No Ordinary Love – Mary Balogh

Dinah Ridding had her first sight of Malvern by pressing one cheek against the carriage window— she was not wearing her bonnet—and closing the eye that could see only the interior of the conveyance while peering straight ahead with the other. The house was coming into sight around a bend of the tree-shaded driveway. She realized that she was seeing it when it could not possibly be at its best, it being late afternoon with heavy leaden skies bringing on an early dusk. Nevertheless, she felt no doubt at all that it really was a haunted house, as Mama had said it was. It had the look of a haunted house. “No, not there, dearest,’’ Mama had said to Sir Anthony Wilkes, Dinah’s stepfather. “We must find Dinah somewhere else more pleasant to go.” Clinton, the youngest of the three children of Mama’s second marriage, had been laid low by the measles, a disease that Dinah had never had, and their nurse was quite convinced that the other two would inevitably contract it too. Mama and Sir Anthony were anxious to return to the country to be near them, though they had been planning to spend a whole month in town. But where was Dinah to go? London was rather sparsely populated in the middle of October. Her Aunt Beatrice was in Bath and Sir Anthony’s brother and his wife had gone to Italy for the winter months. One did not like to impose upon mere friends, though doubtless there were several who would have considered Dinah’s presence among them no imposition at all. “She can go to Malvern,” Sir Anthony had said. “There will be no problem at all. Gloria will be delighted to have her.

” Gloria Neville, Lady Asquith, was Sir Anthony’s sister. That was when Mama had said, “No, not there, dearest.” And when pressed by Sir Anthony, she had flushed and looked uneasily at Dinah, who was also waiting for her answer, and said evasively. “Oh, well, it is large and cold and rather cheerless and …” She had looked appealingly at her husband. “And haunted,” he had said, grinning at her. “You believed all those stories, did you not, my love? Mrs. Knole should have been an actress instead of a housekeeper. She would have been a sensation on the stage. You believed everything she told you. But tell me— did you ever actually encounter a ghost or anything resembling a ghost during the two weeks we spent at Malvern? Any wisp of white disappearing around a dark comer? Anything that went bump in the night?” “It pleases you to make fun of me,” Mama had said, on her dignity.

“I felt it, Anthony.” He had grinned again, set an arm about her shoulders, and hugged her to him. Mama, quiet, delicate, dreamy, had always insisted that some people were more sensitive to the spirit world than others and that she was one of those people. Dinah was another. People identify their world through the five senses, she had always maintained. But what if there were a sixth sense or a seventh or eighth that it had pleased a Supreme Being not to gift us with? How could we know for sure that there was not a great deal more to be experienced if only we had the sensual equipment? Perhaps the spirit world was only a touch away— except that touch was the wrong word to use because it was one of the five senses that could not locate the world beyond. Dinah had often sensed her father’s nearness long after his death when she was eight. And her grandmother’s. “Dinah,” Sir Anthony had asked, his arm still about Mama’s shoulders, the grin still on his face, “would it frighten you to go to Malvern until the children are spot-free and roaring with health again? Would you be afraid of being gobbled up by ghosts?” “No,” Dinah had said. And she had spoken the truth.

She accepted the existence of a world beyond this natural one. She was not afraid of it as her mother was. And so as the carriage completed its turn about the bend in the driveway and Malvern came into full view, she gazed at the house with curiosity and some excitement, but with no dread at all. It was an old house, built in the fifteenth century close to the coast in Hampshire, though several owners since then had made changes or additions in the styles then current. So there was an arched gateway set in a square tower, clearly leading through to a courtyard. And there were numerous other towers and battlements and shaped gables and pinnacles. Certainly the house did not present a neat or classical facade or skyline. But it was fascinating. “It looks a right gloomy place to me, mum,” Dinah’s maid, Judy, said, peering out of the window with a frown. “It looks wonderful,” Dinah said.

And she looked forward to meeting Lady Asquith, whom she had met and liked on a couple of occasions. Lord Asquith had died a few years before. Dinah had never met the new baron, Lady Asquith’s son. She did not know if he was in residence or not. Edgar Neville, Lord Asquith, was taking tea with his mother. But he had finished both eating and drinking and was standing at one of the long mullioned windows of the drawing room, staring out onto a gray and gloomy late afternoon. “If Uncle Anthony had to send the child here,” he said, “I do think he should have been more definite about the day. If I just knew for sure when to expect her, I could send some good stout men to accompany her the last ten miles or so. I could even go myself. But it would have been far better if you had just made some excuse, Mama.

