Elmswood Manor, Shropshire, April 1820
Kate glanced nervously at the tarnished mantel clock. Like everything else around here it had seen better days. It told her that it was fifteen minutes to the allotted start time of her hopefully life-changing appointment. One minute less than when she had last checked. She adjusted the blotter so that it sat perfectly in the middle of the desk, then straightened the ledger so that it sat square on the blotter. Next, she placed the annual accounts summary she had drawn up on top of the ledger. Finally, she ran a hand nervously over her hair, which she had pinned tightly up in an attempt to project a mature, business-like demeanour, though her bedroom mirror had reflected something more reminiscent of a frightened rabbit. Then she glanced over at the clock again. It didn’t seem to have moved. Had it stopped? But she’d wound it up yesterday evening as she did at the same time every night, just as Papa had been in the habit of doing, and she could hear it ticking slowly and softly, just as it had always done.
She felt sick. Was she really going to put her outrageous proposition to a virtual stranger? No, not outrageous, she mustn’t think of it in those terms or she’d come over as an irrational fantasist. It was actually a common sense suggestion rooted in practicality, one she had evaluated from every angle in the long weeks spent awaiting this much-heralded return, while her future, her father’s security and the fate of every one of the estate’s tenants and those few staff that remained, were left hanging in the balance.
Pushing back the worn leather wing-backed chair, Kate edged out from behind the huge desk that dominated the estate office to risk a glance out of the window. The office was located at the far end of a row of outbuildings, behind what had once been the kitchen gardens, with an excellent view in all directions. If he was coming from the stables, walking around from the front entrance or any of the rooms that opened onto the terrace at the rear, she’d see him approach. And he would turn up, she reassured herself, he had asked for the appointment himself, hadn’t he?
Though the appointment had actually been made with her father, for the new Lord Elmswood seemed to be uniquely unaware that his lands were being managed by his estate manager’s daughter. Kate returned to the desk and retrieved the note from under the blotter, but the brief informal scrawl told her nothing more than she already knew or had surmised.
Sir, – With regards to the settling of my late father’s estate, which I have perforce returned to England to oversee, I anticipate that I will have completed all necessary business with my lawyer in London by the 16th of this month. I will then travel to Shropshire, arriving at Elmswood on the 17th. I assume it will be convenient for you to meet with me on the 18th in the Estate Office at ten o’clock that morning, with a view to formally resolving the issue of your continued stewardship and any residual outstanding business. I would appreciate it if you could do everything possible to expedite matters, as I am extremely eager to return to my own pressing business abroad. Yours respectfully, Daniel Fairfax.
Fairfax, she noted. He didn’t use his new title. He had clearly returned reluctantly, for the briefest period possible. How would he feel, knowing he would never see his father again? There was no trace of any emotion in that note, save impatience. Her own dear Papa’s slow decline over the last few years had forced her to face the reality of his mortality, but she didn’t for a moment imagine that when the time came it would be anything other than a terrible blow to lose him. It seemed to be a very different matter for Daniel Fairfax, who could probably count on one hand the number of weeks he’d spent as an adult in his father’s company.
He was twenty-eight years old. She’d known him – or of him – all of her life, for like him, she had been born on the estate, though unlike him, she had never had any desire to live anywhere else. He was six years her senior. Though she knew from her father that he had been a sickly child, and educated at home as a little boy, by the time she was old enough to perch in front of Papa in the saddle as he rode around the estates on his regular inspections, or sit here in this office, drawing happily, while he attended to estate business, Daniel Fairfax was a boarder at a prestigious school.
As a result, for most of the year, Kate could pretend that the grounds of Elmswood Manor belonged exclusively to her. When he came home for the school holidays she would catch the occasional glimpse of him swimming in the lake or setting out on his pony from the stables, but those encounters were rare. She had no idea what he did all day, or where he went, and his awareness of her was confined to an absent, disinterested nod as he passed purposefully in the opposite direction. Though he was in effect, like her, an only child, he seemed perfectly content in his own company. She couldn’t recall him ever having friends to stay, save once, and that hadn’t been a schoolfriend but some sort of tutor.
