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The hushed sounds of the quiet house accompanied Miss Gemma Hastings as she crept from her bedchamber through the hallways of Beauchamp House.
She wasn’t doing anything wrong. She was a woman grown and come the end of the year she’d be the owner of the estate on the south coast of Sussex. But her emotional memory of being chastised for her nighttime rambles as a child seemed to override her brain’s sense of righteousness.
As one of the four heiresses named in the will of Lady Celeste Beauchamp, chosen for their intellectual capabilities to spend a year in residence at the house, which boasted one of the most impressive libraries in England, Gemma had enjoyed the freedom leaving her parents’ house in Manchester had given her. But even so, she had moments when their expectations and mundane disappointments threatened to shadow her new life of independence.
Shaking off the anxiety, she pulled her dressing gown more tightly about her and lifted her candle higher to light the way to Lady Celeste’s—now her—workroom and gallery.
Insomnia had been her constant companion from an early age. One of her first memories was of lying beside her elder sister Sophia—whose skill with a paintbrush had earned her a place at Beauchamp House as well—and asking for one more story to relieve the desperation of sleeplessness. Poor Sophia had begged her to go to sleep, but Gemma knew that she asked the impossible. Her brain simply would not shut off no matter how much she wished it to. Unfortunately, it was still the case at times.
Now, of course, Sophia was likely fast asleep beside her husband Benedick, the local vicar. The thought made Gemma glance toward the windows overlooking the back gardens of Beauchamp House and beyond the winter-barren trees and shrubs toward the direction of the vicarage.
She’d expected pitch darkness, but to her surprise, she saw a light bobbing far beyond the area surrounding the house and near where she knew from frequent walks the bluffs overlooking the bit of shore belonging to the Beauchamp property lay.
“Who the devil is that?” she asked aloud, but the only response was the creak of a board beneath her feet. Not only was it two o’clock at night, but it was also a cold, bleak November night. No one of sense would be outside at that moment.
Her trip to the workroom forgotten, she quickly retraced her steps to her bedchamber and hastily pulled on the woolen gown she’d worn that day, her sturdy boots, and her warmest cloak.
Minutes later she was pushing through the kitchen door leading into the gardens with a lantern lifted from its hook on the wall. The cold struck her face like a slap. The wind had picked up since she’d dared to go down to the shore earlier in the day—or rather yesterday, she supposed.
It was darker than she’d first thought, but when the moon came out from behind the clouds, it bathed the garden and the landscape beyond in light. And sure enough, she saw a dark figure carrying a light in the distance.
In the months since the heiresses—comprised of Gemma, Sophia, classics scholar Ivy and mathematician Daphne—had come to Beauchamp House, there had been several dangerous incidents, including murder and kidnappings, which should have given Gemma pause, but she had no intention of putting herself in danger. She would stay at a safe distance from whoever it was that trespassed on Beauchamp House land.
As the only one of the heiresses to have thus far been unable to interpret the letter Lady Celeste had left for her, she was eager for some sort of distraction. Her trek to the workroom had been intended as another search of the artifacts and fossils for some clue to the “greatest find” Lady Celeste had hidden away for her.
My own endeavors in geology were sadly lacking when compared with yours, but because I so admire your self-taught insight into the bone and stone remnants left to us by Mother Nature, I have in turn left to you my greatest fossil-hunting find. It lies where earth and sea and sky take hands and dance together in the wind, where once the terrible lizards roamed and giants walked amongst the—
Unfortunately, her benefactress had left the letter unfinished, no doubt because of the ravages of illness that had taken her life. So unlike the other heiresses, who had been left puzzles and quests to fulfill, Gemma had a half-finished letter alluding to a great find but giving only vague clues as to where it might be found. Gemma, who was not poetic at the best of times, had spent the months since her arrival at Beauchamp House staring at the inked lines, trying to make herself understand the hidden meaning there.
Thus far, she’d only managed to work out that the fossil was located somewhere along the shore. But the stretch of beach below Beauchamp House was too wide to dig up in its entirety, and besides that, why would Lady Celeste bury a fossil she’d already unearthed?
