An Honorable Gentleman
November 2011 (ISBN 0-373-82893-7, Love Inspired Books)
When the owner of ramshackle Blackcliff Hall arrives, the locals have high hopes that Sir Trevor Fitzwilliam will set things to rights. Chief among them is Gwen Allbridge, the estate manager's daughter, who has single-handedly kept Blackcliff Hall going. Now she must convince Sir Trevor to stay and make the hall, and the village depending on it, prosperous again. Her faith in him makes Trevor yearn to live up to the ideals she holds dear. As mysterious mishaps begin plaguing Blackcliff, Gwen's steadfast courage will rise to meet Trevor's newfound honor as they learn that there's no dream like home.
"Dolly the oversized mastiff nearly steals the spotlight. Readers will be most delighted." -- RT Book Reviews
"This story was full of the unexpected. Not letting you know quite who was up to what and not sure what direction it would go until near the end. Excellent romance with plenty of adventure and intrigue as well." -- Just Judy's Jumbles
Blackcliff Hall, Cumberland, England, 1811
Someone else was in the house.
Sir Trevor Fitzwilliam stopped in the center of the bedchamber he had been considering making his own and listened, head cocked. Blackcliff Hall muttered the usual creaks and groans of a house built nearly two hundred years ago and left for the last two months to itself. He'd already determined the cavernous place to be empty of servants save for an elderly fellow who'd taken his horse at the stables. And servants were generally silent in any regard.
From downstairs came the sound of a door closing. Trevor's head snapped up. He slipped across the Oriental carpet and flattened himself against the heavy oak paneling of the wall. Over the last few years he'd made enemies helping his father and aristocratic friends solve personal problems like blackmail and bribery. Any one of a number of vengeful men could have followed him as he made his way north and east into Cumberland. Any one of them could be searching for him even now.
But if it was a choice of hunt or be hunted, he'd far prefer to hunt.
He glanced out the door, but nothing moved along the wide, oak-paneled corridor that crossed the chamber floor of the gray stone manor house. He knew the main stairs squeaked; he'd frowned at the noise on the way up. From the dust-covered furniture to the cobwebs dulling the brass chandeliers, the place reeked of neglect. The only lamp that was lit was the one he'd set on the bedside table.
How kind of his father to hand the god-forsaken place over to him.
Another door closed, and footsteps echoed a moment as the intruder crossed a space of bare wood. From the drawing room to the entry hall, perhaps? He seemed to remember a span of dark wood floor separating the ruby-patterned carpets in the two rooms. If his enemy was anywhere near the entry hall, Trevor would be a fool to take the main stairs down.
Instead, he followed the upstairs corridor for the servants' stair at the end. His footfalls on the thick carpet were silent. The suits of armor that stood sentry in recesses along the corridor watched his passage. He paused only long enough to relieve one of its swords. The blade was long and heavy in his grip, the steel icy. The sword was also dull as ditchwater, he had no doubt, but his adversary wouldn't know that. At the very least, it would serve as a club. Trevor slid into the servants' stair and closed the door quietly behind him.
The white-washed stair was circular, winding up to the schoolroom and down to the main floor, he knew. A window high above let in enough of the fading twilight to allow him to pick his way down. But even as he made the first turn, something moved below. He pulled back before he could be sighted.
There was more than one of them then.
Hand tight on the sword, breath tight in his chest, he rushed down the final turn, ready to fight for his life. The only thing that moved was the side door, swinging in the cool evening breeze. Outside, a covered walkway swept down to the laundry outbuilding. In the autumn gloom the path stood as empty as the rest of the house had been when he had arrived an hour ago.
He'd known it was chancy at best to show up unannounced for the first time at the estate he'd been given when he'd been made a baronet. He'd expected a flurry of activity to greet his arrival-grooms running to stable his horse, maids hurrying to make up a bed with fresh linens, a chef bustling to prepare him a feast.
But no one had answered his pull of the bell at the gatehouse, and in the end, he had decided to push open the tall wrought iron gates on his own and ride up the graveled drive. The house was imposing enough, a long block of gray stone, solid and strong, with a separate laundry room a little distance away on one side and kitchen on the other. Trees clustered to the left and right, and gardens lay front and back, but the most visible feature was the black mountain from which the house took its name, rising swiftly in the background.
He had no doubt Blackcliff Hall commanded the west end of the Evendale Valley. Yet, as guardian of the area, it stood unlocked, unlit and unoccupied. Trevor hadn't been expected; he certainly hadn't been welcomed. Now he had to make sure he didn't pay the price for his unheralded arrival with his life.
He shut the side door and shot the bolt, then stood listening a moment. The house was silent around him, as if holding its breath. Where were they?
