Captain Jack Ryder, the Duke’s Bastard Book One
Regency Sons Series
Regency Sons Series
Captain Jack Ryder
Mr. Harry Feather
His Grace, Grant Neville, the duke of Stamford
Lord Timothy Scott, Baron Waddington’s heir
Lord Miles Hawkeswood, second son of Marquess Sterling
Captain Jack Ryder – The Duke’s Bastard
Jack Ryder’s father, the duke of Stamford has died and left his son, Jack, born on the wrong side of the blanket, feeling cut adrift. The duke had loved Jack’s Irish mother, but had been unable to marry a Catholic and instead married a woman he didn’t love. Jack and his father remained close, and the duke tried to make up for Jack’s lack of birth.
Jack decides to leave London and a life he despises. He plans to ride his horse Arion to visit his mother’s family in Ireland and thence to his estate in the north his father left him. But events conspire to interrupt his journey. Jack finds himself not only caught up in a conspiracy of massive proportions, but also in a passionate love affair with a lady he cannot marry, Lady Ashley Lambourne.During his years in the army, Jack gained him some loyal lifelong friends. One of them, Harry Feather, is heir to one of the largest fortunes in England. Harry faces an arranged marriage to Lady Erina Roundtree. A tall half-Irish beauty, Erina is a spirited young woman, and makes it plain she doesn’t wish to marry him either.
Stamford, Hertfordshire, 1821
The horses proceeded down the avenue of ancient elms at a solemn pace, their black plumed heads bowing, as the Duke of Stamford was taken to his last resting place. His chest tight, Captain Jack Ryder watched the steam flow from the thoroughbred’s nostrils in the crisp, cold, air.
“Chin up, old fellow.” Harry Feather, heir to Sir Ambrose, Baronet Feather’s immense fortune, walked beside Jack as they followed the hearse with a cortège of subdued friends, and relatives, a few of which Jack wished to purgatory. The one thing he shared with the duchess’ family was mutual dislike. Behind them, walking with his mother, Elizabeth, was Jack’s cousin, Grant, heir to the dukedom. Jack was extremely fond of them both. Aunt Elizabeth had been the closest thing to a mother to him, visiting him at his boarding school to bring him cakes, she’d made his lonely life bearable.
Jack scrubbed his hands over his face, as if the tiredness from too many nights of lost sleep while his father breathed his last, followed by the ensuing heavy sensation of grief, would be rubbed away. “Did as much as he could for me. Loved my mother, cared for her until she died.”
Harry nodded. “Indeed. And not every peer sends their sons born on the wrong side of the blanket to Oxford.”
“Then agreed albeit reluctantly to my request to join the army. Feared I’d do something reckless and be killed.”
“He had a good reason for it,” Harry said. “You did behave as if your life wasn’t worth much. Earned you considerable praise though.”
“If he hadn’t been born a duke, Father would have married my mother. He was forced into a marriage to a woman he disliked.”
“Who wasn’t kind to you.”
“Can’t say that, exactly. She never acknowledged my existence.”
Harry checked if anyone was within earshot. “The duchess was universally disliked. I’d be surprised if there were many who shed tears over her deathbed.” He turned back to Jack. “Do you mind that Grant has inherited Stamford?”
“That drafty pile of stone?” Jack shook his head. “Why should I? I’ve known since birth it would be this way.”
“Still, Stamford is a magnificent property and there are other investments.”
“Father left me a living. A manor house and lands in the north.”
Harry wound his scarf tighter around his neck, hunched his shoulders and pulled his hat down over his chestnut hair. “In good condition?”
“I’ve never been there.”
Harry’s brown eyes widened. “Why not?”
Jack shrugged. “Never had any reason to. It gives me a modest income.”
“Is that the extent of your inheritance?”
“It’s all I know about. I don’t expect anything more. Father My father bought me a commission in the army, and I saw that as a step on the ladder of life. The rest is up to me.”
“But the war’s long over and now you’ve resigned your commission…”
“I learned a few life skills during those years, did not you?”
Harry shrugged. “I suspect you would have learned them anyway, Jack. All it did for me was make me realize how much I prefer a life of comfort over trekking through Spain in dreadful conditions and being shot at.”
