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Authors: A Dead Bore

Sheri Cobb South

 

A DEAD BORE

 

Sheri Cobb South

 

Prologue

 

In Which Lady Fieldhurst Ponders an Invitation

 

The weather on this June morning was particularly fine, but no ray of sunlight illuminated the Berkeley Square drawing room where two ladies sat drinking tea. The gold velvet draperies adorning the windows of this elegantly appointed chamber were tightly closed, for this was a house of mourning. Grief, however, was not the emotion uppermost in the mind of at least one of the pair, a dashing brunette dressed in vibrant shades of blue.

“Yorkshire?” exclaimed the Countess of Dunnington in tones of deepest revulsion, returning her teacup to its saucer with a disapproving
clink.
“You would go to Yorkshire in July? My dear Julia, you must be mad!”

Lady Fieldhurst, sipping her tea, smiled at her friend’s vehemence. The younger of the two ladies by some ten years, she was clad in the sober black of the recent widow, and was as fair as the fashionable Lady Dunnington was dark. “Mad? Nonsense, Emily! Why do you say so?”

“No one goes to Yorkshire unless they are escaping from something—a dunning tradesman, perhaps, or an importunate lover.”

“Or a thoroughly unpleasant scandal,” added Lady Fieldhurst.

“A scandal which was none of your making,” Emily reminded her. “Still, if you wish to leave London for a time, you would do better to come with me to Brighton. At least you should find plenty there to amuse you.”

Lady Fieldhurst, refilling the cups from a silver teapot, arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Indeed, I should—far more amusement than is seemly for a widow of less than two months’ standing.”

“And you so fond of poor Fieldhurst, too,” sighed Lady Dunnington, shaking her head with mock sorrow.

The widowed viscountess gave her friend a reproachful look, but held her ground. In truth, her reluctance to accompany Lady Dunnington to Brighton had less to do with her recent bereavement than with her desire to avoid the company of certain gentlemen of her acquaintance, the first and foremost of these being Emily’s latest paramour. She frequently wondered what her friend saw in a foppish and by all accounts penniless young man several years her junior. At six-and-twenty, however, Lady Fieldhurst was too much a woman of the world to be shocked by the connection. Indeed, she had been on the verge of taking a lover of her own when fate had intervened in the form of Viscount Fieldhurst’s untimely demise.

“Lord Rupert will be in Brighton,” observed Lady Dunnington, regarding her with a measuring look.

Lady Fieldhurst colored slightly at having her thoughts so accurately read. “You have quite decided me, Emily! If Lord Rupert is to be in Brighton, I must certainly go to Yorkshire. Between the pair of us, Rupert and I have given the tabbies quite enough to gossip about already.”

Lady Dunnington was not deceived. “Aha! Then I was right when I suggested you might be escaping an importunate lover. Are Lord Rupert’s hopes to be dashed, then?”

“I don’t know,” confessed Lady Fieldhurst, sipping her tea and wishing it was not too early in the day for sherry. “I haven’t yet decided. I only want to go away for a while so that I may be left alone. If I am fortunate, no one else at this house party will have ever heard of me, much less my recent notoriety.”

“My dear Julia, I fear you are doomed to disappointment. Society circles are not so large as to allow anonymity. Depend upon it, everyone knows of your narrow escape from the gallows, even those whom you have never met.”

“Do you think so?” asked Lady Fieldhurst, crestfallen. “I am scarcely acquainted with the hostess, but my recollections of Lady Anne Hollingshead are that she is excruciatingly proper. I cannot imagine why she should have invited a guest so recently featured in all the scandal sheets. I know nothing of the rest of the family. I have never met her husband, for instance—”

“Nor are likely to, so long as you are fixed in London,” Emily put in. “I believe Sir Gerald prefers the country life.”

“He seems an odd match for Lady Anne, then,” observed Lady Fieldhurst. “She has always seemed to me the very personification of the Society matron. During my come-out, I lived in fear of a disapproving glance through her lorgnette. I should have thought her husband would be one of Society’s leading lights—a member of Parliament, perhaps, or a diplomat.”