But Lady Celeste’s fossil was not foremost in her mind as she hurried through the windy night. There was no reason for anyone to be on the Beauchamp House property in this weather and at this hour. She had to assume that they were here for nefarious purposes.
Wishing she’d brought some sort of weapon with her, she glanced around at the shrubs and trees of the carefully planned natural gardens and sighed at the fastidiousness of Jenkins, the gardener, who was far too conscientious to leave a convenient branch for her to use as a weapon.
The lantern would have to do.
Opening its window, she snuffed the flame and continued along the path toward the cliff’s edge where she saw the dark figure step into the copse of trees near the sea stairs leading to the shore below.
When he emerged on the other side, he lifted his torch higher and she was able to see his face clearly in the light.
“Cameron Lisle!” she cried out in anger. “I should have known it was you.”
* * *
Lord Cameron Lisle had done many foolish things in his lifetime.
There was the time he’d—on a dare from his brother Freddie—climbed onto the roof of the stables at Lisle Hall and removed the weather vane.
He’d also once ventured into a cave in Cornwall in search of what a smuggler had referred to as “odd bones” and almost been swept out to sea on the tide.
But wandering along the cliff’s edge near Beauchamp House in the dead of night in pursuit of Sir Everard Healy was by far the most chuckleheaded endeavor he’d ever undertaken.
He tightened the scarf around his neck and lifted his lantern higher as he watched the other man—nimble for someone of his age and size—creep toward the sea stairs.
At the shout from behind them, from the Beauchamp House gardens if he wasn’t mistaken, Cam stifled a groan.
He might have known Gemma Hastings would find a way to ruin this for him.
Secluding himself behind a tree, he watched his quarry glance over his shoulder in alarm before turning to run back in the direction of his carriage on the road beyond the wood.
“What are you doing here?” Gemma demanded, her tramping footsteps drowned out in the din of the wind. “At this hour, too?”
Turning to fully face his accuser, he saw that she brandished an unlit lantern like a cudgel, as if ready to swing it at his head at any moment.
“I might ask you the same questions,” he said hotly. She’d very likely frightened Sir Everard so badly he’d not venture this way again, which meant Cam, in turn, would never learn what it was the man was after. “A lady has no business outdoors at this hour. And certainly not in this weather.”
He’d hoped she’d rise to the bait and argue with him over the appropriateness of her presence here, but instead she ignored that and went for the thing he wished to avoid talking about.
“Who were you following?” Gemma demanded, her eyes narrow. “I saw another light near the stairs.”
“That was likely a reflection,” he said dismissively, hoping again that she’d get angry and change the subject. “You ladies are so fanciful.”
On their first meeting, not long before her sister Sophia married his brother Benedick, she’d flown into the boughs when she learned he was the editor of the Annals of Natural History, and assumed it had been because she was a female. But, clever man that he was, he’d assured her it was only because her article was not interesting. Things had not gone well after that. Not only had Gemma ripped up at him, but so had Sophia and Benedick.
Now, however, she seemed determined to ignore his blatant misogyny in favor of pressing him for details he didn’t wish to disclose.
Dash it all.
“Why are you here at all?” She demanded, pulling her cloak more tightly around her. “Sophia didn’t tell me you were visiting them at the vicarage.”
Recognizing that no amount of evasion would satisfy her curiosity, he sighed. “I’ll tell you, but let’s go inside. I don’t want to be blamed for you catching your death.”
She looked as if she’d like to argue, but finally nodded and began walking back in the direction of the house.
With one last glance over his shoulder into the darkness, he followed.
The drawing room off the terrace leading into the gardens was lit as brightly as a ballroom in the height of the season. Which should have been Cam’s first clue that he’d made a huge mistake in following Gemma back to the house.
“I vow, you young people are far too spoilt with your blooming health and imperviousness to cold,” Miss Dahlia Hastings said from her chair before the fire, where she sat with a book opened on her lap as if she’d just put it down. “Even sitting here near the French doors sent me scurrying for the fire. It is really too tiresome of you, Gemma, to make me do it.”
