Harriet, Lady Brierley, paced the lavishly furnished drawing room at Tenterfield Court, mentally rehearsing the words she would say to Sir Malcolm Poole. If she had known the baronet was hovering so close to death, she would never have made the journey from London at this time of year. She had not known, however, and, now she had come all this way into Kent, she might as well ask the questions to which she sought answers. She had come to Tenterfield to find the truth of the past, in order to help her friend Felicity Stanton come to terms with her sister’s death…and Harriet was certain that Sir Malcolm held the key to that particular puzzle.
Felicity’s older sister, Emma, had been just eighteen—an innocent girl seduced and impregnated, who had seen no way out of her predicament other than to take her own life when the man she’d believed loved her had cruelly abandoned her.
Harriet suppressed her shiver. She could so easily have suffered the same fate. Was that why she had been so quick to come to Tenterfield? The empathy she felt for Felicity’s poor sister? There but for the Grace of God…
She crossed the room to stand again before the portrait of the baronet, painted in his younger days, although he was still far from being an old man even now. He gazed down at her, devastatingly handsome, with his lean aristocratic features, dark auburn hair and deep green hooded gaze. Harriet shuddered, partly at the knowledge of what this man was—or what he had been, in the past—partly at his resemblance to… Resolutely, she steered her thoughts in a different direction. This trip was bound to resurrect painful memories… She must rise above them…concentrate on—
‘Lady Brierley. To what do we owe this pleasure?’
Harriet froze. It could not be. Had she conjured him up in the flesh, just by allowing her thoughts one tiny peek at those memories? Moisture prickled her palms even as her mouth dried. She drew a calming breath, gathered her years of experience in hiding her feelings and turned.
He was framed in the open doorway.
After all this time.
He had the same long, lean legs and wide shoulders, but this was a man, not the youth she’d once known. His chin was just as determined but the high forehead under the familiar fox-red hair now sported faint creases. His lips were set in an uncompromising line and his leaf-green eyes pierced Harriet as he stared into her face, his gaze unwavering. A cat stalking its prey could not be more focused.
Harriet swallowed past the jagged glass that appeared to have lodged in her throat.
‘Good afternoon, Mr Poole.’ Had those composed words really come from her lips? She took courage. She had faced worse than this. ‘I apologise for calling uninvited. I did not realise your…’ What was his relationship to Sir Malcolm again? All she could recall was that he had been Benedict’s guardian. ‘Sir Malcolm was so very ill. I had hoped for a few words with him.’
‘He is my second cousin. I’m the only other Poole left now.’
The platitude slid readily from her tongue. She wasn’t sorry. The world would be well rid of the Pooles. But she would remain polite. Let nothing of her bitterness show. Sir Malcolm had spent his life in pursuit of his own pleasures, a dissolute rake with not a care for the ruined lives he left in his wake. Felicity’s poor sister had been just one of his victims. And Benedict had proved himself equally as contemptible, equally as careless of the heartbreak he had left behind. Hardly surprising with Sir Malcolm as his only role model since childhood.
Benedict prowled into the centre of the room, nearing Harriet. The very air seemed to vibrate between them. She stood her ground, although she could not prevent a swift glance at her maid, Janet, who had accompanied her, sitting quietly on a chair near the beautifully carved stone fireplace. Benedict followed her gaze.
At least I am not alone.
‘Why are you here?’ The words were softly spoken. Benedict’s green eyes bored into Harriet’s. ‘Did you think to wed another wealthy man on his deathbed?’
‘Brierley was not on his deathbed! And I had no ch—’ Harriet shut her mouth with a snap. She’d endured over seven years with that lecher. Seven years of misery and disgust, empty arms and a broken heart, all because of Benedict Poole.
She had not in a million years thought to meet him here. He had gone overseas—right to the other side of the world. And even that was not far enough away for Harriet. Hatred for this man rose as the long-suppressed memories cascaded through her thoughts.
His lying words. His false promises. All of it.
She concealed any hint of her feelings. He must never know how her heart still ached for what might have been. She braced her shoulders and raised her chin.
‘If Sir Malcolm will see me, I should be grateful for a few words with him.’
She glanced at the window—the clouds had blended into a uniform white vista of nothingness and she saw a few snowflakes flutter past. The snow that had threatened all morning as she had travelled deeper into Kent had finally begun to fall.
‘I should like to leave before the weather takes a turn for the worse. If you would be so kind.’
Benedict bowed, and gestured towards the door. ‘Your wish is my desire, my lady,’ he said, his words flat and emotionless.
She stalked to the door, passing close by him…too close… His scent flooded her senses…triggering such memories, arousing emotions she had never thought to feel again. His unique maleness: familiar, even after eleven long years, spicy, heady…and…brandy. Brandy? This early in the day? He was a Poole through and through. Nothing had changed.
