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Lord Fairchild's Daughter

Lord Fairchild's Daughter by Maggie MacKeever
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Loveday Fairchild's reprehensible father gambled away her virtue to Theo Tierney, forcing her to flee to distant relatives. But at the castle, the Duke of Chesshire develops a passion for Loveday, someone in his household is trying to kill her, and Tierney hasn't given up on claiming his prize. Will her old friend Viscount Hereford be willing, and able, to rescue her once again?

Regency Romance by Maggie MacKeever; originally published by Fawcett Crest

Belgrave House; November 1975
158 pages; ISBN 9780449226957
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Title: Lord Fairchild's Daughter
Author: Maggie MacKeever

The coach lumbered awkwardly along the deeply rutted causeway.  The driver swore mightily as his sweating, heaving horses stumbled, regained their footing, labored on.

Nightfall was upon them. Desolate country­side was made even more inhospitable by the wind’s cold breath. The pallid glitter of a sickle moon did little to brighten the deepening gloom, and the driver, who claimed to disavow superstition, cursed again and cracked his whip above his horses’ unhappy heads. It was a time not fit for man or beast, along the late spring coast.

Loveday opened her eyes cautiously. The violent careen­ing of the coach induced sensations of extreme physical discomfort, and Loveday hadn’t eaten since the previous day. She wondered if Jem, her half-brother, had fared better; she suspected he had. Jem would consider this precipitous flight a grand adventure. She could easily picture him riding along behind an ancient workhorse in a rickety farm cart, a piece of straw between his teeth, the picture of bucolic bliss.

No one would ever suspect that such a rustic-seeming lad was, in fact, the natural son of one of England’s most dissolute lords, nor would they imagine that the load of hay and produce camouflaged a fashion­able young lady’s wardrobe. Loveday hoped her own disguise was equally effective, for discovery would result in extreme unpleasantness. She could not imagine that the irascible Lord Fairchild would greet his runaway off­spring with that welcome reserved for prodigal children, were Loveday and Jem unwillingly returned to him.  More likely, he would insure that she com­ported herself in accordance with the scandalous wager that he’d made.

The gentleman’s code was beyond Loveday’s understanding.  Lord Fairchild considered it perfectly acceptable that he had wagered his only daughter’s virtue at play.  His sole dishonor would arise from her thankless behavior, for her flight of necessity rendered him unable to pay his gaming debt. Jem’s complicity would have the effect of pouring salt on an open wound.

Contemplating her sire’s certain wrath upon the discovery of their escape, and Theo’s rage at being balked of his rightful winnings, Loveday smiled. Theophilus Tierney was not a gentleman to arouse the more tender emotions in a young lady’s breast.

“Well, now, that’s better. How about an orange?” Loveday’s only fellow passenger observed her sympa­thetically. “This rackety old stage can take one mortal bad. Go on, take it.  You look a trifle peaked. Some food will do you good.” She waved the proffered present under Loveday’s nose.

Murmuring her thanks, Loveday accepted the lush fruit gratefully. Her companion nodded, pleased, and Loveday surveyed her thoughtfully. The woman looked like a spry little broody hen, with gray plumage and bright brown eyes.

“I’m Mrs. Merryweather, dear.  Housekeeper for the squire.” The old lady paused, preening as she await­ed an answer, and Loveday quickly assembled her scattered wits.

“So kind,” Loveday murmured. Amusement threatened to overcome her, and she quickly bit into another section of orange.

“I do have to be careful. I’m forever plagued by people wanting me to use my influence. But you don’t seem the encroaching sort.” A worried expression clouded Mrs. Merryweather’s features. “A govern­ess, are you? I didn’t know anyone in the village needed one. Or don’t you have a position? I daresay I could help you find something. You look a good sort of girl, but awfully young, ain’t you? Well? Cat got your tongue?”