” “Impossible,” Lady Asquith said. “Anthony’s request was most urgent. Besides, I will enjoy the female company. I am quite sure your worries must be groundless, Edgar. Surely there is no real danger to an ordinary traveler.” Her cup clinked against the saucer as she set it down. “And I am equally sure she will be mortally offended if you refer to her as a child, Edgar. Girls of her age are usually sensitive about such matters.” He turned to look at her in the late afternoon gloom. The lamps and candles had not yet been lit.

“For goodness sake, Mama,” he said, “how old can she be? Seven? Eight?” “More like eighteen or nineteen,” his mother said with a laugh. “You were not really listening when I read Anthony’s letter to you, were you, Edgar? Did you imagine that it was Angela who was coming? But she is in quarantine with John while poor Clinton is all over spots.” “He said the eldest daughter,” Lord Asquith said, looking at her blankly. “The eldest daughter is Dinah,” his mother said. “Dinah Ridding. His stepdaughter, dear. He always speaks of her as if she were his real daughter. He and Winifred are absurdly fond of each other, you will recall. Dinah must be nineteen. She made her come-out not this past spring but last year.

It is a young lady we are expecting, Edgar, not a child.” “Damnation!” he said. “Pardon me, Mama. I pictured a child who would be spending her days in the nursery and the schoolroom. This changes everything.” He frowned. “I will take her under my wing,” his mother assured him. “You need not concern yourself about her, Edgar. Though,” she added with a sigh, “it is high time you concerned yourself with some young lady, dear. I am beginning to feel a hankering for some grandchildren of my own.

And you will be thirty before we know it.” Lord Asquith frowned again. “In two and a half years’ time,” he said. But he was saved from having to comment on the rest of what his mother had said. Sounds from outside caused him to turn sharply back to the window. “This must be her,” he said, watching a strange carriage being drawn into the courtyard by four horses. “And none too soon. It will be dark within the hour. We had better not say anything to her, Mama. Though she must be discouraged from going about alone.

Damn, but I wish she were the child I was expecting.” Lady Asquith got to her feet and left the room in order to greet her visitor in the great hall. Her son stayed in the drawing room, hoping that his uncle’s stepdaughter would not turn out to be a bouncing and inquisitive young lady. He was reassured immediately when she came into the room with his mother a few minutes later. She was slightly below medium height and slender. At first glance she looked little more than the child he had been expecting, but she possessed appealing feminine curves he saw when his eyes moved over her. Her face, framed by wispy light brown curls beneath her bonnet, was rather too thin for classical beauty, but it was saved from plainness, saved even from ordinary prettiness, by large, dreamy, longlashed eyes, which appeared in the half-light to be a smoky gray. And she had a sweet rosebud of a mouth. A very kissable mouth. She was not his first cousin, he thought suddenly.

She was no blood relation at all. And she was just the sort of female who normally appealed to him. And just the sort he had been hoping fervently for the past ten minutes that she would be. She looked sweet and shy and timid. The sort who would cling to his mother and would always be where one expected her to be. The sort he would not have to worry about. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Edgar,” his mother said, “this is Dinah Ridding. My son Edgar, dear. You have not met before, even though my brother has been married to your mother for almost nine years.

” The girl looked at him and smiled a little hesitantly, very sweetly. “Mama always avoids coming to Malvern,” she said, “though perhaps I should not say so, should I? She is afraid of the ghosts.” Ah, yes, the ghosts, Lord Asquith thought, making the girl a bow. The ghosts and a timid little wideeyed slip of a thing. They might make a handy combination during the next few days. Though it would be a shame to frighten such a sweet little innocent. Her mouth looked ten times more kissable when it smiled. “We have quite a variety of them, Miss Ridding,” he said. “But they will not bother anyone who knows what places to avoid and what noises to ignore.” Her eyes widened.

“Gracious, Edgar,” his mother said, and she set a protective arm about the girl’s shoulders, “you will be frightening poor Dinah away almost before she has set foot in the house. Have a seat close to the fire, my dear, and take no notice of any silly talk about ghosts. I have never encountered one in thirty years of living here. Fresh tea and cakes should be here soon. I daresay you are hungry.” “Thank you,” the girl said. “But I knew the house was haunted as soon as I set eyes on it.” Lord Asquith smiled. Partly with genuine amusement—she was such a timid little thing. Partly with relief—she was obviously going to be only too eager to stay in places where she was supposed to be.

