Authors: Heidi Ashworth
The Lord Who
Sneered and Other Tales
A Regency Holiday Anthology
By the same author:
Miss Delacourt Speaks Her Mind
Miss Delacourt Has Her Day
Lady Crenshaw’s Christmas: A Novella
A Timeless Romance Anthology: Winter Collection: It Happened Twelfth Night
Lord Haversham Takes Command
Copyright © 2013 by Heidi Ashworth
Cover design by Laura J Miller
A Ghost in the Graveyard
England, October 1816
“I trust that should you require anything during your stay,” the Dowager Duchess of Marcross said with a ferocious frown, “that you shall be forthcoming. Nothing is more unsatisfactory than to discover one has deprived ones guests of the comforts of life.”
Anne Crenshaw, settled by a cheerful fire with a steaming cup of tea, blinked back tears of gratitude. She had not expected the fearsome Dowager to be quite so accommodating a hostess.
“There was hardly the need for them to abandon me,” the Dowager continued as if for her ears alone. “They had only to speak up. All should have been arranged to their satisfaction. I suppose you would have preferred to have stayed with them, eh?” demanded Anne’s grandmama by marriage.
Perfectly aware that the Dowager referred to her grandson and his wife, Anne felt her eyes go wide as she inwardly bemoaned her timid nature. “Naturally, I have visited Sir Anthony and Lady Crenshaw at Prospero Park,” she said around the lump of misgiving in her throat, “and all was as lovely as one might wish. However, I could hardly expect them to take me when they have a new little one of their own and the same age as the Duke’s. The Duchess made it very clear that I was much too much in the way. It would be foolish of me to assume Ginny should feel otherwise.”
The Dowager gave Anne a hard stare, prompting Anne to wonder if her speech were perhaps a bit too bold. Still, she owned that the company of the infamous virago seated before her was preferable to one moment in the presence of her disdainful father-in-law or his chilly, new duchess.
“Very sensible, Roxanne,” the Dowager intoned. “Very sensible, indeed. I should not wish anything to disturb their tranquility after their unseemly haste in acquiring it.”
“No, of course not,” Anne said in a voice faint with lack of conviction. It would hardly do to shore up Grandmama’s antagonistic views with regard to her only living grandson, whose sudden desertion nine months prior in favor of his own establishment, had not been well received. However, any conviction Anne might have possessed when she married Sir Anthony’s cousin, Reed, had been drained from her under her father-in-law’s thunderous reign. It had seemed pointless to express any opinion he did not share. As such, she had become unaccustomed to speaking up. Nevertheless, the time for forming her own views had finally arrived now that she was no longer under his roof.
“Grandmama, I wonder if you would see fit to call me Anne? It was how I was called by my parents when a child, though I daresay you had not known that.”
“No, I had not,” Grandmama snapped. “I suppose one might lay the fault for that in my son’s dish.”
“Well, yes, if I am honest. He feels pet names to be foolish. As it hardly mattered to Reed what I was called, he went along with it. That is not to say he did not care for me,” Anne hastened to add. “He was a good man and a good husband, but he has been gone over a year and I feel the need for a new beginning.”
“And rightly so!” the Dowager exclaimed with a flourish of her finger. “A new home, a new name and hopefully, before many months have passed, a new husband. No, you mustn’t deny me one of my few joys in life,” she insisted when taking in what Anne could only assume to be her face turned pale with shock. “Matchmaking is second nature to me. I am sure to find you a most suitable husband, given enough time. You are still young and, I might add, quite handsome so you may rely on my success in this. However, you must swear that you will put off your blacks immediately. Your widow’s weeds are a perfect foil for that abundance of pale hair you have, however, a deep blue or even a red should prove more becoming.”
“I believe it is early days, yet, for red,” Anne insisted as it dawned on her that the Dowager might actually wish to have her granddaughter-in-law underfoot. Nevertheless, Anne was persuaded
little more than a year of widowhood to be insufficiently long to embark on a bid for remarriage. Fortunately, she was saved from stating her opinion on the subject when a maid entered the library with a silver salver bearing a gilt-edged card.
“Oh, no, it’s that barmy Lady Avery!” the Dowager cried as she surveyed the card through her lorgnette. “I would deny her, but there is no turning her away once she is set on a piece of nonsense. Show her in, Mary,” the Dowager directed with a wave of her hand, “but I must insist you do not bring in a tea tray or she shall never leave us!”
Before the maid had time to so much as bob a curtsy, Lady Avery, her face alight with news of what appeared to be of the most delightful nature, burst into the room. “Eustace’s cousin has come to call!” she exclaimed as if this were an announcement of significant import to her stunned listeners. “My dearest husband is so often gone on crucial business that I do believe he felt a guest would serve as a remedy to my
,” she rushed to reveal. “However, I must confess baby Herbert is very absorbing, and all the company I need. So I am afraid he must stay here.”
“He, whom?” the Dowager queried. “Surely you do not refer to your infant?”
!” Lady Avery said with a clap of her hands as she sank into the chair next to Anne, the proximity of which allowed her to discern the fatigue behind Lady Avery’s thin smile. “None but I shall ever have her hands on him. Eustace is allowed to hold him when I am not, but that is all.”
Anne had been exposed to the Countess of Avery in times past but had never before had quite such an intimate view of the lady’s odd behavior nor the opportunity to converse with her. “Lady Avery, how good you are to spend so much time with your baby,” she said as she pushed away the pain she felt at her own childlessness. Have you no nursemaid?”
