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Диксон Хелен

Conspiracy Of Hearts

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Chapter Four

As soon as Serena’s carriage drew up outside Carberry Hall, Dorothea hurried out of the house with a welcoming smile.

‘Serena! I should scold you severely for staying away so long.’

‘The same could be said of yourself, Dorothea,’ Serena laughed, embracing her cousin affectionately. ‘Your absence from Dunedin Hall has been noted, too.’

‘I’m sure it has. Father will not hear of me visiting Dunedin Hall for fear of me being converted to your faith. He’s terrified I’ll become so involved that I’ll take the vows of a nun and live out my life in a convent abroad. I tell him I’m much too sinful to do that,’ she said on a slightly cynical note, ‘but he won’t have it.’

‘You? Sinful? If ever there was a person without sin, Dorothea, it is you,’ Serena told her, and was sure this was true. Yet there were times when her cousin puzzled her, times when she suspected Dorothea was not the quiet mouse she would have everyone believe. She submitted herself to her father’s authority without complaint. But, despite her poise, which she always managed to maintain throughout his angry blusterings, Serena suspected that rebellion stirred within her breast.

Serena entered the high impressive hall of Carberry Hall, the house in which her own father had lived before his marriage to her mother, Lady Anne, who had brought with her Dunedin Hall. A welcoming fire blazed in the hearth of a small sitting room; pulling her down on to the sofa, Dorothea hugged her cousin again.

‘I have missed our chats. I have so much to tell you. How long can you stay? A few days at least, I hope.’

‘I have nothing to hurry home for. Father’s days are so taken up with hunting that he won’t miss me too much. You look wonderful, Dorothea—and I hear dramatic changes have been taking place in your life. You are to be married, I believe…to the marquess of Thurlow.’

A fleeting frown touched Dorothea’s brow and she looked a little pensive. ‘Yes, that is so. Have you heard of him?’

‘He stayed at Dunedin Hall last night, as a matter of fact. Lord Brodie came to purchase some of Father’s horses for his stable at Thurlow.’ Sensing that Dorothea felt no joy in her betrothal, Serena’s curiosity was kindled. ‘You can’t have known each other long, Dorothea. When I last came to stay there was no mention of Lord Brodie.’

‘You are right, and I confess I don’t know him very well. The match was hastily made three months ago. Father has a high regard for him, having come to know him through the old marquess before he died. Since then, when Lord Brodie returned from the Low Countries to take over his inheritance, they have become better acquainted and he has called here on occasion.’

‘It is a good match,’ said Serena. ‘According to my father he is influential in government and court circles—and thought very highly of by the king, too, by all accounts.’

Dorothea’s lips formed a tremulous smile. ‘I know. Since titles and wealth are paramount to Father, he was determined to choose the man with the highest rank who offered for me. Since the marquess was the only one who did, there was no choice to make. Lord Brodie is a fine man and always polite and very charming. He is also extremely handsome—as you will have seen for yourself.’

Yes, Serena thought, Lord Bordie was that—but he was also the most arrogant, insufferable and confounding man she had ever met.

‘And do you want to marry him?’ Serena asked gently, concealing her own tumultuous thoughts where that gentleman was concerned. Sensitive and sympathetic to her cousin’s concern, she sensed Dorothea was far from reconciled to becoming Lord Brodie’s wife. Marriage to that particular gentleman would be enough to raise troubling disquiet in any woman. If their roles were reversed, Serena would consider it just cause for complaint and violently oppose it. ‘Are you happy about it?’

‘I am happy enough and contented,’ Dorothea replied, without enthusiasm, Serena observed. She noted a fleeting, wistful look enter her cousin’s eyes which puzzled her. Was it possible that someone else had won a place in Dorothea’s heart?

‘I have no sentimental illusions about my betrothal,’ Dorothea continued, ‘and there have been no courtly love games between Lord Brodie and I. We do not know each other well enough for that.’

‘But you will.’

‘I know, and I can think of worse men to be paired off with.

I have to obey my father. Neither he nor Lord Brodie are men to be refused lightly. Whatever Lord Brodie says and every impression he makes are serious and permanent. He’s so formidable—so frightening, in a way—that I can’t help feeling he will exert so much influence on me that I will not fulfil his expectations as a wife.’ Dorothea sighed deeply. ‘How I wish Father had chosen someone with a quieter disposition for me to wed.’

Serena was deeply sympathetic. ‘Dorothea, if you have any doubts about this marriage you must make them known to your father.’

