Is the handsome, dashing man Aurora meets so precipitously in the woods really the long-lost Lord Kenelm Raiker? Or is he actually Kenelm's illegitimate half-brother, posing as the baron? Aurora, captivated in spite of herself, is determined to learn the truth. Lady Raiker, greedy, ambitious, and ruthless, claims that the stranger is not Kenelm, the banished son of the late Lord Raiker. She wants the title and the fortune for herself, but must prove that Kenelm is not the rightful heir. Aurora watches Kenelm's easy and seductive charm work on every woman he sees. She, too, finds him very attractive, but what if he is an impostor? She could be falling in love with a murderer.
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"What I ought to do is steal it," Lady Raiker said, with an angry glint in her blue eyes.
Her sister, sitting with her in the garden, hunched her shoulders and smiled. "She'd only steal it back. She has magnetic fingers that attract gold and jewels."
It was Lady Raiker's diamond engagement ring being discussed, a gift from her late husband, and not entailed, as Clare claimed, but her very own, a part of her widow's paraphernalia, bought by dear Bernard. "Not only gold and jewels." Lady Raiker took up this favourite theme of the rapacity of the dowager Lady Raiker. "The firescreen that I worked with my own fingers sits beside her grate; the little Wedgwood tea service that I bought with my own allowance sits in her dining room, and a dozen other things she is not entitled to in the least."
"But then she has given you a title that rightly belongs to her," Rorie pointed out, with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. "I heard her call you the dowager the other day."
"That is a new stunt she has come up with," Marnie declared, her pretty little face colouring to an alarming degree. "If either of us must be known as a dowager, it is herself. After all, she was my father-in-law's wife, even if she was young enough to be his daughter. Her husband is dead, and she became the dowager Lady Raiker the day Charles died, whether she likes it or not."
"Society was presented with a novel dilemma when your husband died," Rorie said, with some intention of calming down her sister, and some less noble notion too of getting a rise out of her. "It left the world with two widowed Ladies Raiker, of more or less the same age." She did not add, but knew perfectly well, that both thewidows were determined not to be styled dowager.
"Clare was Bernard's father's wife. Her husband is dead these many years, and there is no problem in the matter. Till her son marries and produces another Lady Raiker, Clare is the dowager, and I am Lady Raiker. She knows it perfectly well, and as her son is only eleven, I trust that will not occur for a good ten or fifteen years."
"How did old Lord Raiker come to marry a girl young enough to be his daughter?" Rorie asked. "A widower for ten years and father of a grown family. He should have known better."
"He was always susceptible to young girls. His past is not, shall we say, pristine? We prefer not to speak of it, but there were episodes that are best forgotten. He met her at Tunbridge Wells, where he went to recover from the gout, and she went to recover from being poor and an old maid. Both cures proved effective. They left together a bare month after their separate arrivals, and it seems to me they must have made an extremely odd-looking couple. Of course she would have been taken for his daughter by anyone who didn't know them. She used to tease old Charles and say he had robbed the cradle, but it was she who plundered the grave. He didn't last more than two years. He was old enough to know better, but Clare soon convinced him she cared not a straw for any gentleman under fifty?they were mere striplings to her ripe twenty years."
"I take it he had second thoughts when he got her home to Raiker Hall and presented her to Bernard?a sprig of twenty-five."
"Oh, she was right after Bernard, he told me so. Indeed even his younger brother Kenelm?and he was only fifteen then, you know?she regarded with an unmaternal eye. She cordially invited them both to call her Clare. Well, Bernard could hardly call her Mama, and he five years her senior, but Charles could not but feel uneasy when she took to calling her stepsons ?dear? and ?darling," and batting her lashes at them in a wanton way."
"Quite a Grecian situation," Rorie said, trying to envisage the dashing Clare's ever bothering her head with Bernard, who, despite his good looks, was an old stick.
"Something had to be done. Charles had severe doubts by then regarding her preference for old age, and that is when he shipped Bernard off to London as a member of Parliament, and I met him and married him."
"What about his brother, Kenelm? You implied she had an eye for him, too."
"For anything in trousers, my dear. The grooms, the footmen, and most especially the neighbours. It was shocking. But Kenelm was away at school most of the year, and came home only for the holidays. Even that proved a terrible mistake, of course."
"But Clare and old Lord Raiker must have got on well enough. She gave him a son in any case, and from the looks of little Charles; there can be no doubt regarding his paternity."
"She spared us that indignity, at least. Charles is legitimate, of course. It wouldn't have mattered to us if only Bernard and I could have had a son, too, for Bernard was the eldest, and his son must have taken precedence. But it was not to be. We had only the one daughter." She looked with a rueful sigh to where her one offspring played under the tree with a striped kitten. Bernard, like all the Raikers, had been tall, dark and handsome. Marnie was short, blond and pretty. Their daughter, Mimi, was medium, mousey and plain.
