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A Cornish Connection



Constance Hussey



A CORNISH CONNECTION



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Cover Art ® 2017 by Covers by Sheri

Copyright © Constance Hussey, 2017


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A country maiden—a worldly man—an undeniable love


A determined man on a singular path, Harry Bryce isn’t pleased when the Crown awards him a title, nor is he gratified to learn of an unexpected inheritance in Cornwall. Even less welcome is the mandatory sabbatical from his position at the War Office, just when England needs every man in the fight against Napoleon’s subversive agents. Chafing at the unwanted holiday, Harry uses the time to inspect his new property, only to be entangled in the affairs of a young Cornish woman whose family and home are threatened with destruction. Compelled by his compassionate nature to assist her, he is caught in a complex situation that thoroughly disrupts his carefully ordered life.


In contending with repeated attempts on her brother’s life, an uncle unashamedly stripping the estate of income, and a greedy earl who is desperate to mine copper on her land, Kerra Trevaine needs all the strength and fortitude she possesses. But the arrival of the mysterious Mr. Bryce is perhaps the greatest danger she faces. For while he stands firmly against Kerra’s enemies, the dangerously attractive gentleman threatens to win Kerra’s heart—and that may be the most challenging test of all.




Chapter One



Cornwall, England 1809


It was, without question, the most compelling landscape Harry Bryce had ever seen.

Harry dismounted, looped the reins around his arm, and leaned against an outcropping of the stone that formed the ridge under his feet. The idea that he was even remotely linked to the scene below was as alien a concept as the place itself. What the devil was he doing here?

The land fell away in tiers of craggy hills and rolling meadows to the edge of a sea impossibly blue, or green, or some fantastical colour in-between. The low tide exposed a rock-studded expanse of sand littered with swaths of sea wrack. Just visible in a fold of the valley, a tower soared above what appeared to be the remnants of an old stone building.

It was probably his newfound property and most likely a crumbling ruin that should be pulled down at enormous expense. “There is a house as well, which is no doubt falling to bits,” he said to Vidar, who, intent on snatching at a tuft of grass growing between the rocks, paid him no mind at all.

Ever since the letter arrived informing him of an inheritance from some distant relative he had never so much as heard of, in Cornwall of all places, Harry’s reasonably predictable life had scattered off in new directions. If not for his employer and close friend, Viscount Summerton, almost pushing him out the door, and the Regent’s insistence on awarding him a title, Harry would have ignored the inheritance. He didn’t want the title, or the property, and he sure as hell didn’t want a holiday.

The whole thing was ridiculous. He’d been plain Harry Bryce all his life and it suited him fine. He had no interest in becoming Baron Roswell. Let those born to it do the honours, like his father and in due time, his oldest brother, Geoffrey. Harry had always been thankful that with two older brothers it was unlikely that he would ever need to take the reins at Hedreth, the family seat. Geoffrey had been primed for the earldom since birth and would make a much better earl than Harry ever could. Wesley was capable if it became necessary, but he, too, had his own interests.

But much as Harry wanted to refuse the honour of a title, it was not wise to offend Royalty. At least he had the satisfaction that the barony came with nothing monetary. Harry had an estate in Hampshire, gifted to him by his parents when he reached his majority, and Roswell provided an ample income. Wesley’s estate, also a parental gift, lay within an easy morning’s ride of Harry’s residence and both brothers had been well trained in property management by their father. Competent stewards managed the properties, as he and Wesley were absent more often than not. Like Harry, Wesley had a touch of the wanderlust in him, though in his case it was the sea that called.

Vidar tugged at the reins and shook his head. The animal had his eye on something or someone crossing the meadow in the direction of the ruins. Harry squinted and pulled his hat lower to block the glare of the sun. It was a someone he decided. A woman, judging by the yellow bonnet bobbing above the tall grasses swaying in the breeze, giving it the appearance of a small boat tumbling over the waves.

Perhaps he was wrong about the property and the jumble of stone wasn’t his crumbling abbey after all, although he could not imagine people living there. His curiosity aroused, Harry led Vidar the short distance to what passed for a trail and mounted. Might as well take a look and see why anyone would be interested in an old ruin.

The track wound ever downward, eventually crossing a lane. Both Harry and his horse were pleased to reach a more level terrain, or so Vidar indicated with a playful sidestep. A softer wind played here in the little pocket valley although there was not any appreciable warmth. The air had a nip to it.

The lane widened to an actual road, one that would allow two vehicles to pass given skilled drivers. A corner of Harry’s mouth ticked up. A single misstep and one or another would be tipped onto the verge and the drivers likely to end up in a shouting match. He reached forward and ran his palm along Vidar’s neck. “Not our problem, is it, old fellow?” Anyway, he doubted that this lonely road saw much traffic. There was not a sign of human life other than the stone pillars coming up ahead. Plenty of wildlife, though, and he halted to watch a hawk soaring lazily above. Some late-blooming wildflowers hosted a full complement of humming bees. Mice and other small creatures rustled in the thick growth; all bathed in a brilliant light that startled one with its clarity.

But Harry wasn’t a man much given to admiring scenery. He touched a heel to Vidar’s flank, and they moved on. A drive lay between the pillars, and he turned the gelding onto it. Each column held the words Langrous Abbey chiseled into the band of smooth stone which circled the top. Weathered now after centuries of rain and wind scouring the surface, but the stonemason had done his job well and the letters were still visible.

Holes and clumps of shrubbery pockmarked the drive. Harry let his mount pick a path around the obstacles while he examined the ruined building at the end of the short, straight roadway. It had been, he judged, a substantial edifice at one time. A bell tower jutted above a massive square structure flanked by two lesser towers. Only gaping holes remained of the windows and the few sections of roof barely covered a portion of the wing on the right. Indeed, he could see that much of the rear and side walls were gone, the original shape outlined now only by a tumble of stone. Harry dismounted and tied the reins to a low-branched tree. In a few minutes he would search for a source of water. There should be a stream near-by. The site would not have been chosen otherwise. The former inhabitants were in all likelihood practical people and self-supporting.