And partly with an unaccustomed tenderness of feeling. He had not had a great deal of time for women in the past few years. But if he had, or if he had time now, she would be just the type he would be drawn to. “I am sorry I am late,” Dinah said a little breathlessly as she arrived in the breakfast room the following morning, and Lady Asquith looked up at her in some surprise while Lord Asquith got to his feet and came around the table to draw back a chair for her. “I got lost.” “But my dear Dinah,” Lady Asquith said, “I had no idea you would be up so early. I had every intention of coming to fetch you to breakfast later or at the least of sending Mrs. Knole for you.” Dinah seated herself. “I know you told me yesterday that one needs a ball of string to find one’s way about this house,” she said.

“But I thought I could remember the way down. I was wrong.” “Perhaps it would be as well if you did not move about the house at all when you are alone,” Lord Asquith said. “I know that my mother will be pleased to take you about, and when I am not busy I will be happy to do so. Or there is always Mrs. Knole.” Dinah looked up at him and smiled a little uncertainly. He had lost none of his good looks or masculine appeal in the light of morning, she saw. He was the type of man she had dreamed of meeting since before she left the schoolroom, the type she had not met in two Seasons in London, though there had been several gentlemen she had liked and even a few she had been fond of. But none had that special something to make her glow with awareness and happiness and even perhaps love.

By the advanced age of nineteen and with the experience of two Seasons behind her, she might have grown more practical or more cynical and concluded that there was no such man living in the real world and no such relationship. But there was. She had only to look at her mother and Sir Anthony to know that dreams could come true. And so she had accepted none of the three marriage offers she had received, even though she had felt liking and respect for two of those gentlemen and a great fondness in addition for the third. Lord Asquith was her dream, or could be if she had a chance to get to know him. And it was not just something she saw through her eyes, though he was excessively handsome. It was something she had felt as soon as she met him the day before. He was tall and rather thin, though she recalled the latter word as soon as she had thought it. He was not thin. He was—slender.

No, that was an effeminate word. He was lean. Splendidly and very attractively so. His face was somewhat austere with its hawkish nose and rather thin lips and keen dark eyes that seemed to look right through one’s own eyes into one’s soul. Disconcerting eyes. And dark hair, one lock of which fell frequently over his forehead. Her dream man, about whom she had actually dreamed the night before, she remembered now as the butler stepped forward to set food on her plate. A man who was treating her rather like a child, advising her not to go about unless there was someone with her to hold her hand. The master of the house in which she had been forced to take refuge because her younger brothers and sister had the measles or would have soon and she was too young to be left in the London house alone. It was a little humiliating.

“Thank you,” she said to the butler. And then she leaned forward to speak to her host and hostess. “I must have taken a wrong turning. I found myself in a maze of narrow and winding corridors. I felt as if there were someone around each corner, but there never was, though I called out twice, feeling remarkably foolish.” Actually she had felt prickles up and down her spine as well. She had thought she would never find her way out. There had not been a happy feel about those corridors. “You must have stumbled upon the white tower,” Lord Asquith said. “It houses our most disturbed ghosts.

Mrs. Knole should tell you the story. She does it very well. Apparently many centuries ago there was a sword fight to the death in those corridors. One of my ancestors ran his point through the heart of his wife’s lover while she looked on. She pined away and died and now wanders the corridors endlessly searching for her beloved.” “Edgar!” Lady Asquith said, exasperated. “You do almost as well as Mrs. Knole. Take no notice, Dinah dear.

Those old stories are just so much nonsense. Did you sleep well? I would hate to think of your nights being sleepless.” “Most of the servants will not go into the white tower even to clean or to take a shortcut,” Lord Asquith said. “And who the jokester was who called it white I do not know. The avenged husband, perhaps. You would be very wise not to go there again, Miss Ridding. I should hate to find you there in a vaporish heap one day.” “You said yesterday that there was a wide variety of ghosts here,” Dinah said, fixing her eyes on the handsome dark ones of her host. “Are there more? Will you tell me about them?” “I would strongly advise against it,” Lady Asquith said briskly. “I shall show you about the house after breakfast, Dinah.

Really it is a pleasant place, you know. It is unfortunate that you are seeing it at quite the gloomiest time of the year. The glory of autumn is past and the brightness of winter not yet here. Rather a dead time of year.” “Very suitable for All Saints’ Day,” Lord Asquith said. “And even better for All Hallows’ Evetomorrow night. I shall be free after luncheon, Miss Ridding. I shall give you a tour of the ghosts’ haunts, if you wish. Our ghosts do not wander all about the house, you see. Each has a favorite room or part of a room.

