Secrets and Sensibilities, Book 1 in the Lady Emily Capers
Originally published as A Dangerous Dalliance in May 2000 (ISBN 0-8217-6609-0, Zebra Regency Romance); published as Secrets and Sensibilities in February 2013; updated and republished October 2015
Chaperones have all the fun.
When art instructor Hannah Alexander plays chaperone on a country house visit before Easter, she thought one of her four students might catch the eye of the handsome new earl. She never expected him to show interest in her, but one moment in the charming Lord Brentifield's company, and she's in danger of losing her heart.
Raised in America, David, Lord Brentfield, is having a difficult time finding his footing as the new lord of the manor. As earl, he's not supposed to notice the lovely art teacher, but Hannah's knowledge might hold the key to uncovering who's been stealing priceless art from the Brentfield estate. So, aided by Hannah's protégé, Lady Emily Southwell, David and Hannah set out on a treasure hunt that will bring them closer to each other, and to a killer.
"Secrets and Sensibilities had the perfect balance of love, danger, and humor. It was a fun novel that I had trouble setting down! I definitely recommend it to fans of clean Regency fiction that contains a dash of mystery and danger." Britt Reads Fiction
"As the reader, I could not put down this novel. I read the entire story in one sitting. (Yes, I found this tale to be that good.) Hannah and David's romance is but the first in this series. Each of the four young charges (Priscilla, Emily, Daphne, and Ariadne) will have their own stories told. And I am wasting no time in beginning them. Excellent! Highly recommended!" The Huntress Reviews
"I enjoyed this enchanting romantic suspense tale which was full of twists and turns throughout. Regina Scott's fans will be delighted. I found this novel hard to put down and was up into the wee hours of the morning reading." -- Affaire de Coeur
"I really enjoyed this story. It brings out the emotions for the characters... and keeps the reader guessing who the villain could be." -- Just Judy's Jumbles
"I loved this book. The Colonial Upstart of an earl paired with a lovely art teacher is a brilliant stroke and the writing matches her plot . . . . This is a page turner and I defy a reader to put the book down until finished." -- Noted Regency author Emily Hendrickson
To Hannah Alexander, people existed to be painted. Every wise old crone with a youthful twinkle in her eye, every stout gentleman of military bearing, every wide-eyed child with an endearing smile was a moment to be captured, recreated, embellished until the essence of them shone from her canvas for all to see. When she looked at those around her, she saw them frozen in a moment of perfection that illuminated their souls.
The farmer carrying a lamb home on his shoulders at sunset was the Good Shepherd. The girl flirting with the farmer's son outside church on Sunday was Aphrodite Taunting Hephaestus. The other teachers at the Barnsley School for Young Ladies gossiping about their charges' parents were The Three Witches from Macbeth. She thought she would be completely happy if only she could spend her days with her paint box and easel. And now, after years of dreaming, it had looked as if she might actually attain that happiness.
If only Miss Martingale hadn't insisted that she play chaperone first!
She should have known something was wrong when she'd received a summons to the headmistress's office. Miss Martingale rarely addressed her subordinates unless something dire had happened. She could only hope that she had received no complaints against her teaching. She was aware that often she held control of her students by the slimmest of threads. She had never mastered the technique that so many of the other teachers used, namely of intimidating her pupils with her authority. At five feet, four inches, she did not tower over any of them. To make matters worse, she was cursed with a clear-skinned, oval face; lustrous black hair; and large doe-like eyes that seemed to encourage condescending smiles rather than strict obedience. Her nose was short and pert, and her mouth tended far too often to smile. No, she had not been the most awe-inspiring of teachers, although her students did seem to learn their lessons, and more than one parent had complimented her on the girls' knowledge of art.
But it seemed that Miss Martingale had had other thoughts besides Hannah's performance on her mind.
"Priscilla Tate's aunt, Lady Brentfield, has graciously invited her niece and three friends for Easter holiday," she had proclaimed without roundaboutation before Hannah could so much as take a seat in the hard-backed chair in front of the desk that spanned the rear of the room. "I need you to chaperone."
