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Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

The Convenient Arrangement

BOOK: The Convenient Arrangement
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The Convenient Arrangement

A Regency Romance

Jo Ann Ferguson

For Michelle Drosos and Terry Pino
—

Thanks for your hospitality in Boston last March

and your friendship for so many laugh-filled years
.

One

“I tell you. This is insane.” Mrs. Ditwiller folded her pudgy hands in her lap and jutted her chin at the men sitting across from her in the crowded carriage. Keeping her voice to a whisper that would not disturb the earl who was sleeping beside her, she said with all the authority of her new station as housekeeper, “No one has ever said or heard a good thing about this horrid place, and now we shall be living there.”

“Mayhap not long,” suggested the young man by the door. He grimaced as the carriage dropped into yet another chuckhole. “Mayhap Mr. Wolfe—”

“His Lordship. Do not forget that.” Mrs. Ditwiller wagged a finger at the lad who was still growing into his full height. “Gil, he has been generous enough to give you a position as his footman. Do not repay him by forgetting that he is now a fine earl.”

“'Tis not easy.” Gil shifted on the seat, but his long legs found no place more comfortable. Lord Moorsea was so tall, and Gil did not want to wake the earl who had found little time for sleep in preparing for this journey from Wolfe Abbey to the desolation of Exmoor Forest.

“But you must.” Kirby, the lord's valet, patted the lad on the shoulder. “This time, he shall remain a lord for good, and that is the way it should be.”

Mrs. Ditwiller gasped, “You would have had Lord Wulfric die in the war?”

Kirby smiled, although he knew the housekeeper could not see his expression in the lengthening shadows that were claiming the interior of the closed carriage. “You know well what I mean. No one was happier than—” He gestured toward the sleeping man, afraid that using Lord Moorsea's name would chance waking him. “—he was to have his cousin home and alive. The title rightly belongs to the man who holds it now, but you have to own it was our new earl's turn to be honored with a title.”

“But this one …” Mrs. Ditwiller twisted a linen handkerchief in her hands, threatening to shred it. “No one has spoken of this estate in all the years I was at the Abbey. It must be beyond horrible.”

Kirby glanced out the window. Although many called it Exmoor Forest, he saw few trees beyond the hedgerows edging the road. The steep hills were covered with heather and gorse before dropping into bogs where no wise man would travel without a guide. Now, as night crept out to claim the bleak land, he longed for the familiar comfort of the kitchen hearth and a freshly laid fire at Wolfe Abbey. “It is, one must acknowledge, far from anything else.”

“A most fearsome prospect,” Mrs. Ditwiller replied.

Or a most convenient one
. Lorenzo Wolfe kept his eyes closed' as the conversation continued to swirl in whispers around him and the carriage bounced beneath him with the enthusiasm of a child on a bed. He appreciated the concerns expressed by his loyal staff. They were traveling with him in the carriage after the fourgon, which should have been carrying the servants and the boxes, had broken down miles back near Minehead. To his mind, coming to Moorsea Manor was the best of all that could have happened. Sometimes, he wanted to believe, things just had a way of working out quite conveniently.

“Blast!” he muttered under his breath when his head banged off the side of the coach as the wheels struck another cavity along the twisting road. He could not fault the coachee. This road through Exmoor had more holes than a sieve.

“Awake, my lord?” asked Mrs. Ditwiller gently.

“Yes.” He rubbed his skull. He did not want to arrive at Moorsea Manor as battered as a gentleman of the fists who had just had his nose introduced to a bunch of fives. “The first thing I shall do upon arriving at Moorsea Manor is find out who is responsible for this road and have it repaired posthaste.”

Kirby laughed again. “Probably you, my lord.”

“You may be right.” Lorenzo folded his arms over his wrinkled coat and smiled at his valet, whose features were lost in the darkness. Thank goodness for Kirby's sense of the absurd. Lorenzo was letting Mrs. Ditwiller's dismay infect him until he was worrying like an old tough watching over her young charge at the beginning of the Season. As lord of Moorsea Manor, he might wish to keep this road in a state of steady disrepair. It would allow him the privacy he craved.

He had not guessed life would lead him in this direction. He never had visited Exmoor, but, before the twilight had cut off his views of the undulating hills and brooklets that appeared and disappeared with the skill of a ginn, he had delighted in the rough and untamed beauty of this land rising from the Bristol Channel. The views brought pretty phrases into his mind, phrases of sunlight and shadows, phrases of the play of the wind through the low-lying shrubs and clumps of trees, phrases he could manipulate into poems.

Now he would be taking up residence here in this grand, forbidding land. Mayhap if he kept telling himself that things would work out quite conveniently he would begin to believe it instead of thinking of his book-room back at Wolfe Abbey where he had withdrawn each evening to enjoy his writing and reading.

“Shan't be much longer, my lord,” Kirby said.

Lorenzo's smile became taut. He could not tell his valet how he despised that title which he once before had possessed. Then he had believed, as most others had, that his cousin Corey had been slain on a battlefield in France. Corey had come home, and Lorenzo had gladly relinquished the title to him.

Now he was a peer once more. He had never met his mother's late brother who had cut himself off from the rest of the family long before Lorenzo was born. He guessed the separation had been over some sort of a disagreement, but no one had ever spoken of the matter. The previous Lord Moorsea seldom had wandered far from his estate of Moorsea Manor upon its hilltop in Exmoor, and none of the family had ever called. Lorenzo had not even known of this uncle's existence until only a few years ago when his mother died. Among her papers had been a letter to her only child where she mentioned that she had a brother named Francis who was Lord Moorsea.

