I wonder what Mother wants, thought Viscount Chandler, looking at the note he had been handed. Unlike many of his friends, his mother was not the interfering sort. He knew well that she thought it past time he wed and set up his nursery but she never pushed eligible females his way. She had always shown him respect and allowed him to make his own decisions, offering advice only when asked. Perhaps that was why he did tend to ask her opinion on many things before making a decision. The note indicated she needed a favour which was so unlike his very capable, very independent mother. Though they shared the large London home during the season each went about their own schedules of activities. Although some activities were common to them both, most were not.
"Thank you, Peters," he told his valet as he turned to leave the room for the breakfast room where his mother awaited him.
"Good morning, Mother," he said as he entered the room.
"Good morning, Stephen," answered Lady Chandler.
He went to her and kissed her cheek before heading to the sideboard to fill a plate. She waited till he was seated before she began to speak.
"I suppose you are wondering about the note," she started.
"Very much," he replied.
"Have you plans this afternoon?" she asked.
"Nothing that can not be done later," he replied. "Why?"
"I would like you to accompany me on my visits," she said. "There's a young woman I want you to meet."
Stephen stopped with the fork halfway to his mouth and stared at her.
"Mother! You have decided to play matchmaker afterall?" he asked.
"Oh no!" she said. "Not at all. I guess I had better explain."
"Please do," he said.
"Last night I met the daughter of a dear old friend. Her parents died in an accident several years ago and she went to live with her mother's sister's family. I am sorry to say I never thought to contact her or see how she was. I regret that very much now."
"Why is that?"
"Things are not right."
"She was to make her comeout in a year's time when the accident killed her parents. Her mother wrote to me about how excited they both were. Of course the death of her parents should delay her comeout, but it did, in truth, prevent it completely."
"So she is just now making her comeout? How long was the delay?"
"It would have been six years ago had her parents not died. And that is not what she is here for really."
"What do you mean?"
"Her aunt and uncle have brought her along as her cousin, their daughter, is eighteen and making her comeout. She sat with the matrons last night. She has been cast in the role of the poor relation, acting as companion to her cousin and aunt and that should not be."
"That does not sound so out of the ordinary."
"That is sadly true. In this case though, I knew her parents. They would not have left her unprovided for. Although a cousin inherited the title and most of the estate as it was entailed, there was much that was not. She was an heiress."
"There were no gambling debts? Mortgages? Such things have wiped out many inheritances."
"I know and am certain there is nothing like that in this case."
"So, you wish me to make some discreet inquiries?" concluded Stephen.
"Yes," agreed his mother. "I think you should talk to her first."
"Did she tell you this tale of woe last night?" he asked.
"No," said his mother. "Not at all. She is actually quite a delightful young woman. She seems to believe she is a poor relation and is grateful to her aunt and uncle for giving her a home."
"There is more?" Stephen asked when his mother paused.
"She talked a lot of her young cousins," she started. "She obviously cares for them a great deal but I think her aunt and uncle are using her as an unpaid governess in addition to her companion role."
"I see," said Stephen. "So just who are these people?"
"The young lady is Lady Arabella. Her father was the Earl of Cumberly and her mother was my good friend, Lady Anna, before she became the Countess," said Lady Chandler to her son.
"Cumberly!" exclaimed Stephen.
"Yes," said his mother. "I know you are friends with the present Earl."
"We knew each other at school although he was two years younger than I," said Stephen. "He was only 19 when he inherited so unexpectedly. I know he was overwhelmed with the responsibility at first, but I know, too, that it was a prosperous estate with particularly fine stables."
"The late Earl took great pride in his horses."
"James was little older than Lady Arabella at the time of his inheritance, but even if her parents had not made arrangements for her, I am sure he would have," said Stephen. "I agree with you, Mother. Something is not right here. I will write James this morning."
"Thank you, Stephen," said Lady Chandler.
When Stephen finished his breakfast, he rose and went to his mother. He kissed her cheek saying, "I will see you at nuncheon, Mother."
