"You have been cheated, my dear Felicia," Edward, Lord Brook said in a faint, raspy voice before closing his eyes for a final time and going aloft.
At his bedside, the Honorable Felicia Brook stared at her now-departed uncle, her gray eyes perplexed. What was this all about? Why did he wait until the last moments of his life to inform her that she had been cheated? And cheated of what?
"Cheated?" queried a voice from behind Felicia, echoing her thoughts. "How so? And of what, I might wonder," the gentleman concluded.
She turned to face her unwilling host, the lordly gentleman who had given Felicia and her uncle shelter following an accident that had killed Felicia's disagreeable aunt and now deprived her of her only uncle. William Chessyre, Lord Chessyre, had been frigidly polite, unfailing in civilized behavior, but obviously suspicious toward Felicia--quite as though she had managed the accident just so she might meet him, the odious creature! The carriage had overturned not far from the gates to Chessyre Court, and his lordship had taken charge of matters with a chilling aloofness. His cool blond hair and icy gray eyes fit his personality to a tee, never mind that he had broad shoulders and was a fine figure of a man, as her father used to say. She moved away from him.
"I fear I am as much in the dark as you, my lord. Unless..." Felicia knew a spurt of hope that swiftly died. What she wished was most unlikely.
She drew the sheet up over her uncle, then turned from the bed, unable to shed tears for the man who had been a party to her humiliation and grief with never an objection. There was a slight touch of Lord Chessyre's hand on her elbow, guiding her from the room.
"Come, perhaps we can reach a conclusion downstairs in the library." He opened the door for her, ever the courteous gentleman.
Felicia wanted to rage at him. Her world had just fallen completely apart, and he was so very, very polite. Manners, she had once read, are what vex or soothe. He was both vexing and condescending. She decided that he would not know her inward fears.
He walked sedately down the stairs, at her side, guiding her over the vast entry to reach the door of the library. Here he ushered her inside, seating her in a comfortable leather chair. "Something to settle you, I believe." He crossed to a table on the far side of the book-lined room, poured a small quantity of some amber liquid into a glass, then returned to her side. "Drink this, it will help you."
Felicia was too numb lo argue with him and obeyed, gasping after the fiery brandy had slid down her throat. Her bravado was all well and good, but she must find a place to go, a refuge. Where!
"Good," was the only comment offered by her host, as he took the glass from her trembling fingers. "Now, where do things stand as of this moment?"
His question was not unexpected, but she would have rather put it off until she'd had time to consider matters. She had no clue as to a sanctuary, and she knew she needed such.
Squaring her shoulders, Felicia folded her hands neatly in her lap and spoke slowly, gathering the words as she did.
"I have lived with my aunt and uncle since my father's death some four years ago. I was sixteen--with nowhere else to go," she explained.
"And now?" he prompted with chilling courtesy.
"My cousin Basil inherits the estate. I expect Cousin Willa will live with him for the nonce, until she weds. I must find a position." Not for anything would she be dependent upon her odious cousins. She couldn't explain to this stranger that she feared Basil and his questing lips, searching hands. Nor was it likely she could convince this man that the charming Willa was a vixen who would make Felicia's life a misery. No, Felicia would beg charity before returning to her ancestral home, Brook Hall.
"You prefer a position to your home?" Lord Chessyre asked, amazement clear in his voice at this most peculiar female. Obviously, young ladies of quality did not, in his estimation, seek paid positions when there was a respectable alternative.
"It is no longer my home," Felicia reminded. "It now belongs to my cousins. I will not impose on them. It was one thing to be obligated to my aunt and uncle. It is quite another to be a poor relation to my cousins." She snapped her mouth shut; she'd said too much already.
Surprisingly, he nodded with what she would have said was sympathy in anyone else. However, she doubted if Lord Chessyre was familiar with that emotion.
"You received an inheritance from your father, I imagine. Was it invested on your behalf?" he queried, retreating to the leather chair behind his magnificent mahogany desk. He studied a paper on his desk, so missed her look of pain at his question.
