Prelude to a Lord


By Camille Elliot

ZONDERVAN

Copyright © 2014 Camy Tang
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-32035-7


CHAPTER 1

12 Months Later


A prickling sensation spread across the back of Alethea's neck, which had nothing to do with the brisk air of Bath in the winter.

She looked up from the cabbage she was considering and glanced around the busy marketplace. People shifted in and out of her vision, none looking at her. She twisted to look in the other direction, but again no one paid her any attention.

So why had she felt as if she were being watched?

The farmer, John, looked at her with brow wrinkled. "Something worrying you, miss?"

Alethea had never corrected him. By now, she was used to being called "miss" as opposed to "my lady." After all, who would believe an earl's daughter was out in the market buying potatoes and parsnips? But today it took her a moment to realize he was speaking to her. "What? Oh, I beg your pardon, John. Yes, I'll take the cabbage."

The prickling feeling returned. Alethea casually turned to the side as if considering some leeks and quickly glanced up.

She caught a man staring at her.

He looked away as if her gaze burned him. Alethea continued to watch him, studying his grey thinning hair, dirty leathery skin, cadaverous build. She wasn't sure what she was searching for, perhaps something silly like an indication he'd been watching her, but then he entered into a conversation with a man selling knives, apparently bargaining for something.

Had he been watching her or did he just happen to look in her direction? She would have been a terrible spy.

She slipped the cabbage into her market basket, then paid and thanked John before leaving. She was being ridiculous. Who in the world would care enough to want to follow her? She had no money of her own that she controlled, and no social connections since her one season in London had been so uneventful. Besides which, she was a tall, plain, eight and twenty-year-old and not some pretty, dewy-eyed young miss just out of the schoolroom.

She turned up Milsom Street, which bustled mostly with maids, manservants, and merchants this early in the morning. The more fashionable set would emerge in several hours, but for now she was relieved that, as usual, no one would recognize her. It was the reason she'd flown against convention and volunteered to do the cook's marketing—the opportunity to stroll the streets of Bath, breathe in the crisp air, and walk for an hour or two with no young ladies to titter at her strong stride, no old biddies to disparage her rosy cheeks from the exercise.

A year ago she had arrived in Bath with the hopes it would have a more diverse, broad-minded set of people. Instead, Bath contained a fashionable set who professed to be liberal and intelligent, but who all seemed to disdain Alethea's passions as ungenteel. Their wit could cut as sharp as the people in London, and for some of them, politeness was merely a veneer.

She could not avoid them at the evening parties, but she could shake their influence loose from her mind during early mornings like these, when she could disappear into the servants of Bath. She strolled through a cluster of shopkeepers, completely unnoticed.

Almost.

A coach-and-four barreled down the street, much too fast for the narrow way. Several people leapt out of the way of the horses with cries of alarm, but the crowds forced the coachman to finally slow his headlong dash, right where Alethea stood pressed against a shop wall.

"Why are we slowing?" a deep male voice demanded from the depths of the coach.

Alethea had been breathless on account of being forced to the side, but now the air stopped in her throat.

It couldn't be him. Not here, in Bath.

She glanced up just as a man from within the coach looked out—and met her eyes.

Dark eyes, shadowed, solitary. He had always reminded her of a hawk, its power and beauty, its lonely existence. But she now noticed that there was a dark pain, something that had aged him beyond the eleven years since she'd seen him last.

His eyes flickered, and she tensed. Surely he wouldn't recognize her. She had been one woman in a crowd of hundreds at his concert in London who had danced at the same balls, attended the same operas. Fallen half in love with dashing Mr. Terralton, son and heir to Baron Dommick.

No, he was Lord Dommick now—she had read that his father died last year, three months after Mr. Terralton returned to England, injured from fighting Napoleon on the continent.

But his gaze didn't leave hers for a few heartbeats, as if trying to place her.

Then he turned away as the man sitting next to him said, "Bay, I'm sure it would hamper your rescue attempts if you were arrested for killing a bystander with your coach."

Alethea recognized him as Lord Ian Wynnman, and sitting across from them was the Marquess of Ravenhurst.

Her heartbeat galloped. Three of the Quartet, here? She would have expected them to be wintering at their country estates, not mouldering in Bath with invalids taking the waters.

"Bay, your stepfather is a fool. A delay of a few minutes will not mean your sister's ruin," Lord Ravenhurst said.

Alethea recalled an announcement in the papers about Lord Dommick's mother remarrying, although she couldn't remember to whom.

"He may be a fool, but I know nothing of his nephew," Lord Dommick replied as the coach pulled away from Alethea. "I intend to allow him no time for any malicious scheming ..."