“Taught you discipline, toughened you up. Made you a man, Harry. You aren’t one of those soft indulged sons who waste their lives whoring and gambling about London.”
Harry smoothed his immaculate coat. “Have no fondness for it. But you should go and sort out that property after the reading of the will.”
“Mm.” Jack watched the sway of the black and gold hearse moving along in front of them. He felt cut off at the knees when he tried to envision the direction his life would take. His father had given his life meaning and now it was stripped away. “Eventually.”
“You’re in no hurry?”
“No.” Jack drew his grief around him like a shroud, took a deep breath, and made a decision. “You know, being a bastard gives a man certain advantages.”
“Oh? What would they be?”
“I can go wherever I like without any call on my time. No parliament, no bending the knee to King George and his set.”
“Some might care about those things.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I don’t. Nothing can change it, can it?”
“You’re accepted in society, Jack. People like you.”
“Some do. Maybe some just liked my father.”
Scattering fallen leaves, the hearse approached Stamford village churchyard where, hunkered down in the cold, villagers waited to see off a popular duke.
“What do you intend to do next?” Harry asked. “Continue with your rooms in Town?”
“No. I’m going to travel.”
“Really? No desire for it. Saw enough during the war.”
“Not the Continent. The British Isles. And not as a well-heeled gentleman.” The plan formed in Jack’s mind. “I’ll travel light like we did in the army. Just a small portmanteau, and Arion, my faithful stallion. I’ve seen little of my own country.”
Harry shuddered and murmured something derogatory about how badly dressed he’d be, as the horses pulled the hearse to a halt before the family’s enormous stone mausoleum.
Jack, with a deep anguished breath, took his place with the other pall bearers to carry his father’s coffin inside the stone edifice.
Jack and Harry continued their conversation hours later in a tavern where two other friends joined them, Lord Miles Hawkeswood, second son of the Marquess of Sterling, and Baron Waddington’s heir, Lord Timothy Scott. In their mid to late twenties, the four had formed firm friendships when they fought with the British Light Cavalry under General Colquhoun Grant.
Miles Hawkeswood, drew his fair eyebrows together, his blue eyes rendered thoughtful by Jack’s declaration. “You’re not waiting for the reading of the will?”
“I shan’t be missed. Everything goes to my cousin, Grant. And the duchess’ relations will be there hoping to be remembered. Can’t abide any of ’em.”
“Well I think it’s a mad idea.” Miles raised his voice above the ruckus from a table in the corner where a drunken fellow had made a clumsy attempt to pull the serving wench down onto his lap. “Traveling rough on English roads in our foul weather sounds downright uncomfortable. Had enough of that in Spain where it was hot at least.”
“Couldn’t agree more,” Harry said. “Dangerous too. You’ll likely be robbed and murdered before you get twenty miles from London.”
“I doubt that,” Tim interjected. “Jack was the best marksman in our regiment. He’s mighty handy with his fists too. Might have been a pugilist. Just look at him. Is anyone going to take him on?”
Jack grinned and shook his head, then drank deeply of his ale.
Tim perched a large booted foot on his knee and cast an eye over the breadth of Jack’s shoulders. “None of us are short bar Harry, and Jack towers over all of us.”
“Dash it all, I object!” Harry thumped Tim on his arm. “I would be considered a reasonable height if I chose a new set of friends. The ladies have no complaints, I might add.”
Jack pushed back his black hair from his brow. “I’ll carry a pistol, but I’m not looking to use it unless I have to. An adventure appeals to me. To roam about the country without an identity. That’s true freedom. I considered re-enlisting, but after the war had ended army life was more tedious than exciting.”
Tim gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “And when you’ve seen as much as you care to, what then?”
Unable to supply an answer, Jack shrugged. “Then, I shall embark on something else.”
“Marriage? And the lady will be of your choosing,” Harry said gloomily, his fingers raking his chestnut hair, his brown eyes somber. “Father has picked out a bride for me. Daughter of a friend of his. He’s corresponding with her father as we speak.”
It was the first Jack had heard of it. The first of them to marry. “Who is the lady?”
“Lady Erina Rountree.”
