Foes, Friends, and Lovers

Foes, Friends, and Lovers

An original Cynster Next Generation Novel
Volume 10
Available in print and ebook formats
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-52-1
E-BOOK ISBN:  978-1-925559-51-4
Release Date: March 17, 2022

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens returns with a tale of a gentleman seeking the road to fulfillment and a lady with a richly satisfying life but no certain future. A gentleman searching for a purpose in life sets out to claim his legacy, only to discover that instead of the country residence he’d expected, he’s inherited an eccentric community whose enterprises are overseen by a decidedly determined young lady who is disinclined to hand over the reins.

Gregory Cynster arrives at the property willed to him by his great-aunt with the intention of converting Bellamy Hall into a quiet, comfortable, gentleman’s country residence, only to discover the Hall overrun by an eclectic collection of residents engaged in a host of business endeavors under the stewardship of a lady far too young to be managing such reins.

With the other residents of the estate, Caitlin Fergusson has been planning just how to deal with the new owner, but coming face to face with Gregory Cynster throws her and everyone else off their stride. They’d anticipated a bored and disinterested gentleman who, once they’d revealed the income generated by the Hall’s community, would be content to leave them undisturbed.

Instead, while Gregory appears the epitome of the London rake they’d expected him to be, they quickly learn he’s determined to embrace Bellamy Hall and all its works and claim ownership of the estate.

While the other residents adjust their thinking, the burden of dealing daily with Gregory falls primarily on Caitlin’s slender shoulders, yet as he doggedly carves out a place for himself, Caitlin’s position as chatelaine-cum-steward seems set to grow redundant. But Caitlin has her own reasons for clinging to the refuge her position at Bellamy Hall represents.

What follows is a dance of revelations, both of others and also of themselves, for Gregory, Caitlin, and the residents of Bellamy Hall. Yet even as they work out what their collective future might hold, a shadowy villain threatens to steal away everything they’ve created.

A classic historical romance set in an artisanal community on a country estate. A Cynster Next Generation novel. A full-length historical romance of 118,000 words.

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"Fans of full-bodied Regency romances with dynamic female leads will find much to enjoy in Foes, Friends, and Lovers." Virge B., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

"When Gregory Cynster inherits Bellamy Hall and arrives to inspect the enormous home, he’s surprised to find a woman, Caitlin Fergusson, serving as steward of the highly unconventional estate. Though Caitlin is secretive about her past, Gregory quickly realizes he can’t afford to lose her help, and he bides his time in learning precisely what her past looks like and whether he can be a part of her future. Fans of Regency romance will relish this tale." Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing

February 16, 1852
On the road to Bellamy Hall, Northamptonshire

Gregory Cynster kept his matched bays to a steady pace along the gently winding road heading southwest from Wellingborough. It was barely two o’clock in the afternoon, and despite the chilly temperatures and overcast skies, no rain threatened; he saw no reason to hurry.

Seated beside him, his gentleman’s gentleman, Snibbs, who hadn’t visited Bellamy Hall before, surveyed the pleasant but unremarkable countryside with eager interest.

Gregory’s groom, Melton, occupied the box seat behind Snibbs. Melton had been with Gregory’s family all his working life and had visited the Hall several times, including the last time Gregory had been there—for his great-aunt Minnie’s funeral in November ’43. More than eight years ago, Gregory realized with mild surprise.

Time passes more swiftly than one thinks.

Hard on the heels of that thought came another. And what have I to show for those eight years?

Much as he didn’t want to think it, the answer was: very little.

He’d been drifting. Idly floating through life, utterly purposeless and cast hither and yon by the currents about him. He knew it, but had been unable to fix on a direction—an occupation, a project—that called to him. That excited his interest. So he’d drifted on.

Gregory noticed Snibbs was peering through the trees on their left; glancing that way, he glimpsed several roofs on the other side of long, sloping fields. “That’s Earls Barton, the nearest village. Once we take the next turn, the village will come up on our left, and the Hall’s lands will lie to our right.”

“We’ve made good time,” Melton rumbled.

“Indeed.” Gregory spotted the lane that led to the village and also, eventually, to the front gate of Bellamy Hall. He’d spent the last week in Lincolnshire, hunting with friends—a prior engagement he hadn’t seen any reason to break—before finally making for the Hall. They’d left the hunting box south of Spalding after breakfast and traveled via Peterborough and Thrapston to High Ferrars, where they’d stopped for lunch before continuing to Wellingborough and out along the road to Northampton.

Gregory slowed his horses and turned onto the lane. Once the pair were trotting steadily, he glanced at where he knew Bellamy Hall to be, although the lie of the land hid the house from view.

He hadn’t informed the staff he would be arriving that day, but they had to be expecting him. He’d learned of his unexpected inheritance at the end of January, and the Hall staff would have been informed soon after. The news that he was now the owner of Bellamy Hall had come out of the blue; initially, he hadn’t known what to make of it, much less how he felt about it.

Snibbs straightened and pointed through the trees. “Is that it?” Amazement and something like awe tinged his voice.

Gregory looked, then halted the horses. This was the one spot along the lane that afforded a clear view of the house, nearly a mile distant over the fields. He nodded. “That’s Bellamy Hall.”

Lowering his hands, he drank in the sight. He’d first visited as an infant, and for many years, every summer, he and his family had made the pilgrimage from their home in Kent to spend a few weeks with their mother’s aunt, Araminta, Lady Bellamy, better known as Minnie. And forever by Minnie’s side had been her devoted companion, Mrs. Timms, known to all as Timms. As he stared across the winter-brown fields at the massive house, he could easily imagine Minnie and Timms eagerly waiting in the parlor to greet and embrace him and ply him with tea, ginger biscuits, and seed cake.

“It’s rather…imposing,” Snibbs managed.

Gregory’s lips twitched. “That’s one way of describing it.” To the uninitiated, Bellamy Hall was a gothic monstrosity.

