Over the next few days, Arabella went riding with Stephen before breakfast and for a carriage ride most afternoons. Several times she and the children saw him while on their outings. Almost as if he had planned to meet her, thought Arabella before she realized how silly that idea was. She was enjoying her time with him so much she had started to daydream about the impossible While she didn't consider herself quite homely, she didn't think herself pretty either. She did come from a good family but she had no dowry. Besides, she thought, I am too old to be any man's bride let alone a handsome and charming man like the Viscount. Perhaps that was for the best she reflected recalling the conversation she had overheard between her aunt and uncle in the breakfast room a few days earlier. Her uncle was entertaining an offer for her cousin from a rich, older man; chuckling over the settlement he would get. It had made Arabella feel ill just hearing of this plan to sell her cousin. She was surprised to hear her aunt speak up. She knew the courage it took Aunt Beatrice to do that and she was surprisingly successful, getting Uncle to agree to let Patricia have her season. But then what? thought Arabella. Would Patricia be sold off to the highest bidder? Arabella shuddered at the thought.
To add to the magic of the last few days, she had not seen her uncle at all in that time. She knew he liked to gamble and that was likely what was keeping him away, but everyone was so much more relaxed and happy, it did not matter why he was gone.
Then, one morning Arabella's bubble of happiness burst. She had nearly reached the front door to go for her morning ride when her uncle came through the door. Being caught off guard, she wasn't able to hide from him.
"Where do you think you are going?" he bellowed at her. "Where did you get those clothes?"
He had come close enough to her that she could smell the alcohol on him. Trying hard to keep from shaking, she answered, "I am going riding, Uncle."
"On what?" he said.
"The horse is borrowed," she said hoping not to mention the Viscount.
"Viscount Chandler has kindly ..." she started but was stopped by a slap to her face.
"You are forgetting yourself, Lady Arabella," he slurred but still injected sarcasm into her title.
Arabella willed the tears that had come to her eyes to not run down her face.
"This is my house. You do not see anyone unless I say so," he said as he marched toward the study.
Arabella stood frozen. She would have defied her uncle had she not been sure someone else, most likely her aunt, would suffer as a result. She felt the sympathetic stare of the butler who had stood, as a silent witness, near the door through the entire scene. Arabella took a large, calming breath.
"Jennings, please have someone inform Viscount Chandler, when he arrives, that I will not be able to see him," said Arabella.
"Yes, my lady," answered the butler.
"Thank you," Arabella said softly as she turned toward the staircase. She knew the story of this morning's events would spread amongst the servants, but she wondered as she climbed the stairs, if she could keep it from her aunt and cousins. Uncle must have still been feeling the drink, she thought, to have slapped her face. He was usually careful not to leave marks where they could be seen.
As Stephen rode to see Arabella, leading the mare he now thought of as hers, he reflected on the time he had spent with Lady Arabella over the last few days. He had started to see her as a favour to his mother; to find the answers to the questions she had about Arabella. In truth, since the first day, he had not asked Arabella any questions that might have shed some light. He told himself he was waiting for a reply from James. But, in more honest moments, he acknowledged that her smile and laughter touched him in a way that was new to him and he hadn't wanted to risk losing that. Stephen liked women, very much, and counted several amongst his friends but none had ever made him feel as comfortable as Arabella did. She grew more important to him every day. Was this what falling in love was? he thought. Unlike many of his friends, he did believe in love and marriage. He had seen the proof that happiness and love could be found in marriage by observing his parents and knew he could never marry without love.
Approaching the house where Arabella was staying, Stephen was surprised to see Sam, a young footman he had to come to know from calling on Arabella, come out to greet him instead of Arabella.
"Good morning, Sam," Stephen greeted him.
"Good morning, my lord," replied Sam.
Stephen could not help but notice the shakiness of Sam's voice nor the sadness in his eyes. Stephen knew Sam well enough to know something was wrong.
"Is something amiss, Sam?" asked Stephen.
"Aye, my lord," said Sam. "I am to tell you that Lady Arabella can not go riding with you this morning."
"Why is that?" asked Stephen, getting concerned.
"That's all I was told to say, my lord," replied Sam nervously. He had been coming down the hall from the kitchen when he had heard the master's raised voice. He had heard the slap. Lady Arabella had not seen him as she went up the stairs but he saw the tears in her eyes and the hand imprint on her cheek.
"Sam, I think you know more. Was it Lady Arabella that gave you the message?" Stephen asked trying to be patient.