Loveday shook her head, bemused. “I’m going to Ballerfast.” An avid look settled on Mrs. Merryweather’s fowl-like face, and Loveday silently rued her unruly tongue. She hoped there were children at Ballerfast; otherwise, she’d rendered her masquerade use­less. It wasn’t likely that the disreputable Lord Fairchild would rouse himself from his habitual languor long enough to search personally for the runaways, but she and Jem both had a healthy respect for their sire’s formidable temper, and they had prudently taken steps to insure a certain amount of secrecy.

The residents of the castle, Ballerfast, were distant connections of the family. Loveday hoped she hadn’t been rash in assum­ing she and Jem might find shelter there. If denied safe haven in the residence of the noble Veres, they would truly be, as Jem would have it, in the suds.

Mrs. Merryweather appeared satisfied. “You’ll be look­ing after that poor daft Dillian, of course.” She noted Loveday’s surprise. “They didn’t tell you, did they? Ah well, I daresay it won’t be too bad. She’s not violent, but suffers from nervous agitations, poor child.”

Loveday was startled, for this was a very loose way of talking. Reticence was apparently not one of the housekeeper’s virtues. She realized that her companion had paused in expectation of an answer.  “I beg your pardon?”

Mrs. Merryweather sniffed. “A young lady in your situation shouldn’t give herself airs. You may be of genteel birth, as anyone can see, but you’re forced to earn your living just like the rest of us—and anything you may learn about the castle will be to your advantage.”

“Thank you for the advice.  I did not mean to vex you.” Privately, Loveday decided her fellow passenger was a meddlesome old cat.

The squire’s housekeeper was mollified. “Ballerfast’s no fit place for a young lady. Whatever were your people thinking of to let you come here?”

“I am an orphan.” If only such were indeed the case. “And good positions are not easily come by.”

Mrs. Merryweather nodded. “I thought so. The castle is a wicked place, and the goings-on there don’t bear talking of. My advice, asking your pardon if not wished for, is to not go next to or nigh it. ‘Tis lucky for you I visited my daughter today; otherwise, there’d be none to warn you.” Such a thought seemed to upset Mrs. Merryweather, for she shook her head and clucked. Loveday was reminded again of a fat gray hen. “Care to see my fish?”

Loveday’s wandering thoughts were rudely interrupted. “What?” she asked faintly, as she looked with dismay on the straw basket that Mrs. Merryweather proudly brought forth.

“From my daughter. Prime fish they are, too.” Without further ado, Mrs. Merryweather pulled back the checkered cloth that covered the basket and displayed its contents to her companion’s fascinated gaze. The smell intensi­fied Loveday’s queasiness, and she let her head fall back against the seat.

“Ah, poor lass, you’re faint again. Here, take this.” Loveday felt smelling salts pressed into her hand. “That’s it.  You just lean back there and I’ll tell you all about the Veres.”

The woman’s voice droned on monotonously, but Loveday heard little of what was said. Her thoughts were centered on Ballerfast and her anticipated reception there. She knew little about the inhabitants of the castle, only that Lady Isolda resided there. Periodic rumors about the Ballerfast menagerie flew around London, for young Averil Vere, Duke of Chesshire, Isolda’s rakehell grand­son, also dwelt in the ancestral abode. Loveday was casually acquainted with Averil, for she too was of the ton, but she considered him insufferably arrogant, despite his undeniable attractiveness. Men with scars were con­sidered fashionably fascinating, and the angry line that marked the left side of the duke’s face, from temple to jaw, was generally accorded a particularly handsome specimen.

“Of course you wouldn’t know,” Mrs. Merryweather commented smugly, “but that’s the present Duke of Chesshire. And a wild one he is, but nothing to what his pa Everard was in his grasstime.”

“I’m sorry.” Loveday roused quickly from her stupor. “What did you say about the present duke?”

Mrs. Merryweather regarded her knowingly.  “I thought that’d make you take notice. But don’t imagine that you’ll catch his eye, my girl! His high-and-mightiness hasn’t time for them as aren’t of the Quality.” The old woman’s tone was definitely acidulous, and Loveday wondered what the duke had done to win himself such wholehearted disapproval.

“I would never think to look so far above my station,” she protested, opening her amber eyes wide in what she hoped was an expression of shocked inno­cence.

