Never Borrow a Baronet (Fortune's Brides Book 2)
Essex, England, March 1812
My, but life could be unpredictable.
Patience Ramsey peered out of the window of the elegant coach, gaze on the greening fields they passed, hand stroking the fur of the grey-coated cat in her lap. Raised in the country, spending the last three years as companion to the sickly Lady Carrolton, she had become accustomed to routine, solitude. A genteel lady fallen on difficult times could expect nothing more. At least, that had been her impression until she’d met Meredith Thorn of the Fortune Employment Agency, and Miss Thorn had introduced her to Miss Augusta Orwell.
“Gussie,” the tall, spare daughter of a baronet had proclaimed the moment they’d met at the family’s London town house on Clarendon Square. “Everyone calls me that. Well, everyone I like. And I like you. You have presence.”
Patience still wasn’t sure why the older woman had said that. She had never noticed a particular attitude when she looked in the mirror. Her long, thick, wavy hair could not claim the glory of gold nor the biddable nature of brown, and it was hardly visible in the serviceable bun behind her head. Her brown eyes could never be called commanding. And while her curves might be a tad more noticeable than Gussie’s, she was in no way approaching the status of an Amazon. Besides, a presence was not required to serve as a companion. Lady Carrolton would only have seen it as an impertinence.
But, before she was even certain she would suit in the new position, she had resigned her post with Lady Carrolton, packed her things, and boarded the Orwell coach for the journey to the Essex shore.
“As soon as we reach the manor, I must show you my laboratory,” Gussie said beside her now, continuing the rather one-sided conversation she’d begun when they’d left the inn that morning, having spent the night after leaving London. “I’m itching to try the gypsum I purchased in town. It will be just the thing for scrofulous eruptions. I know it. I don’t suppose you have any we might test the preparation on.”
Patience hid her shudder from long practice. If she could humor her previous employer, who had been convinced she suffered from every illness imaginable, she could surely deal with the irrepressible Gussie. After all, were not the peacemakers called blessed?
“Unfortunately, no,” she told her new employer. “But perhaps we can find some poor soul in need of help.”
Across the coach, Miss Thorn cleared her throat. She had presence. That raven hair, those flashing lavender eyes. And she had an enviable wardrobe. Today it was a lavender redingote cut away so that the fine needlework on her sky blue wool gown showed to advantage. Nearly all Patience’s clothes were grey or navy—Lady Carrolton had insisted on it—and none draped so neatly around her figure as the fashionable gowns Miss Thorn wore.
Then again, Gussie had insisted on having Patience fitted for new gowns and purchased accessories before they had left London. The dresses should arrive in a week or two, to be finished by the local seamstress, and the jaunty feathered hat, ostrich plume curling around Patience’s ear, sat on her head now. The entire wardrobe had seemed an extravagance, but Patience had learned not to question the vagaries of the aristocracy.
“I believe we agreed that you would not experiment on Miss Ramsey,” Miss Thorn said, looking down her long nose at Gussie.
Gussie waved a hand. “Of course, of course. It is merely my enthusiasm for the task speaking.” She turned to Patience. “You must tell me, dear girl, when I overstep. I want ours to be a long and happy association.”
How different from Lady Carrolton. Her constant complaints, her bitter spirit, had tried Patience in ways she had never imagined. She would be ever in the debt of her friend Jane Kimball, soon to be the Duchess of Wey, for suggesting that Patience might have the opportunity to change her circumstances.
She and Jane had sat together along the wall every week while Lady Carrolton took tea with her long-time friend, the Dowager Duchess of Wey, at the castle belonging to the duke’s family. Jane had served as governess to the duchess’s three granddaughters. Patience could only admire her dedication to the little girls. That and Jane’s bravery. Patience had been taught that silence was a virtue, that one should never state one’s opinions in company. Nothing stopped Jane from speaking her mind, not fear of losing her position, not concern that she might be deemed impertinent or a rudesby.
“If you ever want another position,” Jane had said on one occasion when Lady Carrolton had been particularly difficult, “I may know someone who could help.”
