Late July, 1809
“I hate to abandon you in this horrid hot town, Bell,” Abigail Wyckerly, Countess of Danecroft, protested. In her traveling gown and bonnet, she descended Belden House stairs, trailing her gloved hand over the banister. “The Season is over and you’ll be all alone in this old house. I wish you would come with us.”
Isabell Hoyt, dowager Marchioness of Belden, in hastily donned morning gown, declined the use of the rail, following her friend with naturally graceful poise. Both in their late twenties, the countess’s more matronly, but properly draped figure played counterpoint to Bell’s slender one in dishabille.
Despite Bell’s worldly ennui, Abby’s wisdom found its target.
Not acknowledging a pang of loneliness at the reminder of the empty months ahead, Bell languidly waved away her friend’s suggestion. “Dearest Abby, I am not the sort to pamper your charming menagerie of children and pets. The country has been bred right out of me, I fear. I will be fine. There will be enough of us left in Town to sit about roasting those who abandon us.”
Bell’s words rang hollow, even in her own ears. Once upon a time, her life had been built on children and pets. She’d outgrown that infantile phase, she assured herself.
“Gossiping with a bunch of old biddies,” Abby declared with scorn, much too perceptively. “You are in dire danger of becoming one of them. You are too young to bury yourself in trite nattering.”
“Boredom trumps the constant hullabaloo I once lived with,” Bell countered with a trace of aspersion.
Undeterred, Abigail beamed at her former mentor. “You are too clever to live so idly. You need another project. I will think on it. But in the meantime, I must confess that I’m eager to return to my menagerie. Should you change your mind, we’ll put you up in our highest tower, and you may descend only when the children are out of the way. The stable is yours, and you know it.”
Bell’s investment had helped Fitzhugh Wyckerly, the earl of Danecroft—Abby’s husband—to build his stable so his impoverished estate could start producing an income.
Bell considered money to be something one invested in happiness. Just seeing how happy Abby and Fitz were together had paid off better than she’d dared hope.
But the mention of horses reminded her of why she would never return to the country, where animals were a way of life. “Perhaps if there is a pleasant day, I might take the carriage out. We’ll see,” Bell lied politely.
A sharp rap at the townhouse door sounded from the foyer below, bringing them to a halt on the upper stairs.
“Were you expecting company at this early hour?” Abby asked in surprise. “Or have I lingered longer than I thought with my farewells?”
As if in answer, the tall clock at the base of the stairs chimed ten in the morning. Bell was most generally not out of bed at this hour.
“I thought you were the last to leave town,” Bell said, leaning over the rail to be certain a servant had heard. “A puzzle! Let us spy and see who it might be.”
A sturdy footman wearing a stiff mien of disapproval hurried down the hall below to unlatch the massive entrance doors. Stepping out of sight, Bell gestured for Abby to join her in the shadows of the landing.
“Perhaps a new protégée?” Abby asked teasingly. “It’s time for one.”
“Nonsense, you saw all the pleas Belden ignored, as he ignored yours.” Bell was still incensed over that cache of unanswered letters in her late husband’s files. “I believe I have succeeded in finding and aiding all the impoverished relations he abandoned. There are no more who need introductions to society.”
Bell diverted her interest to the opening door below.
A disheveled boy of roughly six years rushed in, then skidded to a halt and gazed in shock at silk-covered walls, gilded mirrors, and polished Chippendale. Behind him followed a young woman wearing a black, baggy gown ten seasons old, and a hooded bonnet so large, her face couldn’t be discerned. She carried a wriggling infant of indeterminate sex and stopped woodenly just inside the door.
Bell had to grab Abby’s arm and hold her back. The big-hearted countess loved babies and would have run straight down to welcome the strangers with open arms and coos and cuddles. Bell, on the other hand, had learned to fear surprises. This was why she hired large, reliable footmen. A woman living alone needed security.
A more slender female with the yearling gait of an adolescent bounced in. She, too, was garbed in sackcloth and virtually invisible. Bell had just started to wonder if they came from one of those exotic countries that hid their women behind walls when two black crows followed them in.
The man wore the most hideous flat black hat that had ever afflicted Bell’s gaze. He was dressed entirely in ebony except for his neckcloth. The woman with him was large and buried in enough dark broadcloth to dress an entire orphanage.
“This is the home of the marquess of Belden?” the man intoned in a broad American accent.
The home of Lachlann Hoyt, the current marquess, was in Scotland. Belden House was the home of Edward, the late marquess, but the footman had been trained not to divulge the slightest bit of information to strangers. He stiffly held out a silver salver to deposit a card on.
The stranger laid a rectangular packet on the tray. “Then our charges have been safely delivered.” He turned to the youngsters. “Godspeed, children.”
He was about to turn and usher out his companion when the boy broke into wails. Bell could no longer hold Abby back. The countess flew down the stairs to hug the child and rebuke his elders.
With amusement, Bell listened to the petite countess scold like the farmer’s daughter she’d once been and the mother she was now.
“It is utterly rude to simply abandon children like errant parcels! Let the servants fetch the marchioness. Go sit in the parlor. Young man, stop the crying. If something is wrong, you must use words, not wails.”
Laughing silently as the tall Americans were herded by a nagging banty hen into the visitor’s parlor, Bell waited for the footman to run up the stairs to deliver the packet. He startled a bit at finding her hiding on the landing, but he made a dignified recovery, bowed, and held out the tray.
“Have cook send up tea and biscuits,” she said, gesturing carelessly and trying not to reveal her eagerness to discover if this missive contained a new challenge.
Abby had been right. Bell always dreaded the loneliness of Town after everyone had fled to the cooler countryside. During the busy months, Bell didn’t have time to miss the fields of her childhood. In summer, however . . . She plotted. Only this summer, she had run out of ideas, and weeks of boredom stretched ahead.
Bell’s dislike of boredom had been the reason she had spent her first summer as a widow searching through her late husband’s files in hopes of discovering the whereabouts of her family, a fruitless search, as it turned out.
Instead of finding her father’s whereabouts, Bell had learned to her disgust that the husband she had once admired as all that was superior in men— had entirely abandoned his many impoverished female relations.
That had given her a new mission to mask her loneliness and disappointment at not finding her sisters. Giving her husband’s money back to his deserving family members had kept her entertained these last years and been well rewarded by friendship with the late marquess’s many and scattered relations, like Abby.
Bell hid her anticipation until the servant had run back down the stairs. Biting her bottom lip, she opened the oilcloth packet, and frowned at finding only a single sheet of vellum inside.
As executor of the estate of Glendon Boyle, recently of Boston in the state of Massachusetts, I have been requested to deliver the deceased’s worldly possessions to the Marquess of Belden. Guardianship of his unmarried descendants under twenty-five is hereby bequeathed to the marquess in deference to all that gentleman has done for the family.
Bell’s vision blurred, and light-headed, she grabbed the stair rail. It could not be so. The estate of Glendon Boyle . . .
She struggled to comprehend the rest of the verbiage, but she could not read past that first sentence.
Daddy was dead?