Lord Atherton's Ward
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by Fenella Miller
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: "I am more than a match for you, Miss Ellison, and don't you forget it!" How had young and passionate Sarah Ellison found herself in the power of Lord Atherton--and did she want to escape? Regency Romance novella by Fenella Miller; originally published by DC Thomson, UK
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: July 2009
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [132 KB]
Reading time: 86-120 min.
Sarah sent her chair crashing down, the noise loud in the hushed library. 'Surely there must be some mistake, Mr Carstairs? My father couldn't possibly have made arrangements such as those.'
The elderly lawyer scratched his head, his watery blue eyes sympathetic. 'I know it's a shock, my dear Miss Ellison, but it's what Sir John wanted for you and your sister. Lord Atherton is an excellent choice for your guardian.'
Sarah heard Jane restoring the chair and she slumped back on to it, her vision clouded. It was too much. First Papa's death from a second seizure and now this. She felt a hand slip into hers and was grateful for the comfort.
She straightened her shoulders, blinking away the tears. She was all Jane had now, it was up to her to protect both of them from this stranger their father had arranged to take charge of their affairs. 'Thank you for your time, Mr Carstairs. We shall delay you no longer.'
Standing gracefully she left the man no option but to do the same. With her sister's hands still linked to hers she nodded regally. 'I bid you good day, sir,'
She waited until a servant had escorted the lawyer from the room before turning in despair to her younger sister. 'I can hardly take it in. I shall be one and twenty next summer, why couldn't Papa leave things as they are? After all I've been running the estate, and the house, for him since he was taken ill six months ago.'
'I expect he was thinking of you when he did it, Sarah. The last thing he said to me before his final seizure was that you work too hard, and it was time you learned how to be a young woman and enjoy yourself. Anyway, even I know that you have only been able to run things here because Papa was still alive. Things will be different now he has gone, it would be better if there is someone else in charge.'
Sarah snatched her hand away. How could her father have talked in such a way to Jane, and not to her? 'You're right, but to have a complete stranger dictating our every move will be insupportable.'
'Remember, when the year of mourning is up we cannot go abroad in society without male protection.'
Sarah had not really enjoyed the local assemblies and parties she had attended in Ipswich when she came out three years ago. When Mama had become ill and died so suddenly, she'd been happy to stay at home and run the house and supervise her younger sister. She frowned, she might not wish to parade like a prize mare and to be ogled by eligible men looking for a suitable bride, but her sister might well wish to do so.
'Jane, you're almost eighteen more than old enough to come out; is it your wish to have a season next year?'
Her sister's expression answered the question. 'You mean go to London, open the town house, attend balls and soirees? I should love it above all things.' The girl's face fell. 'But only if it's what you want, Sarah, I'd not want you to be miserable whilst I am enjoying myself.'
'In which case, my love, we shall remain where we are until this wretched Lord Atherton decides to come and find us. Then I shall insist that he takes us to London next season so that you can be presented.' * * * *
Three months passed before Sarah had news from Viscount Atherton. The instructions from his lordship's lawyers were quite clear; she was to close the house, leave a skeleton staff in charge, and travel, with their elderly governess, to Highfield Hall, which was somewhere near Chelmsford. It would seem that the Dowager Lady Atherton had a residence there and would be awaiting their arrival.
She read the missive and tossed it into the fire. Until their guardian appeared in person she intended to stay at Kesgrave Hall. Why should they be forced to live somewhere else when they had a perfectly good home of their own right here?
The weather was better today, the sleet and biting wind that had been whipping of the North Sea had finally abated. It would be the beginning of March on Friday and the daffodils would begin to bloom and the snowdrops fade away.
'I'm going to ride. Do you wish to accompany me this morning, or not?'
Her sister looked up from the sewing in her lap and shook her head. 'No, I certainly do not. I don't know how you can bear to gallop around the countryside when it's so inclement. Miss Read and I shall sit here in front of the fire and complete our embroidery in comfort.'
The governess, no longer needed but considered one of the family after having been with them so long, smiled. 'Do you intend to ride astride? I do wish you wouldn't, my dear, it's so unladylike.'
'Sir John said it was perfectly acceptable to ride this way as long as I stay on Ellison land. As we have almost five hundred acres, that has never been a problem.' She raised her hand to stop her sister's protest. 'And yes, I shall take Bill with me this time. I know I should never go out without a groom in attendance in case I take a tumble.'
She ran upstairs to discover that her abigail already had a navy-blue, military style riding habit waiting for her. 'Mary, Miss Jane is staying inside, but I need to clear my head. This waiting for news from our guardian is like living under a dark cloud.'
'Heard nothing today, miss? I expect his lordship is far too busy in London to worry about you and Miss Jane. I reckon you could be here until Parliament rises and the season is over.'