‘How can I? Father is not to be gainsaid.’ She smiled softly into Serena’s eyes. ‘I’m not like you, Serena. You have more nerve than the devil himself. I would never dare question my father’s judgement or his wishes—but I feel that he, too, is having doubts about the match.’

Serena’s eyes opened wide in amazement. ‘Oh?’

‘Yes, it’s true. At first he was keen for me to marry the marquess, but it has come to his ears that Lord Brodie may have Catholic sympathies. A large number of his friends are not just of the Catholic faith, but are also well-known recusants—and you know Father’s views on that. He is afraid that Lord Brodie will by persuaded to become a convert, and that I, too, will be drawn in when we marry.’

‘And what is wrong with that? I am of that faith—and so is my father,’ Serena exclaimed in a rush of indignation.

‘But you are blood kin. I suppose that’s different.’

‘No, it isn’t, Dorothea. It’s hypocritical of your father to practise standards contrary to his beliefs. If he denies one then he should deny them all. But I don’t think he need worry on Lord Brodie’s account,’ Serena said, recalling the conversation she’d had with that gentleman on this very subject. ‘I think if he had any Catholic leanings at all he would have been converted long before now.’

Lord Carberry chose that moment to enter the room, having been told of Serena’s arrival. Immediately and simultaneously both Serena and Dorothea rose from the sofa. In a calm and dignified silence they waited for him to speak.

Lord Carberry was a hard and dispassionate man. Tall and gaunt with the profile of a hawk, he bore no resemblance to his brother. His grey eyes under drawn-together bushy eyebrows were grim and full of scrutiny as he looked at his Catholic niece. It rankled sorely that his own brother belonged to that faith, and he was determined not to allow his daughter to follow suit by marrying into a Catholic family. As meek and pliant as she was, she would become corrupted in no time at all.

Despite his grand title and vast estates, the marquess of Thurlow would have to make his views and opinions on that subject absolutely clear before any vows were exchanged between that particular gentleman and Dorothea at the altar.

It had recently come to his attention that Sir Thomas Blackwell was expected to return at any time to Ashcombe Manor. Should it be proved that the marquess did have Catholic leanings, it was not too late to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to someone else—and Thomas Blackwell was eminently suitable. It did not cross his mind to consult Dorothea on the change he might make to her suitor, and he was selfishly insensitive to the fact that she might feel deeply resentful. The advantage would be in having a son-in-law whose religious opinions matched his own.

Lord Carberry greeted his niece stiffly. ‘So, Serena, you have come to spend a few days with Dorothea,’ he said at length.

‘Yes. It’s good of you to have me stay, Uncle. Dorothea and I have much to catch up on,’ Serena replied respectfully. When she looked into her uncle’s cold eyes that glared down at her, she could see that nothing had changed. No matter how agreeable she always tried to be when she came to Carberry Hall, it never would. Because of her religion her uncle did not want her in his house, and only tolerated her presence out of family duty and to please Dorothea.

‘And Henry? Am I to expect a visit from him?’

‘No, Uncle. Father has been invited to Woodfield Grange by Lord Payne for the hunting. It is expected to be a large affair.

I believe Sir Everard Digby and other guests from nearby Coughton Court are included in the party.’

Lord Carberry chose that moment to clear his throat, unable to converse on this matter without sounding contemptuous. He had no particular liking for either Lord Payne or Everard Digby, both of them Catholics. Digby was a handsome, easygoing young man who was passionately fond of every kind of field sport and lived very well with his wife at Gayhurst in Buckinghamshire.

For hunting purposes, Digby had only recently rented the imposing Coughton Court from Thomas Throckmorton, who had gone abroad the previous year—another of his neighbours, Lord Carberry thought with deep condemnation, whose fortunes were heavily depleted by recusancy. No matter which way he turned, he was bedevilled by Catholics.

‘We’re expecting company in a couple of days,’ Lord Carberry told Serena coldly, moving towards the door. ‘Lord Brodie, Dorothea’s betrothed, is to pay us a brief visit. He will be accompanied by a friend of his, Sir Ludovick Lamont. Sir Ludovick is a Scottish gentleman and highly thought of by King James—although I cannot say as much myself,’ he grumbled without enlarging on the fact that he shared the resentment of most of the English for these greedy northerners, on whom King James lavished his attention and had been quick to promote to exalted positions at court. ‘No doubt Dorothea will be impatient to introduce you to Lord Brodie. He’s a fine man and is highly respected.’