"There was no inheritance; I was quite cut off." Her bewilderment at this event was evident in her confused expression as well as in her voice.
He stared at her as though he didn't believe her. "Surely not?" he gently questioned.
"I do not blame you for doubting my word, but there it is. The will was declared valid, and I had not a pence to my name." Felicia tilted her chin, daring him to doubt her words.
"Perhaps your father expected you to be wed before he died?" his lordship mused, his eyes studying Felicia as though searching for some redeeming factor.
She almost laughed. What a picture she must make in the drab navy dress deemed appropriate for a companion by her late aunt. Even if it was her sole winter pelisse, Felicia was glad that in the accident that dreary garment had been torn and was tattered beyond use. Lord Chessyre had seen her garbed in the better of her clothes, this navy dress, and for evenings, a dull black silk made over from a gown her aunt had disliked. She'd owned pretty dresses at sixteen, but one had a tendency to grow. What sane man would take to wife so unprepossessing a creature who had no dowry to offer him in compensation?
"I do not know. Perhaps he intended to provide for me and never remembered to do so. He was not an old man when he died; he may have postponed the matter." At least that is what Felicia had convinced herself was the case.
William studied the girl seated so defiantly before him. She was brave, he had to admit that of her. And with proper dressing, she might show to advantage, for she was not a homely woman. Rather, she was too thin--her large gray eyes dominating her face. Navy was too harsh a color for her, as was black. She ought to be wearing lavenders, pale blues, and violets in chiffons and laces. In spite of the severity of her dress, she was quite feminine with a quiet voice and pretty manners. She'd been most gentle with her uncle in his last days, caring for him with efficient tenderness. He'd seen that for himself.
Then he shook himself inwardly for his nonsensical thoughts. Women could be very deceptive. He'd also seen that. He didn't believe in chance encounters.
"With the way things stand, I can see nothing for myself but to find a position as governess or companion. What else is there for one of my birth?" Felicia asked, hoping he might think of another path she could lake.
"I quite agree," he said. "My aunt may know of someone."
The library door to the hall had been left open, and when the knocker of the main door was vigorously pounded on solid oak, both looked up, listening. From her vantage point near the library door Felicia turned her head. She watched as Jeffers, the dignified butler, shortly ushered in a couple Felicia knew all too well. She rose to her feet without thought, just wishing she might hide until they went away.
William was surprised at Miss Brook's dismayed reaction to the newcomers. Obviously, she knew who they were, and with equal transparency, she wished she were elsewhere. She composed herself, and with an apologetic glance at him, stepped forward to greet them in the entry.
He was around the desk and at her side before he considered his actions or how they might be construed by others. He eyed his new guests with disfavor. "The cousins?" he rightly guessed.
"Indeed," Miss Brook replied softly.
The pair stood in the entry, a maid and valet tending to the cases behind them. The young woman was not so unattractive if one overlooked a pointed nose. The young man emulated the dandy, his cravat overblown and his waistcoat a disaster. The contrast between the quality of their garb and that of their cousin was cruel.
"Good day," William said to the couple, who stared at him with wary expressions. "I'm Chessyre."
Felicia hastily made her cousins known to her host.
Basil turned to Felicia at once and blustered, "Now see here, Felicia, what is all this nonsense about an accident? We were having a marvelous time at the Tinsleys. Could you not deal with the problem?"
"Indeed, Felicia, it is too bad of you to bother us so," Willa added with a coy glance at Lord Chessyre, one he was all too familiar with to ignore.
William narrowed his gaze into what he'd been told was an intimidating stare. "Obviously, you have not heard what has transpired. I regret to inform you that your mother was killed in the accident, and your father passed on not an hour ago, succumbing to internal injuries." He might have been more gentle to imparting this information had it not been for their disgraceful attack on the hapless Miss Brook. William might be wary of the slender girl; he would not tolerate such rudeness to anyone while in his home, however.