Mrs. Merryweather nodded sharply.  “You’ll do well to remember my words. The Vere men all are womanizers, none worse, as many a village family knows.” She paused, dramatically.  Loveday assumed an ex­pression of interest and waited for the squire’s housekeeper to come to the point. Perhaps it would be best to learn what she could of the people she was going to meet.

The woman’s voice lowered to a whisper. “They all meet with tragic ends, too.  Bad blood always tells. The last governess killed herself, poor thing. At least that’s what they say; I don’t hold with it myself. What puzzles me is why she’d go and do a thing like that when everyone knew Lady Isolda had a particular liking for her. I say--” Mrs. Merryweather’s eyes glittered as she leaned across the seat toward Loveday, who decided irreverently that her companion resembled not so much a fat gray hen as an obscenely overfed bird of prey, “--he killed her himself. Got tired of her, and up and murdered her!”

Loveday was intrigued less by these revelations than by Mrs. Merryweather’s bloodthirst. “Surely there was some sort of investigation?  I mean, if there was any question about her death?”

“Lord love you, child, of course not. The Veres don’t hold with strangers poking their noses into family matters! There wasn’t any questions asked when the old duke was murdered by his own son, either.”

“The old duke?” Loveday echoed. It was beginning to seem that her hurried flight had taken her into circumstances even worse than those she’d fled.

“Aye, Timothy, the Black Duke.” Mrs. Merryweather spoke with ghoulish delight. “Some say he walks those long cold corridors in the dead of night, seeking his revenge. But the Duchess of Chesshire won’t hold with such tales, not that she’d admit it if the old duke did walk.” Loveday was visited by a vast sense of relief, prompted by this assurance that her distant kinswoman was still in residence, which lasted only until Mrs. Merryweather spoke again.

“I don’t understand why they didn’t get one of the village girls to look after the daft one,” the old woman said. “It’s not as if she’d need much learning. A keeper, more like. Of course, the village girls don’t much like to go to the castle. And their folks don’t like them to, either. Understandable. Ah, here we are.” Mrs. Merryweather began to gather her assorted belongings. “Now you remember, you come to me if you run into trouble up there, which I’ll warrant you will.”

The coach came to an abrupt halt, and Loveday grabbed at the swinging strap. Mrs. Merryweather moved with an agility that belied her numerous years. “And remem­ber,” she warned, as she clambered out of the coach, “what happened to the last one!”

Loveday had only a glimpse of the sleepy village, where narrow paved streets meandered between weather-beaten cottages and shuttered shops, before a mighty bellow from the driver set the tired horses into erratic motion once again. She sank back onto her seat, her thoughts awhirl. Impossible to return to London, not now when her father would have discovered their hasty flight. Loveday didn’t care to dwell on his probable reaction. She was resolved not to meekly bestowing her seemingly valuable chastity upon Theo, as her fond parent decreed.

Loveday consigned all gamesters to unholy torments. She had nowhere else to hide than at Ballerfast. Loveday knew better than to approach her father’s family, a motley group who would immediately pack her off to the dastardly Theo; and her mother’s family refused to acknowledge any relationship after she made so shocking, and so dis­astrous, a misalliance. Only Loveday’s grandmother had been sympathetic, and that lady had not long survived her daughter.

But according to Mrs. Merryweather, Ballerfast wasn’t a particularly wise choice of sanctuary. Even if they wel­comed her, what guarantee was there that she’d survive the Veres’ kindness? Loveday’s common sense asserted itself, then. Murders and ghosts—fine things for a young lady of noble blood and soon-to-be independent means to ponder. There were more important matters to con­sider, such as what she and Jem would do when she came into her inheritance. Jem wanted his farm, and had the means to purchase it, but what of herself? An involuntary shiver crawled along Loveday’s spine. Night was fast thickening, and cold winds howled outside the bouncing coach. She knew the castle lay near the village; surely they’d soon arrive. Loveday spent the rest of her journey thinking wistfully of warm soft beds, blazing fires, and various mouthwatering dishes.