Even though something had leaped inside her at the thought, Patience hadn’t accepted Jane’s offer that day. Lady Carrolton had been kind to hire her when she had never worked before, had no reference other than the supportive words of the vicar. Surely she owed the lady loyalty, forbearance. Do unto others as you would have done unto you.
And then had come that terrible day when Lady Carrolton’s daughter, Lilith, had lashed out.
“How dare you presume to advise my mother on her medications?” she had spat, pale blue eyes drilling into Patience. “You have no education, no family of merit, absolutely nothing to recommend you. If you dare to contravene my suggestions again, I will see you up on charges. How well will you fare sitting in jail with no one to plead your case?”
It had been all Patience could do to hold back her tears until she had left the withdrawing room. All her selfless service, all her care, and this was her thanks? She had a gentlewoman’s education, little different from Lady Lilith’s. Her father and mother had been good, kind people who hadn’t deserved their deaths of the influenza. She had only been trying to help her ladyship over the illnesses that plagued her. It seemed none of that mattered in the Carrolton household.
There had to be some place she might earn respect, some work where she could find purpose and honor. A position under an employer with integrity, an ounce of human kindness, and an unwillingness to berate those around her.
Miss Thorn had been all understanding. Patience had thought it might take some time to find a new situation, especially as, once again, she had no reference. But she hadn’t been in Miss Thorn’s company more than a quarter hour before the woman had whisked Patience off for an interview with Miss Orwell. And Gussie had only asked a few questions before declaring Patience perfect for the role as her assistant.
Now, here she sat, leaving her former life behind, riding into a new bright future.
“Such a lovely creature,” Gussie said, eyeing Fortune, Miss Thorn’s cat, as she cuddled against Patience’s chest. “I don’t suppose she has any scrofulous eruptions.”
Miss Thorn put her nose in the air. “Certainly not. And you may not experiment on her either. Surely you remember our agreement.”
Miss Thorn had been very precise in her terms. Patience was to receive her own room, generous compensation, and a half day off every week in her role assisting Gussie in developing salves and lotions to improve the skin. The work could be no messier than tending to the ailments of a quarrelsome lady and with so much more purpose! Miss Thorn had even insisted on traveling out to the Orwell estate to make sure everything was as Gussie had portrayed it. She had been determined that the matter be settled quickly and precisely, and Patience was rather glad of it.
If everything happened quickly, she had no time for regrets or second thoughts.
“Of course I remember our agreement,” Gussie said with a sniff. “I remember everything. You might take note of that Miss…Thorn.”
Patience’s benefactress turned toward the window, but not before Patience saw her cheeks brighten with pink. Embarrassment? Impossible. Surely nothing could discompose the indomitable Miss Thorn.
As if she thought otherwise, Fortune roused herself and leaped across the space to rub her cheek against her mistress’ arm. Miss Thorn glanced down at her gratefully.
Gussie nudged Patience. “Look there, up that hill. That’s your new home.”
Patience turned to the opposite window. Though the sun was nearly at the western horizon, the air felt suddenly warmer, the day brighter. The fields had given way to fens and marshes, their grasses undulating in the breeze from the water. Close at hand rose a promontory studded with trees and topped by a sturdy, square manor house. The red brick glowed in the spring sunlight; the multipaned windows gleamed. She drew in a breath and caught the scent of the sea.
The proximity to the waves was even more obvious as they rolled across the causeway that led toward the promontory. To her right lay miles of tide flats, brown and muddy; to her left, the twisting maze of creeks and channels that made up the marshes.
“It floods on occasion,” Gussie said with a nod to the track. “I can remember springs when we didn’t see another person until after Easter.”
Patience’s stomach dipped, but she managed a polite smile. Since her parents had died, she had always been alone. The isolation of the house would make no difference.
They followed the drive to stop in front of the stone steps leading to the front door. A manservant in a navy coat and breeches came out to open the carriage door and then went to help the coachman with the horses. Patience followed Gussie and Miss Thorn up the steps, through tall white columns and the wide, red-lacquered front door into a spacious, dark-wood-floored entry hall. More white fluted columns held up the sweeping stairs leading to the second story, and opened doors in all directions invited her to explore the house further. But the portraits hanging from the high ceiling against the creamy stuccoed wall, life-sized and rich in their gilded frames, stopped her movement. Miss Thorn paused to eye them as well. In her arms, Fortune twitched her tail as if finding the portraits equally compelling.
