A Ghost of a Chance
No one could ever accuse the Dowager Countess of Sandwell of being psychic, but her friend Muriel was, and it was that thought that brought the widowed lady upright one night out of a deep sleep.
"Perfect!" she exclaimed, lighting a bedside candle. She would write to her old friend later that morning, when the rest of the household was awake. She would even write to Muriel under her daughter-in-law's very nose, and that thought gave her great pleasure. After all, Prudence was not only a skeptic, but outwardly derisive of the dowager's belief that Sandwell Manor was haunted.
Not haunted? The dowager snorted. They could not keep staff because of the activity in the library. Only the oldest of retainers, who were seemingly bothered by nothing, remained constant. In her day, maids were made of sterner stuff, because the manor had always been occupied by spirits. One could barely enter a mansion or castle in England without it being haunted, or so Muriel had always insisted.
Eleanor, much too dull to recognize subtle manifestations, was in no doubt about this one, however. Other family members were not blind, either, even if they were like Prudence and refused to acknowledge it as such. But recognizing the problem was one thing; dealing with it was something completely different. This was where the dowager needed Muriel's assistance.
Fifty miles away, another lady, this one much younger, also sat straight up in bed, her gray eyes open wide.
"Bianca!" Nera Morrow gasped out her sister's name. She had just seen a vision of Bianca in a white ball gown, at a dance, a cluster of marguerites in her hand. And there had been a gentleman there, too, a handsome one, bowing to her. A future spouse, perhaps? Who was he?
No one in their small village, she knew for certain. There were a few eligible gentlemen in the vicinity, but none that socialized with the Morrow girls, and Nera despaired of ever getting her beautiful twin sister married off respectably. Unfortunately, money was not the object.
Great-Aunt Muriel Abernathy, with whom they both lived, had been left a comfortable income by her late husband, and supplemented that with providing psychic services to the wealthy. Bianca and Nera, who were a medium and a precognitive, respectively, also contributed to the cause, not only with their work but with the small inheritance left them by their late father, and the three handled hauntings and the like across the British Isles. Discreetly, of course.
Nera concentrated now on her vision, wondering when this event was going to happen, as they were not in the habit of attending balls. She had never known her visions to be wrong. She just hoped this scene was in the near future. She also wondered how the Morrow girls would manage to get invitations to such an event, when they lived under the shadow of their mother's scandal. Three years before, just as her daughters were on the verge of young womanhood, Mrs. Morrow had run out on a husband and two daughters to live in Italy with another man. Their father had wasted away after that, leaving them to Aunt Muriel's care. Which would have included some local invitations, had their mother not created such talk.
But now, it appeared, they were to attend a dance of some sort. Nera had seen a grand ballroom, with the oddest mauve velvet curtains, and a riot of Greek gods and goddesses cavorting on the ceiling. The handsome gentleman had worn a signet ring of some sort, but she could not bring it back to mind. Another man hovered in the background, almost as comely as the first, but less sardonic, or so it seemed. The man in the foreground had a mocking twist to his lips, come to think of it, and the second one appeared more open. Interesting.
Still, the man bowing over her sister's hand had to be an admirer. Bianca had the countenance and character of an angel, so he must be a suitor. She hugged that knowledge to herself as she settled back into her pillows. Bianca would discover this all soon enough, and Nera would not do or say anything to keep this vision from becoming a reality.
"You will love Eleanor, my dears," Muriel said for the hundredth time as the post chaise they had hired brought them up the drive of Sandwell Manor. For most clients, they took the mail coach, but Muriel would not hear of it this time.
"My dear Eleanor would not think twice about sending someone to collect us, of course, but her daughter, the current countess! My loves, she is not a friendly woman! Fortunately, we will not be required to associate with her with any regularity. I have given Eleanor strict instructions as to how we are to be housed and treated. I could never impose on an old friendship just for the sake of a bit of comfort."
Nera smiled. Her aunt had a sense of their position, even when she knew Muriel liked her material pleasures.
"Maurice says we must expect the situation to be different this time," Bianca warned. She looked out at her sister and aunt from a pretty straw bonnet, her eyes round.
"Oh?" Maurice was her sister's spirit guide, a victim of the Terror in France. He had been a major domo for a marquis, but when he attempted to defend his employer, was sent to the guillotine alongside that nobleman.
When they were young, Nera had asked her sister if Maurice had regained his head in the afterlife, and her sister had laughed and wondered how else he was able to talk to her? They might be twins, but there were times when Bianca sounded like she was much older. Sometimes. Bianca, however, was also too trusting of people. She loved everyone and could never understand when people did not love her in return. It was in moments such as that when Nera was the protective elder sister.
"He says not to judge a book by its cover."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Nera had never been fond of Maurice's cryptic advice.
Bianca shrugged. "I do not know. I am certain all will be revealed eventually."
A typical response.
"Oh, there she is!" Muriel cried, pressing her nose to the carriage window. "My friend, Eleanor!"
Nera looked out to see a woman standing impatiently under the Georgian portico of Sandwell Manor, bouncing from one foot to the other. She was hatless, and her gray curls bobbed along with her movement, and Nera never would have taken her for a countess, if Muriel had not identified her as such.
The chaise came to a halt at the front door and her aunt was immediately out the door, the two older women falling into each other's arms. Once their initial greeting was over, the dowager directed a waiting servant to have the trunks and valises taken to her wing.
"Come out, my darlings," Muriel called to her nieces, who had remained inside the carriage. "Eleanor, love, may I present Miss Morrow..." Nera was the eldest by twenty minutes. "And Miss Bianca Morrow. Dearest girls, this is my oldest friend, the dowager Countess of Sandwell."
