April 5, 1816
The faint scratch at the front door keyhole caught Lady Rosalyn’s attention as she passed through the center hall on the way to her front parlor. She paused, listening.
There it was again. . . as if someone where trying to unlock the door, which was not locked.
Rosalyn had just left Covey finishing her breakfast in the back Morning Room. Cook was in the kitchen and Bridget, the maid, was upstairs with gathering the laundry. The other member of their small household, Old John, Cook’s husband and the gardener, never used the front door, as did any of them, Rosalyn herself included. The front door was for company and she wasn’t expecting any.
She put her hand around the brass candlestick sitting on a table by the door.
Whoever was there realized the door was unlocked. The handle turned.
She lifted the candlestick over her head. The stub of the candle in the stick fell out, bouncing off her shoulder and onto the floor. She would usually chase it down–there wasn’t enough money to waste anything, including candle stubs in her household—but this time, she had other concerns.
The door started to open. A swirl of damp, chilly air swept around her skirts. She mustered her courage, held her breath, ready to swing–and stopped.
No disreputable rogue stood in her doorway, but a well dressed gentleman. He had to remove his hat and duck to come in her narrow door without bumping his head and his shoulders were so broad, he temporarily blocked out the light of the first good sunny spring day they’d had in April.
The gentleman looked startled to see her. The was a day’s growth of stubble on his jaw. Buff leather breeches hugged horseman’s thighs and his marine blue coat was cut to perfection. He was a Corinthian, a Fashionable.
What was he doing in her doorway?
His gaze followed up her arms to the candlestick she wield with wicked intent. He held up a hand, warding her off. “I’m sorry. I see I’ve startled you.”
Rosalyn had two instantaneous thoughts: the first, that she’d never met this gentleman before, and the second, in spite of a shadow of unshaven whiskers, he had to be the most undeniably handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. The mud splattering his boots, the tangled curls of his dark hair and the loose, devil-may-care knot in his neck cloth, told her she was right in thinking he was not from the Valley. He’d apparently been riding hard and for some distance.
Suddenly self-conscious of her own country made dress in a serviceable gray broadcloth, she demanded, “Who are you?”
“I’m the new owner of this house. I say, do you mind putting down that candlestick. You look ready to crack my skull with it.”
“The new owner–?” Rosalyn started to lower the candlestick and then raised it back up again as her common sense rejected his claim. He couldn’t be the owner—she was! “Leave now peacefully before I-I-” She hesitated, at a loss for words. Before she did what to such a giant?
Nor was he afraid. “Before you beat me around the ears until I’m bloody?” he suggested helpfully, his tone amused. “Or grab me by the scruff of the neck and toss me out?”
Rosalyn didn’t answer. She couldn’t. The rich, deep masculinity of his voice sparked something inside her she’d thought long dead or at least put in its proper place—a very definite interest in the opposite sex.
He took the candlestick from her hands and smiled. She was blinded into dizziness. No man should have a smile so devastating.
Then he brought her senses by asking, “So, are you one of the servants?”
Rosalyn didn’t know if she could believe her ears. Yes, she was wearing the dress she reserved for household tasks and one, like most of her wardrobe, was long out of fashion. And, yes, this morning, she’d done little more than toss her hair up in a quick knot at the nape of her neck held in place with a pin or two. Still his question was a douse of cold reality. His appeal evaporated.
“I beg your pardon,” she countered with every ounce of aristocratic hauteur bred into her. “Who are you?”
His brows rose as he realized his mistake. He set the candlestick on the side table before saying, “Colin Mandland, Colonel Colin Mandland.”
She knew the surname. Reverend Mandland was the vicar of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church. “Have we met before?”
“I don’t know. Are you going to tell me who you are?”
The abrupt response from someone who had just walked into her house set Rosalyn’s back up. “I am the woman who owns this house. Not you. Now, sir, I will ask you to take yourself and your rude manners elsewhere. If you don’t, I will take action.” She reached out to close the door, irritated enough to push even a big ox like himself out of the way if necessary, but he blocked the door’s closing with his arm, his next words stopping her cold.
