The Accidental Heiress by Lorea Hartwell

Chapter One

“Lady Morton. Lady Morton! Miss Price!” Lady Deverel puffed her way up the hill toward Phoebe and her aunt, waving a sheaf of papers above her head.

Phoebe dropped her aunt’s elbow as they stopped to wait for her. The sea glinted in the distance. The whitewashed cottages that lined the road only seemed to increase the glare of the sun.

As usual, even the heat didn’t seem to affect Lady Morton. Married at eighteen and widowed at thirty, she was now thirty-two. And—although the discovery of Sir Humphrey’s secret debts, mortgages and mistress had put a few fine lines into the corners of her wide hazel eyes—somehow, she gave the impression of being younger.

It was possible that this was why so many people tried to impose upon her.

“Flora!” Lady Deverel puffed up to them and fanned herself with the papers—which, they saw, were letters. Her face was red with exertion and little beads of sweat trickled down from her hairline. “Dear me! I have had the most interesting news!”

“Good morning, Lady Deverel.” Lady Morton smiled her vaguest smile. “How warm it is for late September.”

“Miss Price!” Lady Deverel looked her up and down, though she had seen Phoebe’s shabby dark calico gown hundreds of times. “I believe that you are acquainted with a Captain Grenville?”

It was the last name Phoebe had expected to hear. Her breath seemed to catch in her chest.

Fortunately, Lady Deverel did not wait for an answer. “Well! Flora, you will never guess! My Lavinia has been at a house party. She gets so many invitations, you know. What a thing it is to have a popular daughter! At any rate, who should arrive there on business but the Earl of Ogston’s new heir—Captain Anthony Grenville!”

“Indeed?” said Lady Morton, calmly.

“There was some dancing on the evening that he was there. And what do you think happened?”

Lady Morton’s pretty face was pleasantly blank. “I am sure that I do not know.”

“Why, Flora! Do you pay no attention at all? Captain Grenville danced with Lavinia, of course!” She fanned herself again. “Think of it! An earl!”

“Indeed?” returned Lady Morton.

“Yes! I have just been explaining it to you. Really, Flora! Captain Grenville is nephew to the Earl of Ogston. His older brother was to inherit. However, he—the brother, that is—died! Very suddenly! I believe it was some months ago.” She rounded on Phoebe, a malicious glint in her eyes. “But perhaps Miss Price can tell us more.”

Phoebe cleared her throat. “I—I am afraid that I was only slightly acquainted with him some years ago. I do not know the family.”

Lady Deverel smirked at her. “Miss Price, you are pale. Are you quite well?”

Fortunately, just then they had to stand aside as a carriage passed, the horses toiling up the steep hill in a cloud of dust. The clip-clop of hooves and the jingle of the harnesses made conversation impossible for a few moments.

Lady Morton coughed. “Goodness! The dust is terrible!” She took Phoebe’s arm and coughed violently again. “We must go home.” Another fit of coughing struck. “Oh dear,” she gasped again. “Good day, Lady Deverel.”

“Good day,” said Lady Deverel, frowning with suspicion.

They turned to walk back down the steep road into town.

Lady Deverel continued up it.

Lady Morton gave a few more coughs.

When they were out of earshot, she squeezed Phoebe’s arm. “Do not take anything she says to heart, dearest.”

“But she behaves as if she… knows!”

“She knows nothing. There is nothing to know. It is not as though your engagement to Lieutenant—Captain—Grenville were ever public.”

“But how does she know that I knew him at all? It is unaccountable!”

“Clearly, she has put some effort into making inquiries. But she will learn nothing. It was four years ago. Depend upon it, the matter is long buried.”

“Yes,” said Phoebe. “I suppose it is.” The bitterness in her own voice surprised her.

When they turned into their street, they found a man standing on the pavement in front of their door, endeavoring to brush the dust from his trousers.

He saw them. “Lady Morton?”

Lady Morton hesitated. “Yes?”