It always surprised her how well informed Mary was about things they hadn't discussed.
'I hope so, the longer we can remain here in our own home, the happier I am. But three months is a long time without news from someone who is supposed to have our best interests at heart.'
She smoothed a fold of her habit, glancing in the mirror to check the jaunty cap was set straight on her curls. 'I am glad Sir John insisted we didn't wear black for him.'
Mary was fussing around her hem and glanced up, her homely face lit by a smile. 'You and Miss Jane had been wearing black for so long already. Sir John wasn't the same after Lady Ellison died, if you don't mind me saying so, Miss Ellison. I reckon he was glad to join her in heaven.'
'I'm sure you're right, Mary. Especially after he was confined to bed. It was no life for an active man. I miss him sorely, but I'm glad his suffering is over.'
Word had been sent to the stable and Sultan, her large chestnut gelding, was waiting outside on the gravel in front of the elegant steps that led to the porticoed front door. She smiled at his antics. The unfortunate stable boy was being lifted from his feet every time the horse plunged.
'Enough of that, Sultan. I'm here now, and you shall soon stretch your legs and get the fidgets out of you.' Her habit had a divided skirt under which she wore britches and boots. This meant she could ride astride, or sidesaddle, without an indecorous display of ankles. She turned her back, taking the reins, and raised a leg for the boy to boost her into the saddle. She barely had time to ram her boots home in the stirrup irons before her horse shot forward. * * * *
Lord Atherton glanced idly through the pile of letters waiting on his desk. He picked one up at random and broke the seal. Good God! The two girls in Suffolk, he'd completely forgotten about them. He rummaged through the stack of unanswered mail in the tray on the far side of his desk. Finding the one he sought, he looked at the date. It was over a month since he'd told his lawyers to write and ask the two young ladies to travel to his estate in Essex and three since he should have assumed control of their lives.
He didn't frequent Highfield Hall himself, he preferred to live in town, or at his principal seat in Hertfordshire, but his mother and sister were in residence. It would make his life far simpler if Lady Atherton had the Ellison girls living with her.
As far as he knew the girls had not followed his instructions. Even allowing for the vicissitudes of the mail service his lawyers should have heard something them by now.
He frowned, he had no wish to trek all the way to the back of beyond to fetch them himself. Yawning, he glanced at the tall-case clock standing between the bookshelves. It was past two in the morning. Time he got some shut eye. His duties in Parliament had kept him busy all day, and then a committee meeting had dragged late into the night. Afterwards he had visited White's and played cards for far too long.
He downed the remainder of his brandy and pushed himself upright. He was getting too old for burning the candle at both ends. Maybe it was time to settle down; ten years ago he would have been able to go several days without recourse to his bed and still ride to hounds without coming to grief. If he tried that now he'd most likely to break his neck.
He snuffed out the candles, apart from the one he needed to light his way. His butler would have locked up after him and now be in his bed and even his valet had instructions not to wait up past midnight.
The next morning he penned a note to his lawyers asking them to write again to his wards and tell them if they didn't appear in Chelmsford within the week he would be most displeased. He made it clear that they were in his charge and he expected to be obeyed at all times.
He signed it with a flourish, sprinkled sand, shook it clean, folded it and pressed his signet ring into the melted sealing wax. He rang the bell and a footman appeared. 'Here, take this to my lawyers. You know where they are located.'
Perry walked over to the window and stared morosely into the gardens that ran behind his town house in Grosvenor Square. He had not bothered to ask his mother if she was prepared to take charge of his wards, she would follow his instructions as she always did. He was a generous son and happy to pay the exorbitant bills that arrived on his desk every month.
He frowned at the thought of the extra work his new responsibilities would entail. He had more than enough to do with his Parliamentary work, and thousands of acres and several estates to keep an eye on. What in God's name had possessed him to agree to take on the guardianship of two provincial young ladies?
Sir John had been very persuasive, he recalled, reminding him of the close friendship between his own father and himself and he had found himself agreeing. It had not occurred to him that a man who appeared remarkably healthy could be struck down less than eighteen months later. * * * *
Sarah returned from her ride to find her sister and Miss Read in a state of high agitation.
'Look, Sarah, two letters were brought up from the village this morning. One of them is from the lawyers, but the other is a mystery.'
'You should have opened them, Jane, you have as much right to read them as I do.' She examined the unfamiliar handwriting with interest. The paper was the best quality and the weight of the letter indicated it had several sheets sealed inside. 'It's from Lord Atherton, did you not see the impression of his crest in the wax on the back?'
Her sister giggled. 'That's the mystery. We have both been at a loss to understand why a peer of the realm should write in such a flowery hand and on perfumed paper.'
