A Regrettable Reputation – Chapter One

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Chapter One

The two men moved softly through the undergrowth, making as little sound as they possibly could. It was full dark, with only a partial moon but they were both sure footed in the darkness and only the occasional crack of a twig marked their passing. The slope upwards was fairly steep, thickly wooded with little light filtering through. There was a smell of rotting leaves and pine trees and the cool scent of a summer night.
“Think this will work?” the younger man said. He was a slender boy of twenty or so dressed in threadbare clothing with an untidy mop of fair hair. The older man, stocky and shorter with weathered skin and narrow eyes, looked over at him and grinned showing broken teeth through the darkness.
“Course it will. Soaking corn in spirits is always the way to slow down the birds. We’ll be able to net them without using the gun and Grayson will hear nothing.”
“I can’t afford to get caught,” the younger man said. “My girl’s pregnant, she needs feeding properly, and we’re saving to be wed. If I…”
“Shh!” the older man hissed. They both froze but could hear no sound. Finally, the older man lifted his hand. “Nothing – thought I heard something. You got the bags, Jimmy?”
“Yes. You sure it’s safe?”
“Nothing up there. I told you, Grayson’s the worst game keeper in Yorkshire. He’s a drinker, won’t be awake now.” He glanced over at Jimmy Dee, peering through the darkness. “What about you? You not going to be missed with the new land agent in post?”
“He’s only a lad,” Dee said confidently. “Been here six months and he’s not raised his voice once.”
“Army man, isn’t he?”
“Veteran. Took a shot in the leg at Waterloo, he’s got a bad limp. Heard he got the job through his old commander.”
“Interesting. If he’s not up to it, lad, there could be rich pickings at Ashberry Hall.”
“Lay off, Felton! He might be green but he’s probably not that stupid!”
Dee stepped forward and then froze. In the clearing the pale light from the moon glinted off the dark metallic barrel of a gun. It was levelled at Dee’s chest in remarkably steady hands. Dee did not move. It had to be Grayson, Sir John Dennison’s gamekeeper who had clearly not been drinking this evening as expected. Dee dropped his game bags and lifted his hands.
“I’m not armed,” he said. “Don’t shoot.”
“Your friend is,” a voice said. “Drop the gun. Now.”
There was a moment’s hesitation and Dee heard an ominous click in the silence and felt terror melting his bones. “Felton, drop the bloody gun!” he said and he could hear the tremor in his voice. After a moment, Felton tossed the ancient fowling piece to the ground. The stranger took a step forward, his pistol still lined up on Dee and picked it up.
“Jesus Christ, tell me you weren’t planning on shooting anything with this heap of junk, it’s about a hundred years old and it’s so clogged up you’d blow your hand off!” the voice said, and Dee realised suddenly that it was not the gamekeeper. The voice was that of an educated man with no hint of a Yorkshire accent.
“Sir?” he said, surprised into speech. “Sir, is that you? Mr Witham?”
“It is, Jimmy. Neither stupid nor green, it turns out. I’m wondering why you thought I would be after eight years in the army. Turn around and back down that hill, double quick, both of you. And if either of you tries to run for it, believe me I will shoot you in the leg and then deliver you over to the magistrate to deal with. I’ve just caught you both fully equipped for poaching, he is going to rub his hands with glee given that it’s his land you’re poaching on. Move!”
The two men turned and headed back down the hill towards the road. Nicholas Witham followed them, careful on the uneven ground. His right leg was still stiff and hard to bend almost a year after he had been carried off the field after Waterloo in so much pain that he had believed at the time that he might not survive it.
He had a clear memory of lying, half conscious on a makeshift operating table listening to the surgeon giving instructions for an amputation. The stench of the place had been indescribable and there was a cacophony of noise which assaulted his ears, the cries of men in pain, the shouts of doctors and orderlies and a rumble of wheels as carts and wagons came in bringing more maimed and dying men. It was like being in hell and Witham had just wanted it to be over.
