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Authors: The Larkswood Legacy

Nicola Cornick

BOOK: Nicola Cornick
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“YOU MIGHT MARRY AGAIN, PERHAPS?”

“I doubt that, sir.” Annabella sounded subdued.
They were back on dangerous ground.

 

Sir William allowed the curricle to slow down, and half turned toward her. “You seem very certain, ma’am! How is it possible to tell what the future holds?”

 

“It is not, of course,” Annabella allowed, permitting herself to meet those perceptive blue eyes for a brief moment. “But I do not think…”

 

“Perhaps,” Sir William said thoughtfully, “when one has been married happily once, it is difficult to imagine such good fortune occurring again.”

 

 

Nicola Cornick
is passionate about many things: her country cottage and its garden, her two small cats, her husband and her writing, though not necessarily in that order! She has always been fascinated by history, both as her chosen subject at university and subsequently as an engrossing hobby. She works as a university administrator and finds her writing the perfect antidote to the demands of life in a busy office.

THE LARKSWOOD LEGACY
NICOLA CORNICK

Chapter One

‘A
nnabella! You graceless girl! Why, I declare, you are as clumsy as an elephant!’ Lady St Auby brought the phrase out triumphantly, for she had seen such a creature in Lord Eaglesham’s zoological collection. The words were delivered in a sibilant hiss, unlike Lady St Auby’s habitual hectoring tone, but they were hurtful nevertheless. Annabella St Auby bit her lip and a flush came into her pale cheeks.

This time, her transgression had been small. She had stood aside to allow her mother-in-law to enter the Taunton Assembly Rooms first, as precedence demanded. Unfortunately, Lady St Auby had been so deeply engrossed in gossiping with her bosom-bow, Mrs Eddington-Buck, that she had not realised that Annabella had stopped and had cannoned into her back, setting her hairpiece askew and dropping her fan in the process.

It had been a disastrous way to re-enter Taunton society after a year of mourning. It seemed to Lady St Auby, in her anguish, that every head had turned in their direction and every conversation was sus
pended. The coiffure, which had taken her maid five-and-forty minutes to prepare, was slipping irretrievably over one ear. She knew that she had flushed an unbecoming mottled puce, and to make matters worse, her husband was gaping like a drunken fish and her daughter-in-law was hanging her head like a shy debutante. She dug Annabella viciously in the ribs.

‘Well, don’t stand there gawping, girl! Oh, that Francis ever chose to throw himself away on such an ill-bred little miss!’ It was not the first time she had uttered such a remark. Lady St Auby made no secret of the fact that she considered her only son to have married beneath him, and Annabella had damned herself beyond redemption by failing to be the heiress she had promised to be. Hard-won self-control helped her to ignore her mother-in-law’s vulgar observation, even when Mrs Eddington-Buck tittered behind her hand.

The Taunton Assembly was unlikely to be the epitome of high living, Annabella thought, as she followed Sir Frederick and Lady St Auby through the crowded ballroom to find a vantage point opposite the door. Bath would have had more society to offer, but the St Aubys were too poor to travel there. The company tonight would no doubt consist of the usual hunting and shooting set with whom Sir Frederick in particular had always mingled, and the evening would drag along with no hint of excitement. The Assembly Rooms were shabby and in sore need of a fresh coat of paint. Annabella sighed. She felt like they looked. Her evening dress might have been fashionable three years previously, but even then it had been run up by her father’s housekeeper, based on a faded pattern
from the
Ladies Magazine
. At the time it had been a rather pretty shade of mauve. Now it was a faded lavender, and served as the half-mourning appropriate to one who had lost her young husband so tragically a year before.

They had paused several times whilst Lady St Auby tried to find the most advantageous position in which to wait to be seen and greeted by the great and the good. Unfortunately, several early arrivals had taken the best spots and it was a while before her ladyship was satisfied, elbowing some poor unsuspecting young lady out of the way and moving a potted palm slightly to the right so that it did not obscure her field of vision. The St Auby party took up their stance, but almost immediately Lady St Auby’s eye fell on Annabella with disapproval. She tugged at her evening gloves so viciously that the seam ripped.

‘Smile, girl! No one will believe that you have a desire for entertainment if you stand there with such a Friday face!’

Several heads turned at the hissed undertone. Annabella flushed scarlet.

