Read Nicola Cornick Online

Authors: True Colours

Nicola Cornick (10 page)

‘And so I told him to send the creature to the horse-coper!’ he finished triumphantly, coming to the end of a long anecdote which had taken up the best part of the first course. He roared with laughter and both his guests smiled politely.

Alicia had been studying James Mullineaux covertly since the beginning of the meal. Immaculate in a coat of black superfine over a dove-grey waistcoat, there was something austere in both his dress and manner. She had already divined that he intended to ignore her for the most part, for he never looked at her directly and addressed not one word to her. Invited by Theo to take Alicia in to dinner, he had graciously seceded the privilege to his host in a manner so charming that Theo had suspected nothing, whilst Alicia had been left fuming with indignation. He had taken a seat opposite Theo, which kept her out of his line of vision, and for the most part they had all talked on generalities such as the weather before Theo had begun his anecdote about the horse.

Alicia swallowed the last of her turbot and watched entranced as the dressed capon was brought in, accompanied by asparagus and new potatoes. For a country parson, Theophilus March certainly did not stint himself. She remembered that he had a private income and also assumed he would be killing the fatted calf for the return of this particular prodigal. Her attention was caught as she realised Theo had started off on another of his unpredictable trains of thought.

‘Excellent shooting at Monks Dacorum in your father’s time, my dear James,’ he was saying, through a mouthful of rich sauce. ‘The woods between Monks and Chartley were always flush with pheasant. Why, I
remember—’ He broke off as an idea appeared to strike him for the first time. ‘I say, Alicia, do you realise that this chap is your near neighbour? Well, I declare, what a happy coincidence! You will be able to show him around the neighbourhood!’

Alicia thought she saw James shudder slightly. ‘I should be delighted,’ she said warmly. ‘Lord Mullineaux has been so long away, has he not, that I dare say he can scarce remember where his own tenants live!’

That earned her a look at last, dark and direct. Theo did not notice, for he was nodding enthusiastically. He leant towards James confidingly. ‘You should know, my dear boy, that Lady Carberry is a considerable benefactress to this neighbourhood!’ He waved his fork about in vague description. ‘The schools she has started, the businesses saved from closure…Her work has given employment to plenty of young men who might otherwise have gone to the bad, driven by a want of education and honest toil! I always preach her example from my pulpit!’

James Mullineaux’s lip curled slightly. ‘Very commendable, I am sure, my dear sir! Lady Carberry must be an example to us all!’

Theo missed the sarcasm completely, but Alicia did not and flushed with mortification. She began to perceive that Theo’s ignorance of their situation might be awkward. She had no wish for him to sing her praises to James Mullineaux of all people.

‘Dear Theo, you exaggerate,’ she said gently, hoping to stem his flow. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect. He looked injured, peering at her short-sightedly from under his thatch of grey hair.

‘Alicia, dear, do not hide your light under a bushel! His lordship should know of your good works!’

‘You need not praise Lady Carberry to me, sir,’ the Marquis of Mullineaux said smoothly. ‘I already know all I need to form my opinion!’

Only Alicia saw the dismissive look of contempt in his eyes. She felt her temper rising with the unfortunate effect his scorn always had on her. Arrogant, overbearing man! She took several reckless mouthfuls of Theo’s excellent wine.

‘Your reputation precedes you also, Lord Mullineaux,’ she observed with saccharine sweetness. ‘I imagine the county has not had so much excitement in an age! Your…pursuits are legendary!’

Mullineaux’s gaze touched hers for a brief moment, then he looked away with an apparent lack of interest.

‘Plenty of country pursuits here!’ Theo was chuckling, oblivious to
the undercurrent running between them. ‘Hunting, shooting, fishing…Take your pick, my boy!’

‘And what pursuits do you indulge in, Lady Carberry?’ Mullineaux asked suddenly. Only his tanned fingers, drumming a ceaseless rhythm on the table, betrayed his irritation at her subtle provocation. ‘Other than the exercise of your benevolence, that is! Balls and parties, perhaps? Or would a masquerade be more to your taste?’ He put the very slightest emphasis on the word and Alicia’s over-sensitivity did the rest. So he thought her charitable activities were all a pretence, did he? She had never boasted of her philanthropy but it infuriated her to think that Mullineaux was judging her a fraud.