The older lady, who had been paying an extended visit at Beauchamp House lowered her spectacles so that she might get a better look at Cam. When she recognized him, however, she gave a bark of laughter. “I thought perhaps you’d been up to no good, Gemma, but if it’s young Cam you’ve been outdoors with in the dead of night I have no fear for your virtue.”
Cam wasn’t sure whether to be insulted or relieved at the assessment.
Beside him, Gemma unfastened her cloak and draped it over a chair before moving to stand before the fire.
“I didn’t go to meet Cam, Aunt,” she said over her shoulder. “I saw a light near the cliffs and went to investigate.”
Deciding that silence was likely his best defense, Cam removed his greatcoat, gloves, and scarf and moved to stand as far away from Gemma as possible but still within the range of the fire’s warmth.
“Your window doesn’t overlook the cliffs, my gel.” Aunt Dahlia fixed her niece with a speaking look. “You weren’t in the collection rooms again, surely?”
At the mention of the collections, Gemma scowled at her aunt and tilted her head none-too-subtly in Cam’s direction. Clearly she didn’t wish to discuss the room where Lady Celeste’s fossil collection was housed in front of him.
But Dahlia seemed not to have noticed. “You’ve wasted far too much energy searching for that blast—”
“Aunt,” Gemma interrupted her. “We’ll speak of it later.”
Her aunt looked as if she wished to argue, but at Gemma’s steely glare, she threw up her hands.
And, to Cam’s dismay, turned her attention upon him. “So, what were you doing out on the cliffs at this hour of night, young Lord Cameron? For that matter, why are you in this county? I had it from Sophia only yesterday that you were expected to be away at a gathering of geologists for the next week or so.”
“What?” Gemma demanded with a scowl. “She didn’t tell me that.”
“Likely because you wear that same expression whenever he’s mentioned,” Dahlia told her without any delicacy for either of their feelings.
It would appear, Cam thought, that Gemma still held a grudge over the rejected submission, then. Good to know.
“I do not,” Gemma protested. Then, as if realizing that wasn’t entirely believable, she corrected. “At least not anymore.”
“Then who was it you were grousing about yest—?”
To Cam’s amusement, color rose in her cheeks.
“I have that effect on many ladies,” he said with an attempt at levity.
As he’d hoped, it removed the sting of embarrassment and replaced it with annoyance.
She raised a brow. “That I believe.”
Her honey blonde hair was mussed from where the cloak’s hood had caught on it, and with her cheeks flushed from the fire she was in looks. It had never been Gemma’s lack of beauty that made her the most frustrating female of his acquaintance. Her sister Sophia was probably the one who would be considered prettier. But he found he preferred Gemma’s taller, more athletic build to her sister’s petite one.
He let himself imagine what it would have been like if they had been outdoors for lascivious purposes. Then, in horror, stopped. Clearly the cold had addled his wits.
Fortunately, Miss Dahlia Hastings was still bent on questioning them and since his thoughts had warmed him up, he was able to step away from the fire and proximity to Gemma and moved to the sideboard where he knew they kept a decanter of brandy.
“Well, young man?” the sexagenarian demanded. “What were you up to out there? Especially if you were meant to be somewhere else.”
He used up as much time as he could pouring three glasses, then handing them round. It was cold enough he guessed that both ladies would appreciate the heat of the alcohol.
“I am … or rather, was, at a gathering of naturalists,” he admitted. “But it’s not in some far-flung locale, it’s in this neighborhood in fact, at Pearson Close.”
Both aunt and niece made noises of understanding.
“That explains why I wasn’t invited,” Gemma said with a shake of her head. “Is Pearson as violently distrustful of women as is rumored?”
This last she addressed to Cam, who shrugged. “I haven’t seen him around any, but then again, he doesn’t even have female servants, so there must be something to it.”