“My grandfather,” Gussie said as if she’d noticed them staring at the swarthy fellow standing with his hand on a globe as if he owned the world. “He earned the baronetcy through some effort that pleased the Crown. A merchant, they say, making his fortune on the high seas. A pirate, if you ask me.”
Patience blinked. So did Fortune.
“That is my father,” Gussie continued with a nod to the next gentleman, who was seated beside a green baize table. “Nearly gambled away our entire fortune before his untimely death. My brother attempted to take up the challenge. He was killed in a duel over the accusation he had cheated at cards before we ever had the opportunity to have him painted.”
Patience swallowed. Fortune turned her face away.
Gussie’s censorious look eased into something warmer as she motioned to the final portrait of a man standing gazing out a window that looked very much like the ones on either side of the front door. “And then there’s Harry. I raised him as my own. They say heredity will out.”
Patience frowned. This fellow boasted a shock of mahogany hair, curling against his brow; blue eyes that gave no quarter; a solid chin that brooked no disobedience; and shoulders broad enough to take on any challenge. It seemed Sir Harold Orwell had inherited his forefathers’ chiseled good looks. How sad if he had inherited their less attractive attributes as well.
Through one of the many doors came a small fellow in the navy livery that must belong to the house. White hair, short cut, sat like a wreath about his head, leaving his dome bare. His round face was as wizened as a winter-nipped apple, and nearly as red. He hurried up to Gussie. “Your ladyship. I regret that you have guests.”
Miss Thorn turned from their perusal of the portraits. “Invited guests, sir.” Fortune drew back as if just as insulted by the comment.
He inclined his head in their general direction. “My apologies, madam, but I was referring to the other guests. The ones who arrived earlier this afternoon.”
Gussie frowned as she removed her hat and offered it to him. “Other guests? What other guests?” Suddenly, her eyes widened, and Patience would only have called the look horrified. “Cuddlestone, no! Please tell me it isn’t so.”
He sighed, so gustily that his chest deflated. “I wish I could, your ladyship. They claim to have been invited to stay for Easter. Sir Harry had already left. I could not in good conscience send them away before consulting with you.”
“You could, and you should,” Gussie insisted. She rubbed her forehead. “I will not allow this.”
Miss Thorn took a step forward, holding Fortune protectively close. “Is something wrong, Miss Orwell?”
As if in answer, there was a cry from above. Patience looked up to find a lady about her age on the landing. She rushed down before Patience could register more than pale blond hair and big eyes.
“Gussie!” She enfolded the lady in a hug. “You’ve returned! How marvelous. And with company.” She pulled back and aimed a happy smile all around. Every bit of her trembled with obvious joy, from the ringlets beside her creamy oval face to the pink satin bow under her bosom, to the double flounces at the bottom of her white muslin skirts.
Gussie drew in a breath as if overwhelmed to find someone even more effusive than she was. “Yes. Miss Thorn, may I present Miss Villers. I imagine her brother is about somewhere.”
“Taking a walk in the garden,” Miss Villers confessed. She inclined her head to Miss Thorn, who returned the gesture, and beamed at Fortune. Then she turned expectantly to Patience, who smiled dutifully. Would Gussie even think to introduce her? In the Carrolton household, she had become used to being overlooked. Good companions, as Lady Lilith had enjoyed saying, should be invisible.
“And you must meet Miss Ramsey,” Gussie said. “She’s going to marry my Harry.”
On the Essex shore below the manor that night, Sir Harry Orwell crouched on the sand, hooded lantern in hand and sea breeze fingering through his hair. Out on the waves, something flashed once, twice, so quickly anyone not looking for it might have missed it. He stood, returned the signal, and waited.
Around him, the grasses sighed. He nearly sighed as well. Responsibility bent a fellow, yet he would not wish it otherwise. To flee responsibility made him no better than his great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father. Yet he thought he shared at least one trait besides the family chin.
