Love & Turmoil
Losing the girls. That’s what the letter threatened—or promised.
Lady Arabella Woodbridge stared at the spidery handwriting. Her heart raced and her stomach heaved.
“I will arrive in three days at which time I shall remove my nieces from your care.”
And the phrase that made her hands clench and shake as she held the single sheet of paper.
“…if you had a husband…”
She used to have a husband—until the drunkard died six months ago.
She moved to the window and stared out at the small garden of her rented house. Blossom Cottage, with its riotous flowers in every shade of pink, red, yellow, and orange, was aptly named, though with no thanks to her. All credit went to Mr. Pippin, husband of her housekeeper.
What in the world could she do? She crumpled the paper and stared sightlessly at the bees buzzing around the flowers. Three days. How did one say goodbye to one’s wards, possibly forever, in only three days? How were Nancy and Maddy to accept their future in only three days?
To hell with three days. It would not happen. She wouldn’t allow it.
Her father would be with her by then, perhaps with Mama in tow, and would have thought of some recourse. Perhaps he’d bring a man of law as well. Surely Mrs. Fagg, sender of threatening letters and current bane of Arabella’s existence, would see the futility of her actions when confronted with an earl.
If only there had been some word from Castle Dexter, her distress would be less overwhelming.
A tap on the sitting room door heralded the housekeeper’s arrival. “Excuse me, milady, I’ve brought your tea.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pippin. I wonder why we still crave hot tea when the weather is stifling and close. Just gone eleven and already the day is overly warm.”
“’Tis a comfort regardless.”
Arabella smiled and accepted the proffered cup and saucer, mismatched but still serviceable. Much like their little family, her two nieces living with her for the past six years, and the excellent governess Miss McKinnon and the Pippins joining later as the newest additions.
The governess stepped into the room as the housekeeper left. “I’ve assigned berry picking to the girls.” Miss McKinnon sank into a chair, fanning herself with her handkerchief. “They need to burn off energy.”
“And I’m sure you need a respite.” Arabella filled another cup with Darjeeling, one of her few extravagances.
“This relentless heat has everyone on edge.” Miss McKinnon took the cup and spooned in entirely too much sugar. “I see the post has come.”
Arabella handed her the letter. “Another from that Gertrude Fagg person.”
Miss McKinnon frowned as she read. “Blast her to perdition.” She tossed the letter onto the tea table.
Arabella snatched up the scrap of paper, not wanting the terrifying words to be read by tender eyes.
“Indeed. Unfortunately I’m without powers of that sort.” Or of any sort. With her papa traveling and unreachable in a timely matter, she was without the power of a peer as well.
“She won’t be here for three days. We shall run away and hide.”
Arabella smiled. “I’m afraid it’s not that easy. I have nowhere to go—”
“Your father would take you in again, surely.”
“Yes, but what then? Remain in hiding for the rest of our days?” And be beholden to her father? She wasn’t ready to surrender her independence, with Oswald gone only six months.
She sipped her tea, not as delicious and soothing as usual. Oh, to have a cool drink with ice. But they couldn’t afford ice. She refused to be a drain on her father’s resources. And she wanted to preserve as much of the capital of her small inheritance as possible.
“A shame you don’t have a spare husband or fiancé lying around.”
“Tucked away in the cupboard?” Arabella laughed. She was officially still in mourning, and there were no stray men in the neighbourhood. At least there were none her age. The blacksmith’s father was widowed and toothless. She set down her empty teacup and read again the dratted letter.
Her earlier replies to the Fagg woman had no effect, so trying to appeal to her better nature this time would be a waste of ink and paper.
There was a time she’d felt blessed, living an ideal life—or ideal enough at any rate. She’d had an affectionate husband, a comfortable home, and two darling girls to fill her life with laughter while waiting for her real babies to come along. One by one, those parts of her world had been snatched away. Oswald had gambled and lost their home, taken to the bottle and drank himself into the grave. And he had done so before giving her the baby she longed for—the fulfillment of her reason for being and the key to feeling worthy.
Blast the man. And blast Mrs. Fagg for threatening her last thread of happiness.
The clatter of horse’s hooves on the gravel lane again drew her attention to the window. A man on horseback had stopped to talk to Mr. Pippin, who’d paused in weeding the patch of pink flowers nearest the house. “I wonder who this is.”
Miss McKinnon joined her at the window. “Oh my, he is a handsome devil.”
