The Secrets of Colchester Hall – Sophie Barnes

Rivulets of water slid down the windowpane, blurring the view from the carriage. Jostling along the rutted country road, Angelica Florence Northbridge pressed her palm to the glass and peered out at the dreary wetness, hoping to catch a better glimpse of her destination. From what she’d seen so far, it did not look nearly as inviting as she had hoped. Although she was a self-professed gothic novel enthusiast, there was a difference between reading about a bleak castle haunted by restless spirits and actually having to visit one. Not that Colchester Hall was rumored to house supernatural entities, but with black clouds hanging low and rain pelting down, the setting was perfect for an Anne Radcliffe story. “Why did we have to come here?” Angelica asked her mother, Rose. “I would so much rather have remained at home.” “And done what exactly?” Rose inquired. “Read?” Angelica suggested. “Work on my correspondence?” “Both of which can be accomplished anywhere. And since Viscount Sterling was kind enough to extend an invitation to us, I thought it wise to accept.” What went unsaid was the fact that Rose desperately longed to see her youngest daughter settled. Angelica’s four older sisters had all married in recent years, but with another Season come and gone, Angelica’s future remained uncertain. “Have you ever met him?” Angelica asked. The carriage rocked as it followed a curve in the road.

“Once. Before he married. His father attended Oxford with your papa.” A mournful silence followed. According to what Angelica had learned from her mother, Sterling had been only eight and twenty when his wife perished. Now, two years later, he was looking to re-marry. Any uncertainty regarding this had been dispelled by the blunt invitation. It had read as follows: I am in need of a wife and your daughter could be a suitable candidate for the position. Please join me at my estate from September 10 th to September 24 th so we may determine our compatibility. In Angelica’s opinion, the blunt order hadn’t deserved a response, but of course her mother had disagreed.

One could not snub a viscount. It simply wasn’t done. And as tempted as Angelica had been to argue the point, she’d refrained because of her mother’s clear desperation. With no other suitors forthcoming, the time for being picky had passed “What was your impression of him?” Angelica asked. Rose sighed. “He was nice enough, I suppose.” With a roll of her eyes, Angelica muttered, “I can scarcely wait to meet him, Mother.” “Well, opinions are objective. I’ve always been wary of swaying those of others.” Angelica slumped against the squabs and glanced out toward the grey stone façade now filling her vision.

“How annoyingly diplomatic of you.” Rose smiled. “You’ll meet him soon enough and then you may judge for yourself.” The carriage rolled to a swaying halt near the front steps of Colchester Hall. A footman holding an oiled silk umbrella opened the carriage door and helped Rose alight. Careful to steer her around the puddles, he escorted her inside the manor before returning to offer Angelica his assistance. She made her way across the short expanse of gravel, climbed the wide steps, crossed the threshold…and froze. “Goodness gracious.” Judging from the dull exterior, she never would have dreamed Colchester Hall possessed a foyer so grand. Domed and three stories high, it seemed to stretch toward heaven, the walls and ceiling adorned by murals featuring colorful garlands carried by birds and angels.

The paint was faded and even peeling in a few places, but that did not detract from the beauty. A sweeping stone staircase rose toward the first floor landing to join the balcony bordering the periphery of the room. “Isn’t it magnificent?” a breathy voice that wasn’t Rose’s asked. Angelica lowered her gaze to a young lady with eyes so large and inquisitive they made her look slightly owlish. “It is indeed,” Angelica said. She waited for the lady to introduce herself, but when she didn’t, Angelica decided she would go first. “I’m Lady Angelica Northbridge. And you are?” The young lady blinked. “Miss Lucinda Harlow, but um…” She shrugged. “You can call me Lucy.

” Angelica instantly smiled in response to her timid yet friendly tone. “It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Lucy. And please feel free to forgo the honorific with me as well” Lucy offered a shy smile. “All right.” Unsure of what else to say, Angelica glanced around in search of her mother and found her chatting with another woman of similar age. Perhaps Lucy’s mother? Or maybe she was chaperone to one of the other four ladies who’d piled into the foyer while Angelica had been busy staring up at the ceiling and introducing herself to Lucy, “Do you suppose we’re all here for the same reason?” Angelica asked Lucy under her breath. It had not occurred to her until then that Sterling would want to invite a selection of potential brides. She groaned at the prospect of having to compete – or rather of having her mother insist she do – against other women. “Well,” Lucy mumbled, barely loud enough for Angelica to hear, “I doubt they’ve come for the sake of the weather.” Angelica pinched her lips together to keep from laughing and decided right then and there that she and Lucy were going to get along splendidly.