"Please, girls, call me Lady Eleanor," the plump little woman insisted, embracing them as they alighted. "Nera and Bianca... I can see why you were named such."
Nera was dark-haired, but with fair skin, while Bianca was just golden all over. Both had the gray eyes of their mother, Muriel's niece. Nera hoped the countess would not hold that fact against any of them, because it was too much to expect her not to know the particulars of the scandal. It did not seem to upset her that the girls were present, at any rate, and she ushered them all warmly into the house.
"I am so glad you are here, Muriel, but I must warn you. Charles and Prudence do not know I was expecting company."
Muriel raised an eyebrow. "It must be serious if you did not even tell your son and his wife, but I am certain you have your reasons."
"Charles is at his wits' end over the incidents in the library, what with having a houseful of guests expected at the end of the week. I am merely trying to help without calling too much attention to the fact that it will take your assistance to clear this up."
Nera was surprised when her aunt let out an unladylike snort. "Charles was always a bit too proper for my tastes. How you managed to produce a child like that is beyond me."
Lady Eleanor frowned once, and then looked about nervously at the mention of her son, and insisted they continue their conversation in her private parlor. She instructed her own butler to have her guests placed in rooms in her quarters, and led the way through a series of state chambers to a more comfortable part of the house.
They ended up in a sunny yellow parlor on the ground floor facing a garden full of rose bushes in full bloom. Bianca eschewed a seat on the sofa for a spot in the window seat. The windows were open in the warm weather and provided her with a lovely prospect.
Lady Eleanor gave her an indulgent smile and requested tea of the footman on duty in the hall.
"Word will filter out of the kitchens upstairs to the family that I have guests," she said airily when Muriel questioned whether or not the hired help would talk. "But everyone in this section of the house is in my specific employ and they are, to a man, loyal to me, and will reveal as little or as much as we wish. Certainly nothing about the problem in the library."
"You keep mentioning the library, Lady Eleanor," Nera noted. "Is there trouble with vermin, perhaps?"
The dowager looked at Muriel, who nodded. "Not vermin in the sense of rodents, my dear. In fact, I doubt I would call them vermin at all. Prudence might, but I have better manners than that."
Bianca looked up sharply, as if someone had given her some information that surprised her. "Ghosts," she said.
"That is what I believe," Lady Eleanor replied. She beamed at Muriel. "Your niece has inherited one of the family talents!"
"Both my girls have gifts," Muriel said proudly. "Once we get settled, we shall have to take Bianca to the library. Nera, my love, do you see anything?"
Nera started, having caught a flash of that handsome gentleman bowing once more over her sister's hand, but she merely shook her head. The scene was in a ballroom, not a library. "No, ma'am."
"Nera can see into the future," Muriel told her friend, who responded with a knowing smile. "And Bianca is a powerful medium." Both sisters blushed.
"I am looking forward to knowing more about this," the dowager insisted, but was forestalled for the moment by the arrival of tea and sandwiches. Nera did not mind the delay. Despite the fact her aunt had known the dowager for years, her talent wasn't something she was in the habit of discussing with strangers. Besides, thinking about her visions brought her current one to mind, and she was determined not to spend a lot of time thinking about the gentleman she always saw. Especially when he was destined for her sister.
Nera was awake early the next day, and eschewing the services of the maid Lady Eleanor had assigned to her and Bianca, she dressed herself. After all, this was a case like any other, and she should not get used to luxury accommodations when she had to go back to dressing herself again once they returned home.
Unfortunately, her surroundings were much more comfortable than usual. Most clients preferred to house Mrs. Abernathy and her pretty nieces in with maids and housekeepers, away from susceptible husbands and sons. Nera was happy with that arrangement, even though inevitably she was called upon to play bodyguard to Bianca. The girl attracted gentlemen like honey caught flies.
Nera would often interrupt a conversation or act in an authoritative manner to detach her sister from an admirer, not wanting gentlemen to make the difference between earning a fee, or not. That had happened the first time they had accompanied their aunt on a case, when the lady of the house accused them of using their job to entice her son into a scandalous liaison. Their mother was mentioned, their fee denied, and Nera vowed never again to let a man come between them and their task of clearing unwanted spirits from homes.
Evidently Maurice had felt the same indignation. Bianca told her later that while they had rid that house of a persistent ghost, he had convinced another spirit to take its place. When a letter from that same woman arrived six months later begging Aunt Muriel to return, their aunt quite smugly sent back a polite refusal, citing no reason, and pronounced Maurice a ‘useful fellow.'
Nera recalled all this as she prepared for the day, only to discover that Bianca had already dressed and gone from the room they shared. Drat! If that girl was exploring...
Truth was, Bianca and Maurice could be inquisitive. They would also be determined to go to the library as soon as possible. Now Nera was going to have to find them and return them to the dowager's quarters before no one else was the wiser.
A peek next door into Aunt Muriel's chamber showed that lady to be fast asleep, softly snoring. Nera dared not look in on the dowager, but a quick pass through her parlor and breakfast room showed no one. There were, however, several covered dishes already positioned on a sideboard, and one of them revealed crisp rashers of bacon. She placed a few in a napkin and continued her explorations, unsure now of where to find the library.
Perhaps it was in the main part of the house? Most libraries were, at least, on the ground floor. The one at Eastbrook, the small estate where she had been raised, was in the rear lower level of the house. It wasn't large, but it was well-stocked. Or had been. A distant male cousin had inherited everything except their dowries upon her father's death, and he had not communicated with them, so she had no idea if her beloved Eastbrook even stood. For all she knew, it could have been run into the ground. Or burned to it.
Nera encountered one of Lady Eleanor's footmen, carrying a silver tray with tea and coffee pots on it, and asked if he had seen her sister.