The land surrounding the house was relatively flat, allowing the grotesquerie of the hodgepodge of styles—punctuated by random turrets and towers, some round, others square, capped by mismatched roofs—to achieve maximum impact. Built in gray limestone, over the centuries, the original manor hall had sprouted five wings, some of which had floors that didn’t align with those of the abutting sections, resulting in a roofline of many and varied heights and uncounted flights of stairs within.

Despite the place’s unabashed ugliness, Gregory viewed it with warm affection. He and his siblings had spent many richly satisfying days pretending they were explorers and haunting the twisting corridors, discovering odd alcoves and rooms shut up for years. It was, indeed, a house that stirred imaginations young and old.

Narrowing his eyes, he tried to envision the place as, under his ownership, he hoped it would be—a comfortable, gentleman’s country residence. He was there to pick up the reins, assess the situation with the wider estate, and make any decisions necessary to bring the vision in his head into being.

He could imagine himself in the library, comfortably sunk in one of the armchairs, reading the latest news from London. There would be hunting in winter, out of Northampton and nearby Kettering, and in the summer, who knew? He might even host a few of his friends for a house party.

His vision was one of bucolic country peace, soothing and free of social drama. An easygoing, relatively uneventful life that, he felt, would suit him. He could see himself sinking into such an untrammeled existence. Should he feel the need for something more, there was always London, or he could invite his siblings, their spouses, and his associated nieces and nephews to visit, just as he and his siblings had when they’d been children.

He could see it clearly. A quiet, peaceful existence with carefully curated excitements to add spice whenever he wished, with everything under his complete control.

His lips lightly curving, he shook the reins and set the horses trotting again.

They passed the turnoff that led to the village and, shortly after, came to the entrance to the Hall’s drive, and he deftly turned the curricle through the perennially open gates.

The first section of the drive was bordered on both sides by closely planted trees. Although the leaves of the beeches and oaks were brown and shriveled, the conifers between were huge and dense and arched over the drive to create a dark tunnel.

The wind was rising. Not quite howling, yet whistling through the trees and rattling the dried leaves in a vaguely menacing way and sending chill fingers sliding over any exposed skin.

Ahead, framed by the end of the tunnel, the sky had darkened, clouds louring, heavy and thick, but as yet showing no overt sign of rain.

The curricle emerged from the tunnel into the open, with neatly clipped lawns rolling away to either side. The drive turned slightly to head directly to the oval forecourt before the house’s front door. From the drive, they couldn’t see the ruins of Coldchurch Abbey, on the gatehouse of which Bellamy Hall had been built, but Gregory knew the ruins were there, beyond the rear left corner of the roughly rectangular block of the house.

The neatness of the lawns and the shrub-filled beds along the wide front of the house confirmed his assumption that Timms had continued to run the household and estate much as she had in Minnie’s day, and he felt certain she would have kept on the staff. The only change he knew of was that the previous butler, Marston, and his wife, who had acted as housekeeper, had retired and moved away, leaving the erstwhile underbutler, Cromwell, to step into the butler’s role. Gregory hadn’t heard who the current housekeeper was; doubtless, he would soon find out.

He’d last seen Timms in autumn, when she’d visited his parents and uncle and aunt in London. She’d passed, apparently peacefully, in mid-January, when a bout of icy weather had gripped all of England. She’d been buried a week later, but heavy snowfalls blanketing the country had prevented any of the family from attending. They’d been hunkered down in London, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Rutlandshire, and Cornwall and unable to get through.

As the forecourt neared, he slowed his horses and made a mental note to visit Minnie’s and Timms’s graves.

Under Minnie’s will, Timms had been left the house and estate to manage in a caretaker role until Timms’s own death. Being a decade or so the elder, Minnie had tasked Timms with selecting which of Minnie’s great-nieces or great-nephews should ultimately inherit the Hall, and Timms had chosen Gregory. To his amazement, no one in the family had voiced so much as a quibble or even shown much surprise. The legacy had surprised him, but apparently, others knew or saw something he still didn’t; they all thought he was the right person to take up the reins at Bellamy Hall.

Although he’d asked why, no one had explained other than to imply that Timms’s reasons were obvious.

He inwardly snorted; he still couldn’t see it, but he was there now, about to walk into the house as the new owner of Bellamy Hall.

He didn’t draw up in the forecourt but sent the curricle sweeping on, around the north face of the house to the stable yard beyond.

* * *

Inside Bellamy Hall, seated behind the desk in the study, Caitlin Fergusson examined the figures she’d just jotted down, then tucked her pencil behind her ear and smiled encouragingly at the four people occupying the chairs before the desk. “That should do well enough, at least in this season.”

“I’m just glad we’ve got those porkers to sell.” Joshua Bracks, head gardener and principal keeper of the livestock pens, shook his graying head. “I was worried the freeze might have held them back, but they’ve come along nicely, which is just as well, as the hens don’t do well in this weather.”

Caitlin smiled reassuringly. “You’re keeping the kitchen supplied, which is all we need at this time.” She glanced at Julia Witherspoon, sitting beside Joshua. “Your onions should fetch a good price as well.”

A large and handsome lady, Julia managed the Hall’s kitchen gardens and had a well-developed grasp of what produce would fetch a good price at the local market each month. In her usual regal way, she inclined her head. “I believe so, although I think our shallots and garlic will, in toto, bring in even more.”

“That”—Caitlin glanced at her estimation of the likely profits the Hall would make from the market in Wellingborough later that week—“would be very helpful.” It was her job to balance the overall budget for the Hall’s many enterprises, an undertaking that demanded unrelenting attention to detail.

She looked at the others present—Harry Edgar, who managed the Hall’s extensive orchard, and his wife, Jennifer, who ran the cider mill—and arched her brows. “Any thoughts on how your produce will be received this week?”