What Basil and Willa might have said or done following this bald announcement was not to be known, for a rustle of silk preceded the arrival of Lady Emma.
"William, dearest, did I hear the door?" she queried in a fluting voice from the landing. The lady who drifted down in a flurry of lavender sarcenet and lace with a delicate lace cap on her pale blond hair reached the bottom of the staircase with seemingly no effort at all. "Guests!" she exclaimed with interest.
"May I present my cousins, Wilhelmina and Basil Brook, Lady Emma?" Felicia asked hesitantly, stepping forward as if she might prevent them from taking advantage of the charming older woman who had been all kindness to Felicia in the past few days.
Introductions completed, the dear lady sympathized with Basil and Willa on the loss of their parents.
If Felicia was correct, Basil was calculating on what his estate was worth and how he'd spend all that lovely money. Willa was no doubt considering how best to cozen her brother into increasing her dowry. Surely he'd want her off his hands as soon as possible!
"You are welcome to spend the night here, but I imagine you are anxious to remove your parents to your home church for burial, not to mention consult with your family solicitors regarding the transfer of the estate into your hands," Lord Chessyre said with a courteous bow in Basil's direction. Willa, he ignored, to Felicia's secret amusement.
"Indeed, you have been most kind, my lord," Basil said with a sagacious nod. "We are greatly in your debt." Now that Basil knew the identity of the gentleman who had housed his cousin and father, a man of the highest ton and invited to all the best places, he made himself toadishly agreeable. He would have waxed eloquent on the matter of his fortune, when Lady Emma placed a hand on Willa's arm, drawing her to the stairs.
"I declare," she said in her pretty fluting voice, "you must be settled in rooms before making any decisions. And tea!" she cried. "Tea always makes things better."
Willa meekly followed, but Basil paused as though to argue, or perhaps ask a question.
"Come, come," Lady Emma said impatiently. "Discussion later. At tea," she insisted, then led the pair up the stairs and along the hall.
Felicia watched until she saw the last of them, then turned to face her host. "I am sorry about that. I fear they do not always think before they speak."
"What would have happened had I not been here?" Lord Chessyre wondered aloud. He guided Felicia back to the security of the library, where a fire beckoned them to its comforting warmth.
"Well," Felicia temporized, "perhaps they would have been more agreeable in time." Nothing was said about the orphaned pair's lack of grief at the loss of their parents. Oh, Willa had managed a tear to be wiped away with a scrap of cambric, and Basil had looked suitably sad for a moment until he realized that all that money was now his.
"I begin to see why you insist upon being independent," his lordship said while nudging a log with the toe of his boot, thus avoiding Felicia's clear gaze.
"It is not because I am an independent person by nature, you must know," Felicia said, wanting this gentleman to understand she did only what was necessary for her survival. "I should wish nothing more than a little place to call my own and peace and quiet to go with it."
"And a cat?" he said with a smile, at last looking up to meet her candid gray eyes.
Really, his lordship was dangerously attractive when he smiled. She recalled his earlier chilling formality and backed away, on her guard once again. "As you say, and a cat. I'm exceedingly fond of the beasts. Excuse me, my lord. I shall go to my room to change for dinner."
William nodded his dismissal and watched as Miss Brook left the library to run lightly up the stairs, disappearing from view almost at once. He pitied the girl, poor thing; to be left in such a shabby state was unthinkable for a gently bred young woman.
He turned his back to the fire, staring off into space as he considered what must be done. He would have to make arrangements for the uncle and aunt, of course. Perhaps the lately departed pair would be conveyed to their home churchyard for burial with little difficulty, tomorrow if possible. The cousins could go as well; he had no intention of housing those two longer than absolutely necessary. It might be a breach of the country hospitality for which he was known, but the new Lord Brook and his guileful sister were not welcome. Brook was a trifle too unctuous; William never trusted chaps like that.
