Read A Christmas Charade Online
Authors: Karla Hocker
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1991 by Karla Hocker
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition December 2014
An Honorable Affair
Lady Maryann's Dilemma
A Daring Alliance
The Devilish Marquis
A Scandalous Lady
A Deceitful Heart
An Improper Companion
To Nick and Jasmin, with love
She stood at one of the window slits in the southwest tower, which, like the other three towers, was built to protrude defensively from the castle walls. She was a wraith of a girl in a full skirt of striped cotton, an overdress of some dark blue material, and a frilled mobcap so voluminous it threatened to swallow her face.
In the pale light of a quarter moon, she watched the shadowy figures hurrying to and fro between the old landing stage and the cliffs below the castle. Let them hustle and grunt and heave, those “gentleman” traders. Let them drag their precious goods, the casks and oilcloth-wrapped bales, into the safety of the hidden cave. Soon, lest they wanted to court danger and discovery, they must wait for the dark, moonless nights to carry out their trade. After forty-one years, Stenton Castle was about to open its gates once more.
Bold, defiant, invincible, the medieval stronghold of the Rowlands rose high above the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. None of the family had set foot inside the thick walls since the tragedy. No carriage had approached the Great North Gate on the road winding through the easternmost tip of the South Downs. No visitor had moored his yacht in the estuary where the Cuckmere River empties into the Channel at the foot of the steep cliff path leading to the castle’s western gate.
But soon she would see the change, she would witness life again at the castle.
A bitter wind howled through the narrow apertures, which, in the olden days, had served the defenders of Stenton to rain arrows, rocks, and hot tar on marauders. The wind did not bother Annie, but habit made her hold on to her mobcap while she watched the freetraders. After a moment she turned away. She left the tower and slipped into the south wing—the wing that had been responsible for the desertion of the castle and now was the cornerstone of her hopes and dreams.
When craftsmen from Eastbourne and Brighton, laborers from Seaford, West Dean, and East Dean invaded the castle in October and transformed the charred remains of the south wing into chambers and suites more elegant than they had been before the tragedy, she had cautioned herself not to get her hopes up. But when the women of East Dean arrived during the height of the November gales to scrub and polish, to sweep and dust the whole castle, it became increasingly difficult to stay calm. All this activity must mean something!
When every bit of Holland covering was stored in the attics, when every room smelled of beeswax and potpourri, Annie had stood in the oriel window on the landing high above the front door and witnessed the opening of the main gate, the Great North Gate. It was a gratifying sight, awakening memories of the brief time she had known the castle overflowing with family and visitors, with laughter and happiness—before the tragedy.
Four lads, two on each side, had pulled and heaved on the monstrous iron-studded gate wings until they could be secured against the gatehouse walls. Several wagons loaded with foodstuffs rumbled into the rain-slick cobbled yard, but what pleased Annie most was the fact that the gate had not been closed again. Surely, that meant more coaches were expected.
She was not disappointed. A butler, a housekeeper, a chef, and their minions moved into the servants’ quarters in the north wing. A sennight later, two valets, several grooms leading a string of horses, and even a gardener arrived at the castle. Though what a gardener would do in December was more than she could say.
Hope and excitement soaring, she flitted from room to room and listened to the staff as they talked in awed tones about the castle’s grandeur and whispered about the tragedy. The maids wondered if the south wing might be haunted and shivered when one of them said it surely must be. How could the poor duchess rest when she had so horribly burned to death with her children? Or the eight servants who had died trying to save their mistress and the little ones? It could not be wondered at if the poor souls walked at night in the south wing. No doubt, her grace would be heard keening and moaning in despair by those who’d occupy the rooms near the former nursery.
Annie could have reassured the maids that the duchess was very much at peace. And even if she weren’t, her grace had not been the type of lady to keen or moan. But Annie glided away, quite impatient with silly girls who ought to know better. What were they thinking? That a ghost, a restless soul, had nothing better to do with her time than waste it on a lot of useless spooking or haunting?
Disgruntled, she went after the butler and the housekeeper, whose conversation she preferred in any case. From them she could hear about Stenton House in Grosvenor Square; about the London markets, where rich and poor alike shopped for fish, fruit, and vegetables; about the parks where, during a free hour on a Sunday afternoon, a girl could walk with her beau; about
in London. Annie could not hear enough. The mere thought of London made her shiver with pleasure.
She was born and bred in London and had never intended to leave. But when her cousin Maude brought the news that a junior nursery maid was wanted for Stenton at thrice the wages Annie earned as a seamstress, there had truly been no choice. Annie Tuck had gone to the castle on the Sussex coast—and had been homesick every day of the forty-one years spent away from that bustling city she called home.
London. Someday, she would return. She must.
From Mr. Symes, the majestic butler, and Mrs. Rodwell, the always breathless housekeeper, Annie heard about Clive Rowland, Fifth Duke of Stenton, who had ordered the restoration of the south wing and the opening of the castle for a Christmas party. Mr. Reed, his grace’s valet, who had been sent ahead, confirmed that the invitations had gone out and, as far as he knew, had been accepted.