“Stop! Put that saw down, he’s one of ours!”
The voice had been a yell of fury and it had roused Witham from his semi-conscious state. The surgeon’s voice had been testy.
“Out of the way, sir, this leg needs to come off, I don’t give a damn which regiment he’s from! Do you want him to die?”
“No. But I want our surgeon to treat him. Your pardon, sir, I’ll get him out of your way.”
The voice was crisp, forceful and very familiar and Witham had opened his eyes and looked up into the face of Captain Leo Manson. It was black with smoke and the hazel eyes were bloodshot but considering what he had just been through the captain of the light company looked remarkably well.
“Nick, do not ever do that to me again, I thought you were bloody dead!”
Witham tried to smile and knew he failed. “I still might be, Leo.”
“Not if I’ve got anything to say to it. Come on, let’s get you out of here. Nan has set up at an abbey about four miles from here. A few of us are touring the field hospitals to see if we can find our lads. Taffy Evans told me you were here.”
“Nan?” Witham said in horror, remembering the news he had received just before the shot had hit him. “She can’t still be working!”
“Of course she’s…oh dear God, you don’t know, do you?” Manson had studied him and smiled slightly. “Lad, he’s not dead. He made it out. Christ only knows how, but he arrived back with us just as we were about to make the final push.”
Witham took a painful breath. He had found it hard to imagine his commanding officer dead although his informant had seemed very sure. He thought of the General’s young wife and tried to imagine how she had felt. “Oh thank God.”
“Come on, let’s get you up. You might still lose that leg, but I’d rather one of our doctors made the decision.”
Witham reached the road behind the two poachers. The light was brighter away from the trees and he studied the two men. “Name?” he said finally, looking at the older man.
“Felton, sir. Ned Felton.”
“Where are you from?”
“Over west, sir, out towards Wetherby.”
“Yes, sir. Mr Bordon’s estate.”
“And how many birds does he have left come the shooting season, Felton?” Witham said, and saw the man shift uncomfortably. “No, I’m sure you’re right. You’re not going to piss on your own doorstep, are you? Do you know what you’d have walked into if you’d gone over that hill, Felton?”
“No, sir.”
“Half a dozen man traps and a nice little welcoming committee that Grayson’s put together, guns loaded and ready. They’re onto you, lad.”
He saw Dee’s expression and repressed a smile. Felton looked more belligerent. “What makes you think…?”
“Oh for God’s sake try not to be more stupid than you can help! I was over at Sir John’s earlier letting him know that his sheep are straying again. I heard them planning it. They’ve got your name and they know your tricks. You go over there one more time and you’ll end up dead, maimed or tucked up in York prison waiting for the magistrates. Now piss off! You’ve dodged a six pounder here but only because I guessed you’d got my bacon-brained groom with you and he’s of some value to me! Next time you’re on your own. Stay away from Dennison’s coverts, stay away from Ashberry lands and stay well away from my lads or I’ll shoot you myself. And please don’t think I’ll hesitate. I spent five years shooting Frenchmen, it gets easier after a while. Go!”
Felton hesitated. “Yes, sir. But my gun…”
Witham thought about it for a moment. Then he broke the gun, emptied it and stared with some disgust at the clogged up mechanism. “You use it much?” he asked.
“No, sir. More for show.”
“You mean more for intimidating gamekeepers if you get caught! Well if you find yourself obliged to fire that thing I am telling you you’ll find yourself without a hand.” He tossed the gun to Felton. “Piss off,” he said quietly. “And don’t let me see you this way again. Find some other stupid young bleater to carry your bags for you, my lads are off limits.”
“Yes, sir.”
Witham watched as he slouched away then turned to Jimmy Dee who was regarding him warily. “Sir, I…”
Witham clouted him firmly over the ear. Dee gave a squawk of surprise and clutched his ear. “March!” Witham said. “I’ve left my horse further up the road. You, on the other hand, get to walk. In fact if I were you I’d run, because you’ve got a long and busy day ahead of you tomorrow! If you’ve got the energy to be poaching half the night with scum like Felton, it’s clear I’m not working you hard enough!”