?” Lady Avery asked with a frosty glare down her nose at Anne. “And, yes, I have a nursemaid, to whom I am very generous as she has naught to do but heat the baby’s bottle,” she said smugly, “and get up with him during the night and wash his nappies,” she added, counting tasks on her fingers. “And clean his clothes, sit by his cot until he falls asleep and hold him when he is sick or
fretful during the day, but that is not so very much, is it?” she asked, looking to both Anne and the Dowager for approval.
“Lady Avery,” the Dowager Duchess interjected before the young mother had a chance to further elaborate, “what of this cousin of Lord Avery’s? And what has he or she to do with us?”
“Oh, but of course! He is quite a favorite of Eustace’s; however, he is ancient which I find makes him dreadfully dull. It is small wonder the baby fusses whenever he is about. Surely you must see I can’t hold my little Herbert on my lap if he is fussing!”
“No, of course not,” Anne said in a pleasant manner designed to distract their guest from the Dowager’s fulminating glare.
“I still do not see what this has to do with me, Lady Avery!” the Dowager boomed. “As you might have observed, I am in the midst of entertaining my own houseguest whom I should very much like to make comfortable.”
“But that is why it is all so perfect!” Lady Avery said with another clap of her hands. “Willy is without a place to stay and, here you are, practically running a boarding house.” Suddenly, she jumped to her feet and ran to the door as she called over her shoulder: “I shall fetch him here this instant!”
Anne had heard much about Lady Avery but nothing she had been told prepared her for what she had just witnessed. “Does she intend to return, do you think?”
“Oh, yes,” Grandmama said with a groan. “And with this Willy she tells of in her wake. What kind of man calls himself Willy?” she asked, rolling her eyes heavenward. “And what are we to do with him?”
be done?” Anne asked. “It sounds as if Lady Avery has given him little choice in the matter.”
“If he is half the self-absorbed toad that his cousin is I shall have him removed forthwith.”
Anne felt the Dowager’s judgment of Lord Avery to be a bit harsh but knew it unwise to say so. “I have met Lady Avery’s husband but infrequently. Is he as distressing as all that?”
“Distressing is not the word I should use,” the Dowager said with a heavy sigh as she drew herself into a fully regal position. “But never your fear, I shall be shed of this Willy as soon as I am able.”
The Dowager’s anger was palpable; Anne dared not so much as shift in her chair, so oppressive was the atmosphere in the room. The moments of silence that followed were punctuated only by the ticking of the mantle clock and the occasional ember popping in the fire.
Finally, a commotion was heard out in the passage and the door thrown open. “Here is our Willy!” Lady Avery cried as she once again burst into the room, dragging a man, as tall as he was hesitant, behind her. “He is a bit bashful, but I am persuaded you shall have much to talk about,” she babbled as she led her reluctant relation to the fire and pushed him into the chair closest to Anne. “Well, then,” she said as if ridding herself of a great burden, “I am off to sing to my sweet little Herbert.” Without so much as a word of farewell, she was gone.
There was a moment of dismayed silence during which Grandmama’s latest guest stared at the tips of his shoes and the Dowager looked everywhere but at him. It afforded Anne the opportunity to study his profile in the late-afternoon light, though little information was to be gained from the view of his profile except that he was possessed of a head of tidy, light brown curls swept forward along a high brow and a long face that easily accommodated a somewhat prominent nose and chin. It was impossible to evaluate his eyes as fine or otherwise in such low light, and Anne realized it was up to her to set matters to rights.
“Shall I ring for a tray, Grandmama?” she asked, her low voice cutting into the silence. As there was no reply Anne was left with nothing to do but rise and pull the bell, whereupon she searched for the tinder and flint to light the various candles throughout the room. “There, that is much better,” she mused and turned to find herself under scrutiny by Lord Avery’s cousin.
It seemed he was surprised to be caught out gazing at her as he immediately dropped his gaze and returned to the contemplation of his shoes.
Anne stole a glance at Grandmama, who sat with her chin settled in the cleft of her abundant bosom amidst the faint rumbling of her snores. “Oh, dear, it would seem she has fallen asleep. I suppose introductions have been left to me. I am Mrs. Crenshaw,” she explained as she returned to her seat by the fire, “but there is no need to stand on ceremony with me. I would very much prefer to be called Anne.” As this speech produced no reply, she leaned forward to better look into his face. “I’m afraid we have been given little to go on. We don’t even know what we should call you.”
“You should call me humiliated,” he replied in a voice so deep as to be positively startling. “I pray you to consider,” he added, lifting his gaze from his shoes and returning her look with a frank one of his own, “I hadn’t any idea as to Lady Avery’s intention and am, I can only speculate, abandoned here with no baggage or possession whatsoever, and no conveyance to hasten my departure. I haven’t even a proper black suit should I not be put out on the stoop before it is time to change for dinner.”
“Oh,” Anne said as surprised by his words as the wealth of good humor evident in his large eyes, so brown as to be nearly black and free of any sign of age. Lady Avery could only have been exaggerating when she used the word ‘ancient’ to describe her cousin. Privately, Anne thought the evening suit to be no sad loss; his day suit of dove gray set off to perfection by a paler gray waistcoat and pantaloons was the most beautiful she had seen and fit his trim form like a glove. “I am persuaded Grandmama will understand. I have been displaced by virtue of a new arrival, as well, and she has been nothing but generosity itself. Should you stay there is room enough, and I, for one, should be glad of the company.”
The stranger sat up straighter in his chair and seemed to take in his surroundings for the first time. “Am I misinformed when told this is the house of the Dowager Duchess of Marcross?”
“You are not, and this,” Anne said with a nod that indicated Grandmama, “is the Dowager Duchess, herself. However, I must protest; you have not as yet introduced yourself. I believe the Countess referred to you as Willy. Shall we so do, as well?”