It’s a precarious charade with the highest stakes imaginable. Sarah Mildmay’s entire future rests on exposing the current lord of Mallow as the great pretender he is. Blane Mallow, presumed dead after years at sea, has suddenly returned to claim his title—and the magnificent English estate that rightfully belongs to Sarah’s fiancé, Blane’s cousin Ambrose.
Determined to unmask the imposter, Sarah talks her way into a position as governess to Blane’s son, Titus. At Mallow Hall, she meets Blane’s suspicious wife, Amalie, and the formidable Lady Malvina. But the deception Sarah suspects reveals itself to be far more malevolent and far-reaching than she imagined. As she fights her growing attraction to Blane, the arrival of a stranger sets in motion a series of events that will have deadly consequences. Desperate to protect Titus, Sarah moves closer to a shattering truth: The man she loves may be a cold-blooded murderer . . .
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Lady of Mallow
By Dorothy Eden
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 Dorothy Eden
All rights reserved.
Sarah shivered and drew her cloak more closely about her. The summer house had broken panes of glass in the windows, and the wind blew through in a cold stream. It was rapidly growing dark. Because the trees were leafless, it was possible to see the house. Already lights were blooming in the windows. Sarah could identify them as she stood there, shivering and waiting.
There was Lady Malvina's glowing boldly, with no curtains drawn, probably because she had forgotten to ring for Bessie. She would be nodding in front of an enormous fire (her room was always grossly overheated) with her capacious skirts spread about her and her cap askew. But presently, refreshed by her nap, she would wake to renewed vitality, and probably go to the nursery to thoroughly awake and excite Titus with one of her ferocious games. Eliza winced when she heard her approach. She said privately that Lady Malvina would be the death of her, if not of Titus first.
In contrast to Lady Malvina's uninhibited glow of light, Amalie's windows showed a mere chink between the heavy curtains. Amalie, unlike her mother-in-law, seemed nervous of the outside darkness. She was always starting at something, always looking over her shoulder. Her thin bright anxious face was seldom relaxed. She was constantly watching her husband. Because she loved him too much? Because she was afraid he did not feel a similar affection for her? Whatever it was, the next window, Blane's (one wondered if the communicating door was ever opened into Amalie's bedroom) was in darkness, for Blane's restlessness—a restlessness that was curiously different from Amalie's, and was caused, of course, by guilt—kept him constantly on the move, and seldom indoors.
At the far end of the second floor the nursery window was alight, Sarah noticed with relief, for Titus, like his mother, disliked the dark. Eliza must have obeyed instructions and given him his tea and seen that the fire was in. She must go soon, Sarah reflected, for Titus would be waiting for her. He was a nervous highly-strung little boy, who got into fevers of apprehension if things went wrong. There was also that ridiculous fancy he had about the mouse which was lurking in the cupboard in the nursery, ready to spring when the candles were out. Since Sarah had discovered the little boy's private nightmare she had made a point of seeing that he always had a night light.
If James Brodie didn't come soon she couldn't wait. What adequate reason could she produce for prolonging her walk after dark? And Titus would be waiting for her, as well as the household dressing for dinner. She would have to scramble into her dark-blue tarlatan, making an even quicker change than Blane did. For Blane spent little time over his evening toilet, and seemed to look with some derision at Amalie's elaborate appearance. Probably never in his life before had he dressed for dinner, nor been in a position to.
He was an unscrupulous impostor, Sarah thought angrily. Presently, when James Brodie appeared, she would surely be in possession of at least one piece of indisputable proof which would enable her to unmask him.
Dear Miss Mildmay, [Brodie had written]
On instructions from Mr Ambrose Mallow who I last seed in Trinidad, I have a packet to deliver to you concerning matters you are deeply interested in. If you will communicate with me at the George and tell me where I can safely hand to you the said packet, it not to be trusted to the post, I will do my best to oblige.