With a satisfied smile, Harry predicted, “The last of the apples will vanish inside an hour.” A quiet gentry-born farmer, he loved his fruit trees and looked on their offerings with justifiable pride. Still smiling, he glanced at his dark-haired wife. “And I expect we’ll have a rush over Jen’s new plum brandy.”

Jennifer smiled, plainly confident in that assessment. “That old recipe you found worked a treat. Like Harry says, people will be lining up for a bottle once the news gets about.”

“And of course,” Harry added, “we’ve more of our cider to sell. It’s the late-harvest pressing, and that always goes quickly.” He met Caitlin’s eyes. “I was wondering if we shouldn’t add a penny or two to our price.”

The others supported the idea, Caitlin included. “As Barnack cider is so prized locally and the last pressing of the season is a limited run, I can’t see why those bottles shouldn’t go for a premium.”

With that decided, all well pleased, they were about to rise when a rap on the door was followed by Nessie, the Hall’s cook, sticking her head into the room. She saw them, smiled, and came in. “All the people I wanted to see.”

With her apple cheeks, comfortable girth wrapped in a spotless but creased white apron, and gray hair gathered in a knot on top of her head, the older woman was everyone’s vision of an experienced cook. She fixed her bright blue eyes on them, and her smile widened. “Now then, I’m seeking a challenge for dinner tonight. So what can you give me to play with?”

Grinning back, they relaxed in their chairs and set their minds to what they could offer Nessie to sate her imaginative cravings. Being well acquainted with the outcome of such endeavors, they were seriously motivated. In the end, Joshua offered a porker already hanging in the cool store, along with two pheasants, and reminded Nessie of the jelly she’d made from the pigs’ trotters he’d given her weeks ago. Jennifer promised to send their son with a bottle of the prized plum brandy, and Julia and Nessie put their heads together and came up with a list of vegetables to best complement the viands.

Once everyone was satisfied—and mentally licking their lips in anticipation of the evening meal—the others took their leave of Caitlin and, finally, rose to go.

She was fond of them all and loved her position as chatelaine of Bellamy Hall, but when any of them started talking of their passions, the hours flew. With the previous week’s accounts still to be done, she was quietly pleased to see them make for the door.

Then Harry halted and turned to her. “Meant to ask—have you heard anything of our new owner? Are we expecting him anytime soon?”

The others all stopped and looked at her.

She inwardly sighed, but folded her hands and smiled at the group, all of whom were waiting on her answer. “I haven’t heard anything at all, but that said, he could turn up any day.”

Julia humphed. “Typical of that sort of London gentleman, I fear. No consideration for those his arrival might discombobulate.”

Julia wasn’t speaking for herself; she was the least likely of the estate’s residents to be discombobulated by Mr. Cynster, even should he prove to be the most unconscionable libertine. Others, however, were rather more nervy.

“One has to wonder,” Jennifer said, fingers twining, “why he hasn’t visited yet.” She fixed her gaze on Caitlin’s face. “Do you think…that is, what if he’s already decided to sell? The Hall and the estate?”

Firmly, Caitlin shook her head. “Even the most disinterested gentleman wouldn’t sell an agricultural estate he hasn’t stepped foot on for more than eight years. If only to assess what he’s inherited, he will come.”

Joshua raised his brows. “Perhaps he’ll send an agent.”

With an authority she didn’t truly feel, Caitlin replied, “From all I’ve gathered of Mr. Cynster’s past association with the Hall, especially when his great-aunt was alive, no matter how much of a hedonistic profligate he is, I doubt he would sell the place without at least coming to see what’s here.” And run a calculating eye over the Hall’s assets.

From the moment Timms had told her who would inherit—unfortunately only just before Timms had breathed her last—Caitlin had done all she could to learn more about Mr. Gregory Cynster. Cromwell, Jenkins, and a few of the staff who had been at the Hall for decades remembered him, but sadly, their memories were of him as a child or a youth. Along with everyone else on the estate, they had no insights regarding the Hall’s new owner as an adult.

Consequently, together with everyone else, not just at the Hall but in the local area, Caitlin had been left to extrapolate from what was expected of, as Julia had put it, “that sort of London gentleman.”

As a Cynster, Mr. Gregory Cynster moved in the upper echelons of society. He lived in London—that much, Timms had told her—and was active in the ton. If Caitlin had correctly interpreted the observations Timms had shared over the past three years, Gregory Cynster enjoyed the archetypal lifestyle of the London-born-and-bred gentleman-rake.

He attended balls and soirées in town. He visited friends and relatives in the country and rode magnificent horses in the hunt. He drove superb cattle hitched to an elegant curricle and squired beautiful ladies—usually young matrons—to ton events and, no doubt, alleviated said ladies’ boredom at the drop of their handkerchiefs.

Caitlin’s mind wandered into imagining what that would entail…

“I just hope,” Harry said, his voice, heavy with dire meaning, snapping her back to the present, “that he doesn’t come here wanting to change things.”

Caitlin adopted her most confident expression. “Our best guess is that, when he does arrive, Mr. Cynster will look, first and foremost, at what Bellamy Hall can provide in furthering his current lifestyle. Once he sees and appreciates what a well-run and profitable series of businesses Bellamy Hall comprises, I’m confident he’ll understand that he has no reason to meddle—indeed, that he would be unwise to attempt it—and, instead, can return to his London pursuits and live comfortably on the income the Hall will provide.”

Harry, Nessie, and Julia appeared inclined to accept Caitlin’s prophesy, while Jennifer looked like she was considering surreptitiously crossing herself.

But Joshua frowned uncertainly. “Do you think he will?”

Chin firming, Caitlin truthfully replied, “I can’t see why not.”

* * *

Leaving the bays in the stable, in the care of Melton, Jenkins—the head stableman, whom Gregory remembered from long ago—and three suitably reverent stable lads, Gregory walked out of the stable yard and headed for the house, making for the south façade of the house and the side door that the family habitually used.

He’d left Snibbs organizing the luggage they’d brought strapped to the rear of the curricle. The rest of his possessions, and Snibbs’s and Melton’s, had been consigned to a carter and would be delivered in due course.