To risk was to live. His great-grandfather had chosen the saying for their family crest. Harry had grown up reading and believing it. He just chose different risks, risks he hoped would restore the family honor, once and for all.
A long dark shape grated against the sand. Harry moved forward to meet the smugglers.
Thomas Undene gripped his arm as the others climbed out of the boat and began unloading their cargo. No voice was raised to call out. Sound carried, and one could never be sure who might be waiting, even on English soil.
“What news?” Harry whispered.
Undene’s grip was hard. The village blacksmith, he had hands as strong as his vises. “No news. She never sent word, never met us herself. You’ve lost your informant, Sir Harry.”
Cold settled in his gut. Yvette, unmasked? It didn’t bear thinking about. The daughter of a deceased French count, she had been his eyes and ears in France, sending messages across that he saw safely to the War Office in London.
“You’re sure?” he pressed.
“Nothing’s sure over there,” Undene said. “She could have been imprisoned, she could have given up. She could have sold us out to old Boney.”
Never. Not his brave Yvette.
Something sparked on the fens, and he heard the bark of a pistol a moment later. The bullet slashed his arm, burning. The rush of warmth told him he was bleeding before the pain lanced through him.
“Down.” Undene tugged, and Harry flattened himself to the sand. Flashes and roars on all sides showed his companions fighting back. He only caught glimpses of them. Undene’s teeth barred in a snarl, Lacy’s arm extended with his pistol. Then they gathered what they could and ran.
He knew the routine. If the revenue men showed up, scatter in all directions, into the braided paths of the marsh, where no one could follow them. But if this attack came from the Revenue Service, why weren’t the agents calling out in the name of the King? Why weren’t other shadows dashing down onto the beach to confiscate the remaining cargo?
No time to find answers. Fingers pressed to his wound, closed lantern swinging, he stumbled into the reeds. All he could hear was his own ragged breath.
He forced himself to calm, to slow, to reach out with his senses. The moon hadn’t risen yet. He could just make out the tops of the grasses. No sound of pursuit. No whisper of friends or enemies around him.
But if he stayed here, they’d track him by the blood.
He removed his hand from the wound long enough to set down the lantern and pull off his cravat. His man Cuddlestone always urged him to try a more elegant fold. Harry’s method of folding was easier off; he quickly accomplished it and managed to wrap the cravat around his arm one-handed. Retrieving the lantern once more, he edged through the marsh toward higher ground, which led to the manor.
Lights from the withdrawing room warned him Gussie was home and entertaining the Villers. He hadn’t been completely surprised when the pair had shown up. It seemed they believed the door to the manor perpetually open. Gussie’s enthusiasm had that effect on people.
Fortunately, he had been able to slip away from the house without greeting them. He’d planned to head straight to London with any news Yvette sent, avoiding the house entirely. Only there was no news, and he needed somewhere to tend to his wound.
No use trying the front door and meeting cries of alarm. Likewise, the kitchen was out of reach. The fewer staff who suspected the true nature of his nighttime activities the better. He would have to slip in his bedroom window and pretend he had come in too late to be noticed. It wouldn’t be the first time.
The trellis was sturdily built—Gussie had made sure of it.
“Sooner or later you’ll climb down or up it,” she’d told him before he headed to Eton as a lad. “Might as well be prepared.”
Now he hid the lantern among the shrubs at the base of the manor and positioned his feet carefully, relying on one hand for balance. His arm was throbbing, demanding that he see to it. He’d have to prevent Gussie from trying one of her concoctions on him. He was never sure what was in them.
He heaved himself up to the chamber story and onto the balcony, then fumbled with the latch. The glass-paned door opened silently. He drew in a breath as he slipped into the room. But once past the thick curtains, he realized he must have been expected. A lamp glowed beside the bed, and a fire warmed the hearth. Count on Gussie to think of everything.
Even a welcoming committee.
The young lady stood beside the hearth. Hair flowed like honey about her slender shoulders. The loose nightgown whispered of curves beneath the creamy flannel. She’d picked up the empty coal shuttle and held it ready. Despite her willowy frame, he thought she was fully capable of swinging the thing at his head.
He spread his hands. “Forgive the intrusion. But may I point out that you are in my room?”