Alethea stared at the back of the coach as it continued down the street, her heartbeat returning to normal. For a moment, she'd thought the Quartet was in Bath to give one of their famous concerts, but that was a silly notion. After Lord Dommick and Mr. David Enlow had gone off to join the fighting on the continent, the Quartet had not played together in seven years. She had not heard anything about Mr. Enlow but supposed he must still be in the army.

The Quartet's concerts had been glorious, but the pain of the memory of her first meeting Lord Dommick made her insides twist like a kitchen rag being wrung of water.

She straightened her shoulders. She was a fool to allow old memories to hurt her. She continued up Milsom Street, although her steps resembled a march more than a stroll.

If those three bachelors were to remain in Bath, she would more than likely see them at the social entertainments of the winter months. One or all of them would be trapped by some well-meaning older woman into being introduced to Alethea, and she would need to admit they had already been introduced years ago in London.

But perhaps they were simply here for a day or two before travelling on to London or their estates. She might be worrying for nothing.

Alethea walked toward her aunt's home in Queen Square. It had been a new, expensive development during the time Aunt Ebena's husband had bought it, but in more recent years it had begun to fall out of favour, inhabited by a more dowdy set than the fashionable residents of the Crescent and Laura Place, and now the homes in Queen Square reminded Alethea of aging baronesses attempting to hide the ravages of time and neglect.

She was near her aunt's home when she heard from behind her, "Pardon me, milady. Might I have a word?"

She froze, partly because of "milady," and partly because the male voice was unfamiliar to her, uncultured, with a slick overtone that reminded her of cold congealed beef.

She should have simply walked on. After all, it could be nothing but trouble for a lady to be so rudely accosted on the street by a stranger. But because he'd startled her by knowing she was no ordinary miss, it gave him the opportunity to hurry around her stiff figure to stand before her.

She had anticipated the sticklike grey man from the marketplace, but she was almost relieved to find this man was different. He had a round belly that strained his bright yellow-and-green striped waistcoat and spindly legs encased in puce breeches. The puce at least matched the amethyst stickpin in his starched cravat, and the yellow stripes almost matched his blond hair.

Something tight coiled in Alethea's stomach at his audacity and the fact they were alone on this remote street. The general stamp of her neighbors were unlikely to bestir themselves to chivalry and rescue her.

"Mr. Golding at your service, milady. I wish only a moment of your time." The man's mouth curved in a strange V shape that tilted his eyes up at the corners and made his face seem to leer at her.

How did he know her rank? Was it a guess? Nothing in her plain straw bonnet, dark blue dress, and wool cloak indicated she was anything more than an upper servant. "Pray excuse me." She attempted to sidestep him, but he blocked her way.

"I have a lucrative proposition for you."

"Let me pass," she said.

"Perhaps you have in your possession a violin?"

Of all things he could have said, that was the last she expected.

"My employer is willing to pay a substantial sum, if you were in the mind to sell it," Mr. Golding said.

"Who is your employer?" she demanded.

"My employer wishes to remain anonymous."

"Of course he would," she said dryly, then realized the man hadn't identified his employer as a man or woman.

"You may name your price," he said. "Enough to buy another violin. Enough to afford better lodgings for yourself and your aunt."

The cold of the season suddenly made itself known to Alethea through her woolen cloak. How did he know about her aunt? Perhaps the same way he knew about her violin and her rank. The words had been amiable, but the man delivered them like a faint threat.

No, she was being silly. This was exactly like the time the new butcher in the village had tried to insist that the rotting meat he had delivered was the same quality as always. As lady of the manor at Trittonstone Park, she had put him in his place when she had the cook prepare a piece and demanded the butcher take the first bite.

She drew herself up. "I refuse to have any interactions with someone of whom I know nothing."

Mr. Golding's brown eyes narrowed, and his V smile flattened.

"However, should your employer wish to call with a note of introduction, I would be pleased to receive him. Good day."

She stepped around him and continued down the street as quickly as she dared. She half expected him to follow her, but instead she heard the heavy stamp of his footsteps moving away. She peeked around and saw his broad back, encased in purple superfine, as he headed away from her. He had turned the corner and was out of sight by the time she reached Aunt Ebena's door.

She was surprised by a post chaise stopped in front of her aunt's home. The coachman who stood holding the horses' heads gave her an insolent grin, which she froze with a cold glance. Raised voices sounded from behind the front door, causing Alethea to quickly enter the house.

The narrow front foyer was chaos. A trunk took up most of the space, while the rest was filled with a woman twice as broad as Alethea, shouting at Aunt Ebena, who stood firmly at the foot of the staircase.