“What’s wrong with Lady Erina?” Jack brought the lady’s visage to mind. Abundant mahogany hair and fine green eyes. He’d danced with her at her ball when she’d entered society. Tall and slim, her gaze had challenged him, and she’d made him laugh when she’d complained about the crick in her neck she got from talking to him. One of the few men tall enough to have done so. “She’s pretty. Smart too.”
“All right for you, no one is pushing you to marry,” Harry said.
“No, nor is marriage part of my plans.” He didn’t want to care about anyone. “You’re a lucky fellow. Don’t know what you’re complaining about.”
“She’s too tall for me. And I suspect she could start an argument in an empty room.”
Jack laughed. “Take care, Harry. Those eyes of hers can certainly flash.”
“I prefer a quiet woman, like Miss Florence Beckwood.”
The fair Florence had the look of a frightened mouse. To give her the benefit of the doubt, her shyness could mask intelligence. “A milk and water miss? Who won’t challenge you? How dull that would be.”
“Why has the conversation turned to women?” Tim gave a snort of disgust. “I’d rather talk about Tiresias, the Duke of Portland’s horse that won The Derby in fine style.”
“Because women are more interesting than horses.” Jack smiled at the buxom tavern wench who carried four pots of ale, two in each hand. She placed them on the table without spilling a drop and winked at him.
“Not always,” Tim grumbled.
“As the son of a baron, you will be expected to marry, Tim.” Jack took hold of his tankard. “You need to produce an heir.” He chuckled and slapped him on the back. “And, anyway, I like talking about women. I like women.” He was without regular feminine company since his mistress remarried. Not such a bad thing, it contributed to his sense of freedom. Now there was nothing to hold him here.
“I like them in bed,” Tim said. “But out of it, they can join their sewing circles or whatever they do and leave me to my own devices.”
“Tough words, Tim.” Jack recalled that Tim had taken it badly when a widow ended their affair a year ago. “What if you come to love one of them?”
“Redheads are said to be passionate romantic fellows, are they not?” Harry mocked.
“And always with a devil of a temper,” Miles added, joining in the roasting.
“Enough.” Tim smiled and scrubbed his hand through his auburn locks. “Romance is for women. How about a game of billiards?”
Roundtree Park, Waltham Abbey, Essex
Lady Erina Rountree finished currying her horse and had a few words with the groom about the mare’s left fetlock joint. Reassured, she left the stables and the smells of hay, saddle oil, leather, and horse behind and walked back along the driveway to the house. She had received a worrying letter from her Irish cousin. She must speak to her father about it.
She rounded the corner. Entering the front door, she crossed the chequerboard tiles of the entry hall, as Roberts, their butler, appeared from the servants’ door.
He flinched at her soiled riding boots. “Your father requires your presence in the library, Lady Erina.”
She raised her skirts a little, examined her boots and gasped in mock horror. “Thank you, Roberts.”
She left him but not before she saw a small smile twitch his lips.
It would not be good news. Her father stood awaiting her presence. She preferred it when he sat and smoked his pipe.
“I have just received a letter from the baronet, Sir Ambrose Feather. He has agreed to the terms of your union with his son.”
Erina stared at him as the meaning of his words took hold. It wasn’t just bad news, it was positively ghastly. She placed her hands on her hips. “Marry Mr. Harold Feather? That’s ridiculous! I will not!”
Father eyed her cautiously and shook his head. “You are like your mother. Irish forebears.” He made it sound damning, which riled her further. Her mother was from a fine Irish family. She had never met them but had begun corresponding with her cousin Cathleen two years ago. She’d received a worrying letter from her yesterday. Erina hated that she could do little to help her.
“My dear child you will do as you are bid.” He was exasperated but not entirely surprised by her reaction. “It is an excellent match. Harold is heir to a large fortune. You will be kept in the manner any woman would covet. A vast improvement on this. Look around you.” With a sweep of his arm, he indicated the worn chair coverings and faded carpet. The magnificent gold leaf missing in spots on the cornices. “Good lineage is the only thing on offer here. As for your youthful beauty, Erina, it won’t last forever.” He shook his head. “It’s not an easy task for me to find you a husband. You are uncommonly tall like your mother and have no dowry to speak of.”