He waded through the knee-high grass, following what remained of the drive to the stable yard. The buildings here were almost completely gone, undoubtedly dismantled over the years by the local landowners for their own needs. Harry stared at the broken walls and collapsed chimneys, trying to picture what the structure had looked like in bygone times, but the destruction was too great. He wandered through the rooms, idly guessing at their purpose, but soon gave up on making sense of the place. Only a huge fireplace minus its chimney pointed out what might have been a kitchen. It was a considerable surprise then, to round a corner and come upon a mostly intact wall with an open gate leading into a garden. Harry stopped abruptly at the entrance.

A woman knelt at one end of a long row of plants, a familiar looking bonnet on the ground beside her. Hair the colour of wildflower honey coursed in waves to her waist. A blue ribbon held it away from her face. She was intent on her task, methodically loosening the dirt around the plants at her knees with some kind of forked implement. Harry stepped closer, just far enough inside to observe her face.

Her features were striking. A short, thin nose, wide-set eyes, and a pink-lipped generous mouth set in an oval face combined into a remarkable whole. He blinked several times, half expecting the vision to fade away, but she was flesh and blood. The soft hum coming from between those shapely lips confirmed it. Instantly captivated, Harry absorbed every feature of the picture she made. Brows a darker hue than her hair curved in graceful arches against a broad, smooth forehead, and strong, almost sharp, cheekbones saved her from the insipidness so often found in light-haired women.

She was not the only person in the large garden, Harry realized, when he finally forced himself to look around. Another woman, dressed much the same, in a somber grey gown that paid nothing to fashion, stood in front of a high wooden bench at the bottom of the rectangular plot, busy doing something that involved multiple pots. What in heaven’s name were they doing here? Besides tending what appeared to be an expansive kitchen garden. Surely they could not live in this pile.

Harry cleared his throat to alert the kneeling woman. If he was a true gentleman he would creep away with her none the wiser, since for some reason he had the feeling she—they—would not welcome, or expect intruders in this private place. And it was such, with the crudely repaired walls and the heavy wooden gate standing open behind him. A secret garden. Smiling inwardly at his fanciful thought, Harry watched her as she rocked back on her heels. Golden hair flashed in the sunlight and she turned her head in his direction with an easy grace that reminded him of a feline. Her eyes, blue-grey, and very clear, examined him with polite interest. He had the strange notion she had known of his presence all along.

“Good day to you, sir. Have you lost your way?”

It was the mildest of inquiries, but wariness darkened her eyes and her grip on the pronged tool tightened as she stood.

“I’m not sure I have lost my way, exactly, since my destination is in itself uncertain,” Harry said, equally grave in manner. He kept his stance loose, hands relaxed at his sides. “I have intruded and must beg your forbearance. It’s my insatiable curiosity, I’m afraid. My parents often despaired of it.” His smile, meant as an invitation to join him in his self-mockery, was not fully successful. Harry wanted very much to see her smile, he realized with some surprise, but while her expression lightened somewhat, nothing close to a smile appeared on her lovely face.

“This, you must realize, is private property,” she said, her voice carefully gentle.

She was humouring the potential lunatic, Harry thought, amused. And why not, given the circumstances? He sensed that she was quite prepared to defend herself if necessary and most capably, too.

“Is there a problem, Kerra? Who is this gentleman?”

Intent on the intriguing young woman, Harry had not noticed the approach of her companion. Chagrined at his inattention—a dangerous failing in his work—he shifted to include the other woman in his gaze. She was of more advanced years, middle-aged perhaps, and obviously a relative of some sort. Her blue eyes, slightly faded, and her grey-streaked light coloured hair declared their shared heritage as much as the identical slim noses and arched brows.

“Merely a passerby, Aunt Merryn,” Kerra said. She moved toward her aunt, her eyes still fixed on Harry. “He wandered in quite in error and will be leaving at once.” She lifted her chin, head tipped a little to the side. “Isn’t that right, Mr...?”

“Bryce. Harry Bryce.” Defeated for the moment by the hard challenge in her stare, Harry took a step back. “My apologies, ladies, for interrupting your gardening,” he said, and bowed. “Good day.” He turned away, the silence behind him almost palpable, then heard a quiet “Good day, Mr. Bryce,” from the older woman.

Harry hesitated at the entrance, resisting the urge to look back, and after a moment’s thought, closed the gate partway, which, if they wanted privacy, should have been shut when he arrived. He reclaimed his horse, but instead of returning the same way they came in, followed the drive as it curved around the building. Where the house with the unusual name of Carangove—also part of this inheritance—lay in relationship to the ruined abbey was not evident, but further exploration could wait until another day. After a morning’s outing, the thought of a thirst-quenching mug of ale and substantial meal curbed his interest in the property for the moment, though he couldn’t profess an equal disinterest in his unexpected gardener.

Kerra—a Cornish name, no doubt. Not one he’d ever encountered before. Pretty, and well suited to its owner. Her face remained in his mind’s eye while his brain gathered information about his surroundings. No other standing outbuildings, no sign of any conveyance or horses. Wherever the ladies came from could not be far, since to all appearances they had walked here. Some discreet questions at his local hostelry should give him her full name and direction. Not in the least monkish, neither was Harry in the habit of casual dalliance. This lady intrigued, however, as did the odd, out of place garden. His curiosity caught by the puzzle, Harry’s earlier miasma ebbed away.

He drew Vidar to a halt when they reached the front again, surveyed the ruins for a few minutes, and then urged the horse into a slow walk. He would like to examine some old drawings of the place to provide some perspective. It must have been impressive in its prime. An interesting subject he would enjoy pursuing, but not nearly as much as that of the mysterious Kerra.