‘I beg you, dear ma’am—’

‘Lady Oakston! Sir Thomas!’ Suddenly Lady St Auby had no time for Annabella’s faults. She was fulsome, wreathed in smiles. ‘A pleasure to see you again!’ Now she was gushing like a mountain stream and Annabella turned to scan the ballroom again. It seemed very crowded that night, but perhaps that was because she had become unaccustomed to such bustle…Lady St Auby was simpering now as another set of acquaintances came up to greet them. It reminded Annabella of the rather unpleasant way in which her
mother-in-law would melt girlishly when Francis had put on the charm, trading on the fact that his mother could never refuse him anything…

‘Such a sad loss to us,’ Lady St Auby was saying to Lady Oakston, wiping away a surreptitious tear. ‘My dear daughter-in-law was so overcome we feared she would become a recluse!’ The insincere smile was turned on Annabella, with Lady St Auby waiting for her to echo her sentiments. Annabella was silent. She had her faults, but hypocrisy was not one of them. Lady St Auby turned her back on her.

‘Simple creature!’ Mrs Eddington-Buck said, with an artificial trill of amusement, and she did not mean it kindly.

After spending a sequestered year in the rotting manor that the St Aubys called home, these bright lights and loud voices were almost shocking to Annabella. As a young girl she had craved excitement, but knew well enough now that it was not to be found amongst the hard-drinking, hard-riding hunting set. Before her brief marriage, her life in her father’s ostentatious home had been empty and dull, and she had briefly thought that her marriage might introduce her to a wider society. It had done so, but she had not been accepted into the gentry any more than her father had been before her. And now both her husband and father were dead, and she was stranded, a poor relation, in a county society which had once regarded her as a curiosity and now thought of her scarcely at all.

But it seemed that the whole of Taunton society was on show tonight and one could not but wonder why. The hard eyes of these bejewelled women were raking Annabella contemptuously, dismissing her old
faded lavender half-mourning with small, self-satisfied smiles. The looks of the men were more equivocal still, appraising, familiar…Annabella knew that it was Francis she had to thank for this disrespectful attitude, for when he had been in his cups he would talk loudly and unreservedly about matters which were best kept between husband and wife. His cronies, gleefully recognising this weakness, had encouraged him to the hilt until the whole of Taunton appeared to know intimate facts about Annabella that could only add to her embarrassment.

Annabella sighed again as she thought of Francis. She was guilty of the charge that she had entrapped the St Aubys’ pride and joy, for she had set her cap at Francis as the only means of escape from her father. Weak and dissolute, Francis St Auby had had a penchant for women and gambling, and Annabella had gone into the marriage with her eyes open, aware of the threat to her future posed by both. She had bought Francis with the promise of her fortune, for she had known instinctively that he would have no other interest in her. Sure enough, he had set up a mistress in the town before the banns had even been read, but Bertram Broseley’s wealth had been rumoured to be immense and this had at least been sufficient to prompt Francis to go through with the wedding, his mistress prominently on display at the ceremony itself. Annabella, who had known full well that Francis’s character was unlikely to improve, had smiled all through her wedding day until her face ached, grimly aware of the price she had chosen to pay in order to avoid her father’s alternative plan for her future.

At first, matters had not been so bad. Bertram Broseley gave them a generous, if grudgingly granted, allowance, and they lived in tolerable comfort. Annabella rarely saw Francis, who spent his time with his mistress or in the low town taverns he frequented. Then, eighteen months previously, Broseley had died unexpectedly and disaster had struck. There was no inheritance. The legendary fortune had proved illusory, swallowed up in all the debts that Broseley had left. After a few months the little, rented townhouse had had to go and they had moved back to the manor Francis’s parents owned. Francis’s temper, always uncertain, had become vicious in his disappointment. He joined his mother in railing at his wife for her ill-bred, rapacious nature in tricking him into marriage. Lady St Auby repeatedly bemoaned the marriage to all and sundry and Francis spent more and more time gambling and drinking. And, one night, he had become involved in a quarrel over loaded dice, had been too drunk to fight and had fallen and hit his head on a stone hearth. And that was that.

Once again, Lady St Auby regained Annabella’s attention by digging her in the ribs. This time she was almost beside herself with excitement.

‘Look, Annabella! Oh, Millicent!’ She grabbed Mrs Eddington-Buck’s arm. ‘I declare, it’s Mundell! And the Earl and Countess of Kilgaren! At a country assembly! How thrilling!’ A shadow crossed her face as a horrid thought struck her. ‘What if the Viscount does not remember us? Oh, if he cuts us, I shall die of embarrassment, positively die!’