Annie had not known there was a fifth duke. The only Duke of Stenton she had ever seen was Edward Rowland, the fourth duke, who lost his wife and three children in the fire that gutted the south wing. But it did not matter which of the Rowlands planned to reopen the castle, as long as it
be inhabited once more.
Annie had waited forty-one years. A long time—even for a ghost.
One of the invitations sent out by Clive Rowland, Fifth Duke of Stenton, was delivered at an elegant manor house near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. The butler placed it beside Lady Astley’s plate, then handed the rest of the post and two papers to Sir John Astley.
Miss Elizabeth Gore-Langton was in the breakfast room with Sir John. She hardly ever received a letter, but no one who saw her stare at the folded vellum beside Lady Astley’s plate could suspect her of envy. The butler certainly did not. He rather thought Miss Gore-Langton looked flustered at the sight of the letter, her color fluctuating from pale to rosy pink and back to pale.
Sir John, shuffling through his own considerable stack of post, glanced up briefly. “Is that the Stenton frank on Louisa’s letter?”
“Yes.” Elizabeth’s voice was flat. “Yes, it is.”
“Good. Louisa will be pleased.”
, Sir John?” Elizabeth removed her gaze from the ducal frank in the corner of the letter and looked at her employer’s husband. “An understatement if ever I heard one.”
He chuckled. “Aye, she’ll be in alt.”
Elizabeth stirred cream and sugar into her tea. Yes, Lady Astley would be ecstatic. Sir John did not hide his pleasure either. If the letter contained the expected invitation, they would soon be seeing their son Stewart, who had returned from the Peninsula almost three weeks ago.
Juliette, the Astley’s daughter-in-law, had written that Stewart’s left arm had to be amputated just above the elbow. Although he was doing fine physically, he was in low spirits and did not wish to drive to Hertfordshire or have his parents come to London.
But, Juliette added, she knew how much they must wish to see their son. They must not worry; she would arrange everything. Her cousin, the Duke of Stenton, was planning a Christmas party at Stenton Castle. He had asked Juliette and Stewart to join him, and Juliette would see to it that the Astleys received an invitation. Then they could all be together at Christmas.
“I only hope Louisa will be strong enough for such a long journey,” said Sir John, whose thoughts had run along similar channels as Elizabeth’s. “But between you and me, we’ll make her as comfortable as possible. Won’t we, m’dear?”
“Of course we shall.”
Elizabeth knew she must go to Stenton with Lady Astley—if the duke had indeed issued the invitation. She had been engaged to make things as easy and comfortable as possible for the squire’s wife, who suffered from a weak heart. It would be the shabbiest thing if she were to ask for a holiday now, merely because she did not wish to see the Duke of Stenton.
The breakfast room door opened to admit Lady Astley, a frail-looking woman in her early fifties. Her delicate features had a pinched look, as though she had suffered a restless night. But her eyes lit up at the sight of the letter by her plate.
“From Stenton!” Bestowing smiles on her husband and her companion, she broke the seal and scanned the sheet of paper covered in a bold scrawl.
Elizabeth watched the glow deepen on Lady Astley’s face, and her heart sank. If she had harbored some slight hopes that the letter contained a polite excuse, that his grace could
have Sir John and Lady Astley stay at the castle for Christmas, these were now dashed. There was no doubt that the expected invitation had arrived.
“We are going to Stenton Castle!” Lady Astley exclaimed unnecessarily. “Elizabeth dear, we shall have to get busy packing!”
Elizabeth smiled. She could not possibly match Lady Astley’s enthusiasm—not if she must face the man with whom she had believed herself head over heels in love eleven years ago, but who had never noticed her beside her friend Rosalind.
Of course, she knew now that it hadn’t been love. Merely infatuation. She was no longer a green girl, a shy seventeen-year-old miss making her first curtsy to society. She was a staid, twenty-eight-year-old lady’s companion. She had acquired dignity and composure. And pride would see her through any embarrassment she might suffer when a gleam of recognition lit his dark eyes.
Tuesday, the eighteenth of December, 1810, was a clear, crisp day. A hint of snow hung in the air when Clive Rowland, Fifth Duke of Stenton, and his friend Lord Nicholas Mackay left London early in the morning. Snug in heavy, caped driving coats, Russian fur caps covering their heads, the gentlemen were undismayed by a snowflake or two, or by a blast of winter air. At five-and-thirty they might not be striplings, but neither had they reached the state of decrepitude that demanded a closed carriage, numerous rugs, and hot bricks.
The farther south the two gentlemen traveled, the less they thought about the weather and merely congratulated themselves that they had sent their luggage and valets ahead and, against the advice of well-meaning acquaintances, had chosen the duke’s racing curricle as their mode of travel. The lightness of the vehicle had twice saved them from getting mired, and the duke’s matched team of grays carried them swiftly over the first half of their journey.