Farringdon Abbey, Yorkshire, 28 July 1849
The Honourable Nathaniel Evens stepped off the carriage and right into a wretchedly deep puddle of cold water. Muttering an expletive, he steadied himself as he lifted his foot, cursing further at the damage the damp had wrecked halfway up his trousers. He’d had serious doubts about this endeavour from the first and this was not inspiring him to a different opinion. The fact that he’d neglected high boots in favour of shorter ones did not improve his foul mood, and the final journey out to Faringdon Abbey in a poorly sprung carriage only added to his irritation.
The travel from London to Yorkshire had also taken longer than anticipated, and then he’d spent a fortnight in Cambridge visiting Hiddleston and his bride, two long weeks of watching his friend make moon eyes at the former Miss Wilding-Marsh. To his recollection, the pair had completely despised each other when he and Hiddleston had attended university, but now they could not seem to restrain their affection for each other, be it in word or deed. Impatience with his friend and his bride had driven him to cut short his visit and thus now he stood before Faringdon Abbey with a wet trouser leg and filled with irritation.
Ignoring the uncomfortable damp, Nathaniel examined the estate before him. Two wings extended out from the main house, with an impressive and expensive number of windows indicating at least three floors. The entrance was framed by stone pillars, through which now rushed a footman and coachman to greet him. Behind them, at a more sedate pace, came the butler. A shot rent the air, followed by the manic call of a flock of quail. He cast his gaze in the sound’s direction, but the hunting party were too deep into the woods to be observed.
“Welcome to Faringdon Abbey,” the butler greeted, drawing his attention.
“I am Evans,” Nathaniel said. “I am expected.”
“Of course, sir. Please, follow me.”
His boot made a squelching sound as he followed the butler into the Abbey. Two women descended the grand staircase, their gowns proclaiming them as quality. They stared openly at him, whispering to each other as he continued to follow the butler.
Leading him to enter a well-appointed receiving room, the butler asked, “Would you care for refreshment, sir?”
“No.” Nathaniel glanced about the room. It was airy and light, tastefully decorated in yellows and creams, with unobtrusively expensive furniture. “Tell me, how many people are currently in occupation?”
“Fourteen, sir, not including staff.”
“Lady Caroline is hosting?”
“Her family, sir. It was to be an occasion of joy.” The butler’s dour expression slipped a moment, but as Nathaniel made no comment, he recovered himself quickly. Bowing sharply, he departed.
Lacing his hands behind his back, Nathaniel made his way to the window. The vista was of extensive gardens, a stone staircase leading to a reflecting pool. To the left, an impressive hedge-maze dominated the landscape, while to the right an immaculate lawn led to the beginning of a thicket. The same two ladies he’d observed in the entrance hall now descended the steps to the maze, still whispering and giggling to one another. A tent had been constructed on the lawn, occupied by some partaking of delicacies while yet others played croquet.
Clearly, these persons were not concerned a murder had recently been committed.
The sound of the door opening had him briefly consult his pocketwatch. Six minutes. Lady Caroline was prompt. Turning, he prepared to greet her.
The woman who entered was not Lady Caroline. Her garments were well-made and clearly of good quality, but they screamed well-appointed servant. The cap covering hair of an indiscriminate colour suggested a lady’s maid, but the ink staining her fingers indicated she was a secretary of some kind. Or perhaps both.
Five feet seven or eight, her features were even, her nose straight. From this distance, he could not ascertain the colour of her eyes. Her mouth was full, her lower lip plump and vaguely sulky, and the pink colour reminded him of the clover that had grown wild in the fields outside his family’s country home.
He blinked. Why on earth had he described this woman’s lips as the colour of a flower?
“Mr Evans,” she greeted.
At her voice, a completely unexpected husky contralto and for some reason intensely familiar, the organ in his chest leapt. Ignoring the strange reaction, he inclined his head. “Madam.”
The corner of her mouth lifted. “You do not remember me, do you?”
Irritation prickled him. “I remember the footman who helped me alight my horse at my second cousin’s estate when I was twelve. I assure you, I do not forget a face.”
“Perhaps, then, I am much changed.” Taking an almost imperceptible breath, she lifted her chin. “I am Rose Webster.”
He knew he did not portray his surprise. He knew his face to be expressionless, which was convenient as he was, in fact, very much surprised.
She looked nothing like the Rose Webster in his memory. That Rose had red hair that tumbled down her back, an infectious grin, and a rough Yorkshire accent. That Rose dressed in homespun fabric and had hands reddened from scalding water and strong lye. That Rose did not meet his eyes with calm directness.