Annabella watched the Viscount’s party enter the Assembly Rooms. No wonder there was such a crush
tonight if word had gone round the neighbourhood that he was to be present! Once, long ago, she remembered, she had fancied herself in love with Viscount Mundell, for he was exceptionally handsome in a rather hawkish way and, as one of the County’s premier landowners, was imbued with an irresistible attraction that would still have applied had he been as ugly as sin. Tonight he was with a small party, four ladies and three other gentlemen, all graciously acknowledging the greetings of Sir Thomas Oakston as he excitedly bowed them into the room. A flutter of awareness went through the assembled ranks as ladies preened themselves and turned to show their figures and profiles to advantage. Excited whispers tried in vain to elicit the identity of the other gentlemen. Dagger glances were cast at the ladies who had the good fortune to be part of the Viscount’s company.

‘Let me see! Let me see!’ Mrs Eddington-Buck craned her neck to look over the heads of the crowd, and trod heavily on Annabella’s foot in the process. ‘La, how elegant they are!’ She cast a spiteful, sideways glance at Annabella. ‘One can always tell
true
quality, Lady St Auby!’

Annabella smiled stiffly. Her mother-in-law and her friends never ceased to remind her that Bertram Broseley had been a Cit, a rich merchant who could never aspire to county society. His early marriage to the daughter of an Earl could be conveniently forgotten, for his wife had died giving birth to Annabella and he had never again attempted to marry above his station. It was a thorn in Lady St Auby’s side that Annabella was so well-connected, with a grandmother who was the Dowager Countess of Stansfield, and a
sister, the Incomparable Alicia, now a Marchioness. But Annabella was estranged from her family. Had she been close to her sister, Lady St Auby would no doubt have boasted of the connection. As it was, she used the rift to point out to Annabella that her family had cast her off as beneath their notice.

Annabella swallowed hard. Over the past few intolerable months, she had been thinking more and more of her sister and their estrangement. Probably the very desperation of her situation in the St Auby household made her long for a happier alternative. Seven years her senior, Alicia had always seemed remote, for their father had fought hard to keep them apart. If only she could think of some way of approaching Alicia, of healing the breach…But she had given her sister good reason to dislike her, and it was not so easy to undo that now.

‘They are coming over! Viscount Mundell has noticed us! Oh, Millicent—’ Lady St Auby was almost incoherent with joy. She planted her considerable bulk firmly in the path of the unsuspecting peer. ‘My Lord! An honour! And a pleasure to see you again, is it not, Frederick?’

Sir Frederick St Auby, who had much in common with his late son, dragged his gaze away from the contemplation of a luscious blonde beauty and grunted. ‘Servant, Mundell.’

The Viscount had not the first idea as to the identity of the large lady accosting him, but he nevertheless had manners equal to the occasion. His bored grey eyes moved from Lady St Auby to her spouse with indifference. ‘How do you do, ma’am? Sir…I hope I find you well?’ His gaze drifted past them and sharp
ened on Annabella. ‘Mrs St Auby!’ A note of genuine sincerity entered his voice. ‘How do you do, ma’am? I had been hoping to see you here. I had the pleasure of speaking to your sister, Lady Mullineaux, recently. I was glad to see that both she and your new nephew are well.’

For a moment Annabella stood quite still, unsure if he was really addressing her. She was so used to slights and snubs that she could scarce believe that this deity was actually speaking to her. Then, as he waited, she realised with amazement that he was indeed awaiting a reply. Annabella smiled a little awkwardly. She was aware of nothing but surprise that Mundell had even recognised her. Though they had met on a couple of occasions in the distant past, she had made no impression on him and now she knew that only her resemblance to Alicia had helped him identify her. Although no one had ever suggested that she was an incomparable beauty, both she and Alicia had the heart-shaped faces, high cheekbones and determined chin that were the defining features of the look inherited from their grandmother. And now that Annabella had lost so much weight in the time following Francis’s death, the fat that had threatened to blur her features had receded to leave her almost angular. Her hair was golden where Alicia’s was auburn, and her eyes were a lighter green, and somehow she had just missed the startling beauty possessed by her sister, whilst remaining a very pretty girl.

Lady St Auby was looking furious that the Viscount’s attention had been diverted to Annabella.

‘La, sir,’ she said, archly, ‘do not speak to Annabella of Lady Mullineaux! My daughter-in-law and
her sister do not see eye to eye and have not met for an age! Why, Annabella has not even been invited to visit for little Thomas’s christening—’

BOOK: Nicola Cornick
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