“I suppose it’s not that unusual to have an all-male gathering of fossil hunters,” she continued. “The Royal Society doesn’t admit women, after all. But even so, having such a gathering so close to home and not even being extended the courtesy of an invitation is quite angry-making.”
“If it is any consolation,” Cam told her, taking a seat opposite the chair she’d just dropped into, “so far the symposium has been quite dull. I had thought it might be entertaining since Pearson is said to know most of the major collectors, but most of the men there are only collectors with no real understanding of the science behind their finds.”
“And was this meeting so dull that you were moved to walk along the chalk cliffs in gale force winds?” Aunt Dahlia asked, her expression revealing her skepticism at such a notion.
“Yes, you did promise to tell me,” Gemma reminded him.
Both women sipped their brandy and turned similar, expectant looks upon him. If he hadn’t known it already, their expressions would have confirmed their familial relationship.
“You won’t like it,” Cam said with a sigh.
But when no staying hand was raised against his speaking further, he knew he had to go on.
“I was following one of my fellow naturalists from Pearson Close,” he told them. “And I have no notion of why he came here or what he was searching for. But I intend to find out.”
* * *
Gemma wasn’t sure whether she believed him or not.
It would be easy enough for Cam to blame his presence on Beauchamp property on following someone else. Especially if he wished to hide his own nefarious purposes.
Yet, Gemma was sure she’d seen another light beyond where he’d stood.
It was too much of a coincidence that she suspected Lady Celeste had left her a find of great significance on the very beach where this second man had been headed.
Could someone else know about the fossil her benefactress had left for her?
She studied Cam for a moment before she spoke. His looks were a bit more rugged than his brother—her brother-in-law—Benedick’s. Whereas Ben’s features were refined, almost ethereal, Cameron’s were blunter, with less symmetry. And his build was more solid, as if he’d spent more time physically laboring. Which, she thought, he likely had since he was rumored to prefer extracting his own fossils from the earth. Even without his brother’s male beauty, he was still handsome—Gemma had to admit it—and to her mind, it was the slightly bolder, craggy elements that made him the better-looking one.
Though she’d never say so.
Aloud she asked, “Who was it you followed? I—I mean we, all four heiresses, have a right to know who attempts to trespass on our property.”
“So that you might go and confront him and make him flee the county before we even know what he’s up to?” Cam asked with a raised brow. “I think not.”
“You are the most infuriating man,” she said crossly. “How are we to protect ourselves if we don’t know why he was even here?”
“Might I make a suggestion?” asked Aunt Dahlia in a deceptively sweet tone.
Gemma knew her aunt far too well to believe that meekness.
But Cam was not so familiar with her wiles.
“By all means, Miss Hastings,” he said with a nod of deference. “Perhaps you can talk some sense into your niece.”
“I don’t know about the two of you,” the older lady said with a speaking look, “but I will be traveling back to Manchester in the morning and I need my sleep. So I suggest you table this discussion until tomorrow. I will be sorry to miss your—no doubt, entertaining—argument over why and why not Gemma deserves to know this man’s identity, but I am quite sure she’ll send me an entertaining letter detailing all of it.”
Gemma opened her mouth to object, but closed it when Dahlia raised her brows.
And to her disappointment, Cam seemed too well mannered to object to her aunt’s suggestion.
“I am sorry to hear you’re leaving so soon, Miss Hastings,” he said over Dahlia’s hand as he took his leave of her. “I wish you a safe journey. And I shall endeavor to make our row as colorful as possible so that you might be entertained by a missive about it in the future.”
Gemma rose to see him to the door, but Cam shook his head, then shrugged into his greatcoat and pulled on his gloves and scarf. “I’ll just go out the way I came in. I’ll send word if I’m unable to call in the morning, Miss Gemma.”
And with a jaunty salute, he stepped out onto the terrace and closed the French doors behind him.
“You might have allowed me to question him further,” Gemma complained to her aunt after a minute. “I’ve all but convinced myself that whoever it was out there was searching for the fossil Lady Celeste left for me.”
