Darcy Burke

Excerpt: Impossible

Book 5: The Phoenix Club

Chapter One

 

June 1815

Hundreds of years ago, Stonehill had been a castle. Now, it was a large country house built within the last hundred years with a Palladian front. The façade was beautiful, but Ada Treadway would have preferred the castle.

Dark storm clouds hovered in the south, as if she needed to be reminded that this errand could be fraught with turmoil. Could be? Ada suspected nothing less from the Viscount Warfield.

The coach, which belonged to her employer, Lord Lucien Westbrook, rumbled to a stop in front of the entrance to the house. The coachman opened the door, and Ada stepped out into the early evening. A brisk wind whipped the ribbons of her hat beneath her chin. It seemed the storm was coming quickly. There was no avoiding it now.

“I’ll fetch your case, Miss Treadway,” the coachman said.

Thanking him, Ada started toward the house. The door did not magically open when she arrived at the threshold. So she knocked.

The coachman arrived beside her. “No one’s come to greet you?”

“Not yet.” Ada knocked again, this time with more vigor.

Another moment passed and still nothing. Frowning, the coachman looked about. “Perhaps I should take the coach to the stable and find someone there.”

“There must be someone in the house,” Ada reasoned, knocking a third time.

At last, there seemed to be a sound beyond the door—footsteps.

The door swung open to reveal a small red-faced woman with graying brown hair and weary chestnut eyes. “Begging your pardon, miss. My son—that is, the footman—is busy at the moment, and I’m afraid I was belowstairs.” She summoned a smile, but it was hard-fought, or so it seemed to Ada.

“Good evening,” Ada said warmly. “I’m here to help Lord Warfield with his ledgers.”

“Yes, I received a letter from Lord Lucien about your arrival. Do come in. I’m Mrs. Bundle, the housekeeper.” She stepped aside, holding the door. Looking to the coachman, she said, “If you’ll leave her case here in the hall, my son will fetch it shortly. I know you need to tend the horses.”

“Thank you.” The coachman inclined his head before setting Ada’s traveling case just inside the doorway. He nodded at Ada before departing for the stable.

Ada doubted she would see him again before he left in the morning. He’d be back in a fortnight to fetch her back to London. “Thank you, Jackson,” she called after him.

Returning her attention to Mrs. Bundle, Ada clasped her hands before her. “I can carry my own case upstairs—I don’t mind. If you’ll just show me the way to my room?”

A tall, rather lean young man hurried into the hall just then. His brown eyes were the same color as his mother’s and held the same weariness. No, not quite the same, for his mother possessed many more years of experience that made her gaze heavier.

“Here is Timothy now,” Mrs. Bundle said, brightening at the arrival of her son. “He’ll show you to the Primrose Room. Dinner is at seven.” She gestured to the left. “The dining room is through there—you’ll find it.”

“Should I expect to meet with Lord Warfield before dinner?” Ada asked.

Mrs. Bundle blanched. Ada hadn’t expected to be welcomed enthusiastically by her host—she was well versed on the viscount’s surly demeanor. However, she hadn’t expected this…strangeness from his retainers.

“No, I shouldn’t think so,” Mrs. Bundle said, an apologetic glimmer in her expression. “I doubt he’ll join you for dinner either. I will remind him that you’ve come.”

Ada suddenly recalled that the housekeeper had said she’d received a letter from Lucien about her arrival. Lucien had seen fit to write directly to the housekeeper. Was the viscount even aware that she was coming? It seemed he must have been at some point if Mrs. Bundle was going to remind him.

Ah well, Ada had known this would be a challenging assignment. Warfield was angry, wounded inside and out, and completely uninterested in help from anyone. These were things she’d learned from Lucien, who was one of Warfield’s closest friends, if the viscount truly had any of those anymore. She’d also heard them from Warfield’s half sister, who happened to be Ada’s closest friend, Prudence Lancaster. No, Prudence St. James since she had recently wed the Viscount Glastonbury.

By all accounts, Warfield was a nasty fellow with no desire to improve his demeanor. As a former governess, Ada had decided to view him as an unruly child. She had plenty of experience with those.

She gave Mrs. Bundle what she hoped was a supportive smile. “I understand his lordship possesses a difficult nature. Do not worry for me. I am up to the task at hand, which is to organize his ledgers and determine how he might make improvements. Not that I am versed in running an estate, but I understand numbers and will report my findings to Lord Lucien, who will help his lordship make the necessary changes.”

Mrs. Bundle stared at her as if Ada had suddenly sprouted a second head. “You and Lord Lucien are awfully confident.” Her tone was rife with skepticism.