"No, my lord. It was Jennings," said Sam.
"But you know why. Am I right Sam?" asked Stephen.
"Yes, my lord," replied Sam.
"I admire your loyalty Sam. I know you like Lady Arabella. I have grown very fond of her too." This, Stephen noted, brought a brief smile to Sam's face. "Please tell me Sam."
Sam took a deep breath. "Her uncle came home this morning and saw Lady Arabella about to leave the house."
"And?" prompted Stephen.
"He told her she couldn't ..." Sam's voice trailed off.
"Sam? What did her uncle do?" Stephen asked determined to get the whole story.
"He," Sam took another deep breath and then let the words tumble out. "He screamed at her and slapped her face. Told her it was his house and he decided who she could see."
Steven willed himself to control the rage he felt at Sam's words. He would not add to Sam's obvious distress. He had to get Arabella out of that house as soon as he could. "Thank you for telling me, Sam."
"My lord?" asked Sam.
"Yes, Sam?" responded Stephen.
"I know it's not my place," started Sam, hesitating.
"It's ok, Sam. What would you like to know?"
"Will you help Lady Arabella? We ... the servants ... she's so kind to us all ..."
"I understand," said Stephen with a smile. "She is a very special woman. I will do all that I can."
"Thank you, my lord," said Sam.
Upon arriving home, Stephen sent for Mr. Johnson to see what that man had learnt so far. The messenger he sent to Cumberly Park should return at any time. He paced in his study going over this morning's events. Had her uncle hit her before? The thought infuriated him but he channeled that energy into his determination to get this resolved and get Arabella safely out of that house. If she was a ward of her uncle, that might be very difficult to do. If need be he would kidnap her, take her to Gretna Green and marry her. Now where did that idea come from? The thought of marrying Arabella was quite appealing but he would not want to subject her to the scandal that such a plan would cause.
Stephen's reflections were disturbed by a scratching at the door. Mr. Johnson must have arrived , he thought. "Enter."
Stephen's butler, Wilson, entered and announced, "The Earl of Cumberly" and stood aside.
"Thank you, Wilson," said Stephen.
"Would you like refreshments, my lord?" asked Wilson.
Stephen looked at James. "Not for me," said James.
"That will be all Wilson," Stephen said.
As soon as the door closed behind the butler, the two friends exchanged a brief embrace.
"Now, tell me Stephen, what is going on here?" asked James seating himself on a sofa by the fireplace.
"I am surprised to see you," said Stephen. "But very glad of it. Especially now."
"Something has happened?" said James. "Please bring me up to date. Nothing that you said in your letter makes any sense."
"As I told you, my queries started at a request from my mother," started Stephen. "I hope you have some answers, James."
"I have your letter with me as I studied it at night on my way here. I rode, by the way, to save time, and so have arrived alone."
"Please stay here untill your townhouse is ready for you."
"Thank you, Stephen, I shall. Now getting to the letter and your questions. I feel like I have been most negligent where Cousin Bella is concerned. I know that time has passed and that I've grown older but, somehow, I still saw her as a child."
"I understand," said Stephen. "I still pictured her as the young girl with pigtails that followed us around Cumberly Park until I met her again."
"Of course, I always knew she was only two years younger than I, but, even when Squire Sangster wrote asking for funds for a London season this year, I am afraid I didn't realize how old she was. She should have made her come out much sooner."
"Wait a minute James. Are you saying that you are funding the Sangsters' stay in London?"
"Only in that I agreed to the expenditure. It's actually Bella's money but until she marries or reaches the age of five and twenty, I have control of it."
"Yes. She has a sizable inheritance."
Stephen slowly shook his head. "She has no idea. She believes she owes a debt to her aunt and uncle for her care. This trip is for her cousin's come out, not hers."
"What nonsense is this?" asked James. "The Squire has received a generous allowance for her care."
"Which most likely is funding his gaming," said Stephen. "It has not been spent on Arabella. She has assumed the part of the family governess, taking care of her young cousins. Her wardrobe, from what I have seen, would befit such a position with the exception of a fine riding habit though it is, obviously, several years old."
"But I've been paying dressmaking bills for gowns!"
"For her aunt and cousin."
"I think I best pay a visit to Squire Sangster!" exclaimed James. "He has much to answer for!"
He rose and made for the door.
"Wait!" Stephen called to James, who was half out the study door. "My man of business has been making queries and should be here soon with a report. And there are a couple of other things to consider."