Chapter Two



“Passerby? No one just passes by Langrous Abbey, Kerra,” Merryn said. She gave the gate a puzzled look, as if the stranger might suddenly reappear.

“No, they do not.” In spite of her worry, Kerra spoke lightly, but Merryn had started back to her workbench and pots, her attention once again on the more immediate tasks at hand. The visitor was to her mind a minor problem—not forgotten, but one to be considered only after the important things were done.

Kerra could not dismiss the man so easily. Anything out of the ordinary was suspect these days. Ordinary? When last was your life as such? Not since Aunt Willa’s death three years ago, when Kerra had taken upon herself the responsibility of holding her household together, had their situation been anything close to commonplace.

She knelt and resumed loosening the soil around the clumps of chamomile plants. It was an easy, pleasant task, but unfortunately one which engaged too little of her mind to displace the recent intruder from her thoughts. There was nothing remarkable about him—a solid-featured face, a well-shaped head topped with dark brown hair, set above a compact body of common height. He was, in fact, quite average looking if one considered the components individually—and could ignore the astute brown eyes that seemed to reach deep inside her, stirring those emotions better left undisturbed. Collectively they added up to a man who positively radiated self-confidence and an oddly appealing surety of manner. It would take a lot to shake the gentleman, she thought, dropping her hand rake into the basket beside her. She rocked back on her heels, pulled off a glove and wiped her damp brow. The remains of the old abbey walls held the heat and a glimpse at the sun told her it was near to noon and time to go.

Forcing thoughts of the intruder from her head, Kerra got to her feet, removed her other glove and stuffed both of them in the pocket of her skirt. Rob would be back from this morning’s visit to the docks, and she did not want him coming here to look for them, especially if the unknown gentleman lingered in the area. Few people knew of this garden, or her connection to it, and she preferred to keep it that way. Nonsense. The local folks are well aware that you and Aunt Merryn raise herbs here, but then the area’s residents protect their own and their discretion is innate.

Kerra gently pried a trowel from her aunt’s hand and dropped it in her basket. “Come, Aunt. Rob is waiting for us. You can come back this evening if you wish.” She wiped the older woman’s hands with a piece of linen she kept handy for just such a purpose, handed Merryn her gloves, and headed her in the direction of the gate with a light touch on her shoulder. Left on her own, the other woman would be oblivious to the passing hours, so absorbed did she become when working in the garden.

“I had wished to finish the seed collecting,” Merryn complained. Nevertheless, she walked meekly alongside Kerra.

Seeds had their own time line, Kerra knew, and she sighed. “I promise to bring you back later and help you.” She pushed the gate closed behind them. Unlike their puzzling visitor, they crossed the rear grounds of the abbey to a path leading directly from the garden to the track that would take them home. Kerra examined the trail with a critical eye as they walked. Impossible to mistake that the byway got regular use, given the evidence of crushed weeds and bent stalks of shoulder-high grasses. Leaving some trace is inevitable. Perhaps you should vary your routine to some extent, even if the distance via the road is greater and the chance of meeting a neighbor higher. Although Kerra was sure that no one local would ever mention it to an outsider. An unspoken agreement tacitly acknowledged that in particular her uncle, Bolitho Trevaine, was not to know of the garden’s existence. Her late father’s only brother wasn’t apt to discover it on his own. He abhorred nature, peering down his pointed aristocratic nose at anything he termed bucolic, preferring the high life in London.

And Nankeun pays for his pleasures. Kerra’s thoughts ran along the same familiar, bitter theme as she came in sight of her adored home. Bolitho siphoned off the major portion of the estate’s income, leaving barely enough to pay the staff wages and support minimal improvements to the land. Merryn’s herb garden went a long way toward keeping them afloat. That and Rob’s hunting skills, which largess contributed nicely to the larder needed to feed Nankeun’s many dependents. Fortunately for them all, her brother loved the outdoors as much as their uncle loathed it.

Kerra’s steps slowed as the manor came into view, and she tried to observe the house objectively, as this morning’s trespasser might do. It was not possible, however, to separate the flush of affection she experienced when approaching Nankeun from any appraisal. Tucked into a fold of the valley, the house, constructed of the native granite so beautifully laced with soft pastels, consisted of a square, multistoried center flanked by two long, low ells. Even though built much later, these single-story additions blended almost seamlessly with the main part of the building. A thick-vined rose bush, heavy with scarlet hips at this time of year, covered the portico over the front door and offshoots crept slyly upward in search of the small windows above.

Though not visible from the house, the sea made its presence known by the mist-borne salt tang so frequently carried on the almost constant wind. From the top of the hill that rose behind the house one had a breathtaking view of the coastline. Beach and shingle, the huge rocks so often found on the Cornish coast, and the amazing colours of the ocean combined to make a picture which never failed to delight. Kerra sighed and hurried to catch up with her aunt. Nankeun was… Nankeun. The valley of the hounds, which, from what her research had revealed, referred to the howling sound the wind made at times.

Kerra had spent some of her childhood in London, but her heart lay here. It was her home, their home, and she would preserve it for her brother, the actual owner. For her dearest Robert was actually Baron Trevaine, the heir to Nankeun and all it entailed—if there was anything left by the time he gained his majority.

There will be, Kerra vowed fiercely for perhaps the thousandth time as she knocked the dirt from her boots on the back door steps. She stepped inside the huge kitchen, keeping to the woven mat while she removed her footwear.

“That’s right, Miss Kerra. Put them outside and Hazel will see to the cleaning.” Mrs. Vernon, Nankeun’s cook, looked up from her pastry rolling and gave her mistress a nod of approval. “Be quick now. Your dinner is ready. Master Robert is back and hungry as a wolf, so he says.” Her lined face creased in a broad smile. “But then, the young master is always in the way of eating, isn’t he?” This was said with a satisfaction that left no doubt as to the cook’s approval of hearty appetites.