‘My favourite activity,’ she said, determinedly squashing her anger with a demure smile, ‘is my gardening, sir.’

It was such an innocuous reply. Theo beamed again and Mullineaux almost choked on his wine. He cast her a cynical look. She met it with a defiant sparkle in those green eyes.

‘Alicia’s garden is a joy to the whole neighbourhood,’ Theo commented as a redcurrant syllabub and the dessert wine were brought in.

‘Are the village children permitted to play there?’ Mullineaux enquired innocently. ‘It would seem a charitable act to allow them to do so!’

Now it was Alicia’s turn to choke on her food. She took another draught of wine, regarding him thoughtfully over the rim of her glass. Mullineaux had turned to Theo, courteously praising the quality of his wine cellar.

‘And that is a genuine compliment from Lord Mullineaux, who is a connoisseur of such matters!’ Alicia observed smartly. ‘Of all the areas of Lord Mullineaux’s expertise, that is surely the only one suitable for
ears, dear Theo!’

Even the Reverend Theo was not so obtuse as to misunderstand that comment. He swallowed convulsively, his baffled gaze travelling from Alicia’s flushed face to Mullineaux’s politely expressionless one. Mullineaux might, in fact, have been forgiven for administering the set-down which Alicia so richly deserved for this, but he said not one word. Theo wriggled uncomfortably, greeting the butler’s arrival with the port as though he were a long-lost cousin.

‘Alicia, my dear, the port…would you mind? Mrs Morland has tea served in the drawing-room…Perhaps you would be so good…We will join you later…’

The relief on his face as he saw her rise to her feet was almost comical.

Alicia was suddenly feeling very light-headed. Her poor night’s sleep the previous evening and the strain of her day had led to an immense, unexpected lassitude. She found that she had to enunciate her words very clearly.

‘Please excuse me. I am very fatigued and would retire. Thank you for your hospitality, Theo.’ She nodded distantly in Mullineaux’s direction. ‘Goodnight, sir.’

Mullineaux put down his napkin and rose to his feet. ‘I will escort you to the stairs, Lady Carberry.’

Hysteria rose in Alicia. She realised that she was feeling very odd indeed. Why should she need his escort? Did he think she would get lost? The vicarage was a sizeable house, but not that large! She almost laughed, and just managed to swallow a hiccup.

Mullineaux was holding the door for her and somehow she found herself standing with him in the relative darkness of the hallway. He was lighting a candle for her with grave concentration, the flame catching and illuminating his face from beneath with its soft light. Alicia’s mouth dried. She could not look away. His dark eyes were hooded and the candlelight shadowed the hard, determined line of his jaw, his mouth…

He looked up and shattered her mood.

‘Do you always drink too much at dinner?’ he asked casually.

Alicia stared at him in outrage. ‘How dare you insinuate—? I am not drunk!’

‘No?’ Mullineaux looked at her with cool disinterest. ‘Then you have even less excuse for that ill-bred display in there! Be careful, Lady Carberry! Drinking too much and failing to realise it is the first sign of danger for a lonely, middle-aged widow—’

‘How dare you?’ Alicia’s voice was rising. ‘I am

She saw his sardonic smile and could have slapped him. ‘Maybe not,’ he agreed readily, ‘but you are becoming repetitious! And as to how I dare, well, it seems to me that no one else does dare tell you any home truths, my lady!’

Outrage and misery struggled for ascendancy within Alicia. She had had enough of his officious, interfering ways! Here he was again, judging her with such insufferable arrogance! She glared at him speechlessly.

Mullineaux seemed completely unaffected. He handed Alicia the can
dlestick, but when she would have taken it and marched off upstairs he did not let go. She looked up into his face, confused. What new indignities was he about to heap on her head?

‘Lady Carberry, tell me one thing.’ There was an odd note of urgency in Mullineaux’s voice. ‘The schools…and the businesses…is it all true?’

Alicia felt as though she was looking into his eyes for ever. A welter of thoughts tumbled over themselves inside her head. Tell him the truth, one voice urged. Damn his presumption, said another. Well, damn him, and damn her as well. Some imp of perversity prompted her to confirm his poor opinion of her.