“I am Mr. Peck. We have corresponded frequently.”

“Mr. Peck—the solicitor?” Lady Morton had gone white.

“Exactly so, madam.” He bowed. “I have just now arrived from London bearing letters regarding the final disposition of your late husband Sir Humphrey’s estate.”

Lady Morton gasped and reached for Phoebe. “I—I….”

Mr. Peck caught her just in time as she fainted.

* * *

Mr. Peck—apompous young man apprenticed to his grandfather, who’d been the Morton family’s solicitor for three generations—had borne up surprisingly well when Lady Morton swooned into his arms.

Now she was sitting on the settee clutching Phoebe’s hand as he outlined what—it was rapidly emerging—was not good news.

“But the London house?”

“I am sorry, my lady. We did all that we could. But Sir Humphrey’s debts….”

Lady Morton put her hand to her forehead.

“There is, at least, some good news about the house that your grandmother left you. A clause in her will prevented the property from passing to Sir Humphrey on your marriage. Your late husband could not mortgage it—nor could it be touched by his creditors.”

“The old house?” Lady Morton looked puzzled. “The house in Red Lion Square?”

“Exactly so, my lady. It remained in your name. Unfortunately, the tenant to whom the house was let has, er… decamped. He owes a year of rent, and has left the place very dirty and in poor repair.”

“I do not understand.”

“Among other things, he appears to have absconded with some of the, er… interior doors.” Mr. Peck cleared his throat. “I took the liberty of examining the house myself—it is but a short walk from the Inns of Court. No doubt you will wish to have it brought back to a condition in which it can be let again. If it is new furbished, we will be able to find a reliable tenant—a lawyer, for example.”

“He stole the doors off the hinges?”

“Exactly so, my lady.”

“But why would someone steal a door?”

“It is unlikely that we will discover his motives.” Mr. Peck shuffled his papers. “My lady, it is important that we not become distracted by details, and instead focus on the larger picture of your financial position.”

“Yes. Yes, of course.” Lady Morton blinked rapidly. “I am sorry.”

Phoebe squeezed her hand.

“Now, as to Longridge—I am afraid there is no way to break this news gently. It must be sold.”

A little cry escaped Lady Morton, but she said nothing.

“Sir Humphrey left the estate so encumbered with mortgages that its immediate sale can be the only solution. The silver lining, as we may say, is that if it can be sold for a fair price there will be some money left over. Enough, my uncle and I hope, that you will be able to live on it, provided that it is invested well and you live modestly.”

“Oh.” Lady Morton sat, seemingly frozen, for a long time.

Finally, Mr. Peck cleared his throat. “Those are the bare bones, as we may say, of your position. I am sorry that it is not better news. The finer details of the settlement are all laid out in these papers, which I will leave for you to peruse at your leisure.”

Lady Morton nodded numbly.

“I am staying at the inn tonight, but unfortunately I must make my way back to London tomorrow. If you have further questions just send word.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Phoebe, when it appeared that Lady Morton was in too much shock to speak. “We both appreciate your undertaking such a long journey to bring this news.”

“Not at all.” Mr. Peck stood. “We are always happy to exert ourselves for our valued clients.”

Phoebe saw him downstairs to the door. As he left, he turned, and his expression softened. “My grandfather will be happy to hear that you are here with Lady Morton to support her. Nobody who knows of Sir Humphrey’s—” he coughed— “behavior during the marriage could have anything but sympathy for your aunt.”

Instantly Phoebe mentally forgave his pompousness.

He bowed. “After this evening, we will be reachable at our chambers, of course.”

* * *

Phoebe foundher aunt flung upon the settee, weeping. “This must be the worst day of my life,” she sobbed. “Never to see Longridge again! When it was my dear home for twelve years! It is a disgrace indeed!”

“The disgrace is not yours,” said Phoebe.

“And my garden, too. My roses! Everything—gone! What will Lady Deverel say? You know that she will gloat and gossip to everyone who will listen.”