“I brought this house from Lord Woodford. I even have a key.” He held it up for to see.
Rosalyn froze at the mention of her cousin George. She met Colonel Mandland’s gaze, praying he was jesting. He wasn’t. She took the key, wanting to touch it to prove it was real.
Alarm ripped through her. She dropped her hand from the door. “George wouldn’t . . .? At least, not without saying something–?”
Colonel Mandland’s expression turned sympathetic. He reached inside his coat and pulled out several folded documents. “Lord Woodford should have written you. I purchased the house a day and a half ago from him, but we’ve been talking for at least a week or more.” He held out the papers to prove his claim.
“You purcha–” Rosalyn shook her head, still unable to wrap her mind around his words. “From my cousin George?” She took the documents from the gentleman and stepped around him so she could take advantage of the morning light.
Outside, there was a vehicle Rosalyn recognized from her London days–a crane-necked phaeton, the dangerous sporting vehicle preferred by the Prince Regent and his set. The wheels were red with yellow spokes and the paint was fresh and new.
Rosalyn had never seen one in these parts because they weren’t sensible and plain dangerous vehicles for the local roads. The harness of the rig lay on the seat along with the driving whip. The horse that had been attached was happily munching his way through the spring-tender plants of her flower beds.
He wasn’t particularly handsome, or young, horse flesh. The animal would have been better suited to drawing a brewer’s dray than a fashionable rig. “Please,” she murmured, “the landscaping.”
Colonel Mandland stepped outside. “Oscar, go on out.”
Oscar looked up, leaves and the roots of a sweet pea sticking every which way out of his mouth. He had to be at least sixteen hands tall. A giant of a horse for a giant of a master.
“Go on!” the colonel commanded.
Oscar grumbled his disapproval, sounding like nothing more than a disgruntled old man. He then lumbered out onto her yard—which Rosalyn did not think a better solution. She would have preferred Colonel Mandland tied the beast up.
But Rosalyn had more pressing worries than her lawn at the moment. She quickly scanned the cramped writing on the documents. They were exactly what the colonel had said, a bill of sale deeding Maiden Hill, Clitheroe, Lancashire–her home for these last four years and more–over to one Colin Daniel Mandland for the sum of five thousand and eighty pounds. The documents were signed “Woodford,” the title her cousin had inherited from her father.
Five thousand and eighty pounds? Had George taken leave of his senses? Was that all this estate meant to him?
Rosalyn’s mind went numb. When she could finally focus, it was on the colonel’s horse bending down on his knees preparing to roll on top of her prized bed of forget-me-knots, phlox, and daisies that were just beginning to bud—
“Covey!” She wasn’t worried about flowers right now. Instead, she spun around, leaving the door open and raced toward the Morning Room.
Rosalyn had only taken a few steps when Mrs. Susan Covington, a good-natured widow some forty years older than herself, came out from her breakfast, tucking a stray gray curl neatly under her lace cap. Covey’s husband had been Rosalyn’s father’s tutor at nearby Stoneyhurst School decades ago. When Mr. Covington had married, her father had thought so much of his former tutor, he’d let the newly-weds live at Maiden Hill. The house was as much Covey’s home as it was Rosalyn’s, perhaps even more.
And Covey was very dear to Rosalyn. Since she’d moved to Maiden Hill, Covey had fulfilled the role of mother, tutor, confident. She had become the caring family Rosalyn didn’t have. “My dear, why are you bellowing?”
“George sold Amber Mews! Right out from under us!” She held out the documents, her hands shaking. “This is beyond all reason. The least he could have done was tell us. I mean, the man he sold the house to, Mr. . . Mr. . .” She was so troubled, her mind went blank.
“Colonel Mandland,” he reminded her discreetly from his post by the door. He stood a respectful distance but she sensed he was anxious to move into the house, to take it over.