Harriet swept into the spacious inner hall, from which the magnificent polished oak staircase swept up to the first floor. The evidence of Sir Malcolm’s wealth was everywhere, from the exquisitely executed landscapes hanging on the walls to the elegant Chinese porcelain vases and bowls that graced the numerous console tables to the magnificent crystal chandelier that hung over the central circular table complete with its urn of jessamine, lilies and sweet bay. In February! For all his wastrel tendencies, Sir Malcolm had clearly not exhausted his vast wealth. And, presumably, Benedict would inherit it all. Plus the title. No wonder he was here, with his cousin at death’s door. He deserved none of it, but she would not allow him to sour her. Never again.
They spoke not another word as they climbed the stairs side by side, and walked along the upper landing, Janet on their heels. Harriet told herself she was pleased. She had no wish to exchange forced pleasantries.
They reached a door, which Benedict opened.
‘Lady Brierley, to see Sir Malcolm,’ he said, before ushering Harriet and Janet through, and closing the door firmly behind them.
It was baking hot in the room, which was not the master bedchamber, as Harriet expected, but much smaller, and decorated—tastelessly, in her opinion—in deep purple and gold. The fire was banked high with coal, blazing out a suffocating heat, and Harriet felt her face begin to glow. With an effort, she refrained from wafting her hand in front of her face. It was so airless and the stench caught in the back of her throat. How could anyone get well in such an atmosphere?
The huge bed dominated the room, the level surface of its purple cover barely disturbed by the wasted form of the man lying there. It was hard to believe this was the same man she had always known as strong and vital. He looked ancient but—she did a quick mental calculation—he could not be much more than eight and forty. Sir Malcolm’s face was skeletal, the bloodless skin slack, and yet his eyes were still alert, dominating his shrunken features. Those eyes appraised Harriet with the same cold speculation she remembered from both her childhood and from the times her path had crossed with Sir Malcolm’s during her marriage to Brierley. Disgust rippled through her.
‘Heard I was dying, did you?’ The voice was a dry, cracked whisper. ‘Thought you’d have another shot at snaring Benedict’s inheritance?’
‘I have no interest in your cousin,’ Harriet said. ‘I am sorry to find you in such circumstances, but I have come on a quite different errand. I did not know you were ill, and I certainly did not know Mr Poole was here, or I would have thought twice about crossing your threshold.’
He croaked a laugh. ‘That’s as well for you. His opinion hasn’t changed since the first time you tried to trap him. Even as a youngster, that boy was no fool. A Poole through and through. He could see straight through you then and he’ll see straight through you now. He’ll look higher for a wife than Brierley’s leftovers, that I can promise.’
Harriet bit her tongue against rising to his provocation. It seemed even the imminent judgement of his maker could not cork Sir Malcolm’s vitriol. She cast around for the appropriate words to ask him about Felicity’s sister. When she’d decided to come to Tenterfield, she hadn’t anticipated trying to persuade Sir Malcolm to tell her the truth on his deathbed.
‘Well, girl? What d’you want? I haven’t time to waste pandering to the likes of you. Tell me what you want and be gone. You hear, Fletcher?’ He addressed the servant standing by the window. ‘This lady is not to spend a minute more than necessary beneath my roof.’
The man bowed. ‘Yes, sir.’
Harriet tamped down her anger. ‘I wish to ask you about something that happened in the past. Do you recall Lady Emma Weston? She attended Lord Watchett’s house party at the same time as you, in the summer of 1802.’
Sir Malcolm’s lids lowered to mask his eyes. ‘How do you expect me to remember one chit out of so many?’
‘She was Lady Baverstock’s daughter. It was the year following Lord Baverstock’s death.’
His thin lips parted and Harriet recoiled as his tongue came out to touch his lip. ‘Ah. Yes, indeed. The golden angel.’
Nausea churned Harriet’s insides. Time had softened the memory of quite how contemptible Sir Malcolm had always been, despite his wealth and his handsome face. He had, however, been irresistibly charming to the young innocents he had targeted, and Harriet quite understood how a naive young girl could fall for his silver-tongued lies. She had been fortunate to be immune from his attempts to seduce her when she was young enough to appeal to his tastes. She had resisted, thinking herself in love with Benedict. Time had proved she was just as naive as poor Lady Emma, whom she was now convinced Sir Malcolm had seduced and impregnated and abandoned. Emma had escaped by taking her own life. Harriet had not been so cowardly—or, mayhap, so brave—when her heart had been broken, although…there were times during the years following her marriage to Brierley when suicide had seemed an enticing option.
‘So it was you,’ she said to the man in the bed. ‘She wrote to you, after the summer you met. She was in love with you.’
His head twitched to one side. ‘I said I met her. I admitted to nothing else.’
But Harriet knew, without a shadow of doubt, that Sir Malcolm was the man who had despoiled Felicity’s sister. He had been a rake of the very worst kind; she did not need his confession. She leaned in close, breathing through her mouth to avoid the sour smell emanating from the bed.