Hannah had felt herself pale but had forced her dutiful smile to remain in place. She had always been able to reasonably discuss things with her employer. Surely Miss Martingale would not send her off simply to gratify the whims of four students.
"But I know nothing about deportment, Miss Martingale," she pointed out. "As you know, I was raised quietly in the country."
The large, dark-haired woman shrugged. "That is not important. Lady Brentfield can be counted on to enforce the social niceties. I need someone to chaperone them in the carriage on the ride to and from the estate, and Lady Brentfield has requested that we provide someone to assist her in monitoring the girls' activities when she is unavailable. A woman as busy as Lady Brentfield cannot be expected to watch them every minute."
So, Hannah was just supposed to be a nebulous body, at the beck and call of the socially astute Lady Brentfield. If the assignment had had any appeal before, it had none now. Hannah had only met Lady Brentfield a few times when the woman had visited the school, usually when she was fetching or returning Priscilla from some event.
But Hannah knew that her ladyship was a powerful influence. Miss Martingale gloated over her least kindness, and many of the teachers watched from the upper windows of the school to catch a glimpse of the latest styles her ladyship wore. Hannah could not imagine anything more mortifying than having to flutter about in the wake of this fashionable lady, her own lack of polish and ignorance of the upper class showing with each movement.
"Lady Brentfield will surely want someone with whom the girls are comfortable," she protested. "I barely know Priscilla and her friends."
"That is as it should be," Miss Martingale said with a regal incline of her broad head. "You know my policy that students and teachers should not fraternize. I have observed that you keep a distance from your students, which I applaud. I have also observed that they tend to ignore your commands. This trip will give you an opportunity to practice your disciplinary skills."
Practicing her disciplinary skills was the last thing on Hannah's mind, as was spending a week in close company with her students. The distance Miss Martingale had noted was there for a reason. She was trying to hide the fact that her students scared her not a little. The oldest was only three years her junior, after all. Her fear was easy to hide when she could focus on art, but she was sure they'd see right through her if she was forced to interact with them socially. Besides, spending a week at the Brentfield estate would delay her most recent commission.
"But I've just agreed to paint Squire Pentercast and his family," she explained to Miss Martingale, hoping the mention of the local landowner would inspire sufficient respect to allow her to remain at the school. "I'm sure one of the other teachers would love to go."
"Most have arranged to go home to their families," Miss Martingale replied, her considerable bulk beginning to tremble, most likely in indignation that Hannah continued to question her judgment. "And I cannot spare Miss Pritchett; she is needed to finish the preparations for the graduation ceremony. Besides, Lady Brentfield was most emphatic about the type of teacher she wanted: quiet, unassuming, dutiful. I was certain you fit that description."
Nearly every teacher at the Barnsley School fit that description, but Hannah could see by the steel in Miss Martingale's eye that further argument was useless. She considered for a moment tendering her resignation right that moment, but she needed her final two weeks of salary and all of her commission money if she was to have enough to live in London.
She had been planning the move for years, traveling to the metropolis to become a portrait painter. For so long it had seemed outside her grips. She had no formal training, after all. But just three months ago, the Earl of Prestwick had inquired whether the school's art teacher would be willing to attempt a portrait of the dowager countess. It was well known about Barnsley and the surrounding villages that Lady Prestwick was a gentle, retiring soul, easily frightened by the world around her. She was seldom seen outside the gates of her fine estate. Hannah had been more than willing to paint the beautiful countess, who put her in mind of Elaine in the legends of King Arthur. Elaine had pinned away for her love of Lancelot, and it seemed to Hannah Lady Prestwick's sad smiles mirrored a similar melancholy. The resulting painting had been heralded by the earl and the local gentry alike as a fine work of art.
Since then, Squire Pentercast's lovely wife had requested that Hannah undertake a painting of their family. In addition, one of the more influential of the parents, the Duke of Emerson, whose daughter Lady Emily was one of Hannah's favorite and most promising students, had suggested that she paint him on his return from Vienna. As the squire's wife was well known in social circles, and the duke was a famous diplomat, Hannah was assured of at least the beginnings of a promising career. It was more than she had ever hoped for. She had planned to finish her painting of the Pentercasts by Easter and put in her notice to Miss Martingale shortly thereafter. With the money from her two commissions and what she had saved working at the school for the last three years, she would have enough to live frugally in London for a year, building her reputation and her clientele. For the first time in her life, her dreams were within her grasp.