He set off in the darkness, conscious as he always was when walking alongside another man, of his limp. The pain was only bad now at the end of a long day, and he knew that his mobility was increasing all the time. He had been lucky. If his friend had not found him, he would have lost the lower half of his leg and been hobbling around on a wooden replacement.
As it was he knew it had been close. Anne van Daan, the wife of his General who worked with the army surgeons, was known for her conservative views on amputation, but even she had doubted that Witham would keep his leg. By the time Manson had got him to her table, Witham had been fully conscious and he could remember meeting the lovely dark eyes through a haze of pain.
“Please,” he had said hoarsely. “Just try it. I’ll do whatever you say. Please.”
“Nicky, it’s a mess,” she had said frankly. “But to be honest I’m more worried about infection, you were out on that field for eight hours before they found you and then lying around waiting to be treated.” Her face softened into a smile. “All right. I’m going to make sure there’s nothing in it and sew it back together as much as I can. But it’s going to take ages and it’ll hurt a lot. And I’ll have to keep an eye on you. I can’t promise anything, you might still lose it. But we’ll try.”
Limping along to where he had left Sanchez, his black Spanish gelding, Witham thought about Anne van Daan with passionate gratitude. She had nursed him through his pain and fever and when he had finally been well enough to begin hobbling around painfully, to ride a horse and drive a cart, she had sat beside him and taken his hand with the easy familiarity which had made her beloved of the whole of her husband’s brigade.
“What now?” she asked. “Stay or go?”
Witham studied her. “Is it going to upset the General if I say go, ma’am?”
“No, Nicky. After five years of being shot at, ridden down by cavalry and used as cannon fodder I think you’re entitled to a rest, especially after Waterloo.”
“I’ll need to find work, ma’am. My brother has a good little estate but I can’t ask Harry to support me, he has a wife and family to take care of and both my sisters need dowries. He’ll house me for as long as I need him to, but…”
“He’s not in need of an estate manager then?”
“He can manage it himself, ma’am, we both learned that from our father.”
“I was wondering that. Had you thought about a position as estate manager elsewhere? It might suit you.”
“It probably would. Ma’am…”
“Nicky, I don’t want to interfere. It’s your life. But I know of a place which might suit you very well. It’s in Yorkshire, not far from my family home.”
“Lord Ashberry died last year. His son is now the Earl and has a number of different estates around the country. He is an enthusiastic member of the opposition and spends all his time in London. He’s a friend of my brother. Ashberry Hall has been neglected. It’s a big place, tenant farms and a home farm running sheep and cattle, some crops. And there’s a stud, cavalry stock and race horses. Very promising but needs a manager, and I know that you’re good at horses. Michael always said that next to him you were the best judge of horseflesh in the regiment.”
Witham had felt a little flutter of excitement. “Seriously? Do you think if I wrote to him…”
“I had a letter from an old friend of mine, Sir Julian Carew who is a neighbour. He’s been getting increasingly concerned about the estate, especially the condition of some of the tenant cottages. Apparently he wrote to Lord Ashberry who asked if he could look about him for a manager. Julian wrote to see if I knew of anybody. If you’re interested, Paul and I are very happy to recommend you. I imagine he’ll be pleased, he doesn’t want to be bothered.”
The process had been surprisingly easy, his way smoothed, he knew by the connections of his commander and his wife. Witham had found the Ashberry estate in poor condition, but with huge potential. He had been here six months now, working to painstakingly restore lands, cottages and stock to their former glory.