Erina bit her lip. She’d reacted with her usual lamentable burst of temper. If only she’d taken time to think of a tactful way to appease him. But she doubted it would have made any difference. She suspected her father was thinking more about his own comforts. Their present circumstances came from unsound investments he’d made. This marriage was to be an injection of funds into their empty coffers, at her expense. It didn’t matter what she might want for herself. “Harold doesn’t even like me. We tend to disagree. And he is too short for me.”
“You’ll be lucky to find a husband at all with your temper, my girl.” Father rested a hand on the fireplace overmantel and drew himself up to his full height which wasn’t above average. “He’s too short? Is height now a prerequisite for marriage? I’ve never heard the like. What has happened to the world? Young people today do not know their place. We did as we were told and would never oppose our parents. Marriage is not made for love. It is a business contract.”
“Harold won’t like the arrangement any more than I do.” Erina hoped Harold would create enough of a fuss to prevent it. Unless his father was a tyrant like hers. There was no point in arguing with him further. She would have to think of a way out of it, but she needed time.
“I had hoped you might take me to Ireland, Papa.”
“Ireland? Why on earth would I do that?”
She retrieved the letter from the pocket in her skirts. “Cousin Cathleen, is in trouble. Before her father died, he lost their home to a neighbor in a card game. Mr. Gormley, a man she mistrusts and is afraid of, has offered her the choice between marriage or being cast out into the street.”
Father held up his hand. “What on earth can I do about it? I severed a connection with that family years ago.”
Erina stared at him bitterly. She excused herself. Wiping away tears, which resulted more from anger than sorrow, she gathered up the skirts of her green velvet riding habit and climbed the stairs praying this marriage would never come to fruition.
When she reached her bedchamber, she threw herself onto her the faded floral counterpane of her four-poster bed. With her arm over her eyes, she revisited the scene in the library. It sounded as if the negotiations had already been settled between her father and Feather. And without a word to her! Well, she would never agree. She couldn’t afford to wait. She must do something to stop it.
Erina rolled off the bed and reread Cathleen’s letter. The words had not lost their impact. With a huge sigh, she folded the missive and tucked it into a drawer. If she was a man, she’d travel to Ireland and rescue Cathleen. Father had no time for the Irish or her mother’s family. But he wasn’t a cold-hearted man, she was sure he would take pity on Cathleen once she sought sanctuary under his roof.
The morning Jack intended to set out on his journey, his cousin, Grant, paid him a visit at his rooms in Piccadilly. Jack liked him, always had. If the dukedom was to go to anyone, it should be Grant. A decent fellow, he would take infinite care of his inheritance. Even as a lad he was of a serious mien and considered ancestry to be of great import. He’d make as good and fair a duke as Jack’s father before him.
Jack admitted him to his bedroom while he continued to pack. He deliberated over adding another shirt. Every item needed to be carefully selected as there was very little room in his portmanteau. “Take a seat, Grant. Can I offer you a drink?”
His tall fair-haired cousin folded himself into a chair. “No, thank you. I see you mean to go on this journey. I thought it might only be talk. You know, a reaction to that business with your mother’s relatives.”
“There is nothing that lot can do or say to upset me. Although they do keep trying.” Jack looked up from folding the shirt. “So, you thought I was all piss and wind.”
Grant sighed. “Let’s just say I hoped you would change your mind. Simms, the family solicitor, is to read the will this afternoon. You’ll stay for that, surely?”
Jack shook his head. “Whatever it contains will keep until I return.”
“You’re heading north to your estate?”
“In a roundabout fashion. Thought I’d go via Ireland.”
Grant uncrossed his legs and sat up. “Ireland?”
“I’ve never been there.”
“Neither have I. What’s that got to do with it?”
“Nothing, I suppose. Just have a hankering to see it.” He’d been thinking of it for some time. After discovering some letters of his mother’s he’d found in a drawer of his father’s desk.
Grant nodded light dawning in his gray eyes. “Your mother’s people were Irish.”
“Yes, but I’m a stranger to them. Can’t see they’d want that to change.”
