A Perilous Engagement [Wedding Series Book 4]
A Perilous Engagement [Wedding Series Book 4]
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It was a fair wind, Jordan, Lord Harcourt, decided as it tugged at his hat. A good wind, an omen of what was to come--he hoped.
"Smells nice," Percy said above the rush of air and the clop of the horses on the stony avenue that led to the hall.
"Fruit trees," the newly acceded ninth Baron Harcourt replied with a great deal of satisfaction. On the left of the road a field of hops grew, gloriously green and luxuriant. To the right of the road an orchard, well tended and crowned with a cloud of pink and white, bloomed with promise of an abundant crop of apples.
"In any event, this looks auspicious. I mean to say, how bad can the house be if the crops are in such good heart?" Harcourt declared, feeling that he must be correct.
"Bound to be," Percy answered with a nod that did not disturb his perfectly set hat in the least.
The team slowed in response to the command from the baron as they rounded a beautifully tended lane to see the house. The baron gave a dismayed groan.
"Well," Percy said hesitantly, "perhaps it just needs a speck of paint to perk it up a bit?"
"Percy, it needs more than that. The windows need a good wash, indeed, the paint needs more than a speck, and heaven knows what we shall find when we go inside. I was told my grandmother lived quietly the years before her death. Apparently she did not wish to be disturbed in any way. Cousin Ivor, the late baron, was not around long enough to make any improvements after he inherited from her."
The barony was an ancient one that permitted a daughter to inherit and hold the tide for a male heir. Jordan's grandmother had held the title, passing it to Ivor at her death, who had been baron foronly a short time. And now the title had come to Jordan. He jumped down from the curricle to study his newly acquired home in Kent.
He stood still, absorbing the sight before him. His dark hair under his hat had been slightly ruffled during the drive from the last posting inn, and his tall, lean form revealed an athletic nature. Accounted a handsome man, at the moment he appeared somewhat frustrated with what he viewed.
The Elizabethan manor house rambled in a haphazard fashion, quite as though the builder kept changing his mind about where he wanted it to go. The brick needed a bit of tending, but it was not beyond repair. The roof appeared to be acceptable. As for the window trim--it desperately required paint. Jordan was not one to allow exposed wood to turn a bleached gray. No, he wanted sharp black for paint; and those windows definitely needed a sparkle to bring the house to life.
Jordan turned when he saw a fellow come around the corner, giving the newly arrived pair a curious eye. Neatly garbed, he looked to be an estate worker of some sort. "Good day, sir. Help ye, can I?"
"I am Harcourt. Your name?" Jordan queried, taking note of the wary expression on the fellow's weathered face.
"Peachum, my lord." The man nodded with respect.
"Take my team and carriage around to the stables if you would." Jordan spoke pleasantly, but in a manner guaranteed to bring instant obedience.
Once that matter was settled, Jordan pulled a great brass key from a pocket and opened the front door. It had been years since his last visit; he'd forgotten the place was so old, yet there was a charm, a certain beauty to it. Or there would be once it was cleaned.
"Never thought to see you inherit a title and a blooming estate," Percy murmured as he gazed about the entry hall, taking note of the fine, if dusty, suit of armor that stood in one corner.
High on the walls several racks of antlers were swagged with delicate cobwebs. A tall floor clock ticked away the minutes, showing the hour had turned two. It was the only indication that the house was--or had been--inhabited. At least someone was around the house to wind the thing! Jordan mused.
"Nor did I. I never expected Cousin Ivor would be killed," Jordan replied absently, stroking the wood paneling and taking note that there was no sign of worms or beetles or anything else dire--at least in this room.
"Killed?" Percy said with mild alarm.
"An accident. Somewhere on the estate, I believe." Jordan wondered if there was a servant to be found and where they would sleep that night, considering the condition of the interior. He was sure the solicitor had told him of a housekeeper. Dust was thick; everything had a neglected look about it. Whoever the woman was, she was not given to polishing wood.
The two men peered into several rooms on the ground floor, taking note of Holland covers shrouding the furniture. At least some attempt had been made to preserve items. They then sauntered up the stairs to the first floor to find more dust. That is, until they reached what must have been his grandmother's suite.
"I believe we may be able to stay here after all," Jordan murmured to his good friend.
"Smells like lemon," Percy observed quietly. "Polished to a turn. Nothing shabby about these rooms."
The sound of footsteps bustling along the hallway brought both men around to look at the door with curiosity.
"This ought to be interesting." Jordan glanced at Percy, a wry smile on his lips.
Percy frowned at his friend's levity and then scowled at the matronly woman who hurried into the room, quite out of breath and looking rather vexed.