Mrs. Pippin, who had come back with more hot water for the tea, crowded close to peer out the window too. “If I were twenty years younger…”
Just then, probably because he sensed three pairs of eyes staring in his direction—and at least one of those pairs mentally undressing him—the stranger looked in their direction. His gaze met Arabella’s. A tremor went through her body and landed low in her belly. She’d been without a man’s touch for six months, and her body craved release.
“Good gracious,” she breathed. He was a tall man, powerfully built, though slender. He doffed his hat to his audience revealing fair hair longer than current fashion. The sun sparkled in his brilliant blue eyes. “Goodness gracious me. Who do you suppose he is?”
Miss McKinnon nudged her with an elbow. “Why not go outside and invite him for tea?”
Arabella grinned. “You could do the same.”
“He’s too young for me.”
“It’s just tea.”
“I wouldn’t want to stop at tea.”
“Miss McKinnon! You are being naughty.”
“I may be a spinster on the shelf but I’m not blind. Here comes Pippin. He’ll tell us.”
The stranger rode up the lane, through the grove of trees, and out of sight. Her landlord, the owner of Galston Manor, was travelling, so perhaps this man was visiting one of the staff.
Pippin came in from the hall wiping his hands on a large hankie.
“I hope you scraped your feet well, Mr. Pippin." His wife poured hot water into the teapot and fixed a cup for her husband.
“Oh, aye, m’dear. Thought you’d be wanting to hear the gossip, you with your noses pressed to the glass.”
Arabella’s cheeks warmed. “We were curious, to be sure.” And at least one of them was giddy with lust.
“Stop your teasing, husband, and tell us who he is. And what he’s doing in these parts.”
Mr. Pippin slurped from his cup, taking a maddeningly long time in answering. “Well now, I don’t know all the particulars, mind.” His eyes twinkled with merriment. The wretched man was enjoying his teasing.
“Tell us what you can, Mr. Pippin.” Arabella clasped her hands, prepared to wait, sure to be entertained by his embellishments.
“He’s a guest of Sir Reginald who has been invited to stay while the gentleman is away. Said as he’s—”
“His name?” Miss McKinnon had less patience for Pippin’s mode of storytelling.
“Mr. Samuel Payn, recently returned from travels of his own. He said he’s been to the manor afore, many times, but I’d not laid eyes on him. Must have been afore you took up residence, milady.”
“Did he say how long he’d be staying?” Arabella couldn’t decide whether or not she was happy at the arrival of a handsome man in the neighbourhood. He would provide a visual distraction, certainly. But she was just now getting used to a life without physical love. Her urges were diminishing to a manageable level. She no longer awoke from torrid dreams frustrated, nightgown bunched around her waist, a hand tucked between her thighs.
“Does he have a family?” Miss McKinnon cut her a glance. Surely she couldn’t be thinking--
“No, and no, he’s on his own.”
Arabella met the governess’s gaze. Could they really be considering the same scandalous idea? She averted her eyes, laughter bubbling in her chest. Too outlandish.
“Come along, husband. I need you to fix the cook stove. It’s not drawing right. I get more smoke than heat.”
“What you be wanting heat for in this weather?”
“I need to boil water for your tea, don’t I?” They trundled off, affectionately bickering until the kitchen door closed, blocking the sound.
The sitting room pulsed with silence.
“If you won’t say it, I will.” Miss McKinnon’s voice quivered with excitement, or deviltry.
“Say what?” Arabella folded and unfolded the letter she still held before shoving it into her pocket. The sight of the crabbed handwriting made her head ache. She’d never met the Fagg person but she hated her nevertheless.
“You know what. I saw the way your eyes gleamed when Pippin said Mr. Payn was unattached.”
“And?” Arabella picked up her knitting and counted stitches, though she didn’t keep track of the number.
“And he’s your new fiancé, the answer to the Fagg problem.”
Arabella’s cheeks heated, and she ducked her head to hide what was no doubt a crimson face. “That’s ridiculous. We know nothing of his character.” Any man so attractive must have a long list of mistresses.
“True. But your engagement would only be pretend and only for a few hours.”
“His affections might be attached elsewhere.” Surely a man so handsome must have a ladylove of one sort or another.
“Again, we need him for less than a day.”