Lady Chandler watched her son leave. She knew that she was blest to have such a fine son. As much as she wished he was married and that she had grandchildren, she could never bring herself to push him. She and Stephen's father had loved each other very much and she wanted her son to have a love match too. Although, she thought with a smile, if she were inclined to try to find her son a match, Lady Arabella would be just the type of young woman she would pick. If truth were told Lady Arabella was the only one who had ever made her have such thoughts. When they had talked the night before, Lady Chandler had been charmed by her wit and warmth. Arabella had been so excited about her first trip to London. She planned to take her younger cousins to see many of the sites London offered. Arabella spoke well of all her cousins but she beamed with almost motherly pride when speaking of the young twins. They would have been babies when she went to live with her aunt and uncle. The seven year old boys were named Richard and Robert. Time went so quickly, Arabella had said that it would seem the wink of an eye till young Marianne, now thirteen, made her comeout. She praised her cousin, Patricia, who was eighteen and making her comeout as pretty with a sweet disposition. Patricia had inherited the dainty blonde beauty that Arabella's mother and her sister, Patricia's mother, shared. Arabella lamented with a smile that she had her father's dark features.
Lady Chandler had noted that Arabella spoke fondly of her aunt but said nothing of her uncle until Lady Chandler asked specifically about him. Arabella had answered politely that her uncle was doing well but Lady Chandler felt the change in Arabella. It was akin to a candle being snuffed out. Had Anna, Arabella's mother, not mentioned her brother-in-law in her letters? wondered Lady Chandler. Yes! She was sure of it. Lady Chandler got up and left the breakfast room to search for her old letters.
Stephen sat in his study immersed in thought. He had actually met Lady Arabella before. He recalled accompanying his parents on a couple of summer visits to Cumberly Park. The last visit he had been eleven. James was there that time too. During the fortnight of the visit, Arabella had tagged along after the two boys and they had tolerated her presence. Stephen tried to picture her. About all he could recall were large, expressive brown eyes and long, dark braids. She had actually kept up pretty well with James and himself and never complained at their pace as they rambled around the estate. She had had spirit, he thought. He must have seen her at her parents' funeral but he didn't recall her from that occasion at all. He had been concerned for his mother, who was so upset at losing such a good friend, and his friend James, who felt overwhelmed with his new responsiblilites. She would have been seventeen then. Now at four-and-twenty, she was considered almost too old for marriage, whereas he was considered a young man though four years her senior.
Before starting his letter to the current Earl of Cumberly, Stephen sent for his man of business. By the time he'd finished writing, Mr. Johnson had arrived. When Williams, the butler, showed Mr. Johnson into Stephen's study, Stephen gave him the letter telling him to send a messenger to Cumberly Park with the note and to wait for a response.
"Please be seated Mr. Johnson," said Stephen.
"Thank you, my lord," said Mr. Johnson as he sat. To all appearances, Mr. Johnson was a kindly, grandfatherly figure. Stephen knew from the years Mr. Johnson had worked for him and his father before him, that behind that face was a very shrewd mind.He also was very well informed.
"I need you to make some inquiries for me," said Stephen getting right to the point. "About Squire Sangster of Shropshire."
"Is it just general information you wish, my lord, or something specific?" asked Johnson.
"My mother is very concerned about his wife's niece who has been living with his family," said Stephen. "We are agreed that something doesn't seem right. Lady Arabella thinks of herself as a poor relation obligated to her aunt and uncle."
"I see," said Mr Johnson. "I have heard of Sangster but will see what else I can find out, my lord."
"What do you know of him?" asked Stephen.
"Not very much, my lord. His land provides only a modest income but he gambles for large stakes. It is a mystery how he keeps covering his losses."
"Very interesting," said Stephen."I look forward to your report. I know I need not tell you to be discreet in this."
After Mr. Johnson took his leave, Stephen sat at his desk thinking. Lady Arabella was an heiress who thought herself poor and her uncle spent beyond his income. The obvious conclusion was that Sangster was using Arabella's money. The question was how was he managing to do it?
In the carriage on the way to the house Squire Sangster had rented for the season, Stephen thought about the information his mother had given him over the midday meal. Lady Chandler had spent the morning going through correspondence she had saved from her friend, Lady Arabella's mother. Lady Anna had been wary of her younger sister's husband from the first time she met him. It wasn't anything that the Squire had done though, just a coldness in his eyes that seemed to belie the attentiveness he bestowed on his, then, betrothed. Lady Beatrice was so entranced with the handsome young man, that Lady Anna said nothing to her sister, hoping she was wrong. In one of her last letters, written a few months before the accident that claimed Lady Arabella's parents, Lady Anna had written of an incident. Squire Sangster had asked Cumberly for money. He had had some bad luck and he had long ago used up his wife's dowry. He pleaded to the Earl, for the sake of the children, to loan him some money. The Earl though had known of Sangster's fondness for gambling and refused the loan, offering instead to buy the children what they needed. Lady Beatrice had gone to Anna to plead with her to speak to the Earl about the loan. It was during that conversation that Anna had been struck by how much her sister had changed in twelve years of marriage. Beatrice had become pale and nervous and Anna was sure, when Beatrice's sleeve had slid down her arm when she had raised her hand to her face, she had seen a bruise although Beatrice had been quick to lower her arm. Reflecting on this, Lady Chandler wondered how it was that Arabella came to be in her aunt and uncle's care as she was sure the Earl would not have left the guardianship of his daughter to Squire Sangster. As the carriage came to a stop, Stephen mentally agreed with her on that point.