Your obed'nt servant, James Brodie
The wind was rising and rags of thundercloud, blacker than the approaching night, drifted across the sky. Sarah looked apprehensively into the darkness, and at last heard footsteps approaching.
'Mr Brodie?' she called eagerly.
But her voice could not have been heard, for the man who strode forward and seized her roughly, exclaiming, 'Amalie, why do you moon by the lake in midwinter? What are you up to?' was Blane.
Simultaneously, he realised his own mistake.
'You!' he exclaimed, in a voice of deep hostility, and the hard grip of his fingers on her arm held her there.
In a moment James Brodie would arrive with the letter from Ambrose that was too private and important to be entrusted to the post. It was too much to hope that Blane would respect its privacy. Already he was deeply suspicious of her. She had cleverly improvised reasons for other awkward situations, but it seemed as if this one would defeat her. She was lost ...CHAPTER 2
It seemed months, now, since that day when she had paced restlessly about Aunt Adelaide's drawing-room, waiting impatiently for news from the court. News that either declared Blane Mallow the impostor they all believed him, or confirmed his story as true:
Aunt Adelaide had lost patience with her.
'For goodness' sake, child, sit down. You're driving me mad. Fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, all the time. Can't you keep still?'
'I'm sorry, Aunt Adelaide. I'm so nervous. The result of the case must surely be known by now.'
'And none of your fidgeting will make any difference to it. Come away from that window and get out your embroidery.'
'There's a cab now.' Sarah was peering into the street. Already the fog was making it as dark as night, and the lamplighters had begun their rounds. The sound of horses' hooves approached and passed. It was not Ambrose. In any case, why should she think Ambrose would instantly come to her with the news? Indeed, the jury might not come to a decision until the next day, for there had been so much conflicting evidence. Never would Sarah forget Lady Malvina in the box, with her great arrogant nose thrust forward, the cabbage roses on her bonnet nodding to her reiterated affirmatives. Nothing would shake her evidence. The blackbrowed adventurer in the box, whose arrogance matched her own, was her son, her long-lost son Blane Mallow.
Aunt Adelaide clucked impatiently.
'I suppose you're wishing you were in the courtroom again yourself, looking at that scoundrel.'
'How did you know I've been there?'
'I don't know anything because I'm not told,' her aunt retorted tartly. 'But your shopping and your supposed teas with your sisters this week have been very prolonged occasions. From which you have returned looking a great deal more animated than conversation with those exceedingly dull creatures would warrant. No, no, child, don't look at me so accusingly. I haven't questioned the coachman.'
'Lady Malvina must have been telling lies,' Sarah burst out. 'She stood in the box and swore that that impostor was her son, although Ambrose says Blane never had features like that, or that impudence. He was a gentleman.'
'And this man is not?'
'Decidedly not. He was laughing all the time. Oh, not openly. But you could see the shine in his eyes. And one dimple would come into his cheek—'
'Well, cleft, or whatever one calls it in a man's cheek,' Sarah said impatiently. 'But it was as if he was laughing inside all the time. At his mother—if she is his mother—at the judge, at Ambrose, at everybody. He knew he was running circles round them, with his plausibility.'
'All this,' said Aunt Adelaide consideringly, 'doesn't make him not a gentleman. He speaks like one, I take it?'
'That can be learned, surely.'
'By a clever actor, yes. Even a clever actor would give himself away now and then. Did you never detect a slipped "h"?'
Sarah shook her head with more impatience.
'Then he may have been a gentleman of a sort. Perhaps he has constantly been in the company of gentlemen. But Blane Mallow I am sure he is not.'
Aunt Adelaide gave her niece a shrewd, assessing glance.
'Could it be, my dear, that you believe this because you have every reason to be prejudiced against him?'
Sarah gave an alarmed exclamation.
'Aunt! You haven't told anybody about Ambrose and me?'
'Of course I haven't. Though I told you secret engagements aren't to my liking.'