The coach came to a bone-jarring halt.  The door flew open, admitting gusts of frigid air, just as Loveday was contemplating broiled fowl with mushrooms.

“Out you go, miss,” the driver growled, and Loveday quickly grasped her handbox. “Take that lane.”

No sooner had Loveday stepped out than the empty coach rattled noisily away over the rough road, as if the very hounds of hell followed in hot pursuit. Loveday stared after the vehicle. Apparently Mrs. Merryweather wasn’t alone in believing the castle haunted.

Gathering her heavy cloak around her, Loveday picked her way over the uneven stones. Perhaps Jem hadn’t arrived previously, as they’d planned. There was no one to meet her, and she’d no idea how far away the castle lay. But there’d be warmth ahead, even if she weren’t asked to stay. With that comforting thought in mind, Loveday plodded almost cheerfully along the narrow, winding path.

At last, when she had walked so far in the gusting wind that every portion of her small body ached, the castle loomed into view. The night was too dark, and Loveday was too tired, to make out more than the large irregular outline of the structure, but even that was awesome. Loveday found herself confronted with a huge, time-darkened door, and she leaned against it as she paused to screw up her lagging courage. To her surprise, the door moved under the pressure of her slight weight. Loveday quickly straightened, apprehension stealing over her. The massive door creaked, moaned, swung slowly ajar.

A cadaverous man, dressed in dusty servant’s livery, hovered on the threshold. His white hair stood on end, a fitting frame for the slack features of his time-ravaged face. Pale eyes, one of which had a tendency to wander wildly, fixed on Loveday with an expression of shocked surprise. Before she could speak, he crumpled into a wasted pile of disjointed knees and elbows at her feet. It was too much.  Loveday shrieked.

“There now, don’t take on so,” a comfortable voice soothed. “ Tis only old Tarbath, been in the wine cellars again.”

Loveday found herself being surveyed critically by a large, untidy woman who wore a huge ring of keys at her ample waist. “You’ll be Loveday Fairchild, and we’ve been expectin’ you these hours past. Her Grace is waitin’, miss. Bring yourself in!”

Loveday stepped carefully over Tarbath’s inert form, from which gentle snores now issued, and followed the housekeeper down the long, drafty corridor. “Poor thing, you must be half froze. Why’d you come the back way? Aye, I know, ‘twas that nincompoop of a coachman, curse him. The idea, leavin’ gentlefolk to tramp miles in the dark! But ‘twas a natural enough mistake: you don’t look much like gentlefolk. In fact,” and Loveday’s guide turned in swift scrutiny, “you look like a wee bit o’ a wild thing. Tarbath doubtless thought you was a demon. Though I’ve never seen any demons carryin’ bandboxes. You just give me that and I’ll take it to your room. Your cloak and bonnet, too. Lawks, you’re a proper sight! Never mind, Her Grace will understand. You go on in there.”

Propelled by a vigorous shove, Loveday stumbled into a warm chamber. She gazed at her surroundings with wonder. Even her father’s London townhouse, furnished as it was with every conceivable luxury, most of them not paid for, could boast nothing comparable to this.

The sitting room was crammed with furniture. Loveday stared at a console table supported by intertwined dolphins, seahorses, and eagles, and felt as though she had been suddenly set amongst a group of strange but benevolent monsters. Her bemused glance moved past a daybed with paw feet of painted beech, an inlaid table that rested on crocodile casters, and a kick-legged sofa, before it came to rest on a regal woman seated near the fire.

“It is a bit overwhelming, is it not?” the Duchess of Chesshire inquired. “Come near the fire, child, where I can have a look at you.”

“It’s a beautiful room.  It just takes one’s breath away at first.” Loveday realized the ineptitude of that statement, and flushed. The duchess, enthroned in an elbow chair perched upon lion’s paw feet, smiled.

“Sit down, child,” she said. “You must be quite worn down.” Loveday gratefully dropped into a walnut wing chair, wondering vaguely what mythical creature had inspired its creation, and held out her hands to the fire. She was an un­familiar loss for words. Her thoughts had been only of reaching Ballerfast; she hadn’t considered what she’d do after she arrived.