On reaching the southwest corner of the house, Gregory paused and looked back. With his hands sunk in the pockets of his greatcoat, he surveyed the buildings around the stable.

Clearly, some things had changed since he’d last been there—or at least since he’d last looked out this way. When he’d come for Minnie’s funeral, he hadn’t visited the stable so couldn’t guess how recent the two barns beyond the stable were. The forge and the carriage barn behind the stable had always been there, but both had been repaired, reroofed, and significantly extended.

Eyes narrowing, he studied the stable; built by Minnie’s husband, Sir Humphrey, who’d been a keen rider to hounds, it had always been large. Gregory had assumed that the number of horses would be much reduced by now, yet the stable had seemed busier and more bustling than in his memories. Many of the stalls had been occupied and not solely with carriage horses. While he’d been there, two stable lads had returned from exercising a pair of decent-looking hacks.

What he’d seen had raised several questions, not least being to whom all the horses belonged.

Frowning, he turned and continued along the south façade. He also wanted to know what had occasioned the recent building works; he couldn’t imagine what had necessitated the extensions, let alone two more barns.

He reached the side door, opened it, and stepped through, into the usual prevailing gloom; being long and narrow, the majority of the Hall’s corridors were perpetually dim. After closing the door and losing what little light the opening had afforded, confident in his memories of the house, he walked on, tacking through two connecting corridors to emerge into the rear of the long front hall.

He wasn’t surprised when the sound of his bootheels ringing on the tiles summoned a tall thin man, garbed in severe black and with receding gingery hair and a small yet distinct paunch distending his black waistcoat.

The butler stopped and stared in slack-jawed surprise.

Halting, Gregory smiled. “Cromwell, isn’t it?”

The butler started, then his washed-out-blue eyes flared. “Mr. Cynster, sir! We weren’t expecting you.”

Cromwell stepped forward, then back. He half turned one way, then swung in the opposite direction, then he halted and, wringing his hands, looked at Gregory. “Perhaps I should fetch our chatelaine.” Raising both hands, palms outward, in a placating gesture, Cromwell gabbled, “Yes, that’s what I should do. If you’ll just remain here, sir, I’m sure she won’t be a minute. Permit me…”

With that, Cromwell rushed off along one of the corridors.

Gregory stood in the middle of the hall and stared after the butler. “Obviously, I should have sent word.”

* * *

Caitlin was scanning her latest projections, running her pencil down the column of anticipated profits one last time, when the study door burst open, and Cromwell gasped, “He’s here!”

She pondered the total figure. “He who?”

“Mr. Cynster!”

She looked up.

With obvious effort, Cromwell hauled in a huge breath, drew himself up, and announced, “Mr. Gregory Cynster has arrived, miss.”

Damn! “I see.” She glanced at her projections, then laid them aside. She’d prepared herself and the household for this moment, even if she hadn’t foreseen said moment arriving today.

Drat the man. Couldn’t he have sent word?

She hated having situations sprung on her; she much preferred to be in control of events.

She pushed back her chair, hoping by her very calmness to infuse some calm into Cromwell. “Where did you put him?”

Cromwell blinked several times. “Er…I left him in the front hall. He walked in from the rear corridor—from the stables, I suppose—and gave me quite a shock. I didn’t expect to see him and didn’t know what…where…”

“No matter.” Served the blighter right for not having the courtesy to warn the house. She rose and glided around the desk. “Don’t worry. I’ll see to him.”

Cromwell looked much relieved. “He remembered me. I’d better introduce you.” He whirled and led the way out of the door he’d left swinging.

Stifling a sigh, Caitlin followed and closed the study door firmly behind her. She stepped out in Cromwell’s wake; relieved of responsibility, he was striding on quite eagerly.

She lengthened her stride and used the few moments to rapidly review her plan for dealing with the Hall’s new owner. With her strategy clear in her mind, she raised her chin to an angle she hoped would convey supreme assurance and swept into the front hall and came to an abrupt, all-but-teetering halt.

The god in a greatcoat who’d been examining a painting on the wall turned to Cromwell.

His rich hazel gaze rested briefly on the butler, then shifted further to land on Caitlin.

She felt it—the weight of his regard—like a blow. She stopped breathing.

He was tall. Cromwell was tall, but this man was half a head taller. His shoulders were broad, his chest wide, yet the overall impression was one of lean, supple strength. Steel. He reminded her of smooth, tensile steel, like a well-balanced blade that flexed and gave, but never broke.

Her senses registered all that, along with the understated elegance of his clothes, the quality of his boots and heavy greatcoat, but it was his face that transfixed her, that sucked the air from her lungs and left her breathless.

His hazel eyes were a mesmerizing blend of gold and mossy green. Long dark lashes, thick and luxurious, framed them. Beneath the fall of his wind-ruffled dark-brown hair, his forehead was broad, and his dark brows angled in a way that made him look vaguely piratical. Long, lean cheeks, a patrician nose, firm, mobile lips, and a squared chin completed the picture. To her eyes, he was the epitome of a dark angel.

Or a devil in human guise.

Trapped in his gaze, she swallowed, desperately scrambling to reassemble her wits.

Gregory drank in the sight of the lovely young woman who had stepped from the shadows of the corridor. He let his eyes feast; she was a sight worthy of such admiration, with her lustrous black hair, sumptuous figure, and strong yet feminine features. Her large almond-shaped eyes were a startling shade of violet blue—pansy blue, his mother would have called it. Her face was a fashionable oval, her complexion flawless, yet while her fine well-arched dark eyebrows, long, nicely curved lashes, and frankly wanton lips were those of a femme fatale, her straight nose and firm chin spoke of a determined disposition and an ironclad will.

His libido stirred. Unmistakably stirred.

Well, well. What have we here?

He had to wonder. Perhaps she was one of Minnie’s or Timms’s charity cases or even a distant relative.