"Oh, I am sorry, your lordship. I was in the laundry. Peachum came to tell me as how you had arrived. Should have pulled the bell. I am Mrs. Longwood, housekeeper to the late baron and your late grandmother before that. The solicitor wrote as how you'd come down from London as soon as you were gazetted. I'd have had more polish applied, but with none to help me, 'tis all I can do to keep these rooms in order." She bobbed a curtsy, then awaited orders she obviously expected.
If there was a hint of ill usage in her words, there was nothing in her face to confirm it.
With another glance at Percy, Jordan politely said, "Hire as many maids as you need to make the house habitable. I intend to make this my home. Is Peachum the only man in the stables? Or does he have help?"
"Oh, Peachum has his son to help him, but I fancy he could use another pair of hands, especially if you have more horses?" She gave him a calculating look, as though she wondered what changes would be made to the household.
"There is a baggage cart on the way with Barton, my valet, and Simnel, my chef from London. I'll discuss the matter of additional help with Peachum later. Mr. Ponsonby and I want a meal. Also, we will be staying here. If you might ready a room for him by this evening? I shall occupy my grandmother's suite. Barton and Simnel will need rooms, as well as Mr. Ponsonby's valet when he arrives."
"All will be as right as a trivet, my lord. At what time do you wish dinner?" The plump housekeeper, her apron crisp with starch, paused by the door, appearing anxious to take her leave.
"We are accustomed to London hours. Six will be fine. My chef ought to be here in time to prepare our meal." Jordan was polite, but as with his meeting with Peachum there was little doubt he expected total obedience.
When Mrs. Longwood had left them to the creaking peace of the house, Jordan strolled over to the window to gaze out at the countryside. "Nice view from up here."
"Wonder what happened to your cousin?" Percy mused, raising his brows as he stared out of the window, seeming intent upon the same view.
"Grandmother's solicitor didn't seem to have any details. He was anything but loquacious." Jordan frowned, recalling his frustration at the solicitor's evasiveness.
"Perhaps he met with an accident while out riding? Happens often, I suspect," Percy said, speculation clear in his voice.
"Possibly, although he was reputed to be a bruising rider. Perhaps Mrs. Longwood would know something?"
After a casual check of the bedroom and the dressing room, the two men left the pleasant and well-furnished sitting room.
"Furniture ain't old," Percy commented as they clattered down the stairs. "Leastways, it looks to be Sheraton or Hepplewhite, maybe Chippendale," he observed as they wandered into what appeared to be a drawing room of sorts on the ground floor.
"Odd that the old girl would refurbish the house, then neglect to keep it up," Jordan replied as he pulled off the Holland cover from the damask-covered sofa. "Amazing--the blue isn't faded in the least, and it seems fairly new."
Percy pulled the covers off two side chairs and shook his head in surprise as a pair of Sheraton's finest designs came to view, the blue damask glowing in the soft light from the shaded windows. "Perhaps she wished it nice for your cousin?"
"Well, it eliminates the need for redecorating right off--at least this room. We shall see in what condition the rest of the house is later on. I will have Mrs. Longwood ready this room as soon as she has your bedroom prepared."
"Glad I came down with you. Wouldn't have missed seeing your new digs for anything." Percy craned his neck to study the design on the ceiling. Strap-work tipped with gilt was delightfully complicated and festooned with delicate cobwebs to enhance the plasterwork. He shook his head, exchanging an amused glance with Jordan,
The two men left the house, intent on the stables just as the baggage wagon approached on the neatly graveled avenue to the house. Cotman, the coachman, had the reins and gave Jordan a pained look as though the ride south from London had been a severe trial.
Barton greeted his master, then darted a sour glance at Simnel. The chef bore the righteous mien of one who has been much put upon.
"Difficult trip?" Jordan hazarded.
"Dire, milord," the valet responded darkly. "With this prophet of doom and gloom along, it could hardly be jolly."
"Well, take heart, things are not so bad."
"The kitchen, milord?" Simnel said lugubriously.
"Take a look for yourself. I have not yet inspected that part of the house. You know that whatever you wish for that area will be purchased."
"Don't know why you put up with him," Percy said quietly as the baggage wagon with the grouchy pair trundled in the direction of the stables. The two gentlemen slowly followed on foot, looking about them as they walked.
"Yes, you do. He is a first-rate chef. If I am to be settled in the country, I intend at least to eat well."
"So--you do plan to remain here." Percy shook his head in bemusement as he sauntered at Jordan's side, following the baggage wagon to the stables.
"I do. I've an estate to run. Besides, London is not the same anymore."