"Pity," Rorie said, and so it was. If only her sister could have produced a son, she might have remained at Raiker Hall with him, where she had gone after old Lord Raiker's death. She and Bernard had lived there for nine years, till Bernard had been struck down with a mysterious ear ailment in the prime of life, only thirty-five. Whoever would have thought he would go so young, and he as hale and hearty as could be.
"We ought to be glad Clare did give the family another son, or heaven only knows what would have happened to Raiker Hall. The estate would have gone into escheat or something horrid."
"Wouldn't it be nice if young Charles and Mimi could make a match?" Rorie asked, feeling just a little sorry for Mimi. So terribly plain. She knew well the difficulties of making a good match. She herself was not so pretty as her older sister. She had been trying for several seasons in Devonshire to land a husband, without success, and when her sister had suddenly been widowed, she had been very happy to come and stay with her and try her luck in Kent.
"My dear, Charles would not be at all eligible! He is her half uncle."
"Oh, is he? How confusing it is, with all these widows and stepchildren and half this and half thats."
"It is not confusing in the least. Charles is Bernard's half brother, and he is Mimi's half uncle. You have only to split everything in two, and it is as clear as glass."
"A pity you and Clare couldn't both call yourselves half a baroness, and have done with it," Rorie said archly.
"We are both Lady Raiker, and I do not begrudge her the full title. She is welcome to it, if only she would give me back my ring. It is not so much to ask. She has Raiker Hall back. She didn't get to stay long the first time around with Charles dying on her so early, and she only married him to get a respectable roof over her head, and of course the title. How she hated to leave when he died! But we finally got her sent off here, to the Dower House. Still close enough to pester the daylights out of us, but at least not under our roof. She tried a dozen times to inveigle her way in, but Bernard wouldn't hear of it."
?You would have welcomed her, I suppose?" Rorie asked with a teasing look.
"I had no fears she would steal Bernard on me, if that's what you mean. He despised her. She claimed the Dower House was too drafty in winter. Not that she minded, but little Charles was subject to some imaginary lung trouble. Then the roof was leaking, and a dozen other things. Well, I expect she is very happy now. She has her little Charles to secure things for her. As the baron's mama, she has undisputed right to reign supreme at Raiker Hall, as the dowager Lady Raiker."
"What about Kenelm?" Rorie enquired. "Little Charles is only the third son. Kenelm is really next in line for the title. He was never reported as dead, so far as I know."
"Oh, Kenelm! She makes no effort to find him. He it is who should be Lord Raiker now with Bernard's death. I'd give anything to know what happened to him."
"How is it possible for him to vanish into thin air?" Aurora asked, wondering anew at the odd doings of this whole family. "When did it happen, anyway??
"About eleven years ago, not too long after little Charles was born. Kenelm was home from school on holiday, or so we heard, for of course Bernard and I were in London at the time. We made only very short and infrequent visits home. He had a row of some sort with his father. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the dowager was the cause," Marnie said, with a very significant lift of her brows.
"Surely not! He was only a child, and she must have been..." Aurora came to a halt, frowning with the effort to remember ages and calculate the years.
"She was twenty-one, she says, and he was sixteen then."
"She was too old surely to be interested in a boy."
"You don't know her. He was old enough to wear trousers, and shared a little his papa's susceptibility to the fair sex. Already one was beginning to hear a few stories about Kennie. I'm afraid I would not put it past him, and of course it is exactly what one would expect of her."
"He sounds a bit of a rare bird."
"He was, and I wish he would come back. If anyone in this world could handle Clare, it is Kenelm."
"Why do you think so? You hardly knew him. You only met him at your wedding, and a few times in London when he was a boy."
"But what a boy!" Marnie tossed back her blond curls and laughed.
"What was he like??
Marnie put her chin in her hands and smiled nostalgically. "Like a corsair," she said. "Dark as a gypsy?black hair, black eyes, full of the devil. Tall, wide shoulders, a flamboyant way about him?so very animated always. A little more so than Bernard, actually. It was his youthful exuberance, I suppose, that lent him that sparkle. Still a boy, but giving every evidence of growing up into a full-fledged corsair. I wonder what ever became of him."
"He ran away, did he??
"He was sent away, I believe."
"Sent where? His father would not have turned him from the door with no destination in mind. Even a renegade son has some provision made for him, some effort made to reclaim him."
"Bernard's father refused to speak of it. He told Bernard he had only two sons?meaning Bernard and Charles. You may be sure Clare induced him to take such a course. She is certainly mixed up in it. Kennie was always her favourite stepson, yet from the day he disappeared she has said not a word, ostensibly in obedience to her husband's wish. But his other wishes were not so assiduously followed. The portrait of Charles's first wife, for instance, was removed from the gallery within a week of her return to the Hall. I asked her for it a dozen times?by Gainsborough, and very valuable, but she says it is mildewed. I haven't a doubt in the world she sold it."