‘Lord Brodie and I are already acquainted, Uncle,’ Serena stated.

Lord Carberry halted and turned sharply. ‘You are?’

‘Yes. He came to see Father yesterday to purchase some of his horses. After staying overnight Lord Brodie rode to Woodfield Grange with Father for the hunting.’

Lord Carberry went white. ‘Did he, by God!’ he responded explosively, his face reddening to the colour of a cock’s comb.

‘Yes,’ Serena replied, undeterred and secretly amused by her uncle’s irate response. After what Dorothea had told her about her uncle’s unease following reports about the subversive company Lord Brodie often kept, she could well imagine what horrors must be passing through his mind on being told that his future son-in-law was cavorting about the countryside in the company of some of the most notable Catholic gentlemen in the land.

‘Lord Brodie shares Father’s enthusiasm for hunting and was reluctant to forgo an opportunity to indulge his passion for the sport in this part of Warwickshire, where, as you know, Uncle, some of the finest hunting is to be enjoyed.’

‘And no doubt Henry gave Brodie every encouragement,’ her uncle growled with heavy criticism, not missing Serena’s subtle gibe as he opened the door. His bushy eyebrows drew closer together when he realised his niece was making light of the situation. But it would be wrong of him to unleash his anger on her for Lord Brodie’s misdemeanours.

‘The enjoyment is lessened if the company is not to one’s liking,’ he went on. ‘It is my opinion that Lord Brodie should stop his foolery and would be better off employed elsewhere. There are those who would be more discriminating than to value the presence of subversives in their midst.’

Lord Carberry retreated to his study, unaware of the unspoken words of indignation that tempted Serena’s tongue, for she knew perfectly well that her uncle considered her father to be one of those subversives. But however much she wanted to speak out in defence of her father and their faith, she must not forget that she was a guest in her uncle’s house. Any protestations she might make would promptly be considered by him to be of a quarrelsome nature, and he would lose no time in having her dispatched back to Dunedin Hall. This would serve no purpose and only succeed in upsetting Dorothea and angering her own father.

Lord Carberry’s sense of disquiet where the marquess was concerned increased by the minute, for it was becoming more apparent to him that he could not be trusted. However, feeling the need for caution, he decided not to raise the matter with the marquess until he had met with Sir Thomas Blackwell. There was no need to upset the apple cart altogether in case Sir Thomas did not find the idea of marriage to Dorothea agreeable and no other suitor was forthcoming.

Lord Brodie and Sir Ludovick Lamont, with their two respective servants, arrived at Carberry Hall on horseback. They were not expected for several hours. Lord Carberry had not yet returned home from visiting an acquaintance the previous day, which meant Dorothea would have to receive her betrothed alone. She was reluctant to meet Lord Brodie—and so was Serena, but for diffent reasons.

If it were not for the fact that the cold fingers of apprehension continued to claw at Serena over her father’s activities of late, making her want to ask Lord Brodie if he’d had the opportunity of speaking to him on the matter, nothing would have tempted her to await his arrival, even at the risk of disappointing Dorothea.

Lord Brodie stepped into the hall with an arrogant stride, and when Serena’s eyes travelled surreptitiously over him, it was blatantly obvious that he had much to be arrogant about. She noted with some surprise and annoyance the warmth that sprung to her cheeks and how her heartbeat quickened its pace at his presence.

Kit’s dark eyes flicked over both young women, locking briefly with Serena’s, who felt the impact of his ruthless vitality and pride, but it was on Dorothea that his gaze settled and softened.

Because he wanted to pursue a military career, Kit had always avoided marriage but, when his cousin had died and he had inherited Thurlow in Northamptonshire, at thirty years old he had considered it time he settled down and had put his mind to finding a wife. On meeting Dorothea, he had been appreciative of her in every aspect, and decided that she was a prize worth seeking. Lord Carberry had encouraged the match, and Kit was pleased that he did not insist on a long courtship, for he was impatient to take her to Thurlow. Taking her hand, he raised it to his lips.

‘Dorothea! You are well, I trust?’

Dorothea flushed, her serious expression lightening. ‘Perfectly, my lord,’ she murmured shyly. ‘But you are early. Your arrival has taken us by surprise. My father is not here to greet you.’

‘Think nothing of it.’ Kit smiled, his eyes twinkling. ‘I was impatient to see you. I would have sent a note but it would have been a waste of time. The note and I would have arrived together.’