If Grant thought seeing Ireland would cure Jack’s restlessness, he was barking up the wrong tree. It was curiosity that drew him, pure and simple. Jack squeezed his toiletry bag containing soap, razor, toothbrush, and a hairbrush into his portmanteau. Difficult to find these on the road, and since being in the army he disliked disorder of any kind. In the side flap of the saddle he’d add the currying brush to keep Arion in the best condition. The horse would enjoy this trip as much as he. He’d been a wonderful asset to Jack during the war and appeared to relish the adventure.
He eyed his cousin. “I expect you’ll tour the ballrooms now, to select a bride from the current crop of debutantes,” he said with a devilish grin. He knew Grant would prefer to remain closeted in his study with his history books and tomes on heraldry. “Time, you married, anyway, at thirty-two.”
Grant didn’t look eager as he smoothed back his fair hair with both hands. “I’m prepared to do my duty.” He watched with obvious unease as Jack checked his pistol.
“Duty?” Jack chuckled. “If it’s not to be a love match, find a woman you want to bed. One who makes you laugh. You’re going to be together for a long time, God willing.”
“Wear your best dress to the ball tonight, Erina,” her father said. “The pale green satin looks well on you. I expect to see you dance with Mr. Feather. And smile at him.”
“I doubt he’ll be smiling at me,” Erina said. “I don’t think he likes to dance with taller women.”
Her father scowled. “He’ll get used to it. Some men like taller women, although not many, I grant you.”
Her mother had been an inch or two taller than he.
“Yes, you did like tall women, papa.” Although it might have been her mother’s dowry which attracted him. Erina was too young to remember if they’d loved one another, because her mama had died when she was ten, but Father had never remarried.
Her father banged his pipe against a bowl then began to fill it. Intent on his task, his face looked strangely vulnerable. “I overlooked it. Your mother was a fine woman.”
Erina’s throat tightened. Would Mr. Harold Feather be prepared to overlook her height?
That evening in the Moncrief’s crowded ballroom, Harold approached her. “Would you grant me a waltz, Lady Erina?”
When she rose from her curtsey, Erina studied his expression. Harold’s jaw looked rigid, his expression bleak. How unflattering. He wasn’t unattractive, with straight brown hair and brown eyes. But even if he’d been a bit taller, she wouldn’t marry him. He was an obedient son. Of sober character. The type of man many women might admire. But he didn’t excite her.
When the musicians struck up, Harold returned and led her onto the dance floor without a word. He took her in his arms and they began to waltz. In her dancing slippers, they were eye to eye. He was an adequate dancer. No thrilling flourishes.
“You are glaring at me, Lady Erina,” he said as he turned her among the swirling dancers.
“Am I? I hope you don’t think it’s because I’m angry with you, sir.”
“I quell at the thought.”
“You don’t wish to marry me, either,” she said bluntly.
He smiled for the first time. It improved his appearance. “You don’t mince words do you?”
“I like to call a spade a spade as the saying goes. And we have no time for delicate sensibilities if we are to put a stop to our parents’ ridiculous scheme.”
Her father stood watching them. To appease him, she turned the full force of her smile on Harold.
“Those green eyes of yours certainly flash,” he said. “When you look at me like that, I am sure we are unsuited. You have wildness in you. You’re a passionate woman.”
“Is that so very bad?” she couldn’t help asking.
“You’d turn my quiet life upside down.”
It was all very well for her not to want to marry him. But he so obviously didn’t want her, she felt piqued. “How cowardly,” she said with a grin, aware of being perverse.
“Yes.” He smiled. “I admit it. After years in the army, I fancy a simple life. An enjoyable book, a brandy and a cigar, my wife with her embroidery by my side. Just looking at you, Lady Erina, I can foresee riding to hounds, jumping tall hedges, and dancing till dawn. It fatigues me to think of it.”
Erina laughed. She glanced over her shoulder. Her father smiled and nodded. “You describe me well, Mr. Feather. I admire your clear-sightedness. So, what will you do to help me put an end to this madness?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What will I do? Precisely nothing.”
She frowned. “Nothing?”
“Nothing.” He shook his head. “My father will grow tired of the idea. He does you know. Tends to flit from one idea to the next.”