“Colonel Mandland,” she ungracefully corrected herself and gave the man her back. His startling good looks had soured in her mind. And why not? He had come to throw her out of her home.
“Mandland? After Reverend Mandland?” Covey asked.
“He’s my brother,” the colonel offered helpfully.
“Ah, yes, I see a faint resemblance. And I remember you growing up,” Covey said. “Colin, right?”
“A hell-raiser, weren’t you, Colin?” she said with her customary frankness.
He didn’t deny it. “I was different than my brother.”
“Aye, but I remember you. Everyone said you would come to a bad end, but my Alfred said you had a fine mind. We were all pleased when Father Ruley took you in hand and purchased your colors.”
“The military has been very good to me,” he responded.
“Obviously. You’ve grown some,” the older woman agreed.
Rosalyn cut through the “pleasantries.” “Covey, please. We have a crisis here. I shall have George’s head on a platter for this. To think he didn’t say a word, not even a letter–”
“Letter?” Covey’s eyes widened. “A letter came. I paid the frank.” She covered her mouth with her hands. “Did I not tell you?”
“There was a letter from George?” Rosalyn demanded. “When, Covey? And where is it?” Her tone was sharper than she intended but lately Covey had started forgetting all sorts of things, usually small details or matters that Rosalyn and the servants could manage—but this! George never wrote unless he wanted something, something that usually boded ill for Rosalyn.
“I put a letter in the pocket of my apron,” Covey said, acting on the motions as she spoke.
“The one you wore yesterday?” Rosalyn asked.
“No, yes . . . I’m not certain. Shall I have Bridget check?”
She spoke to the air because Rosalyn was already on her way up the stairs, clutching the signed deed in her hand. Covey’s room was the third door on the left. This room, like all of them at Maiden Hill, was sparsely furnished with discarded pieces collected over the decades from the other estates the earl of Woodford owned. Maiden Hill was neither a large or important piece of property but she had assumed that George had some sense of family responsibility. More the fool her!
Rosalyn hurried to the ancient wardrobe and threw open the doors. Covey always wore aprons around home with deep pockets. She said this helped her not to forget where she put things like her spectacles or embroidery silks. Rosalyn wondered why she hadn’t been at home when the letter was delivered, and then remembered her meeting with Ladies’ Social Circle. They were planning charity baskets to give out to the needy of the parish and a Spring Dance.
“Covey was wearing her green . . .?” Rosalyn ran her hands over the assortment of aprons and didn’t discover a letter.
She turned, struggling with panic. Her gaze fell on the book on Covey’s bedside table and she saw the letter marking a place in the book.
Flying across the room, Rosalyn pulled the letter out from the well-read pages, and broke the hastily made wax seal. George’s handwriting was little more than an indecipherable scrawl. She stared at it until she could understand he’d spent the first portion of the letter on endless excuses, all of them having to do with gambling debts. Then, in the last paragraph, he wrote he was forced to sell Maiden Hill since it was the only estate unentailed. She was directed to travel to Cornwall to take up resident with their Great Aunt Agatha.
For a second, Rosalyn felt as if she’d turned into cold stone, the letter in one hand, Colonel Mandland’s deed in the other. This was the bleakest moment of her life. Worse even than her mother’s betrayal and her father’s death.
She had no home . . . and she could do nothing about it.
She looked at the letter’s date. George had written it last week. Certainly, he’d had time to travel to Clitheroe and personally explain the situation to her. As the daughter of the man whose death had given him the title, it would have been the honorable thing for George to do–and she would have had the opportunity to talk him out of this tragic error.
Rosalyn wadded George’s letter up in one fist. The man was a drunkard who didn’t deserve the noble title of Woodford. She wished she could throw the letter in the fire and the deed to the estate along with it!
How dare George lose family assets to the gambling table? At the very least, he should have fobbed off his debtors like any other gentleman of consequence. But no! George was probably in so deep he’d had the choice between selling Maiden Hill or flying to the Continent, the fate of those who couldn’t meet their obligations and didn’t want to be thrown into debtor’s prison.