When she continued to stare at him, blinking those wide blue eyes as if trying to make sense of his presence, he ventured, “I’m Gregory Cynster, the new owner. I’m waiting for—”

He stopped. She’d been following Cromwell. He glanced at the butler and saw he was now calm and composed, as if his duty had been discharged and no further weight rested on his shoulders.

Gregory returned his gaze to the woman—lady. His highly attuned senses informed him she was definitely the latter. Yet…hoping against hope, he went on, “Cromwell referred to a chatelaine.”

She stiffened slightly and raised her chin a notch higher. “That’s me.” She frowned slightly and amended, “I’m Caitlin Fergusson, chatelaine of Bellamy Hall.”

No, no, no, no, no!

If she was his employee, she was entirely out of his reach.

I can’t seduce her.

While he grappled with that realization, he nevertheless registered the underlying challenge in her declaration and also the faint hint of a burr. She wasn’t local. Keeping his frown from his face, he forced himself to view her assessingly.

Had someone informed him that the Hall now had a chatelaine, he still wouldn’t have expected her. She was young but, now he looked more closely, perhaps not that young. The youthful bloom on her cheeks might be misleading; it didn’t match the awareness in her violet-blue gaze. She had a degree of experience, certainly of people, beyond that commonly found in young ladies of the ton.

She was definitely not reacting to him in the way young ladies normally did. He got an impression of cool starchiness with not a hint of a simper or batted lash to be seen.

She also knew the value of silence, of waiting patiently for the other to make a move…and yes, he and she were definitely on opposing sides of some chessboard.

Lips firming, he conceded, “I see.”

The bustle in the stable returned to his mind, along with an awareness of distant sounds of activity at the edge of his perception. A suspicion bloomed that whatever the nature of the household currently at Bellamy Hall, it wasn’t what he’d thought he would find.

He’d assumed he would encounter a skeleton staff in a largely silent house. Yet he knew of Minnie’s longstanding habit of taking in strays—impecunious relatives, extremely distant connections, and charity cases who had appealed to her kind heart. He should have thought to inquire whether, in that regard, Timms had followed in Minnie’s footsteps. As Timms had always been the more practical of the pair, he’d assumed not.

He was increasingly sure his assumptions regarding Bellamy Hall were about to be proved wildly inaccurate.

Regardless, he wanted to know. Now. He nodded to his chatelaine. “Miss Fergusson. Am I right in assuming your role encompasses that of housekeeper?”

She bit her lip, stifling some rash response, and faint color rose in her cheeks, but after a fraught second, she inclined her head haughtily.

He would have wagered she had no idea how haughty—and revealing—the action was. Who the devil is she?

Instead of demanding an answer he was perfectly certain he wouldn’t get, he said, “While a new owner meeting the staff is often something of a formal affair, in this instance, I would prefer you to escort me around the place and introduce me to whomever we meet, be they staff or…residents currently living at the Hall.”

Damn again! Caitlin fought to keep her features from reflecting her ire.

Just like that, he’d upended her carefully planned and rehearsed sequence of presentations from the various businesses operating within the Hall. That orchestrated performance had been designed to stun him with their effectiveness, thus encouraging him to leave the Hall rolling along as it was, perfectly successfully under her guidance, while he returned to the bright lights and sins of the capital. Now, instead of that assured presentation, she and whichever residents he and she encountered would have to play their revelations by ear.

Rapidly, she canvassed her options, but could see no way of avoiding acceding to his wishes. Sadly, he was the owner of the place, and on behalf of herself and the others on the estate, she was going to have to come to terms with him.

Stiffly, she inclined her head and waved down the corridor leading into the east wing. “I believe we’ll find several of our residents this way.”

She stepped out, and within a few strides, he was pacing beside her. Glancing back, she found Cromwell ghosting in their wake.

Facing forward, she saw Cynster, too, noticing the butler.

He caught her eye. “I remember Cromwell from earlier visits. He’s been here for many years. For how long have you been filling the role of chatelaine?”

At close quarters, his deep voice set something thrumming inside her. Smothering the disconcerting sensation, she crisply replied, “For just over three years. I arrived in the dead of winter in ’49, and when Mrs. Timms offered me the position, I accepted.”

“Arrived from where?”

“Farther north.” They’d reached the door of the stillroom. Seeking immediate distraction, she knocked and entered. She wouldn’t have chosen to introduce him to Alice and Millie first, but beggars couldn’t be picky, and she definitely didn’t want him asking more questions about where she came from or her years prior to arriving at the Hall.

Alice and Millie were standing on the opposite side of the long table that filled the center of the room. Both women had been stripping leaves from dried herbs and had looked up at their entrance.

Caitlin smiled reassuringly, held her breath, and waved at her companion, who had halted beside her, staring at the evidence of industry spread before them. “Mr. Cynster, allow me to present Miss Alice Penrose, our resident apothecary, and Miss Millie Carter, her apprentice.”

He blinked. “Apothecary?”

“Indeed. Alice and her products are highly regarded throughout the district.” Caitlin nodded encouragingly to Alice as, having laid aside her herbs, the little apothecary came around the table, a tentative smile on her lips.

Alice was a professional lion and a personal lamb. She was often overcome with shyness until she grew accustomed to a person. Timidly, she offered a hand. “Mr. Cynster. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.”

Caitlin cast the man beside her a sharp glance and held herself ready to intervene if he was too brash and frightened Alice.

Instead, he smiled gently and charmingly, took Alice’s small hand in his much larger one, and exchanged a perfectly polite nod. “Miss Penrose.” He released Alice’s hand and looked across at Millie. “Miss Carter.” Then he looked back at Alice. “I confess I know nothing about being an apothecary. I had no idea Bellamy Hall housed such an…enterprise.”