Smiling, Sarah broke the seal and smoothed out the sheets. The address at the top was the expected country house near Chelmsford, but when she scanned the contents she knew it couldn't be from a man. Quickly flipping to the last page she saw it was from the Dowager Viscountess, not the great man himself.
She was barely halfway down the first page when she looked up in bemusement. 'I don't believe this. Listen, I shall read you some of the letter.'
My dear Miss Ellison,
My son, who I'm sure you know is Lord Atherton, he is my oldest child, but I have two younger daughters at home with me, one Elizabeth who is sixteen years of age the other Charlotte is but two years older which makes her your junior by two years and it will do them good to have company, we are too much on our own down here.
Atherton is two and thirty and it is high time he was setting up his nursery as the estate is entailed you know and if he dies prematurely where shall we all be? As he has taken it upon himself to become your guardian and as you know he spends very little time with his own sisters so why he wants to burden himself with two more girls, I have no idea. But as you and your sister will be living here with me no doubt Atherton shall ignore you both as he does his sisters.
I have been asking him this age to bring Elizabeth out, we have a magnificent town house with a grand ballroom and he would hardly notice we were there, even if we did hold a ball and a soiree for her.
Atherton tells me he has no time to parade at Almack's looking for a suitable wife so it is obvious he has decided to marry you...
Sarah looked up to see her sister and Miss Read staring open mouthed, neither able to make a coherent comment. 'Well! I'm not surprised Lord Atherton chooses to ignore his sisters if they are anything like his mother. Thank goodness we did not pack our trunks and move to Chelmsford. A se'night in that woman's company would leave me fit for the mad house.'
Jane found her voice. 'She says Lord Atherton wishes you to come to Chelmsford so that he may marry you without the bother of looking for a bride in the normal fashion.'
'That's fustian. She says in the previous paragraph that he will ignore me, which is far more likely to be the case. Why should a man of his eminence wish to marry a nonentity like me?'
'Have you looked in the glass lately? You are beautiful; why, you could have been married a dozen times in the last four years if you had chosen to accept any of the offers made by local gentleman.'
'I am too tall to be fashionable, and according to the latest gossip, auburn curls and abundant curves are not what is required to be a diamond of the first water this season. It would seem that diminutive fair maidens are de rigueur. And I doubt that even our substantial dowry will make up for our physical deficiencies.'
Miss Read put down her embroidery frame with a decided snap. 'My dear girls, you are both exceptionally lovely, and well you know it. Jane's dark hair and slender frame are a perfect foil to your fiery looks. It is high time you were both seen in public. If Lord Atherton's mother is prepared to present you both next season with her daughters then I think you should agree to go.'
'I had already decided that Jane should have her season, but after reading this missive I've decided it would be far better to open our own town house and ask Great-aunt Isabelle to act as her sponsor. After all she was eager to do it for me, and was far more disappointed than I when Mama was taken ill and I cancelled my visit.'
She dropped the first letter without bothering to finish it, amused to see her sister eagerly scanning the rest of its garbled contents. She turned her attention to the second letter guessing what its contents might be. There was a brief note from her own lawyer and a much longer one from his lordship's legal man.
She read it with growing anger. How dare Atherton send threats to them via his lawyer? It was outrageous. The man didn't have the courtesy to write to them himself but employed a minion to do so. She tossed the letter into the fire.
'That decides it. I shall send Foster to London this afternoon and get him to organise the opening of our own house. I shall also write to Aunt Isabelle and make sure she is installed and waiting for us.'
'We can't appear in public so soon after Papa's death, Sarah. It would be disrespectful and...'
'Of course we can't, you peagoose, but there are lots of lectures and museums we can visit which would be quite unexceptionable, don't you think, Miss Read?'
'Could we not go to Norfolk and stay with Aunt Isabelle instead?'
'No, Jane. It's far too cold up there at the moment, and anyway it will be more interesting in London.' She would brook no argument on the matter and, as always, got her own way.
The following morning the house was under holland covers and the staff that weren't accompanying them, left behind to spring clean and redecorate in their absence. Sarah had not told her sister the contents of the second letter she had burned. If Jane had known their precipitous departure was solely because she objected to the tone of the letter from Lord Atherton's lawyers, she would quite probably have refused to leave.
The senior footman had two letters to deliver to the inn from which the mail coach left once a day. One was to the Dowager Viscountess Atherton thanking her for her kind invitation, but saying they were otherwise engaged, the other was enclosed inside one addressed to his lordship's lawyers, she was certain they would send it straight on to their guardian. * * * *
As Perry read the letter from his ward his eyes narrowed and his fingers clenched on the page.
Dear Lord Atherton,
I am writing to inform you that neither my sister nor myself have any wish to be associated with you or your family. We are leaving Kesgrave Hall and shall be visiting friends in Edinburgh for the foreseeable future. When I reach my majority next summer I shall contact you again.
Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Ellison, Miss