Teresa's eyes of sparkling blue-violet. A few of her inky curls escaped her hat and framed her smile.
"If the situation calms." A state of affairs Leah was doing her best to prevent. Turmoil would extend her earnings from both employers.
"Helen says the city is filled with handsome men."
"Which you hope to meet."
"Of course. As many as possible." Teresa threaded her arm through Leah's elbow and pulled her along a freshly shoveled path.
"How distressing to learn your enthusiasm doesn't stem from the city's many prospects for improving your mind such as museums and libraries."
"My dear Miss Vance, what could I possibly have left to learn after all these years in your tutelage?"
"Comportment, patience and French conjugations."
"My poor teacher, consigned to an indifferent pupil like me. Perhaps you should come along to keep my conduct above reproach."
"Truly, you do not wish for my company. I would force your focus to pursuits such as literary societies and philosophy studies."
"No, I would see you introduced to so many gentlemen so as to not allow you time."
"At my age? A ridiculous cake I would make of myself."
"An older gentleman, then. Older and scholarly and a bit mysterious."
Like Leah's father, a gentle and intellectual man who'd failed to adequately provide for his daughters. Or like the one upon whom she'd once pinned hopes until adversity had driven him away. The wind shifted, carrying with it the acrid scent of the coal smoke that belched from Rowan Abbey's many chimneys. In her thin coat Leah shivered, longing for the fires that added a modicum of warmth to the drafty manor. "I would be content with meeting warmth come spring." Her future stretched before her as endless as the snowy landscape and as bleak as the leaden winter sky, a lifetime of caring for others' children but never her own.
Eight years she'd been here. When she'd arrived, Teresa had been a girl of ten and Leah scarcely twenty. What would she do when Lord and Lady Sotherton carted their daughter to the metropolis and its many eligible men? No doubt Lady Sotherton would write Leah a satisfactory reference that would procure her a position elsewhere. But where would she find one near her unfortunate, mind-damaged sister with the unique situation that allowed her to earn the extra funds she needed for Phoebe's care? Asylums were expensive. Good oneswhere the staff didn't abuse or exploit the inmatesespecially so.
The jingle of harnesses rang through the cold stillness as a pair of matching chestnuts pulled a carriage along the snowy drive.
"I didn't know your parents were expecting a visitor." Leah had made a practice of knowing her employers' business.
Alas, the cold and frequent snowfalls had kept many a traveler at bay this winter.
"Probably another boring politician come to confer with Papa. I don't know why they can't wait until after Twelfth Night."
The carriage rounded a curve, revealing the emblem on the door. A nobleman, then. "Perhaps one of your fine gentlemen couldn't wait until spring but thought to sweep you away before his rivals had chance to make their intentions known."
"A lovely thought." As the conveyance drew to a halt before the Restorationera house, Teresa's lips straightened and her eyes grew thoughtful. "But this is no overly eager suitor. That is the Chambelston crest."
Leah stumbled. "Your grandfather?"
"Yes." Teresa paused while Leah regained her balance.
In all Leah's years of service, Lady Sotherton's father had never called here. Nor had the lady ever ventured south to see him. Rumors about the long estrangement had titillated the servants for years. Rumors that increased in intensity and frequency only last month after Chambelston purportedly visited Sotherton's London town house. Rumors that Leah, as a proper governess, had once tried to avoid. At least until the day she'd realized that sharing the gossip about her employers could provide a better income than the meager salary allotted to a governess.
The coachman opened the door, shielding the Chambelston crest from their curious stare. Then a man descended the step. His dark hat covered his hair and hid his face, but not even the navy blue greatcoat could conceal the broad shoulders unbowed by years. As he strode to the house, his movements conveyed surprising determination and vigor for a man of Chambelston's advanced age. "Are you certain that is the Chambelston crest? Perhaps you are mistaken."
"No, I saw it on correspondence that arrived for Father once. Let's go inside. Perhaps we will get a glimpse of him."
"You mother will disapprove."
"Surely you do not intend to tell her, do you? Why, Miss Vance, consider this a secret quest of discovery, like searching for the heretofore lost tomb of an ancient Pharaoh."
"I doubt your grandfather would appreciate being compared to a long-dead mummy."
