The Mystery at Falconbridge Hall(5)

By: Maggi Andersen

The tea tray arrived soon after a bell pealed through the house. Feather-light, fluffy scones with plum jam and a wedge of fruitcake accompanied the pot of tea. She savored the last drops of a good, strong cup and poured another. Every crumb consumed, she felt much livelier afterwards.

Vanessa slipped out to explore the enormous house. She passed room upon room where the curtains were drawn. On the ground floor, she entered a doorway into a burst of sunlight and blinked, finding herself in a conservatory, a long glass room on the sunny southern side of the house.

A scream chilled her blood.

Heart pounding, Vanessa hurried forward. In amongst large tubs of bright orange cumquats, and green foliage, a table was laden with delectable treats. Blythe sat alone nibbling a piece of iced cake and swinging her legs.

“What was that unearthly scream?” Vanessa asked, gazing around. The answer to her question came from a gilded birdcage. A large brightly plumaged bird sat on a perch and called again.

“That’s the macaw Father brought back from South America,” Blythe said.

Vanessa went over to the cage. With a crimson breast, bright blue and green feathers, and a decidedly beady eye, the bird was truly magnificent. It turned its head to study her. “Might it want something?”

“I expect it would like some nuts.”

As Vanessa had no nuts to offer it, she returned to the table. “I’ve been exploring.”

Blythe nodded.

“You have a lovely house.”

“Thank you.” The child turned her attention to her glass of milk.

“It’s nice to sit in the sun, isn’t it?” Vanessa said, hoping to draw the child into conversation.

“I suppose it is.” Blythe gave her a quick glance. “I’m taking tea with my father.”

“Is this a special occasion?”

“Yes, we don’t do it often.”

Not wishing to be here when he arrived, Vanessa turned to go.

The contrast of this room with the rest of the house was stark. The sun touched the glossy leaves of the potted plants, turning them vivid green, and the air smelled of earth and fragrant orchids. Outside, a bluebottle batted in vain against the glass. Vanessa might have entered a tropical forest. She couldn’t help searching the cathedral glass ceiling for butterflies and smiled wryly as she turned to go.

“You find something amusing?”

Lord Falconbridge stepped through the door. She hadn’t expected to see him until their appointment tomorrow. He had removed his glasses and now wore a marine blue coat with a striped cravat at his throat.

“Do sit down, Miss Ashley.”

“No thank you, my lord. I’ve had my tea.” She stood with her hands clasped in front of her, hoping he’d dismiss her so she could continue her exploration of the house and grounds.

He pulled out a chair for her. “If you don’t sit, I shall have to remain standing, and I wish to have my tea.”

“Thank you.” Reluctantly, she sat on the chair he’d offered her.

He sat next to his daughter and leaned back, crossing one long leg over the other. The bright light revealed lines at the corners of his eyes, probably from his time spent in a hot climate. She dropped her gaze, aware that his lordship studied her with more interest than on their first meeting. His was so concentrated a gaze that her fingers curled, and she resisted straightening her collar. She could only be glad she’d dealt with that smudge.

He could hardly be admiring her profile. When her father had painted her portrait, he always transformed her retroussé nose into one of classical proportions.

“Mother had a similar coloring to Miss Ashley, didn’t she, Father?” Blythe asked him.

“Your mother’s hair was auburn,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Blythe, too, showed little emotion when she mentioned her mother. Perhaps Lady Falconbridge had passed away many years before. “Miss Ashley’s is reddish-gold rather like a Hypanartia cinderella,” he said, nodding to her.

“From Peru,” Blythe added.

“How interesting,” Vanessa said, trying not to fidget under his lordship’s observant gaze. Heavens, he had the ability to strip her of her composure with one look.

“Yes, and you share your first name with the Vanessa cardui, a butterfly with a strange pattern of flying, a sort of screw shape. Like this.” He made a circular downward spiral with his finger.

Surely, he wasn’t teasing her? She eyed him suspiciously. “I trust it’s only my name that reminds you of it, my lord.”

A faint smile lifted the corner of his mouth. “Butterflies are quite fascinating in their diversity, Miss Ashley.”