A strange malaise took him, one where his heart beat too fast and his palms were damp and the cravat around his neck was too tight. One where he had unaccountably documented the fullness of her mouth, the creaminess of her complexion, the way her dress moulded to her well-shaped form.
He cleared his throat. “I understood Lady Caroline Faringdon to be my client.”
A small flicker in her eyes. “She is, sir, but I am her representative in this matter.”
Intriguing. He filed her reaction away to allow his brain to work on the implications while they spoke. “Ah. Let us begin, then. Tell me what occurred.”
“Of course, sir.” She moved to the chaise and gestured to the one opposite. When they were both thus arranged, she continued. “As I wrote in my letter, Lady Caroline’s fiancé, Sir George Carring, was found in the study. At first it was believed he had died of an apoplexy. The constabulary were called as a matter of course.”
“And when was it determined his death was not natural?” He knew this, of course. It was in the report she had sent. The day after the body had been discovered, the constabulary arrived and determined poison the method of Sir George’s demise. However, he wanted to know her version of events.
“The next day. It was deemed poison, sir. Lady Caroline was devastated. She has not…dealt well with Lord George’s death. Circumstances have been strained. As you may know, Lady Caroline was hosting her extended family at Faringdon House to introduce them to Sir George as their attachment is relatively recent.”
A recent attachment and a family unconcerned with murder in their midst. Already he could see where the signs pointed. “Is this why you engaged my services?” His brain, it seemed, had discerned the reason for her slight reaction.
Her gaze flew to his. “I—I beg your pardon?”
“Lady Caroline did not engage my services. I would be surprised if she even knew I was to come to Faringdon Abbey.
Uncertainty painted her expression and, closing her eyes, she swallowed. “You are correct, sir,” she said softly. “My employer is not responsible for your presence here. It is only— Lady Caro needs more than the constabulary has provided,” she burst out. “They are no help. The family are all jockeying for her favour. She holds all the wealth, you see. They are reliant on her for their pin money. She was fond of Sir George and feels immense guilt over his death. His murderer must be found. I can pay you,” she said. “I have funds of my own.”
“It is not my usual case, Miss Webster.”
“I appreciate that, Mr Evans. The fact you are come to Faringdon suggests, perhaps, that you will overlook such. Will you help?”
He did not help. He took cases based upon the degree of interest they held. This case was fairly straightforward; no doubt one of Lady Caroline’s sycophantic relatives had sought to remove an impediment to their wealth. It would take less than a day to determine who the culprit was. It wasn’t worth his time.
Her imploring expression faded, resignation taking its place as she correctly surmised he would not take the case.
Green. Her eyes were green.
“I will help,” he said.
Relief crossed her features and resulted in a blinding smile she quickly concealed. Unlike the butler’s emotion, though, he found himself wishing for more of hers. “Thank you, sir.”
“I shall begin in the morning,” he said, again wondering the unusual nature of his reactions. “I presume those are Lady Caroline’s relatives playing croquet and hunting grassfowl?”
She grimaced. “Yes.”
“Did the constabulary determine a suspect?”
“Lady Caroline was holding a house party with her relatives to introduce Sir George as her fiancé to her extended family. We are all suspects.”
“And did the constabulary determined such?”
Miss Webster’s plush lips twisted. “They did not.”
“The local constabulary believes it to be the work of an errant footman, who disappeared the night of the murdered. They believe he committed the murder and fled.”
“But you do not?”
The constabulary more than likely did not want to investigate further than that. It would be a delicate matter to determine and accuse a member of quality as a murderer. Nathaniel, however, had no such compunctions. He would—and as he decidedly had in cases previous—prove the murderer no matter who they were.
He stood. “Thank you, Miss Webster. I shall return to my lodging this evening, but I will come again to Faringdon Abbey at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Please advise Lady Caroline and her family to make themselves available for my questioning. I shall also question the staff, so have the butler and housekeeper report to me tomorrow as well.”
She stood as well. “I will. Thank you, sir.”
Nodding, he shifted slightly. He felt strange, uneasy and somewhat awkward. He frowned. “Good day, Miss Webster.”
She executed a perfect curtsey, one appropriate for a man of his station and a woman of hers. “Good day, Mr Evans.”
With another nod, he strode from the room. The hired carriage was as he’d left it in the drive, and it took little to haul himself into it and tap the roof for the driver to commence the journey back to the inn.
As it jostled down the drive, he frowned. He did not know why he had agreed to investigate her case. There was little merit to it, and he had no doubt it would be a blindingly simple matter to discover the culprit. This case was not worth his time. In fact, the whole trip was not.
His frown deepened. Why had he even travelled to York to begin with?
He pondered this and other questions, such as why his breath had strangled and his heart had beat erratic when he’d met her green eyes.