“We are hopeful,” Ada said. It was also her hope that she’d be able to accomplish her mission with very little interaction with his lordship. She planned to stay out of his way as much as possible. So, it was really quite fine if he didn’t join her for dinner. In truth, all she really needed was access to his ledgers. He could stay wherever he was hiding.

“Bless you, Miss Treadway. Timothy will show you to the Primrose Room now.” Mrs. Bundle inclined her head toward her son before leaving the hall.

Ada offered the lad—he looked younger than her twenty-five years—an encouraging smile, for he seemed a trifle nervous. Perhaps that was what happened when you worked in a house with an excessively disagreeable employer. “The Primrose Room sounds quite charming.”

Without a word, he picked up her case and gestured straight through the entry hall.

They moved into a large staircase hall, with the stairs climbing from the center to the back wall and then splitting up either side to a gallery on the first floor. Ada preceded him up the stairs. “Have you and your mother been here a long time?” she asked.

“Yes.” The word was so quiet, Ada had to strain to hear it. She glanced back at him to see him staring past her, his features taut.

She very much wanted to put him at ease. “Well, I am here to help if I can. I look forward to my time here.”

He said nothing, and at the top of the stairs merely pointed again, this time to the left. If he hadn’t answered her question a moment ago, she might have begun to wonder whether he could speak.

They moved along the gallery, and she would have kept on going if he hadn’t said, “Here.”

Stopping, she turned back to see him standing in front of a door, which he opened for her.

“Thank you,” she said with a smile, still hoping he might relax a bit—she hated that he might feel nervous around her. Moving into the chamber, she wondered why it was called the Primrose Room, for there was nary a primrose about. “Is it called Primrose because of the yellow?” Bright, cheerful yellow dominated the color scheme of the room. Ada’s favorite primroses were that color yellow.

Timothy’s only answer was to shrug. He set her case down. “Do you need anything else?” His voice was rather small, and it seemed an effort to say so much.

“No, thank you. Very much,” she added with a great deal of warmth and another smile.

He inclined his head, then took himself off. Ada found that she had tensed in his presence—because she’d been unsettled by his nervousness. She hoped she hadn’t upset him somehow. But how could she have?

Ada shook her head. She sometimes worried far too much what others thought or took responsibility for making sure everyone around her felt happy. Or that they were at least positive rather than sad or troubled.

Bother, it wasn’t her responsibility. Still, she couldn’t seem to help herself. Perhaps she’d ask Mrs. Bundle about her son. But then Mrs. Bundle had also seemed beleaguered. Had Warfield cast a pall over his entire household? It seemed possible, if not likely, given all she knew of him.

“Do not assume he has kind qualities or a hidden desire to be happy,” Prudence had warned, though she couldn’t know that for certain because she’d only met him the one time. It was more that she was cautioning Ada not to treat him as she did others, that he wasn’t a typical person who had a bad day now and again. Lucien had made it clear the viscount was disagreeable and surly every day. Or at least every time Lucien made the journey to visit his friend.

Ada realized she was hoping Warfield might be different around her. She did bring out the best in people, or tried to anyway. Her optimism refused to believe she wouldn’t be able to manage it.

She poked around the room, feeling slightly out of place. She supposed she’d expected a room on the servants’ floor, but when Mrs. Bundle had said “Primrose Room,” she’d realized that would not be the case. Still, she hadn’t expected a room of this size, with a beautiful seating area, large four-poster bed with hangings, and a separate dressing chamber where a maid could prepare her garments. As if she had a maid. Ada giggled.

She no more required a maid than she did a husband. Independence suited her quite wonderfully. She’d been on her own for nearly ten years, since a fever had taken her mother, just a few months after her sister had died. And she’d lost her father five years before that. That she retained such a positive outlook after tragedy surprised everyone, but to Ada, it was simply survival. What good would it be to wallow?

Not that she hadn’t spent time wallowing… She pushed those thoughts away. Better to focus on her love of independence, for that was what would keep her strong and happy.

And she was going to need that to get through the next fortnight.

#

After a solitary dinner served by a silent Timothy, Ada found the library. At the back of the house in the center, it seemed an addition to the original structure. The library’s domed ceiling soared well past the first floor. It was almost cathedral-like with high windows, some of which were stained glass. They were flowers, she realized—a rose, a lily, a dahlia, and even a primrose. She was now curious about the meaning of flowers at Stonehill.

Her curiosity was perhaps second only to her positivity—and perhaps not even that—and it drove Ada through one of the doorways leading from the library. At once, she knew she’d found the viscount’s study.