She tightened her lips. “I don’t see how you can be so confident. My father sets a course and sticks to it.” And some of his courses were better cast aside.
The musicians were coming to the end of the Mozart concerto. The rondo dying away. “Let us not be too impatient.” He bowed.
She took his arm to join the line departing the ballroom floor. “But I am. Father plans a house party in you and your father’s honor, Mr. Feather. You shall be in my company for several days. And at the end of it our engagement will be announced.”
He rubbed his brow with his finger, looking pained. “Who else is invited?”
“Some forty or so guests.” Her father had complained about the cost. But he put it down to an investment.
Harold’s gaze settled on a fair-haired young woman who sat quietly alone. “Can you gain an invitation for Miss Florence Beckwood?”
Erina had met Florence once and found her difficult to converse with. So dreadfully serious. So that is how things are, she thought gleefully. “I shall send the invitation myself.”
He nodded. “Good. And leave the rest to me.”
“You have hidden depths, Mr. Feather,” Erina said, as they approached her father. “I’m in half a mind to snap you up myself.”
Harold chuckled. “You are a most frightful tease, Lady Erina.”
Close to nightfall, Jack had ridden far enough to leave the sprawl of London behind him. Forced to find an inn after a storm blew overhead and lightning spooked his horse, he welcomed the sight of one. The Old Angel Inn appeared out of the gathering dusk, surrounded by woodlands, fields, and farmhouses.
In the stables, he saw to Arion’s needs then left instructions with the stable boy who stared goggled-eyed at the magnificent chestnut.
Jack went in search of a meal. During his army life, he ate and slept when he could. No telling when the opportunity for either would present itself after breakfast tomorrow. Winter was giving way to spring, but the air still had a bite. Hungry, he crossed the cobbles to the thatched-roofed Tudor building.
The inn appeared to be a well-run establishment. It was clean, and tasty aromas wafted from the kitchen. A contented murmur rose in the dining room with its low-beamed ceiling. A hearty fire snapped and popped in the fireplace. Several tables were occupied. Two men sat together, discussing the merits of crop rotation, while another sat alone smoking a pipe. In a corner, a man and a woman silently ate their soup.
A dark-haired serving girl swung her hips between the tables as she approached him, a twinkle in her eye. Jack ordered beef, ale and parsnip pudding, cabbage with bacon and onions, and apple pie. He smiled his thanks when she placed a tankard before him. Whilst he drank his ale, he watched her go about her tasks, with brisk neat movements.
Although the dull ache caused by the loss of his father still lodged somewhere near his heart, Jack felt at one with himself for the first time in years. He had relished the companionship of his fellow soldiers during the war, and his friends since then, but now it surprised him to find he enjoyed his own company and looked forward to his journey through Wales and across the sea to Ireland. He didn’t anticipate trouble. But if he should encounter any he could handle himself well enough.
His appearance gave no clue to his background, a man of modest means. He’d purchased readymade simple garb for that purpose: a black greatcoat, brown coat, and waistcoat, forgoing his usual starched white shirts for one of cream, with leather breeches and oxblood leather boots. Once on horseback, he told a slightly different story, however. Arion was a gentleman’s horse, which would make Jack more susceptible to the interest of unsavory characters who roamed the roads. But that couldn’t be helped.
After a port in the taproom, Jack retired to his small bedroom and undressed. He folded his clothes and put them on the chair, washed in tepid water, cleaned his teeth, and toweled himself dry. He slipped between clean cold sheets in the narrow bed. The mattress was too short, his feet hung over the edge. He’d prefer to have slept out in a field and would have but for the wet weather.
He lay with his arm under his head thinking about the life he’d left behind. The relatives of his father’s widow were probably eyeing the silver. He hoped Grant would give those hangers-on their marching orders.
Close to midnight he began to think about sleep. Downstairs, the tap room quieted. Noise from the patrons departing floated through his window. He turned on his side, bashed his pillow, and closed his eyes.
At the clunk of his door being unlatched, Jack rolled over. He was on his feet in a minute and snatched up his pistol, the chilly air a shock on his bare skin.
