Thorncliff Manor, later that day

It was almost two weeks since Chloe had arrived at Thorncliff with her parents and siblings. Owned by the Countess of Duncaster, the elaborate guest house would provide her and her family with the retreat that they needed while their own home was being renovated.

The afternoon sun cast a splendid glow upon the fields surrounding the estate as Chloe made her way along the graveled path with her sister, Fiona. She’d always enjoyed the outdoors and was especially fond of sharing it with her family. Arm linked with Fiona’s, she leaned a little closer to her sister. “I’ve missed spending time with you like this. With all of you, that is.”

Offering a sideways glance and a crooked smile, Fiona nodded. “We’ve missed you too. I know it wasn’t easy for you to move out of your home after Newbury died and his cousin arrived to claim his inheritance, but I am glad to have you back home with us at Oakland House.”

The mention of her late husband made Chloe’s skin prickle. Repositioning her shawl, she drew it more firmly across her shoulders, hugging herself in the process. “I just don’t like imposing on Mama and Papa, so I am considering other options—perhaps a position as governess for someone’s unruly children.”

Fiona must have caught the slight crack in her voice, because she quickly said, “You could have some of your own if you chose to remarry.”

“You know that’s not an option,” Chloe told her, feeling once again an unforgiving weight pressing down on her. They continued for a moment, accompanied by the sound of pebbles crunching beneath their feet while birds twittered from the treetops.

“I do hope Kip will take our advice seriously,” Fiona suddenly said. As Chloe’s youngest sister, she was the least reserved of the Heartly siblings, of which there were seven in total. Kip, or rather, Christopher Maxwell Heartly, otherwise known as Viscount Spencer, heir to the Earl of Oakland, was the eldest.

“After we held him hostage and tried to blackmail him?” Chloe asked, reminding her sister that they had resorted to more disagreeable tactics several days earlier.

“Well, he would have fled our company otherwise, refusing to listen to what we had to say,” By we, Fiona was referring to all the Heartly sisters, as well as their mother.

“Would you blame him, Fiona? Frankly, I found your method a little extreme—perhaps even cruel.” Chloe could not even begin to imagine what it must have been like for Kip to be faced with so many women all planning to get him married posthaste, and with no possibility for escape in sight.

“Cruel?” Fiona looked genuinely surprised. “We all have his best interests at heart, Chloe.”

“Do we, Dearest? Because if you ask me, locking him in a room against his will and then blackmailing him into spending time with Lady Sarah might not be what he wants.”

Fiona sighed. “Perhaps not, but I do think it’s necessary to remind him that not all women are like Miss Hepplestone. I’m sure Lady Sarah . . . oh look, it appears there may be new guests on the way.”

Chloe shielded her eyes from the sun with her hand and saw a carriage approaching. It bore no crest and was drawn by four magnificent black horses, their tails whipping the air as they plodded along in perfect unison. “I wonder who it can be.”

“Someone important, I’d imagine,” Fiona said. “See those markings on the wheels? That’s a —one of the most expensive there is.”

Stepping aside, they watched as the carriage rolled past them, allowing a brief glimpse of the two men within. One was older and appeared to be extremely well groomed and stylish while the other . . . Chloe’s heart took flight, skipping along as she met his dark and brooding gaze. He was a young man in his prime, with unfashionably long hair falling across his brow and temple where it blended with the shadow darkening the edge of his jaw. Politely, he dipped his head in greeting as the carriage continued along the road, but his mouth was uninclined to hazard a smile and his eyes remained sober.

Chloe watched as the carriage disappeared around a bend up ahead. A breeze licked between her shoulder blades and she realized that she’d allowed her shawl to slip. Repositioning it, she pulled it tight against the breeze and recommenced walking.

“Who was that?” Fiona asked almost immediately. “Did you recognize either of them?”

“One of them—the older gentleman, that is—is the Marquess of Hainsworth. I had the pleasure of sitting next to him a few years ago when Newbury and I were invited to visit the Duke and Duchess of Pinehurst for dinner. He was most agreeable—both interesting and amusing.” She frowned at the recollection. Newbury had thought her too welcoming of Hainsworth’s company. He’d glared at her continuously from across the table.

“What about the other gentleman?” Fiona asked, forcing Chloe back to the present. “Might he be Hainsworth’s son?”

“No. Hainsworth has no children.” Slanting a look in her sister’s direction, Chloe nudged her gently with her shoulder. “I hope you’re not contemplating your prospects already, Fiona. With our other sisters still unwed you’re not in any hurry to—”

“Don’t be silly,” Fiona said as she nudged Chloe back, making her stumble. “I am not contemplating marriage or anything that might lead to it.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Chloe told her. “It’s terribly important for you take your time with such a . . . permanent decision.”