He eased open the door to the main floor. He knew from his exploration on arrival that the corridor ran past a reception hall on one side and a library and music room on the other to end at the entry hall and the withdrawing room beyond. With the doors closed and the lamps out, the corridor was a black tunnel with a faint gleam of light at the end from the windows flanking the front door. He'd have to pick his way carefully, but right now the shadows were his friends.
Trevor slipped down the corridor, ears straining for a noise to locate his enemy. He hadn't crossed half the space before footsteps thundered up the main stairs. He pulled up short, heart pounding along with the noise.
How many of them were there?
For a moment, he considered leaving. Surely the little village a stone's throw away from the manor boasted a constable. If Trevor could get to the stables, no horse could catch Icarus. He glanced back at the door to the servants' stair and the outdoors.
All your life you've wanted something of your own. Will you let them steal this from you, as well?
He wasn't sure where the thought came from; he didn't think to ask. He knew in his heart it was right. He squared his shoulders and faced front again. Derelict or not, this was his home now. He had plans for it. He would leave only when he was ready.
He crept down the corridor for the entryway, debating his choices. He could follow them up the stairs, but they'd hear him coming. He could wait at the bottom, but they'd have momentum on their side. He needed something to stop them, to trip them up so he could gain the upper hand. He reached the entry hall and darted across, careful to keep his boot heels from touching the parquet floor. The furniture in all the rooms was of massive mahogany. Moving it would take time he didn't have, and even in the dim light he thought they'd see it on the stair.
But, if he remembered correctly, a stone statue of a shepherd, about knee high, rested in the corner. Placed partway up the stairs, the cheery lad would make an excellent stumbling block. Trevor slid into the corner and frowned. The space was empty, and he thought he could make out a bare spot in the dust of the floor. The shepherd, it seemed, had seen fit to move since Trevor had passed him an hour ago.
What would anyone want with a stone shepherd?
Nearby, wood scraped on wood. At least one of them was on the main floor then, but doing what, Trevor couldn't know. Why didn't they come for him? Had he mistaken their purpose? Was it Trevor they wanted or the house's treasures? Either way, he wasn't going to give up without a fight.
He backed into the withdrawing room and looked around. Someone had left a lantern, partially hooded, near the bow window. The glow bathed the settee, sturdy arm chairs, wood-wrapped hearth and sundry side tables in gold and left the back of the room draped in shadow. He hadn't done more than glance in here when he'd arrived, but he didn't think anything was missing.
Indeed, something had been added. The stone shepherd was standing in the center of the blood-red pattern of the carpet.
A chill ran up Trevor. But he didn't believe in ghosts, or statues that moved by themselves. Some days he wasn't even sure he believed in God, at least not a god who cared for humankind. His life was proof that a gentleman only had himself to rely on. But what would his enemies want with a statue, and why had they abandoned it? Keeping an eye out for movement, he crossed to the statue and picked it up with his free hand. The piece was heavier than he expected, the stone cold in his grip. He jiggled it up and down, but nothing rattled to indicate a secret compartment. He turned it front to back, but in the dim light he couldn't even be sure of the stone used to carve it, let along any distinguishing marks.
"Put that down."
Fool! Why had he looked down, even for an instant? Trevor turned slowly toward the voice, ready for anything. What he'd taken as a solid wall across the back of the withdrawing room was clearly a pocket door allowing access to the dining room beyond. Framed in the doorway was a cloaked figure, shorter and slighter than him, a lad by the timbre of his voice. Trevor could have taken him easily, if it weren't for the pistol extending from the shadows in his gloved hand.
"Is it valuable, then?" Trevor asked, making a show of eying the statue even as he eased closer across the carpet toward the fellow.
"You wouldn't have come to steal it if you didn't think so," the lad countered.
Trevor cocked a smile and took another step closer. "Takes one to know one, eh? What are you after?"
The pistol was lifted to aim at his heart. "Anyone who dares disturb this house. Now-Put. That. Down."
"Certainly," Trevor said. "Catch." He hurled the statue at the fellow and dove into its wake. The statue fell with a thud against the carpet, and Trevor and the intruder went down in a tangle of arms and legs, sword snared in the cloak.
The pistol roared, the flash blinding him for a moment. His heart jerked, but he felt no wrenching pain, no blow from a lead ball.
"Now look what you've done!" his captive cried, obviously unhurt, as well. "Dolly! Dolly, here!"
In that second, Trevor realized two things. Something very large was thundering back down the stairs.
And the person he held pinned to the floor was a woman.
