Axle repaired, roads dry, the party set out the next day full of cheer. They sang Christmas songs and hymns. As the weather was clear, Drum rode alongside. When he could, he sang along with them. Esther opened the carriage window so the voices would meld.
This way, they made their way to Elmscourt. As they entered the drive, the adults fell silent, the children excited and chattering as they looked out first one window and then another. The carriage pulled up in front of the doors. Kay and John and their two children were on the steps, Kay clearly more excited than the children. Drum had dismounted and he went to help the ladies out. The children tumbled after.
At first, Kay had eyes only for Esther. Esther was grinning with delight. They hugged and Kay said, “Welcome to Elmscourt, Esther.” She released her and said it again, “Welcome to Elmscourt, everyone. Oh! Here’s Mrs. Nelson. John, this is Mrs. Nelson. My husband. Now let me see those children of Ailesworth’s, Esther.”
“Kay. They are not Ailesworth’s children. I’ll tell you the full story later.”
The children were all eyeing each other. Eric was grinning up at Jim, clearly pleased to have an older boy to play with. Clarissa stood and stared at Jim and Sally-Catherine in turn. Her thumb was in her mouth. Sally-Catherine removed it. “My Mama said my thumb would grow long if I kept sucking on it,” she informed Clarissa.
Clarissa looked up at her in awe and then slipped her hand, the dry one, into Sally-Catherine’s. Sally-Catherine looked quite regal.
When Kay turned to greet the children, Esther was there to introduce her. “Kay, this is Sally-Catherine, and this is Jim.”
Kay smiled down at the little queen, who’d given her a perfect curtsey, despite Clarissa’s grip on one hand. Her attention moved to Jim. He executed a perfect bow. As he came up and looked Kay full in the face, Kay gave a little shriek and stumbled backwards. John was instantly there, to hold her.
“What is it, Kay?”
“John, this boy looks just like Peter.”
John looked at him closely but was more interested in his wife. Jim had turned white. Esther hurried to him. Sally-Catherine deserted Clarissa and pressed to his other side.
“Let’s go inside and discuss this.” Drum’s voice broke in. He took Esther’s arm and they all came into the entrance hall.
The hall seemed immense and very old to Jim, whose head was reeling. Sally-Catherine thought that there must be a dungeon close by and wouldn’t let go of Jim’s hand. Then they perceived the fire in the fireplace and the holly and ivy over the mantle.
“Candles,” Kay cried out, “we must have light!”
The servants, used to their mistress’s dramatic ways, took their time.
Kay grasped Jim’s shoulders and crouched in front of him, her face alarmingly close to his.
“John, go get Peter’s miniature, would you?” She released Jim’s shoulders–to his relief–and let out a great sigh. “I have a picture of your father–“ Jim gave a great start and pressed closely to Esther’s side.
“Kay,” Esther interrupted, “it’s too soon to say that. Now that you’ve pointed it out, I see a resemblance, but I think it is too soon to claim a relationship.”
Kay stood. She couldn’t take her eyes from Jim, who, now his usual rosy self, was clearly uncomfortable with Kay.
“I’ll take the children to the nursery, Esther,” Alma said. “Eric, can you show us the way?”
The four children, freed of the uncomfortable adult interest, fell into a happy group of children, heading for familiar ground and playthings that could be shared with new friends. Jim gave Kay a few backwards looks, confusion on his face.
John arrived back in the hall with an ivory miniature in his hand. He handed it to Kay who glanced at it and handed it to Esther. Esther took it to study it.
There was a likeness: the nose, the cheekbones, the mouth.
“See, Esther? That was done when Peter was sixteen.”
“Yes, I see it, Kay. I have trouble remembering Peter from his childhood.”
“Of course, you would! Father kept him busy memorizing foul Latin texts as punishments. First he beat him and then made him write out prosy Latin passages.
“Esther, my heart used to break for him. When Father sent him to his room to exist on bread and water, I’d bring him supper. After Cook had finished for the day I’d sneak into the kitchen. She would have a plate of cold meat and bread and a mug of ale ready, and I’d bring it to him.