“Oh yes!” Alice’s face lit. The apothecary business was her passion; in speaking of that, she stood on firm ground. “I’ve been here, living at the Hall and using this room”—she gestured to the workshop, once a large parlor—“for over seven years. Mrs. Timms thought it a good idea to have such an enterprise at the Hall. She often told me that she wished I’d come sooner, as she believed having an apothecary to hand would have helped her friend, Lady Bellamy. Sadly, her ladyship had passed before I arrived in the area.”

When Alice glanced inquiringly at Caitlin, she nodded encouragingly, and nothing loath when it came to her business, Alice rolled on, “Of course, I focus first on treating all those on the estate. Not just at the Hall itself but on the farms and at the other businesses.”

Cromwell had sidled closer. “Best thing for my chest, sir—Miss Alice’s poultice. I swear by it.”

“I see.” Cynster returned his gaze to Alice.

“Beyond that”—Alice surprised Caitlin by gripping Cynster’s sleeve and drawing him farther down the room to where Alice’s distillation equipment was set up—“we make up the usual tinctures, potions, creams, and powders for all those living around about.”

“All the way up to Kettering,” Cromwell helpfully added.

“Alice’s products also sell well in Northampton,” Caitlin put in. “Over the years, her reputation has spread far and wide.”

Alice looked suitably modest.

Cynster, meanwhile, appeared faintly confused, although his frown didn’t show so much in his features as in his lovely eyes…

He caught her staring and met her gaze.

Immediately, she waved at the door. “Thank you, Alice. I believe some of the others will have come in by now.”

“Yes, of course.” Alice smiled at Cynster; oddly, it seemed the man didn’t trigger any of her usual trepidation. “If you need anything of a medicinal nature, sir, do feel free to consult me.”

Gracefully, Cynster inclined his head. “Thank you, Miss Penrose.” He nodded equably to Millie, who had remained at the table. “Miss Carter.”

Then he turned to Caitlin and, his expression hardening, waved her before him.

He followed her into the corridor and fell to pacing alongside her as she walked briskly around the two short turns that would take them into the rear wing. Before he could ask any of the questions she could all but hear forming in his mind, she stated, “Normally at this time of day, several of our residents are likely to be either consulting with our cook, Nessie, on what supplies are available from our gardens and paddocks or, if they’ve already spoken with her, delivering the same.”

His frown came into being. “Aren’t meat and fish procured either from the Home Farm or from local vendors? And surely the kitchen garden produces most vegetables, and the rest comes from local markets.”

That would be the norm at most gentlemen’s estates. “Well,” she temporized, “yes and no. Matters are handled rather differently here.”

“I believe I’m coming to realize that.” The muttered words were low and barely audible.

Resisting the urge to prim her lips, she waved down the corridor. “What we call the preparation room is just along here, adjacent to the kitchen.” And with any luck, Julia Witherspoon would be there. Caitlin was counting on Julia, a strong woman able to hold her own in any company, to explain how vegetables were procured at the Hall.

They were ten yards from the archway that led into the large preparation room when a high-pitched bleat assaulted their ears and a young goat streaked out of the room and pelted toward them.

Shouts, oaths, and the thunder of boots followed, and Joshua Bracks and his assistant, Hendricks, raced out of the room in pursuit.

Caitlin gasped. Behind her, Cromwell squeaked.

Gregory could barely believe his eyes as the goat barreled down the narrow corridor straight toward him—and his unexpected chatelaine and Cromwell. Without thinking, he gripped her arm and yanked her behind him. He released her just in time to step sideways, the move executed perfectly to startle the goat into deflecting toward the wall, forcing it to halt.

Before the beast could back up, the pursuers fell on it and wrestled it to the ground and, ultimately, into submission.

Once the beast’s legs were tied, the larger man hoisted the animal into his arms. He nodded in thanks to Gregory, then turned and carted the animal away, ominously informing the beast, “Off to Nessie with you.”

The other man, somewhat slighter and dressed in rather better clothes, got to his feet and brushed himself off.

“Sorry about that. We were just bringing the animal to Nessie for approval.” The man eyed Gregory. “We never slaughter any beast unless we’re sure it’s what Nessie, our cook, wants and needs.” He took in Caitlin and Cromwell, and his blue eyes narrowed fractionally. “You must be Cynster.” He held out a hand. “Joshua Bracks. For my sins, I’m master of livestock here, as well as the head gardener, but with Julia handling the vegetable garden, Alice taking over the rose garden, and most of the rest parkland, there’s precious little for me and my boys to do on the latter front.”

“I’ve just arrived.” Gregory grasped the proffered hand and shook it. “Miss Fergusson is showing me around.”

“That was quite an accomplished move there.” Bracks dipped his head toward the wall. “Used to goats, are you?”

“As a matter of fact, I am. My sister-in-law’s uncle—who lives next door to my family home—has bred them for decades. As children, we were often conscripted to help him with his herd.”

Bracks nodded. “That would do it. Nothing like learning tricks as a child—they stick with you for life.” Brightly, he asked, “What type of goat were they?”

Gregory was happy to answer; he remembered the goats well and could describe them to Bracks’s evident satisfaction.

“You must come down to the pens and look over our herd,” Bracks said. “I’ll be keen to hear what you think.”

Before Gregory could agree, his chatelaine intervened. “I can hear Julia in the preparation room, and I should introduce Mr. Cynster to her as well. Perhaps, Joshua, you might first explain what livestock the estate produces.”

Bracks was happy to do so. Gregory learned that as well as goats, the Hall produced pigs and chickens, not solely for the estate but also supplying markets and inns at Wellingborough, Kettering, and Northampton.

“Of course,” Bracks said, “the lamb and beef come from our farms—from the Hammersleys at Home Farm and the Cruickshanks at Nene Farm. At the pens, we concentrate on the smaller animals.”

“I see.” Gregory felt he was starting to gain a glimmer of insight, but he remained at a loss as to why the Hall was, apparently, operating as a group of businesses. If he was interpreting what he was hearing correctly.

After confirming with Bracks that, at some point in the near future, he would make his way down to the livestock pens, Gregory allowed his chatelaine to steer him into the large room from which the goat had escaped.