That was the last school holiday he had spent at Elmswood. He left, before it was over, when he was sixteen to Kate’s ten, not to return to school but to go to London to take up a position at the Admiralty. When he next returned, on reaching his majority, after an absence of five years, he had left both the Admiralty and his youth behind. The deeply-tanned young man she had encountered one morning, staring grim-faced at the lake, was a rather intimidating and fiercely attractive stranger who left Kate embarrassingly tongue-tied. Where he had been in the intervening years, not even Papa knew, and it was only after he’d left, a long time after he’d left, that Lord Elmswood had revealed his son was off ‘exploring the world’. And the world being a very big place, it seemed unlikely that he would return any time soon.
‘Any time soon’ had turned into never. If there had been letters, old Lord Elmswood kept the contents to himself. On his death, it seemed like a minor miracle when his lawyer revealed that he knew how to contact the heir, and a miracle of considerably larger proportions when he sent word to Elmswood to inform Papa that the man himself had actually arrived in London. But regardless of the fact that he’d inherited an estate and earldom, Kate was willing to stake her life on Daniel Fairfax, nomadic explorer, heading back to his life of wandering the far-flung corners of the world as soon as he possibly could. In fact, she thought wryly, she was banking on him doing exactly that, even though she knew almost nothing of him. She was taking a leap of faith, but he was Lord Elmswood’s son, after all, and she’d heard nothing to suggest he was in any way of dubious character or unsavoury temperament. In any event, if her plan came to fruition she wouldn’t have to put that assumption to the test, since she was unlikely to see hide nor hair of him for the foreseeable future.
‘Excuse me, I have an appointment to meet Mr Wilson.’
‘Lord Elmswood!’ Kate scrabbled to her feet.
Daniel Fairfax, for it was unmistakably he, stood in the doorway, eyeing her quizzically. ‘This is still the estate office, I assume?’
‘Yes, you are in the right place. I am Mr Wilson’s daughter, I…’
Kate broke off, blushing. Dammit! Cool, calm and collected is what she needed to be, not a simpering miss! Daniel Fairfax might be a self-confident man of the world and she might be a country hick, but she was a country hick who knew his estates like the back of her hand, and he needed her, even though he didn’t know it yet.
‘Lord Elmswood. You clearly don’t remember me. I am Kate Wilson. How do you do?’
‘Miss Wilson, well I never! The last time I clapped eyes on you, I’m sure you had pigtails and freckles.’
‘I was almost fifteen the last time you were home, and I have not worn my hair in pigtails since I was ten.’
‘Really? Good lord, that makes you what, twenty-two? How did that happen?’
‘By a simple process of aging. It affects us all unfortunately.’
‘Well, the passing years have certainly done you no harm, if you don’t mind my saying so. I hardly recognised you.’
‘Since you have, in all the years I’ve lived here, barely acknowledged me,’ Kate retorted, flustered, ‘that is not really surprising. I’ve not changed so very much in seven years.’
‘You’re quite wrong, but I can see I’ve touched a nerve. I hadn’t thought myself rude, not even as a sulky youth, but clearly I was. Please accept my belated apologies.’
‘You were not rude. It’s not surprising that I barely registered with you, given that you were six years older than me and…’
‘I still am.’
‘The gap is more of a chasm when one is younger.’
‘True, but I apologise for my ill-mannered younger self all the same.’ Daniel Fairfax glanced at the clock. ‘I thought your father was expecting me. Didn’t he receive my note?’
‘He did,’ Kate said, belatedly remembering her carefully rehearsed plan for this meeting.
‘On behalf of my father and myself, Lord Elmswood, may I offer our condolences on your loss.’
‘You’ve already done so – or your father has, in a letter. I understand I have him to thank for organising the funeral too. I’m told it was very well-attended. I’m sorry I wasn’t here, but by the time I had word of my father’s accident, he was already dead and buried, and it took me the best part of six weeks to get myself back to England. Is Mr Wilson intending to meet me this morning or not?’