"True," Percy agreed. "A chap inherits a title and a fortune, and all the matrimony-bent mamas haunt you. Not a moment of peace, if I know rightly."
"All the pretty young things who ignored me before now smile and nod. It was most illuminating." Jordan slanted a wry smile; his dark eyes gleamed with humor. He had never been one to have a high opinion of his own merits, but a vast fortune and a title had altered everything.
"Disgusting is more-like it," Percy grumbled.
"You may not have a title, but you are pretty well to grass, my friend." Jordan gave his good friend a thump on the back. "I've no doubt you are just as sought."
Percy didn't reply as they had rounded the back of the sprawling house to see the stable block, all brick and sprucely neat. "Well, well, this is more the thing," Percy said after a low whistle.
"Appears to be a good housing above the stables." Jordan pointed out the neat row of windows to Percy, then strolled inside to carefully inspect the layout and the stalls. "Amazing, the very latest in stable design. Look at the stalls--all solid brick with provision for names above. It would seem my grandmother anticipated Ivor would want a large stable."
"Will you?" Percy wondered aloud.
"Just my carriage horses and any others needed. Kent is hardly hunting country from what I have seen so far."
True," Percy agreed.
The dinner hour approaching, the two men went into the house once more, reluctant to face the gloomy interior, but hoping to have a decent meal placed before them. They entered the dining room, now polished and ready.
The food betrayed the unmistakable influence of Simnel. Percy took a sip of the savory-smelling soup and sighed with pleasure. "It would seem Simnel is in control."
"Indeed," Jordan agreed, intent upon consuming his soup and one of the warm rolls set before them by a rather flustered maid.
"I see Mrs. Longwood has lost no time in enlarging the staff," Jordan said once the girl was gone.
"Hope we get a pigeon pie. Simnel has a way with pigeon pie that no one else can match," Percy said as he stared at the bottom of his empty soup bowl.
Alas, there was none, but instead fricasseed mushrooms, sautéed spiced chicken, beans in a sauce only Simnel knew how to create, and assorted other dishes to tempt men who were hungry. When all this was removed, a plum cake Simnel had brought with him was set before them with a vanilla sauce the chef liked to offer.
"I believe we shall do quite well in the country if this is a sample of our fare," Percy said once his plate was left without a crumb to grace it.
"I shall never understand how it is that you can eat so much and never gain an ounce," Jordan said with a shake of his head.
"My mother insists I worry it off," Percy replied complacently, a twinkle lurking in his eyes.
"Bah. Come, let us see if there is a fire in the drawing room and discuss what is to be done on the morrow."
As he had requested, the room had been hastily tidied, although not all cobwebs were banished. It seemed a pleasant room, one in which visitors could be entertained with pleasure.
"Well, let us discuss plans for the coming week."
The next morning, following the excellent breakfast bearing all the marks of food prepared by Simnel, Jordan received a report from the chef regarding the state of the kitchen.
"Your esteemed grandmother saw to it that the kitchen was in fair shape, milord," the chef announced pompously. "It needs but a few touches to make it excellent."
Jordan read the list proffered by his chef and sighed with relief that not only was it short, but it contained no major items. "These are all acceptable. I shall write to London at once."
Percy eyed the list, observing, "He has even noted where the things can be bought. I say, you've a most efficient man!"
"He would not remain with me otherwise." Jordan rose from the table to explore the other rooms on the ground level of the house. The days ahead portended much work, promising and fulfilling, nonetheless. They would spend hours and days prowling about the old house, poking into corners and peering into rooms Jordan had not seen in the past.
"Ah, a billiards room--that's new. Let's have a game later." They walked on to the next door. "Here's the library with but a modest selection of books. I shall want it useable as soon as possible, then add my own collection to the shelves." He paused at the door to the next room, glancing at Percy. "This looks to be a small sitting room--most likely for the lady of the house?"
Percy nodded agreement. "Most likely."
It was then agreed to abandon the inspection for that day and enjoy an evening testing the billiards setup.
Several days passed in assessment, observing the clean-up of the house, and the commencement of the painting, but mostly settling into the house, making it feel like home. Books were unpacked, and items from London placed about until Jordan gave a satisfied look about him.
"I believe we ought to pay a visit on the neighbors, Percy," Jordan stated at luncheon. "Mrs. Longwood informed me the earl is away and only the women remain. Since it would not be fitting for them to come here, as might be customary, we shall go to them."
"The mountain to Mohammet, as it were," Percy murmured in reply while polishing off a tasty bit of rarebit.