"I believe she might have gone to the library," she said. The older man -- for all of Lady Eleanor's servants were getting on in years -- blanched.
"If you will wait a minute, Miss, I'll set these to rights and escort you there myself."
Nera agreed, and settled down in a hall chair to eat her bacon and await his return.
Elsewhere in the manor house, a young man of six and twenty had arrived from Town and was ordered directly up to have an audience with his mother.
"What did you discover?" she demanded immediately upon his entry into her frilly pink boudoir. That she did not extend any greetings or engage in any small talk first was not remarked upon. He was used to her direct approach.
"Nothing, Mother. No mention of his name on any of the manifests of the ships from India in the past two weeks. May we just consider my uncle well and truly gone and let it go?" Drew Lambert, tentative Viscount Meare, was tired of his mother's obsession.
A year ago, his beloved grandfather had died, leaving an estate in limbo. Years before, the eldest Lambert son had run off to India, and Drew's father, Charles, had been asked to step in and fulfill the duties of viscount. He had even let it be known that he was Viscount Meare, much to the late earl's annoyance. Charles' wife, Prudence, took the title of viscountess, and the two assumed they would become earl and countess upon the old man's death, or so his mother said. He could not quite believe it of his mild-mannered father.
Much to his mother's surprise, the elder son, Robert, was still considered the heir. She made his father take the case to the courts, and the family solicitor was given one year to the day to produce Lord Robert Lambert, or else he would be declared legally dead. The title would then pass on to Charles, and his son would become the new viscount.
The countess was getting anxious to become official, and she had been having Drew check every ship as it came into Southampton, much to his chagrin.
"He would not dare travel under the Lambert name!" she snapped at her son.
"I checked out every Lamb, Bertrand, Roberts and Robbins on the lists, Mother," he insisted wearily. He was growing tired of ship manifests.
"Nothing must mar this most perfect of house parties!" she said for the hundredth time in the space of a month. "When I am known as the Countess of Sandwell, I want everyone to hear it and celebrate!"
She had organized this house party, he knew, to coincide with that event, wanting to entertain her guests for two weeks and end it all with a grand ball making that announcement. The untimely arrival of a long-lost heir must not ruin her plans.
"Shall I return to Town?" he asked his ambitious mother, even though he was not exactly eager to do so. He was rather tired of London of late.
"No! I need you here for our guests! Not only will there be a number of eligible young ladies coming with their parents, but I shall need you to keep everyone away from the library."
Drew rolled his dark eyes at the thought of the young ladies who would be descending on Sandwell in a few days. This would be worse than in London, where the Season had not yet gone into full swing. No doubt his mother wished to open it with this grandiose house party, so she might be the talk of every drawing room once they all reached Town.
But talk of the library intrigued him more than his mother's machinations towards his love life.
"It's still happening, then?" he wondered.
"Yes!" she sourly replied. "It is a wonder we have any servants left. Only those associated with your grandmother have stayed with any regularity."
Drew's lips quirked up on either end at the thought of his grandmother.
"It is not funny!" his mother cried, catching his slight grin. "Of course people will want to use the library, for assignations, if nothing else! I just do not understand what is causing the problem."
"I believe the correct term is ‘ghost,' Mother," Drew dryly replied.
"Nonsense! There are no such things! Tell me you do not believe in them!"
"No, I do not. But the servants do, and someone is stacking books all over the room in the middle of the night."
"It must be one of them -- a servant!"
"Most likely," he agreed.
"One of your grandmother's staff, I suspect."
Drew tried not to smile once more. Ever since she had become a widow, Lady Eleanor had insisted on moving out of the countess' main apartments, had handed household chores over to his mother, and took her staff with her when she retreated to the east wing. Her servants were loyal to her, to a fault, leaving his mother with the responsibility of training new servants. It was amusing, really, how she had left his mother with all the work, but not the title. Not officially.
"She always wanted to be in charge when your grandfather was alive," Lady Eleanor had told him at the time. "Here is her chance."
What his grandmother thought of Robert's continued absence, he knew not, but he planned on calling on her as soon as he had breakfast, a short nap and a bath. He would ask her then, preferring to be guided by her attitude toward the purported ghost than his mother's.
"I want you to stay up tonight in there and catch this miscreant who threatens to ruin my party."
"What? Mother, surely you are not serious? Just let the staff know such behavior will not be tolerated."
"I have tried that, to no avail. I have even hired men to watch out for someone, but they either run off in the middle of the night, or fall asleep. When they awake, books are stacked all over the place once more!"
"It is an odd situation," he agreed.
"It is a disaster! Please say you will sit up tonight and put a stop to this, Drew?"
Propped up in bed with a tray across her lap, a large and ridiculously beribboned cap on her head, his mother looked silly. But her despair was real, and he was a dutiful son. To a point.
"I will take a couple of footmen with me and we will see if anything happens."
"If you can get even one footman to accompany you, son," Charles Lambert said from the connecting door to his room, "I shall be quite surprised." He moved forward to shake Drew's hand, smiling at the sight of his son.
Drew could not help but smile in return, knowing the pair of them together must look an odd sight. Where Drew was tall, his father was shorter and stockier. Lady Eleanor often said Charles had gotten his build from her side of the family, but Drew took after his grandfather. Still, Drew was more fond of his father than he was his mother, and he took the earl's hand warmly in his own.
"I was thinking that money might help," he said in reply to his father's comment.
Charles laughed, even as Prudence scowled. "Yes, it might at that. But don't be surprised if you catch no one. Our ghost can be a tricky one."
"Charles!" the countess scolded. "Do not say that word again! I am having enough trouble keeping servants and a mention of that particular word will only fuel the rumors!"
"Yes, dear," he said with a long-suffering sigh. "Have you only just arrived?" he asked his son. "I'm hungry. Shall we go down to breakfast?"
Drew agreed, kissed his mother dutifully on the cheek and went downstairs with his father to the morning parlor.
The kind footman showed Nera to the library door and excused himself to return to his duties. She thanked him and smiled as she heard what sounded like a one-sided conversation inside. If she was not mistaken, she had found Bianca.
"Fascinating!" she heard her sister exclaim as she softly entered the room. "That is what happens sometimes, however. The unfinished business is such that... Nera! Come in!" she called, catching sight of her sister.
Nera came fully into the room and gasped both at the size of the library, and at the towering stacks of books piled neatly on every available surface.
"This is the activity?" she asked, already guessing the answer.
Bianca nodded. "William does it every night."
Nera, who long ago learned not to fear spirits -- well, most of them, anyway -- merely nodded. "He needs something and he wants their attention."
"He does. He seems to have unfinished business of some sort, but he is not yet willing to part with all the information."
Nera hid a smile. Bianca would get his business out of him eventually, and then she and Maurice could help him move on. Before she could ask her sister what she had already learned, or to urge her back to the dowager's quarters, a tall man, the one from her vision, walked in, stopped dead in his tracks and looked directly at her.
"Who the devil are you and what are you doing in here?" he angrily demanded.
"What do you mean, who are we? Who are you?" Nera immediately countered. She didn't have to get along with the viscount, after all, not when he was destined for her sister. Why Bianca was going to fall for the man, she had no idea, but if her sister wanted some advice, Nera would suggest running far away as fast as she could.
In reply to her question, the gentleman seemed to puff up both with indignation and pride.
"I am Viscount Meare and I live here." He ran a hand through his hair. "Why am I explaining myself to you? Who are you and what are you doing in here?"
Bianca stepped forward, from where she had been half-hidden behind a stack of books, and gave him a brilliant smile.
"My lord! I have heard so much about you!" She held out a hand and he took it, seemingly dazed by Bianca's beauty. Not surprising, Nera thought. It happened to most men.
"Forgive the lack of formal introduction, my lord," Bianca continued. "We are Bianca and Nera Morrow, and your grandmother brought us in to speak to your ghost."
Nera watched closely and saw the man stiffen at the Morrow name. That figured. But he would overcome it, seeing as he was going to fall for her sister.
"There are no such things as ghosts," he said.
Bianca laughed. "Yes, there are! I've counted at least three of them already this morning! But only one resides in here and needs assistance, so I will deal with the other two if they approach me. None of them will do any harm, I assure you. Not even this one."
"You call ruining my mother's upcoming house party not harmful?"
"I do!" Bianca chortled. "No one has been hurt by these books. They are his way of gaining attention."
Bianca cocked her golden head to one side, as if listening to someone only she could see, and Nera waited, knowing her sister walked in two different worlds at the same time. It gave her a moment to study the viscount. Not that she hadn't already, in her mind's eye, but to do so up close was another thing altogether.
He was tall, that she already knew, and he was handsome, with dark wavy hair and deep, penetrating eyes. What she was now seeing in his features, however, was slightly different than her vision. He still appeared slightly sardonic, but there were few lines of dissipation. She was used to the aristocracy showing more signs of hard living. He was athletic, less soft than their usual clients. It was both refreshing in a way, considering he was going to marry her beloved sister, and also dangerous. Nera could like a man like this one, if he weren't such an utter prat.
"What are you looking at?" he suddenly snapped, breaking Nera out of her scrutinizing gaze. "And you, Miss Morrow, have yet to answer my question!"
"She is Miss Morrow," Bianca said calmly, indicating her sister. "And I am not to tell you the identity of the library spirit. He doesn't want you to know it yet. Is there breakfast somewhere, dearest?" she asked Nera, dismissing the viscount by linking her arm with her sister's and heading toward the door. "Maurice is urging me to keep up my strength for this case."
"Are you feeling faint?" Nera should have already asked. Bianca could be fragile, due to expending so much personal energy on communing with the dead. They required fuel to manifest, and tended to borrow it from the nearest source, in this case, Bianca.
"No, not faint, but I could use a cup of tea."
"Wait! You have not told me what I want to hear!" the viscount ordered.
"I am afraid you will have to wait, my lord," Nera insincerely replied. "My sister requires sustenance." Without another word, she walked Bianca out into the hall.
"Should you have been so rude, sister?" Bianca wondered as they found their way back to the dowager's rooms.
"Me? Was I the one who ignored him completely?"
"I had to -- William said he is not ready to know what is going on."
"What is going on?"
"I wish I knew..."
The elderly footman was on duty and gave them a relieved smile as they followed their noses into the breakfast parlor.
"There you are!" Aunt Muriel exclaimed.
"I told you they could not have gone far," Lady Eleanor said, giving the girls a warm smile. "Did you walk in the garden?"
"We found the library," Bianca replied, seating herself and reaching for toast while Nera took cups from the sideboard and poured out tea.
The dowager dropped her own cup with a loud clatter. "Please tell me you did not! What if someone saw you?"
Nera raised one eyebrow. They were to be kept secluded while they worked? She had been sure working with the dowager, a friend of her aunt, would be different.
"Someone did see us!" Bianca said brightly. "The viscount!"
"Who was none too happy to discover us in there," Nera pointed out.
"Oh dear, oh dear," Lady Eleanor said over and over.
"It might not be that bad," Aunt Muriel said. "You always maintain that your grandson has a good head on his shoulders."
"I said he has a logical head on his shoulders," the dowager retorted. "Logical people do not believe in ghosts."