Lady Dunnington helped herself to a slice of seed cake and leaned forward with a confidential air. “Ah, but Sir Gerald was not her first choice. In her mad youth—if one can imagine Lady Anne ever having had such a thing—she was set to make a brilliant match.”

“What happened?”

Emily shrugged. “He died. I don’t recall the details. It all happened before my time. She is several years older than I, you know.”

“Everyone is older than you, darling, including your eldest son,” retorted Lady Fieldhurst without malice. “Still, it is a sad story, but at least she found a second chance at happiness.”

“And so shall you, my dear—but not if you insist on burying yourself in Yorkshire.” As Lady Fieldhurst opened her mouth to protest, Lady Dunnington raised a silencing hand. “Very well, I shan’t tease you on the subject. Go to Yorkshire if you feel you must, but I predict you will be bored to tears within a se’ennight!”

 

Chapter 1

 

In Which Are Introduced the Local Gentry

 

The light was beginning to fade by the time the hired post-chaise lurched to a halt before the imposing stone façade of Hollingshead Place. Lady Fieldhurst regarded the stark gray edifice through the rain-streaked carriage windows and wondered, not for the first time, why she had been so determined to come. Three days and two hundred miles ago, when she had first set out from London, Emily’s predictions of unmitigated boredom had been easily dismissed. After all, Emily had never been rumored to have murdered her husband, and so had no notion of how very welcome the prospect of boredom could seem. In the end, the matter had been decided by a letter from the dowager Lady Fieldhurst, who insisted that Julia spend the first few months of her widowhood quietly at the Dower House in the company of her mama-in-law. Although imminently suitable, at least in the eyes of Society, this prospect was so daunting that Lady Fieldhurst had penned her acceptance to Lady Anne Hollingshead that very day.

A liveried footman rushed out of the house to meet her with an unfurled umbrella, and Lady Fieldhurst steeled herself with the reflection that, no matter how dreary her present prospects, her situation might have been much worse: she might have been obliged to spend a rainy day trapped inside the Dower House with her mother-in-law. Fortified with this knowledge, she turned up the collar of her black kerseymere pelisse, disembarked from the vehicle, and accepted the footman’s protective escort to the house.

She was pleased—and to no small degree relieved—to discover that its somber exterior was deceptive. Inside, a cheerful fire burned merrily on a massive hearth, reflecting on the black-and-white marble tiles of the floor and turning the richly carved wainscoting to burnished gold. Framed portraits of earlier generations of Hollingsheads gazed down at the newcomer from their heavy gilt frames, and twin suits of armor flanked the staircase, but even these daunting entities seemed well pleased to welcome a viscountess to Hollingshead Place. A movement overhead drew her eye upward to the tall, graceful lady descending the curved staircase.

“My dear Lady Fieldhurst!” exclaimed Lady Anne Hollingshead, her arms outstretched in greeting. “Such dismal weather with which to welcome you! I do hope the roads were not too badly rutted?”

“Not at all,” murmured Lady Fieldhurst with more courtesy than accuracy. Lady Anne’s elegance made her painfully aware of her rain-spattered and travel-stained appearance. To her chagrin, she felt more like the gauche debutante she had once been than the modish and slightly scandalous Society matron she had become.

“Shocking amount of rain we’ve had lately, absolutely shocking!” put in Sir Gerald Hollingshead, shaking his grizzled head as he lumbered down the stairs in his wife’s wake.

Observing his descent, Lady Fieldhurst found her earlier speculations confirmed: he did indeed seem an odd match for Lady Anne. He was fully two decades his wife’s senior, but this in itself was unremarkable; fifteen years had separated the late Lord Fieldhurst from his bride, and Lady Fieldhurst knew of many matches where the age difference was a quarter century or more. No, the difference had less to do with the ages of the parties involved than with their respective appearances. Unlike the stylish Lady Anne, Sir Gerald was dressed for comfort rather than fashion in a loose-fitting tail coat, buckskin breeches, and cuffed top-boots. Lady Fieldhurst received the impression that he would be far more content to be outdoors with a gun over his shoulder and hounds at his heels. Lady Fieldhurst, herself country-bred, was reminded of her own doting papa, and found herself liking her host on sight. Still, she could not but acknowledge that he and Lady Anne made an ill-assorted pair.

