The Kydd Inheritance - by Jan Jones
CHAPTER ONEKydd Court, Northamptonshire. September 1815
Nell stared at her uncle in shock. "I don't believe I understand you, sir."
Jasper Kydd continued to sort through his mail. "I fail to see how it could be plainer. Philip Belmont called whilst you were in town to ask if he might pay his addresses. My felicitations."
"But I do not wish to marry Philip."
"Immaterial. Belmont is a young man whose land marches with that of Kydd and he has known you long enough that your hoydenish disposition fails to excite in him any alarms. It seems an excellent arrangement."
Nell reminded herself that she had sworn not to lose her temper with her hated uncle today. "Have you forgotten Mama and I are to go to London in the spring? Papa was adamant that I should not marry until I had had at least one London season."
"London? Ha! If my brother's purse had matched his ideas you might have a hundred such seasons. As it is, his uncurbed expenditure means Kydd Court will be hard pressed to remain solvent this winter, much less next spring."
Her attempt to remain submissive exploded. Ever since her father's death in a riding accident last year, Uncle Jasper had been abusing his memory. Papa might have been more given to penning philosophical essays than reckoning household accounts, but he had not been profligate. If anyone was to blame for the estate's present financial straits, it was Jasper Kydd himself with his appalling notions of land management.
"Papa laid by a considerable sum for my season. I remember him discussing it with Kit. It is only because he broke his leg shortly after Kit went out to India that I was not presented eighteen months ago." Her voice shook as she mentioned her brother. Kit had to be alive, he just had to.
Her uncle glanced at her coldly. "You are arguing again, Helena. You know my views on ladies who argue."
Not for the first time, Nell wished she and her mother had not been so numb with grief at Papa's death that they failed to notice Jasper taking over the ordering of Kydd Court. With no opposition, he had smoothly convinced the solicitor that in the absence of the heir, he himself should act as his nephew's agent. Now it seemed to Nell that he was as often here as he was at his own estate of Windown Park, countermanding her running of the house and home farm, and imposing his joyless regime over all.
Jasper selected a cream-coloured packet from amongst the correspondence and broke the wafer. His complexion darkened as he read the enclosure. "The Half Moon Street house is still not let. Last time it was haunted attics, now the agent reports the kitchen is damp! Another bad investment by your father. Would that I could sell the place and be rid of it."
Nell burned with anger. Her uncle had said I. The Kydd estate was not his. Not yet. And if she could only trace Kit it never would be!
Her indrawn breath drew Jasper's attention. He looked up, his lips thinning as he observed her clenched fists. "Enough of this folly. The subject is closed. A season in London without a sizeable dowry is an absurdity. Accept Belmont and be thankful. We dine there tonight. Be sure to wear something suitable."
Nell dropped a seething curtsey. "As you wish."
The conversation pounded in Nell's head as her maid dressed her in a particularly ugly mulberry satin evening gown. If by ‘wear something suitable' her uncle meant ‘attractive enough for a man to propose marriage', then he should have left the commissioning of her wardrobe to her. No one knew better than Nell that the fussy greys and mauves he had ordered so high-handedly from his wife's dressmaker did not become her, but put off Papa's mourning a day earlier than the full twelve months she would not, especially for such a reason as this.
Marry Philip Belmont indeed, when he cheerfully admitted himself that he'd never been much of one for brains. Nell would be biting her tongue half the day for fear of making him unhappy. She couldn't imagine what had induced him to offer for her. It certainly wasn't love, only last week he had been asking whether she didn't think Charlotte Grainger's hair the exact colour of ripening corn. How Kit would roast her when he heard.
Oh, Kit! Nell wished with all her heart that her brother was here right now. Six years her elder, taller by a head and as well-formed as he was carelessly intelligent, Kit would rout their uncle from Kydd Court without breaking stride. His continuing failure to show up and do that very thing was an acute source of worry. He had vanished eight months ago - on the very eve of his journey home from Bombay - and no explanation had been forthcoming.
Not that they had known he was missing at the time. With the sea crossing taking several months, Nell had simply been counting the days and doing her best against his return. Protecting her mother, whose reason had deteriorated with the shock of Papa's death. Bolstering the servants. Fighting her uncle's ill-judged schemes for Kydd Court.
"How much do you suppose a season costs, Annie?" she speculated now.
Her maid's adroit fingers coaxed the ostentatious lace trim around the neckline to fall evenly. "We can figure it easy, miss. We know how much fabric a gown takes, and we know what cambric and silk and muslin are the yard..."
"So we do," said Nell, turning an idea over in her mind. "And I'm sure if Mama has itemised the wardrobe she assembled for her first season once, she has done it a thousand times. But even if we sewed everything ourselves and came only to a tenth the sum other households expend, Uncle Jasper will still say the estate cannot bear it. He positively delights in our misfortune."
All her life, Nell had been accustomed to debating issues with her father and his friends. It would never have occurred to her to treat conversations with her maid any differently. Annie, a brisk no-nonsense woman approaching her middle years, had been her confidante on many occasions. Every time her uncle accused Papa of having run up debts or ruined the estate, Nell came to Annie to vent her anger safely. Indeed, with Kit overseas and Mama withdrawn into her own private world, had Nell not had the servants to talk to, she would likely have run mad.
Now Annie took up a silver-backed brush and attacked Nell's cloud of dark hair until it stood out like an aureole from her face. "He's like to know about the accounts," she said, pinning up the back à la Grecque, "being as how he took over all the books when the master died."
Nell's hazel eyes, more green than brown, met those of her maid in the mirror. "No, I cannot believe the money is all gone. I know Papa was more careful than that and I know he arranged my fund with our solicitor. I must see Mr Tweedie without my uncle's knowledge and find what is being done to locate Kit. Could I go to London with one of our friends? But that would mean leaving Mama alone here."
She clasped a simple gold chain round her neck and surveyed her reflection. "Goodness, what a fright I look. The only consolation is that Philip cannot possibly be tempted into the folly of offering for me tonight. I will be amazed if I get so much as a partner for dinner."
When Nell, her mama and her uncle were shown into the saloon at Belmont House, they found the usual neighbourhood families assembled. Mrs Kydd, still in the unrelieved black of deep mourning, was steered solicitously to the fireside.
About to follow, Nell was accosted by her host. Philip was thankfully not looking in the least lovelorn. He was with a tall, dark-haired stranger and, from his cheerful demeanor as he hailed her, she rather thought it had slipped his mind entirely that he had asked permission to address her only that morning.
"Nell! I hoped you would come soon! May I present my friend Captain Hugo Derringer? Hugo, Miss Kydd. Kit's sister, you know. Hugo arrived today, Nell, is it not capital?"
A new addition to their circle was always a matter of interest, but Nell was brought up short by the astonishment on the newcomer's tanned face. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Derringer," she said pointedly.
He recollected himself and bowed. "Your servant, Miss Kydd. Forgive me, I was expecting a younger lady."
Nell's eyes narrowed. Although she had joked about her appearance with Annie, it was beyond the bounds of civility for a stranger to intimate that she looked haggard! "I am eighteen, sir," she said in dulcet tones. "How much younger a bride would you expect your friend to seek?"
She had the satisfaction of seeing Captain Derringer's heavy eyebrows snap together. His utterance, however, was unexpected. "Bride? How is this?"
"Forgot to say," said Philip. "M'mother's idea. She said I should get in quick now your mourning is nearly up." He looked hopefully at Nell. "Does that mean you agree? I didn't think you would."
Nell bit her lips at this artless speech. "No, dear Philip, I do not agree. We should never suit. I would tease you dreadfully."
"Pity," said Philip. "I hadn't thought about you until m'mother suggested it, but it's a good idea. A fellow knows where he is with you."
She patted his hand. "Not for long, I dare swear. But I thank you for your offer and shall always think kindly of you for making it."
Captain Derringer appeared to be struggling with amusement. "It didn't appear to me that my friend had made you an offer."
"That is because you have not known Mr Belmont so long as I have," said Nell repressively. "It was perfectly clear to me, I assure you."
Philip wrinkled his brow, looking from one to the other. "Yes he has, Nell. Known me for long, I mean. We were at Eton."
Nell studied the guest with more friendliness. "Then you must know my brother Kit."
Confusion touched Hugo Derringer's countenance. "I do, yes. I was sorry to hear of his disappearance. I suppose everything possible is being done to - "
"My dear, you are remiss." Jasper Kydd's smooth tones issued from behind her. "You have not yet made your curtsey to Mrs Belmont."
Both young men stiffened and Nell felt a surge of irritation at the way her uncle never left her alone. As if Philip's mama would mind how long she took before going over to her. "I am coming directly," she said. Her chin lifted as she met Captain Derringer's dark eyes. "Pray be easy. If you are acquainted with Kit at all, you will know he has been falling into scrapes since the day he was born. I am persuaded that had any harm truly come to him, I would be aware of it."
Approval flickered in his expression. "Your sentiments do you credit."
Her uncle cleared his throat. The unspoken remonstrance grated. "As my manners do not, it appears," she said. "Allow me to present Captain Derringer, sir, a friend of Mr Belmont. Captain Derringer, my late father's brother, Mr Jasper Kydd."
"Captain Derringer?" Her uncle's cold glance swept over the serviceable black cloth coat, cream waistcoat and buff pantaloons.
"I was invalided home some little time ago." As Hugo Derringer turned, Nell realised that he held his left arm stiffly.
"Indeed? And how do you find Northamptonshire, Captain Derringer?"
"I was never in this part of the country before. Belmont tells me there is excellent shooting to be had."
Commonplace dialogue but Nell sensed taut undercurrents, for all the world as if the two men were rival dogs circling a juicy bone. "I should pay my respects to your mother, Philip," she said. "I hope you enjoy your stay, Captain Derringer." As she moved away, she could feel his eyes following her.
Her uncle accompanied her across the well-proportioned room, a stalking shadow at her shoulder. "Does Derringer remain with Belmont long?"
"I do not know. We had but just been introduced."
"I trust not for Belmont's sake. A half-pay officer with time on his hands will be the ruin of his coverts."
Implicit in his disparaging words were that a half-pay officer with time on his hands would be equally ruinous to any young lady foolish enough to encourage him. Nell almost missed a step in astonishment. The juicy bone had been her? This was a most unexpected development. Jasper had never been solicitous about her future before.
Though they were not placed close enough to converse at dinner and were at different tables for the card play that followed, Nell found her eyes several times drawn to Hugo Derringer. He might dress plainly, but he did not give the impression of being an impoverished soldier bent on amusement. Rather, he had an air of quiet self-reliance. On the occasions when she discovered his watchful gaze to be fixed on her, she met his regard directly. She was not entirely surprised when it was he who tendered her merino shawl as the guests waited for carriages to be brought round at the end of the evening.
"Thank you," she said. "If your sport palls, I hope you will give us the pleasure of calling at Kydd Court."
"The pleasure would be all mine. Are you at home to visitors tomorrow?"
Goodness, that was remarkably quick! "I believe so," said Nell, slightly taken aback, "but do not make an engagement you might not keep. I understand Philip's birds are rising particularly well this year."
Mrs Kydd looked up from arranging her own shawl. "Where is Kit?" she said vaguely. "I wish you would tell him we are ready."
Nell felt hot colour flood her cheeks. Their friends all made allowances for Mama, but Captain Derringer was a stranger and wouldn't understand how badly Papa's death had affected her. He had been the lodestone of her life, the axis on which her world turned. Barely able to grasp that Robert Kydd had gone from her, the awful news of Kit's disappearance just when they were looking to see him home had caused Mrs Kydd's mind to recoil even further into a place of her own devising.
"Kit is not here tonight, Mama," she said.
To her horror, her mother's mouth crumpled. "Oh no, I was forgetting." She laid a tremulous hand on the Captain's sleeve. "You'll go after him, won't you, sir. You'll bring my boy back."
"Mama - " said Nell desperately, but Hugo Derringer intervened.
He covered Mrs Kydd's hand with his own and said in a deep, comforting voice, "I shall do everything in my power to help you, ma'am."
"I knew you would. So kind, always."
Nell was rigid with mortification as Hugo escorted them to the carriage, but before her uncle had even joined them he had nodded a brief farewell and returned to the house. Nell didn't blame him in the least..
That could have been awkward, thought Hugo, hurrying back to the house. He passed Jasper Kydd striding towards the Kydd carriage but made no salutation. Hopefully the man hadn't remarked him. He wondered at himself. Getting along with people was his stock in trade - never had he taken such an instant dislike to a person as he had to Mr Kydd. He felt sorry for Nell and her mother having to live in the same house with him. Nell herself, though... Hugo felt himself smile. What a personality! In spite of that appalling dress. He hadn't at all been looking forward to coming up here, but just a few exchanges with Nell had done much to reconcile him. He had a very agreeable impression that spending time with her would be stimulating and challenging and no hardship at all.
Next morning Nell rose at her usual early hour. There wouldn't be many fine days left this autumn if she read the weather signs aright so she would make the most of them while she could. Slipping down to the stables in a riding habit of dull olive cloth, she met her groom emerging with their mounts.
Seth was part of the fabric of Nell's life. The product of a dull-witted maid and a visiting ostler, he had been adopted into Cook's family and had grown up on the estate. Nell had declared him to be her groom at the age of two when he'd first helped her scramble onto Kit's outgrown pony. Kit always said Seth had taken her so literally he'd barely let her out of sight on horseback since. Now he hoisted her into Snowflake's saddle and swung his leg over the only one of Kit's horses to remain unsold after Jasper Kydd's retrenchment campaign. Nell had fought her uncle more bitterly over this than anything else and had only managed to retain Valiant because Seth needed a mount that could keep up with her in a gallop.
She loved the early morning. The wind streamed past as she gave Snowflake her head along the lane that cut through to the fields. At times like this she could easily understand Mama's withdrawal into her own world. For now there was nothing to think of bar the necessity of avoiding ruts and rabbit holes at speed. It was a shock when her concentration was broken by the sight of a mounted figure by the Six-Mile Acre.
"Captain Derringer!" She reined to a halt. Everything about him was ordered, from the dark locks under his brushed beaver to his gleaming top boots. Nell was uncomfortably conscious of her faded habit and escaping tendrils of windblown hair. Normal life was back with a vengeance. "Whatever are you doing here?"
"I might ask you the same thing!"
"I am exercising my horse. You are trespassing."
"Am I? Then I beg your pardon. I thought this was still Belmont ground."
Seth came galloping up belligerently. "Who's this, Miss Nell? What's he doing on our land? Will I see him off?"
Not again! Nell felt her cheeks flame. Mama last night and Seth this morning. Was she to be forever embarrassed in front of this man? "Captain Derringer is a friend of Mr Belmont, Seth. He was at school with Master Kit."
Seth went through an instant volte face. "That's primer then. Nice horse, Captain. Fast, is he?"
Hugo Derringer took the groom's familiarity in his stride. "Conqueror will go eighteen miles an hour all day if need be. When I call at Kydd Court, perhaps you would be good enough to tend to him."
"I will," said Seth with satisfaction. "Master Kit don't let no one groom Valiant but me." He patted the black stallion's neck fondly.
"He is fortunate that you remain to take care of his stable whilst he is away."
Seth snorted. "What's left of it after Mr Jasper sold 'em all!"
"Enough, Seth," said Nell.
"But Miss Nell, you was mad as fire too when the hunters went. And the mares Master Kit was keeping for breeding. You said you'd like to - "
"Yes, Seth! It is of no interest to Captain Derringer, however." She avoided looking at the betraying quiver around the Captain's mouth and turned Snowflake to ride back.
He nudging his own horse to keep pace with her.
"I must apologise," she said stiffly. "Seth grew up on the estate with Kit and me. He forgets that other families view servants differently. I assure you Conqueror will be in safe hands."
Hugo smiled. It quite transformed his expression, making him seem altogether more carefree. Nell's heart thudded in surprise. "I would be simple myself not to perceive that," he said. "You look delightful this morning."
His eyes were not black at all but a deep shade of green, much darker than her own. And his tan, once you were used to it, gave him a rugged, mature air. Nell coloured fierily, as much at being caught staring as at his words. "I am afraid you must think me disrespectful to be dressed like this," she said in confusion. "My uncle's daughters rarely ride, so it did not occur to him to order me a black habit."
"I do not suppose your late father would object. Green suits you. You should always wear it."
A most peculiar sensation stirred in Nell's breast. Was he flirting with her? "Always? But how singular I should look. And I cannot help thinking that I should become a trifle jaded with the colour after a while."
Hugo Derringer's eyes danced in appreciation. "A jest this early in the morning settles the matter. You would be wasted on Belmont."
"Indeed, I would be very bad for him." Alarmed at the way that neither her tongue nor her body were behaving with propriety, Nell changed the subject. "Tell me, what were you staring at so intently before I arrived?"
His hands stilled for an instant on the reins, almost as if he was vexed at her query. "It seemed to me the south-east corner of the meadow was in standing water. I was pondering the breach of etiquette involved in a guest mentioning to his host that his land was likely to become sour."
Nell laughed. "Then you should be grateful to me for putting you right."
"But I have told you and it is your land."
"Kit's. And I already knew it. I have been saying to my uncle for months that he should set the men to clear the ditches but he claims they can never spare the time. When I argue that the returns will justify the outlay, he begs me desist from such talk as ladies cannot understand."
"It does not seem to me a difficult concept," said Captain Derringer.
"Ah, but you are a man. Females, you must know, are notoriously deficient in comprehension." Anger loosened Nell's tongue. "It infuriates me! He will listen to nothing I suggest. Even when Old John supported me about replanting the hedgerow the bull broke, he would not agree - so the crops from both top fields are now spoiled due to the wind flattening them."
"Odd, but you will admit such farming wisdom is not usually to be found in the fairer sex?"
And now he was laughing at her! "I have lived here all my life and used to roam the estate with my brother. What he learnt, I learnt. Were I only of age to administer in his stead - " She broke off, not trusting herself to continue.
They were passing a field in which heavy ears of corn rustled fatly, gilded by the morning sun. Nell's lips compressed. Every previous year these crops had been gathered in first. It was all very well for her uncle to say changes were long overdue at Kydd Court, but when a system worked, what profit was there in altering it?
Hugo scanned the empty landscape, his forehead creased, his thoughts writ plain upon his face. Nell felt her temper bubble over. Was he doing this on purpose? "You are wondering where the harvesters are. As indeed would anyone. I warned my uncle how it would be when he let half the heavy horses go from the Home Farm and the men with them. The result of his economy is that good crops stand rotting in the fields whilst too few workers salvage what they may from bad! It is ridiculous!"
"I am sorry. Has your uncle no estate of his own to learn from?"
"Indeed he has, and it puzzles me to know how it comes to be as profitable as he claims if he runs Windown Park the same way he does Kydd Court! I cannot see that Northamptonshire and Wiltshire can be so different that the ill-thought methods he uses here work so well there!"
"No, it is very strange."
A flight of birds rising from a distant spinney recalled Nell's attention. "I beg your pardon," she said belatedly. "You should not have let me run on in so wild a fashion."
Captain Derringer raised his eyebrows. "There was a way of preventing you?"
At this outrageous remark, Nell had to remind herself quite strongly that one day's acquaintance was not long enough to answer him in kind. "It distresses me to see the land my father loved mishandled," she said in a controlled voice. "Papa left Kydd in good standing for Kit. My uncle is likely to ruin it before ever my brother sets foot back on these shores." She reined to a halt and pointed along a track to the left. "Your road lies that way. It is muddy from last week's rain but not impassable. Beyond the spinney, you will find Belmont's East Wood. There is a fence between."
"You do not go with me to see me off your property?" There was a teasing challenge in his tone.
"I would, of course, but when my uncle is in residence, I do not care to be late for breakfast. Naturally, if any reports reach me of kindling gone missing or game being startled, I shall know who to blame."
Captain Derringer had been about to turn. Now he halted, deep green eyes sharply interested. "When he is in residence? Mr Kydd does not live here always?"
Nell was unreasonably piqued at his ignoring her sally. "I should be even more cross-grained, were he to do so." But why did he always come when he could meddle to the greatest effect? Harvest time, for instance.
Captain Derringer held out his hand with a smile. "Until later then." He paused. Nell saw a gleam in his eyes. "If I knew you better I would beg you not to return by the dairy; I feel sure you would sour the milk."
"If you knew me better, you would not dare do any such thing," she retorted. She hesitated before putting her gloved hand in his. What she was about to ask was embarrassing in the utmost. "My uncle does not approve of my riding out this early. When you meet him next, I would appreciate your not mentioning our encounter."
His eyebrows arched. "And lay myself open to a charge of trespass? From my observations of Mr Kydd last evening, I cannot imagine he would take my transgression near so understandingly as you." He let go her hand, wheeled away and cantered towards the spinney.
Nell watched him, conscious of an aroused interest in her breast. Was it just because he was unfamiliar, someone she had not grown up with since the cradle? He was the oddest mixture of infuriating and kind, and they had certainly fallen into rapport with indecent speed. She had said things to him that she had previously only raged about in private to Annie.
She frowned as she ran over their conversation. For a stranger he had been asking curious questions. Then she cursed as she realised how far she was from the house. She needed to make haste to get to the breakfast table before her uncle graced it with his presence. She touched her heels to the mare's flanks. "You're going to hate this, Snowflake, she said insincerely. "I'm afraid we're going to have to gallop again."
End of Chapter 1