Daniel, Earl of Cavendish, finds the frivolity of the ton dull after the adventures and hardship of the Peninsular War. But boredom rapidly disappears when he's drawn into the mystery surrounding the abduction of gently bred girls.
His investigation endangers his mother's new companion, Miss Elizabeth Travers. Although she is tainted by scandal, her cool and collected response commands Daniel's respect--while her beauty demands so much more.
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Daniel Cavendish surveyed the room, his eyes dark and brooding as he watched the dancers enjoying themselves. Something was missing from his life and he did not know what it wasthough he suspected that he still hankered after the adventure and danger of his army days. He had been forced to sell out when his father died, returning to take charge of the Cavendish estate. The past three years had been spent to good effect and his fortunes were now prosperingand yet he was restless. Sarah Hunter had been much on his mind of late, his failure to find her in all these months nagging at his conscience like a rat gnawing at the wainscot of a neglected manor house.Yet in the last few days information had come to them that had given him renewed hope.
'I think I shall go down to the country,' he said to the gentleman standing beside him. Where the Earl was tall, broad shouldered and dark haired, his friend was of a more slender build with soft fair hair that he now and then brushed back from his forehead. 'London has lost its attraction for me of lateand I want to see what I can discover of that other business.'
'Do you think that wise?' John Elworthy asked. 'Even if what we suspect is true, I do not see that there is much we can do about it. No lasting harm was caused to Maria, and as for Miss Hunter ' He shook his head sadly as another of their friends came up to them. 'Good evening, Robert. I did not think to see you here this evening.'
'I had nothing better to do,' Lord Young said and yawned behind his hand. Of the three he was the one most entitled to be classed as a dandy, his cravat so intricate and high that he could bend his head only with difficulty. 'It's dashed dull at the moment, don't you think?'
'Cavendish was saying as much,' John Elworthy told him. 'He has a mind to investigate that business with Maria though, for myself, I think it may be dangerous to meddle in Forsythe's affairs.' Maria was the sister of his brother's wife, a young, pretty girl with a great deal of courage, who had recently beaten an attempt to abduct her.
'Nothing like a little danger to spice things up,'Lord Young said, a sparkle in his eyes. 'If you need any help, I'm your man, Cavendish. I dare say Hilary would say as much if he were here. What do you plan to do?'
'Walk home with me, both of you,' the earl said. 'I do not wish to be overheard. I agree that this business is likely to involve some danger, but I think it must be attempted. Maria is a brave girl and the information she gave us helped me. I have begun to make fresh inquiries and I shall show you my agent's reports '
'Don't mind if I do,' Lord Young replied. 'Coming, Elworthy? You may as wellthere is nothing here to hold your attention.'
'True enough,' John agreed. 'Let us go then. I believe you are right, Cavendish. If we do nothing, Forsythe will be free to continue as he pleases. I do not know what I should have done if those rogues had succeeded in their foul intent.' The other gentlemen nodded agreement, for it was unthinkable.
They left Almack's together, deciding to walk back to Cavendish Place because it was a fine night, completely unaware that they were being followed at a discreet distance.
'My dear child,' Lady Wentworth said, feeling distressed as she looked at the girl's proud face and saw the underlying grief. 'You will surely not hire yourself out as a companion when I have told you that you may accompany me to Bath this autumn? You know I love you as dearly as if you were my own daughter. Why will you not accept my offer to live with us at Worth Towers?'
'I cannot accept, ma'am,' Elizabeth Travers said, softening her denial with a smile. 'I am very fond of you and grateful for your kindness to Mama, Simon and me these past months since Papa's death. And after Mama's ' Her throat caught with tears that she refused to shed, for the loss of her mother was still raw and too painful to speak of. 'If you will have me, I shall stay with you whenever I am in need of a refuge, but I cannot be a burden to you. Lord Wentworth has kindly paid Simon's expenses so that he can stay on at Oxford until the end of the year, which was so generous that I shall be for ever in his debt. Besides, Lady Isadora is in need of a friend and I am delighted that she has sent for me.'
'But you do not know her,'Lady Wentworth protested. She was a small, plump lady with a kind heart and was genuinely fond of her late friend's daughter. 'And you could never be a burden to me, dear Elizabeth.'
'You are all kindness, ma'am,' Elizabeth said. 'But I have given my word and I believe you would not have me break it.'
'I suppose not, since it is given.' Lady Wentworth sighed. 'But you will promise to come to me should you be unhappy or in trouble?'