“Pray accept my condolences on the loss of your husband,” Lady Anne continued in a more serious vein. “How dreadful for you, to be widowed at such a young age, and in
such
a fashion!”

Privately, Lady Fieldhurst considered being left a widow at the age of six-and-twenty far less dreadful than coming within Ames-ace of hanging for murder. But in the past two months she had perfected the art of mouthing platitudes, and it was this habit to which she now sought recourse. “You are too kind, my lady. My husband’s death came as a great shock, but I take comfort in the knowledge that his sufferings were brief.”

“Such sentiments do you credit, my dear,” said Lady Anne, squeezing Julia’s hands warmly. “I hope that while you are with us, you will be able to forget your recent loss, at least for a little while. I fear one or two of our guests have been obliged to send their regrets on account of the weather, but I have contrived to throw together a modest dinner party to introduce you to the local gentry. But I must not keep you standing here in those wet clothes! I’ve put you in the Wedgwood bedchamber; Mrs. Holland will be happy to take you there.”

At the mention of her name, a dour-faced housekeeper in mobcap and starched apron executed a stiff curtsy, then led Lady Fieldhurst up the curving staircase to the room that was to be hers for the next month.

As its name implied, the room was hung with the same blue shade as the china for which it was named, and trimmed out in woodwork painted a pristine white. It appeared neat and inviting even on a gray and rainy day; Lady Fieldhurst had no doubt that in sunshine it would be lovely. Her trunks had already been carried up, and an apple-cheeked maid bustled about the room hanging her gowns in the center of the clothes press and storing her undergarments in its drawers.

“I trust my lady will find everything to your liking,” said the housekeeper. “If not, you have only to tell me, and I will be happy to rectify any omission.”

The woman’s accommodating words notwithstanding, Lady Fieldhurst had the distinct impression that any complaint about the room would not be happily received at all, but taken very much amiss.

“Thank you, Mrs. Holland,” the viscountess replied, dismissing her with a nod. “This will do very well, I’m sure.”

The housekeeper departed somewhat mollified, and as the maid completed her task, Lady Fieldhurst took stock of her surroundings. She noted with approval the Adam fireplace with its cheerful blaze, and the mahogany writing table adjacent to it. Glancing at the cheval mirror, however, she was considerably less pleased. The woman gazing back at her wore a stylish traveling costume of black kerseymere, but her skirts were creased from travel and spotted with raindrops, and her hem was two inches deep in mud.

She tugged at the black ribbons of her bonnet and tossed it onto the bed as she surveyed the damage to her coiffure. Her golden curls, though dry, were sadly flattened from her headgear, and would certainly have to be brushed out and pinned up again before dinner. She heaved a sigh at her own lack of foresight in neglecting to bring her lady’s maid, but the girl was newly hired and Lady Fieldhurst was not yet entirely convinced as to her competence.

“Begging your pardon, your ladyship,” said the maid, closing the doors of the clothes press, “but I’ve finished unpacking your trunks. Will there be anything else you’ll be needing?”

“Only one thing,” returned the viscountess, frowning at the damage to her crowning glory. “Is there a maid who could dress my hair before dinner?”

The maid’s plump, plain face lit up. “Oh, I’d be pleased to do your ladyship’s hair, right after I finish with Miss Hollingshead’s.”

“Excellent!” pronounced Lady Fieldhurst. “What time does the family dine?”

“Nine o’clock. We keep Town hours during the summer months,” the maid added proudly.

“In that case, I must not keep you, for Miss Hollingshead will no doubt require your services very shortly. What is your name, pray?”

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