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Мортимер Кэрол

The Wicked Lord Montague

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Chapter Four

‘So exciting! I am sure Monsieur André is beside himself at the thought of baking all those delicious cakes for the garden party! And Mrs Stratton has us all polishing and cleaning the silver until we can see our faces in it,’ Daisy, a plump and pretty housemaid at Castonbury Park, chattered on excitedly. ‘Do you think the old Gypsy woman will be there again this year to tell our fortunes? Oh, I do hope so! Last year she said a tall, dark and handsome stranger would sweep me off my feet. I haven’t chanced to meet him yet, but I live in hopes—’

It was now two days since Lily had literally clashed heads with Giles Montague outside the vicarage, and having already made several calls in the village on her way to Castonbury Park today, she was now only half listening to Daisy as the maid chattered non-stop on the walk down the hallway in the direction of Mrs Stratton’s parlour.

‘She prefers to be called a Romany. And her name is Mrs Lovell,’ Lily supplied, the making of her new gown and the well-dressing celebrations having taken up more of her own thoughts and time than she would have believed possible, as she dealt with the wealth of arrangements to be put in place before the ceremony next week.

She had also, after more enquiries from curious neighbours than she cared to answer, found a style for her hair which managed to cover the discolouration which still remained upon her brow despite the swelling having disappeared.

Daisy’s ‘tall, dark and handsome stranger’ could easily be a description of Giles Montague. Lily’s own dislike of that gentleman did not appear to have prevented her from acknowledging that he was indeed tall, dark and very handsome. After twelve years away from home, with only infrequent visits back to Derbyshire, he could also be considered something of a ‘stranger’ to most of the people in Castonbury. Daisy was certainly young enough not to have too many recollections of him.

Giles Montague’s return had now resulted in the whole of the estate and household staff being ‘swept off their feet,’ as he began to issue orders and instructions for the work he considered needed to be done before Castonbury Park opened its gates to the village for the well-dressing celebrations the following week.

‘Oh, I hope I did not cause offence, Lily!’ Daisy’s embarrassed expression revealed that she was aware of the things said in the village concerning Lily’s true parents. ‘It’s just that Agnes said she saw one of the pretty Gypsy caravans on the other side of the lake yesterday. And the Gypsy—the Romany, Mrs Lovell,’ she corrected with a self-conscious giggle, ‘is so wonderful at telling fortunes, that I hoped it was her. It’s my afternoon off today, so maybe I’ll take a walk over that way and see for myself—’

Lily also wondered if the caravan might belong to Mrs Lovell, that elderly lady usually arriving at Castonbury several weeks ahead of her tribe, and so giving her the opportunity to go about the village selling the clothes pegs and baskets she had made through the winter months. Her fortune-telling had also been a feature of the well-dressing celebrations ever since Lily could remember. Whether or not those fortunes ever came true did not seem to matter to the people in the village, as they, like Daisy, simply enjoyed the possibility that they might—

Lily’s wandering thoughts came to an abrupt end as she heard the sound of raised voices from down the hallway. Or rather, a single raised voice….

‘—do not say I did not warn you all! And do not come crying to me when he succeeds in killing His Grace!’ There was the sound of a door being forcibly slammed.

‘Uh-oh, it’s Mr Smithins, and he sounds as if he’s on the warpath again!’ Daisy whispered in alarm as she clutched Lily’s arm. ‘I’d better get back to me polishing!’ She beat a hasty retreat back to the kitchen just as Smithins appeared at the end of the hallway, the scowl on his face evidence of his bad temper.

A short, thin and balding man, he possessed an elegance of style about his demeanour and dress that some might consider foppish. Lily had observed that he was also something of a despot in regard to the other household servants at Castonbury Park, considering himself far above them in his position as personal valet to the Duke of Rothermere. Hence Daisy’s hurried departure back to her work in the kitchen; Smithins was perfectly capable of boxing the young maid’s ears if he felt so inclined!

His scowl deepened as he strode down the hallway and caught sight of Lily watching him.

She grimaced self-consciously as she felt herself forced into speech. ‘Is anything amiss, Mr Smithins?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘Mark my words, it will all end in tears!’ he muttered as he pushed past her before continuing on his way without apology.

Lily felt slightly unnerved as she turned to look at the valet, but more by his angry claim of some unnamed person ‘killing His Grace’ than his rude behaviour to her just now. What on earth could have happened for Smithins to—

‘Ah, Lily,’ Mrs Stratton sighed wearily as she appeared in the doorway of her parlour and saw Lily standing outside in the hallway. ‘Do please come in,’ she invited softly.

Lily hesitated. ‘I have obviously called at a bad time …’

‘Not at all,’ the older woman assured wryly. ‘Smithins is volatile of temperament, I am afraid,’ she continued as Lily slowly entered the cosy parlour.