The duchess seemed to sense her confusion.  “I am not persuaded that you were wise to come here, or that you would be prudent to stay. I do not scruple to tell you I fancied that your memories of this place would be unhappy ones.”

Loveday glanced at the older woman with surprise. “Have I been here before, Your Grace?”

“You will call me Isolda.  We are family, are we not?  But to answer your question, yes. I wondered if perhaps you didn’t remember your previous stay at the castle. You were quite young.” Isolda fell silent, looking pensively into the fire, and Loveday bit back the questions she wanted to ask. The duchess looked unbearably sad.

She shivered slightly, then glanced at Loveday with a quick smile. “One of the disadvantages of age, alas. One recalls the past too clearly. Shall I tell you about your time with us? Mrs. Snugglebutt is preparing your room. Then Tarbath will bring you a tray. I fancied you might wish to pass the interim here, with me, so we might have a comfortable prose.”

“Oh, yes, please tell me. Unless you’d rather not? It’s strange that I don’t remember being here before.”

“On the contrary, it’s not to be wondered at. You were only with us for a short time, over sixteen years ago. Your mother had just died, and I doubted whether a child of your tender years would be well treated by that disreputable father of yours. Is it true, this tale your brother brought us? That reprobate actually wagered you at play?”

The humor of the situation struck Loveday, for the first time, and she almost chuckled. “My virtue, to be exact, and I cannot imagine why he thought I’d meekly acquiesce! He sorely underestimated our resourcefulness, I fear.” She paused for a moment, and her untimely merriment fled. “The truth of the matter is that I now find myself in the most abominable position. I will come into my grandma’s fortune in but a short while, but I cannot think how I am to go on until then. I strongly suspect my father has bats in his head!”

“Ah.” Isolda evinced little surprise at Loveday’s unfilial sentiments. “His actions do argue a certain insensibility. Such things are not as uncommon as you may think, though admittedly so for a girl of your breeding. I cannot conceive of what possessed the man.”

Loveday shrugged. “He’s always planned that I’d marry well, to his advantage. Unfortunately, I’ve no intention of forming an alliance to please him, so I daresay he decided to take matters into his own hands. He must be furious with me.”

“He cannot harm you here, if it comes to that, even if he does learn that you’ve come to me. You were right to do so, by the way. And you were doubly fortunate in having assistance; I doubt that your resourcefulness alone would have been enough to see you clear of such a predicament. Your brother arrived yesterday. I’m sure you’re anxious to see him, but he’s off somewhere with Dillian.”

Mrs. Merryweather’s warnings returned to mind. “In point of fact, Jem’s my half-brother.” Loveday felt the color rush to her cheeks.

“My dear child, did you really think you must explain blanket-born babes to me? He looks like the Fairchilds, as do you. I have a plan that may solve all our problems, but we’ll speak of that later.” Isolda fell silent as her housekeeper entered the room.

Mrs. Snugglebutt deposited her tray on a table near Loveday.

“That’ll fix you up, miss.”

“Where, pray, is Tarbath?” Isolda asked, with some asperity.

“The old chucklehead’s a-hidin’ of hisself in the cellars again, blatherin’ on about demons. And Twitching’s in the kitchen, pesterin’ me for a love potion.” Mrs. Snugglebutt snorted. “Not that it’ll help her overmuch.”

“Then, Mrs. Snugglebutt, you may pour me a glass of wine. Go on and eat, child.” The house­keeper served Isolda and reluctantly departed the room.

“We have a servant problem here,” Isolda commented, “as you may have gathered. I fear that my dresser will fall into a decline if Averil doesn’t soon return from London. She has formed a lasting passion for Averil’s valet, who unfortunately cannot abide the woman. I vow I am out of patience with every one of them.” She sipped her wine. “The villagers believe the castle to be haunted, though no one pays much attention to such tales other than the servants. We do claim one ghost, the tower lady, but she’s harmless. If you should meet her, please don’t become frightened. She’s a sad creature.”

Loveday suspected that Isolda was testing her in some obscure fashion, and withheld comment. She was full and warm, and wanted only to savor the lassitude that slowly crept over her.