Kerra smiled back. “He is indeed, Mrs. Vernon, and where he puts it all I don’t know.” Her brother seemed to grow like the proverbial weed and could put away prodigious amounts at a meal. She set her boots outside the door, and stocking-clad, padded across the kitchen. “You can tell Faith to start serving. I’ll be there in a few minutes, after I wash up,” she said, and went to do just that. Faith and her sister, Hope, were hardworking and proficient, but moved at their own slow but steady speed, and would have just finished filling Rob’s plate before Kerra took her place at the table. Aunt Merryn had disappeared by the time Kerra entered the house, preferring to eat her usual mid-day meal of tea and buttered bread in her room.

The Hender sisters, Mrs. Vernon’s girls, neither of which would ever see thirty again, had long ago implemented a schedule that suited them when it came to parceling out the housework. Today being a Tuesday, it startled Kerra to find Hope in the dining room, ladle in hand. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays belonged to Faith; Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were Hope’s. Sundays they took turn about or shared, depending on some unspoken arrangement between them. Their once-a-month half-day they took together.

“Faith has the toothache,” Rob offered in reply to his sister’s questioning look. He’d risen when she entered and politely held her chair before resuming his seat.

“Oh dear,” Kerra said with a sympathetic moue. “Is Faith feeling very bad, Hope?”

“She’s a bit nashed, is all, but I’m thinking we’ll be needing a visit to the tooth drawer, Miss Kerra, if she does not perk up by the morrow,” Hope said, a worried frown on her round face. As plump as her sister was thin, she had similar colouring to Faith’s, the light eyes and brown hair so commonly seen in the neighborhood. Not twins, but born but a year apart, neither sister showed any interest in marriage and seemed content living at Nankeun and serving the family.

Kerra exchanged a glance with her brother. One of them would need to take the maids to Portsandreth in the gig. It was too far to walk, even when in good health, and she silently acknowledged that they would be more comfortable with a woman. Kerra’s lips pursed. “I will take Faith, and you as well, Hope, if you wish. Unless she makes a recovery overnight, we should plan on leaving soon after breakfast.”

Hope’s fair skin flooded with colour, and she nodded vigorously. “I think she’ll need to go, and she’s not likely to be all that clammered about it.” Her mouth trembled. “Thank you, Miss Trevaine. We’ll be ready.”

‘I’m not terribly brave when it comes to toothaches and tooth drawers, either.” Kerra’s sheepish admission eased the concern on the maid’s face somewhat, though her single comment was a glum, “You’ll be looking as brave as St. George compared to the way that girl’ll be carrying on.” She finished filling their plates and glasses and trundled off with the serving cart.

“I’d offer to go,” Rob said between bites, “but they won’t want any males around.”

“Lucky you.” Kerra gave him a wry smile. “You needn’t look so pleased, though.”

Rob just grinned and applied himself to his meal. Kerra eyed him thoughtfully. He was a handsome lad. Man, she amended, for he had shot up this past year and was already above average height. His shock of sandy blond hair, over long as usual, fell continually onto his broad forehead, resulting in his unconscious habit of habitually brushing it aside. His eyes were a darker blue than hers and his features stronger, yet they were much alike in appearance. No one could mistake them for anything but siblings.

“Have I a spot on my face?” Rob asked with a questioning lift of his brows.

Kerra laughed. “No, I was only thinking how grown-up you appear lately, and very comely with it. You will have all the ladies aswoon.”

Rob stared at her for a moment, an arrested expression in his eyes, and then shook his head. “Doubtful, and they’d be foolish to do so in any case, since I’ve not a farthing to my name. Nor is that likely to change. Our uncle will bleed us dry before ever I reach my majority.” His mouth tight, Rob balled up his napkin and dropped it on his half-empty plate. “We cannot go on like this, Kerra. I can’t, anyway. There must be something we can do to stop him.”

He rose, braced his palms on the table and leaned forward. “Do you have any idea how it makes me feel to watch you laboring endlessly to keep this place going, fending off that mushroom Sedgwick and his bloody copper mine? He may be an earl, but he is no gentleman. Don’t think I’ve missed seeing the way he looks at you. The bounder desires more than my land. He wants you with it.”

Rob straightened. “The law might not recognize it, but I am a man grown, and I’ll tell you true, I’m not going to put up with this situation much longer.” He strode from the room, brushing past Merryn, who hovered indecisively in the doorway, with a brusque “Pardon me.”

Kerra heard his rapid footsteps on the corridor floor and a few moments later the front door slammed. Shocked by his outburst and the realization that he had an understanding of Lord Sedgwick’s behavior beyond his years, Kerra carefully returned the cup in her hand to its saucer and looked rather helplessly at her aunt.

“I thought to join you for a little while,” Merryn said in her gentle way, “but perhaps you’d prefer not?”

“Of course you may join me.” Kerra, recovering swiftly, smiled. “I welcome the company, in fact, as my companion has run off so unexpectedly. Please, sit down, Aunt Merryn. I don’t know what has gotten into Rob lately. It isn’t like this hasn’t gone on for years.”

Merryn took her nephew’s vacated seat, pushed back his plate, and rested her folded hands next to it. “Robert is turned 18, dear, and is no longer a boy. I believe he feels both helpless and inadequate because he is not able to take his rightful position here…and thus ease what he sees as your burdens.”

Kerra bristled. “I am not so selfless. It benefits me to preserve Nankeun as much as it does Rob. Gracious, I need a roof over my head, as do we all, and I would beg in the streets before I would live with my uncle.”