"Such as?" asked James.
"I have spent some time with Lady Arabella since I wrote you," started Stephen.
"Oh?" asked James.
"We've ridden in the mornings and some afternoons I have met up with her and her younger cousins on their outings," said Stephen.
"And what have you learned?" asked James.
Stephen smiled. "Lady Arabella is a most unique woman. Warm, charming, beautiful."
"Stephen, you sound as if you are developing a tendre for her," observed James.
"I do believe you are right," said Stephen.
James grinned at Stephen's admission.
"James, I do understand your desire to confront Sangster. Earlier today I wished to do much more than that. It's probably as well that I have had time to cool down."
"What happened this morning?"
"Her uncle discovered that she was meeting with me and forbade her to see me and ..."
"He struck her. A footman was only to tell me she couldn't join me for our morning ride but I pushed him to tell me more."
"The beast! I have to get her out of there," said James.
"Hear me out first, James," said Stephen. "I am not sure she would want to leave."
"She cares very much for her aunt and cousins. I think she would be afraid to leave them."
"I see. And what sort of plan do you have?"
"I only got the idea after you arrived but I think it might serve. There are still a few things to work out. I do believe the Squire was counting on you staying at Cumberly Park."
"There is no need to make him aware of what you know. It would be unexceptional for you to visit London to see how your cousin fares. Besides, any marriage offers would have to be made to you, so you could even say you realized it was your duty to come. She is still your ward, is she not?"
"Yes. After her parents funeral, Sangster suggested it would be more appropriate for Bella to go live with them than stay at Cumberly Park. He asked that I have her made his ward but the late Earl's lawyer strongly advised me against that; wisely as it turns out. But why not just confront the Squire?"
"We need time to figure out a way to help her aunt and cousins as well or Arabella could never be happy. With you in town, Sangster will have to change his tune. This will become Arabella's season."
There was a scratching at the door.
"This must be Mr. Johnson," Stephen told James. "Enter"
"Mr. Johnson," announced Wilson.
"Thank you Wilson," said Stephen.
When Wilson left, Stephen introduced Mr. Johnson to James. "Do you have anything further to report?"
"Yes, my lord," started Johnson. "Squire Sangster has been on a gambling spree the last several days. His losses were heavy. It is said he is looking for someone willing to buy his vowels and make him a large settlement to marry his daughter."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," said Stephen. He rang Wilson to see Mr. Johnson out.
"That does much to explain Arabella's freedom and happiness of the past several days," Stephen told James when they were again alone. "Her uncle was not at home."
"What kind of man would sell his daughter for his gambling debts?" asked James.
"The type that would steal from his niece to pay for his gaming," replied Stephen.
As James rode to visit the lodgings of Squire Sangster and his family, he mused about the argument he had had with Stephen. Stephen had wanted to accompany him but in the end agreed that there was no plausible excuse they could have given the Squire for his presence. Stephen's suggestion that James take Arabella for a carriage ride where he could happen upon them also would not work as James' carriage wouldn't arrive until the next day. Poor Steven, thought James. He is truly smitten. James had left his friend with a promise to report back in detail all that happened.
At the house Squire Sangster had rented, James handed the butler his card asked to see Lady Arabella.
"Lady Arabella is not receiving visitors, my lord," said the butler.
"But I insist," said James. "She is my cousin and ward."
The butler looked very confused. "I shall ask the master, my lord."
"Please do," responded James so the butler left.
The Squire was in the study in a foul mood, nursing a headache and wondering how he would pay his latest gambling losses. Although he could manage with the marriage settlement he had already been offered for his daughter he had not yet accepted; not as his wife thought, so that his daughter could have her season, but because he hoped to receive a higher offer. He had been hitting the Earl of Cumberly pretty hard lately for what he told the Earl were Lady Arabella's expenses but he felt that he could still get more and was writing a request when he heard the scratching at the door. "What is it?"
Jennings entered with the Earl's card upon a small tray that he passed to the Squire. Jennings noticed the colour drain from his master's face as he saw the card.
"Wh-at does he want?" asked the Squire.
"He wishes to see Lady Arabella. I told him the lady was not receiving visitors as you said to do, but he insists."
"Put him in the drawing room and offer him tea. I'll get my niece."
Squire Sangster rushed to find his wife. He found her in the kitchen conferring with Cook. "Come with me," he growled grabbing her arm.
"What is it?" she asked, terrified as she was rushed up the back stairs.
