Read Miss Prestwick's Crusade Online

Authors: Anne Barbour

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Regency

Miss Prestwick's Crusade

Belgrave House
www.belgravehouse.com

Copyright ©2003 by Barbara Yirka

First published in 2003

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.

 

CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Epilogue

Acknowledgment

* * * *

 

MISS PRESTWICK'S CRUSADE
Anne Barbour

 

Chapter One

Though the village of Kingsclere was a mere speck on the map, it was situated not far from the intersection of the Basingstoke and the Winchester Roads, where the Pig and Whistle served a constant flow of travelers. The inn took a great deal of pride in the meals it provided these transients, in particular its hearty breakfasts. But, on this fine spring morning, the first meal of the day failed to please at least one customer in the spacious dining room.

Helen Prestwick toyed with her kippers and eggs and crumbled a piece of toast abstractedly onto her plate. She was tall and slim and her garb was modest, but there was a quiet elegance about her that caused the waiters and other employees of the inn to hasten to her bidding. For some moments, she stared ahead of her, her expressive gray eyes blank and unseeing. The woman seated opposite her, small and spare and swathed in unrelieved black, spoke at last.

"Helen, my dear, you must eat. You've scarcely taken a mouthful of food since we embarked on our voyage. You must keep up your strength—if not for yourself, for the child.” She gestured to a small bundle nestled in a cocoon of blankets on yet another chair. “And you'd better hurry. It looks as though he's waking again."

Glancing at the infant, Helen noted a tiny fist waving above the woolly barricade, followed by the sound of an incipient cry. “I think you're right, Barney.” She sighed and placed a protective hand on the blanket. “Poor little mite. He's had scarcely a moment of peace since we set out."

She pushed her plate aside and rose. “He will be bothering the other diners soon, so we'd best leave.” She drew a long breath. “It's time."

The woman incongruously addressed as Barney also stood, adjusting the blanket before allowing Helen to scoop the baby into her arms.

"The carriage should be waiting for us out in the yard,” said Helen over her shoulder as they left the dining room. “And our reckoning is settled."

A few minutes later, the ladies, with their slight burden, mounted the small, enclosed carriage provided by the inn. Helen murmured directions to the driver, and they were soon clattering along the Basingstoke Road. Helen, still clasping the infant to her breast, smiled reassuringly at Barney—more properly addressed as Miss Horatia Barnstaple—before turning her attention to the landscape that flowed past the carriage window.

The beauties of the Hampshire countryside escaped her, however, as she mused on her situation. How odd. She should be in a veritable stew of apprehension at this point, and indeed somewhere inside lurked a well of stark fear. However, at the moment, her primary sensation was one of unreality. The past year had been the most eventful of her life, culminating in this incredible journey. Yes, there had been some joy—William's birth—but mostly the last several months had been a continuous eruption of one disaster after another. And then there was Christopher Beresford. She had known from the moment that he had entered into her family's orbit that he would create nothing but tumult. But had anyone told her then that on a bright day in late March of the year 1810 she would find herself embarked on a mission some would consider sheer madness, she would have laughed merrily. Yet, here she was. She started, aware that Barney was speaking.

"Shall I hold him for awhile, Helen? You've carried him through almost our entire journey clutched to you like a life preserver. I know he's small, but surely your arms need a rest."

Helen smiled again, this time somewhat painfully, and shook her head. She wasn't sure why she felt compelled to keep William so close to her, but somehow she felt the need to press this helpless morsel of humanity into the haven of her body, as though by doing so she could protect him from the wicked forces that would steal his birthright.

Of course, so far the wicked forces were unaware of William's existence, but what would be Mr. Edward Beresford's reaction to his claim—or rather, to her claim on William's behalf? From what she knew of the man—and others of his class, he would use every bit of his not inconsiderable power to eliminate any threat to his status.

"We're almost there,” said Helen. She smiled again, this time warmly. “I don't know what I would have done without you, Barney. It was good of you to come with me. Perhaps, when we have—accomplished our purpose, you will want to stay here, for—"

Miss Barnstaple sat up straight in her seat. “Stay here! In a pig's ear! What would I do with myself here? I have no family—don't know a soul. No, when we have William settled, I'll head for home. But what about you?"

Helen started. “Oh, I don't know. I must earn my own bread now—after the fiasco with Colonel Foster. And Father—well, he seems to have lost interest in ... And with Trixie gone . . .” Her voice broke. Then she shook herself briskly. “I know it will take me some time to gain a reputation in art circles here, but I am acquainted with a few people I can call upon for recommendations.” She squared her shoulders. “It will be a start."

"Hmph,” snorted Miss Barnstaple. “Fiasco, indeed. I don't know why you let yourself in for all that heartbreak, Helen. What happened was your papa's fault, pure and simple. I'm not saying he was into anything havey-cavey, but it was plain foolishness for you to try to take the blame—even if you did claim it was all a mistake."

"And so it was, Barney,” Helen replied snappishly. That was the trouble with traveling with someone she had known all her life. Barney had been present at Helen's birth and had been with her ever since as companion, and even as a sort of governess, since Lord knows Father had never provided one for Trix and her. She gazed fondly at the older woman. What would she have done without Barney's indomitable spirit and constant supply of good sense? Look at her now, the very picture of rigid respectability, from the top of her black, belligerently shiny straw bonnet to the tips of her serviceable shoes. Her black eyes, round as currants, snapped a message to the world that here was a woman not to be trifled with. Her dark hair, just now beginning to show a sprinkle of gray, was pulled back into an uncompromising bun.

