From Ruin to Riches(6)

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 The groom went to the horse’s head and led it on, the valet followed on foot. After a few minutes passed in silence they emerged on to a great sweep of lawn and then crunched across a gravelled drive.

 ‘But it is a castle!’ Startled out of her circling thoughts, Julia blinked up at crenellations, a turret, arrow slits, all preposterously Gothic and romantic in the silvery light.

 ‘A very small one, I assure you. And disappointingly modern inside to anyone of a romantic nature. The moat is dry, the cellars full of wine bottles. The portcullis has long since rusted through and we rarely pour boiling oil on to anyone these days.’ He sounded as though he regretted that.

 ‘Fetch Mrs Morley to Miss Prior,’ Lord Dereham ordered as the groom helped her to descend. Her legs, she discovered as she stumbled, were almost too tired to support her. ‘Tell her to place the Chinese bedchamber at Miss Prior’s disposal and then have Cook send up a hot supper to the library.’

 ‘But, my lord, it must be midnight at least—’ He should not be worrying about feeding her at this hour, let alone housing her.

 ‘I will not have you wandering about the countryside or going to bed hungry, Miss Prior,’ he said as he climbed down, leaning on the groom in his turn. Here under the bulk of the building it was almost dark and she could not see his face at all, only judge his mood by the autocratic orders. ‘You will oblige me by spending the night and tomorrow we can see what may be done.’

 He will not have it, indeed! A forceful old gentleman, the baron, whatever his health, Julia decided. But it is rather beyond his powers to find a solution to this problem. A new dawn will not make matters any better.

 ‘Thank you, my lord. I should not trouble you, I know, but I will not deny that your offer is most welcome.’ She had thought she could never trust another man, not after Jonathan. But the baron was advanced in years and could be no threat to her. Or her to him, provided he had no idea who he was sheltering.

 ‘I will see you in the library then, Miss Prior, when you are ready,’ he said behind her as she followed the valet into the hall.

 * * *

 ‘Just down the main stairs and the door to the left, Miss Prior.’ The housekeeper stood aside as Julia murmured a word of thanks and left the warmth and comfort of the bedchamber for the shadowy panelled corridor.

 The woman had shown no surprise at the state of her travel-worn clothes, although she had tutted in sympathy over the state of Julia’s feet and had produced copious hot water, linen for dressings and salves. Now, clad in some borrowed undergarments beneath her brushed and sponged walking dress, Julia felt a new surge of courage. She had heard that prisoners were more easily broken if they were kept dirty and unkempt and now she could well believe it. She had felt her strength and will ebb along with her self-respect.

 The house had been decorated a few years ago, she judged as she negotiated the broad sweep of an old oak staircase. All was in good repair with an intriguing glimpse of ancient baronial castle here and there beneath the modern comfort. Yet there was an impersonal air about it as though efficient staff kept it running, but the driving force behind it, the spirit that made it a home, had vanished.

 It had happened at the Grange after her father had died and she had not had the strength to simply carry on as before. It had only lasted a few weeks, then she had made herself take up the reins again. Pride, and the refusal to let her cousin and his wife find the slightest thing to criticise when they came to claim their inheritance, had dried her tears and stiffened her will. Here, with the master dying, the staff were obviously doing the best they could, which argued loyalty and efficiency.

 The heavy panelled door swung open on to a room that was all warmth: a fire in the grate despite the season, crimson damask curtains at the windows, the soft glow of old waxed bookshelves. The man in the chair beside the hearth began to get to his feet as she came in and the hound at his feet sprang up, her teeth bared as she ranged herself in front of her master.

 ‘Down, Bess! Friend.’

 ‘My lord, please—there is no need to stand.’ Julia took three hasty steps across the carpet, dodged around the dog and caught the baron’s arm to press him back into the seat. She found herself breast to breast with him, the light from the fire and the candelabra on the side table full on his face.

 This was the man from the lakeside? The man she had held in her arms, the one she thought elderly and harmless? ‘Oh!’ She found herself transfixed by amber eyes, the eyes of a predator, and blurted out the first thing that came into her head. ‘How old are you?’

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