“He talked of running away. I’d beg him not to, not to leave me at home with Father and Mother. But, he’d smile, if he could, and say, “Kay dear, you know I can’t stay here. He’ll kill me.”
Kay’s tears were flowing. John, in distress, was blotting her cheeks with his handkerchief. She took it from him.
“Right after that miniature was done, he ran away. I only received two letters from him, saying he was going to see the world and not to worry about him. “No Latin texts where he was! And later to say he’d married again.”
Kay mopped her cheeks. Esther had her arm around her.
“I’m all right.” She straightened her shoulders. “Father said he didn’t care. He’d always liked Cousin Robert better.” She shuddered. “Do you remember him, Esther?” Esther shook her head
“I hated him. Always. He was an awful boy and a worse man. He always tried to get me aside, as a boy, to pinch me, and as a man, to kiss me. Ug! He was evil, always sneaking and toadying to Father.
“And guess what? He has invited himself here for Christmas! After avoiding me for years–not good ton, are we, John?–he’s coming for Christmas.”
Esther felt the first stirring of alarm. She realized she’d had accepted Jim as Peter’s son. If so, then Jim was in danger from this evil man. This Robert must be the other man Jim was afraid of. And rightly so.
Her worried eyes met Drum’s. He gave her a slight nod. They’d talk of it later. Oh, why wasn’t Ailesworth here when she needed him!
Esther put her arm around Kay and said, “Do you have all the rest of the house decorated, too, Kay?”
“No.” Kay gave his handkerchief back to John and impulsively leaned over and kissed him. Both Esther and Drum smiled.
Ailesworth had finally freed himself of paper work and was on his way to his lodgings to collect Chambers and leave for Elmscourt, when he received a note. Silently cursing to himself, he opened and read it. It was from Mr. Mortimer, his tailor. He’d remembered where he’d seen someone resembling Jim, if his lordship was still interested.
He was. He arrived at Mortimer’s shop scarcely thirty minutes later and found him busy showing bolts of fabric to a stout, red-faced young man. Mortimer called another clerk over and excused himself to his client. “Oh, Mortimer, don’t leave me, you’re the only one–“
Mortimer whispered in his ear and came to lead Ailesworth to a back room where they could be private.
“What did you say to him?”
“That I needed to see to Lord Ailesworth, of course.”
Ailesworth grinned. Sometimes he was pleased to be a baron and the Earl’s heir.
“My lord, I remembered where I saw a man very similar to your ward. Years ago, before I married Mrs. Mortimer, I occasionally frequented a place, um, Madame Blanche, perhaps you heard of it?” Ailesworth nodded.
“One evening, a nobleman came in. Madame Blanche made a big fuss over him. I noticed the boy at his side, a mere boy he seemed to me, white-faced, trying to be brave. He was sixteen, and to celebrate his birthday, his father was introducing him to a man’s pleasure. At a whore house.
“The boy was pale when he went upstairs with a whore, not a young one either, and he was ashen and trembling when he came down. I heard the whore, Josette, complain that he’d cast up his accounts in the commode as soon as the act was over.
“Viscount Versland had gone upstairs too. The boy waited for awhile and then went outside. I never saw him or his parent again. I met Mrs. Mortimer shortly after that and never returned to Madame Blanche.”
“Versland. I can’t recall any gossip of him. I don’t even know his name.”
“My lord, I know you don’t keep up with the ton and its gossip. Not do I, but I have a clerk whose life work it is to know all. With your permission, I’ll call him in.”
Ailesworth nodded. It took awhile longer for Mortimer to return with a clerk in tow. “Harold might help you. He knows that our conversation is confidential.” Harold bowed.
Both men looked at Harold who swallowed. “Yes, my lord.” He bowed again for good measure.
“Tell me what you know of Lord Versland.” Ailesworth took a seat, thinking it would relax Harold a bit.
“Lord Versland. He inherited the title and considerable properties when his uncle died. That would be about five years ago.”
Ailesworth nodded. Relieved, Harold went on. “His cousin was the heir but he ran away from home at sixteen, some say on his birthday, and has never been heard of since.”