She gave a little, catlike smile. ‘Oh, it is true as far as it goes, my lord. But you should know that sound businesses make more money than ones that are poorly run! I never invest where there is no profit to be made!’

She took the candle and swept off upstairs, but not before she had seen the disillusion and scorn return to his face. It was his habitual expression when regarding her, she thought.

She slept heavily and woke with a headache, heartache, and a severe case of guilt towards Theo, who did not deserve his hospitality to be abused in the way she had done the previous night. She need not have worried about meeting Mullineaux again. He had left before she even came down to breakfast.

Chapter Four

or a week after her return home, Alicia had been pondering whether she dared venture near Monks Dacorum now that she knew that the Marquis of Mullineaux was in residence. She felt so bruised by their recent encounters that she had no wish to see him again for a very long time. Unfortunately, a short while before Christmas, she had accepted an invitation from Mrs Patch of Monks Farm to take tea that very Thursday and she was loath to cancel the engagement and give offence.

In the event the hour she spent at Monks Farm was very enjoyable. She admired the small Patch children and received Mrs Patch’s assurances that the yield from the estate had increased since she had been so kind as to lend them the money for drainage of the five-acre field. The tea was strong and the home-made cake delicious. It was only as Alicia was leaving the farmhouse with her arms full of fresh vegetables and two small children clinging to her skirts that disaster arrived in the shape of the Marquis of Mullineaux on what was evidently a tour of the estate.

It was perhaps to be expected. It was the first fine day of the week, with a fresh, crisp feel that made it perfect for riding out. The hedgerows still glistened with frost and the puddles in the farmyard were slippery with ice. Mullineaux, on a raking grey hunter, looked formidable and every inch the lord of the manor as he rode slowly into the farm courtyard, glancing round with evident approval at its trim tidiness. Then his gaze fell on Alicia, defiantly clutching a large marrow, some sprouts and a bag of potatoes, and a less easily definable expression crossed his face.

Mrs Patch was curtseying clumsily, drawing the children to her side
like a protective mother hen. She was horrified at the unexpected intrusion.

‘My lord, if only we’d a’ known you were coming to visit! Farmer Patch is down the five-acre field—I’ll send to fetch him at once!’ Belatedly she realised that she did not sound very welcoming, dropped another hasty curtsey and added, ‘We’re most honoured by your visit, my lord, to be sure!’

Mullineaux had dismounted and was quick to put her at her ease. ‘I was just passing, Mrs Patch, and thought to stop and renew old acquaintances. Don’t trouble to disturb Patch now—Tadcaster and I will drop by in a few days for a proper chat with him about the farm. And these must be your children.’ He smiled at them, and they smiled back, completely dazzled. ‘What a delightful pair! I believe your daughter favours you, Mrs Patch.’

Mrs Patch looked overwhelmed by such magnanimity. Tom Patch, a sturdy six-year-old, stood braced, gazing up at the Marquis as though he had seen a god. Four-year-old Matilda looked more dubious, but was coaxed into a smile again as the Marquis squatted down beside her and asked her gently if she enjoyed living on a farm. Alicia, feeling distinctly
de trop
, tried to edge away only to be thwarted as her bag of potatoes burst and scattered its contents all over the cobbles.

Tom whooped with glee, chasing them round the yard. Mullineaux straightened.

‘Your servant, Lady Carberry. It is something of a surprise to see you here.’

Alicia was immediately on the defensive, as was Mrs Patch who was quick to detect the hint of disapproval in his tone. In her haste to smooth matters over she stumbled into disastrous speech.

‘Lady Carberry has always taken an interest in the farm, my lord, ever since we had that terrible flooding last year and she advanced Patch the loan to drain the five-acre field! It’s made such a difference to us, my lord, you would not believe! Why, if it hadn’t been for her ladyship…’ Her words trailed away, conscious of Mullineaux’s sudden silence.

‘Monks Farm is now the best purveyor of fresh fruit and vegetables in the locality,’ Alicia added, knowing she sounded completely inane but anxious only to prevent Mrs Patch from making any further damaging disclosures. Judging by the black frown on Mullineaux’s brow, it was already too late.