“I know,” Fiona murmured, her brow creasing in a frown that looked misplaced upon her otherwise smooth forehead. As if discomforted by it, Fiona suddenly smiled, erasing all traces of any concern. “But I am curious, you know. I always have been.”

Chloe allowed a faint smile. “Well, in this instance I’m sure that your questions will likely be answered. As soon as we return to Thorncliff you may inquire about Hainsworth’s companion from the butler.”

Fiona’s eyes glowed like a pair of pearls caught in a ray of sunshine. “Then let’s return quickly so that this mystery may be solved.” Her steps quickened, forcing Chloe to hurry after her.

“Honestly, Fiona, I don’t understand the urgency. He’s either going to be a peer or gentry, neither of which is likely to be of interest to you since you’re not in the market for a husband.”

“If it makes any sense, I simply cannot stand the not knowing.”

Chloe considered telling her sister that there was such a thing as knowing too much, but she bit back the rejoinder and kept silent instead, unwilling to take their conversation in that particular direction.

“In all likelihood you’ll be right and my interest in whoever he is will prove pointless.” Fiona said as they passed a row of elm trees. Like a curtain pushed aside, they gave way to an impressive view of Thorncliff, the towering walls dwarfing anyone standing before them and likening them to ants. “Come to think of it, he did seem rather dull—as if it made no difference to him that he was about to arrive at the most fantastic estate in England. He should have been staring out of the window of that carriage with keen enthusiasm. Most young gentlemen would do so, but he did not.”

“No,” Chloe agreed as they turned onto the driveway that would take them straight up to the front door. “Perhaps coming here disagrees with him.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Fiona said. “It’s the most fascinating place in the world!”

“You say so only because you have not traveled the world.”

“Perhaps that’s our answer,” Fiona suggested. “Perhaps the man we saw, whoever he may be, has traveled to so many fine places that Thorncliff fails to entice.”

“Or maybe he’s just not the adventurous sort,” Chloe offered. “He may simply enjoy reading a good book, in which case he has no need of coming here at all and probably considers Thorncliff a complete waste of time.”

The words brought Fiona to an immediate halt. “Do you find it a complete waste of time, Chloe?”

A rush of emotion swept through Chloe. It almost felt as if an ebbing tide was tugging at her belly. “Of course not. Why on earth would you think such a thing when I’ve already told you how happy I am to be spending more time with you and the rest of the family?”

A puff of air escaped Fiona in the form of a sigh. “Perhaps you wanted to be kind and spare my feelings?”

Taking her sister by the hand, Chloe held on fast as she gazed into her troubled young eyes. “No. I would never be dishonest with you.”

“Are you certain? Because I am well aware of your fondness for reading as well as your lack of enthusiasm for socializing at the moment. Are you sure you wouldn’t have rather stayed at home with your books?”

Closing her eyes, Chloe struggled to ease the nerves that threatened to send her heart racing. “No. I would not. The Thorncliff library is vast. I mean to explore it during my stay here. As for socializing . . . I’ve just spent a year in mourning, Fiona. I need time to readjust.”

“I’m sorry,” Fiona said, biting her lip. “I just wish that I could do more to make you happy.”

“I am happy,” Chloe assured her. At the very least, she was free now, and that was pretty much the same thing. “Come, let’s find out who Lord Hainsworth’s companion is so we can put your curiosity to rest.”

They reached the front door where the coach was being unloaded by footmen. The men who’d occupied it, however, were nowhere in sight. The butler on the other hand, was very much present, issuing orders to each of the footman as they carried trunks into the house.

“Excuse me, Mr. Caine,” Chloe said as she and Fiona walked up to him.

Raising his chin in the typical butlery manner that conveyed that his complete attention had been drawn, he spoke a succinct, “Yes, Lady Newbury?”

“My sister and I were out walking when this carriage drove past.” Angling her head, Chloe indicated the carriage in question. “I immediately recognized the Marquess of Hainsworth, but I failed to place his companion. Perhaps you can enlighten us regarding his identity?”

Mr. Caine hesitated only a moment before bowing his head in acquiescence. “I believe you must be referring to the Earl of Woodford, my lady.” A brief pause followed. “Will that be all?”

Chloe blinked. “Yes. Thank you, Mr. Caine.”

The butler nodded before turning away and resuming his duties.

“Isn’t he the one whose parents—”

“Yes,” Chloe said, silencing her sister. It was as if her heart had suddenly been filled with lead. Shaking off the melancholy that had swooped down upon her the moment she’d learned of Woodford’s identity, she placed her hand against Fiona’s elbow and guided her through the foyer and toward the hallway beyond, no longer surprised by the solemnity with which Woodford had regarded her from the carriage. Somewhere, trapped inside that man, was the little boy who’d once suffered the tragic loss of his parents, and Chloe found that her heart ached for him.


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