He contemplated the other member of the family and wondered what miracle Miss Brooks might conjure to make her drab black gown more suitable this evening. It seemed beyond hope to him. He reckoned without his aunt.
A little time later, Felicia heard a gentle rap on her door. She quickly crossed to answer, only to discover Lady Emma standing without, a bundle of lavender wool in her arms.
The lady bustled into the room softly, exclaiming as she did, "Poor dear, to be encumbered with such cousins. I ought not say so, but I scarcely believe they are related to you. You are not much alike," she observed while studying Felicia by walking around her, examining the black gown with a polite expression that most likely concealed distaste.
Felicia couldn't blame her; she didn't like the dress, either. The makeover was not skillfully done, but it covered her--which was about the best one might say for it.
"Ma'am?" Felicia inquired, confused by the dear lady.
"Your Wilhelmina is quite a dasher, up to the minute with her styles. I suspect Basil is as well. You are not. Forgive me for saying so, but it is true. I wondered if there was anything we could do about that dress. You do not have another, I suppose?" Lady Emma looked with hope at the clothespress, as though expecting a fashionable gown to pop out for inspection.
"My aunt deemed this respectable, Lady Emma," Felicia replied, quite unable to keep a wry note from her voice.
"It is, indeed, my dear. Most respectable. Alas, not very fashionable. Perhaps this shawl may help a bit?" Her ladyship draped a gossamer length of whisper-light wool around Felicia's shoulders, then stood back to see the effect. The lavender was kind to Felicia's pale cheeks and brought forth unexpected depths in her gray eyes. "Indeed, it will do nicely until we can attend to the problem."
Felicia dared not ask what that might involve. She had quickly learned that Lady Emma had her own notions as to how the world ought to be run. One queried at one's peril.
"Not a farthing?" Lady Emma asked out of the blue. "Forgive me, dear, but I overheard what you said to William while in the library. I cannot believe a father would be so cruel."
"Nor can I," admitted Felicia while wondering how Lady Emma seemed to be everywhere at once.
"Leave it to William. He is very clever, you know. I believe that were it to occur to him, he might well take a notion to look into that peculiar and unnatural will. Basil inherits all, you say? Surely your uncle must have provided something for you?"
"I sincerely doubt it, my lady," Felicia said, not wanting to say anything unkind about her uncle or cousin, yet knowing she must tell the truth of the matter. "I was hoping that you might know of a situation that might suit me?" Felicia asked, wondering if this constituted begging.
"Allow me to think on it. I am certain something will occur to me. It always does. Or dearest William comes up with something terribly intelligent. Did I mention that William is very clever? He is, you know." Lady Emma tilted her head to one side, frowning at Felicia's hair.
"Indeed, Lady Emma, I feel sure he is," Felicia said with great tact. She adjusted the lovely shawl about her shoulders a trifle, then took a step toward the door.
"Your hair, dear girl. I believe you forgot to brush it...or something," Lady Emma said vaguely. "Please allow Trotter to style your hair. She has a dab hand at hair, my dear girl," The abigail appeared in the doorway, as though summoned.
Deciding that Trotter could do no worse than she had, Felicia hastily perched on a small chair before the dressing table. The reflection in the looking glass was not very satisfactory. Her hair looked dreadful, all screwed up in an untidy bun. But then, she'd not had time to concentrate on herself as of late what with spending most hours at her uncle's bedside.
Trotter swiftly pulled out the pins and in a trice had the mass of nut brown hair brushed into a shining fall that came well below Felicia's shoulders.
"A French pleat," the maid murmured, and before Felicia knew it, her hair was draped back into a rather becoming twist. A wisp of curl was allowed to dangle at either side of her face to soften the somewhat severe style.
"Better," her ladyship said with a pleased air as she surveyed the results.
Felicia offered gracious thanks for a job only a superior lady's maid could have accomplished.
The surprised look from Lord Chessyre when she entered the drawing room made her glad she had accepted Lady Emma's kind help. His words surprised her even more.
"I thought lavender would do well on you."