The stud was the best run part of the estate thanks to a dour, middle aged Yorkshireman who had been a sergeant of cavalry before a wound at Corunna had sent him home with his left arm permanently damaged. Taggart had been initially suspicious of the the appointment of a land agent of only twenty eight, fresh from Flanders and limping like a greybeard. But over the past months their relationship had thawed considerably, moving beyond a cautious respect to something which might have been friendship. Witham had come from a regiment of light infantry where officers and men had enjoyed unusually cordial relations. He was aware that Taggart found his informality odd but he seemed to be finally relaxing.
Witham could see his horse, tethered to a fence, up ahead. He glanced over at Dee who had walked in silence. “You struggling for money?” he asked.
Dee looked up sharply. “I’ve no debts, sir. Just…I want to be wed.”
Witham stared at him. “Do I know about this?”
“Don’t suppose so, sir. Her name’s Cara. She’s Irish, used to be laundry maid at the house until she was turned off.”
“She’s expecting, sir. Six months gone.”
“Where’s she living, Dee?”
“With her mother. It’s not ideal, they’ve a cottage in the village, her Ma takes in sewing and does scrubbing and hard labour when she can get it. Cara helps with the sewing. She’s good with a needle.”
“So why isn’t she working at that?”
“She was, sir, until recently. Apprenticed to a dressmaker and milliner in Thorndale but she was turned off because she fell asleep over her work.”
“I’m not surprised, they treat those girls like slaves I’m told. So you’re trying to save to be married.”
“Yes, sir. I’m trying to save my pay, but it’s hard. And she’s been poorly, they’ve not much to eat…”
“And you thought it was a good idea to go poaching with a slimy bastard like Felton instead of coming to me. I’m clearly not doing my job properly.”
“Sir, you are! Everybody likes you. It’s just…I didn’t think…”
“No, I suppose you don’t know me, do you? All right, Dee. There’s old Blakeney’s cottage empty now. It’s filthy and the roof leaks, I’ve done nothing to it because I’d more urgent needs. We’ll get the men out to repair it while the weather is fine and you can have it rent free for the first year. I’ll speak to the parson about getting the banns read.”
Dee seemed speechless. “Sir, we’ve no brass for a wedding.”
“You can pay it back in extra labour.” Witham stroked his horse’s neck and unlooped the reins. “You’re a silly young fool but you’re a good groom and I’d rather not lose you to prison or a gamekeeper’s gun. Right, get moving and get to bed. I wasn’t joking about tomorrow, I am going to be on your arse the entire day, you bloody owe me for this! And bring your lassie up to the Dower House after supper. We’ll talk then.”
“Yes, sir.”
Witham mounted and turned Sanchez, sure footed in the darkness. “Good night, Dee.”
“Night, sir. And sir?”
“Thank you.”
Witham was aware, through the following day, of a different atmosphere around the yard as he ruthlessly set Dee to work on a selection of tasks he had been putting off. The boy worked like a demon, barely speaking or lifting his head and Witham felt that he had made his point fairly well. But he was faintly amused by a somewhat more respectful attitude in some of the other dozen grooms and stable lads. He had found them a good enough lot but had not really formed much of a relationship with them apart from Taggart. He knew they regarded him as young for the job and were quick to test his authority. He had remained steady but until now had not felt the need to make an effort to assert himself.
After a brief visit to several tenants and a ride out to inspect some broken fencing and to give orders for it’s repair, Witham rode back to find Taggart waiting to take his horse. Dismounting with his bad leg could be an awkward affair and he appreciated Taggart’s tact in not offering assistance. He handed over the reins.
“Thank you, Taggart..”
“You’re welcome, sir. You’ve got a visitor.”
“Oh bugger, have I? I could do without it, I’m still tired today.”
“That’s what comes of being up half the night to save some stupid little bastard from York assizes. Happen you’ll know better next time.”
“Next time he can bloody rot. Who is it?”
“Sir Julian Carew, sir. He’s waiting for you up at the house.”
“All right, Taggart, thank you.”
He turned to limp up to the elegant Georgian mansion and heard Taggart’s voice. “Sir?”
“You did the right thing. He’s a good lad, a bit daft but he’ll learn. They’d have been all right if she’d not lost her place so early.”