Harold closed his eyes and let his “information book,” as he called it, scroll before his eyes. “Peter. Do you need more….”
Ailesworth nodded again.
“The previous Lord Versland was renowned as a tyrant. He demanded obedience from his son and his servants.”
“One, my lord. Katherine. She married an Irish baron of little regard in the ton, Lord Dunphy.”
“Dunphy!” Ailesworth sat up straight.
“Yes, my lord. And the present Lord Versland is said to be….” Here he flicked a glance at his employer.
“It’s all right, Harold. Lord Ailesworth will not gossip.”
“Um, no, Mr. Mortimer, I don’t know if I should speak, um, badly of….”
“Speak as you will, Harold.” Ailesworth’s voice was sharp.
“Lord Versland is not very welcome in the ton. Because of his title and wealth, he’s accepted everywhere, but no one likes him, except a handful of hangers-on from his school days. Some say that he pay their debts.
“He’s been linked to two Misses and everyone expected announcements. But, in both cases, the relationship was broken off and the young ladies refuse to even meet his eyes at subsequent ton events.
“One young lady who married soon after, told her husband that Lord Versland gave her the, made her uncomfortable. He was always stroking her arm and, um, his hand was cold and clammy. And I gather he took some liberties. He’s engaged to Lady Belinda now. Some, um, say….”
Both Ailesworth and Mortimer nodded.
“They say it’s because she’s made of ice, and his cold, clammy hands have no effect on her. Her father, the Duke of Charnley wouldn’t care what he did with his hands. He wants Versland’s lands for his family.”
Ailesworth grimaced. “He’s a nasty bit of goods.” He rose. “Thank you, Harold,” and placed a sovereign in his hand.
Harold looked delighted and then looked to his employee, who nodded. He bowed and began to leave.
“What a nasty pair Versland and Charnley make.” Ailesworth shook his head. “Oh! Harold, one more question.”
“ I know this will be a surmise on your part, in contrast to the gossip you have heard, but would Lord Versland be capable of killing someone if they threatened him?”
Harold stopped and turned a little pale. “Oh, yes, my lord. There’s stories about his servants disappearing if they displeased him. Now no one is ever invited to his estate as there are apparently few servants who are willing to work for him.”
Ailesworth nodded. Mortimer dismissed Harold who left reluctantly.
“I hope you take into consideration that Lord Versland is a dangerous man, my lord.”
“He is. I must get to Berkshire without delay. I thank you, Mortimer,” and shook his hand, to Mortimer’s surprise.
After lunch, which the children had in the nursery, Kay went up to show Jim the miniature of Peter. Jim looked at it a long time, holding it tightly in his hands. Sally-Catherine looked at it over his shoulder.
He heaved a great sigh and returned it to Kay. “He looks like me, but I’m not sure….”
“That’s all right.” Kay patted his shoulder. She yearned to hold him tight, this small image of her brother, but knew she must wait.
“I will wait for Lord Ailesworth and discuss it with him. If you don’t mind, my lady.”
“Of course. He saved you, didn’t he?” Kay felt tears begin as she thought of Jim and his sister kept in a cellar.
“Yes.” Jim’s throat suddenly got tight.
“I’ll leave you, Jim. You know you and your sister are safe here.” She jumped up, patted his shoulder and hurried out.
Sally-Catherine said, “I’m Catherine now.”
Jim frowned. “It’s too soon. I need to talk to Lord Ailesworth.”
“I don’t. I saw you and the picture of Father. I know.” Catherine gave a firm nod of her head and went to teach Clarissa her sums. Clarissa had no idea what a “some” was, but if Catherine was going to do it with her, it was a wonderful idea.
After lunch, Kay insisted they go to John’s study for a council of war. “For Robert may arrive any day now. The toad. We must be ready for him.”
It was a serious talk. All agreed that Versland was the other man Jim had spoken of. With his great wealth, he could afford endless men to watch and follow. He might bring an army with him.
“I’ll give Ailesworth one more day. If he doesn’t appear by noon tomorrow, I’ll send for some men from London.”