‘Thank you, Tom,’ she added as the young Patch solemnly presented
her with her potatoes. She turned to Mrs Patch with a warm smile. ‘And thank you for your hospitality, Mrs Patch. I hope to see you again soon. Good day, Lord Mullineaux.’

It was not to be supposed that she could escape so easily. As she turned to walk away, her arm was caught in an iron grip.

‘Let me escort you to your carriage, Lady Carberry,’ the Marquis of Mullineaux said, in tones which brooked no refusal. ‘This ice is most treacherous and I would not care for you to slip and hurt yourself.’

Alicia looked up suspiciously, but the dark face above her was completely bland. She was acutely conscious of his gloved hand beneath her elbow, holding her lightly now but in a grip that nevertheless made her nerve-ends tingle. They crossed the courtyard in silence and reached the gate, where Alicia’s coach was drawn up to one side of the archway.

‘Now,’ Mullineaux said, very pleasantly, as they paused beside the hawthorn hedge, ‘we can either talk here or in the relative privacy of your carriage. Which do you prefer, Lady Carberry?’

Alicia looked mutinous. ‘Neither suggestion would seem appropriate, my lord,’ she said coolly. ‘I have nothing to say to you.’

‘You are mistaken, however.’ Mullineaux still sounded pleasant but there was an expression in his eyes that belied his tone. ‘You will tell me, if you please, exactly how much the Monks Dacorum estate owes you for the drainage of Patch’s land. I do not care to be indebted to you.’

Alicia almost gasped at his words. He had wasted no time on polite conversation. The gloves were off with a vengeance.

‘I shall do no such thing,’ she said hotly. ‘The arrangement between Farmer Patch and myself was a private transaction and nothing to do with the estate!’

Mullineaux was tapping the end of his riding crop impatiently in the palm of his other hand, and Alicia wondered suddenly if he was about to use it on her. He looked angry enough to be thinking of it.

‘I do not care for you to be making private transactions with my tenants,’ he said, with silky politeness. ‘Tell me the figure and I shall see it repaid at once.’

‘I doubt it!’ Alicia flashed, stung into fury by his desire to be rid of all obligation to her. ‘Having been away so long, you may not realise, my lord, that drainage is prohibitively expensive. The reason Farmer Patch approached me in the first place was because your agent had told him the estate could not afford to pay!’

Mullineaux’s eyes narrowed. ‘You are telling me that Tadcaster knew
of this transaction and permitted it? Good God, how could he allow Patch to be bled dry by a private loan?’

Alicia felt a spark of triumph prompt her to provoke him further. ‘He permitted it because a man’s livelihood was at stake, my lord! And,’ she added sweetly, ‘you quite mistake the case! The loan is interest-free and based only on Farmer Patch’s ability to pay! But now that you are aware of this obligation on your estate perhaps you would wish to take over the repayments to me?’

Murder flared in Mullineaux’s eyes. ‘You little—!’ He got a grip on himself. ‘You sound like a cursed money-lender, madam!’ He flung away from her, to turn swiftly back and view her with a narrow, contemptuous gaze. ‘Devil take it, that’s what you really are, isn’t it? Tell me.’ He came to stand menacingly over her. ‘What other insidious little arrangements have you made to undermine my estate? A loan here, a business started there…Buying the loyalty of my tenants because that’s the only currency you really understand, isn’t it? Well, hear this! I will not tolerate your damned interference any more!’

A great wave of desolation hit Alicia. No matter what she did now she would never be able to alter his opinion of her. Whenever she tried to avoid him, a malign fate seemed to cast her in his way just so that they could argue again and part on bad terms. Remembering their previous encounter, she blushed with embarrassment. Not only did he view her as mercenary but as a sad, lonely woman whose fondness for drink led her to make ill-bred observations! She knew that there was little she could say now to counteract his bad opinion, but at least she could try.

‘Whatever I have done for your tenants has been done with the best of motives, my lord,’ she said, so quietly that he could only just hear her words, ‘and perhaps I was wrong to interfere. Are you sure that your anger springs from genuine concern and not mere resentment? I bid you good day.’