All she had to do was survive this trip to Brentfield.
"I tell you it will be a week to end all weeks," Priscilla Tate declared as they settled into the carriage her aunt had sent for them, a shiny black with silver accouterments. The silver and black emblem on the side had told Hannah that those must be the Brentfield colors. She had tried not to be concerned that the emblem on the Brentfield crest was a wild cat rending a stag in twain.
Now Priscilla positively preened as the coach set off from the school. With the girl's golden blond hair and emerald eyes, she was by far the loveliest of the graduating class. She was also one of the least popular, for all her considerable family connections. Priscilla had a way of lording her beauty and accomplishments over her classmates. Hannah had long ago begun to think of her as Hera Among the Lesser Goddesses.
"Your aunt is beyond generous!" This from Daphne Courdebas, the most athletic of the graduates. Everything about Daphne was long and lean, from her limbs to her light brown hair. And all of it had a tendency to tangle unmercifully in her unbridled enthusiasm for life. Amazon in Training, Hannah thought.
"And her still in mourning! How kind!" Ariadne Courdebas put in. At a year younger than her sister, Ariadne could easily have been from another family entirely. She was round and baby-faced, with lank brown hair, great vapid blue eyes, and a mind that latched onto every inch of printed material it could find, from plays to poetry and all types of facts. Recently it had been medical treatises, which had sent the girl to the nurse a dozen times over the last month over some imagined disease. It was amazing how truly distress could be mirrored on that round face, like Lot's Wife on Looking Back at Sodom.
"She's no doubt destitute in sorrow from the loss of her husband and stepson," put in Lady Emily Southwell. The Priestess of Delphi, Hannah thought, her artist's mind painting the picture. Lady Emily would have made such a marvelous seer. Her deep-set brown eyes, black frizzy hair, sallow complexion, and pinched nose were perfectly matched to her dismal view of the world. She even wore the dark colors and austere tailoring, like the brown silk gown that was nearly as depressing as Hannah's stiff black bombazine uniform. Nonetheless, Lady Emily was the only one of Hannah's students who had shown the least promise as an artist at the Barnsley School for Young Ladies. Hannah was sure that it was her own recognition of Lady Emily's promise, as well as Hannah's talent, that had resulted in Lady Emily's father, the Duke of Emerson, suggesting that Hannah paint him as well.
"The new earl will prove compensation," Priscilla predicted with an arched look.
Lady Emily leaned closer. "Even after their mysterious deaths? I heard the rumors."
Surely this was unseemly conversation for four young ladies. "Girls," Hannah started.
They ignored her.
"Rumors?" Ariadne asked, sitting up straighter where she was squished between her sister and Lady Emily. "What sorts of rumors?"
Lady Emily's look darkened. "The previous earl and his heir were killed in a coaching accident eight months ago. I heard Farmer Hale telling Cook when he brought the milk that he heard from one of the tenants of the estate that it was no accident. When the grooms investigated, they found the carriage had been tampered with. Charles Talent, Earl of Brentfield, and his son Nathan, Viscount Hawkins, were murdered."
"Girls," Hannah said more forcefully, a tingle running through her.
Ariadne gasped. "Were there no investigations? Did no one come forward with evidence?"
Priscilla tossed her curls. "There was no need for evidence. It's all a Banbury tale, I promise you. Lord Brentfield and his son were well liked, and there was no one in line to inherit. There wasn't even another heir in England. When the solicitors traced the family lineage, the fellow they found to inherit was so far removed that he couldn't possibly have planned a murder. He's a Yank, of all things."
The other three girls looked suitably amazed by this fact that Hannah was able to turn their conversation onto another tact.
But as the short journey wore on, the girls grew more restive.
"We shall all be crushed inside this carriage," Lady Emily promised after they had bumped some distance from Barnsley. "He'll roll it on the next curve, you wait and see."