"The Earl of Stafford has an old title--I checked it in the peerage, and 'tis one that his daughter stands to inherit since he has no son. Wife died some years ago, her sister looks after the girl."
"Might be interesting," Percy said, tossing aside his napkin as he rose from the table to join Jordan.
Within a brief time the curricle had been brought around, and the two gentlemen so recently from London ventured forth. The approach to the Stafford estate was heartening with well-tended land and buildings.
"It would appear the earl has a good steward in charge while he is away," Jordan observed.
Handing the reins to the groom, Jordan sprang from the carriage and strode up to the door. Percy followed, looking about with a curious gaze.
The door opened before the bellpull could be tugged, and the gentlemen entered with a wary look at the elderly butler.
"Lord Harcourt and Mr. Ponsonby to see Miss Maitland and Lady Ariel Brandon." Again, there was the note of authority that no servant could miss.
"One moment, my lord. I shall see if the ladies are receiving guests." The butler gestured to a bench in the entry hall, then left at once.
Jordan exchanged looks with Percy, but before either could comment, the servant returned. With a nod, he beckoned the two men to follow him. "They are happy to see their new neighbor."
"Word travels as fast in the country as in the city," Percy observed under his breath.
Jordan gave him a quick nod, then walked forward to greet his neighbors. "Miss Maitland, how pleasant to meet you. And this is Lady Ariel?" He turned from the plump, neatly garbed older woman to the young lady.
"Lord Harcourt, how nice." Dark, curling hair framed her face, and she was dressed in a simple blue muslin that could not disguise her nice figure. Jordan found himself being studied by a pair of very shrewd-seeming gray eyes set above a straight nose and a beautifully curved pair of lips. All this was set into an oval face of utterly enchanting loveliness. His guard immediately went up.
"How very pleasant to meet neighbors," he said. "May I present my friend, Mr. Percival Ponsonby?"
"Pleasure, ladies." Percy said with aplomb earned in countless London drawing rooms and balls.
The men settled onto a pair of chairs and listened politely as Miss Maitland began to acquaint them with the people who lived in the area and interesting events that were to come. After a hesitation. Miss Maitland, who had not permitted her niece to enter the conversation, said, "It is nice to know the grandson of a dear friend has settled in next door. I trust you are to be our neighbor?" Her long nose seemed to quiver with curiosity. Yet she seemed the typical companion and old maid--with a sweet smile, gentle manners, and kindly disposition.
Jordan excused her probing, imagining that country life brought little excitement. "It is my intention to remain in residence for some time to come. Miss Maitland. There is much to be done here. I must say, I am pleased with the excellent attention to the land and crops."
"That would be due to Mr. Shirley, your estate manager. From all I have heard, he is a fine man."
There was nothing amiss with her words, but Jordan sensed an implication. He frowned, casting a glance at Percy.
At last the niece spoke. "Do not mind my aunt. Lord Harcourt. I understand my father tried to hire Mr. Shirley away from your grandmother and he refused to leave, saying he was more needed there," Lady Ariel said in a soft, musical voice.
"In that event, I must express my appreciation to him when we meet," Jordan said with civility.
"Aye, I forgot, you'd not have met him, for he went to Tunbridge Wells to inspect some horses. He says he will not entrust this sort of errand to anyone else, as though Peachum would not do things right," Miss Maitland said with the air of one who was annoyed.
"You appear to know a great deal of what goes on at Harcourt Hall, Miss Maitland," Jordan said quietly, his voice stiff.
"This is the country, and gossip runs rampant here. 'Tis not so very different from London in that respect, I'll wager," the older lady said with a laugh. "Besides, Peachum's daughter works for us here at Stafford Court--or did until Mrs. Longwood lured her back."
Relaxing a trifle, Jordan was surprised to hear the door knocker sound, followed by a stately tread.
All four occupants of the drawing room turned to face the doorway as the butler paused at the opening to announce the latest caller. "Mr. Lytton, the rector."
Jordan rose, as did Percy. When the introductions were accomplished and the men seated, Jordan commented, "How pleasant to meet another of the community."
"Lord Harcourt, it is indeed a pleasure to welcome you to our humble village. Although not precisely humble, as we have the benefit of Lady Ariel and her dear aunt to grace our company. And now you join us. Indeed, we are most fortunate in our neighbors. And you have a guest. Dare I hope that you will be remaining with us for some weeks? You may be certain that everyone for miles around has looked forward to your coming. Lord Harcourt."
Speechless at this onslaught of words directed at him, Jordan merely raised his brows, daring to nod agreement.
In a voice that indicated her amusement. Lady Ariel said, "Lord Harcourt is determined to settle here for an indefinite period, Mr. Lytton. You will have to polish your best words for this coming Sunday with such esteemed parishioners in attendance at worship service."