“Have you no desire to wed?” Isolda asked abruptly. “Strange indeed in a young girl! I strongly recommend it to you.”

Loveday smiled, drowsily. “I don’t think, ma’am, that I’m yet at my last prayers.  Once I have my inheritance, there’ll be a horde of gazetted fortune-hunters dangling at my heels.”

Isolda raised a thin white hand to stop Loveday’s flow of words. Ornate rings gleamed dully in the candlelight. “I’ve kept track of you, child. You delight in flaunting convention and setting London abuzz with your capers. I allow I’ve been greatly diverted by your antics, but is this particularly wise of you? One can only sail close to the wind so long before landing in the suds.”

Loveday blinked at this mixed metaphor.  “I do not think my conduct is so reprehensible as you have been led to believe.”

Her mild objection was ignored. “I am sure you do not wish to make a byword of your­self,” Isolda continued. “I admire spirit, but one must observe the proprieties. Unless you wish to set yourself up as another Caro Lamb?”

Loveday’s brief contentment fled. She hadn’t expected such a scold from Isolda, and wondered just how much the duchess knew of her escapades.

She stole a look at her com­panion. Hard to believe that Isolda had passed her eightieth year, for she was still lovely, a tall slender woman whose snow-white hair, unadorned by the usual cap, was drawn into a loose coil on the back of her head. Her face was dominated by magnificent midnight blue eyes.

“Candlelight is flattering,” Isolda remarked. “I find myself avoiding direct sunlight more and more.  To belabor the point, my grandson needs to get an heir. I fancy you and he would deal well together. You cannot accuse him of dangling after a rich heiress, at any rate!” Isolda laughed as Loveday choked. “I thought it best we speak plainly at the outset.”

“Such a thing is impossible!”

“Humbug! Think, girl, Averil could protect you from your papa and fortune-hunters alike. The match would be thought unexceptionable.”  Isobel frowned at Loveday’s pink cheeks.  “There’s no need to be missish; Averil will do as I say.”

In attributing Loveday’s silence to modesty, Isolda was mistaken. Loveday was unaccustomed to such heavy-handed dealing, since her father noticed her only when her behavior was so shocking as to amuse him. Isolda’s presumption angered her, but Loveday was in no position to say so.

“It would be a marriage of convenience,” Isolda con­tinued. “Think you of the advantages. You would be free to go your way after you produced an heir, and you needn’t think that Averil would be a demanding husband. It’s not as if you would be marrying for love.” Her Grace’s tone clearly conveyed her opinion of love matches.

“I tell you, ma’am, this scheme is the height of ab­surdity. Or perhaps you’re funning me?” Loveday’s voice was calm, as she searched frantically for a plausible excuse to avoid marrying a man she barely knew. “I see only the truth will serve.  Not only is your grandson is above my touch, but I am already secretly betrothed.”

Isolda stared with patent disbelief. “How intriguing! We are, then, to wish you joy?”

Loveday had the unpleasant impression that she was being toyed with, but she philosophically embroidered upon her tale. “There’s been no announcement. My father could not approve of the match.”

“But who is this fortunate gentleman? Surely you can trust me with your secret.”

She was being maneuvered by an expert. Loveday cast around in her mind for a name, and arrived at the only plausible candidate for such a decep­tion. “Jasper Assheton, Viscount Hereford.”

“I see.” The older woman regarded Loveday enigmatically. “I think you’re playing a deep game, my dear. Assheton may be a much sought-after gentleman, but no one could possibly consider him a proper husband for a girl of your years. Come, we begin to understand one another, I think.”

Loveday’s composure deserted her, but her confused objections were cut short.

“You’ll stay here with us, you and your brother,” Isolda announced, with the air of one who has suddenly reached a major decision. “You’ll no doubt sadly disrupt my entire household, but I’m not sure that wouldn’t be a good thing.”

“Thank you,” Loveday murmured. “You are very good. I am truly sensible of the kindness you are doing me, and shall do my utmost to conduct myself with becoming restraint.”