"Lord Brentfield's coachman seems quite competent," Hannah assured her, only to bite her lip as the carriage hit another rut.
"I think I shall be sick," moaned Ariadne Courdebas beside Lady Emily. Her gloved hands hovered in front of her trembling lips, and Hannah felt her own stomach lurch just looking at the girl's pale face. To her relief and the girl's embarrassment, all that erupted was a ladylike hiccup. Ariadne's face turned a healthy pink that matched her pink pelisse.
"I think you're simply excited," Daphne exclaimed on the other side of her, bouncing so vigorously with each bump that she set the blue silk ribbons on her pelisse fluttering. She enthusiastically poked her sister in her well-padded ribs, sending Ariadne into Lady Emily and Lady Emily into the equally well-padded wall of the coach. Lady Emily glared, and Ariadne clutched her side as if she'd been kicked by a horse. Hannah sighed and uttered a prayer for patience.
"Well, you should be excited," Priscilla said with a sniff where she sat beside Hannah. "If it hadn't been for the countess's invitation, you'd all be cooling your heels at the school during Easter holiday."
All three girls colored at the reminder.
"It was very kind of her ladyship to invite all of us," Hannah told Priscilla, determined to put on a pleasant face. "I'm sure a week at Brentfield will be most educational."
Emily grunted, Ariadne grimaced, and Daphne nodded in agreement. Priscilla eyed Hannah thoughtfully.
"You say educational as if we were the ones to be educated, Miss Alexander," she replied, smoothing down the skirts of her lavender wool traveling dress. "You might find you'll learn something as well. I don't suppose you ever went out much in Society before you became a spinster."
It took all of Hannah's strength not to return the unkind remark with one of her own. She was aware that she was on the shelf, but somehow the reminder rankled. Her own mother, widowed at a young age, had tried to raise Hannah and her younger brother Steffen as their knighted father would have wished, but it was clear from the outset that Steffen must receive the schooling and training to make his way in the world. Hannah, it was hoped, would marry a country squire and raise children.
But Hannah had fallen in love, with her painting. Given the choice of marrying an elderly vicar like her grandfather or finding a post, she had elected to apply for the position of mistress of art at a school in far-away Somerset. Hannah was probably the most surprised of anyone when she had been given the job.
"I'm sure we'll all learn something," she replied to Priscilla, hoping her slight frown would reinforce her meaning that Priscilla had things to learn as well, such as manners. As usual, the subtle look was lost on the girl.
"I don't see how," Ariadne muttered. "Priscilla's already admitted that there won't be any young men."
Hannah shook her head at their obsession. "Come now, Ariadne. There is more to life than flirtations." At that, they all protested at once, forcing her to hold up her hands in mock surrender.
"But Miss Alexander, how are we to practice for the Season?" Ariadne cried. "We have only a few weeks left before we are presented, and Miss Martingale has yet to allow us a single male on whom to practice our wiles."
"And I'm sick of playing the boy every time we practice waltzing," Daphne put in.
"And I of playing the boy while everyone tries their insipid conversations," Lady Emily grumbled.
Priscilla made a face, somehow managing to look charming at the same time. "There you go complaining again. Isn't a week in the country better than staying alone at school?"
"Easy for you to say," Lady Emily muttered. "You have a beau waiting for you at Brentfield."
Ariadne clapped her hands over her mouth as if she'd been the one to spill the secret.
"You weren't supposed to tell!" Daphne scolded.
Hannah glanced around at the three worried faces and Priscilla, who preened once again. She had a sudden vision of a strapping farmer's son riding up on a stallion and sweeping the fair Priscilla off to Gretna Green the moment the coach stopped at Brentfield: Hades Carrying Off Persephone. The elopement would surely be followed by the outraged Lady Brentfield demanding Hannah's resignation. Worse, her reputation would be ruined--she might never get another commission.
"Beau?" she ventured, almost afraid to hear the answer.
Priscilla's eyes glowed. "My aunt the countess is arranging for me to marry the new earl."