'Yes, indeed,' Elizabeth promised. She smiled at the lady who had been her mother's best friend for the past twenty years or more. 'I cannot think what Mama would have done without your help after Papa died, especially when we learned that he had lost the greater part of his estate to Sir Montague Forsythe in that infamous wager. Had you not supported us, allowing Mama to move into the dower house at Worth Park, I do not know what might have happened to us.' Tears stood in her eyes for the months that had passed since her father's death had been difficult and anxious, culminating in the illness and sudden demise of Lady Travers. 'I can never repay all you have done '
'So foolish ' Lady Wentworth shook her head over the circumstance that had caused Sir Edwin Travers to hazard his estate on a horse race. Such tragic circumstances had resulted from that wager that it did not bear thinking of. 'Wentworth was inclined to discredit it, as you know. He could not believe that his old friend would do such a reckless thing, but he made inquiries and it seems that there were witnessesand that your dear father may have been inebriated.'
'Yes, and that was very odd,' Elizabeth said, 'for Papa seldom drank to excess. Mama swore with her dying breath that he had been cheated, for she would not believe that he had been so careless of his family's well-beingand do you know, I think she was right. I do not know how it came about, but Papa was not a careless man.'
'Indeed, that is Wentworth's opinion,' his lady said, 'but he was not able to shake the statement's of those witnessesthough, in truth, most were Sir Montague's cronies, but Mr Elworthy is an honest man. If it were not for his testimony, Wentworth would have contested the wager in court, but he respects Elworthy and says he would not lie.'
'Yes, I know.'Elizabeth frowned. It was only the testimony of Mr John Elworthy that had prevented her from asking their lawyer to fight Sir Montague Forsythe's claims against the estate, but Lord Wentworth had advised her against it, saying the little money they had left would otherwise be lost. Yet it had rankled with Elizabeth, for, like her mama, she had refused to believe that her father would do such a foolish thing as to bet everything they had on a horse race. 'I suppose we must accept it that Papa drank more than usual and threw everything away on a whim.'
'Sad as it is, that seems to be the case.' Lady Wentworth looked at her unhappily. 'Well, if you insist upon taking up this position, you will allow us to send you in our carriage, my dear. At least Lady Isadora will know that you have friends who care for you.'
'That is very kind and I shall not refuse,' Elizabeth said. She was glad of the offer; though she still had a little money at her disposal, it was not much above fifty pounds. She had given the better part of what they had to her brother Simon. It was Simon's fate she worried about more than her own: he had naturally expected to inherit their father's estate and would now have to make his own way in the world, which would not be easy for a young man of his volatile nature. She at least had been fortunate enough to be offered a position with a lady in Yorkshirea lady of whom Elizabeth's mother had spoken warmly in the past.
'This Lady Isadora ' Lady Wentworth screwed up her brow in thought. 'Your mother's old friend, you said? What is her family, Elizabeth?'
'She is the late Earl of Cavendish's widow and the daughter of a marquis,' Elizabeth said with a slight frown. 'I have only met her once, when she called to see Mama on her way to stay with her husband's unclethe Marquis of Brandon. She stayed with us one night and I remember that she was a kind, sweet-faced lady. She gave me a doll, and Simon five guineas.'
'A generous lady, then.' Lady Wentworth nodded approvingly. 'And what are her terms, my dear? You must not mind me asking, for I would not have your good nature taken advantage of and some people appear kinder than they truly are.'
'Lady Isadora asked me if I would prefer a dress allowance or a wage and I asked for an allowance.' Elizabeth flushed. 'Mama would have been very shocked had she known I was to seek employment as a companion, and I think she would have preferred me to take the allowance.'
'If you would but let me ' Lady Wentworth sighed and gave up as she saw the girl's look. 'I shall say no more, dearest, but remember that you always have a home here.'
'Yes, of course. You are always so kind.' Elizabeth kissed her cheek and rose to take her leave. She still had some packing to do and there were other friends she should bid farewell that afternoon. 'I shall write to you as often as I can and let you know how I go on.'
Elizabeth was thoughtful as she walked towards the dower house that had been her home for the better part of the year. She was thankful for Lady Isadora's letter that had come just in time, because she had been on the point of approaching an agency to help her seek out the right kind of employment. She had secretly been examining the ladies' magazines that Lady Wentworth was so kind as to pass on for a suitable post these past weeks. Her situation had become more urgent since her mother's death. Lady Travers had been in possession of a small jointure, which remained hers despite the loss of the estate. However, it ceased on her death, leaving her children with almost nothing other than what she had managed to save. Even when her mother was alive, Elizabeth had believed she must look for employment and now she had no choice. Or at least none that she felt able to accept.
Elizabeth had known that her mother would find it painful to see her daughter take employment, but thought that she must have mentioned the possibility in her letters to Lady Isadora. Of course, they had not expected that Elizabeth would so soon be orphaned, for Lady Travers had not been particularly delicate, but she had taken a sudden virulent fever and perhaps had lacked the desire to live. Elizabeth had written to her mother's old friend to tell her the news and some weeks later received an offer to become Lady Isadora's companion.