Not for the first time did she wonder why she hadn’t been born a man. Then she would have had her father’s title and control of her own fate.
Of course, there had been a time in England when no one would have dared throwing a nobleman into prison for debt! Days when merchants were only too happy to extend credit to the titled. After all, title should have privilege and there were some things more important than money–!
Rosalyn caught herself up short in her mental tirade. Yes, those days of rank meaning privilege were over. She knew that all too well. The good merchants of Clitheroe extended her credit but she had to be careful with her pennies lest she overextend herself. Her pride did not want anyone to know just how far she, a daughter of the proud house of Woodford, had fallen.
And yet, she sensed they all knew.
Tears burned her eyes but she forced them back. The earl of Woodford’s daughter did not cry–no matter what life handed her.
Instead, she did what she always did in times of misfortune, she considered what she could do and attempted to make the best decision. George had blithely written orders telling her to move in with Aunt Agatha but had not provided the funds to do so. She thought of her precious horde of coins. There was not enough to pay for a seat on the post let alone hire a coach.
And she would write and tell George so. The opportunity for action gave Rosalyn courage. This was George’s problem and he must solve it. She would not go to Aunt Agatha’s docilely. She’d lived with the old tartar once before. A more petulant, difficult woman didn’t walk the face of the earth. Nor could Rosalyn leave Covey behind to live on parish charity and she feared what would happen if she took Covey with her. If Rosalyn had been a burden to Aunt Agatha, then Covey would be even more so.
Rosalyn looked down at the deed in her right hand. How she wished she had the funds to purchase Maiden Hill for her own. If she owned it, she would never let it go—
The random thought took shape in her mind, and Rosalyn knew what she had to do.
# # #
Colin had never felt so awkward in his life. He driven all night from London, spurred on by the pride of ownership. He remembered Maiden Hill from his childhood. He’d always admired the house, even during his early misspent youth. Now, it was his.
He had expected the house to be occupied. Woodford had told him the estate had been maintained and there were obligations outstanding to the servants, that Colin would have to settle. It didn’t matter. Colin wanted the estate.
However, this Rosalyn was anything but a servant and he sensed matters were going to be very sticky—especially if there were a good number of people in the Valley, like Mrs. Covington who remembered him from the days before Father Ruley had straightened him up. He should remembered Mr. and Mrs. Covington living here and have asked Woodford about their status.
“Lady Rosalyn is very upset,” Covey confided.
“I noticed,” he answered. So, she was Lady Rosalyn. This mess was getting worse by the minute. He cast an anxious eye on the staircase. Most of his hard earned fortune was tied up in that deed and he wanted it back the moment she came down the stairs. He also yearned to walk through the house, to inspect every nook and cranny. This was his house, a symbol of all he’d been working toward. He was a landowner.
“How is your husband?” he asked Mrs. Covington.
Her expression saddened. “Alfred passed away a month before my lady arrived at Maiden Hill. Her presence helped me with my loss. I hope I haven’t done anything terribly wrong by forgetting the letter?”
“It was bad news no matter when it was received,” he assured her.
She relaxed slightly, “Yes, you are right. Perhaps you would like to wait in the sitting room?” she suggested as if remembering her social duties.
“I’ll wait here,” Colin answered.
His brother would be surprised Colin owned Maiden Hill. He would be surprised Colin had returned from France. He was not the best correspondent although his brother, like all true clergyman had written faithfully at least once a month.
Shifting his weight, Colin noticed signs of age and wear in the tight hallway. The tile in one corner was cracked and loose. The walls needed painting and there was a water mark on the ceiling.
“Your brother is a fine man,” Covey said.
“He has a fine family, too.”
“My favorite is Emma. Such a sweet child . . . but then there is the new baby, too.”
“Another baby?” Colin shook his head. “How many do they have?” Of course, Matt had written about the children but only just this moment had they become real.
