There was no getting away from it – someone wanted him dead. The trigger had surely been the notice of his recently acquired title in the Gazette. Richard Lacey’s mouth twisted. Who begrudged him the title of viscount enough to try and kill him?
Richard eyed the decaying façade of Easterby Hall as he brought his curricle to a halt before the front door. Well, he was here now. With luck, he would find the answer. His gaze raked over pointed gables and large chimney stacks. No doubt at one time it had been an inviting house. Today there was a definite air of neglect. The disappearing sun glinted off stone-mullioned windows, and a lone curl of smoke ascended from one of the chimneys. Richard sighed. A closer inspection would be required before he could come to any firm decision about whether to keep the property, but at least it seemed habitable.
The impatient snorting and pawing of the horses drew Richard’s attention back to his immediate problems. He handed the reins to his groom and climbed down, giving a reassuring pat to the nearside horse’s flank.
‘Steady, boys. Soon have you rubbed down and watered.’
‘Shall I take them round to the stables, sir?’ asked his groom.
‘Yes, see what you can find.’
The front door at the top of the steps remained closed. Fool. Obviously, he wasn’t expected. What was he thinking? If the interior was in too poor a state, he’d return to the inn at Minster Lovell. Not something he wanted to do. Like his horses, he’d had enough of travelling for the day.
Flexing his shoulders to ease aching muscles, Richard’s hopes for a hot bath, a decent meal, and a warm bed began to fade as he eyed the closed door.
He smiled to himself and shook his head. Must be getting set in my ways if all I’m anticipating is a bath and an early night. His boots thudded on the steps as he marched to the door and gave the bell pull a vicious tug. Chimes resonated through the house. What seemed like minutes later, footsteps could be heard clattering over a tiled floor. A key grated in the lock. Through the now partly opened door, a grey-haired gentleman of advanced years peered out, the expression on his face far from welcoming.
‘Yes, yes, may I help you? I’m afraid the family are not at home to visitors at present.’
The old man’s querulous tone indicated that he’d been disturbed from a far more pleasant activity than opening the front door to passing strangers. Controlling his temper – this was now his property, after all – Richard replied with his own question.
‘And you are…?’
The old chap pulled himself up to his full height and announced, ‘I am Wrighton, butler to the late Lord Easterby. Who might you be, sir?’
‘Richard Lacey, Viscount Easterby. Your new employer.’
Richard enjoyed the momentary look of shock on the butler’s face before the old retainer remembered his duty and opened the door to its full extent.
With a shaky bow, the butler greeted him. ‘Welcome, my lord. I humbly apologise. We had no notice of your arrival.’
Wrighton gestured to a door to the left of the entrance hall. ‘If you would care to come into the library for now, my lord, I’ll arrange for some refreshments.’ The old man cleared his throat, clearly still nervous. ‘However, I’m afraid Mrs Henning hasn’t got a fully stocked pantry at the moment, what with there only being a few of us kept on here.’
Richard, tired and hungry and guessing the reason for the butler’s anxiety, decided to cut to the essentials.
‘Never mind, I don’t require anything fancy. Something nourishing will suffice. My groom has taken the curricle round to the stables. Will he be able to find everything he needs there, or will it be necessary to return to Minster Lovell for stabling?’
To Richard’s surprise, the butler now looked affronted.
‘No need for that, sir. Joe Henning will see to everything. He’ll be right glad to have some quality cattle to tend to again. Joe’s been head groom here for many a year. He’ll show your man where all the tackle and fodder are kept and where he can bed down for the night.’
Richard made his way towards the door that the butler had indicated, taking in with approval the gleaming linenfold panelling lining the walls and the glossy polished finish on the wooden furniture. The smell of beeswax hung in the air. It was clear that someone loved this old place.
‘I’ll have a bedroom made ready and hot water sent up as soon as possible, my lord. Barker, the family’s solicitor, notified us that your claim to the title had been approved, but I’m afraid he omitted to let us know when you would arrive, so you find us sadly unprepared.’
‘Well, never mind, Wrighton. I’m here now. There’s a valise in my curricle with my night things. My valet and my man of business will also be coming within the next day or so. I intend to go over the account books and see how matters stand since Lord Easterby’s demise. I daresay there are some things that need putting to rights.’
Wrighton’s head bobbed up and down.
‘Oh indeed. Yes, my lord. Things have been sadly neglected, especially outside, as you will see.’ The old man wrung his hands. ‘No disrespect to our bailiff, but the courts wouldn’t allow him the funds to make necessary improvements. The house staff and tenants are relieved that matters are now sorted.’
Richard sent the old chap a reassuring smile.
‘I’ve no intention of permitting any more neglect to the estate or its people. I’ll be assessing what needs to be done, and all will be treated fairly in return for loyalty and hard work.’
Richard stepped into the library, which turned out to be a room of pleasing proportions, he noted gratefully, as he surveyed the bookcases. He always enjoyed spending time in a room filled with books. Holland covers shrouded the chairs, and a large fireplace – laid for a fire as yet unlit – dominated one side of the room. Despite the chill in the air, the room exuded a sense of peace and comfort.
Richard turned to Wrighton, who’d remained at the door.
‘What staff are there here at present?’