Felicia could see at once that he'd not intended to make such a personal remark, and so pretended that she'd not heard him for he had not spoken very loudly.
Basil entered with his typical swagger. "There you are, cousin. I suppose you have made arrangements for us to take the parents home." There was a hint of command in his voice. True, he was accustomed to having Felicia run the house at Brook Hall; servants had always obeyed her better. But now he was master, and he would never let anyone forget it for a moment.
Giving him a cold look. Felicia shook her head. "You can make whatever arrangements you please. I shan't be returning with you."
Basil gasped at her as though he hadn't heard right. Then he looked at Lord Chessyre, a speculative look in his eyes. Any charge he might have made died on his lips at the frosty stare coming his way from the elegant lord. Even the usually dense Basil could see he'd get nowhere making wild accusations against this man.
Willa entered the drawing room at that moment, preventing Basil from making any further demands. Instead, Basil turned to his sister to report, "Felicia says she isn't coming home with us."
"Not coming home? Who will take care of things, I should like to know?" Willa demanded, her voice sounding a trifle petulant, reminding Felicia forcibly of the late, unlamented Lady Brook.
"You must come," Basil demanded.
"I insist," Willa declared. "Who else will run the house? Goodness knows I cannot be bothered with such mundane things."
Before Felicia could inquire just who Willa thought she was to demand that Felicia turn into an unpaid housekeeper--for that was likely what the spoiled darling had in mind--Lord Chessyre spoke.
"Miss Brook has kindly agreed to be a companion for my aunt while she goes to London. Is that not right, Aunt Emma?"
"Yes, indeed," Lady Emma replied, not the least ruffled that she was telling a lie. Turning to Felicia, she softly added, "I knew he would think of something, and he did. Such a clever boy," she concluded fondly.
The "boy" as Lady Emma called him was in his early thirties or at best late twenties, tall and well-formed, with gorgeous blond curls and nice gray eyes--when they weren't frosty. Anyone less a "boy" Felicia couldn't imagine. Of course it was merely a ruse to help her escape from her cousins, and for that she was most grateful.
"It is true," Felicia said with her customary polite manner. "Lady Emma is all that is gracious, and I look forward to spending time with her in London."
"London?" Willa snapped, knowing full well that Felicia had been denied her come-out two years ago and that Willa had gone instead, taunting Felicia with all the fashionable doings. Willa had not taken, however. She'd three Seasons on her plate, and finding a husband was becoming less likely with each passing year. Time was not kind to her.
Jeffers appeared in the doorway to signal that dinner was ready so that Felicia was spared a reply to Willa's lone comment.
Basil was not silent, however. "I think it is the height of ingratitude that you would consider going to a stranger instead of your cousins who need you."
Felicia gave him a knowledgeable look, then said, "Why should I come home when I can be paid for doing less elsewhere?" There were moments when direct speech could not be avoided to spare one's blushes, and this was one of them.
He blustered a bit, but fell silent when Lord Chessyre escorted Felicia into the dining room, seating her at his side with proper manners. Basil walked with Lady Emma, leaving Willa to follow behind, grumpy and out of sorts.
Under the cover of the general conversation and the noise of the servants handing around the excellent dishes of food, Lord Chessyre leaned toward Felicia and said, "I trust my idea appeals to you. I do not like to see my aunt go to London alone, and she has her heart set on it. There is someone in the city she wishes to see." He thought a few moments, then continued, "It would ease my mind greatly if you could see your way to doing this kindness." Then he mentioned what that kindness would pay, and Felicia nearly fainted again as she had when she'd climbed from the carriage after the accident.
How could she refuse? Even if it didn't work out, one or two months would ease her way and she could look for another position. Lady Emma was a dear, if a bit featherheaded. "Of course I will," Felicia promptly replied and was rewarded with a thawing of the ice in those gray eyes.
The evening was strained and concluded at an early hour. William gravely assured all that he was certain Lord Brook and Miss Willa wished to retire early and give vent to the grief they had been so nobly holding within all these hours. There was nothing more to be said to that other than a good night.