Teresa's laugh chimed again, and Leah's heart lurched with love and pride. The shy, lonely girl had blossomed to a beautiful young lady on the cusp of womanhood. Would Leah develop the same relationship with her next students, or was this onethis relationship, this childspecial? As Teresa steered them around the corner to a back door, a gust of winter blew one last shot of cold at them. The chill sliced through Leah's coat, and her heart. What would become of the sensitive Teresa in London? Leah feared the undemonstrative Lady Sotherton marked her daughter's romanticism and goodness as weaknesses. Would Teresa retain her gentle character or would disappointment and disillusionment harden into cynicism and make her into someone more like her mother? Like.Leah?
Once inside they paused to remove their heavy, snow-festooned boots. Leah wiggled stiff, aching toes as she unbuttoned her coat.
"Come." Teresa tapped her arm. "I want to see him."
"But we must retrieve our shoes and"
"No one will notice us." Her charge focused wide blue eyes on her. "Please, Miss Vance. In all my life I've never so much as seen my own grandfather. He may leave at any moment. Surely it wouldn't be wrong to sneak a quick look."
Against her better judgment Leah followed Teresa until they paused in the doorway of a salon that allowed them an unimpeded view of the entrance hall.
And of the visitorthe visitor who was most obviously not the older nobleman of their expectations.
This man's presence overwhelmed the grand entrance that long-ago Sothertons had designed to impressand intimidateguests. Even larger in life than he'd appeared from a distance, their caller held his hat in gloved hands, revealing a full head of tawny hair. The chandelier's glow gilded those strands with a gold that rivaled the patterns on the elegant wallpapers. Matching brows arched over cynical eyes of brilliant blue. And yet, despite the intensity smoldering therein, lines serrated their cornerslines of hard weariness that marked him as a few years past a young man's idealism.
Lines that cut even deeper with the sardonic twist of his mouth. "I thought we might at least see you at Father's bedside. He lingered long enough for you to see him one last time. But not long enough to outlive your rancor, it seems." Barbs edged the visitor's deceptively soft baritone.
Lady Sotherton's eyes glittered with all the wintry chill of the January cold. "So his sins finally caught up with him."
"Or someone else's."
"I fail to see why that should concern me."
Tension tightened along the square jaw and in the sharp, chiseled angles of the man's cheeks. "My dear sister, surely even your hard heart feels a twinge of sorrow at the passing of a man who'd provided so generously during your first years of life."
"His faults were more memorable than his generosity."
"Fortunately, so was his willingness to forgive."
"If you've come to judge me because I refuse to feign feelings I don't possess, you've misjudged my scruples."
"Actually I'm not here to see you at all, Lizzie." Scorn darkened his eyes and broadened his derisive grin. "I came to meet with Sotherton. Your husband."
Awareness prickled along Leah's spine, like the ache that radiated from her warming fingers. Was it important the new Earl of Chambelstonfor such he must beshould call on Lord Sotherton at a time like this?
Lady Sotherton's jaw dropped, her gaping mouth reminiscent of a dead codfish. And with the same degree of comment.
Beside Leah, Teresa stifled a giggle with her palm. But not well enough. Lady Sotherton's head jerked toward them, her hard eyes farther narrowing with even greater displeasure as she peered at the salon doorway.
"Teresa? Are you eavesdropping?"
Teresa swallowed and stepped into the entrance hall. "Good afternoon, Mama. I only now returned from my walk. I heard voices and waited so as not to interrupt."
Leah hesitated, wanting to flee but refusing to leave her charge alone to face the coming reprimand. Her prospects for receiving a good referral from Lady Sotherton dimmed as she slipped into the entrance hall and paused beside Teresa.
Lady Sotherton folded her arms across her chest, her perpetually present frown amplifying the wrinkles around her mouth. "Now that you have indeed interrupted, you may continue to the schoolroom. No doubt you have studies to complete."
"Yes, Mama." Teresa scurried to the stairs, mortification coloring her face a deeper red than the cold.
Leah offered her employer a hasty curtsey and hurried after her student.
"And Miss Vance." Lady Sotherton's frosty tones cut short Leah's retreat.
She froze, then turnedslowly, deliberatelygripping the remains of her composure as tightly as her fingers wrapped around the bannister. "My lady?"
"How do you expect my daughter to comport herself with proper conduct when you participate in her wayward behavior?"
"My apologies, my lady." Despite Leah's best attempts to control her response, the blistering words of public censurein front of her charge, the servants and a strangerscorched her cheeks. A stranger whose brilliant blue gaze softened for the first time with an expression akin to sympathy. Her embarrassment melded with rebellious anger, and her spine stiffened at the added indignity of a stranger's pity.