“Robert thinks you have been denied the chance to marry and have a home of your own—buried down here in the hinterlands, I think he said. He does not like to see you working so hard, and worrying so much, either.” Merryn’s shoulders slumped a little. “Nor do I,” she said sadly. “I wish there was more I could do to help. Perhaps talk to Bolitho…” Her voice trailed off.

“He won’t listen, so don’t think of it.” Kerra put her hand over her aunt’s. Even clenched as tightly as Merryn’s hands were, she felt the tremours that any thought of a confrontation with her brother produced in the older woman. While she could not know the whole tale, Kerra was aware that Bolitho had mistreated his shy, timid sister when they were children. Indeed, Kerra wondered at times if he had caused her an injury which might account for Merryn’s more simplistic thought processes. Merryn so often acted like she was scarcely conscious of her surroundings that her occasionally astute comments took Kerra by surprise.

Merryn does not lack intelligence. Merely she focuses so deeply on what interests her, all else is excluded. The source of her aunt’s cryptic pronouncements was another thing entirely, and something Kerra accepted with a mental shrug as being an unfathomable ability to see what others did not.

“No, he never did listen, so it would do no good at all,” Merryn said, brightening. “I’d forgotten.”

“None whatsoever,” Kerra said in a firm voice. She picked up her cup and took a sip of tea. “Now, tell me what stock is ready to go to Mr. Abernathy. I must go to Portsandreth tomorrow to take Faith to the dentist so will take the opportunity to make a delivery.” The apothecary purchased most of the herbs they grew to use in mixing his medicinal potions. What he didn’t need he resold to others in his profession. While selling directly to the London shops would be more profitable, Kerra did not have the right contacts and transporting the goods was an additional complication.

“Poor Faith.” Merryn’s ready tears brimmed. “I gave her some turmeric paste to apply but so far it has had little effect. I’m afraid the tooth will have to be drawn.”

“That does appear to be the case,” Kerra agreed, also feeling a pang of sympathy for Faith. It was a painful process but an infected tooth could lead to greater illness. “Perhaps you might prepare a draught to help her sleep when we return.”

“Of course.” Merryn dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “So sorry, dear.” Her mouth curled in a wobbly smile. “I do so hate to see anyone in pain.” She blew her nose with an impatient sniff and tucked the square of linen into her pocket. “I have quite a number of items dried and cleaned. I’ll pack them up for you, but then should get back to the garden and finish gathering those seeds.”

“Not today, Aunt. I’ve given it some thought and would prefer not to have anyone going to the abbey until I find out more about that stranger. I’ll make some inquiries in the town whilst I’m there. If he is visiting the area he is almost certainly staying somewhere nearby.”

Merryn’s face fell, but she nodded, accepting Kerra’s decision. “If you think it best, but I really must go tomorrow.” Her eyes clouded and fixed on some sight only she could envision. “Change comes,” she said in a low voice. “The gentleman is more than he seems, yet brings no harm…to us.”

Kerra’s skin prickled. Aunt Merryn’s pronouncements, blessedly rare, often held an uncomfortable truth. Did she mean that the man was a danger to others? What kind of change?

Knowing it was useless to ask for clarification—Merryn did not seem to have any more understanding of these odd statements than her listeners, Kerra stood. She would make sure one of the grooms or Rob accompanied Merryn the following morning. There was no likelihood of putting her off until Kerra returned from Portsandreth. Merryn was not easy to deter once she was determined upon a task, especially when it came to her beloved garden.

Kerra kissed the older woman’s cheek. Merryn smiled absently, by now lost in her own thoughts. Sometimes Kerra envied her aunt’s ability to withdraw to some inner retreat. But it was not Kerra’s way. She preferred to look life straight in the eye, fighting when she must to keep her family safe.

And if she had wistful notions at times of travelling to other climes and places, or of a pair of astute brown eyes in the face of a stranger, well, everyone was entitled to a few dreams.

You are not, Kerra. This is no time to indulge in such girlish fancies. Too much depends upon you. And shaking off the wistful moment, Kerra went about her afternoon tasks.




Chapter Three



The hillside town of Portsandreth was a maze of steep, narrow streets that wandered in a seemingly aimless manner. Even with the detailed directions provided by the innkeeper, Harry had difficulty in locating the solicitor’s office. Situated halfway along what was no more than a wide alley lined on both sides with tall, adjoined houses, only a discreet sign in the window alerted a visitor that number 8 housed the premises of W. S. Wilkin, Esq.

The darkly varnished door opened at his knock, revealing a trim, neatly dressed man of middle age who viewed him dispassionately, reminding Harry of the intent inspection of the woman in the garden.

“Baron Roswell, I presume. Come in. My assistant is out today, which is why I am answering the door. You can put your hat and gloves there on the table.” Not waiting for a reply, Wilkin turned, walked to the far end of a corridor, and gestured for Harry to enter a room on the right. “If you will please have a seat, my lord?”

Unaware of Harry’s wince at the use of his title, the solicitor passed by him and after rounding his desk, waited until Harry was seated before settling into his own chair. He picked up several documents, studied the topmost sheet for a moment, and then reached over to place them in front of Harry.

“The deeds, sir, and terms of inheritance, which we discussed in our correspondence.” Wilkin opened a drawer, removed a set of large brass keys and pushed them in Harry’s direction. “House and stables, but I don’t believe the stable lock is functional.”

A sudden smile changed Wilkin’s dour countenance to one of surprisingly good humour, and warming to the other man, Harry smiled back. “From what I remember of your description of the place, I’d be astonished to find any lock in working order.”

“Some are, though not many, I’m afraid. What little money derives from the estate has been eaten up with keeping the roof sound and a few rooms livable, and also to pay the caretaker a small wage.”

Harry’s brows rose. “Caretaker? You don’t mean to tell me the building is habitable—that someone lives there? I understood that Carangove is a ruin.” This was so far from his expectations that he couldn’t mask his surprise.