‘I’m afraid he is indisposed, but I believe I can settle all the necessary business between us on his behalf.’
‘Without wishing to be rude, Miss Wilson, my business is with Elmswood’s estate manager. Perhaps it would be better for me to return when your father is feeling better – tomorrow perhaps?’
‘Lord Elmswood, when I said my father was indisposed, I’m afraid I did not mean he was afflicted with some minor ailment. Would that it were so! Unfortunately his condition is both long-standing and irreversible. I take it you are unaware that I have been acting in my father’s stead? Clearly you are,’ Kate continued, in response to his blank look. ‘In fact I’ve been helping out for some years now, but in the last eighteen months or so, I have been obliged to take on almost all of my father’s duties as his health has failed.’
‘I am deeply sorry to hear that, but with respect, I am surprised to learn that he delegated the management of the estates to you. No matter how competent you are, you are a female and that alone, in my father’s book, would make you quite ineligible. Your father must have known that.’
‘The arrangement was of an – an informal nature.’
‘Ah. So my father was blissfully ignorant of the fact that his estate manager’s daughter was running things.’
Kate bristled. ‘I was born and raised here, and have been helping my father ever since I was old enough to ride a horse. With the greatest of respect, and with no offence intended my lord, I know your estates a great deal better than you do.’
‘That would not be difficult, for the cows in the fields could claim that.’
‘I love this place, my lord, even if you do not.’
‘There’s no need for those raised hackles. I am not questioning your competency. In this, as in everything else, I have nothing in common with my father, and have no issue at all with having a female estate manager.’
‘In that case, perhaps you would care to take a look at the summary of accounts.’
Kate pushed the ledger forward, but Daniel Fairfax gave it only a cursory glance. ‘I won’t pretend to have a grasp of the financial ins and outs, but I know from that London lawyer fellow that the lands are in good heart.’
‘Relatively, all things considered. Unfortunately, your father was reluctant to invest either his time or his money. Frankly, he seemed disinterested in his estates.’
But once again, Daniel Fairfax seemed to have no interest in pursuing the subject of his lands. ‘I really am sorry to hear that your father is so gravely ill. If there is anything I can do…’
‘As a matter of fact, there is.’ Kate wondered fleetingly what he would say if she simply blurted out the outrageous proposition she had for him, and was so amused by the idea that it calmed her. ‘If you would care to take a seat, Lord Elmswood…’
‘I really wish you wouldn’t call me that.’
‘It’s your name now.’
‘No, it’s not. I don’t plan on making use of any of it, the lands, the title, or indeed the house, which my father seems to have allowed to go to rack and ruin.’
‘Yes, that is one of the topics I wish to discuss with you.’
‘Only one? I have a list of my own, you know and a limited amount of time.’
‘Of that, I am perfectly well aware.’ She hadn’t meant to snap, but her nerves were stretched to breaking point. ‘Please, if you will sit down I will explain everything.’
Kate indicated the seat on the opposite side of the desk from her own and to her utter relief, he did as she asked. The legs of the chair had been shortened by some shrewd previous estate manager intent on ensuring that he loomed over whoever sat opposite, but Daniel Fairfax was very tall and her own stature so diminutive that when she sat down, she was still looking up at him.
She straightened her back. He stretched his long legs out in front of him. His hair was cut very close to his head, as if he had taken a razor to it, showing off a slight widow’s peak. His face was tanned to the point of swarthiness, strong-featured, with sharp cheekbones and jaw, a nose bordering on the assertive. Despite the fullness of his lips, it was a very masculine face, and one that bore testament to a life lived in a very different climate. The grooves which ran from his nose to his mouth, the fan of lines at the corners of his slate-grey eyes spoke of a life lived at a pace that made hers seem positively sedentary. Those eyes were now focused intently on her. She resisted the impulse to check her hair for any escaped locks.
‘How long had my father been living as a virtual recluse?’ he asked. ‘From what I’ve seen of the house, he seems to have been living in two rooms with only his manservant and a couple of kitchen staff to look after him.’