"The Earl of Cumberly has come to see Arabella," he said.
"How nice for Arabella," she said.
"You stupid woman!" he bellowed. "This will ruin everything! You must make her presentable quickly. Use our daughter's clothes."
"But Patricia is smaller than Arabella."
"Have her wear the best she has then."
When they reached the door to Arabella's room, he opened it without knocking. Arabella jumped from her bed where she had been lying.
"What happened to your face Arabella?" asked her aunt seeing the red mark. It looked like the one she had seen often enough in her own mirror but surely it couldn't be. When Arabella looked with fear at her uncle, her aunt knew the truth.
"She bumped into a door, didn't you Arabella?" said the Squire. "Be sure and tell the Earl of Cumberly that. Tell him that your gowns have not yet arrived from the dressmakers."
"What are you talking about, Uncle?" asked Arabella with a shaky voice.
"The Earl is downstairs waiting to see you. Do as I say!"
"Cousin James is here?"
The Squire looked at his wife. "Don't just stand there! Get her ready!"
With that, the Squire left the room. In his study he poured himself a drink. He knew his scheme of the last seven years was at an end. What would the Earl do? Would the Earl challenge him? The Squire had no wish to fight a duel. If this became known, would it ruin his chance to get a large marriage settlement for his daughter? He needed time to work this out. He left the study to watch Arabella descend the stairs. As she reached the bottom, he went to her.
"Your cousin thinks he has been paying for you to be presented. You make sure he continues to think so," he instructed her knowing that this would buy him little time. He saw Arabella raise her chin defiantly. "Before you do anything rash, think about the children."
That stopped her just as he knew it would.
James turned toward the door when he heard it open. A tall young woman with dark braids wrapped around her head like a coronet entered. Her dark eyes were very sad and he could not miss the red mark on her cheek. She turned and closed the door. She stayed facing the door.
"Cousin Bella?" he called softly.
She turned slowly and looked at him. "Cousin James."
He opened his arms and she ran into them."Bella. Bella.Can you forgive me?" he asked softly.
Arabella drew back and looked at him, "Whatever for, James?"
"For not coming to see you sooner, years ago."
"You've had much to do, James. I'm sure Cumberly Park has kept you very busy. You were so young to have so much responsibility on your shoulders."
"I had no idea what was happening. I believed what your uncle wrote me. I am so sorry." He raised his hand as if to touch her red cheek.
"I bumped into a door," said Arabella looking down at her feet.
James lifted her chin so that she had to at him. "Now tell that to my face."
"I ... " Arabella tried to look away.
"You are not a practiced liar, are you?" he said. "Let's sit and talk before your uncle decides to interrupt us."
Arabella sat on the settee and James pulled a chair close to sit on.
"James, I don't know what is going on. I was told to tell you my gowns haven't arrived yet."
"I see. When will they be?"
"I have no idea. I have not been to the dressmakers. He said you were paying for me to be presented. I don't understand."
"I think I do but there is too much to explain today. I'll take you out for a drive tomorrow and we'll talk more. But I must tell you that I have just come from the home of a very distressed friend."
"Yes. Viscount Chandler is very worried about you."
"I had a difficult time keeping him from accompanying me. He knows what happened to you this morning. One of the servants told him."
"Please let him know I am alright. I will miss our time together very much. Uncle will not let me see him again."
"Actually your uncle has no say in the matter. Arabella, if you wish to leave here now you can."
"No," said Arabella. James noticed the fear in her voice.
"Has he threatened you?" asked James.
"Not me," replied Arabella.
"We will let your uncle think he has won for now."
The words had barely left James' lips when the door opened and in came Arabella's uncle, aunt and cousin, Patricia.
"Good afternoon, my lord," said her uncle. "Have you had a nice reunion with your cousin, Arabella?" Although it was said nicely enough, Arabella did not miss the challenge in her uncle's eye.
"Yes, uncle," she said.
"Good, good," responded her uncle.
Arabella made the introductions. She could not help smiling a little at James reaction to her cousin Patricia. She had seen other men react in the same way to her pretty cousin but never before had she seen Patricia react as she did. This is very interesting, she thought. She could understand Patricia's reaction. James had matured into a fine young man. He was average height with a handsome face and dark hair. For herself, though, she preferred a certain fair-haired, taller gentleman.
Arabella realized she had been woolgathering when she heard her aunt ask James to dinner and wondered what else she had missed.
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