In the silence that followed, she turned on her heel and would have got into the carriage without another word had not Mullineaux caught her wrist again to stop her. This time Alicia gave a gasp of real pain, and too late he saw the new white bandage below the sleeve of her dress, and remembered the accident at Ottery. He dropped her wrist as though scalded and stood back.

Alicia was shaking now. The pain had pierced the artificial calm which she had managed to preserve under his last, furious attack and
now she felt horribly close to tears. Not again, she thought despairingly. She was turning into a complete watering pot.

‘Lady Carberry…’ There was a note in Mullineaux’s voice she did not recognise, did not understand, but she knew she could not cope with it now. She ignored his half-outstretched hand and brushed past him to the carriage where Jack, his ears pink-tipped with the embarrassment of overhearing their argument, was waiting to help her inside.

James Mullineaux stood in the road watching the carriage disappear. He had just remembered Alicia telling him that she never struck a bargain unless it was to her financial advantage. And yet she had apparently offered Patch a loan whose terms were generous in the extreme—terms he could substantiate simply by asking his agent. Mullineaux frowned. Perhaps it
time he asked a few questions. There was something going on here that he needed to understand. He stood in the empty road until Tom Patch emerged from the yard to tug on his hand and offer to show him the sheepdog’s new puppies.


It was evening, and in the library of James’s house at Monks Dacorum sat the Earl and Countess of Kilgaren, playing at chess. They had arrived earlier in the day and had been highly diverted to discover that their host was absent, having been held up by estate business for longer than expected. Caroline Kilgaren had wasted no time and taken charge in her usual capable fashion. Soon the servants were eating out of her hand, the beds were aired, the fires lit and a delicious cold supper was resting on a side table, for Caroline was certain that James would be sharp set after a day out in the fresh air.

Monks Dacorum was a small house, tranquil in atmosphere, and retaining many of its original fifteenth-century features. Over the centuries it had become an appealing but rather inconvenient muddle of medieval and modern, with a great deal of charm and individuality. The library was a cosy room panelled in dark wood with shabby, leather-bound volumes filling its oaken bookshelves and similarly shabby leather armchairs set before the huge stone fireplace. Caroline and Marcus sat in front of the fire, the chessboard spread out on the table between them.

The rainstorms of the previous week had returned with the dusk, but in the room there was a companionable silence as they concentrated on the game. The candlelight burnished the fair heads of both players and cast flickering shadows across the chessboard. The only noise was the tap of the pieces on its wooden surface and the ticking of the ormolu clock on the stone mantelpiece.

The clock had just chimed seven when there was at last the sound of an arrival.

Caroline finished her move with a flourish which suggested that she had checkmated her husband very neatly, then both of them rose to their feet as the door of the room opened and James Mullineaux strolled in. Caroline, always demonstrative, gave a shriek and flung herself into his arms, careless of the fact that he was still wearing his caped driving coat and that rivulets of water were making their way down from it onto the carpet.

‘James! It’s wonderful to see you!’

Caroline was tiny, and it was easy for James to pick her up off her feet and spin her round, before planting a kiss on her cheek and holding her at arm’s length to take a closer look at her. It was several years since they had met and they had known each other well, even before Caroline had married James’s closest friend—and he had almost married hers.

The sparkle in Caroline’s bright blue eyes owed as much to tears as pleasure, but it did not prevent her frank appraisal of him. She had always been very fond of James Mullineaux for they had grown up together, and it was probably that very familiarity which had preserved her from the danger of ever falling in love with him. Others had done so with an inevitability which she had felt was tiresome and predictable, but her feelings had never been remotely threatened. This had not prevented her from admitting, however, that he was quite devastatingly attractive, and whilst it had always been difficult to quantify this attraction it owed something to his height and presence, as well as his expressive dark eyes, carefully disordered black hair and immaculate tailoring.

Not that he made any pretensions towards high fashion these days, Caroline thought, but time had transmuted the arrogance of a young nobleman into an unconscious self-assurance, and age—he and Marcus were both almost thirty-three!—had done little to diminish his spectacular good looks. Perhaps he appeared to have a harder, more incisive edge to him, but he was indubitably the same James Mullineaux.

James let go of her and gave her an approximation of the wicked smile which had set so many hearts fluttering in the past.

‘Well, you haven’t changed at all!’

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