‘She killed herself! You seduced her and abandoned her, and she killed herself because she was carrying your child.’
He looked at her, his slitted eyes glinting. ‘Best thing for her. One less fatherless brat to worry about. Isn’t that so, my lady? Although you could not even manage that, could you? Lost it, as I recall. Careless of you.’
Harriet reared back, pain ripping at her heart. She must get out. Now. She should never have come. She suddenly realised this trip hadn’t just been about Emma but about her, too—an attempt to make sense of the path her life had taken since she had fallen in love with Benedict. And she saw that she and Emma were the same: gullible victims of men who used and abused them and abandoned their responsibilities.
‘I hope…’ The words dried on her tongue. No, she would offer no comfort to this loathsome man, dying or not. She marched to the door.
Outside, the door firmly shut again, Harriet leaned against the wall, dragging in deep, shuddering breaths. Janet fumbled in her pocket and offered smelling salts. She had been with Harriet since the very early days of Harriet’s marriage to Brierley, and had proved herself a loyal and protective friend to the young, bewildered bride. Harriet had long blessed the day the older woman had been appointed as her maid.
She waved the salts away. ‘No. I will not faint, I promise you. I am trying to calm my anger,’ she said, forcing a smile to set Janet’s mind at rest.
She glanced back at the closed bedchamber door. How could such a man have lived with himself all these years? She pushed upright and shook out her skirts, smoothing them.
‘Come. Let us go. We must get back to the Rose as soon as we can in case the snow begins to drift.’
She had reserved accommodation at the Rose Inn at Sittingbourne, a bare four miles from Tenterfield Court, on their way through from London. The plan was to stay there the night and return to London the following day, when Harriet would tell Felicity what she had discovered. She must hope the news would not prove too upsetting for her friend, who was now with child herself. Harriet ruthlessly quashed her ripple of envy that Felicity would soon be a mother.
She was thankful there was no sign of Benedict as they descended the stairs and went through the door to the panelled Great Hall with its ancient blackened stone hearths at either end. The butler sent word to the stables for their hired chaise and four to be brought round to the front door, and a maid ran to fetch their travelling cloaks, muffs and hats. It was cold outside and they had prepared well for the journey from London, with blankets and furs piled in the carriage.
‘The chaise is outside now, milady,’ the butler said. ‘Take care, it might be slippery. Cooper here will help you.’
A footman, well wrapped up, stepped forward and Harriet took one arm whilst Janet took the other. They emerged into a world transformed. The air swirled white and she could barely make out the trees that lined the sweeping carriageway that led from the house to the road. The easterly wind had picked up, gusting at times, and blowing the snow horizontal, stinging Harriet’s cheeks. The waiting horses stamped their feet and tossed their heads, blowing cloudy breaths down their nostrils as the hapless post boys hunched on their backs. Harriet hoped they had been given a warming drink in the kitchen; she did not doubt they, like her, would be glad to reach the inn where they were to spend the night.
Harriet clung tightly to the footman’s arm, feeling her half boots slide on the stone steps as they descended warily to the waiting chaise. She looked across at Janet at the very same moment the maid released Cooper’s arm to hurry down the last few steps, presumably to open the door ready for Harriet.
It was too late. A shriek rose above the howl of the wind as Janet missed her footing on the second to last step. Her feet shot from under her and she fell back onto the steps, one leg bent beneath her.
‘Oh, no!’ Harriet hurried as best she could to where the maid lay. ‘Janet? Are you all right?’
‘Yes, milady. I—’ Janet screamed as she tried to rise, a high-pitched, sobbing scream. ‘Oh, milady! My back! It—aargh! My leg! I can’t move it!’
‘Oh, good heavens!’ What if it is broken? Harriet remembered only too well the pain of broken bones, a pain that, in her case, had been numbed by a far greater agony. She thrust those memories back down where they belonged. In the past. ‘Can you carry her to the chaise, Cooper?’
The footman bent to lift Janet, but the maid batted him away. ‘No! Don’t touch me. It hurts!’
Harriet crouched down next to Janet, taking her gloved hand. ‘We cannot just leave you here in the snow. You’ll freeze to death.’
‘I can’t bear to move, milady. I can’t bear it. And I can’t go in that yellow bounder, not the way they drive. I cannot.’ Her words ended in a wail.
Now what was she to do? Harriet stared through the driving snow to where the chaise and four still waited. It was barely visible now. The weather was worsening. She must move Janet somehow.
‘Allow me.’ A hand gripped her shoulder as the deep voice interrupted her inner panic.
Her instinctive urge to shrink from his touch battled against her relief that help was at hand. She glanced round, taking in his hard eyes and tight-lipped mouth, and she clenched her jaw. Janet must be her only concern.
‘Thank you,’ she said.