Witham turned to study him. “Why did she?”
“Mrs Hogan doesn’t like immorality in the maids, sir.”
Witham took a deep breath. His opinion of Lord Ashberry’s grim Irish housekeeper was mostly unexpressed. “It’s hardly immorality if they plan to marry. I will have this conversation later,” he said. “Thank you, Taggart.”
Witham made his way up to the house. He had been offered the choice of accommodation at the hall or of living in the Dower House and he had chosen the latter without hesitation. The house had been neglected but he was gradually improving it and he enjoyed the sense of independence it gave him to have his own home. It was not large but the rooms were comfortable, and for Witham after five years of barns, draughty cottages and sleeping on open ground in the Peninsular, it was luxury.
Witham maintained an office in a small room close to the kitchens at the back of the hall. He liked being able to keep his working life separate to his living quarters and living separately meant that he was in no danger of feeling awkward if Lord Ashberry should suddenly take it into his head to visit his Yorkshire estates. The office was a comfortable parlour with a desk, shelving for his accounts books and ledgers and a small sitting area with armchairs around the fireplace for visitors. He found one of them occupied by Sir Julian Carew, a tall thin man in his thirties who greeted him with a pleasant smile.
“Evening, Witham. Busy day?”
“Yes, sir. Having a bit of a clear out in the stables, it’s long overdue.”
“I see. Good to keep the lads busy, it keeps them out of trouble.”
There was no mistaking his meaning. Witham, who liked Carew rather more than most of the local landowners, grinned. “Always a good idea, sir.”
Carew regarded him with some amusement. “You get there in time?”
“Only just.”
“How did you know?”
“I was up at Sir John’s trying to get him to see sense over his management of his bloody sheep and I heard them planning the trap in the book room. I knew Dee was up to no good, been keeping an eye on him.”
“Felton’s not a man for him to be running around with, he’s notorious, he’s poached over half Yorkshire.”
“Well he won’t be poaching much around here again if he’s got any sense,” Witham said grimly and Carew laughed.
“For such an amiable fellow you are surprisingly good at looking menacing,” he said, accepting the drink Witham handed him. “Really, sometimes one forgets that you must have had a fair bit of practice terrorising the French.”
Witham laughed and sat down. “There was seldom time in battle to strike a pose, sir. I’m not saying men didn’t but they tended not to survive the experience. But I did have a rather intensive training in putting the fear of God into my men. I’ve been trying to go softly with the lads here; need to remind myself that they’re not a company of new recruits who need whipping into shape. But I’m not having them getting themselves transported for poaching and Sir John is furious about the depredations among his birds. I’ll talk to young Dee later on, see if I can sort something out for him with his lassie since that seems to be at the root of this. And I’m going to have a conversation with the stable lads and farmhands, make sure they know my views on poaching since I don’t seem to have been clear enough thus far. But I’m boring you with estate business. How can I help you?”
Carew reached into his coat and drew out a folded letter. “I have a message for you from Lord Ashberry,” he said. “And since I rather suspect it has taken a while to reach me, I thought I should ride over in case events overtake you. This is very good madeira by the way, where did you get it? It can’t be from Ashberry’s cellar, he has the worst palate in the county!”
Witham laughed. “No, I’m not tempted to raid his cellars. It was a gift from the General, he sent a case when I first arrived as a welcome present. It is good isn’t it? But I am confused, sir – why is Lord Ashberry writing to you with messages for me?”
“What a very good question that is!” Carew said affably. “Wish my own estate manager could manage anything so intelligent. I couldn’t tell you, my boy, apart from the fact that it’s something of a delicate matter. But it isn’t his delicate matter so it still makes no sense to me. However, trying to make sense of anything Ashberry says or does is something I gave up years ago; man’s a pompous ass.”
Witham could not prevent himself from laughing but he shook his head. “You shouldn’t say so to me, sir, he’s my employer and a very generous one.”