"As we have learned," Nera dryly noted.
"May I say, Lady Eleanor, that he is exceptionally narrow-minded?"
"You may, Miss Bianca, dear, for all the good it will do you."
"We did learn one thing while we were there," Bianca said, undaunted by the lady's tone.
Aunt Muriel, however, perked up. "Oh?"
"Our spirit in the library has the name of William."
Aunt Muriel looked sharply at Lady Eleanor, whose cheeks paled and then flushed bright red.
"William?" she asked faintly. "My William?
Bianca shrugged, and Nera wondered if the dowager meant her late husband. "Whomever he is, he has some unfinished business," her sister said.
Muriel held up a hand to keep her niece from speaking further. "Eleanor, dear, I want you to think about what unfinished business William would have had, if this is, indeed, your William."
"Ah, ah," Muriel counseled. "Do not tell us just yet what it might be."
Nera did not like to see the dowager in distress, even though the lady wanted them out of sight. "May I escort you to your bedchamber, my lady?" she asked. "I believe my aunt merely wants you to spend some time in quiet reflection." It was Aunt Muriel's way to confer with her nieces without the client being present, as well.
Lady Eleanor allowed Nera to walk her to her chambers, and once there, let herself be fussed over. Nera settled her in a comfortable chair and asked the dowager's personal maid to bring a cup of tea.
"Sit with me a moment," Lady Eleanor requested when Nera made to leave. "I do not want to be alone right now." Her eyes grew wide, although not with fear. "What if I am not alone? What if William is here, right now?"
"I could not tell you, my lady. I am not the talented one in my family."
Nera's gift was rarely mentioned, which was why she was surprised Aunt Muriel had already told the dowager. It was so unreliable, as the future was often changing, and what she saw one day could sometimes shift the next. Large disasters and personal events such as weddings, however, usually remained constant. Possibly, she had surmised early on, because not much could prevent them from happening. Still, in her mind, the less said about her talent, the better. She had enough to worry about.
"Of course you have talent!" the dowager exclaimed. "It runs true to the females in your family! Your aunt's ability to pick thoughts out of minds is amazing, and I am impressed that your sister communes with the spirits. Sandwell has always been haunted, you know. A lady in white wanders the upstairs hall in the main part of the building, and a monk may be seen, at times, going in and out of where an old priest's hole is located. Fascinating! When I was a young bride here, however, I already knew not to be afraid of such things. Muriel had taught me a lot about the supernatural when we were at school together."
"You went to school with Aunt Muriel?"
"She never told you? I was certain she might have mentioned it over the years. William always used to say Muriel and I were as thick as thieves, and even after she wed Mr. Abernathy, they were frequent visitors here. She is godmother to my eldest son, Robert."
"The new earl," Nera said with a nod.
"Actually, no." Lady Eleanor frowned. "But he would be if William's private investigator had been able to discover him in India."
"He had a falling out with William once, not too long after his wife died, and ran away from his life here, and his responsibilities as viscount, when he was six and twenty." The older woman seemed to want to say more, but checked herself and changed the subject. "The same age Drew is now," she mused.
"Andrew, my grandson. The one you met earlier. Oh, what am I going to do about that? Prudence will know by now that I have someone investigating the library... If she was an early bird I would no doubt have already been summoned into her presence."
"Summoned?" It seemed Nera need only interject a word or two into the conversation at regular intervals to keep the dowager talking.
"Thinks she is the queen! I was never like that when I had her position. I was always up at sunrise -- William and I were both early risers -- taking breakfast with my husband downstairs, and then both of us would be off to our duties. We always spent time together before we dressed for dinner, however," she added with a reminiscent smile, "and shared the same bed at night. Now I've gone and made you blush!"
Nera's cheeks burned bright in the light of her ladyship's words.
"It's the secret to a happy marriage," Lady Eleanor said with a saucy wink. "When a husband knows what he has to look forward to every night, he doesn't spend a lot of time looking for it elsewhere."
Nera coughed just as the maid returned with two cups of tea. "Thank you, my lady, for the advice."
"It will come in handy one day, I am certain. You are much too pretty to remain on the shelf. What do you think of that devilishly handsome grandson of mine?"
"I think he is an insufferable lout."
The dowager laughed. "Not to mention being a skeptic! No doubt he gave you a difficult time about the ghost. Neither Prudence or Drew believes in spirits, so this should prove interesting. I wonder how they plan on conducting a house party with everything going on in the library?"
"Hopefully, we will be able to help before Lady Sandwell's guests arrive. When are they expected?"
"We only have two days?" Nera exclaimed.
"Not necessarily. I see no reason why her guests cannot be turned away from the library for a few days while you work. Prudence can just place a sign on the door and tell everyone there is a broken window in there."
"I do not wish us to be a nuisance to Lady Sandwell," Nera insisted. She disliked being in places where she was not wanted, even though Aunt Muriel and Bianca both seemed oblivious to such a feeling.
"Even if you are, it's Prudence's problem, and not yours. You are a kind young lady, Miss Morrow. Not to mention conscientious. I like that in a person."
The lady's maid entered the room, the viscount right on her heels. "He insisted on coming in, my lady," she apologized.
"Quite all right, my dear," the dowager assured the woman. "Drew! What a lovely surprise! Come give me a kiss and pull up a chair. I have been having the most comfortable coze with Miss Morrow! I understand introductions are not required?" She looked from one young person to the other, and back again.
"We have met," he said, tight-lipped, as he kissed his grandmother's cheek and seated himself at her side.
"Quite an enlightening experience," Nera sarcastically replied.
"I thought I might have a private audience with you, Grandmama," the viscount said.