“Five, I believe. All handsome children.”
Five. Colin swallowed his opinion. At one time, Matt had been as ambitious as himself. Matt’s goal had been to ascend in the hierarchy of the Church, a vocation for which he’d been well suited. However, once he’d met Valerie, his aspirations had melted away and he had, apparently, settled for a country parish and a horde of children.
It was too bad, really. Matt could have been a bishop.
“Lady Rosalyn,” he said, “she is what to Woodford?”
“Oh, they are cousins. Lord Woodford doesn’t write very often. I should have known the letter was important. I know I meant to give it to her. It seems of late I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached.”
To that pronouncement, Colin had no opinion. However, Lady Rosalyn was a different story.
She was Quality. A true pearl of the first water, in spite of the fact she appeared to one of those who didn’t seem to care how she presented herself. Her dress was more suited to a chambermaid than a Lady and her hair style too tight and dowdy for her age. It was a dark brown without curl or wave and her nose was straight and aristocratic. He had no doubt all the Valley Matrons, as he and his mates used to refer to the wives of the gentry, basked in her reflected haughtiness.
As if his thoughts had conjured her, there was a rustle of movement from the top of the stairs. Colin looked up expectantly and watched Lady Rosalyn walk down the stairs. He noticed two things—one, she held his deed in her hand, and the second, she had trim ankles. He suspected she was all leg.
He liked long legs, but usually on younger and more attractive women. It wasn’t as if Lady Rosalyn was ugly—she was far from that—however, there was something spinsterish about her. She’d placed herself on the shelf, not the world, and far be it for him to argue. He was no reformer.
Still, he did notice that for such a rigid, conventional woman, she had surprisingly lush, full lips. They might or might not be kissable. He couldn’t tell because, at the moment, they were pressed together in anger.
As she reached the bottom stair, he saw that besides the deed, she also held a crumpled letter. The correspondence from Woodford. Colin could have cursed the man, not only for his unfeeling incompetence, but for placing the mess in Colin’s lap.
“Lady Rosalyn, I know this is difficult–” he started.
Her angry gaze swept past him and went straight out the door. “Your horse is in my perennial bed again,” she interrupted as if he’d not spoken at all.
Colin turned and sure enough Oscar was stomping all through the overturned earth, rooting with his nose for any shoots of green. Colin went out on the front step. “Oscar, get out of there!”
The huge chestnut twitched an ear in Colin’s direction and then had the audacity to pretend he hadn’t heard and kept rooting through the earth.
Colin turned to Lady Rosalyn. “Usually he is better mannered–” He stopped. This was no time to lie. “No, that’s not true. Oscar has the manners of a cow.
“He looks a bit like a cow,” she observed icily.
“He’s good-sized and fairly ugly,” Colin answered, struggling to keep his own anger in check. “But he carried me well into French cannons and I forgive him much.”
For the first time since coming downstairs, Lady Rosalyn looked at him. Her eyes were a grayish green. Hostile eyes without guile framed by feminine, long black lashes.
“I don’t care if Wellington himself rode your horse to drive Napoleon out of France,” she said. “I-want-him-out-of-my-flower-bed.”
Her imperiousness sliced through him. No one talked down to Colin. Not anymore.
“Do you mean my flower bed?” he countered. “I know you are unhappy, Lady Rosalyn, but with all due respect, the deed says it all belongs to me now and if Oscar wants to graze there, I give him leave to do so. We’ve traveled a long way together to arrive here.”
He anticipated a spate of temper. Or even feminine tears.
He didn’t foresee her slamming the door in his face.
The key in the inside lock turned. He was shut out.
Colin stood in disbelief. She’d locked him out–and she had the deed. She could sign it or cross things out and it would take him ages to re-gather the witnesses and correct.
“Lady Rosalyn, open this door.”
For the past decade, whenever Colin had given an order, it was instantly obeyed. His men knew better than to defy him.
Lady Rosalyn’s answer was obstinate silence.