"I expect we shan't ever come to agreement on that point,” Helen concluded. She shifted the bundle in her lap and laughed shakily. “I suspect the young master needs changing, but I would not wake him now for a million guineas. It would be best if he could remain asleep during our interview."

"Ump. It looks as though you'll get your wish. I think he finally tired himself out with all his caterwauling last night."

The carriage slowed at that moment, and Barney reached to grasp Helen's hand. In a few minutes, the vehicle swung away from the main road to draw up before a pair of massive stone gates.

"We're here,” whispered Barney. They sat in apprehensive silence as a figure emerged from a neatly kept gate-lodge and walked briskly toward them. The man waved a greeting to the driver of the carriage.

” ‘Lo, Henry. What's toward?"

” ‘Lo, Hiram. A couple o’ leddies t'see ‘is lordship."

Hiram turned his attention to the “leddies” and raised an inquiring brow. “Something I can help with you with, mum?” he asked of Helen, immediately ascertaining the person in charge.

"Yes,” Helen replied, with what she hoped was just the right combination of hauteur and condescension. “I wish to see Mr.—er. Lord Camberwell. No,” she continued hurriedly, to forestall the question she knew would next be forthcoming. “I do not have an appointment, but I have important news for him that cannot wait."

Hiram shuffled. He was obviously impressed with Helen's demeanor but unwilling to so forget his position as to allow an unidentified personage—lady or no—to enter the estate grounds without authorization.

"I'm sorry, Mum, I can't—that is, mebbe if you'd send in a note . . ."

Helen allowed a hint of impatience to creep into her voice. “That won't do, my good man. I have come a very long way, and it is imperative that I see Lord Camberwell at once. Please be assured he will be extremely displeased if I am turned away."

After a very long moment, Hiram turned unhappily and opened the gates wide. Almost trembling in her relief, Helen sank back against the squabs and lifted her hand in a triumphant gesture to Barney, who uttered a soft cackle. Both women craned for a view from the window as the carriage made its way along a tree-lined drive, but for some time nothing could be seen beyond a well-kept park and a sheet of ornamental water, glinting in the distance.

Then, as the carriage rounded a curve, there it was.

"Whitehouse Abbey,” Helen whispered against the wispy softness of William's hair. “Oh, my dearest boy—you're home!"

The house, she thought, bore an unexpectedly welcoming aspect. Built from local stone, it glowed warmly in the morning sun. It was an impressive manse, with long tiers of windows spreading on either side of a noble entrance. Tendrils of ancient ivy stirred in the spring breeze, and over all hung the fragrance of newly budded trees.

"Dear Lord,” Helen prayed silently. “Make this go well.” She could not bear to contemplate Edward Beresford's reaction to their appearance. She
must
convince him of the legitimacy of her claim—make him believe that there was no use disputing it. When the carriage drew to a halt under a sheltering portico, Helen exchanged one last glance with Barney. Still clasping William tightly, she accepted the driver's assistance in descending to the ground. She looked neither to the right nor to the left as she strode up to the front door and wielded the knocker with all her strength.

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Chapter Two

Inside the manor house, the family was gathered for breakfast in the small dining salon.

"But, dearest, if we are to remove to Camberwell House for the Season, should you not send word to make the place ready for us?"

The woman, a matron of comfortable proportions, spoke from her place at the end of the table.

"It is already March,” she continued in the sweet, plaintive voice that never failed to set Edward's teeth on edge, “and we will, of course, wish to arrive in London in plenty of time to have gowns made up and to pay the necessary calls."

"Oh, yes, Mama!” The young girl seated at the older woman's left, a profusion of blond curls bouncing about her pretty face, almost gurgled in her excitement. She twisted to face the head of the table. “Edward, Mrs. Drummond-Burrell will be sure to provide us with vouchers for Almack's, do you not think?"

The person addressed by these ladies looked about the table in some distraction. Lord, he didn't want to go to London. He had vowed that his sudden rise in status would make no difference in the way he conducted his affairs. However, in the months since his arrival at Whitehouse Abbey, he had been chivvied into the position of estate manager, social secretary and arbiter of the family's affairs. Now, for God's sake, he was expected to hare off to London. Edward Beresford, the twelfth Earl of Camberwell, took a deep breath.

"Isn't it a bit early to be thinking of the Season, Aunt?” he asked mildly. “I am not conversant with the mores of London society, but—
but,"
he continued, ignoring the barely muffled snort emanating from his cousin Artemis, she of the yellow curls and appalling giggle, “it was my impression that the Season won't be gearing up for another month or so. We're barely into March, after all, and Parliament won't be in session for—"

"My wardrobe, Edward!” cried Artemis. Her voice was high with exasperation, and Edward's fingers clenched around his fork. His gaze swept the little assemblage gathered there for the morning meal. Aunt Emily, the dowager Countess of Camberwell, reigned at the foot. At her right, her brother, Stamford Welladay, rotund and unrelentingly amiable, sipped his coffee. Stamford had lived .at Whitehouse Abbey since his sister's marriage to the tenth earl, and showed every sign of leeching off the place for the remainder of his indolent life. Artemis, just turned eighteen, perched on the edge of her chair, her hands fluttering in description of the myriad gowns, pelisses and accessories she considered necessary for a sojourn in Town. “I have not a single thing in my wardrobe,” continued Artemis, embarking on an all-too-familiar theme, “that has not been contrived by Mrs. Brinkson. She does very well for a village seamstress, of course, but really, Edward, it is beyond what is acceptable that I should put the fashioning of my London ensembles in her hands. Why, my ball gowns—"

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