“No wonder you’re so pleased with him; you never have to see him. And you’re not going to now, but you are going to be receiving a visitor at the Hall, and very soon from what Ashberry says.”
“There’s a house guest arriving. Not one that will trouble you much, I imagine, but since you’re bound to encounter her, you’d best know the circumstances. I don’t know how long she’ll be here but it could be a long time.”
“A lady, is it then?”
“After a fashion.” Carew grimaced. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. The truth is that the family has been hit by a scandal. Ashberry’s cousin has a stepdaughter, Miss Camilla Dorne, and it appears that she has disgraced the family and is being packed off to Yorkshire as a punishment.”
Despite himself Witham was intrigued. “Lord save us, what did the woman do?” he asked. “Dance with the wrong man?”
“Definitely the wrong man, but she did a lot more than dance with him. She had apparently been conducting a very passionate affair with a ne-er-do-well half pay officer called Thomas Seymour. It ended in an elopement. Her stepfather chased them down half way to Scotland and paid the man to go away. Cheaper than having him as a son-in-law. But the news got out all over London. He’d not waited for the wedding to take place, they were discovered sharing a bed in some seedy wayside inn and it seems that Seymour has been very forthcoming with the details. There are other girls in the family to be married off and Sir Edward Penrose is furious with her for damaging their chances and disgracing him. So she needed to be a long way away, and with Ashberry never coming near this place it seemed like a solution.”
“What of her mother?”
“Dead some years back. The girl doesn’t come into her inheritance until she is twenty five but it would have ensured her a respectable match. Now who would have her?”
“Will there be a woman to live with her?”
“She’s beyond a chaperone, and Penrose won’t pay for one. She’ll not be going into society, but she likes to ride so you can find her something from the stables and get the grooms to ride out with her when she wants to. Don’t let her trouble you otherwise.”
“I doubt she will. But it’s lonely out here, for a lass alone like that. What will happen to her?”
“I think as far as both Penrose and Ashberry are concerned she can stay here and rot,” Carew said briefly. “Lady Ashberry has apparently written to the housekeeper about preparing a room for her but you might want to speak to her as well.”
“I rather imagine I’ll need to if only to ensure she keeps a civil tongue in her head!” Witham said grimly. “Why on earth didn’t he write to me himself about it? Never mind. I’m glad I chose to live at the Dower House. What on earth is he thinking to let her come here without a proper chaperone?”
Carew gave a slight smile. “As I said, I think it’s rather a case of latching the stable door after the horse is bolted, my boy, she doesn’t have a reputation left to lose. I think it’s been rather brutal.”
“Poor girl. Look, thank you for coming over to let me know. I’ll speak to Mrs Hogan and make sure the place is ready for her. If I leave it to her, she’ll barely bother to dust the place.”
Carew laughed, drained his glass and stood up. “You’re not fond of Mrs Hogan I take it?”
“Mrs Hogan is an unpleasant woman. She’s also lazy and poor at her job. I’m not sure if she’s worked out yet that I have the right to dismiss her, but at some point I rather expect I will need to have that conversation with her. Thank you, sir, it was good of you.”
“Don’t mention it. You are a constant surprise to me, Witham. When I first met you I thought Ashberry was mad to let a boy of your age manage an estate like this but I was very wrong. If you ever feel like making a change, come and see me first, will you?”
Witham laughed. “I’ll remember it, thank you, sir.”
In the event it was several weeks before Miss Dorne made an appearance. It was a damp afternoon and Witham had spent the morning writing letters and doing accounts before joining the grooms as they exercised the racehorses. He rode back to the stables with the lads to find a post-chaise drawn up on the carriage drive with luggage strapped to the roof.
Witham sighed and waved for one of the grooms to come and take his horse. Common civility demanded that he at least introduce himself. He was aware of a sense of regret that the solitude of his life at Ashberry was about to be disrupted by the arrival of an unknown female but he was not prepared to leave her to the mercies of Lord Ashberry’s bad tempered housekeeper. Giving the lad some brief instructions about the horse, he walked up to the house as the driver was lowering the carriage steps and opening the door. Mrs Hogan was standing stiffly at the front door.