“Did your invitation allude to forming an attachment with the viscount?” “Mm…hmm.” “Then we’re here for precisely the same reason. To vie for his hand.” “I’d rather not,” Lucy muttered. Angelica felt much the same but knew it was too late to back out now. After all, they were here and if she didn’t make an effort, she’d only upset her mother. Not to mention, she wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do if she did not marry somebody. The last thing she wanted to be was a burden. Compared with that horrifying possibility, marriage seemed like a very acceptable outcome. And who knew? Perhaps Viscount Sterling would turn out to be the man of her dreams – a man with whom she could see herself falling hopelessly in love.

“And you are?” Angelica stared at the haughty blonde who’d materialized before her for a good three seconds before recalling her manners and forcing a smile. “Lady Angelica Northbridge. And this is my friend, Miss Lucinda Harlow.” “I am Lady Seraphina.” Her Haughtiness raised her chin just enough to stare down her nose at Angelica. “My father is the Duke of Guildenridge, which practically makes me royal.” She tittered – tittered – like some shrill canary. And then the edge of her mouth tilted into a mocking caricature of a smile. “Well, it was lovely to meet you.” She didn’t spare Lucy one glance.

“I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better in the coming days.” This was said with a hint of foreboding before she turned away. “A duke’s daughter,” Lucy said with awe. “Why on earth would she ever consider marrying a viscount?” Angelica snorted. “I suspect her winning personality and meekness must be to blame.” “What an awful thing to say.” Lucy chuckled. “Why? I didn’t insult her.” “Yes you did.” Angelica supposed Lucy did have a point, but she was prevented from commenting further since Rose approached at that moment and promptly began introducing her to the remaining three ladies.

Matilda Stevens was the only child of a wealthy landowner, Clare St. James was an orphan whose guardian was a baron, and Anna Chesterfield’s father was untitled, though the second son of an earl. None said enough for Angelica to form much of an opinion on either of them. She took a deep breath and shared a quick look of despair with her mother. For although she might have been rapidly approaching a state of spinsterhood, she never would have thought she deserved to be grouped with what appeared to be the least marriageable women on the market. It was harrowing, to be sure, and frankly quite sad. Worst of all was the prospect of having to prove she’d make the most suitable wife. Nothing appealed less. All she wanted was to go home. “Ah.

I see you are all assembled,” a breezy feminine voice said. It belonged to an elegant woman of slim build with a lovely face and hair that shone like gold. “I am Mrs. Essex, housekeeper to Lord Sterling and this…” Angelica didn’t hear anything else the woman said. She was too busy wondering how a young woman who looked as she did could possibly be a housekeeper to anyone. “Angelica,” Rose hissed right next to her ear. “What?” “Shall we follow Mrs. Essex upstairs so she can show us to our rooms?” “Oh. Um. Isn’t there a butler?” Rose shook her head in dismay and gave Angelica’s hand a tug.

The rest of the party had started climbing the stairs while she’d been woolgathering. “Mrs. Essex just introduced him. He’s the older gentleman over there issuing orders to the footmen. Clarkson is his name.” Angelica cast a glance toward the spot her mother indicated and instantly found the man to whom she referred. Gray hair and a serious demeanor, she noted with some satisfaction. He fit his role so much better than Mrs. Essex did hers. “Dinner will be served at precisely seven o’clock,” Mrs.

Essex told Angelica once she’d shown her to her room. Apparently the mansion was large enough to allow each guest a room of her own so Angelica wouldn’t have to share with her mother. Instead… She turned and allowed her mouth to fall open. The room she’d been given was at least twice the size of the one she had at home. Furnished in pretty cream tones accented by soft shades of blue, it was, quite literally, perfect. With a satisfied sigh she stepped farther into the room. Her trunk had been placed at the foot of the canopy bed, and a maid was already busy unpacking it. Angelica thanked the girl and went to peer out the window. Water streaked over the glass but she could still make out a series of walkways leading toward a pavilion. Strategically placed statues and benches offered further evidence of a well-planned garden, although it didn’t look terribly inviting in the rain.