Arriving at their destination, Stephen escorted his mother into the drawing room. There were a number of visitors. Stephen couldn't help but notice several young men clustered around a pretty, petite, young blonde woman. That must be Lady Arabella's cousin, he thought to himself.
A taller young woman with dark hair and eyes and a large smile came up to them.
"Lady Chandler, how good to see you!" she said as she approached and he knew that this must be Lady Arabella.
His mother returned the smile. "I am happy to see you again as well, Lady Arabella. May I present my son, Viscount Chandler? "
"Pleased to meet you, my lord," said Lady Arabella.
"This is Lady Arabella," she then said to her son.
"The pleasure is mine," returned Stephen.
"Would you like some refreshments?" asked Arabella.
Lady Chandler took Arabella's arm and led her toward an empty sofa by a window, "Perhaps later. Right now I would prefer to talk with you."
The two women sat on the sofa. Stephen had followed them and stood at his mother's side.
"Miss Sangster has drawn an adoring court of admirers I see," said Lady Chandler.
"Yes," said Arabella. "I think Aunt and Uncle are quite pleased. But I am not surprised. Her beauty is only surpassed by her sweetness."
"You are very fond of your cousin," observed Stephen.
Arabella laughed lightly. "I am. The man that wins her will have a treasure." Arabella frowned as she recalled a bit of conversation she had overheard that morning.
"Is something wrong?" asked Lady Chandler.
"I am sorry for being distracted," apologized Arabella with a smile. "It is of no consequence."
Stephen was curious as to what thoughts had caused the change but felt instinctively her uncle had something to do with it.
They conversed on general topics and soon the twenty minutes considered proper for a call had passed. The viscount and his mother did pay their respects to Arabella's aunt and cousin before they took their leave. Just before leaving, the viscount asked Arabella to go for a carriage ride with him later that day but Arabella had to decline as she had promised to take the children on an outing to the park.
Stephen easily found Arabella and her cousins in the park nearby the house her uncle had rented. Her laughter carried to him on the breeze and he enjoyed it's richness, so different from the twitters of most young ladies.
"Good afternoon, Lady Arabella," said Stephen when he got close to her.
"What a nice surprise, my lord," said Arabella smiling. Her cousins had stopped talking to stare at the fine, tall gentleman speaking to Arabella.
"These must be your cousins," said Stephen.
"Oh, yes, they are," said Arabella. "The young lady is Miss Marianne Sangster and the two young scamps are her brothers, Richard and Robert. Children this is Viscount Chandler."
While the children made the proper responses, Arabella could not help but notice the look of awe on their faces. She looked at the Viscount. He was a very handsome man with his fair, sun-kissed hair, long-lashed vibrant green eyes, wide shoulders, narrow waist, long legs ... Oh my, she thought, quickly returning her gaze to his face, what am I doing? Arabella had never taken such notice of a gentleman before, and she found herself blushing. She was relieved to see he was smiling at her.
"May I joined you on your walk?" he asked.
The viscount spoke to all in their little group and soon the children were at ease with him. As they walked, Stephen spoke to Arabella who walked at his side. "I remember you at their age," he said looking ahead of them to the twins.
Arabella smiled up at him. "I wondered if you would remember me!" she said. "I remember following you and Cousin James all over the estate that summer. You were so kind and tolerant though you must have thought me a terrible pest."
"Not at all," said Stephen. "You were delightful. I recall a conversation with James where we decided you were alright ... for a girl."
Arabella laughed and Stephen joined her. The children who were several steps ahead of them stopped and turned to look at them.
Arabella noticed them. "The viscount and I were just recalling a summer visit he made to Cumberly Park when we were children," she explained.
Satisfied with the answer the three turned and resumed their walking. Arabella could not stop a small sigh at the thought of her childhood and Cumberly Park.