‘But … he seemed so vehement …?’

Mrs Stratton shook her head. ‘He is merely annoyed because Lord Giles refuses to heed his advice concerning His Grace.’

Lord Giles? Smithins’s warning just now had been a reference to Giles Montague’s behaviour in regard to his father?

The housekeeper sighed. ‘His latest concern seems to be the carriage ride His Grace is to take with Lord Giles this afternoon.’

Lily’s eyes widened. ‘Is His Grace well enough for a carriage ride?’

‘He has seemed much improved this past day or so,’ Mrs Stratton assured. ‘I am sure that a change of scenery will be far more beneficial to him than sitting alone in his rooms day after day, and allowing his nerves to get the better of him.’

Possibly, but it was only the end of April, and the chill wind blew off the Derbyshire hills still. ‘My father has been invited to dine with His Grace and Lord Giles this evening.’ Indeed, the invitation to dine at Castonbury Park this evening had been the only thing Mr Seagrove had been willing to impart to Lily concerning Giles Montague’s visit to him two days ago!

The older woman frowned slightly. ‘I understood the invitation was for both you and Mr Seagrove …’

It had been. It still was. But as Lily could not imagine Giles Montague really wanting to spend an evening in her company—as she had no desire to spend an evening in his—she had been sure that her inclusion in the invitation had only been made out of politeness to her father, and as such she had intended making the excuse of having a headache this evening when it came time to leave for Castonbury Park.

But having heard Smithins’s warning just now, perhaps she should reconsider that decision?

‘I really should pay no mind to Smithins if I were you, Lily.’ Mrs Stratton gave a rueful grimace as she seemed to read Lily’s hesitation, even if she had misunderstood the reason for it. ‘I am afraid he has been allowed to become far too overbearingly protective this past year where His Grace is concerned.’ She gave a weary sigh. ‘I have long been forced to listen to his ravings for one reason or another.

That may be so, but Lily seriously doubted that those ‘ravings’ had ever been about Lord Giles Montague before this week, or involved an accusation of him ‘succeeding in killing’ his own father. ‘Do you think there is any basis for truth in Mr Smithins’s concerns for His Grace?’

‘None at all,’ the housekeeper dismissed briskly. ‘Lord Giles has always been the most dutiful of sons.’

Had it been ‘dutiful’ of Giles Montague to remain in London these past nine months when he had been needed here at Castonbury Park? Was it ‘dutiful’ of him, now that he had at last returned, to be seen to take his father, a man who was obviously fragile in health, out on a carriage ride? Admittedly, he now seemed to be taking a belated interest in the estate, but—

‘Besides, you will see for yourself this evening how His Grace fares.’ Mrs Stratton smiled. ‘And I know that Monsieur André is greatly looking forward to preparing some more of the meringues after I told him how much you enjoyed them when you were here last,’ she added with a twinkle in her eye.

Lily felt the colour warm her cheeks at Mrs Stratton’s more than obvious attempt at matchmaking. She had only seen the new French chef once or twice since his arrival at Castonbury Park, although she had noticed on those occasions that he was handsome. Even so, Lily very much doubted that even a French chef would be willing to overlook her questionable pedigree.

‘But I am sure you did not come here to discuss this evening’s menu with me …?’ Mrs Stratton prompted lightly.

Lily gave herself a mental shake as she was reminded of her reason for calling. ‘I was in the village and was waylaid by Mr Crutchley as I passed the butcher’s shop. He said he has not yet received an order from you for the traditional pig to roast.’ The ladies of the village would no doubt enjoy partaking of the delicacies provided by Monsieur André, but the men were all of hardy farming stock, and as such required a heartier repast for their tea than the sandwiches and cakes the French chef would be providing.

The housekeeper looked slightly perplexed. ‘I understood from Lord Giles that he intended to talk to Mr Crutchley personally.’

‘Lord Giles?’ Lily repeated slowly. ‘But … I do not understand.’

Mrs Stratton smiled indulgently. ‘I believe the pig roast is to be his own gift to the celebrations.’

‘I—Well. That is very generous of him.’ Lily still frowned her puzzlement.

‘Indeed,’ the housekeeper agreed warmly. ‘He has stated that he also intends to provide the liquid refreshment for the gentlemen.’

To say Lily was surprised at Giles Montague’s personal largesse would be putting it mildly; as far as she was aware, he had not shown any interest before now in the welfare and happiness of the people living in the village of Castonbury.

But he had not become his father’s heir until Lord Jamie’s demise either.

Was she being completely fair to Giles Montague, Lily wondered as she walked back to the vicarage, or was she perhaps allowing her own prejudice of feelings towards that gentleman to colour her thoughts and emotions?

Thankfully she had not seen Giles Montague again in the past two days, but he had been the subject of much discussion in the village.