“Lady Deverel is a—” Phoebe stopped herself. “None of this is your fault.”

“It doesn’t matter. They will laugh just the same. You do not know the ways of the ton.”

“Perhaps you should go lie down.” Phoebe patted her aunt’s hand.

Lady Morton sat up and blew her nose. “Oh, Phoebe. I have been so foolish. Promise me that when you marry, you will choose better than I did.”

“You are not foolish.” Phoebe embraced her. “And you need not worry that anyone will ever want to marry me. My father saw to that.”

* * *

When Lady Mortonhad gone up to her bedroom, Phoebe looked around the small sitting room. She felt trapped.

She kept hearing Lady Deverel’s voice:

Captain Anthony Grenville.

Perhaps Miss Price can tell us more.

The Earl of Ogston’s new heir.

She hadn’t even known that he’d returned to England—let alone that he was attending house parties and dancing with eligible young ladies.

He never loved me, she told herself savagely, and let the hurt twist in her chest, hoping that this time it would cure her of her feelings for him.

It didn’t.

It never did.

Tears stung her eyes.

She’d never met Captain Grenville’s older brother, Joseph. He’d been said to be a fearful rake—living on credit in expectation of the wealth that would one day be his. But his sudden death must have come as a blow to Captain Grenville. And Lady Deverel had said that it had happened only a few months ago.

It made Phoebe’s heart ache for him.

Then again, she reminded herself, he’d obviously recovered his spirits enough to dance with Lavinia Deverel.

She jumped to her feet. Her thoughts were unbearable. She simply had to go for a walk.

* * *

An uneasy breezewas rising as she set out. The heat had finally broken, and little eddies of air whirled the dust in the gutters and scratched dried leaves over the cobblestones.

Farther out in the bay waves showed white caps. A line of bathing machines was drawn up on the sand and there were few other walkers on the Marine Parade. She pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and lengthened her stride.

They’d come to Lyme Regis last year. The official version of events was that Lady Morton’s physician had recommended a course of sea bathing to restore her spirits. And indeed, she’d tried it. But she’d quickly found that the sea was too cold, the dippers too boisterous and the bathing machines too sandy and damp.

But that didn’t matter. The real reason they’d come to Lyme wasn’t the sea bathing. It was that it was much cheaper than London.

Besides, after Sir Humphrey’s death had been announced, some of his less-savory creditors had sent burly men to loiter threateningly on the pavement outside the Mortons’ Mayfair townhouse, terrifying Lady Morton into fits of vapors. Leaving the city had seemed the wisest course.

And so they had lived in Lyme Regis for over a year. And unlike her aunt, Phoebe had discovered that she loved the sea. She’d even become a good swimmer.

Of course, some would have said that it was improper for a lady to swim. But as nobody paid the slightest attention to anything Phoebe did, she was free to do as she liked. After all, she was poor, wore shabby gowns, and could hardly have been less important if she’d tried.

Nobody bothered to gossip about her at all except Lady Deverel. And Phoebe’s life was so dull that even Lady Deverel had an uphill battle finding anything to say about her—let alone anyone interested in hearing it.

So Phoebe had now had two summers in which to practice swimming. Her teacher was a strong woman named Margaret, a dipper who was locally famous for having saved several people from drowning. Indeed, Phoebe had once seen her hook her arm under a thrashing, panicking lady’s chin and float her gently back to shore. And even though autumn’s arrival would soon make it too cold and stormy to continue swimming, there was always next summer to look forward to.

Besides, walking was another compensation for her quiet and lonely life.

She scrambled over a small rocky headland and down onto the long stretch of sand that led in the direction of the village of Charmouth. The sky over Black Ven—the landslide-scarred cliff-face that loomed above the shore ahead—was thick with low, dark clouds.

Her thoughts kept returning to their meeting with Lady Deverel… and to Captain Grenville.

