The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(2)

By: Maggi Andersen


“The master’s in his study, miss. Please wait here while I announce you.”

Vanessa sank gratefully onto the edge of a straight-backed chair. It had been hours since she’d had a drink, and she was horribly parched. Now her knees had developed a worrying tendency to tremble. To distract herself, she studied the remarkable flesh tones of a naked woman’s torso on the oil painting hanging on the opposite wall. A François Boucher if she was not mistaken. More flesh than was decent, surely.

Her father had preferred the sea and boats as his subjects. Initially, he’d considered the naked body to be soft pornography and not fine art, but he’d altered his opinion after nudes became an important asset to any wealthy man’s collection and began to fetch high prices. More than once, Vanessa had come across nude models posing in his studio, barely covered by drapery and, sometimes, wearing nothing at all.

The thought of her father and their home in Cornwall, brought on a wave of homesickness. She had never envisaged such a drastic change in fortune. She swallowed and focused her mind on the letter and the offer that had brought her here.

In his fine script, the viscount had been brief, and to the point. He was a widower with a young daughter in need of tutoring. An associate of her uncles had approached him on her behalf. She’d read his words with disquiet. He sounded so business-like and… unsympathetic.

He had been informed that her mother and father died from the influenza, but his few words of condolence failed to make her more confident of what lay ahead.

The maid’s head appeared over the banister rail. “The master will see you now.”

Vanessa walked up the wide oak stair. The maid waited outside a door. She bobbed and left her. A deep voice answered Vanessa’s knock. She turned the knob thinking how she would have liked to wash before meeting her new employer; it was difficult to appear cool and in control when so hot.

The room she entered was also steeped in gloom. A gas lamp glowed where a man sat in shirtsleeves and braces, his dark head bent over a desk. She took two uncertain steps and paused in the middle of a crimson Persian rug. Vanessa clasped her hands together and inspected the room. Shelves of leather-bound books lined one wall. Heavy bronze velvet drapes, pulled halfway across the small-paned windows, framed a narrow but magnificent view of parkland where broad graveled walks trailed away through well-grown trees. She suffered a sudden urge to walk across, pull the curtains back and throw open a window.

Lord Falconbridge put down the butterfly under-glass he had been examining and pushed back his leather chair, rising to his feet. As she edged closer, he donned his coat and came to shake her hand. “Miss Ashley.”

“How do you do, Lord Falconbridge.”

He motioned her to sit then sat himself.

He would be in his mid-thirties, she guessed. His good looks made her feel even more untidy. His dark hair swept off a wide brow, a deep cleft in his strong chin. He removed his glasses, and his eyes were like the bright blue of the butterfly. Dark brows met in an absent-minded frown as if she was an unwelcome distraction. “Welcome to Falconbridge Hall. I hope you had a good journey?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“You’ve come quite a long way. You must be tired.”

“I broke my journey with an aunt in Taunton, my lord.” Her aunt was quite elderly, and Vanessa had slept on the sofa, but she didn’t feel at all tired. She expected fatigue would strike once the initial rush of excitement had faded.

“My sympathies for your loss, Miss Ashley.”

“Thank you.”

“You have had no experience as a governess, I understand.”

“No.”

“Do you like children?”

“Very much, my lord.”

“Then you have had some involvement with them.”

“Yes, I was very fond of my neighbors’ children. I minded them quite often as their parents were both in business.”

“You had no opportunity to marry in Cornwall?”

“I had one offer, my lord.” The widowed vicar, Harold Ponsonby, had offered, in an attempt to rescue her from the heathenish den of iniquity in which he found her.

He eyed her. “And you refused him?”

Might he think her imprudent? “Yes. He was very kind, but I did.”

“Do you have a particular skill, Miss Ashley, which you can impart to my daughter?”

“No, my lord.” She drew in a breath. She had not expected such a question. “Sadly, I did not inherit my father’s artistic talent, but I have my mother’s inquiring mind and her interest in history and politics.”

“Politics?” He stared at her rather long, and she wished again that she’d had time to tidy herself. “The rest of the day is your own. We will discuss your duties in the library tomorrow at ten. Mrs. Royce, my housekeeper, will show you to your room.” With an abstracted glance at his desk, he rose and went to pull the bell.