"You miss it," said the Viscount softly.
"Yes. I do," she responded.
"When did you last visit there?" he asked.
"I have not been back since I came to live with my aunt and uncle, my lord," said Arabella.
"It belongs to Cousin James. I suppose I should not call him that anymore."
"I think he would like you to still call him that."
"Do you know him? How silly of me. Of course you would."
"He and I became good friends when we were at school."
"Is he well? I have thought of him often."
"He is. Do you never exchange letters with him?"
"I wrote once, several months after I left Cumberly Park. My uncle gave me back the letter telling me that he would be much too busy as the new earl to have time for my letters and I was never to bother him again."
"I see," said Stephen feeling that he did see very clearly.
"I knew he had no responsibility toward me," explained Arabella. "I only wondered how things were at the Park. Do not think me unappreciative. I know I owe my aunt and uncle much for taking me in when I had no other home."
Although Stephen thought of many responses to that assertion, he voiced none of them. Instead he inquired, "Did no footman accompany you to the park, or at least, your maid?"
Arabella laughed. "No, my lord. We only have two footmen and they accompanied my aunt and Cousin Patricia on their shopping excursion."
"And your maid?" he prompted.
"The staff are all quite busy," Arabella explained.
"You do not have a personal maid, do you?" he asked.
Arabella smiled at him. "Why would I need a maid, my lord?"
When Stephen hesitated to answer, she continued, "I really have no need. Aunt and Cousin Patricia share a lady's maid while we are here."
Stephen held his tongue once again deciding he needed to know more before he spoke as he would like on that subject. Instead he asked if she would go riding with him in the morning.
"I would love to, my lord, but my uncle did not bring any riding horses to town," she replied.
"I have a mount I think would suit you," offered Stephen.
Arabella's face lit up at that. "In that case, I would very much like to, my lord."
Stephen walked the group home promising to meet Arabella before breakfast the next morning.
Later that night, alone in her room, Arabella carefully unpacked the riding habit she had brought to London on a whim. It was seven years old and most likely very out of style. She had never worn it nor expected to have a chance to wear it. It had been made for her shortly before her parents' accident. She could not wear it during the year of mourning for her parents. When she came out of mourning, she found her uncle had taken her old gowns and sold all, but the plainest or oldest, of them to pay for her keep. The habit had never been unpacked so had escaped that fate. In the years since, at times when she was lonely and missing her parents, she had taken it out and stroked the fine fabric remembering those wonderful times. She would wear it tomorrow to ride with Stephen. In her mind she could still call him that as she had when they were children. She knew the habit would need some adjustment as her body had filled out in some areas over the last seven years. She had become handy with a needle and felt sure she could manage the alterations.
Arabella waited nervously the next morning, constantly checking out the window. The alterations had kept her up late but she was pleased with the result. She saw Stephen ride up leading a second horse with a groom following behind at a discreet distance. Although she was quite sure it was not proper of her to go out to meet him, she did just that, fearing that her uncle might somehow take this opportunity from her.
"Good morning, my lord," she greeted.
"Good morning, Lady Arabella," replied Stephen as he dismounted. "You are looking lovely this morning."
"She's beautiful! What is her name?" said Arabella staring at the mare he brought for her to ride.
Stephen helped Arabella onto the horse before remounting. They went to a nearby park where they could let the horses have a good run. Arabella was swamped with fond memories of her years at Cumberly Park riding with her parents. It was heaven to ride such a fine horse and feel the wind in her face again.
When they had slowed the horses to a walk, Arabella spoke, "Thank you, my lord! That was wonderful."
Stephen thought Arabella looked wonderful with her slightly reddened cheeks and glowing smile. "I am glad you enjoyed it."
"It's been so long!" exclaimed Arabella.
Stephen laughed. "You have not been in the city all that long."
"That's true," agreed Arabella. "But I haven't ridden such a fine horse since I lived at Cumberly Park."
"Did you not have a horse to take with you from Cumberly?" asked Stephen. Seeing the joy drained from her face he wished he had left that question unasked.
"I did," Arabella conceded. "My uncle said it was too fine for a woman in my position and he claimed it for his own."
Silently, Stephen added that bit of information to the list of grievances he was compiling against the Squire.
Gesturing to Arabella's mount, Stephen said, "I think Lady Star enjoyed the exercise as much you did, Lady Arabella. I hope you will give her more exercise while you are here."
"I would love to, my lord," said Arabella, the smile returning to her face.
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