“Not entirely, my lord, but it is in an extremely poor condition,” Mr. Wilkin admitted in a grave tone.

The distinct twinkle in the man’s eyes indicated that he found the situation highly diverting for no reason Harry could fathom. Disconcerted, Harry replied tersely, “Bryce, Harry Bryce. I rarely use the title.”

Ah, I see. It is newly bestowed, I understand. Perhaps you will become accustomed over time.” Wilkin nodded, as if it was commonplace for a man to shun his title. “As you wish, sir. Now, to answer your question, the house is livable—barely—but has little to recommend it. It’s badly kept, out of the way, and the only income is from grazing rights on the remaining land and the occasional sale of some objet d’art Needham uncovers. The caretaker,” Wilkin added, in response to Harry’s querying look.

Indeed.” The news was both better and worse than Harry surmised. The house did not need to be torn down immediately for safety’s sake, but interviewing this Needham and inspecting the house would take time he begrudged. He’d much prefer to learn more about the women so assiduously gardening on the abbey grounds—his abbey. But perhaps he had a source of information right here. The sooner he satisfied his curiosity, the faster he could be on his way.

Harry tapped the documents in front of him with one finger and then sat back, his hands resting lightly on his knees. “I’ve read copies of the deeds, but would like to know more about the history of the property. If, as I assume, you are a native, you must be familiar with this region and my neighbors.”

Wilkin eyed him intently, in what seemed to be an effort to determine his client’s sincerity, and motives, before he spoke. “The abbey, Langrous, was disbanded in the 16th century during the dissolution and awarded to the first Julian Trevaine. Trevaine was only interested in the land and pretty much abandoned the abbey except when he needed stone for his own house, Nankeun. Roughly a hundred years ago the then Baron Trevaine built a house on abbey land for his sister as a wedding gift. He deeded it, and the abbey, to her and it passed into Calloway hands.” Mr. Wilkin gave Harry another one of those sudden smiles. “It’s said Trevaine never cared much for the sister and disliked Harris Calloway. He saw the gift as a way to get both her and the albatross that the abbey had become off his hands.”

“And thus handed down this good fortune to me,” Harry said, smiling wryly.

“An unforeseen outcome, my...Mr. Bryce. The Calloways were never what one could describe as either a prosperous family or a prolific one. Several generations ago they were down to two sons, one somewhat feckless, and had little money. The younger lad took himself off to America. The elder never married, and in fact died within a few years, predeceasing his parents. His mother passed on soon after, but the father lived until he was well into his eighties. After his death the property was handled by several trustees, my grandfather among them. In time, the responsibility came to me. Calloway never kept in touch with his family so it took years to find out what happened to him and more to unearth an heir.”

“Not surprising, since the connection is so slight as to be almost nonexistent.” Harry frowned. “I’ve wondered, sir, why me and not my father?”

Wilkin looked at him sharply. “Lord Hedreth did not explain?” He paused, and then went on slowly. “Quite possibly he is unaware of that line, being it comes through your mother, but Lady Hedreth must know something of it.”

Harry stirred, not willing to admit he had not told his parents of the inheritance. He placed his elbows on the arms of the chair and bent forward a little. “My mother never spoke of it,” he said, choosing his words with care. It wasn’t a lie. Mama hadn’t had any reason to mention her Calloway relations since she knew nothing of Harry’s legacy.

Wilkin’s eyes, sharp with curiosity, narrowed, but he refrained from any questions and continued his explanation. “It’s fairly complicated. The gist of it is that your mother’s grandmother was distantly related to Harris Calloway. The son who emigrated did leave a will, which made things a bit easier once we discovered his history. Short and to the point, the single stipulation being that everything he possessed, and it was very little, should go to the youngest son in the family.” Wilkin shrugged. “One must suppose the man resented having his older brother inherit the lot and presumably he didn’t realize at the time that he owned Carangove.

“Unusual,” was Harry’s only comment. His interest waning, he got to his feet. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Wilkin. I’ll take the keys but will leave all the paperwork with you for the time being, if I may.”

Wilkin rose as well. “Certainly, sir.” He came out from behind his desk and opened the door. “What do you plan to do with the property, Mr. Bryce?”

“Nothing as yet. I want to visit the place before I make any decisions.”

“Of course.” Wilkin preceded his client to the entrance.

Harry stopped to don his gloves and hat. “By the way,” he said with studied indifference, “you mentioned a nearby estate with an odd name. Nankeun, I think you said? Does the original family still live there?”

“The valley of the hounds it means in Cornish,” Wilkin explained, opening the door. “There are still a few Trevaines remaining. The current baron is a boy. His older sister runs the place but their uncle is in charge until the young man reaches his majority. There is an aunt, too, but she keeps to herself most of the time.” He looked shrewdly at Harry. “They won’t bother you, my lord, if that’s what worries you.”

“No, merely curious,” Harry said. He smiled faintly and raised his hands, palms out. “My besetting sin, Mr. Wilkin, and so often unsatisfied. But in this case, I am well served, thanks to you. Good day, sir.”

Amused at the puzzled expression on the solicitor’s face, Harry strode away. He thought he might call upon the Trevaines—a friendly visit to a neighbor. But first he would inspect this house of his. Did Miss Trevaine know that an heir to the abbey had been found? It seemed not, considering her possessiveness when he trespassed on her garden. She clearly felt it her own. How would she react when she learned otherwise? It was a question he keenly anticipated having answered.




Chapter Four



The day had not begun on an auspicious note and promised no improvement as the hours passed.

First Kerra received a message from Bolitho Trevaine to say he would arrive at Nankeun in time for the evening meal. Then there was a problem with the gig which had necessitated a two-hour delay in starting for Portsandreth, during which Faith sat sniveling in the front entryway, which naturally engaged the entire household in futile attempts to ease her pain. Now the earlier clear weather had given way to a sullen, overcast mien which almost guaranteed rain before ever they reached home.