Hannah gaped. "But he's your cousin, and he must be years older than you are."
"He isn't my cousin," Priscilla maintained. "He is a distant cousin of the previous earl, who was my aunt's second husband. My father is related to her first husband. And he isn't so terribly old. He's younger than Mother."
Hannah opened her mouth to comment, then thought better of it. She could not imagine why a man would want to marry a near-child he hadn't even met. It was certainly natural, she supposed, that he felt some duty toward the widowed Lady Brentfield, but he hardly had to marry her niece.
The description of the chaperone Lady Brentfield had requested suddenly struck Hannah anew. Her ladyship had wanted someone quiet, unassuming, dutiful. Priscilla's confession proved what Lady Brentfield was seeking: someone who would keep the other girls occupied and provide no competition to the beauteous Priscilla, either in looks or in trying to ingratiate herself with the new earl. Hannah, more interested in her art than Society, was a perfect choice. She wondered whether Miss Martingale had known, or whether Hannah had truly been the only teacher available.
"You see, Miss Alexander," Ariadne grumbled. "It's just as I said. She'll spend all her time billing and cooing, and the rest of us will be bored to flinders."
"Lady Brentfield is far too good a hostess, I'm sure, to invite you to no good purpose," Hannah replied, hoping she was right. "She must have all sorts of diversions planned for your visit."
Lady Emily looked unconvinced, but Ariadne and Daphne brightened. As graceful as a bird, Priscilla waved a languid hand at the passing scenery.
"You will find out soon enough," she told them. "We are about to enter the estate."
Daphne and Ariadne scrambled over Lady Emily for a view out the carriage window. Only Priscilla sat back in her seat, arms crossed under her breasts. Hannah, however, could not resist a look out her own side of the carriage.
Since leaving the school shortly after Palm Sunday services, they had circled the west end of the Mendip Hills, passing by the village of Wenwood and running over the River Wen. Shortly thereafter, they had passed through vineyards, vines greening with spring. Now a two-story stone gatehouse hove into view. The carriage slowed. An elderly man clambered out of the house and set about opening huge wrought-iron gates topped by balls of gold. As the gates swung open against stone columns, the horses sprang though. The man offered the girls a deep bow.
Hannah knew she should sit back in her seat and not gawk like her charges, but she had never seen such grandeur. Majestic oaks crowded on their left, and an emerald meadow dotted with jonquils swept away on the right. The meadow led up to the placid waters of a reflecting pond, which mirrored the front of a rose brick great house. The drive led up over a white stone bridge arching the stream that fed the pond and onto a circular patch of white gravel encircled by a shorter wrought-iron fence with gold balls on each post. A gate from the drive opened to a garden-edged path that led up to the porticoed porch of Brentfield.
Hannah stared. The wings of the house led off in each direction, three floors full of huge, multipaned windows edged in white. Liveried footman as smartly dressed as the house strode out to assist the girls in alighting. Grooms sprang forward to hold the horses. The girls crowded past her, giggling and chattering. Hannah was so mesmerized that she didn't even realize they had all left until a footman peered into the coach and started at the sight of her.
"Can I help you down, miss?" he asked. Hannah blinked, then offered him her hand. Her half boots crunched against the snow-white gravel. She gazed upward, holding her straw bonnet to her head with one gloved hand, staring at the three golden urns that topped the pedimented porch.
"They tell me," said a warm male voice, "that the house was designed to mimic Kensington Palace."
"I was thinking of Olympus, actually," Hannah replied. She glanced at what she had thought was another footman and froze.
Standing beside her was a gentleman who took her breath away. A Modern David in the Field, her artist's mind supplied, noting the tweed trousers and jacket. She wondered whether she'd brought enough brown with her to capture the warmth of his thick, straight hair. She'd need red for highlights too, or perhaps gold. No, she'd paint his eyes first, a deep, soft blue that would change, she would wager, with what he wore. And she would have to find a way to immortalize that welcoming smile, tilting more at one corner as if her wide-eyed stare amused him.