'But it's all because of this wretched Blane Mallow that it has to be a secret,' Sarah burst out. 'You know very well Ambrose can't afford to marry me if he doesn't inherit Mallow Hall. Under any other conditions he must marry an heiress. I love him far too well to stand in his way.'
'Your feelings could be misjudged, my dear.'
The colour rose indignantly in Sarah's cheeks.
'I know that very well. People could say I was very ready to marry the new Lord Mallow, but not Ambrose Mallow without a title who must make his own way. They could say I was marrying him to be the mistress of Mallow Hall. But that isn't true. I just wouldn't encumber him with a penniless wife, if he is poor himself.'
'So all in all,' Aunt Adelaide said reflectively, 'it becomes very important that this man is denounced.'
'I wish I could do it myself!' Sarah declared feelingly.
'I believe you would if you could.' The old lady tapped her fan thoughtfully. 'You at least have plenty of spirit. I shall never cease to wonder how you alone of that clutch of girls your parents produced have any spirit. Or looks, if it comes to that.'
'Thank you, dear Aunt Adelaide,' Sarah said warmly. There was a very deep bond between the two women. The older woman's astringency and humour appealed to Sarah, as Sarah's somewhat daring and rash behaviour did to her aunt. She was born ahead of her time, Aunt Adelaide thought. But little harm that would do, for the present generation of simpering, swooning, meek, timid young women she could not abide. Something seemed to have happened to the good English stock. She never remembered this excess of false modesty in her youth. But things had begun to change when that brash young creature, Victoria, had come to the throne, and even more so when she had married her stiff-necked dreary Albert. Now everything was pretence and disguise. The very table legs were concealed. No one had bodies. Somehow, and prolifically, babies were produced, but apparently in some strange state of amnesia, for every decent woman shut such thoughts out of her mind.
Yet the sly meek creatures, Aunt Adelaide thought, had developed the art of catching a man to an almost sublimated degree. It was done somehow beneath downcast eyes and such a look of innocent virginity that the wonder was every man was not frightened off to the South Pacific or far-off China to look for a warm-blooded uninhibited bride.
Thank heavens Sarah was too honest and spirited for all this posing. She loved and frankly wanted Ambrose Mallow, and made a secret of it only because of this tiresome litigation as to the ownership of Mallow Hall. How extremely inconvenient it had been of Blane Mallow to arrive home just at this moment, after an absence of twenty years. It was so inconvenient as to be highly suspicious.
No one entirely believed he had come because of seeing the advertisements for him which had been printed in almost every paper on the face of the globe. He couldn't have become conscience-stricken about his widowed mother. He was not the man, popular opinion declared, to have a conscience. On the other hand, he was most definitely the type of man to be an adventurer, a seeker after easy reward, title and position. He may also, conceivably, have been born a gentleman, for there was arrogance and confidence in every inch of him.
But Lady Malvina's son? Heads were shaken sceptically. How could that foolish garrulous posturing woman have got a son like this?
The paradox was that she had identified him unhesitatingly, she had swept aside his strange lapses of memory about certain events, and declared only that he was her son. As added and indeed indisputable proof, there was the little boy, the five-year-old child of this assumed impostor. If his father, to all other people, had changed beyond recognition, this child was the living image of the very good portrait painted by Josiah Blake thirty years ago of Blane Mallow at the same age.
In this way the evidence became overwhelming, and it seemed that Ambrose, because of the return of the rightful heir, would lose Mallow Hall. And poor Sarah with her vivid stubborn face would lose Ambrose.
'Did anybody recognise you in court?' Aunt Adelaide went on, eyeing Sarah sharply.
'Oh, good gracious, no! I stayed right at the back. Even Ambrose didn't know I was there.' She began to giggle with reminiscent mirth. 'James was quite horrified when I asked him to wait for me outside a courthouse! But the dear faithful creature obeyed. Oh, no, Aunt Adelaide, no one saw me. I wore my grey cloak with the high collar that I drew right across my face. I expect I was thought to be an unknown admirer of the claimant. Heaven forbid!'