“Good heavens. Your room is at least twice the size of mine.” Angelica turned from the window, ignored the shiver blowing over her shoulders, and smiled at Lucy. “Really?” She rubbed her hands together and moved closer to the fireplace. “I would have imagined all the guestrooms to be the same size.” “They used to be.” Mrs. Essex said. She’d somehow materialized directly behind Lucy, causing her to jump. “Goodness,” Lucy gasped, her hand pressed to her breast.

“I didn’t realize you were there.” Mrs. Essex gave an indulgent smile. “Forgive me. It was not my intention to startle you.” She approached Angelica. “I believe your mother is freshening up, so I chose not to disturb her. But I thought it prudent to inform you that you can use this connecting door over here to access her room more directly. If you wish.” Angelica hadn’t even noticed the door since it was located behind a screen that separated the dressing area and toilette from the rest of the room.

Tilting her head, she considered the convenience. “How unusual.” She glanced at Mrs. Essex. “For guestrooms, I mean, to be joined in such a manner. I’m assuming there must be a key, because otherwise it—” “Of course there is. I have it right here.” Mrs. Essex handed an ornately fashioned brass key to Angelica. “But you’re right.

It is unusual.” She inhaled deeply while giving the room a full perusal, then said, “If you must know, this used to be her ladyship’s room. Your mother has the viscount’s former bedchamber.” “I…see,” Angelica murmured. Another shiver raked the length of her spine, like fingernails scraping her skin. She instinctively glanced over her shoulder, but of course, no one was there. “The viscount decided to move to the opposite side of the castle a couple of years ago.” Angelica stared at her. She then glanced at Lucy, whose eyes had grown to the size of saucers. As if reading her mind, Angelica let her gaze wander across the room until it settled on the bed.

She swallowed. And then, because she simply had to know, she quietly asked, “Did the late viscountess, um… Did she…” “No,” Mrs. Essex said. “She did not die in that bed.” Angelica breathed a sigh of relief. The housekeeper smiled, perhaps with reassurance or perhaps with a touch of wistfulness. “She froze to death outside. Beneath that very window.” Lucy gasped. A tremor swept through Angelica’s body and she instinctively turned.

A gentle movement caught the corner of her eye – the curtain perhaps. A draft could have stirred it, she reasoned. Or there might have been nothing at all except for her own overactive imagination. “Well, then. I do believe I’ll let you get settled,” Mrs. Essex announced in a cheerful tone. “Please use the bell pull if you need anything else and feel free to explore the downstairs at your leisure. Just be sure to stay out of the east wing. His lordship likes to keep that part of the house private.” She spoke a few extra words to the maid, who appeared to be nearly done with unpacking Angelica’s things.

One minute later, both had departed, leaving Angelica alone with Lucy. “She’s a bit odd, don’t you think?” Lucy asked with a quick backward glance as if to make sure Mrs. Essex wouldn’t suddenly pop up behind her. “Very,” Angelica murmured. “I can’t imagine the future Lady Sterling wanting to keep her on. She’s far too young and pretty.” “It all depends on what his lordship is like, I suppose. Perhaps he has kept Mrs. Essex in his employ for intimate reasons.” She gave Angelica a pointed look.

Angelica felt her lips twitch. “You’ve quite a wicked mind for someone who’s so soft spoken.” “Well, I might not be outgoing, but that doesn’t stop my brain from working. And don’t tell me you haven’t had the same notion.” Of course she had. Her mother had always been shockingly forthright with her, for, as she liked to say, knowledge was power and ignorance only led to bad choices. So Angelica knew what went on between men and women behind closed doors, and she knew it was common for some men to keep a mistress. Angelica rolled her eyes at her own wayward thoughts and shook her head. There was obviously a Mr. Essex and shame on her anyway for immediately thinking the worst just because the woman didn’t fit the typical housekeeper mold.

“Come on,” Angelica told Lucy as she grabbed a shawl and wrapped it around her R shoulders. “I’m sure there must be a library. Let’s go find it, shall we?” They checked with both of their mothers first just to let them know where they were off to. “We’ll order some tea,” Angelica said as they walked down the stairs. She pulled her shawl tighter to ward off the chill creeping up the back of her neck. Good lord, it was only September, yet it felt like the middle of winter. Which was reason enough for her not to marry Lord Sterling. In spite of its grandeur, Colchester Hall was felt a huge mausoleum, and she could not see herself living here. aising a snifter of brandy to his lips, Randolph Benedict Scott Trevarian took a long swallow and savored the hot burn that followed. Inviting six debutantes to his home for the sake of selecting one as his future viscountess had been his idea alone.