Kerra glowered at the darkening sky and hurried along the uneven cobblestones. Once Faith had been safely deposited in the welcoming arms of Mr. Dennizen’s buxom wife—who acted as his able assistant—and the deliveries to the apothecary made, Kerra was free to address the remaining items on her list. Not many, as they were fairly self-sufficient at Nankeun. Mrs. Vernon wanted a new saucepan, and Rob, who seemed to be forever growing, needed new breeches. The trouble lay in the fact that every shopkeeper engaged her in a lengthy conversation, chatting about their families, her family, and any news in general, with complete expectation of her concernment. Which she normally had, Kerra acknowledged as she stepped out of the haberdasher’s, but as all her cautious inquiries about an outsider were unfruitful, she could not help but deem it a waste of time today.

“Miss Trevaine! This is a pleasant surprise. I had not known you were coming into town.”

Oh, no. Kerra reluctantly swung around to face the gentleman addressing her. She recognized the voice all too well—Lord Sedgwick, her neighbor and persistent, unwelcome suitor.

“It was unexpected, my lord. Faith has a bad tooth.” Kerra grudgingly allowed her hand to be taken and bowed over. As always, the earl was impeccably dressed; his blond hair curled into the latest fashion, and his longish face appeared freshly shaven. He had a fine pair of wide-set blue eyes which countered his rather narrow head, and was generally held to be handsome. Kerra did not agree, but admitted that, to her, his many unattractive traits coloured her opinion.

“And you personally brought her to the dentist. How like you to be so thoughtful when one of the grooms might have done so and saved you the trip, my dear.”

Kerra’s jaw clenched. She was not his “dear” and never would be, which she had told him on more than one occasion, to no avail. Instead, he simply bestowed a kindly smile upon her and said he realized her obligations came first and he could wait.

“It is better for Faith that I accompany her,” Kerra said, freeing her hand. “Indeed, she will be ready to go home by now so if you will excuse me?”

“Allow me to escort you to Mr. Dennizen’s,” Sedgwick said, taking her arm.

That won’t be necessary, sir.” Deliberately, Kerra dropped her parcel—the cloth inside would come to no harm—so that he was obliged to pick it up. Casually, she moved out of his reach, took the proffered package with both hands, and then clutched it against her breast. “Thank you, my lord.” She began to walk, with little hope of ridding herself of his attendance, but at least he no longer held onto her as if she belonged to him.

“It disturbs me to see you going about without a maid, Miss Trevaine. It leaves you open to any amount of unwanted attention.”

Like yours? Kerra stared coldly at him, unsurprised by his disapproving frown. Lord Sedgwick had fixed ideas on the behavior of women and quite often voiced his opinion of hers. Kerra could easily disregard his remarks. What bothered her was the fact that he felt he had a right to voice them. Her uncle’s work, she knew. He encouraged Sedgwick to pursue her. To have Kerra married and out of his hair would suit Bolitho nicely and leave Rob to his mercy.

“Portsandreth is quite safe, sir, and I am not a young miss.” Kerra said tersely. The man would ignore it as he did anything he disagreed with.

Sedgwick chuckled. “You speak as if you were a matron of mature years, which we both realize you are not.”

Kerra quickened her pace. Sedgwick was at least ten years her senior. Maybe he would tire and leave her. The steep Portsandreth hills were breath stealing for almost anyone.

“I saw your uncle recently when I had run up to Town,” Sedgwick said when she made no comment. “He is anxious about you, living isolated with so little society. He feels as I do, that it’s more than time you were settled in your own household, raising a family.”

There is no need for concern. I am content where I am.” Kerra regretted the words the moment they left her mouth. Rebuttal did nothing but encourage him. Again she walked faster. With only two blocks to go, and the current ascent such that her breath shortened, he might give up. And cows might jump over the moon. You know lord ‘I am always right’ will never concede. And indeed, he caught her arm just as they reached the top of the street and drew her to a halt. He was panting, Kerra observed, much to her gratification.

“There is every need. It’s past time for you to accede to your uncle’s wishes and marry. I believe I have been remarkably tolerant, Kerra, but my patience is wearing thin. You need to give over this quixotic self-appointed mission to care for your brother and see to yourself.”

“Miss Trevaine,” Kerra said tightly. “I’ve never given you leave to use my Christian name, Lord Sedgwick. Now, if you please, Faith is waiting.” Her jerk to break his grip was ineffectual. Furious, her heart pounding, she forced her voice to remain calm. She did not fear him—this was a public venue, after all, but he was not a man it would be wise to alienate. “I thank you for your escort, Lord Sedgwick, but it is unnecessary. My destination is close and we will want to get home before it rains.”

“I will take you home in my carriage,” Sedgwick said, and if anything, tightened his hold. “Someone can pick up your gig later.”

“No, thank you.” Kerra tried again to free herself, dismayed and now a bit frightened by the implacable expression on his face. What had changed to make him even more adamant than usual? His recent discussion with Bolitho?

“May I be of assistance, miss?”

So engrossed were they in the silent battle of wills, neither Kerra nor Lord Sedgwick had noticed the approach of the speaker. Kerra looked up and stifled a gasp. The man from the garden. Flushing, for the same shock of awareness she experienced yesterday under his intent gaze assailed her, Kerra pulled back and this time was released. “Not at all,” she said. “I was just leaving.”

Sedgwick eyed the intruder coldly. “You presume, sir. Naught is amiss here.”