The woman who climbed down from the coach was of medium height, clothed in a dark travelling dress with a dark green pelisse over it and a small bonnet trimmed with feathers. She paused for a moment, looking up at the red brick of the house which was to become her home for a while. Witham could see no sign of a maid although he could not believe she had been allowed to travel without one. The girl looked at Mrs Hogan and the woman bobbed a reluctant curtsey. “Miss Dorne. I am Mrs Hogan, the housekeeper.”
“How do you do?” the newcomer said quietly. “I’ll try not to be a trouble to you.”
“No trouble, miss,” Mrs Hogan said, in a tone which made it clear that it was. “Your room is ready, if you’ll follow me. Ah – Mr Witham. Miss Dorne, this is Lord Ashberry’s agent who runs the estate. He lives in the Dower House which you will have passed on the drive.”
Witham approached the two women. Miss Dorne turned. “How do you do?” she said again.
Witham held out his hand. “Welcome to Ashberry Hall, Miss Dorne. We’ll try to make your stay as comfortable as possible.”
“Thank you.”
Her youth surprised Nicholas. He had been expecting an older woman given her unfortunate reputation but this girl could be no more than eighteen. She was slight and fair, with a pale oval face and expressive blue eyes. There were dark shadows under her eyes which looked like bruises. She looked painfully thin with a fragile delicacy which unexpectedly touched his heart. Whatever she had done wrong, somebody should be looking after this girl and she was here alone many miles from home and family.
Nicholas realised he was staring and that he had failed to release her hand. With a laugh he did so. “I’m sorry, Miss Dorne, you must think me a half-wit standing here staring. Mrs Hogan will show you your room and get you some tea.”
The well-shaped mouth twisted in a wry smile. “Don’t think of it, Mr Witham. Recently I have become very well accustomed to being stared at.”
There was bitterness in her tone. Nicholas smiled. “I wouldn’t worry about it here, Miss Dorne, you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’ll find yourself an object of interest to the horses and sheep but not much else. You must be exhausted, so I’ll let you get within and rest and eat. When you’re ready in a few days, come to the stables and I’ll find you a horse to ride. The grooms are at your disposal.”
“I prefer to ride alone, but thank you.”
“Well take one with you at least until you’ve learned your way about,” Nicholas said. “Good day to you.”
She disappeared inside the house and Witham stood watching as the servants began to unload her luggage from the top of the carriage. There was a sense of immense loneliness about her. It was hard to imagine her laughing and flirting with her lover before disaster had overtaken them. She looked defeated.
Mrs Hogan reappeared at the door, watching the last of the boxes being carried inside. “A hussy if ever I saw one!” she said sharply.
“For God’s sake, Mrs Hogan, she’s a child!” Nicholas said shortly. He was often irritated by Mrs Hogan although living at the Dower House kept contact with her to a minimum, but he was already concerned at her attitude to Camilla Dorne. The girl’s fragility had aroused a protective instinct in him.
“Not such a child that she couldn’t disgrace her poor family by behaving like a piece of Haymarket ware! She says she needs little from me, which is just as well, because it’s bad enough to have to have her in the house…”
“You’ll show her the courtesy that’s due a guest of Lord Ashberry’s, ma’am!” Witham cut in sharply. “And if you don’t, I’ll see to it that he finds another housekeeper who will!”
The woman took a deep indignant breath and opened her mouth. Witham held up a hand. “Enough! You’re a narrow minded woman, and that’s fine by me, but I’ll be watching you and if there’s a sign of rudeness to that young woman, you’re out!”
He watched, amused, as she stormed back into the house, and then turned and walked towards the Dower House wondering with some sympathy how Camilla Dorne would cope with the lonely isolation of Ashberry Hall.

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