He had no one to blame for their presence but himself. Yet he’d started to have some serious doubts about the sanity of his decision since their arrival, because now he had to entertain them. At the very least, he should have asked some of his married friends to attend the house party as well, for the sake of balance and, perhaps, moral support. But he’d had no such brilliant notion until this second and now it was too late. He was alone as host and gentleman with six expectant young ladies and their eager chaperones to contend with. He glanced at the clock. It was almost six thirty. He took another sip of his drink, aware that he ought to go down and greet his guests as they gathered for dinner. A knock at the door offered a welcome delay. “Enter!” Mrs.

Essex glided into his study. She was, he’d noted a long time ago when she’d first begun in his employ, exceptionally pretty, although there was something about her – a flawlessness – he found strangely unappealing. Nevertheless, it had surprised him that his wife had hired her, but she’d been confident in his faithfulness and insisted they help the poor woman who’d recently lost her husband. Now here they were, a widow and widower beneath the same roof. He had no doubt some of the other servants wondered if they’d become lovers. And Randolph was man enough to admit to having considered it on occasion, if only for a fleeting second. For although he knew most men would probably let themselves be tempted by the lovely Mrs. Essex, he wasn’t really attracted to her at all. Never had been. And even if he were, he was not the sort of man who’d ever proposition a servant, no matter how high ranking she might be.

“Since you’re the only gentleman here, I thought you might like to forego the after dinner drink in your study and take tea with the ladies instead,” Mrs. Essex said with a warm and inviting smile. “It will allow you to further your acquaintance with them in a less formal setting.” “How thoughtful.” Randolph set his glass aside and met her gaze directly. “What is your opinion of them so far?” “I really can’t say.” “Can’t or don’t wish to?” He deliberately smiled in an effort to soften her up. “Come now, Mrs. Essex, I’d like to know what you think.” Mrs.

Essex appeared to consider. Randolph glanced at the clock. He really should get going. “None,” she eventually said. “That’s not very helpful.” “Perhaps not, but none of the ladies you have invited stand out.” She shrugged one shoulder. “They’re forgettable. Except for Lady Seraphina.” “Oh?” As she was the daughter of a duke, he’d wondered about her unmarried state.

Surely men would be lining up outside her door? Mrs. Essex actually grinned. “You’ll see what I mean.” “Is she hideous?” “My lord! What a thing to suggest.” “It is a reasonable assumption to make,” he muttered. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, having a wife who would not tempt other men to her bed. It was, after all, why he’d asked these particular women to join him in the first place. Because each and every one had been unable to snatch up a husband. “You should head toward the parlor now unless you wish to be late to your own dinner party. And I,” she announced with a flourish, “must return to the kitchen to make sure everything runs smoothly.

” “Mrs. Essex,” he said, halting her in the middle of her departure. She glanced back with one raised eyebrow. “Thank you.” Her lips curved with pleasure. Her pale blue eyes gleamed as they caught the light from the oil lamp. She added a nod, and then she was gone. Randolph blew out a breath, gave his sleeves a quick tug and checked his cravat. Satisfied with his appearance, he made his way through the long oak-paneled hallway that would take him to the parlor adjoining the dining room. Once there, he did not have to wait long before the first young ladies arrived with their mothers.

Randolph stepped forward, hands clasped behind his back, and offered a partial bow to each of them in turn. “Good evening.” He directed most of his attention to the two women he was meant to consider. “Viscount Sterling, at your service.” Both ladies curtsied and then their mothers introduced them as Miss Matilda Stevens and Miss Anna Chesterfield. “A pleasure,” Randolph told them politely. He barely managed to ask them about their journey before Miss Clare St. James arrived. She was the shortest of the three and the least attractive. She also seemed to speak solely in nods and head shakes, so if he meant to marry a woman with whom he could carry on conversations, he probably shouldn’t consider her.

Although, he reflected, there was a chance she was merely nervous, and it would be terribly ill-bred of him to judge her too quickly. With this in mind, he deliberately said, “Tell me about your hobbies.”

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