'I believe you enjoyed yourself, you shameless girl!'
'Indeed I should have if it hadn't been a matter touching myself so deeply. It was a most novel experience. And the wife, Aunt Adelaide. I wish you could have seen her. The deceitful thing, with those great eyes opened so wide, so innocently. She must have known the truth, if anyone did.'
'Is she beautiful?' Aunt Adelaide asked interestedly.
'She's thin and sallow, not like English women at all. I suppose it's from living in tropical countries. But she has a queer brilliant look. I don't know how to describe it. Perhaps she is beautiful.'
'They sound a well-matched pair.'
'Oh, indeed. They well look as if they could scheme together. Yet when the judge asked her questions it was all meekness. Yes, my lord. No, my lord. As if lightning would strike her dead if she told a lie.'
'How would she know if her husband were not what he said he was?'
'He may always have deceived her,' Sarah conceded.
'But why? Until this opportunity presented itself, presumably by seeing the newspaper advertisement, would he ever have heard of Blane Mallow and Mallow Hall?'
'No, I suppose he wouldn't. So that means his wife is as guilty as he.'
'If he is guilty.'
'Oh, he is! I know he is! There were so many questions he couldn't answer, obvious ones. They were excused because of this fall he once had from his horse, getting concussion badly. But it was a too convenient excuse. If it were not for his mother, who isn't to be swayed, he would have been in trouble long ago.'
'And the child,' Aunt Adelaide added thoughtfully.
'Yes. There is the child. It's very strange about the child.'
A little later Ambrose arrived. He flung off his cloak, handing it to a maid, and came striding into Aunt Adelaide's drawing-room. One look at his face told Sarah his news.
'He's won!' she whispered.
'Yes, he's won.' Ambrose made belated greetings to Sarah's aunt, then flung himself angrily into a chair. In contrast to his cousin Blane, he was fair, with rather pale thickly-lashed eyes and a slight stature. He was fashionably dressed, and had an elegance that Sarah found intensely pleasing. He belonged at Mallow Hall, there was no doubt of that. He would have been an ideal master, and his life, for the last ten years, when it seemed that Blane was surely dead in some foreign country, had been shaped to that end. True, he had continued his studies and been called to the bar, but only because he was an earnest young man with few frivolities. Indeed, so far, falling in love with Sarah, the third daughter of a destitute gentleman, had been his only frivolity. Now it seemed that if he wished to live in suitable style, with a house in town and his own carriage, he must sacrifice Sarah and find a wife with money.
It was an impossible position, and he was bitterly angry and aggrieved about it. It should not have happened at the last minute like this when his succession to the title had seemed certain. Moreover, it was doubly galling when he was so convinced that this fellow from the West Indies was an impostor.
But how to unmask him?
'It was my aunt, Lady Malvina, who finally swayed the jury,' he said. 'She stuck absolutely to her story that this fellow is her son.'
'She wanted him to be,' Sarah said indignantly.
'Exactly. Now she can live at Mallow Hall, all her debts will be paid, everything is fine. She knows it would have been quite different if I—and you, my dear Sarah—had been the new owners.'
'No one knows about me,' Sarah said quickly. Her eyes rested in anguish on Ambrose's pale angry face. There was no denying it, secretly, as well as being Ambrose's wife, she had longed to be the mistress of Mallow. Why had this wretched thing had to happen?
'You aren't bound to consider me,' she went on, making herself speak the painful words. 'That was always understood. I set you free, if you wish it.'
'But I don't wish it, my love.'
'Tut, tut!' said Aunt Adelaide. 'Sarah has been indiscreet enough already. She should now have her position made clear.'
Excerpted from Lady of Mallow by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1960 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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