And she was staring, she realized, although she couldn't seem to help herself. She wanted to commit every detail to memory, as she did before painting a subject. She wanted to remember that his lower lip was more full than his upper lip, and both were a seashell pink. There were a dozen other things she needed to catch if she was to capture the man on canvas.
"Are you all right?" he asked when she remained silent in study.
He spoke with an accent, a twang that softened his speech. She had heard French, German, and Gaelic at the school, but she did not think this accent was a result of their influence.
"Yes, I'm fine," she managed. She glanced about and found that the footmen were tossing down the luggage from the top of the carriage and the boot. The man beside her appeared invisible to the servants, who bustled past with loaded arms. He was equally invisible to the groomsmen who held the horses. None of them met his gaze as he glanced about. She wondered suddenly whether her bemused brain had conjured him, like a fairy from a mushroom circle, to grant her wish to paint. But no fairy she had ever read about dressed like a shepherd.
"You're the chaperone from the Barnsley School?" he asked politely.
He was making conversation, and she was gawking again. She forced a smile. "Yes. I'm the school's art teacher."
A light sprang to his eyes, making her catch her breath anew. "You're an artist? What medium?"
"Oil painting," she replied a little surprised at his interest. "Although I like charcoal as well. There is a way of shadowing that gives the subject depth." Realizing she sounded as if she were lecturing, she blushed.
"Do you prefer landscapes, objects, or people?" he prompted eagerly.
"People," she answered.
"Classical or portrait?" he quizzed.
She was beginning to feel like the student for once. "Classical," she responded before she could think better of it. Then, knowing how scandalous that confession was, she quickly corrected herself. "That is, I hope to one day paint portraits."
"Have you studied, then?" he asked. "Would you know a classical piece if you saw one?"
Was this some kind of interview? She seemed to remember being asked such questions when she had arrived at the Barnsley School.
"I am self-taught," she told him proudly. "My family did not have the funds to send me to school. But I can assure you I know the Masters."
He grinned. "Then maybe I could show you a few of the Brentfield pieces."
She looked him askance, still trying to determine why he was so interested. She had met few who were interested in her painting, even among those she painted. "Are you an artist, too?"
His smile deepened. "I've been called that a few times. But I work in leather, not paper or canvas." He held out his hands, which she saw were stained brown. His smile faded. "Although my badge of honor looks like it's wearing off. The mark of a gentleman, I guess."
Even with his gentle voice and accent, he made it sound as if being marked as a gentleman was a shameful thing. He shook himself and offered her a smile that was a pale copy of his original. "I'd love to see your work. And I do have a project that I'd like your help on. You'll be staying until Easter, I hope?"
"As long as the girls need me," Hannah replied. Belatedly, she glanced up the drive after her charges. Not a single girl was in sight. She rolled her eyes at her own ineptitude. Her first assignment as a chaperone, and she hadn't even escorted them into the house!
A tall, elderly dark-skinned gentleman in tan knee breeches, navy coat, and the undisguisable air of command, was making his way toward them. Othello Coming to His People, her bemused brain suggested.
"I'm in trouble now," her companion murmured. "Derelict in duty once again." He heaved a sigh, but the twinkle in his eye told her he was hardly sorry.
"You're needed inside," the older man intoned with a nod. Hannah wondered why the Tenants would have use for their own in-house leather craftsman, but she felt a shiver of pleasure that she would be able to see him again during her visit. Perhaps she might find a moment to help him with his work here.
The older man turned to her with a bow. "You'd be the Miss Alexander for whom the young ladies are searching?"
"She's still beside the carriage, so they can't be searching very hard," her David quipped. "Now, don't glare, Asheram. You wouldn't want to reduce me to a quivering pulp in front of Miss Alexander, would you?"
"Perish the thought," the man replied.
"Good. Earn your keep and introduce me the way you tell me these Brits insist on."
The older gentleman rolled his wide-set eyes. "If you would be so kind as to tell me your first name, Miss Alexander?"
Her David leaned forward as eagerly as when he had asked about her painting and set her blushing again. "Hannah," she murmured.
"Miss Hannah Alexander," the man said solemnly. "May I present David Tenant, Earl of Brentfield?"
Read my take on a country house visit.