“That’s not necessary, Grainger. My grooms are handy men.”
Kay was tapping her finger against her cheek. “That’s not Robert’s way–lots of brute force. His valet is probably a hard one, but I doubt he’ll bring an army with him. It would be more like him to try to trick Jim in some manner to get him away.”
Esther gave a start. “I’ve just remembered, Kay. That time the groom came to get you because Robert was….”
“Torturing a kitten. Yes. We fell on him like banshees. The groom took the kitten. Robert ran away.” Kay’s face and voice were hard. “For once, I ran to my father. He didn’t care.
“So we punished him, didn’t we. Stupid boy. He thought we’d forgotten all about it, so we enticed him to the path by the sea. Part of the path had fallen away. We rebuilt it. It was perfectly safe–there was a ledge beneath to catch him.
“Stupid, evil boy. He came with us. We avoided stepping on the weak spot. He didn’t and fell to the ledge. He screamed like a pig. What a coward he was, blubbering and yelling. We made a big fuss over him and said we’d go get a groom to pull him up.”
Kay laughed. “We took our sweet time, enjoying our walk through the fields, picking flowers, singing songs. After an hour or so, we made it back to the stables. We told Rick, the groom. He understood. He took three of the stable boys with him and of course us.”
“When we arrived,” Esther continued, “we all looked over the ledge at him. Can you believe it, he hadn’t gotten off his back! Rick and the boys kept talking about how to save him, as if he weren’t only seven feet down.
“Finally, the fun wore out and one of the lads jumped down onto the ledge with Robert. Robert screamed. The boy grabbed his shoulders roughly and pushed him up. Rick leaned down, grasped his arms and dragged him up and over. They all left. We did too, Robert yelling at us.
“He told Kay’s father and Lord Versland just laughed at him. Said he’d let a couple of girls outwit him.”
“He was such a coward. He never tried any teasing after that.”
“A cruel coward. There’s no man worse than that,” Drum said. John nodded. “And he’s arriving any day now.”
They agreed that once Lord Versland arrived, one adult must be with Jim every time he left the nursery. Alma left to tell him.
Kay’s footman appeared in the doorway. “My lady, Lord Harmon, Mrs. Castle and Miss Castle have arrived.”
Kay and John left to greet their guests. Esther meant to follow but Drum put a restraining hand on her arm. “He’ll be all right. I’ll tell him of our decision. He’s a smart boy, he’ll be careful.”
Esther thanked him. “I know. He and Sally-Catherine have to be so careful. He wants Ailesworth, you know.”
Drum smiled. “Only Ailesworth can solve his problems.”
Esther went up on tiptoes and kissed Drum lightly on his cheek. Then she left to join Kay.
Kay was chattering away to her new guests. Miss and Mrs. Castle looked overwhelmed and Lord Harmon amused.
Esther jogged her friend’s elbow. “Oh, here’s my friend, Mrs. Beryll. Lord Harmon, Mrs. Castle and Miss Castle.”
Esther returned their curtseys and smiled at the two women. “You must be chilled from your trip. Was it a safe one?”
“Oh, lud,” Kay exclaimed, “of course you want to go to your rooms to freshen yourselves. Here’s Franklin.”
A footman dressed simply in black, with silver epaulets, nodded and led the ladies away. Lord Harmon was already following John to the study where they’d have a warming glass of brandy.
“Isn’t she lovely? No wonder Lord Harmon is head over heels in love with her.”
“Oh, yes, I forget. You don’t read the rags, do you? Did I tell you Lord de Sable is coming? He also requested that the Castles be invited. But Lord Harmon seems to be winning the race.”
Esther gave her friend a little punch on the arm. “De Sable made a fool of himself at my house.” Esther gave a snort of laughter which surprised Kay. Very unladylike for a Dramlee. “He was always affronted at my maid’s behavior. Jessie dislikes him, so, in addition to her usual rattling and banging, she glares at him.” Esther gave another snort. “He was so funny–the look of aristocratic horror when she’d bang the tea tray down. And him without a pot to– “ She clapped her hand to her mouth.