“Our arrival shall come none too soon,” Lorenzo replied when Gil shifted again on the seat which had grown more uncomfortable with every hour of travel. He moved his legs, so the lad could stretch his out in the narrow space between the seats. When his feet struck a small bag, Lorenzo lifted it on his lap. This bag must arrive undamaged at Moorsea Manor.

“Especially when night is falling.” Mrs. Ditwiller cast a fearful glance at the window at the night.

Lorenzo laughed, wanting to ease the housekeeper's dire expression that did not fit well on her round face. “Do not tell me that you believe all those tales stuffed into your head before we left, Mrs. Ditwiller.”

“Which tales?” asked Gil eagerly.

“Tales,” Kirby replied, his voice dropping to a whisper, “so appalling you would never be able to close your eyes in sleep again. Tales of people who go out into the night and vanish, never to be heard of ever again. Tales of black magic and evil curses. Tales—”

“Enough!” Lorenzo laughed. “Look at them. They believe you.”

Mrs. Ditwiller raised her chin. “I know better than to heed Kirby, my lord.”

“You are a sensible woman,” Lorenzo agreed as she sniffed at Kirby, who was grinning so broadly that Lorenzo could see it in the dim light, “which is why, Mrs. Ditwiller, I asked you to join me here.”

“Sense has nothing to do with what might lurk out in the darkness.”

“Exmoor may be little traveled even now, but it probably is less dangerous than any other part of England. Few knights of the pad would venture over these precipitous hills when their sole reward for their felonious activities could be a mired mount.”

Kirby leaned forward, lowering his voice to a near whisper. “Might be other reasons no one is abroad after dark. We have not met another vehicle or anyone on foot for the past hour.”

“Mayhap the folks in these parts are wise enough to keep their journeys short.” He resisted the temptation to rub the ache in his back as the carriage dropped into yet another hole in the uneven road.

The trapdoor in the top of the carriage opened, and a cheerful voice called, “See the lights out yer left window? Moorsea Manor be right ahead of us, my lord.”

Lorenzo ignored Mrs. Ditwiller's mutter of “Finally!” and peered out the window. Fog coiled like phantasmagorical serpents along the ground, glowing in the dim moonlight with the cold fire of a dragon's breath. Stars glittered with unobtainable light, far beyond any mortal's reach. When a pair of them shifted through the tree branches, he realized they were not stars, but lanterns hung by the stone gates of what must be Moorsea Manor. He was intrigued to see what appeared to be an ancient stone wall leading back from the gates. Even in the dim light, he could see enough to guess the wall must predate the invasion by the Normans.

His smile returned. This could be most interesting. Only his love of writing and quiet contemplation eclipsed his delight in studying history. Mayhap some enlightening and possibly rare tidbits waited to be found on the grounds. He needed to ignore Mrs. Ditwiller's cries of doom and enjoy the good fortune that had brought him to this place.

“Where is the house?” asked Gil, sticking his head out the window as he peered in both directions. “Can't see a dashed thing in this fog.”

“Patience.”

“You may have patience, my lord.” He grimaced as he pulled his head back into the carriage with a yelp. Branches from the hedgerow growing out into the road brushed the sides of the carriage, scratching like a giant cat. “But not me. Been traveling over this feather-bed lane for too long.”

Lorenzo rested his elbow on the edge of the window, then pulled it back as more branches struck the carriage. Dash it! This road must not have been trimmed back in his lifetime. He liked privacy, but not to the point that it ruined his carriage. He wished his eyes could sift through the fog to see the house that once had been as familiar to his mother as Wolfe Abbey became when she wed his grandfather's second son. Odd, that she had not reminisced about this house once in his hearing. He was tempted to speak of his curiosity, but Mrs. Ditwiller was certain to see some malevolence in what must have been nothing more than the result of a misunderstanding.

That misunderstanding was now over, because both his mother and her brother were dead. And Moorsea Manor was about to become his new home. He hoped this rough journey augured a good beginning for his new life, for his cousins were now well settled with their own lives. Here he could do as he wished—study and write his beloved poetry about the rugged landscape that surrounded him. He hoped the old house, that he was told by his late uncle's solicitors had been standing since the reign of the first Richard, would be as isolated and peaceful as any he could imagine.

A quiet life. That was what he wanted.

One of the horses whinnied nervously, and Mrs. Ditwiller gasped a prayer against the undead. Lorenzo waited for a teasing comment from Kirby or Gil, but they remained silent. He was amazed, then realized they shared the housekeeper's anxiety.

When daylight returned, they would see that they were allowing the stories they had heard, stories that were most likely untrue and had been devised by the servants at Wolfe Abbey, to unnerve them.

The house loomed out of the trees, a dark block within the fog rising to consume the night. Dozens of windows were lit, but the glow barely reached the road. The walls jutted out at every possible angle. The roof could not be seen through the darkness, but Lorenzo noted something hanging high up under the eaves. He hoped it was not a section of the roof that was in need of repair. On the morrow, he would take a tour of his new property and see what obligations he had inherited along with his title.

When the carriage slowed, Lorenzo shoved the door open, too eager to get out and stretch and explore his new home to worry about ceremony. He gripped the handles of his small bag. The leather struck the door as he climbed out, but it had been battered by many trips along the sea cliffs by Wolfe Abbey, for he took this bag with him everywhere.

Turning, he offered his hand to Mrs. Ditwiller. She giggled like a chit, although she was older than he by nearly a decade, and he realized that once again he was constrained by his new rôle. An earl should not be offering his help to his housekeeper. When he had served as master of Wolfe Abbey until Corey had returned, he found these restraints of propriety and rank irritating. Now he was encased by the strangulating rules again.

But he need not be. He could become as eccentric as his uncle, never leaving Moorsea Manor and living his life in peace and introspection exactly as he wished. A most pleasing prospect.

BOOK: The Convenient Arrangement
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