‘Oh, my goodness.’ That would teach her to entertain fantasies about strange men.

She gazed around what had obviously once been a delightful reception room in horror. Her suggestion that the earl might call at three the next day had assumed that it would be simple to produce a civilised room to receive him in by then, and that he might be no more than mildly surprised by the eccentricity of a lady who did her own dusting and pretended to be her own housemaid.

Now she could see they would have to labour all day to make this room and the hall decent-and what he would think of such an abandoned creature as she must have appeared did not bear thinking about.

‘What does that matter?’ Hester asked herself briskly, marching across the hall to see if the opposite room was any better. It was not. ‘He is probably just an acquaintance of John’s.’ That was not much comfort. If that was so he must already regard Miss Lattimer as an abandoned hussy.

‘I must stop talking to myself,’ she chided, promptly ignoring her own advice as she made her way back to the stairs. ‘Bedrooms next.’ It would be as well to find out the worst about those before the day was much older. The agent’s description of the house as ‘partly furnished’ was proving somewhat over-optimistic.

‘And what do you care what some earl thinks about you, Hester Lattimer?’ Not much in general, her inner self answered, but that particular man…

The first bedroom yielded a decent-enough-looking bedstead with dust sheets over the mattress, which appeared dry and mercifully free of mice. Hester peeped into three other rooms, each with bedstead and mattress, thank goodness, and then opened wide the door into the room overlooking the front garden.

‘Oh! How lovely.’ This room had two generous windows, each with a window seat. Silk draperies marred with dust hung at each casement and between them stood a chaise-longue with a little table beside it. The bed was a charmingly feminine confection with slim posts festooned with embroidered silk. Hester touched one fall carefully, hastily withdrawing her hand as some of the silk shattered where it had been folded for so long. Again, enough care had been taken to protect the mattress and the room appeared habitable, if dirty and bone cold.

This chamber would be hers and Prudy and Susan could have their choice of the other rooms. Doubtless there were servants’ rooms in the attic, but they had too much to do to contemplate putting those to rights for quite a while. Susan would be much more comfortable down here.

There was another door in the corner of the room. Hester crossed to it, pausing for a moment to look at the ugly house opposite. In the summer it would be screened for the most part by a spreading elm tree; now it showed gaunt through the bare branches. Several windows were visible on the first floor, but there were no signs of life. Who lived there? Would they make congenial neighbours? She flicked over the catch on the window and after a tussle managed to push up the lower sash. Sharp, clear air flowed into the musty room and she smiled, taking a moment to enjoy it.

There was the sound of voices opposite and a gate in the high wall to the rear of the house opened. A curricle drawn by a pair of dark greys turned sharply out and headed away from the Green and out of the village. Unmistakably it was the earl who was driving and her own front wall was low enough for Hester to have an uninterrupted view of Guy Westrope’s profile.

Hester realised that she had been far too flustered to have more than a muddled impression of him from their encounter. Blue eyes, those she did recall, although at this distance they could not be discerned. She could not say what colour his hair was, but she remembered those eyes and the size of him-tall, broad-shouldered and powerful. To that she could now add the impression of a determined chin. He did not look like a man to be trifled with and the scowl with which he had greeted her, and the coolly polite tones he had used to address her, left her more than a little apprehensive over how he might react to discovering the deception she had practised on him. But when he had smiled, there was the glimpse of quite another man.

At least she now knew who her neighbour was, although congenial was hardly the word she would use to describe him. And it only added to the mystery: to find he was staying at the Bird in Hand while he conducted whatever business he had with her was one thing-but why was he staying here?

If she didn’t stop idling about and get on with making this house fit to receive visitors, she’d lower herself even further in his estimation, she scolded herself mentally, getting to her feet and pushing open the remaining door.

It opened into a dressing room and on to a scene of violence. Hester halted, appalled, on the threshold. The shield-shaped mirror that had stood on the dressing table was face down upon the floor, its glass smashed into shards that still lay where they had fallen. The doors to the clothes-presses hung open with the empty shelves pulled out and the chair before the dressing table was thrown on its side. One curtain hung from its last two rings, seemingly dragged down by some clutching hand.

A mass of filmy cloth lay at her feet. Automatically Hester stooped and picked it up, shaking it out to reveal an outrageously pretty nightgown of Indian muslin. It had been ripped from neck to hem. She moved abruptly backwards and something skittered out from beneath her foot. Under the blanketing dust the floor was strewn with pearls, enough to have made a veritable rope when strung.

What had happened in this chamber? Abduction? Rape? Murder? The calmly happy atmosphere of the house seemed to freeze here into anger and fear. Behind her the curtains flapped as the outer door opened and the door at her back slammed shut with enough force to propel her into the desecrated room.

Hester swung round, suddenly afraid, her feet scrabbling on the treacherous pearls, her grasp on the door handle hampered by the nightgown. Against her own hands it began to turn. Someone was outside.


‘Jethro! You gave me such a fright.’

‘I’m sorry, Miss Hester, but I brought in the hampers and I couldn’t see you. I called, then I thought I’d better come and find you.’ He glanced over her shoulder and went pale under the freckles. ‘Gawd, Miss Hester, what’s happened in there?’

‘Do not blaspheme, Jethro,’ Hester said automatically, turning to let him see in. ‘I have no idea, but it does not look as if it were anything good.’ She twisted up the nightrail in her hands. Jethro was only a lad for all his size and his growing awareness of girls, and she did not want him seeing that violated, intimate garment.

‘That’s blood, Miss Hester.’ He was already into the room, his feet crunching on broken glass and leaving clear tracks through the undisturbed dust.

‘Oh, no, please, not that.’ Hester followed him more cautiously and stared at the brown splashes on the wall. ‘It is not so very much. Perhaps it is red wine, or maybe whoever broke the mirror cut himself?’

‘That’ll be it, no doubt about it, Miss Hester,’ Jethro said comfortably. He was not as innocent as his young mistress thought him and the images that came to his mind when he saw the room chimed very much with hers. ‘It’ll have been burglars, to be sure,’ he continued, walking firmly out so Hester had to give way in front of him. ‘Throwing all the doors open and knocking things around when they found the cupboards empty, I’ll be bound.’

He shut the door. ‘Will this be your room, Miss Hester?’

‘Yes…’ Hester heard the hesitation in her own voice and said firmly. Yes, it will, and Susan can have the one to the right at the top of the stairs. I expect Miss Prudhome will like one of the rooms at the back.’

The unconscious glance she cast at the dressing-room door was not lost on the boy. ‘I’ll sweep those rooms out then, shall I, after luncheon, and light the fires? Then I can bring the bags up without your things getting dusty.’ And there was a pot of whiting in the stables, he could soon mix some whitewash up and cover that stain, she’d feel better about the room with that gone and the broken things tidied away.’

‘The rooms over the stables are right and tight. Miss Hester,’ he continued, firmly leading the way downstairs. ‘There’s a pot-bellied stove, so I’ll be snug as a hug in there.’

‘That is good news, Jethro,’ Hester said briskly. Everything was perfectly all right, except for that disturbing room. Try as she might, she could not believe Jethro’s explanation of burglars. The thick carpet of dust had been even, as though it had been left undisturbed as a whole. Surely the intruders’ footprints would have shown, even through the later falls? And why would burglars tear a nightgown or break a valuable string of pearls and leave them?

‘I was going to run over to the inn to order a cask of ale, Miss Hester. Do you want me to wait until the others

Вы читаете Moonlight And Mistletoe
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату