Matfen Affair

Leigh Fenwick lives in Northumberland, far away from Lady Jersey and her London Society cronies, but a wedding is still a big day in any girl's life. 

Visiting Matfen Grange as bridesmaid to her cousin Lucy, Leigh is sidetracked by a wayward ghost, the bridegroom is injured on his journey from Cumberland and the bride returns home after only one day of marriage. 

Cousin Bertram decides Leigh is exactly the girl for him, but Leigh is focused on someone else....



One

Northumberland, 1803


“It’s time you learned to defend yourself against that over-opinionated hussy.”
“Robert!” My hand shot to my mouth at the word hussy and my eyes were no doubt like saucers. A typical feminine reaction, but so ingrained I had executed it before my thoughts caught up with me. Knowing I was blushing did not help, but I raised my chin an inch or so, for I was nothing if not stubborn. “You should not call any lady by such a name.”
His brown eyes sparkled as the sun caught them. “Amelia is far from being a lady.” Tall, vivid and confident, he spoke partly in jest, but did not trouble to hide what he thought of my meekness, or my sister.
“She is outspoken,” I said slowly. “Mama has often said she ought not to be so forward with her opinions.” Then loyalty to my sister came to the fore. “Robert, I cannot agree with you. Amelia is a lady.”
He leaned toward me, his expression surprisingly serious above his impeccably white neckcloth and my heart skipped a beat. I had been in love with Robert Fenwick since I was two years old, but he had no idea of my feelings. Oh, he knew I liked him and enjoyed our friendship, but the intensity of my feelings was my secret. Sometimes I plotted and dreamed of ways to make him fall in love with me, but had not yet dared to put any of them into practice. “You are the true lady, Leigh. Now, come and walk with me while we discuss how best to bring you out of your shell.”
“I am not in a shell,” I protested. “Really, Robert, I am not sixteen. I wish you would not treat me as if I were.”
He glanced down at me as we continued to walk between lines of lavender. “How old are you, Leigh?”
“You know very well that I am nineteen.” Of course he knew, for his family lived across the valley and he and I had learned to ride our ponies together when we were both still in our smocks. I was the elder by one day, but he thought himself vastly superior to me, no doubt simply because he had been born male.
No matter what he said, I could not resist his charm for long. Walking with my cousin Robert Fenwick was always a pleasure whatever the weather, but especially so in today’s early summer sunshine. Blue sky arched over our heads and the hills that formed the border with Scotland rolled green to the distant horizon. At this time of year England’s most northerly county was always beautiful.
“I am serious, Leigh. It is time she stopped bullying you.”
“She doesn’t really bully me.”
His answer was merely to raise his eyebrows almost to his hairline, so in hope of distraction, I said, “Amelia will be entirely focussed on her latest beau for the next few days. She won’t take much notice of me.”
My elder sister had somehow contrived an introduction to Lord Felsham, one of the few notables in Northumberland, and had spoken of little else but his perfect manners, good looks and vast estates for the last three weeks.
Robert glanced in every direction and then leaned closer to me. “That is part of the problem. Haven’t you heard?”
“Heard what?”
“Can you keep a secret?”
When I nodded impatiently, he said, “Her beau won’t be at Matfen for the wedding. Felsham has contracted measles and will be persona non grata for some time.”
I stopped in the middle of the gravel path. “Oh, no!”
Our families were due to travel south to Matfen Grange in a day or two in order to celebrate my cousin Lucy Fenwick’s wedding. Such gatherings brought the rather large Fenwick clan together in one building, and offered a chance to meet old friends and perhaps make new acquaintances. I had been particularly looking forward to this wedding because I was to be bridesmaid to my cousin Lucy. Almost two years my junior, she was to marry Adam Ridley, aged twenty-five. Seven years was not generally thought too great an age difference, though I did have my doubts, for Lucy was a very young seventeen. Though I hoped Adam was not a frivolous young man about town, I equally hoped for Lucy’s sake he was not averse to gossip and fun.
“The young couple will have to marry without Lord Felsham’s presence,” Robert said with a chuckle.
But I was not thinking about the bridal couple. “Amelia will be distraught,” I said softly. “She has spent days deciding which gowns to take to Matfen. This is poor news indeed.”
“Why so?” Robert asked. “Lord Felsham’s absence should not spoil your enjoyment.”
I had few illusions about my elder sister. Once decided that Lord Felsham was excellent husband material, she had every intention of entrapping him by fair means or foul. News of his indisposition was likely to throw her into a fit of the dismals for days. I looked down at a clump of lavender growing in the border that ran along the side of the house. Several bees collected pollen and their contented hum was as pleasant to the ear as the scent of lavender to the nose. He was right, of course. My sister’s bad humour would not stop my enjoyment in wearing my new gown and being part of the wedding celebrations. A shell pink delight, my dress was already rolled in soft cloth to prevent creasing during the journey.
“The bride won’t care a jot if Felsham is missing or Amelia is in the droops,” Robert said cheerfully. “She probably won’t even notice his absence. The groom has never met either of them, so he won’t be affected.”
“That is true, but you know how Amelia will be if Felsham is not there.”
“She will be in a fit of the dismals, and when that happens, everyone will suffer?”
I could not contradict him. Yet his comment, and the glance that accompanied it, lifted my spirits. “That is true.”
“You give her too much credit, Leigh.”
“You are right. We should not allow measles to spoil anyone’s wedding.”
At that moment, a loud hail drew our attention to the corner of the house where the old pine tree stood sentinel. Cousin Robert groaned.
“Shush. She will hear you.”
“I don’t give a damn if she does.”
Sometimes Robert was too outrageous, for his temper was of the kind that is easily aroused and quickly forgotten. I had already set off toward the tall, statuesque blonde who stood at the top of the rise on which our comfortable old home stood. Her gown matched the cream roses flowering by the house wall and the gentle breeze pressed the airy muslin against her shapely limbs.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” she cried as we approached. “It is too bad of you to hide away like this.”
Beguiled by her luxuriant curls and beautiful blue eyes, strangers rarely took exception to her acidic comments. I suspect they thought her amusing. Family and friends knew her rather better, and Robert was no exception. Air whistled through his nose as he turned to me.
Have we been hiding, Leigh?”
The emphasis on the first word warned me that he was teasing her. I knew she disliked it, but I was also mindful of his urging that I should stand my ground with her. I shook my head. “Absolutely not.”
We had joined her at the corner. Her gaze swept over me and moved on to Robert, but she could not look up at him without catching the sun in her eyes, which put her at a disadvantage. As I knew to my cost, it is hard to remonstrate with someone who is a good six inches taller and can look down on the top of one’s head.
With a sweep of his arm Robert indicated the row of mullioned windows, some framed by wisteria, others by roses, and then the entire garden and the fields beyond. “We are in plain view of the house and a good deal of the garden.”
A crease appeared between Amelia’s eyebrows. She did not like being contradicted. A sharp remark would no doubt be forthcoming. I inadvertently took a step backward.
Amelia attempted a smile, but it did not reach her eyes. “Yet here you are, skulking away on this side of the house while everyone is taking tea in the rose garden.”
The garden was Mama’s hobby and relaxation. She delighted in giving guests tea and scones there during the summer months, where flowers always bloomed in scented profusion.
Robert drew in a long breath. When his heavy black eyebrows met across the bridge of his nose, I knew he was going to challenge her. “I take exception to your silly suggestion, Amelia. We are merely enjoying a pleasant walk.”
The chill in his voice did not surprise me, nor did his flat denial. Where I evaded argument with my sister by offering an excuse and an apology, he dealt with her in a very confrontational style.
Amelia ignored Robert and looked haughtily down at me. “You ought to know better, Leigh.”
I have often wondered if her three year seniority over me made her feel she had the right to chastise, admonish and correct me on almost every topic under the sun. The fact that I was so much shorter had something to do with it, too. I disliked her belittling me in front of Robert, and in struggling to find something to say in retaliation, I blurted the exact thing I should not have said. “Bad news, Amelia dear; Lord Felsham will not be at the wedding.”
As soon as the words left my lips I glanced at Robert. I wanted to hide, but he pressed his lips together, bowed his head and stared at his polished boots. I had the distinct impression he was trying not to laugh.
“Don’t be silly, Leigh,” Amelia snapped. “Of course he is coming. I told you so myself.”
“Leigh is correct,” Robert said. “Poor chap’s got the measles.”
It was ridiculous, I know, but the casual phrase and Robert’s faintly sorrowful air, so plainly false, made me want to laugh as well.
“Don’t you dare laugh, Leigh Fenwick, or I’ll box your ears,” cried my sister. She glared at Robert. “How do you know? Who told you he is ill?”
I swallowed without meaning to, with the result that I burst into a fit of coughing and earned myself a sharp remark from my sister. “Do learn some control, Leigh.”
I took a second step back and gasped for air.
“Does it matter who told me?” Robert touched my shoulder as another burst of coughing overwhelmed me. “Here, take my handkerchief.”
“Of course it matters!” Amelia cried. “Why was I not told?”
The obvious answer was that no one ever wished to give Amelia bad news, but I doubt she could appreciate that. “Perhaps there is a letter in the post?” I blew my nose as a distraction, but delicately so as not to earn myself another stinging rebuke.
My suggestion was greeted with silent disdain.
“Perhaps they did not think of informing you,” Robert said coolly. “After all, there is nothing official between you and Felsham.”
Amelia stiffened and her nostrils flared, but Robert ignored her and offered his arm to me. “Let us continue our walk.”
I gratefully laid my hand on his arm and before Amelia could object he had drawn me several yards away from her. I began to breathe more easily.
Robert placed his hand on top of mine. “Recovered your breath?”
I nodded. “It is probably better that she knows now rather than find out at Matfen.”
“Your sister deserves a set down. I don’t know Felsham, but I hope he is man enough to control her, otherwise he will have a dreadful life.”

***

Two days later we left dear old Ottermoss, and as the carriage drove away I looked fondly back at the farmhouse that had stood there for almost three hundred years. A clump of trees sheltered its blunt square shape from the worst of the north and east winds. A dark stain where ivy had been cleared last winter still marked the grey stone, and the wisteria Mama planted on my tenth birthday was spreading tendrils across the south-facing wall. My bedroom window would soon be framed by the gorgeous clumps of hyacinth blue flowers and I would enjoy their perfume as I watched the activity in the stable yard below.
Father’s farm manager was to take care of everything including the dogs while we journeyed south to Matfen Grange for the wedding. Amelia sulked in a corner of the carriage until Father advised that she had better buck up her ideas or he would send her back home in a post chaise. At that threat, her pout became even more pronounced.
We arrived at Matfen in the afternoon, followed the gravel walk to the main entrance and emerged from the shade of tall pines into sunshine so glorious it dazzled the eyes.
Matfen Grange had been in existence far longer than Ottermoss, but the old buildings had been absorbed by recent renovations. Occasionally one caught sight of a Tudor doorway, a parapet in the Gothic style or an arched window, but the overall impression was of a modern building. I had heard that a bathroom had been installed near the principal bedchambers, but doubted that I would ever be invited use it.
Mellow ashlar formed the handsome two-storey facade with its protruding bay windows overlooking green meadows. As a child I had fallen in love with the pierced diamond shapes of the stone blocks that formed the parapet, and adored the tall chimney stacks; I still thought them fascinating. Not only did the house look immaculate, but the grounds had been trimmed and pruned and polished into perfection. I doubted that a weed dared lift its head until the wedding was over.
Lucy, small, brown-haired and dainty as a sparrow, greeted us at the door and then vanished, dashing about like a creature demented, deaf to the cries of her mother and elder sister. She chattered about floral displays for the church, the wedding breakfast and a hundred other things that, if an error should be made, would surely wreck the entire day if not the rest of her life.
Once Lucy’s parents made us welcome, Amelia claimed a headache and asked to be shown to her room. From the quelling glance Mama bestowed upon her, I guessed Amelia might receive a reminder about good manners later in the day. As she disappeared, Lucy’s brother, Bertram, stepped forward and asked rather diffidently if I should like to enjoy the sunshine in the gardens. “They are looking particularly glorious at the moment.”
I was happy to leave my parents to excuse Amelia’s rudeness, so I took Cousin Bertram’s arm and we walked out into the sunshine. It was some months since I had seen him, and in the interval he had grown even taller and thinner than he had been. I soon noticed that he had not lost his preference for heavy scents, for a cloud of something spicy drifted along with us as we walked and I doubted I should be able to smell the perfume of roses with him beside me. He stared straight ahead and I soon realised that his neckcloth was so fiercely starched it was impossible for him to turn his head without discomfort. A large nose and thinning hair meant he was not the handsomest man of the family, but his disposition was amiable and I soon discovered he had a fund of entertaining stories about the house.
“Once this damnable wedding is over,” Bertram said, wiping his brow, “we shall all be able to relax again. Oh, I say,” he added, looking stricken. “I apologise for my language. I hope I did not offend?”
“Are all weddings like this?” I asked, laughing.
“I fear so. When my eldest sister married, it was much the same chaos. I had it in mind to escape to Italy before Lucy’s wedding, but I left it too late, as you see.” He glanced at me from the side of his eye. “Now, I must say, I am glad I did not.”
It was kind of him to be so gallant, but at twenty-seven he must be quite practiced at engaging young ladies in conversation. I smiled, let him guide me around the gardens, admired the roses and delphiniums and discovered that he knew nothing of horticulture.
“The gardeners take care of it all.”
“Not your hobby, then,” I said. “Mama is an absolute fanatic. Before you know it she will be interviewing your gardeners as to their methods of propagation.”
He looked vaguely horrified. “Whatever that might be.”
I opened my mouth to enlighten him.
“No, I do not wish to know!” he said before I could get a word out. “Art is my only hobby. I must get to Italy this summer.”
Giving up on gardens, we drifted back the way we had come. Other guests arrived as we returned to the house, and blockages occurred in doorways and corridors as grooms and footmen laboured with unwieldy hat boxes and portmanteaux.
I duly admired the stained glass and pointed arches of the Gothic Hall. Most of the woodwork was oak, some darkened with age, some golden in the sunlight streaming through the large window in the west wall.
“Most of the building is recent, built in the 1750s by my grandfather; but there is an older core that includes this Gothic Hall,” Bertram said. “There has been a building on the site since thirteen hundred and something.”