"Nonsense, dear boy! I believe I know what you wish to discuss, and Miss Morrow should be here for the conversation. She is a most level-headed young lady, Drew, and she may relay your concerns to her aunt and sister."
"If his lordship wishes me to leave..."
"If Grandmama wants you to stay, please stay, Miss Morrow," he stiffly replied.
"If it will not inconvenience you, my lord..."
"All right, children," the dowager called them to order. "That is enough."
Nera blushed and even the viscount seemed abashed.
"Now, I believe we should discuss this situation and come up with some decisions. I have already spoken to Muriel, Miss Morrow, but she even said she must consult with you, so I may suppose you are the coordinator of most of your family's endeavors. Drew, you are here because you have chosen to concern yourself in this matter." She paused and looked intently at her grandson. "Your mother has chosen to involve you. I suppose I should have known Prudence would not let this rest so close to her party. You may tell her not to worry -- that you have it all under control and she is not to go poking her nose into the business. Oh, you will say it more diplomatically than I," she added, watching her grandson open and close his mouth like a fish.
"What do you propose we do, my lady?" Nera wondered. She had never encountered a client so involved in their investigations, but then, this was Aunt Muriel's bosom beau. This Lady Eleanor was also different from the wailing, helpless woman who had put on such a show for Aunt Muriel a few minutes earlier. Perhaps she was startled at what they had already discovered, or maybe she had only wished to get Nera alone to talk about the matter. The arrival of the viscount, while annoying, did not seem to hamper that desire.
"As I see it, we have two perspectives here," the dowager said. "I know you are a non-believer, Drew, and I can respect that. You will be in charge of keeping people away from Miss Bianca so she may do her work. Miss Morrow, you are well aware of your sister's talents, but she seems to me a less hearty creature than yourself. You will be responsible for her health and well-being, as I am certain you are already."
"I know you have other responsibilities, Drew, but this is important, for several different reasons, the least of which, I am afraid, is your mother's blasted house party!"
"Grandmama!" he exclaimed.
Nera smothered a laugh, both at the dowager's outburst and the viscount's reaction.
"It is true! But she is not to know that. I am certain the first thing she asked, upon your arrival, was for you to catch the person responsible for this situation. Which reminds me..." She rose and he got to his feet immediately, only to find himself embraced by his grandmother. "Welcome home, dear boy. We have all missed you."
Lord Meare coughed, seemingly uncomfortable in showing and receiving affection in the presence of a stranger, but Nera could see his return embrace was genuine. It was oddly endearing, considering she did not like the man.
"I have had the most wonderful thought!" the dowager suddenly exclaimed. "I know I said you must stay away from the countess, Miss Morrow, but that, upon reflection, is nonsensical. Instead, you and your family must join the house party!"
"What?" Nera came right out of her chair.
"Impossible!" the viscount agreed.
"It's perfect!" the dowager crowed. "Your sister will have a chance every day to commune with the ghost, you both can participate in the many activities that Drew surely is going to help his mother plan for the young people, and you will keep an eye on your sister's health!"
"I am going to what?" Lord Meare seemed stunned.
"What about Aunt Muriel?" Nera wondered, ignoring the viscount.
"Muriel reads minds -- she can do that anywhere. And as my particular guest, she will have a chance to keep an eye on Prudence. We will know in advance if your mother is on the warpath, Drew, and act accordingly."
"Your aunt reads minds?" he asked Nera.
"Yes, she does. So be careful what you are thinking about when you are near her," she warned with an evil smile.
"I would not be surprised if Drew has natural shields," his grandmother said, causing Nera to look at her in surprise.
"You know about shields?" The strongest of people could always hide their thoughts, which Aunt Muriel found frustrating, as most of the strong people were the ones she needed to read for information.
Lady Eleanor laughed with delight, returned to her seat and waved the other two back into their chairs. "I know more than you think I do, young lady. Oh, the stories I could tell you about our school days..." She laughed once more at the shocked expression on her grandson's face, and turned to Nera. "Some other time, then, dear. Now, if the Morrow sisters and Mrs. Abernathy are going to join the party, Drew, we need to make their presence known to your mother, and begin to assimilate them into the household. We shall begin with dinner tonight!"
"Is that wise?" Lord Meare asked, and Nera could feel the weight of his gaze upon her.
She should have expected him to object, as she was certain his mother would not approve of them based on her mother's actions. Scandals became new again when reminders appeared.
"Most likely not," Lady Eleanor said with a shrug. "We both know your mother is not an easy woman to deal with, Drew, but if we use offensive tactics, we should have an advantage. If nothing else, there will be some element of surprise. I know by now she will have been told I have guests. Such information is impossible to suppress, as my servants interact with hers on a daily basis. Indeed, I made no effort to keep such knowledge from anyone. As far as my own household is concerned, I merely invited an old friend and her two nieces to visit me."
"Clever," her grandson drawled.
"Be nice, Drew. Now, I believe Prudence does not require any more information than that, except to know there will be four of us joining you for dinner. You will let her know?" she asked Lord Meare.
"Yes, ma'am," he dutifully replied. "I also have other work to accomplish today." He rose and bowed. "If you ladies will excuse me?"
"Such a good son," Lady Eleanor noted after he left. "Too bad his parents are so misguided, else there might be hope for him."
"Misguided?" Nera echoed. She was back to inserting a word here and there and letting the dowager dominate the conversation, but she was also concerned that there was something wrong with the man fate had intended for her sister.
"Do not misunderstand me, Miss Morrow. Drew is a perfect gentleman, he would make the right lady an exemplary husband, and he would be a good father. But the lot of them are narrow-minded prigs."
"I beg your pardon?" Had she heard correctly? Had Lady Eleanor just called her son, daughter-in-law and grandson prigs?