The scent of leather, paper, and brandy enveloped her as she stepped inside. Meager light from the hearth provided more shadows than illumination, but Ada made out the rich blue draperies cloaking the tall windows that presumably looked out at the rear garden and parkland beyond. Presumably, she thought, because it was now dark, and she couldn’t see anything past the panes of glass.

The remnants of the fire prompted her to wonder if his lordship had been there earlier. A cozy blue, gold, and brown patterned chair sat near the fireplace, providing the perfect place to sit and read or simply contemplate. Ada liked to think, and she could see herself enjoying that spot for just that purpose.

Alas, this was not her place, and she should go. But the same curiosity that had beckoned her inside now pushed her to the desk. Perhaps she could get an early start on the ledgers. She wasn’t terribly tired, despite the day’s journey.

Fetching a spill from the mantel, she borrowed some fire from the hearth to light the lamp on the desk. Finding it still warm, she wondered if Warfield had only recently left.

“What are you doing in here?”

The bellow from the doorway made her jump, and she dropped the spill before lighting the lamp. Muttering a curse, she plucked up a leather-bound volume and slapped it on the smoking spill before it could catch something on fire.

“Are you trying to set my bloody house ablaze?” The large figure moved into the room, but it was too dark to make out his features. She could, however, see that he was quite tall and rather broad across the shoulders.

“No. I was lighting a lamp.”

Failing to light it and starting a fire in the meantime.”

She lifted the book and took the spill from beneath it to return it to the mantel. “I did not.”

He moved to the desk, his body angled away from her so that she could only see his right side. Even so, she still couldn’t discern his face, just the strong jut of his square jaw.

Moving the book she’d used to extinguish the spill to the other side of the desk, he grunted. “You aren’t supposed to be in here. You’re to keep to your chamber or the dining room.”

“Those are the only places I may go?” Ada snorted. “I’m going to be here a fortnight. I shall need more than my chamber and the dining room to escape boredom.”

“Why? You’re here to look at my ledgers. You may take them to your room. The Primrose Room has a fine desk, and I’ll make sure the lamp is lit in the evenings, since you can’t seem to accomplish that feat.”

“That was your fault,” she said with disdain, forgetting that she preferred to be good-natured. Ada took a deep breath and forced herself to find magnanimity. “You startled me.”

“You’re trespassing where you shouldn’t be.”

Though he was being a dolt about it, she acknowledged that he was right. She was overly inquisitive, and she knew it. “My apologies. I only meant to see if I could get started on my work.” That was, inquisitiveness aside, the primary reason she’d wanted to look at his desk.

“Or to see what you could find out about me while I wasn’t here to stop you.” His low growl stole over her like a shadow, making her shiver.

Not in fear, but awareness. And it roused her ire. “You might be able to frighten everyone,” she said, thinking of Timothy. “However, I will not be cowed by your outrage. I’ve no patience for such theatrics. I came here to do a job, and I’d like to do it.”

His jaw clenched. “Mrs. Bundle was supposed to tell you we would meet in the morning.”

“Even if she had, I would have still come in here. I like to be busy, and I wasn’t tired.”

He grunted. “Then read a book. The library is next door.”

“Yes, I was just in there. It’s a stunning room. Was it added to the house after it was built?”

Silence reigned for a moment, and she could almost feel his derision. So much for making chitchat.

She gave up on conversation. “If you’d like to hand me one of your ledgers, I can take it up to my room and get started. Though, I’d rather have a different place to work. Perhaps the libr—”

He slammed his palm on the desk. “Enough! Get out before I toss you from the estate entirely. I never should have let Lucien talk me into letting you come.”

“He is rather persuasive.”

His head turned toward her for the briefest moment, and his eyes—completely shadowed—met hers. “Get. Out.”

Ada inhaled slowly and counted to five in her head. “My lord, I am not someone you can order about. You are not my employer—Lucien is the one I am serving during my stay here. The sooner you accept that I’ve come to help, the better you will feel.” She went back to the desk and picked up the book she’d inadvertently almost caught on fire. “I’ll start with this. Good evening, Lord Warfield.”

He turned his head toward hers again, and because she was closer, she could actually make out part of his features beyond the shape of his chin. His nose was long and aquiline, and his brow wide, with a lock of blond hair falling across it. But it was the scar, rather scars, she glimpsed running over the left side of his face that caught her attention.

He snatched the book from her grasp and walked into the shadows, turning his back to her. “Go.”

Ada pivoted and returned to the library before finding her way to the Primrose Room.

This was going to be a very long fortnight.

 

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