The next large room was more to my taste. I gazed around the library with its huge stone fireplace and hundreds of leather-bound volumes and promised myself an early return visit. In the drawing room I paused by a huge bay window gazed out over parkland enhanced by a small lake and a pair of swans. “I believe Amelia and I are to sleep in the Swinburne Room?”
He agreed and flicked a swift glance my way. His expression was difficult to describe, but surely I saw wariness mixed with alarm? As swiftly as the expression appeared, it vanished; he offered a diffident smile and left me wondering if I was being over fanciful. “Perhaps it is time I joined Amelia. It must be nearly time to dress for dinner.”
He merely nodded, escorted me to the door and then set me on the way to the bedchamber assigned to me and my sister. I sidled through the doorway before two grooms who struggled to deliver my trunk up the narrow spiral staircase, and found Amelia reclined on the huge four-poster bed glaring at me. My stomach lurched. It was years since we had shared a bedchamber and Amelia in an unpleasant mood could make my life a misery.
The chamber was large, airy and with two of the large windows that seemed such a feature of Matfen. Light poured in through the glass. I ventured a comment on the pretty blue-sprigged wallpaper and matching damask curtains and bed hangings, but she merely sniffed.
“I should have been given a room of my own. I hope you do not snore in your sleep. I am a very light sleeper, you know.”
The two grooms had finally manhandled my trunk through the doorway and dropped it with a thud that made me glance their way in time to see the smirk they strove to hide on hearing Amelia’s words.
My face heated. I chose to turn to the corner window and gaze out on the flowerbeds below rather than acknowledge their amusement. I doubt if Amelia even knew they were in the room. Grooms were far beneath her notice. Once they departed, I gathered my courage and faced her.
“I wish you would not speak so in front of servants.” My heart hammered in my throat, and it was hard to control my voice, but if I was ever to confront her then this was as good a moment as any.
Lying back on her pillows, she glanced at me and waved a languid hand, as if to say that it was really not worth discussing.
“No, Amelia, it is not good enough. You have embarrassed me in a house that is not our own and that was very wrong of you.”
I turned my back on her then, because I could not speak further. I ought to have demanded an apology, but my throat had tightened so much that anything I said would come out as a squeak. Who would believe that saying so few words to one’s sister could cause such difficulties?
My heartbeat finally calmed as I attended to my hair. Looking in the mirror, I caught glimpses of Amelia’s flushed face, the obstinate cast of her jaw and knew I would not receive an apology. But at least I had made a start. Now all I had to do was refuse to sink back into my mouse-like state. After changing out of my travelling clothes, I left Amelia to her thoughts and sought lighter relief with some of my Fenwick cousins downstairs.
Elspeth and I shared the dark hair and brown eyes that predominated in our family, but little else. At eighteen she had grown into a willowy beauty given to voicing her opinions in a way I could not bring myself to copy. Happily she was also more kind-hearted than my sister.
Elspeth said bluntly, “I do not understand why you tolerate her.” They knew Amelia of old, and had occasionally suffered a hurtful comment or snide remark from her.
“Because she is my sister.”
“That does not mean you must put up with her when she is rude and overbearing. You are clever, Leigh, so why not retaliate? It is time she learned she cannot have everything as she wishes.”
I explained that Amelia was unhappy because her beau had been taken ill. Elspeth gurgled with laughter at this news. “Hardly anyone gets measles nowadays. How unlucky this man must be. Amelia and measles!”
It was true that it was usually children who caught the disease, but occasionally an adult suffered. My sympathies were with Lord Felsham, who must be feeling wretched.
Her older sister, Maud, brown-haired and of quiet disposition, shook her head, amused by but not condoning Elspeth’s comment. “Which room have they given you?”
“The Swinburne Room. It is on the corner of the building and offers a view in two directions. It even has a small balcony and seems very old.”
Maud nodded. “It is in the old part of the site, certainly.”
“There is a rumour,” Elspeth added, leaning forward as if to impart a huge secret, “that the house is haunted.”
An unpleasant little nudge in the region of my stomach greeted her words. It was a long time since I had spoken with a ghost and I really did not want to discover one now. Maud, pretending to be unimpressed, scoffed. “Where? In the old hall? The tower? Most of this house is relatively modern. Next you will be saying there are dungeons.”
“I believe there are cellars, certainly, but you may visit them without me.” I had no wish to be involved in a ghost-hunting trip through dark and cobwebby cellars. I shivered and sat up straight. “Why don’t we go and see if we can do anything for Lucy?”

With this simple stratagem, I managed to discourage talk of ghosts. It was important that I did, for I do not know why, but ghosts seem attracted to me.

Product Details
·         File Size: 2350 KB
·         Publisher: Orchard Hill Books 
·         Publication Date: February 16, 2017
·         Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
·         Language: English
·         ASIN: B06X946C3K
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