Arabella returned to the window and stared in the direction of the manor house, hidden from view by a grove of oak trees and various and sundry shrubs. “I couldn’t possibly ask—”
“The Fagg woman will be here in three days to take the children away from us.” Miss McKinnon’s voice hardened and quivered with anger.
Tears pricked Arabella’s eyes. Even though they weren’t her own children, she couldn’t imagine life without the imps giggling, telling stories, and giving sticky kisses.
She’d risk more than embarrassment to keep her little family together.
“I’ll need to change my gown if I’m to pay a visit to a gentleman.”
She all but skipped from the room and went upstairs to examine her wardrobe, all of which fit into the one cupboard in her bedchamber. There was a time before she wed when she had her choice of dozens of morning gowns, tea gowns, dinner gowns, ball gowns, petticoats, and silk stockings. Living as a country gentleman’s wife had meant reduced circumstances and a reduced wardrobe. Five years of pinching pennies had left her with plain, serviceable gowns, the collars and cuffs turned. The last of her silk stockings had disintegrated months ago. And her only un-mended gowns were the few items she’d purchased when her late husband died, and were therefore in unrelieved black—black crepe, or black bombazine, or black taffeta. She did have one serviceable gown that wasn’t black. It was a lovely silk tea gown in the palest of lavender, purchased with a view to the future when she could reintroduce colour into her wardrobe. She slipped the gown from its hanger and held it to her while looking in the cheval glass.
This was the loveliest gown she’d owned for quite some time. After Oswald’s disgrace, her wardrobe had fallen into disrepair and become quite shabby. Granted, she could have dyed a few of her old ones, but the cloth was so threadbare she feared they’d fall apart in the pot. Luckily the shop in town had two mourning gowns almost complete since there was always a need for attire of that nature. The pale silk had had to be made up, and though she dithered for several minutes, she finally succumbed to the feel of the fabric against her skin.
She swayed this way and that, the dress shimmering in the morning light. The silk rustled with her movements, a sound of a long ago, happier time. Before she could change her mind, she stripped off her dreary day gown, splashed cool water on her face, and fastened herself into the new dress. Since losing her personal maid a few years ago, she’d gotten used to not wearing a corset and made certain all her dresses fastened in the front.
A scant half hour later she climbed the hill to the estate’s manor house, so like Castle Dexter where she’d been born and raised. That original castle was a ruin, and she’d grown up in a newer manor house next door very much like this one, right down to the stout oak door fitted with iron studs—the door she and her four sisters had all exited as brides, with many visits home over the years, of course. Mama enjoyed having all her children at home under the same roof. And over time the number of grandchildren increased at an alarming rate. Arabella now had twelve nieces and nephews. She doubted there’d be further additions, at least until her younger brother chose a wife. But Bedford showed no signs of settling down. Indeed, she wasn’t even sure if he was in England. Lack of correspondence from the heir was worrying to all of them.
Producing her own offspring seemed less and less likely.
She paused at the top of the hill to catch her breath and allow the sweat to dry on her exposed shoulders and chest. She tugged at her décolletage. Why, half her bosom was exposed! Perhaps it would help advance her cause, should Mr. Payn be swayed by exposed bosoms. She smiled. What man wasn’t?
Squaring her shoulders she strode from cover of the trees and crossed the lawn, dry and crunchy beneath her feet. Lack of rain and suffocating heat had held the countryside prisoner for weeks. Very like the year one of her older sisters had come home for a visit and a young Arabella had learned that courting behaviour ended at the altar and the most a wife could hope for was enough intimate attention to allow for babies. At least babies and children would always have love to share.
She climbed the two steps to the front door and, taking a deep breath, gave the metal rod a yank. The peal of bells sounded inside the vast hall. A second later, the door opened and the butler motioned for her to enter. “Good afternoon, my lady. How may I be of assistance?”
“Good afternoon, Edwards. I wonder if I might have a word with Mr. Payn.”
“If you’ll wait in the morning room, I’ll see if he is at leisure.”
He opened the door off the hall and ushered her into the grandest room she’d seen since leaving her father’s house. While Edwards went off in search of the houseguest, she wandered about examining the fine upholstery, seldom used because Sir Reginald was rarely home. The portraits on the wall were no doubt long gone ancestors, though she hadn’t spent enough time with her landlord to learn of his family. Indeed, during the year and a half she’d lived on his estate, she’d conversed with him twice, and only once in the house.
Now he was away, and she was about to suggest a fake engagement to a complete stranger.