Felicia retired to her room, propping a chair against the door in case Basil renewed his amatory ideas.
The following morning William was disturbed at his desk in the library by a hesitant rap on the door. When he bid whoever it was to enter, he was surprised to see a neat and exceedingly plain young woman, the maid who came with Miss Brook if he remembered rightly.
"I be Primrose, maid to Miss Willa. If I might have a word with you, milord?" the maid begged hesitantly.
"Go on," William urged, curious as to what this creature had to say.
"Miss Felicia is getting short shrift from Miss Willa. I been maiding her these past years, an' I know that Miss Willa helped herself to the pearls that was rightfully Miss Felicia's. Old Lady Brook insisted that those pearls were a part of the inheritance, but they were a gift from Miss Felicia's papa. I hoped you might help Miss Felicia, for she'd not stand a chance on her own against Miss Willa. I'm quitting," the maid added. "Without Miss Felicia to keep peace, Brook Hill won't be fit for living."
William stared in amazement at what obviously was a long speech for one accustomed to remaining silent and in the background.
"I want to see justice done, if you please, milord. I'll see to it Miss Willa wears 'em down," the maid concluded while backing toward the door.
"And you believe I may be of help?" William gently queried.
"Lord love a duck, iffen you can't scare her into returning the pearls, no one could," the maid replied before slipping around the door and disappearing.
When the group gathered for a light noon meal with the thought that Brook, his sister, their late parents, and the rest of the entourage would depart directly after, William watched Willa with a sharp gaze. The maid had succeeded in placing the pearls around the neck of her mistress.
"Those are lovely pearls, Miss Willa. Your father gave them to you, no doubt?"
Startled at his comment on something she had no claim to wearing, Willa darted an annoyed glance at Felicia before calmly saying, "Indeed."
Basil gave a rude snort of laughter.
"You disagree, Lord Brook?" William asked with care.
Willa glared at Felicia. "She told you a lie if she said they are hers. They are mine. Mama said so."
"Indeed?" William inquired with raised brows.
Basil, still basking in the pleasure of being called by his newly acquired title, looked scornfully at his sister. "Those pearls are Felicia's, and you know it. Mama was too pinch-penny to buy you a string of your own."
"Surely you will restore them to their rightful owner before you leave," William said with all his powers of persuasion brought to the fore.
Lady Emma murmured, "Very bad ton to keep pearls that belong to another."
Hoping to provoke her cousin into rash behavior, Felicia said, "Well, Willa? Basil is right, and you know it."
Looking about the table and finding not one smile or sympathetic expression, Willa angrily reached up and removed the offending pearls, tossing them at Felicia. "You will replace them, dear brother," she threatened.
Her brother merely grinned, finished his meal, and made his farewells to his host with more manners than Felicia had thought he possessed.
When the departing Brooks--both living and deceased--had passed through the gates, Felicia turned to thank her host for all he had done on her behalf. "I'd not thought to have my necklace again, for Aunt was adamant that they were no longer mine. Thank you." She frowned, then continued, "I hope your aunt may suggest a position for me."
"I really mean for you to go with her to London; it was not a ruse to foil your cousins. And"--he turned to espy the plain maid who had lurked in the shadows--"I believe you have acquired an additional member for the London household."
"Primrose?" Felicia cried with surprise.
"I refused to go with Miss Willa. Iffen you won't hire me, could I travel with you to London? I'll maid you better than I did Miss Willa, and once in the city work would be easier to find."
"Oh, mercy," Felicia whispered.
"Do agree, dear girl. Tupper cannot do for two, and I would have you looking up to snuff once in London," Lady Emma cried as she drifted down the stairs in a cloud of lavender sarcenet.
Felicia exchanged a look with Lord Chessyre, surprised to find amusement in those gray eyes.
"Do I have any choice in the matter?"
"None whatsoever," Lord Chessyre replied.