The door edged open, and a hand appeared holding a fluttering candle. A girl’s pale face framed by long curly dark hair followed, then her buxom figure dressed in a white nightgown. “Were you asleep, sir?”
The girl who’d served his meal stepped farther into the room. She put a hand to her mouth with a gasp as her gaze roamed from his head to his feet.
“As you can see I am not.” Jack tossed his pistol down and grabbed the small towel and pulled it around his waist. It was woefully inadequate.
“I’m Callie. I wondered if you might need company.” She put the candlestick down on the table, then came forward and placed a hand on his bare chest, smiling up at him. “You’re a very big gentleman.”
Jack removed her hand from where it had begun to wander. He clasped it in his, breathing in the scent of warm woman. “And one with very little money.”
She pouted. “That what you think of me? I’m not after money. I’m a bit homesick, is all.”
“Are you?” Jack’s gaze dropped from her comely face to her breasts pressed against the thin material of her nightgown. “Well then…”
Below in the courtyard, a coach clattered noisily through the archway, raising the dogs. Loud voices erupted in the still night air. A woman cried out.
“What the devil is going on?” Jack opened the window wide and leaned out. Four people alighted from the sumptuous coach. Two women stood by the coach as a man who appeared to be sick or hurt, was hefted out by the coachman and half carried toward the inn.
Jack snatched up his clothes from the chair, donned his breeches and sat to pull on his boots. “I suggest you return to your room, Miss Callie. The proprietress might have need of you. Wouldn’t do to be seen here.”
Callie backed away to the door with a huff of disappointment.
“But thanks for the offer,” Jack added with a wry grin.
She grinned back. “Are you staying long?”
“I leave in the morning.”
“A pity.” She hurried out.
Throughout the inn, doors began to open, and guests crowded into the corridor from their rooms. Jack buttoned his coat and strode out, descending the stairs, as sobbing arose from the parlor.
Erina rode into the stable block. The straggly group of houseguests she’d escorted through the wood had wandered off to view the lake. She threw the reins to their groom, Joseph, and jumped down.
The house party had begun on Thursday. It was now Sunday, and as the weather remained pleasant, few seemed intent on departing. Harold Feather had told her he planned to accompany Miss Beckwood to view the rose garden, which was still a fair way from bursting into bloom. He was doing his best to ignite some passion in her, Erina supposed. She wasn’t confident he’d succeeded. At the ball last evening, he had danced several times with Florence, who’d barely smiled, and once with Erina. It earned her a sharp rebuke from her father as she went up to bed in the early hours.
“I have no control over Mr. Feather, Papa, should he prefer Miss Beckwood’s company to mine.”
“Who invited the Beckwoods? They were not on the guest list. Mr. and Mrs. Beckwood are of damnably inferior stock.” He stared accusingly at her. “Did you have some hand in it?”
“Harold expressed the wish for her to be invited.”
“Did he now? If I’d known, I would have told you not to invite them.” He raised his eyebrows. “You are not trying hard enough, my girl.”
“Love is not something one can conjure up. Or desire for that matter.”
“That is nonsense. Desire does not come into it. I expected you to be smarter than this, Erina. You have always had a good head on your shoulders.”
Erina suspected he wanted to see her secure because the day was coming when he may not be able to provide for her. She put a hand on his arm. “Perhaps I don’t wish a secure and passionless life.”
“You’re young. You understand nothing about life.”
She raised her chin. “I believe I know my own heart.”
“Sir Ambrose is awaiting me in the library. I’ll see how the land lies. If you must be forever on horseback have the good sense to take Feather with you.”
“He’s not over fond of riding. Said he was seldom off a horse’s back when in the army.”
“Then show him the maze.”
She had a terrible urge to giggle. Did her father wish her to seduce Harold in the maze? It was overgrown and very damp. She wrestled control of her emotions which threatened to overtake her. “If it’s fine, we’ll hike up to Hangman’s Hill. There’s a marvelous view of Epping Forest from there.”
“Good. Go to bed, get some beauty sleep.”
The next morning Erina rose earlier than she cared for. Whilst most ladies were still abed, she waited for Harold at the bottom of the stairs confident he would be down for breakfast, having confessed to be an early riser. As soon as he put a foot on the hall tiles, she herded him into the deserted library.
