Rumors - Page 1

Chapter One

February 2nd, 1801—the Old North Road, Cambridgeshire

The chaise rattled and lurched. It was an almost welcome distraction from the stream of bright and cheerful chatter Isobel’s maid had kept up ever since they left London. ‘It isn’t exile really, now is it, my lady? Your mama said you were going to rusticate in the country for your health.’

‘Dorothy, I know you mean to raise my spirits, but exile is precisely the word for it.’ Lady Isobel Jervis regarded the plump young woman with scarce-concealed exasperation. ‘To call it rustication is to draw a polite veil over the truth. Gentlemen rusticate when they have to escape from London to avoid their creditors.

‘I have been banished, in disgrace, and that is exile. If this was a sensation novel the fact that it is completely undeserved and unjust would cast a romantic glow over the situation. But this is not a novel.’ She stared out through the drizzle at the gently undulating farmland rolling past the post-chaise window. In reality the injustice only increased her anger and misery.

She had taken refuge in the country once before, but that had been justified, essential and entirely her own doing. This, on the other hand, was none of those things.

‘That was the sign to Cambridge we’ve just passed,’ Dorothy observed brightly. She had been this infuriatingly jolly ever since the scandal broke. Isobel was convinced that she had not listened to a word she had said to her.

‘In that case we cannot be far from Wimpole Hall.’ Isobel removed her hands from under the fur-lined rug and took the carriage clock from its travelling case on the hook. ‘It is almost two o’clock. We left Berkeley Street at just before eight, spent an hour over luncheon and changing horses, so we have made good time.’

‘And the rain has eased,’ Dorothy said, bent on finding yet another reason for joy.

‘Indeed. We will arrive in daylight and in the dry.’ The chaise slowed, then swung in through imposing gateposts. From her seat on the left-hand side Isobel glimpsed the bulk of a large brick inn and a swinging sign. ‘The Hardwicke Arms—we are in the right place, at least.’

As they passed between the gateposts Isobel began to take more interest in the prospect from the window: it would be her home for the next two months.

The tree-dotted parkland rose gently on the left-hand side. She glimpsed a small stone building on the top of one low knoll, then, as the carriage swung round, the house came into view.

‘Lawks,’ Dorothy observed inelegantly.

‘It is the largest house in the shire,’ Isobel pointed out. ‘I thought it might be a small palace from what Mama said, but it looks curiously welcoming, don’t you think? Quite like home at Bythorn Hall.’ It was no simple mansion, to be sure, but the red brick looked warm, despite the chill of the sodden February air.

The chaise drew up close to the double sweep of steps that led to the front door. Too soon. Isobel fought the sudden wave of panic. The Earl and Countess of Hardwicke had offered her shelter for the sake of their old friendship with her parents—Philip Yorke, the third earl, had met her father, the Earl of Bythorn, at Oxford—so they were hardly strangers, she told herself, even if she had not met them for several years.

‘Be on your best behaviour, Dorothy,’ she warned. ‘The earl has been appointed the first Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, so he will soon be the king’s representative.’

‘Foreign, that’s what Ireland is,’ the maid said with a sniff. ‘Don’t hold with it.’

‘It is part of the new United Kingdom,’ Isobel said repressively. ‘You enjoyed the celebrations at the beginning of the year, do not pretend that you did not! I must say I would like to see Dublin when the earl and countess move there in April, but they will have far more important things to worry about then than a house guest.’

In fact it was very kind of Lord Hardwicke and Elizabeth, his witty blue-stocking countess, to give sanctuary to their old friend’s disgraced daughter at such a critical juncture in their lives. It might suit the Jervises to put it about that Isobel was helping the countess with her preparations, but she was sure she would be more of a distraction than a help.

She had wanted to flee to her friend Jane Needham’s cheerful country manor in the depths of the Herefordshire countryside. It was remote, it was safe and it held warmth and love. But Mama had been adamant: if scandal forced her daughter to retreat from London, then she would do so, very ostentatiously, under the wing of a leading aristocratic family.

The doors opened, footmen came down the steps, and Dorothy began to gather up their scattered shawls and reticules as Isobel tied her bonnet ribbons and strove for poise.