Bracks followed, but after a quick word with the woman who had to be Nessie, the cook, he left via a half-glazed door that opened onto the lawns. In the distance, Gregory saw the other man carrying the goat, presumably to its fate.

With his chatelaine, Gregory approached the cook and the other woman—assuredly another gentlewoman—who were standing beside a table covered with various vegetables.

“Mr. Cynster,” Caitlin Fergusson said, “allow me to present Miss Julia Witherspoon, who manages the Hall’s kitchen garden.”

“A pleasure, Mr. Cynster.” A large, bluff woman with a horsey face and a voice that was rather loud, Julia Witherspoon offered him her hand to shake.

He took it and shook it as he would have a man’s.

With a nod of approval, Julia retrieved her hand and stated, “My little band of workers and I pride ourselves on the quality of our produce.” She waved at the vegetables on the table. “As you can see, our offerings are uniformly superb. It’s all about the humus, you see. It’s an art, and even if I do say so myself, it’s an art we’ve perfected.”

“I see.” Gregory’s only acquaintance with vegetables was when they were offered to him on a plate. But he was starting to get the hang of what was going on at the Hall. “As well as providing the Hall with your largesse, I take it you sell produce more generally.”

That was intended as a question, one Julia Witherspoon was patently prepared to answer at length. It quickly became clear that she was the local authority on vegetable growing and was devoted to nurturing large and healthy crops of every conceivable sort of vegetable, both for the Hall and to sell in the surrounding towns.

Proudly, she informed him, “What with the cabbages, we even manage to turn a tidy profit over the winter months.”

Hoping his eyes hadn’t glazed, he smiled and nodded, then turned to the other woman. An older, comfortable sort, she was regarding him shrewdly.

“You’re the cook, I understand.” He smiled winningly. “A decidedly vital person in any large house.”

Her lips twitched, then more confidently lifted, and she bobbed. “Indeed, sir. So I’m always telling them.”

Miss Fergusson stepped forward. “This is Nessie, and she’s one of the true treasures of Bellamy Hall.”

“Oh, go on with you, missy.” Blushing, Nessie flapped her apron at Miss Fergusson.

“It’s true,” Cromwell piped up. “Our Nessie’s the best hereabouts.”

Gregory seized the chance to ask the butler, “How many staff are currently employed in the house?”

Cromwell frowned. “Well, there’s the maids—we have six—and the footmen. Only four of those. And of course, there’s the kitchen staff.”

“Three kitchen maids, two assistants, and three scullery boys,” Nessie put in.

“That’s the indoor staff,” Cromwell said. “Well, excepting the personal maids and menservants, that is. Quite a few of those, of course. When it comes to the outdoor staff, it gets a trifle more complicated, what with several now working alongside Joshua and Jenkins.”

Gregory had never inquired as to the staffing at his family’s home and had only the vaguest notion of what numbers would be normal for a residence the size of Bellamy Hall. Nevertheless, six maids and four footmen—and the maids weren’t even personal maids, and the footmen didn’t double as menservants—seemed excessive.

He glanced at his chatelaine. Possibly misreading his look, she waved toward the archway and, to the others, said, “We’d better get on.”

With nods and smiles, they parted from Miss Witherspoon and Nessie. As they left the large room, Cromwell mumbled about having to check on the silver and vanished down the corridor in the direction of the kitchen.

Caitlin Fergusson waved Gregory down an intersecting corridor. As he fell in alongside her, she said, “You’ve now met four of the nine residents—Alice, Millie, Julia, and Joshua all live at the Hall.”

And all are well-born, gentry at the very least.

That hadn’t escaped Gregory’s notice. It was strange to encounter so many of that class apparently unrelated yet all living together in one very large house. Several pertinent questions rose in his mind, but before he could voice any, his guide continued, “Two of the others—Mr. Vernon Trowbridge and Mr. Percy Hillside—are the glassblower and head woodworker respectively. They’ll both be at their workshops at present, but you’ll meet them at dinnertime.”

“So that’s six of the nine. What of the other three?”

He watched as she drew in a breath, stiffened her spine, and all but visibly girded her loins, then she waved him down another corridor. “At this hour, they’ll be in the conservatory.”

Caitlin was still battling to tamp down the nerves that had flared when he’d gripped her arm. His fingers had, indeed, felt like steel, but the ease with which he’d dragged her out of danger—the sheer muscular strength he’d so effortlessly deployed—had made her lungs seize.

She didn’t know what was wrong with her; she wasn’t usually such a vaporous ninny. She didn’t know what it was about him, but he set her on edge in a most peculiar way. To develop an irrational sensitivity was the last thing she needed right now; dealing with him was going to be difficult enough without having to cope with that as well.

At least, despite the best efforts of the goat, none of the three business leaders he’d met thus far had muffed their presentations. None had been as polished or as informative as she’d hoped, but none had been a disaster.

That might change with the next three.

To distract herself from that possibility, she volunteered, “The remaining three residents are Melrose Walter, Tristan Fellows, and Hugo Martindale.” Mentally crossing her fingers, she added, “All three are painters. They use the conservatory as their studio.”

She felt more than saw the incredulous glance her new employer threw her and hurried to explain, “The conservatory has been the painters’ domain from well before I arrived. Apparently, the light is critical for their work.”

Cromwell had come hurrying after them and had drawn close enough to hear her last words. “Indeed,” he added, settling to walk behind them again, “all three of our painter-gentlemen have been with us since shortly after her ladyship died. She knew all three and had encouraged them to stay, and they came for her funeral and remained.”

From the corner of her eye, she saw Cynster’s jaw tighten, then the muscles eased, and in a frighteningly even tone, he inquired, “Do the painters—like all the others I’ve met thus far—sell their works?”

She nodded. “They do.” She left it at that.

The conservatory lay dead ahead, beyond two half-glazed doors at the end of the corridor.