"'Tis your responsibility now. I wash my hands of her!" The woman shook her meaty paws at Aunt Ebena.

Alethea's aunt was a good stone lighter but taller than the woman, and her gimlet stare could have set a small fire. "I was present at the funeral. The solicitor clearly stated that the girl was the responsibility of her blood relatives. Of which I am not."

A light voice piped up at Alethea's elbow. "You might as well sit down. They've been at it for at least fifteen minutes."

Alethea started. A small girl sat in one of the hallway chairs shoved against the wall. She had been partially screened by the door when Alethea entered the house, and she hadn't noticed her.

The girl calmly sat as though awaiting an audience with the queen. She could be no more than eleven or twelve years old, with light brown hair in rather wild curls. Her dress was too short for her, exposing tanned forearms and dirty shoes and stockings. She also had a dark smudge of something across her nose, and another streak across her chin.

Alethea had rarely interacted with children. She had not been close friends with the women in the neighborhood of Trittonstone Park since they did not understand her love of music and considered her something of an oddity, so exposing their children to Alethea's unconventional notions had been the last wish of their hearts. At a loss, Alethea blurted out, "You have something on your face."

"Oh?" The girl scrubbed at her cheeks with a sleeve, which caused a grey mark to appear.

"I think it's from your dress."

The girl peered at her sleeve. "That must have been from the dog at the inn. He was quite dirty."

The woman in the hallway bellowed, "You are expected to undertake your husband's responsibilities."

"Expected by whom? The blood relatives who should be taking a more active interest in this matter?" Aunt Ebena shot back.

"What is happening?" Alethea asked the girl, feeling foolish doing so.

"They're arguing." The girl's tone implied Alethea was a bit of a simpleton not to have deduced that already.

Alethea's gaze narrowed. "That much is obvious. What are they arguing about?"

"Me, of course."

"What about you?"

"Why, if I shall come here to live."

* * *

Alethea had a coughing spell for a few moments. "Here? With Aunt Ebena?"

The girl's eyes brightened. "She's my aunt as well. That means we are cousins."

"Who are you?" Alethea asked belatedly.

"Margaret Garen."

Garen. The name of Aunt Ebena's husband. Alethea realized Margaret was looking at her expectantly. "I am Alethea Sutherton."

"Pleased to meet you," Margaret said as if they had been introduced over tea.

"Why would you stay here? Wouldn't you rather be with your mother?" Alethea glanced at the strange woman, still arguing. The sounds echoed off the walls of the foyer.

"She's not my mother. She's my Aunt Nancy. My parents are dead." Margaret said the words with unconcern, but Alethea noticed the tightening of the small mouth, the clenching of her hands in her lap.

"When did they die?" Alethea asked gently.

"Eight months ago. I have lived with Aunt Nancy since then, but she is terribly stuffy."

Something about the way Margaret said the word made Alethea remember her own childhood, ruled over by nursemaids and governesses. Alethea had grown old enough to rather pity those poor women. "Does your definition of stuffy mean intolerant of frogs in the drawing room seat cushions or something of that sort?"

Margaret grinned. Her blue eyes lit up, and twin dimples peeked out from her round cheeks. "I knew there was something about you I liked."

Alethea realized with a powerful sense of dread that perhaps she was being punished for all the mice in shoes and charcoal drawings on bed sheets that she had inflicted upon her childhood servants.

"Try and stop me!" roared Margaret's Aunt Nancy. She whirled around.

Alethea jumped aside before the large woman crashed into her and then was nearly clocked in the forehead by the front door being yanked open. She stumbled backward and ended up sitting in Margaret's lap. The girl gave a great, "Umph!"

A swirl of chill wind, then the deafening slam of the door. Alethea was left staring at the suddenly quiet hallway, broken only by the sound of Aunt Ebena's angry gasps. "How—! How dare she—!"

Alethea felt squirming beneath her.

"Could you get off me? You're terribly heavy." Margaret pushed at Alethea's back.

Alethea regained her feet and stood. She caught sight of the butler, the housekeeper, and the cook peeking from around the corner of the stairwell, round-eyed and pale. The other servants were probably peeking from the top of the stairs.

Aunt Ebena pressed a bony hand against her chest, which showed up white against the black silk and lace of her gown. Her wide grey eyes took in Alethea, standing awkwardly next to the trunk, then Margaret's small form in the hallway chair. Aunt Ebena took a breath as she straightened to her full height, pressing her thin lips closed and looking down her beaky nose at Margaret. Hill, send for Mr. Garen's solicitor," she ordered the housekeeper. "We shall get to the bottom of this."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Prelude to a Lord by Camille Elliot. Copyright © 2014 Camy Tang. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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