Mrs. Knole would doubtless do the honors better than I, but I would not deny myself the pleasure.” Dinah willed herself not to flush with pleasure. His whole manner was faintly amused, she told herself, and not flattering at all. He did not believe in ghosts. He was laughing at her. “Thank you,” she said. “I would like that.” “After luncheon, then,” he said, and he got to his feet, inclined his head to the two ladies, and excused himself. “He is amused,” Lady Asquith said.

“He always likes to try to convince guests that the house really is haunted. But it is all nonsense, Dinah, and I will not have you frightened. Let me make it perfectly clear now, my dear, in case Edgar neglects to tell you so later, that there is not one whisper of one story of a living person being harmed by the supposed ghosts.” “I am not afraid of the supernatural,” Dinah said gravely. “Only interested in it, ma’am.” Lady Asquith tutted. “Well,” she said, “I do not mind telling you that for the first year I was here as a bride I lived in a state of quiet terror. I would hardly let go my hold of my husband’s sleeve the whole time. ” She chuckled. “It was in fact a rather romantic first year of marriage.

But after that I learned more sense—about the mythical haunting, that is. Now, if you are finished, my dear, I shall show you some of the house.” Dinah spent a wonderful hour after that following Lady Asquith about the most splendid apartments of the house. There was a great deal more to be seen, she knew, but it would have taken hours to see everything. The oak-paneled dining room with its ornate wooden screen at one end, a relic of medieval days, looked far less gloomy in the light of day. And the massive squared wooden stairway looked quite splendid—it had taken her a great deal of time earlier in the morning to find it. She loved the rooms she was shown with their variety of architectural styles and furnishings, all somehow and strangely blending into a harmonious whole. She had never been inside a haunted house before, even though England was reputed to be full of them. She had sensed the spirit world, but she had never before stepped inside it. But Lord Asquith had been right, she thought.

There was a presence in the library, or at least at one end of it, a peaceful and not at all threatening presence, though it was not a natural one. And there was a feeling in the gold bedchamber with its heavy silver-spangled gold bed-hangings. Not an unpleasant feeling, though not as peaceful a one as in the library. There was a suggestion of brightness in the large portrait gallery at the top of the house, though its many bay windows let in only the light of a gloomy day, which was trying its best to turn into a rainy day. ‘‘This has always been a happy room,” she said to Lady Asquith, gazing along the length of the gallery. “It is a cold room,” her hostess said, “and not much used any longer except for viewing the paintings. In previous generations, when people were hardier and less devoted to their creature comforts, I believe it was a playground for the children, especially on rainy days, and a lovers’ walk for the young people.” “Yes.” Dinah smiled. “That must be it.

There is a happy feeling here.” “And a distinctly chilly feeling,” Lady Asquith said, drawing her shawl more closely about her shoulders. “Let me introduce you to some of my husband’s ancestors. You will notice a family likeness, I believe. It is really rather amusing.” One long wall of the gallery was covered with paintings of Nevilles, who could trace their line back to the fifteenth century and even earlier. And Lady Asquith was right, Dinah discovered, as she gazed at each portrait in turn. Lord Asquith had inherited his height and physique, his dark coloring and his aquiline nose, from several of his ancestors. One portrait in particular looked so like him that it quite caught at her breath. The man was dressed rather severely in a long black cloak over black top boots, a whip in one gloved hand, his other resting on the saddle of a magnificent black horse.

He was bareheaded. His dark hair was cut short and he was clean shaven, though the painting was in the style of the seventeenth century and one might have expected long curls and a pointed beard. He stared unsmilingly out of the canvas from intense dark eyes. “Oh,” Dinah said to Lady Asquith, who had turned to one of the windows at the sound of rain pattering against it, “this man is very like Lord Asquith.” Lady Asquith turned back again. “Ah, yes,” she said. “The dark rider. His portrait was discovered only about fifty years ago, I believe, and restored to the gallery. He was not a popular young man with his family, having decided to fight on the side of Parliament during the Civil War instead of holding firm for the king. He was banished—from Malvern, that is.

I suppose he did very well for himself under the rule of Oliver Cromwell.” He was unutterably beautiful. And so very like Lord Asquith. Dinah wondered what had happened to him when King Charles II acceded to the throne. Did he find himself in deep trouble? Or did he adjust his ways and convictions? Did he never come home? Probably not if his portrait was hidden away and came to light only fifty years ago. “In saving you from catching the measles,” Lady Asquith said, shivering, “I shall be giving you a severe chill instead, Dinah. Anthony and your mama would never forgive me. Let us go down and order some hot tea, shall we, my dear? And you shall tell me about your successes during the Season. I am sure they must have been many.” “I like London,” Dinah said, turning to walk back along the gallery to the door.

“But I have always preferred the country.”

.

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