Baron Deverel’s country seat was just two miles from Lyme—but as Miss Deverel, unlike her mother, didn’t mix much in local society, Phoebe only knew her as a tall, pretty young woman with enviable clothes. She was often away, staying with friends. Everyone said that she was bound to make some great marriage.

Well, perhaps that great marriage was finally at hand. The Deverels were rich. Lavinia was pretty. And Captain Grenville was now heir to the Earl of Ogston.

She, on the other hand, was penniless. And—though she and Lady Morton were the only two people alive who knew it—Captain Grenville was the reason for that.

She hoped that she would never see him again.,

The wind whipped up the back of her lumpy, darned shawl. She stopped to pull it tighter. As determined as she’d been to go for a walk, she had to admit that today wasn’t the day for it. The rough sea was driving the rising tide before it, and the narrowest parts of the beach were already being cut off.

A few drops of rain spattered down. She glanced at the sky and sighed. It was time to walk home.

And that was when she saw the man.

He was scrambling across a rocky outcrop a little farther down the shore. The rising tide had covered the beach below him and the waves surged up the rocks toward his feet. Didn’t he realize that what he was doing was dangerous?

Just as she had that thought, she saw him slip. His arms windmilled. For one moment he seemed to regain his balance. Then he toppled backward into the water and was gone.

She blinked.

He’d vanished so quickly and so utterly that for a moment she wondered if she’d imagined the whole thing.

Then she was running toward him—or at least, the place where he’d disappeared. “Sir!” she shouted, even though there was no way he could hear her. “Sir!”

A white, desperate face bobbed to the surface for only a moment before he went under again.

She stopped as she reached the water’s edge. She didn’t see anyone else on the shore, and the man didn’t have long.

If she didn’t help him, he’d die.

She jerked her boots off and began to wade out. The storm surge sucked at her skirts. One moment she was standing. The next, a wave knocked her off her feet. She surfaced, coughed, spat seawater, and fought her way forward.

She’d never swum in such rough seas before. The waves came from every direction at once to slap her in the face. Salt stung her eyes. Wind whistled in her ears.

For a moment, she thought she heard shouting. Was it him? With the waves tossing her about it was all she could do to keep her head above water, let alone see ahead.

Where was he? She must have reached the spot where he’d gone under by now. She swept her hands under the surface, feeling for him.

Nothing.

Was she too late?

Suddenly, desperate hands clawed at her from below. She tried to seize him around the chest—the way she’d seen Margaret do—but instead the drowning man’s face surged up, inches from her own. He gasped for air, eyes bulging in fear, and pushed her down as he tried to climb up her body to get a breath.

She choked on water. “Stop!” she managed to cry.

But the man was senseless with fear. He pushed her under.

She had no air. She fought to push him away. He fought just as hard to cling to her. She hadn’t reckoned with how strong a panicking man would be. His grip on her was bruising. She struggled to the surface for a bare second and gasped for air before he dragged her under again.

He was going to drown her.

She fought back her terror.

And then her thoughts became strangely clear: She had to stop him clawing at her—or they would both die.

She drew back her fist. With a strength she didn’t know she had, she punched him in the nose.

His eyes rolled back. He went limp.

She coughed seawater and gasped for air. Somehow, she hung onto the man’s unconscious body, struggling to keep his mouth and nose above the surface.

Now she had to get them both back to shore.

It was odd and improper, handling a man. But she couldn’t think about that. She turned him onto his back, hooked her elbow under his chin the way she’d seen Margaret do, and began to scull backward with her free arm.

At least now the waves were mostly at her back, though her skirts made it hard to kick her legs.

Was she even going in the right direction?

A wave banged her into rocks, scraping her back.

Dimly, she became aware that someone—no, several people—were nearby, shouting.

Then men were wading out to them—hands pulling them towards safety. “’Tis Major Lowndes!” someone exclaimed.

Somehow, she’d reached the shore. She tried to stand. “A woman! A woman saved Major Lowndes!”

She fell to her knees and retched seawater.