Gwendolyn Allbridge glared up at the man who held her flattened to the carpet. With the lantern across the room and behind him, all she could make out was height and strength. The arms that pushed on her shoulders were like pillars of polished oak. She wiggled against the pressure but only managed to press herself deeper into the pile of the carpet.
"Let me up!" she demanded. "Dolly!"
To her surprise, he immediately released her and rose. She scrambled to her feet, breath coming in gasps. Taking a step back, she nearly tripped over the useless pistol, its single ball spent. She should have brought both her father's pistols. She should have woken her father and made him come up to the house to investigate the strange lights himself. She was unarmed and alone with a looter in an empty house, and no one would hear her if she screamed.
Well, no human, perhaps. Dolly bounded through the door, a dappled mountain that only looked larger with the shadows thrown by the lantern. The mastiff took one look at the intruder and bared her teeth. Her growl reverberated through the room.
"What on earth?" he said. "You have a trained bear?"
She smiled at his confusion. Dolly was the largest mastiff ever bred in the Evendale Valley. Her massive head reached above Gwen's waist, and, at nearly two hundred pounds, she outweighed her mistress by over sixty.
"She doesn't like strangers," Gwen said. "I'd leave now if I were you." Dolly let out a bark, deep and demanding, and he took a step back.
"I fear I have two problems with leaving," he said, and she was a little disappointed he didn't sound more terrified. In fact, he didn't sound like the vagrant she'd expected. His voice was educated, cultivated. And, if she didn't know better, she'd have thought he was amused.
"And what would those be?" she asked sweetly while Dolly growled and prowled closer to him.
"Your bear is standing between me and the door," he replied. Then he turned his head to look at her. "And I own this house."
Gwen's breath left her lungs in a rush. But it couldn't be. They'd received no word, seen no one at the gate. Two months had gone by since Colonel Umbrey, the previous owner, had passed on, and they'd only just heard the estate had been sold.
"Prove it," she challenged.
He sketched her a bow that made Dolly pull up with a grunt of surprise. "Sir Trevor Fitzwilliam, baronet, of Blackcliff Hall," he said, "at your service. And you would be?"
"Unconvinced," Gwen said. "Dolly, come!"
The mastiff edged around him and pressed herself against Gwen's side. Now that her pulse was calming, Gwen felt every bruise along her backside. She'd have to use some of her mother's liniment tonight.
Leaning into the dog's strength, Gwen crossed to the table in front of the bow window, where she'd set and hooded her lantern on arrival to avoid detection. As she opened the hood, she turned and let light flood the space.
Oh, but he was a handsome one! Raven-haired, square-jawed, with features clean and firm. She couldn't be sure of the color of his eyes--blue like her father's? Brown like hers? Green?--but they were deep set and narrowed now as he considered her.What did he see? A slip of a woman with untamable auburn curls and a pert nose? She was certain she didn't look like the respectable daughter of the estate's former steward. The brown cloak was slipping off the shoulders of her green wool gown, and both were wrinkled from her collision with the floor.
On the other hand, she could well believe he was the master of the house. His navy coat was cut to emphasize the breadth of his shoulders, and his fawn trousers hugged muscular thighs. The lantern light glinted off the gold filigree buttons on his satin-striped waistcoat, and a gemstone winked from the hopelessly rumpled folds of his snowy cravat.
Oh, Lord, what have I done!
"If you could provide proof of your identity, sir," she said, knowing her voice sounded decidedly fainter, "I would be pleased to welcome you properly to Blackcliff Hall."
Sir Trevor's mouth curved up in a smile that was perilously close to a smirk. "My papers are upstairs. Do you trust me to fetch them, or would you and your bear like to accompany me?"
She probably should, just in case he was lying and had friends or a pistol waiting. After all, she had seen a light moving in the house earlier. That's why she'd come up to investigate with Dolly. The house had been broken into three times in the last two months. Her father would find a door left swinging or a window wide open on his rounds about the estate. She'd helped him inventory the rooms each time, but they'd never been able to determine that anything had been taken or even disturbed.
Vagrants, Mr. Casperson the constable was sure, although the look he directed toward her father was knowing. He suspected Horace Allbridge of neglecting his duty, either by failing to protect the property he currently served as caretaker or by siphoning off its treasures, selling them himself and blaming mysterious others. Gwen bristled just thinking about the unfair accusation. Help me, Lord. Help me show them how wrong they are.
"I'd be delighted to wait here," she said.
He snapped her a bow and strode from the room. Gwen followed him to the door and watched as he started up the stairs, which squeaked at the fall of his high black boots.
It seemed the master of Blackcliff had arrived at last. But would he be the man Gwen had prayed for?
Sir Trevor made his first appearance in The Irresistible Earl.
Read my take on a visit to an English country house.