She had heard from several of the women how their eldest sons had been taken on for the summer months so that the fallow fields at the Park might be prepared for a winter crop. Another had commented that her carpenter husband had been employed to effect repairs upon several of the barns to ready them for the storing of the harvest to come. A builder had been seen up on the roof of Castonbury Park itself to repair several tiles that had fallen off in the severe winter storms.

All of it was work that Giles Montague had apparently instructed to be carried out.

Perhaps her criticisms of him had had some effect, after all—

No, a more likely explanation was that Giles Montague already considered himself master here!

Could there, after all, be some truth in Smithins’s earlier warning to Mrs Stratton regarding the Duke of Rothermere? Was Giles Montague deliberately endangering his father’s already precarious health, in the hopes that he might become the presumptive Duke of Rothermere sooner rather than later?

Lily had no answer to those questions. One thing she was certain of, however; she no longer intended suffering so much as the twinge of a headache to prevent her from dining at Castonbury Park this evening!

‘I must thank you for sending John and the carriage for us, Lord Giles.’ Mr Seagrove beamed as Lumsden showed the vicar and his daughter into the formal salon that evening. He was wearing his usual clerical black, his daughter looking slender and graceful in a gown of deep blue. ‘I am afraid my open carriage is not at all suitable for going out in the evenings, and our horse now so old that he is not inclined to go out after dark either.’

‘Not at all,’ Giles drawled dismissively. ‘I could not risk Miss Seagrove suffering a chill.’

A chill which was all in those moss-green eyes, Giles discovered with a frown as he bent formally over Lily’s gloved hand before glancing up to see her looking back at him with icy coldness. Not a particularly good omen for what Giles had hoped would be an evening free of the tensions he had been forced to suffer earlier today whilst out visiting with his father!

‘Besides which,’ he added dismissively as he stepped back from the immediate glare of those chilling green eyes, ‘my father and I took the carriage out earlier today, so it was no bother for John to set out again this evening.’

‘And how did your father enjoy his carriage ride, my lord?’ Lily prompted evenly, the curls arranged on her brow in such a way as to cover the discolouration of skin Giles was sure she would have suffered from their clashing of heads two days ago, although he could see no sign of a bump still being there, indicating she may—but only may!—have taken his advice, after all, and applied the cold compress.

‘You appear to be very well informed of the movements at Castonbury Park, Miss Seagrove.’ Giles regarded her through narrowed lids, his own jaw having ached for several hours after coming into contact with her brow, but thankfully having suffered no further visible bruising.

She shrugged creamy shoulders. ‘Mrs Stratton happened to mention the outing when I called on her earlier today.’

‘Indeed?’ Giles murmured drily.

‘Yes.’ Lily’s cheeks became slightly flushed at the derision she heard in Giles Montague’s tone at hearing she had once again called upon the housekeeper at Castonbury Park. ‘You omitted to answer my query concerning your father’s enjoyment of his carriage ride, my lord …’ she reminded determinedly.

He looked down at her with shrewd grey eyes. ‘Did I?’ he drawled.

‘Yes.’ Lily glared her frustration, feeling at that moment much like a mouse must when being played with by a cat. In the case of Giles Montague, a large and arrogant cat!

‘How remiss of me.’ He turned away to look at Mr Seagrove.

‘Would you care for a glass of claret before dinner, sir?’

‘I would, thank you, Lord Giles.’ Her father beamed at the younger man, as usual seeming unaware of the tension that existed between Giles Montague and his daughter.

‘May I get you a glass of sherry, or perhaps lemonade, Miss Seagrove?’ Giles Montague raised dark and mocking brows as he glanced in her direction.

He was a very large and arrogant cat whom Lily was nevertheless forced to acknowledge looked extremely handsome in black evening clothes and snowy white linen! ‘No, thank you,’ Lily refused stiffly, more than slightly annoyed with herself for having noticed how handsome Giles Montague looked this evening.

Giles turned to dismiss Lumsden with a terse nod before crossing the room himself to pour the claret into two crystal glasses, a frown low on his brow as his thoughts turned once again to the events of this afternoon. Not the most enjoyable time he had spent in his father’s company since his return, and Lord knows those previous visits to his father’s rooms had not been conducive to Giles sleeping comfortably at night!

Calling to talk with the family lawyers in Buxton earlier today had succeeded in helping Giles to slowly, very slowly, unravel the tangle his father appeared to have made of things since Jamie had perished. A tangle that the duke had only made worse during that last battle with Napoleon at Waterloo, when it had seemed as if Wellington might not prevail. Indeed, the Duke of Rothermere’s actions at that time had been so extreme that Giles was still uncertain, even with the help of the lawyers, as to whether or not he would ever be able to set things to rights.

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