"You heard him! ‘I don't believe in ghosts!'" she mimicked her grandson perfectly. "What sort of attitude is that? The wrong one! And a man who is hidebound in his thinking will never broaden it. It will just narrow even more over the years."
An interesting concept, Nera thought, and her estimation of the dowager rose a few notches.
"I do apologize for my little outburst in front of Muriel and your sister," Lady Eleanor continued, as if reading her mind. "I needed to speak with you alone. Drew's arrival was quite fortuitous, though, I admit."
"I see. Then you are not ashamed of us?" Nera asked in her forthright manner.
"Oh, no! Of course not! I am so pleased that Muriel's nieces carry on the family talents! You are very much like your grandmother, you know."
Nera nodded, and was curious. "You knew my grandmother, as well?"
"We all went to school together, and as Muriel and I were close friends, it only stood to reason that I knew her sister's secrets, as well. Lavinia's visions were quite fascinating, and between her and your aunt, there was nothing going on at school we did not know about."
"I assume you used that information to your advantage then," Nera said with a smile.
"Someone had to! And why not? The place was practically a prison, and we were bored to tears. We had been sent there merely to cool our heels before our first seasons, and our youthful energy had to go somewhere. In your grandmother's case, it was looking out for the best opportunities for us to escape the place for a few hours at a time. Couple that with Muriel's ability to read minds and you have a lovely recipe for schoolgirl mischief ."
"Did you ever get caught?"
"Never! And when we had all gone to London together, Lavinia let us know exactly whom to meet and whom to avoid, and when we had made our choices, let us know we had done exactly right. I certainly never regretted my marriage to William, and Muriel was very happy with Mr. Abernathy up until his unfortunate accident. Your grandmother's letter to her warning of the incident did not come in time, I am afraid. It was very sad. Even sadder was Lavinia's illness and death before your mother's defection."
"And now we are social pariahs," Nera said softly.
"Nonsense! You are lovely young girls who should not be judged by your mother's actions, and I mean to make sure you meet some very eligible men at this house party!"
Nera protested, but Lady Eleanor would not be gainsaid, and she finally pleaded the need to speak to her sister and aunt to escape the lady's well-meaning argument. She just knew the dowager was mistaken in this and that the house party was going to be a disaster.
"We are going to dine with the earl and countess this evening?" Aunt Muriel's eyes were as round as saucers. "Who decided this?"
"Lady Eleanor. Before you say anything, be aware she means for Bianca and I to participate in Lady Sandwell's house party, as well."
"Wonderful news!" Aunt Muriel exclaimed and Nera could only think that if Eleanor decided something, it must be right, because her aunt had never had this reaction to their mingling with their clients before.
If it were not for her own vision of the viscount and Bianca, she would advocate packing up now and going home. Not only was she suspicious of Lady Eleanor's mercurial moods, she did not like the lady's grandson and she was certain the countess would be less than welcoming once she received word of extra guests. Still, she was only one out of three people affected by this plan, and she waited patiently while her aunt and sister whispered between themselves.
"We are going to dine with the earl and countess this evening," Muriel announced. "Bianca wishes to stay and help the spirit in the, and it will do all of us good to be seen in polite company again."
Nera could say so many things to that, but she held her tongue, knowing her aunt had their best interests in mind.
"Yes, I do," Aunt Muriel said, smiling widely at her niece. "You forgot to shield."
"I forgot to shield," she agreed.
"I only hope Lord and Lady Sandwell will be as easily read as you are at this moment. Bianca, darling, go see what you and your sister have suitable to wear tonight. Nera and I shall look through my jewelry box."
Nera watched Bianca leave happily enough, and followed her aunt into her bedchamber.
"We are not really going to look through your jewels," she said when they were alone. "Bianca and I both have our pearls, and you always wear your sapphire necklace and blue evening gown."
"Perhaps I shall be daring and wear the purple gown and my amethysts."
"I will believe that when I see it. What do you wish to speak to me about?"
"Lord Meare. I haven't been able to hear anything but your thoughts on that gentleman all morning!"
"Am I that transparent?"
"To me. I am certain you have a particular reason for your dislike of him, but I do not understand why your sister is tangled up in your thoughts."
"I had a vision..."
"Tell me about it," her aunt prompted.
"It was before we came here. I saw the viscount in a ballroom, bowing over Bianca's hand. He was wearing the most tender smile," she said dreamily, inadvertently opening her mind wider to her aunt's scrutiny. What Muriel saw there, she did not say, but she suddenly smiled and patted Nera's hand, bringing her back to the present.
"This house party will be just the thing, then, won't it? But please, my dear, do one thing for me."
"Yes?" Aunt Muriel rarely asked outright for favors, even though Nera was more than happy to do anything for the lady.
"Do not interfere. I know you will want to do all you can to throw these two together, but you can't. Life does not happen that way, my sweet. You have to let it run its course."
"I do not understand. Here is Bianca's chance to make a brilliant match! It is what you and I have always wanted for her! How can I not give it just a little push here and there?"
"Do you want to push too far on either side and fall flat on your matchmaking face?" Muriel gently asked. "If these two are destined to be together, my love, they will find a way. By themselves. Do not look so downhearted!" She put a hand under her niece's chin and lifted her face up to look directly into matching gray eyes. "This is our chance to make some society connections through Eleanor, who will be more than happy to oblige us. She is well aware of our obstacles, and if nothing comes of this party, might even be willing to sponsor you and your sister this season. Let us see how the next fortnight or so plays out, and we will make plans afterwards."
"But the expense!" Nera protested.
"Will be taken care of. Do not worry, my love. Everything always has a way of working out in the end."