Elizabeth had at first been afraid that she was being offered charity and had delayed answering for nearly a month, but Lady Isadora's second letter had made it clear that she was truly in need of a companion. She had been ill this past winter and was unable to walk far without assistance. She needed someone to run her errands and read to her, because some days she was confined to her bed. Her letter had touched Elizabeth's heart, and she realised that it was exactly the kind of position that would best suit her. Being so recently bereaved, she would not feel comfortable in a household where there was a constant stream of guests, and it appeared that Lady Isadora lived alone, rarely receiving visits from her family. It was exactly as Elizabeth had lived with her mother these past monthsthey had seldom gone into company after Sir Edwin's death.
Lady Wentworth had been all that was kind, but Elizabeth had felt that she was being smothered by her friend's good nature. Besides, to remain so near the estate that had been so cruelly taken from them was a source of continued grief. Had it not been for that wicked wagerwhich Elizabeth felt must somehow have been forced on her dear papahe and Lady Travers might both be still be alive.
How could he have done such a foolish thing? Elizabeth had puzzled over it again and again, but she was no nearer to finding a solution. Simon had told her that he intended to get to the bottom of things, but she had begged him to be careful. He was nineteen years old, four years younger than Elizabeth, and inclined to be hot headed.
'Father was cheated,' her brother had told her angrily before he rode back to Oxford after her mother's funeral. 'I know it, Bethy, and one day I shall prove it and claim back my inheritance.'
'I do not deny that I think the circumstances strange,' Elizabeth said. 'But there were witnesses and'
'Only one that was not in the palm of that rogue's hand,' Simon Travers said. 'I have written to Elworthy twice and asked to meet, but he has refused. If there were not some havey-cavey business, he would surely have agreed. Why should he not?'
Elizabeth had found it impossible to give him a reason for Mr Elworthy's behaviour, which seemed odd to heras, indeed, were all the circumstances of the affair. She could not blame her brother for wishing to investigate further, as she might herself had she been in his shoes, but she did fear that he might land himself in some trouble. She could not bear it if Simon were to end up putting a pistol to his head as their father had done the day after the disastrous wager.
It had taken Lord Wentworth's word to persuade her that Papa had not been murdered. Even now, she still had a nightmare in which her father appeared to her and demanded justice for his wrongful demise.
Sighing, Elizabeth pushed the disturbing thoughts away from her. There was nothing to be gained from dwelling on the pastshe could not bring back her beloved parents. She must make up her mind to do the best she could for her future employer and simply pray that Simon would stay out of trouble.
'But that is shameful of you, Mama,' the Earl of Cavendish said, a wicked sparkle in his blue eyes. He was glad that he had decided to come down, for it was exactly what he needed to sweep away his growing sense of restlessness. His mother was up to mischief and his good humour was restored, his quest to find Sarah banished temporarily from his mind. 'To lure the girl here under false pretences that way 'His gaze swept over her fashionable toilette, taking in her elegant gown and the lustre of eyes that were almost a mirror image of his own. 'I will own that it is almost two months since I last visited you, but '
His mama gave a little cough and lay back against the piles of silken cushions on her elegant daybed. 'Have you no pity for your poor mother, Daniel? I have had a terrible chill and my doctor absolutely forbade me to leave my room for ten days. I was confined to bed for five. You cannot imagine how tedious that was, dearestespecially as your sister is increasing and cannot come to me. I was lonely. Besides ' her eyes twinkled with mischief ' in her last letter, my dear Serena told me that Elizabeth is very prouda lady of character. She suspected that the girl intended to find some employment and of course it upset her dreadfully poor Serena. It is all the fault of that scoundrel Sir Montague Forsythe, of course. He cheated her poor husband out of his estate and in desperation the foolish man put a pistol to his head.'
'Yes ' The earl's eyes narrowed thoughtfully. 'Had Elworthy not witnessed the scene I might have doubted the wager ever took placebut he swears it was as Forsythe says and I have never known John to lie.'
'No, indeed. When Serena told me that your friend was the one reliable witness my heart sank, Daniel, for I could not doubt him. He would never lie for anyoneand especially a man he despises.'
'That has been my experience, though he says he was not one of their party, merely an observer.' The earl's face was thoughtful, and there was something in his eyes that might have led the men he had fought with in Spain some years earlier to suspect that he was not being as open as he might be on the subject of Sir Montague Forsythe.
'Well, we must suppose it was an aberration,' Lady Isadora said and sighed. 'But I have been determined to do something for the family since I learned of their trouble. I would have offered Serena a home here had the Wentworths not done so before mebut I shall do something for the boy and I am determined to find Elizabeth a husband.'
'But did I not hear someone say that she is plain?'The earl raised his brows. 'I know she did not take at her first Season and there was never another. I do not remember her for I was away serving with the army, but I am sure someone told meit may have been you, Mama.'
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