If Mr. Bryce was discomfited by the earl’s less than complimentary perusal, he gave no indication of it that Kerra could perceive. Ignoring the man entirely, he focused on her, an unmistakable question in his brown eyes. Did they really have little gold specks in them? Lost for a moment, Kerra blinked and gave herself a mental scolding. Have your wits gone begging? You are out in public with two men looming over you like dogs over a bone. You need to put an end to this farce.

Thank you, sir, but all is well. If you gentlemen will excuse me?” Kerra hurried away, past caring if the earl was angry. He’d get over it or not. Preferably not, but that she feared was too much to hope for. And what the stranger thought of her, wrangling in the street like some fishwife, was of little import. She’d never see him again. Yet she could not help but wonder about his presence here in Portsandreth. While the region drew many visitors in the summer months—usually families who came to stroll on the beaches and wander through the quaint little town—they were infrequent at this time of year. He may have business interests, Kerra. You have your own affairs to tend and best be about it, or end up with a thorough soaking—which would do poor Faith no good at all. With a last uneasy glance at the sky, Kerra went to collect her maid.


****


Harry quelled the temptation to go after her, guessing that her insistent suitor would then also follow. As it was, the man stayed rooted to the spot, following his prey with a chill stare which boded ill for Miss Trevaine. The possessive gleam in the man’s eyes made it quite clear that his quarry was the woman who had rushed over the hill like an alarmed doe.

Turning on his heel with a curt nod, Harry strolled in the opposite direction, only glancing back when he reached the corner and could do so unobtrusively. Good. The fellow had crossed the street and a moment later disappeared into an alley. Harry loitered for a few minutes, pretending to examine the contents of a shop window displaying an attractive collection of cutlery and dinnerware. Once certain that the other man had gone, he reversed course and strode up the hill in the lady’s wake. His guess that his chance-met gardener was Miss Trevaine had been confirmed by her curt remark to the boor so rudely accosting her.

Still a little surprised by his continued interest in Miss Trevaine, Harry stopped at the top of the hill to study his surroundings. No sign of the lady, but having overheard part of her conversation, he started to search for a dentist’s surgery. Harry spied the notice halfway along the block and halted in front of the building just as a boy dashed out. Avoiding a collision with a quick sidestep, he steadied the youngster with a hand on his shoulder.

“Easy there, my lad.”

“Sorry, mister. I’m in a hurry.” All but quivering with impatience, the boy frowned up at Harry.

“So I see. Why the rush?”

“’Cause Miss Trevaine wants to get back to Nankeun afore it rains and needs her gig right away.” This explanation came with an air of exaggerated patience and a pointed look at the threatening sky.

“If this Nankeun is a fair distance, your Miss Trevaine will never make it.”

“That’s why she said to hurry.” The boy squirmed in Harry’s grip. “I got to go, mister.”

“The gig is at a livery?” Harry asked after a moment’s thought. “Do they rent out carriages there?”

“’Course they do.”

The boy’s evident distain for what he plainly regarded as a dumb question made Harry smile, if absentmindedly. Making a rapid decision, he clapped his young friend on the back. “Show me where it is. What is your name?”

“George.”

“Well, then, George, let’s be on our way.”

“It’s wot I been trying to do these last five minutes,” the youngster said indignantly. He dashed off, not quite running, but at a fast enough pace to cause Harry to stretch his legs to keep up.

The livery was well appointed for a town of this size and it did not take long to make arrangements for a small closed carriage to take Miss Trevaine and her companions home. For Harry had heard the whole story from the voluble boy, a relished and probably embellished tale of a bloody tooth and piercing screams. The gig could stay at the livery overnight and then Harry planned to deliver it to Nankeun the next day. Some careful consideration persuaded him that to impose on the women, one of whom was unwell, was not the wisest of ideas, nor was riding alongside and getting drenched. Instead he scrawled a short note to the lady and watched George drive off happily ensconced on the box with the driver, who was sensibly bundled in a heavy cloak and broad-brimmed hat.

Wondering what the lady’s reaction would be, and wishing he could observe such, Harry waited until they were out of sight before starting in the direction of his hotel. She struck him as too sensible to refuse. That she would dislike accepting the generosity of a man unknown to her he did not doubt in the least.




Chapter Five



Kerra strongly disliked it. Her eyes went from the note in her hand to the carriage that stood in the road. Her first impulse was to send it away, rip up the man’s impudent missive and give him a good set down, which of course was an objective impossible to satisfy, since she had no idea where to find him, a realization which made her angrier yet.

“Miss Trevaine? Mr. Dennizen said that Faith can leave now. Is the gig…oh!” Hope stopped abruptly on the landing, her eyes widening at the sight of the carriage. “You’ve obtained a carriage! Dear Miss Trevaine.” She hurried down the steps and clutched her mistress’ hand. “I was that worried about Faith catching her death driving home in the rain. Thank you. So kind! So thoughtful!”

Totally at a loss as to what to tell her, Kerra patted the maid’s arm. She couldn’t fairly claim credit. Yet the thought of explaining that a man she’d only seen twice had sent it, for whatever intolerable reason, boggled the mind.

“The livery provided it,” she said, settling on a half-truth. “And if we are going to make use of it, best that we hurry. It’s starting to drizzle.” Kerra summoned a faint smile. “Do you need help with Faith?”

“No, miss. She is a little unsteady on her feet because they gave her a draught to dull the pain, but she can walk. I’ll fetch her,” Hope said, and then rushed back inside.

Kerra went to the carriage and signaled to the lad perched on the box beside the driver, who nodded and touched his hat, but otherwise sat stolidly waiting for instruction. “George, a word with you please.”

George clambered down, frowned at Kerra, and then opened the door to the carriage. “You are getting all wet, Miss Trevaine. Go on inside, do, and I’ll stop here on the steps, see?” He waited for Kerra to sit before jumping onto the topmost step.

“You can come in, George.” Kerra eyed the boy with some misgiving, mistrusting his casual hold on the edge of the doorframe.


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