Jordan gave her a wry glare unseen by Mr. Lytton.
"This is indeed a propitious event. I daresay you are ready to replace your cousin in all respects?" The rector, a tall, sparse man with his gray hair parted neatly in the center above his pale blue eyes, hawkish nose, and generous mouth--the better to contain his abundance of vocabulary, no doubt--turned to Jordan with eager expectation scarcely concealed.
Jordan frowned in puzzlement at the odd choice of words. He glanced at Lady Ariel, who seemed vexed with the rector, not that he couldn't sympathize. Miss Maitland seemed deeply annoyed.
Jordan ventured to say, "I shall do my best to conduct the affairs of the estate much as I feel my grandmother would have wished."
"Splendid! Splendid! I fancy it will not be long then that we learn of your betrothal to Lady Ariel?" The rector leaned back against the chair with the air of one who is supremely pleased with himself.
Thunderstruck, Jordan glanced at Percy, who appeared equally at sea.
"I fear I am unacquainted with any specification my grandmother left in regard to a marriage between the heir of Harcourt Hall and the lady of Stafford Court." He looked to Lady Ariel, who abruptly rose from her chair to cross to a window where she stared out at the garden, her hands clasped before her in obvious agitation.
Miss Maitland explained. "My niece was engaged to marry your cousin Ivor. There was nothing said to me in regard to transferring the betrothal to you. Lord Harcourt." She fastened a frosty glare on the rector that ought to have frozen him solid. "I would not pay the slightest regard to what Mr. Lytton says in this matter."
"But it is the custom hereabouts to marry the woman who was betrothed to a previous heir," the rector said righteously, and not a little indignant that his word would be questioned.
"I have not heard of such a custom," Miss Maitland said in a stiff manner, her back more rigid than ever.
Jordan ought to have been relieved. Why was it that he was piqued instead? He had been considered quite a catch in London. Of course, he was a mere baron, and Lady Ariel was the daughter of an earl. But it was irritating that cousin Ivor was deemed good enough and he wasn't.
At that propitious moment a maid entered the room with a large tray bearing tea and tiny cakes. Tea was served, with Jordan carrying a cup to Lady Ariel, who had remained by the window.
"Tea, Lady Ariel?" He held out the cup and saucer.
She turned to face him squarely, accepting his offer with a rueful smile and a candid look from her gray eyes. "I must apologize for such confusion on a first visit, my lord. Please believe me when I say I have no intention of holding you to that betrothal. I suspect our dear rector is a trifle over-eager to see me settled," she murmured, casting a wry glance at that gentleman.
"I must confess I am slightly confounded to be presented with a ready-made betrothal." He gave her a searching look while Percy engaged the rector and Miss Maitland in less dangerous conversation.
"It is not long since the previous Lord Harcourt was killed. He was an amiable gentleman. To think of another taking his place is not to be considered." She spoke loudly enough for all in the room to hear her. Then, softly, she added, "I do not wear black gloves, as Aunt Maitland said it would not be seemly since our engagement was of such short duration. I must do what is proper, you see." However, a faint frown settled on her brow, and she appeared concerned for more than manners.
"I fear I did not know my cousin all that well. He preferred to remain in the country near Cambridge, and I was much in London." Jordan avoided a direct reply to her remarks. Indeed, he scarcely knew what to say.
"You prefer Town, then?" She searched his face seemingly for a clue to his true feelings, not polite words.
"I have enjoyed my time in the city. Now, however, I intend to devote myself to restoring my house to what it ought to be. Perhaps I may call on you for advice should I have need?" he asked politely. All women loved to give advice, especially regarding furnishings. At least that was what he had observed.
"I doubt you will have need of any assistance from me, Lord Harcourt," Lady Ariel said, looking rather amused. "However, should you find yourself in a bind, I shall attempt to help. Your grandmother had the house redone a few years ago. Since she hoped for an alliance between Stafford and Harcourt, she begged my assistance. I selected styles, colors, and fabrics at her insistence. Should you wish to change things, I would likely be the last person to consult." She gave him an enigmatic smile.
"I shall bear that in mind, you may be sure," Jordan replied absently.
"There is some doubt concerning your cousin's death." Her whisper just reached him.
Here was a tangle! Jordan wondered precisely what had happened to Ivor. There were undercurrents in the room, and it would take time and tact to ferret out the whole of the story--but dig, he would. He merely smiled and escorted Lady Ariel to her former chair, where she serenely chatted with the rector as though nothing had been said about marriage to a stranger or a mysterious death.