“It seems that the Hall is a hive of business activity. How many enterprises operate from it?”

“From the Hall itself?”

“From the estate.”

“Fifteen.” She glanced at him in time to see shock register in his face.

“Fifteen? Good Lord.” The words were weak.

She tried to read his expression, but as the shock faded, she was once again unable to guess his thoughts. Nevertheless, while in all physical respects he was precisely as she’d imagined a gentleman-rake would be, he seemed more interested in what was actually going on at the Hall than she—and indeed, the entire company of residents—had expected.

Quite what that augured for their plans, she wasn’t at all sure, but his questions, more precisely their tone, were making her uneasy.

They reached the conservatory doors. Peering through the glass, she saw the three painters clustered farther down the long room. Hugo stood to one side of a shoulder-high screen, holding the end of a thin rope that was presumably attached to the animal they’d placed on the table they used for still-life compositions, which was hidden behind the screen. Beyond the screen and table, Melrose and Tristan stood behind their easels as they busily sketched whatever beast they’d posed.

She uttered a silent prayer and, forcing herself not to hold her breath, grasped the handle, opened one door, and led the way inside.

Hugo had been half-asleep. He startled and, eyes flying wide, swung to face them, and abruptly, the leash jerked free of his hand.

“No!” Hugo yelled and dove for the table.

From behind the screen, a chicken erupted, flapping furiously and squawking in panic.

Tristan rushed out from behind his easel as a rabbit squealed, thumped to the ground, and raced toward them, hotly pursued by a young fox.

Caitlin gawped. Cromwell shouted and rushed forward.

The new owner of the Hall swore, dove back, and slammed the door shut just in time to deny the would-be escapees.

Pandemonium ensued.

Caitlin stood perfectly still and watched the three painters, aided by Cromwell, rush around the room, chasing the animals.

It was all too much.

She drew in a deep breath, then in a tone that boded ill for any who did not immediately do exactly as she said, rapped out, “Melrose! Tristan!” When both froze and looked at her, she demanded, “What did you catch them with?”

Tristan blinked. “Oh, ah. Yes—right.” He dove beneath the table and extracted a cloth bag. “The stuff’s in here—do you think they’ll come for it again?”

“Try it,” she commanded. “The fox first.”

She crossed her arms, tapped her toe, and watched with an expression that told them just how much trouble they were in.

The fox proved the easiest; they’d used a piece of raw chicken to catch it, and the animal was hungry. Tristan tempted it, and when the fox was distracted, Hugo crept close enough to seize the end of the leash again.

The chicken happily settled to peck at a pile of grain, allowing Melrose to scoop it into his arms, while Tristan stretched out on the floor and reached beneath a sofa to lure the rabbit with a lettuce that was certainly stolen from Julia’s domain. Eventually, Tristan seized the bunny by the ruff and pulled it out into the light.

The young men—all in their mid-twenties—lined up in front of Caitlin, their expressions the very epitome of shamefaced.

She all but glared at them.

“We’re sorry,” they chorused.

They’d been forbidden from bringing animals into the house; she’d put down her foot after an episode with three baby goats. But they were going to be even sorrier shortly.

She drew in a tight breath, unfolded her arms, and nodded at the gentleman who, once the danger had passed, had returned to her side. “This is Mr. Gregory Cynster, the Hall’s new owner.”

Predictably, all three painters’ faces fell; the sight would have been comical had the circumstances not been so dire.

“Ah,” Melrose said.

She’d warned them how terribly important making a good first impression on the new owner would be—especially for them! She had no idea how to reverse the impact of the past minutes, much less how to explain them away. She drew in a breath and forged on. “Mr. Cynster, allow me to present Mr. Hugo Martindale, Mr. Melrose Walter, and Mr. Tristan Fellows.” How was she to cut short the encounter before the three ninnies made things worse?

“Gentlemen.” Polite yet repressively distant, Cynster nodded to the three and turned to Caitlin. “Miss Fergusson, I set out early this morning to reach here and would like to rest before dinner.”

Thank God! Her relief was so profound that she was sure it showed and that Cynster’s sharp hazel gaze didn’t miss it.

Cromwell stepped up and announced, “Mr. Cynster’s room should be ready, but perhaps, sir, if you would remain downstairs until I’ve assured myself all is well?”

Cynster inclined his head and turned toward the door. “I’ll wait in the study.”

After bending a last, warning glare on the three penitents, Caitlin quickly caught up and fell in beside Cynster.

As he walked, Gregory drew out his fob watch and consulted it. “What time is dinner?”

“Six o’clock,” his chatelaine informed him. “The dressing gong is rung at half past five.” She paused, then said, “Unless you would prefer to put dinner back.”

He considered that, then shook his head. “No.” He slanted her a glance. “This is the country, after all.”

Her lips primmed as she held back a no doubt pithy retort.

Facing forward, he allowed Cromwell to lead and the delectable Miss Fergusson to accompany him back to the front hall. What he’d uncovered thus far—a situation only a few steps from a madhouse—was so far removed from what he’d been expecting that he needed to stop and assimilate all he’d seen and heard. He needed to sit quietly so his thoughts could stop spinning.

After the interlude in the conservatory, he also suspected that the denizens of the Hall might benefit from a little time to get themselves organized. He had, admittedly, come upon them unawares. He hadn’t sent word, so perhaps he should reserve judgment until they’d had a chance to prepare.

Regardless, he’d never imagined he’d be assessing businesses; he wasn’t prepared, either.

They reached the front hall, and his pair of keepers steered him on, into the library. Quite firmly. Almost as if neither had noticed that he’d specified the study.

He didn’t argue but instead, once he’d sunk into one of the leather armchairs before the roaring fire and allowed Cromwell to supply him with a well-earned brandy, he dismissed both butler and chatelaine with a nod and an assurance he would be perfectly comfortable until the gong rang.

He watched the pair retreat, sipped the brandy, then frowned and murmured, “What the devil’s going on here?”


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