Nera wished she had some of her aunt's confidence that evening, when Lady Eleanor ushered them into a very grand salon before dinner. A thin, haughty lady sat ramrod straight on a sofa, elegantly dressed in a garnet silk gown, matching jewels in her ears and at her throat. One gloved hand held a small glass of sherry, the other raised a lorgnette to inspect the newcomers.
"Mama!" the earl said jovially, coming forward to kiss the dowager's cheek. "And you have guests! Isn't that wonderful of her, Prudence, to bring them to dine with us!"
"Lovely," the countess said snidely, rising from the sofa and moving forward. "Mother Lambert, won't you introduce us?"
"I know you have met Mrs. Abernathy before, Prudence, so quit acting so high in the instep," Lady Eleanor said sweetly. "These are her two nieces, Miss Morrow, and Miss Bianca Morrow." She indicated the girls in turn.
"Morrow?" The countess frowned, as if trying to place the name, until she put a hand to her forehead and must have realized there were wrinkles there. Smoothing out her countenance, she merely inclined her head. "How do you do. My husband, the Earl of Sandwell," she added, waving in that general direction without even looking. "Charles, do get the ladies some sherry."
Before he could pour out, the viscount entered, dressed in black and white evening clothes and also frowning. He appeared to have no problem with the wrinkles, however, because he did not stop.
"I apologize for my tardiness, mother." Nera watched as he kissed the countess' cheek. "Grandmother. And you must be Mrs. Abernathy," he said to Aunt Muriel, bowing over her hand. "I have heard much about you." When he straightened, his frown was gone, covered by a social mask similar to the one being worn by his mother. "Let me help you with that, sir," he said, seeing his father juggling four glasses. Sherry was passed out and the gentlemen moved back to the side table to pour drinks for themselves.
"How are you enjoying your visit to Sandwell, Mrs. Abernathy?" the countess queried.
"Very well, Lady Sandwell. Your home is lovely, but of course it was my dear Eleanor I came to see."
"Ah, yes, the infamous school friend," Lady Sandwell drawled. "I vow Drew got into more trouble at Eton, attempting to repeat some of his grandmother's escapades." The frown was now replaced with a pair of tight lips.
"It would have been impossible, I am certain," Nera said, earning a glare from the countess for speaking up.
"How so, Miss Morrow?"
The viscount was suddenly standing behind her and she turned around quickly, sloshing her sherry. Fortunately, it did not land on her gown, even if it did spot the Aubusson rug under her feet.
"You did not have the talents of my aunt and my grandmother."
To her surprise, the gentleman grinned, as if recalling what talent her aunt possessed. "I consider myself fortunate that I did not, else I would have been expelled for certain."
"Why is that?"
Nera never got her answer, because the countess made a comment about certain people monopolizing the conversation, and she blushingly turned back to her hostess. "I beg your pardon, Lady Sandwell."
"I understand you two have already met," she said with a sniff. "How convenient for you."
"My sister, as well," Nera pointed out, refusing to be cowed by the lady.
"How convenient for the both of you, then. Tell me, Mother Lambert, how long do your guests plan to stay?"
"Several weeks, at least," her mother-in-law sweetly replied. "I want them to avail themselves of your house party entertainments."
"My..." Lady Sandwell looked faint. "I am certain the young ladies will find it infinitely boring. I have only invited my closest friends, and they are, I fear, much older than these two pretty girls."
"Nonsense! There will be plenty of young people here to be entertained by Drew!" the dowager insisted with an evil grin. "What are two more? You will hardly notice the addition to your party, and Muriel will be on hand to keep me out of mischief."
"You hardly need a keeper, Mama," the earl said, joining them. "But it will be nice to have a close friend here for you."
"That is exactly what I thought, Charles. So kind of you to agree with me."
Nera could feel the undercurrents in the conversations, and Aunt Muriel had basically blanked out, something she did when she was trying to catch what people were thinking, rather than what they were saying. Bianca had risen from the sofa and was looking in a curio cabinet full of objects d'art. The viscount joined her, and Nera could faintly hear their conversation.
"You like Oriental ceramics, Miss Morrow?" he asked politely.
"I like pretty things," Bianca truthfully replied. "But I make no pretensions to knowing who makes certain things, or what their value is. I like plants, too."
"You must see the conservatory, then. Perhaps you and your sister will allow me to show you around the house tomorrow? I would not want you getting lost in this large place."
Bianca laughed. "I am never lost. Maurice is better than any housekeeper or guide book, you know."
"And pray tell who is Maurice? Your dog?"
Bianca's laughter filled the room, causing heads to turn their direction. "Oh, no! Maurice is my spirit guide! He's a Frenchman, which I know is not at all the thing to be in England at the moment, but I cannot change his nationality."
"An imaginary friend? Surely you could make him an Englishman, Miss Bianca."
"Maurice is not imaginary!" she said tightly, and Nera wondered if she would have to interrupt in a moment. It would not do for him to make fun of her sister and get her all upset. "He was the major domo of a French marquis during the Terror, and when his employer was sent to the guillotine, he protested and was also beheaded."
"That is quite a fantastic tale. Surely you had a nanny who liked to tell wild stories?"
Bianca shook her head, gave him a sad look and returned to her seat. Nera wanted desperately to say something to the viscount, to set him straight, but her aunt had counseled against interference. Nera took that to mean interference in front of Aunt Muriel. What she did not know would not hurt her, and Nera would be careful to shield her thoughts from her aunt.
Fortunately, dinner was announced before Lord Meare could put his foot further into his mouth, and she found herself at the back of the procession going into the dining room, while he was up front, escorting his grandmother.
©2007, 2008 Copyright held by the author.