“Don’t talk fustian, child! What odds can it make here? I am persuaded that we shall rub along tolerably well together, you and I. As for Dillian, she’s one of us, of course, but there’s some question as to who sired her. The current belief is that she’s Averil’s half-sister, though I find that difficult to accept.”

Loveday’s head had begun to spin from a surfeit of weariness and revelation. She wondered what the polite response to such a statement might be.

“Dillian is a tedious hoyden, I fear, and given to un­becoming levity. In short, the chit is deplorably rag-mannered, despite my every effort to bring her to an awareness of the proprieties.” Isolda sighed. “I vow I find her behavior positively maddening sometimes.”

“I am sorry for your distress,” Loveday murmured. Dillian sounded like a girl after her own heart.

“Dillian will eventually be obliged to abandon her graceless behavior, but it will be a wearing task.” Isolda’s tone was resigned. “And I should come under the gravest censure were I to turn her out.”

“Pray, don’t distress yourself. It is a pity that the child should be so great a trial—”

“She is my cross to bear,” Isolda interrupted. “But she is not precisely a child.”

“I beg your pardon. If you wish, I could endeavor to tutor her in the niceties of polite behavior.” Though Loveday might hardly be considered the ideal instructor in such matters, she did know right conduct from wrong.  Furthermore, she was curious about the much-maligned Dillian.

Isolda brightened perceptibly. “My dear girl, I should be exceedingly glad if you endeavored to instill Dillian with some awareness of the niceties. I’ll warrant you will find it a prodigious chore.”

Loveday smiled, aware that her offer was precisely what Isolda had been angling for. “I promise you I shan’t allow myself to become overfatigued.”

“I hope your optimism may be justified, but I think that even you may be shocked by Dillian’s lack of re­straint.” Isolda fell briefly silent. “I have always depre­cated the mystery of Dillian’s birth, although I consider she has turned out as well as could be expected. I don’t suppose you could cast any light upon the matter?”

“I? How?”

“I keep forgetting your loss of memory. You must excuse me, child. Averil’s father and grandfather were arguing about Dillian’s parentage the night they died. You’ve heard of that tragedy, I suppose?”

Loveday nodded, distressed by the pain that was all too evident on Isolda’s face. “Mrs. Merryweather was on the coach with me. She mentioned the matter.”

“Ah, yes, our dear Mrs. Merryweather. How that woman’s tongue does babble and flap! I will not ask what scandalous tales she repeated, although it is my understanding that the villagers believe my son, Everard, to have killed his father, then himself.” Isolda sighed. “The circumstances surrounding the occurrences do, un­fortunately, lend themselves to such a theory; there was a quarrel, the details of which are unimportant now.”

Loveday was rendered acutely uncomfortable by this glimpse into family history, and momentarily forgot her own perilous predicament. “Do not distress yourself, ma’am,” she protested.

Isolda might not have heard. “Timothy was a just man,” she continued, her gaze fixed upon the past, “and I cannot see that he could have properly acted other than he did. I, naturally, do not believe that my husband was slain by our son, but I am in the minority. Nor am I certain that Everard fathered Dillian. Everard’s wife be­lieved so, and was driven mad as a result.” Isolda’s tone conveyed her opinion of so spineless a creature.

“Does she reside here also?” Loveday inquired, in an attempt to break the sudden silence.

“Ermyntrude?” Isolda huffed. “The grace­less creature couldn’t face the scandal; she fled. I would have expected her to spare some thought for her son, but Averil has done quite well without her. The villagers would have it that she died here, and several claim to have seen her ghost.  If the castle truly possessed as many ghosts as the villagers claim for it, the human inhabitants would find themselves sorely cramped for room!” The shrewd eyes alit again on Loveday. “Can you clarify our mystery, child? I would give much to see my son’s name cleared.”

“But how could I be of help in this?”

“My dear Loveday,” Isolda said, with an expression of strained patience, “you were in the room the night they died. Mrs. Snugglebutt and I found you the next morning, huddled under a blanket on the window-seat. It is not inconceivable that you can identify our faceless murderer.”