‘His withdrawal from society had been gradual. It was only in the last two years or so that he became almost completely cut off from the world.’
‘Making it easy for you to take over your father’s duties without his realising.’
‘We did not hoodwink him,’ Kate retorted angrily. ‘Once a month, Papa submitted the books to Lord Elmswood via his valet, and if your father required to consult him on any matter, he sent Papa a written note. The authority remains formally invested in my father. To be perfectly frank, I don’t think your father cared who actually did the donkey work and – without wishing to offend you, Lord Elmswood…’
‘You offend me every time you use that title. I wish you’d call me Daniel.’
‘Daniel.’ It felt strange saying his name, intimate. ‘It wasn’t only that he was disinterested in the detail, he seemed indifferent to the fact that only the bare minimum was being done. I’m afraid that you’ve inherited an estate in dire need of modernisation.’
He dug his hand into his coat pocket to retrieve a small, brightly-coloured precious stone, which he began compulsively to turn over and over in his hand. ‘I made it perfectly clear the last time that I was home, that I wished to relinquish my claim to Elmswood.’
‘Relinquish! You mean you wanted your father to disinherit you?’ Kate exclaimed, shocked to the core to hear the place she loved so passionately, dismissed so summarily.
Daniel smiled thinly. ‘Don’t worry, as ever he completely disregarded my wishes..’
‘But – but can you really mean you want nothing to do with Elmswood – ever?’
‘Never. Though that does not mean I am pleased to see the place so run down. I could barely locate the door into the walled garden.’
‘I know, and it is a subject close to my heart, believe me,’ Kate said, diverted. ‘It’s been a dream of mine for years to be able to restore Elmswood Manor and the gardens to their former glory.’
‘To say nothing of modernising the farms? It’s a strange ambition for a female to have.’
‘I have inherited my father’s love of Elmswood.’
‘Is Mr Wilson likely to recover? Forgive me for being blunt, but…’
‘I would much rather you were, I’m extremely aware that time is of the essence to you. Papa is frail, and while not in any immediate danger, his days of estate management are well and truly over.’
‘Does he have everything he needs to make him comfortable? You said there was something I could do for him, what was it?’
It was the perfect opening. Kate’s throat was dry, her heart thumping in her chest, but she might not get another opportunity. She owed it to Papa as much as herself to take it. And of course to Elmswood itself. ‘My father is concerned about what will happen to us now that he is not fit to continue serving you.’
‘I’m not sure what you mean?’
‘I mean, where will we live, and how will we survive? Our house is tied to your estate, as indeed is our income, save for the small legacy your father left in his will. Our circumstances would be severely straitened were you to appoint another estate manager. I don’t mind for my own sake, but Papa…’
‘There’s no need for that. You are currently acting as de facto estate manager. I see no reason for that situation to change. I will formalise the arrangement before I leave, you have my word. I came here with the intention of investing complete authority in your father to allow me to resume my foreign travels. Circumstances have changed, but now I shall invest my authority in you instead. You are clearly trustworthy – better still, you obviously cherish this place. I consider you a very safe pair of hands.’
Daniel smiled, looking as much relieved as pleased. ‘There, I hope that puts your mind at rest. So, let us turn our minds to what I need to do in order…’
‘I’m very sorry, but I’m afraid it won’t work.’
His smile faded. ‘You don’t want the position?’
‘I’m extremely flattered that you should offer it to me, and I can say hand on heart that I would do my very best to ensure that you would never have any cause to regret placing your faith in me. Believe me,’ Kate said earnestly, ‘if I thought for a moment it would work in practice, I’d leap at the chance. It’s not that I can’t do the job, the accounts prove that, but the reality is I’m a female of modest background, and you would not be here to underpin my authority, or indeed be available to make important financial decisions. Though it pains me to admit it, that is a fatal combination. It would be doomed to failure.’
‘But what is the alternative? I don’t want to employ a stranger and throw you and your father out onto the street, and even though I don’t give a damn about this place, I don’t want to let it go any further down the road to rack and ruin.’
‘You could look to off-load it. I’m sure you could find a willing purchaser.’