"Did Bernard try to find him??
"My dear, we did everything imaginable! Had men out scouring the countryside for him far and wide, called in the Bow Street Runners, ran ads in the papers?nothing. He vanished."
"Wasn't there some story about the gypsies taking him??
"Pooh?that was all a faradiddle. Clare's story to the neighbours to try to make the thing look respectable. There were gypsies camped here in the woods at the time, but they do not steal young men, you know, only babies. And as far as that goes, I daresay they have never stolen a baby in their lives. What would they want with babies? Anyway, Bernard had the gypsies followed, and Kenelm was not with them. They didn't know a thing about it. They were frightened out of their wits, Bernard said."
"I wonder if they would have killed him."
Marnie shrugged her shoulders. "Who knows?" Perhaps they caught him in flagrante delicto with one of their gypsy girls and stuck a knife between his shoulders. Bernard didn't have the woods scoured for new graves. But if that is what happened to him, it is as well that it not be known; like a few other family items, it is best left in a dark closet."
"He must be dead," Aurora decided sadly. It was this mysterious member of her sister's family that most intrigued her. Perhaps because he was the one she had never met. She had been sick with measles at the time of the wedding, and as the match had been made in London, the groom's family had been unknown to her till she had made her first visit to them. She sat musing, her deep-blue eyes taking on a faraway, dreamy look.
As Marnie observed her, she thought it strange her young sister hadn't any beaux, for she was really very pretty. Not so pretty as herself, it was generally said?the hair darker, the face more round than heart-shaped like her own, but pretty.
"If he were alive," Aurora went on, rousing herself from her dream, "how old would he be now? That was eleven years ago, and he was sixteen. He would be twenty-seven. Just a good age for me."
"Or me," her sister replied with a coquettish look. "Oh, I know I am thirty, but could pass for being in my twenties still, and Kenelm preferred older women."
"Did he like you??
"He was too discreet to let on if he did, but he used to flirt a little when Bernard was not around."
"You will do better to stick to Mr. Berrigan," Rorie replied. "Bernard is dead only a year, but I notice your crepe has dwindled to dark gloves, and I suppose they will go too now that spring is come."
"My dear sister?how can you be so unjust! You will notice I wear a mauve gown, half mourning."
"I notice too that Mr. Berrigan likes you in mauve. You will be married a second time before I make one match. It isn't fair."
"You're only twenty-one, but I am in no hurry either. In another year or so I may remarry. Meanwhile I shall sit back and pray for Kenelm's return."
"The Lord helps those who help themselves," her sister reminded her, thinking this a lackadaisical way of finding the rightful heir. But either way it would make little difference to Marnie whether it was little Charles or Kenelm at the Hall, she would still be the widow, living in the Dower House. She mentioned this.
"True, but it rankles?the speed with which Clare bolted off to London to present Charles's claim to the title and estate the very week of Bernard's death, as though she couldn't wait to be rid of us. She got herself a sharp lawyer and convinced the judge, or chancellor or whoever she saw, that an absence of eleven years more than fulfilled the seven-years waiting period, and had the new baron installed before anyone knew what she was up to."
"You knew. God knows she showed you that nisi decree often enough. I feel I know it by heart."
"In my distracted state after Bernard's death I hardly knew what was going on. "For the time being," she kept saying, and all I really wanted was peace and quiet. She pestered me into it. If I had had my wits about me, I would have fought it. I should have insisted on staying there till some effort was made to find Kenelm. I wonder what would happen if he were to turn up now??
"He would have to prove his claim, I suppose. It shouldn't be difficult for him," Rorie said, happy to revert to the possibility of his being still alive.
"She'd make it difficult. Say he was an impostor and go demanding he produce papers and certificates that she, very likely, has burned. She'd put up a good fight. She likes very well being the baron's mama, and lording it over everyone from the Hall. You may be certain she wouldn't give up her glory without a good fight. And Kenelm is the very one who would give her a battle."
"Why don't you start advertising again? He may be about the countryside somewhere. He may not have heard of Bernard's death, and not realize he is now Lord Raiker."
"What, roaming the countryside for eleven years? Hardly. One would have heard of Kenelm, I am convinced. I sometimes wonder if he went to America. We are practically on the coast. I wouldn't have a notion how to go about advertising in America."
"You would hire an agent, I expect."
The word ?hiring? had the immediate effect of lessening Lady Raiker's interest in finding her brother-in-law. She was not precisely purse-pinched, but she had a certain natural tendency to behave as though she were, and her interest was diverted to the roses, where she discovered some slugs that sent her looking for her gardener.
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