Dorothea turned to Serena, who had taken a stance a little behind her. ‘Serena,’ she said, ‘you remember Lord Brodie.’

Serena stepped forward, her heart tripping a beat when she looked up into the handsome visage, struck by his stern profile. The strength of Lord Brodie’s gaze held hers, and for the first time she had a glimpse of hidden qualities that would delight the senses, but quickly dismissed the thought. It was out of keeping with what she really thought of him.

‘Of course. How good to see you again, my lord.’

‘It is a pleasure to see you again, Mistress Carberry. You are more charming than I remember.’

Kit’s tone was natural yet formal—almost ceremonial, Serena thought, experiencing a twinge of disappointment.

Kit turned to his companion. ‘May I introduce a good friend of mine, Sir Ludovick Lamont. Ludovick this is Dorothea, my betrothed—and this is Mistress Serena Carberry, Dorothea’s cousin,’ he said after Ludovick had bowed over Dorothea’s hand.

Serena turned her attention to the flaxen-haired gentleman, whose eyes swept over her appraisingly before giving her a decorous, courtly bow. She smiled charmingly.

Ludovick had been unable to take his eyes off Serena since entering the hall. At first he could only stare in mute appreciation—which was peculiar in one usually so bold. Sunlight lancing through the windows drenched her in its glow, caressing and playing on every delectable hill and hollow of her body. He noted her rich abundance of deep auburn hair and large green eyes staring calmly out of a face unblemished and milky smooth, and he found it hard to identify her with the young woman Kit had described to him on their journey to Carberry Hall.

Kit had informed him that she was exceedingly pretty and unattached. When Ludovick had raised an interested brow, his friend had laughed and warned him in mocking tones that it would take a courageous man to take on Serena Carberry. In Kit’s opinion she had more mettle than most maids, and was a veritable virago when provoked. Kit had told him jestingly that while he was still in one piece it might be advisable to bypass Carberry Hall after all and continue on their way to Thurlow.

Seeing her in the flesh, Ludovick was all admiration and cocked a practised eye, happily relieved that he’d agreed to accompany Kit instead of returning to London as he had originally planned to do after the hunt. Had he done so, he would have missed the opportunity of meeting this gorgeous creature.

‘It’s indeed an honour to make your acquaintance, Mistress Carberry,’ Ludovick said warmly, bent on winning this beauty for himself. Her smile melted his bones.

Serena considered him to be a buoyant, truly debonair young gentleman, with a bold look not unlike that of Lord Brodie’s. His fine apparel, which was the height of fashion, lent him a rakish look. She already knew he was a Scot, so his accent—which was not as pronounced as some she had heard, and was derided by many in England who considered it uncouth—came as no surprise. Prior to his arrival at Carberry Hall, Dorothea had told her he had come south on King James’s accession to the English throne, and that he was highly thought of by Their Majesties. Having been a member of their inner circle for many years, like most of the Scots who had come with the king and been given lavish positions of advancements at court, he was extremely unpopular.

Sir Ludovick was not as tall as Lord Brodie and was a little heavier and perhaps a few years younger, Serena thought. Unlike Lord Brodie, who was clean shaven, he sported a small, neatly trimmed square beard and moustache. There was an open honesty in his face and humour in his firm lips, and a quiet amusement in his alert blue gaze that could not fail to draw one’s attention.

Serena liked him at once. Experiencing a spirit of mischief and moved by some feminine impulse of coquetry, she favoured him with a dazzling smile, without realising how devastatingly lovely she looked to the scowling marquess.

Kit noticed that she was much taken with Ludovick. Having drawn back a little, he watched his friend’s unabashed perusal of Serena with a cocked eyebrow and a careless arrogance to hide a perplexing emotion that troubled him. His irritation began to stir against Ludovick—a man he had been at Cambridge with and who had remained his closest friend ever since. He took stock of this latest feeling, for it surprised him. It was not a feeling he was familiar with, and nor was it one he liked.

‘And I imagined life would be dull in Warwickshire,’ laughed Ludovick good-humouredly. ‘I came to partake of a spot of hunting to enjoy the freedom and escape the confining, plague-ridden city for a few days, expecting to be bored witless and to find the company stilted, yet I have been pleasurably surprised. Not only did I find the hunting splendid—but the company gets better all the time,’ he said meaningfully as his eyes quite shockingly raked Serena in her buttercup-yellow gown. ‘Your beauty slays me, Mistress Carberry.’


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