‘That would make your situation perilous.’ Daniel began to turn over the stone in his hand again, frowning down at it. ‘No, I need a caretaker I can trust implicitly. My sister in Ireland has a son. It seems to me that he is the obvious person to hand the place over to, when he comes of age. Lock stock and barrel, as they say. Of course I can’t pass on the title, but I see no reason why my nephew shouldn’t make use of that too.’
Kate’s mouth dropped. ‘You have a nephew!’
‘So I’ve been informed.’
His tone was one of insouciance, but he could not possibly be indifferent to such news. Or perhaps she’d misunderstood. ‘You didn’t know that your sister had a son? His birth is a recent event, then?’
‘I believe the boy is seven or eight, so it will be a good few years before I can hand the reins over to him.’
‘Seven or eight! Did your father know of his existence?’
‘I have no idea. There was no mention of the boy in his will.’
‘And your sister, what does she think of your plan?’
‘I don’t know, I haven’t discussed it with her,’ Daniel answered impatiently. ‘I am no more interested in her life than she is in mine and I would be obliged to you, Miss Wilson, if you would resist asking the many questions I can see you are desperate to ask, because I have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss the matter further. I would rather my nephew did not inherit an encumbrance. You are the ideal person to ensure that he does not, yet you’re telling me that much as you’d like to take on the job, it’s impossible. We both want the same thing here, surely there must surely be a way of making the impossible possible.’
There was, and she must speak now or forever hold her peace, but her head was swimming with the revelations Daniel had so callously announced. But they were all grist to her mill, she reminded herself.
Her hands were clammy. She wiped them surreptitiously on her gown under the desk. She cleared her throat. ‘I do have a plan, as it happens, which will restore the fortunes of both this house and its lands, and make them a fit inheritance for your little nephew.’
Daniel set his turquoise stone down on the desk. He sat back, his hand curling around the crudely polished stone. He smiled suddenly. ‘What a very surprising young woman you are. What is this cunning plan of yours?’
His teeth were very white and even. When he smiled, his eyes lit up. It was a very infectious and unexpected smile. The kind that she suspected one would do a great deal to earn. It changed him, that smile, it made her uncomfortably aware of him as a very attractive man. Kate allowed herself a very prim smile in return, but now she was coming to the point, her stomach was starting to churn again.
‘It’s a little radical.’ Perspiration prickled her back. ‘In fact it will take a bit of a leap of faith on both our parts.’
‘Now I am thoroughly intrigued. Take a deep breath and spit it out.’
‘Very well. What I’m proposing resolves both our dilemmas – your desire to live abroad unencumbered by responsibility, and my desire to live here with Papa while he is still with me. It would provide me with the natural authority to make whatever significant decisions need to be made without referring to you, including financial ones. It would allow me not only to maintain your lands but to improve them, and to restore the house and gardens too, while you’d have nothing to do, save to return to your life in darkest Africa or wherever it is. And then when the time came, you could make the lands over to your nephew and I could – well, I don’t know what I’d do, but we can worry about that when the time comes. What do you think?’
‘To be honest, I think it sounds too good to be true. When something sounds too good to be true, it is my experience that it usually is.’
Kate shuffled her feet under the desk. She picked up the polished stone, turning it over in her hands as Daniel had done. It was elliptical in shape, smooth and not quite flat, and had a very soothing effect. ‘Is this turquoise?’
‘Yes, it is, Miss Wilson.’
He held out his hand. Embarrassed, she surrendered it. ‘Kate. You may as well call me Kate, since – if we are to – and after all, I’m already calling you Daniel.’
‘You’ve come this far without equivocating, don’t falter now. What is your devilishly clever plan, Kate, and what is the catch, for there must be one.’
‘I suppose you might say I am.’
‘You really have lost me now.’
She took a deep breath. ‘I think we should get married.’
He looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or have her committed to a Bedlam. ‘Right! Anything else I should know?’
‘There is, as it happens,’ she said breezily. ‘In order to protect my father’s pride, I’m afraid it has to be your idea.’