Kay laughed. “So good to hear you laugh.” The sound of a rider turned her to the door. “Speak of the devil….”
“I must flee,” and Esther ran up the stairs to go to the nursery. And escape Lord de Sable.
Kay decided that she’d wait inside for de Sable. Then she heard a carriage approach. She’d best go out to greet–who? Oh, God! Not Robert!
She was out the door in a second, to almost run into de Sable. “My lord! Welcome to Elmscourt!” She felt a ninny.
He was startled but found his manners and bowed to her. “Lay Dunphy. It is a pleasure to be here. I am honored….”
Someone was leaping out of a carriage that had pulled in. “Oh, Ma’am! Oh, Ma’am! Is my Mistress here?” It was Jessie, disheveled and wild looking. “Is she safe here?”
“You must be Jessie. Yes, your mistress is here. Go upstairs to the nursery and find her.” Kay’s tone was sharp.
“Oh, ma’am, my lady.” She was executing a bad version of a curtsey when her eyes fell on de Sable. She gave a little shriek and fainted dead away.
Kay had gone from irritation to merriment–Esther’s servant had fainted at the sight of de Sable! She went inside and began looking for a footman to carry Jessie in. She’d never been able to afford footmen before, and she discovered what many others had: they are never where you want them.
De Sable looked at Kay’s retreating back with horror. He was alone with that infernal servant of Mrs. Beryll’s. She might be dead. She might have a weak heart and–
Jessie groaned. De Sable went down and gently smoothed her hair off her face. She was alive. “Here, girl, get off the wet ground,” and he put his arm around her shoulders. He had her in a sitting position when a footman came through the door.
“I’ll take her, my lord,” and he easily lifted Jessie and carried her into the house. Jessie’s big eyes were open and staring back at de Sable. Kay was back too.
“My apologies, Lord de Sable. She was no doubt upset by her travel. Please come in.”
Dunphy was there to greet him and take him back to his study for a brandy.
De Sable relaxed.
Comfortably ensconced in the Fish and Kettle Inn in Bardstone, a freehold village adjoining Elmscourt, Charles sat in the tap room and enjoyed a hearty lunch and a fine ale. After he finished, he spruced himself up a touch more and left for the stables. His horse, a prime goer, didn’t seem the least tired from the trip to Bardstone. Charles checked him over. A groom appeared and Charles asked him to saddle Excalibur. He’d read of King Arthur as a boy and never forgot those stories. Charles fed him a carrot once he was ready. He mounted and left for Elmscourt. He’d received directions from the innkeeper who was curious, of course.
Charles admitted he was nervous about seeing Ailesworth again. Yes, it was better to admit those feelings to himself. Once freed, they seemed to fly away.
He smiled to himself. Fanciful, he was getting fanciful. He’d be like his sisters and their romance. He knew they read novels, although he had no idea where they came from, and that they dreamed of tall, dark heroes.
They were always talking of their feelings. He wondered if all women did, or if it was only girls.
He was here, at the drive into Elmscourt. The house was situated not far from the road–an old, ramshackle place, by the looks of it. As he arrived at the front of the big front doors, he saw that the house was merely old. Very old, in fact.
No one appeared to take his horse, so he tied Excalibur’s reins to a hitching post and climbed the front steps and let the knocker fall. His Step-Mama always said it was more discrete than pounding on the door.
In the front hall, Esther paused. Where was Kay’s butler? Nowhere around, apparently. She went to answer the door herself.
Standing there was Ailesworth. Not Ailesworth, but someone just like him. She stared at him like a loony.
“Ma’am? Lady Dunphy?”
“Oh! I beg your pardon! Come in. I mistook you for someone else.”
Once he was inside, Esther caught herself before she could demand his name and said, “I’m Mrs. Beryll, sir.”
He bowed. “Ma’am. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Charles Miggs.” He watched her carefully to see if that name registered. No reaction.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Lady Dunphy will be here….”
Kay appeared. “Ailesworth? No, you’re not. Who are you?”
Charles ignored Esther and said, “Charles Miggs, my lady. Ailesworth’s brother,” and he made a deep bow.