“Goodness, but you are lively, Lady Erina.” He straightened his coat. “Can’t a man get some sustenance into him before he has to face you?”
“How are you progressing with Florence?”
He shrugged. “Not as well as I’d hoped.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Is it your manner?”
Affronted, he swung around to face her. “Are you casting doubt over my ability to charm a lady?”
“I can’t imagine where you’re going wrong.” She walked across the richly patterned carpet to him. “You are a perfectly presentable gentleman of means.”
Harold puffed out a breath and tucked his thumbs in his waistcoat. “Well, thank you for that at least!”
“Are you aware that my father and yours put their heads together in this room last night, after everyone had gone to bed?”
“No.” His brown eyes widened, and he rubbed a thoughtful hand over his jaw. “I wonder what they came up with.”
“Take it from me it was nothing good,” Erina said, pulling her mouth down at the corners. “I am to invite you on a walk after breakfast, up to Hangman’s Hill.”
“A hike? How delightful. I hate to think where the hill got its name,” he observed. “But it seems apt.”
Despite her apprehension Erina had to smile at his disconsolate expression. “You’ll feel more like exercise after a hearty breakfast. And you can tell me all about Florence whilst we walk. Perhaps I can help. A bit of jealousy might move things along.”
“Good Lord, no.” Harold shuddered. “I’d rather hunt lions than come between two women.”
Erina headed for the door. “There would only be one who was serious, sir.”
“Right now, I fear there are none.” Harold walked beside her to the breakfast room. “Does terrible things to a man’s ego.”
After breakfast Harold and Erina entered the path which lead to the gate opening onto the meadow. He strode beside her making little comment.
She breathed in the scent of sun-warmed earth, the tall grasses tickling her ankles. “We don’t have to go all the way up there if you’d rather not, Mr. Feather.”
“Call me Harry, seeing as we’re almost related. I’m afraid we do. I suspect your father or mine, or both of ’em are up in that tower with a telescope trained on us.”
Erina laughed. “You may well be right.”
“I don’t mind a good trek.” Harry strode along toward the hill in the distance. “But you walk very fast, Lady Erina.”
“It’s the way I’m made, I’m afraid.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” Harry said. “A good friend of mine, Jack Ryder is exceptionally tall and far more athletic than me. Rides like the very demon. We still rub along well enough together.”
“Captain Ryder? I have met him.” Erina pictured the large man who’d given her a crick in her neck on the dance floor. He had a wonderful low chuckle and the bluest eyes. “I remember that he had all the ladies in a flutter.”
“Handsome chap. He’s a good fellow. A brave soldier. But restless.”
“I heard his father, the duke died.”
“Yes. Hit Jack hard. He’s gone off on his horse. I’ll miss him.”
“Where is his direction?”
“Northern England, but he’s heading for Ireland first.”
Erina frowned. Why couldn’t she go to Ireland and help Cathleen? She led the way up the narrow winding track through the magnificent aged oaks of Epping Forest. Above them, Hangman’s Hill waited. A steep hour-long trek. She glanced at Harry, but he seemed to be keeping up well. He might be slim and declare himself lazy, but he was quite fit, not even puffing. “Now, about Miss Florence,” she began.
“No point.” Harry stopped and turned to view the landscape they’d left behind. The complex roofline of the family mansion rose above the trees with its turrets and chimneys reaching for the sky.
She frowned at him. “Surely you haven’t given up?”
“I’m afraid I have,” Harry said. He didn’t look too broken-hearted. “Miss Florence drew me aside after breakfast and confided in me.”
“She is in love with the village vicar. Her father opposes the match, but she’s determined to change his mind.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Erina’s heart sank. She liked Harry, she really did. But not to marry. And it was clear he felt the same.
“Yes, she has a yen to be a pastor’s wife.” Harry shrugged. “Come on, Lady Erina. Step up, or we won’t be back for luncheon. Is that a kestrel I see soaring above us?”
Erina cast a glance at his set profile, and wondered how much Florence had upset him, before watching the magnificent bird swoop down to its prey.