‘Not many, my lord. Apart from myself and Mrs Wrighton, who is the housekeeper, there’s Mrs Henning the cook, one scullery maid, and a maid of all work. A couple of the village girls come in once a month to help clean and air all the rooms.’ He sent Richard a meaningful look. ‘Mrs Wrighton can’t abide the house being empty and unloved. She’s worked here since she was a girl and loves the place.’
Richard smiled. So that explained the cared-for feel.
‘Mrs Henning has worked here nearly as long,’ Wrighton continued. ‘Joe, her son, is head groom, though we only have a few horses left. And there’s Mr Finch the gardener…’ Wrighton frowned.
‘Go on,’ prompted Richard.
Wrighton swallowed. ‘Well… He’s getting on in years, but he manages to keep the formal gardens tidy. The park is too much for him on his own, sir. You see, the rest of the staff were let go after the old viscount’s death and the dowager moved to London.’ He shook his head. ‘A sad business.’
Yes, a sad business, indeed. There’d been quite a to-do over the situation. Richard had discovered that the family to which he was linked had been extraordinarily unlucky. First, the son and heir, the Honourable Frederick Smythe – unmarried and a lifelong wastrel by all accounts – had died in a hunting accident five years previously. He’d been found with his neck broken after being thrown by his horse.
Around the same time, the younger son – an avid antiquarian – together with his wife and children had disappeared without trace somewhere in the Ottoman Empire. The aged viscount, rocked by these disasters, had died within a year of his eldest son’s demise.
The courts, however, in their wisdom, had in fact only recently ruled that the younger son and his heir were certainly dead, notwithstanding that the normal period of seven years for such a declaration had not yet expired. The title was on the point of extinction and the estate was to be broken up and sold when, through the diligence of his solicitor, Richard’s claim to it had been established. Something that had been as much a surprise to Richard as to everyone else.
Richard watched approvingly as Wrighton swept the covers off the furniture, located a spill on the mantelpiece, and set light to the fire with a small tinderbox he took from his pocket. Soon, plumes of smoke issued from the kindling at the base of the piled firewood in the grate.
‘Tell Mrs Wrighton to hire any extra hands she needs for the house. I don’t envisage doing much entertaining, but I’m sure she could do with more help, in any case. I can see she has made a valiant effort and I commend her for it.’ Richard cocked his head. ‘Now, about that food?’ His stomach was beginning to think his throat had been cut.
Wrighton’s wrinkled face broke into a broad smile.
‘Yes, my lord, right away. And thank you, my lord. Mrs Wrighton will be delighted to carry out your instructions.’
Settled at last in a large leather armchair in front of the fireplace with his booted feet on a footstool, Richard felt the tension of the previous few days finally depart. Strange days and deeply disturbing, if the truth be known. The number of unfortunate occurrences had stretched even his normally sanguine nerves.
First had been the attack by two footpads in St James’s two evenings previously. Not an unusual occurrence in itself – unscrupulous sorts were known to lie in wait for tipsy gentlemen leaving their clubs. He’d been celebrating the unexpected acquisition of his title, published only that morning, with George, his brother-in-law. Neither of them were great drinkers, and they’d luckily only been a little bosky when they’d departed White’s. What was unusual was the fact that the two scoundrels concentrated their efforts on Richard and ignored George. There’d been no attempt to snatch his watch or fob either, just a persistent pummelling of his body. Somehow, he’d known that if they got him on the ground, they’d ensure he never got up. It was solely down to George’s prompt action in firing his pistol, which found its target in the leg of one of the assailants, that the two villains abandoned their attack. But for George’s intervention, Richard knew that he’d probably not be breathing the air today.
Then the girth of Richard’s saddle had unaccountably snapped during the course of his morning ride in Hyde Park the day before. Sharp inquiries made of his distressed head groom had elicited no satisfactory explanation for the incident. One of the stable lads claimed to have sighted a stranger loitering near the tack room in the early hours, a chap who’d run off when challenged. As nothing appeared to have been taken, no more was thought of it until Richard had returned from his ride in an uncharacteristic bad temper, leading his mount and sporting several bruises.
Finally, that very morning, Richard had almost been driven into a ditch by a passing rider who’d cracked his whip over Richard’s greys just as he was approaching a sharp bend. Top sawyer that he was, it had still taken some minutes to regain control of the highly strung pair, by which time the other rider was well out of sight.
Now that he was safely at Easterby Hall, surely there would be no further mishaps… at least for now? He’d taken a risk coming on his own, not wanting to admit that he truly might be in danger and telling himself that coincidences happened. But after a day’s reflection, he wasn’t quite so sure.
An hour or so later, having roused himself sufficiently to wash in the chilly dressing room attached to his bedchamber, Richard was beginning to feel human again. His supper, served in the hastily prepared dining room, had been a hearty meal of mutton broth well supplied with vegetables. It was accompanied by freshly baked bread, a game pie, a rather nice cheese, and some quince jelly, all washed down with a tankard or two of the local ale. Feeling replete, Richard returned to the library and settled again in the armchair near the now-blazing fire, a decanter of brandy at his elbow. He’d every intention of making a start on the estate papers. However, the warmth of the fire, the flickering candlelight, and the comfort of the chair all conspired against him. Feeling decidedly sleepy, he was on the point of retiring for the night to his hopefully less frigid bedroom – it contained a temptingly soft and capacious bed, after all – when all hell broke loose.
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