“If I knew Celeste at all,” Aunt Dahlia, who had been well acquainted with the lady in their youth, said, “then I have little doubt that she hid it well enough that you need not fear someone stumbling over it in the dark. Or that she would breathe a word of it to someone else. If there was one quality Celeste was endowed with in large quantities, it was discretion.”
“But that’s just it, Aunt,” Gemma protested. “The very fact that this man was trying to walk the beach in the middle of the night—and not just any man, but a fossil-hunter—must mean he knows something’s there.”
She crossed her arms against the sudden chill that ran through her. “Not to mention that for the past week or so I’ve had the distinct feeling of being watched.”
Dahlia’s dark brows—a contrast to her white hair—drew together. “You never said that. At least not to me.”
Gemma shrugged. “I didn’t wish to alarm anyone. And besides I’ve had no real evidence of anything. Just a feeling.”
“You aren’t prone to flights of fancy, my dear,” her aunt said. “Promise me you’ll speak to Serena about this tomorrow. And your sister. After what’s happened to the other heiresses over the past months, it would be foolish to ignore your instincts.”
Gemma nodded. Suddenly she wished Dahlia wasn’t leaving. Having her here for the past month had been a great comfort in the wake of Sophia’s marriage and Ivy and Daphne’s absence. Once Dahlia was gone, there would be only herself and Serena. And as much as she loved the widow, Serena didn’t enjoy spirited academic debate like the others did.
“You might also mention the matter to Lord Cameron,” Dahlia said, interrupting Gemma’s thoughts. “As much as you pretend to despise him, he’s not as bad as all that. He did tell you he’d been following someone tonight. And he may have heard gossip amongst the gentlemen at Pearson Close about fossils hereabouts. Or perhaps the Beauchamp Collection itself. They might deny women the opportunity to join their clubs and societies, but they are happy enough to sweep in after the ladies have done the hard work and claim credit for it.”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” Gemma said wryly, “Lord Cameron is one of them. He’s editor of one of the most important journals in the field of geology and has never once published more than a letter from a female geologist.”
“I didn’t say your objections to him were wrong,” Dahlia said mildly. “Just that he may not be the worst of the lot. And he obviously has a great deal of affection for his brother and Sophia. That must account for something.”
Gemma wasn’t quite convinced but she didn’t argue. “I will consider speaking to him about it. It’s likely that whoever it was he followed tonight is the same person who’s been watching the house.”
“Good,” Dahlia said with a nod.
Something in her tone made Gemma look closer. “Never say you’re telling me to set my cap at him,” she said with a horrified expression.
“Heavens no,” Dahlia said with a laugh. “My opinion of marriage has changed not at all, despite the fact that your sister seems happy enough with her vicar. I want more for you, though, my girl. You have the potential to break down barriers. To succeed where those of us who came before you, like Celeste and I, failed.”
It was something her aunt, who had been a part of the Hastings household in Manchester since both Gemma and her sister Sophia were small children, had told them again and again. She’d made sure her nieces, whose parents were loving but largely uninterested in their progeny, were educated and took them herself on outings to museums and the theatre and anywhere else she thought they might find food for the mind.
Her reaction to Sophia’s marriage had been unexpectedly cheerful considering she had openly advocated against the institution for years. But, she’d decided since the deed was done—and she did like Benedick, Sophia’s husband, a great deal—that she would not protest it.
And, after all, there was still Gemma to fulfill the spinster’s dreams of the life of the mind.
Dahlia’s own dreams had been crushed by the fact that her brother controlled her purse strings and had required her to live under his roof. But Gemma, as one of the Beauchamp House heiresses, had no such restrictions.
She was endowed with the funds and the independence that Dahlia had lacked, and Gemma felt the weight of her aunt’s expectations upon her in a way that Sophia never had.
“I wasn’t so sure when I first arrived,” her aunt continued, “but now I’m certain that you’ve got the recognition we’ve always dreamed up within your grasp. Once you find whatever it is that Celeste left for you, I have no doubt you’ll be able to show those closed-minded men of the Royal Society how wrong they are to deny you entrance. I can’t wait to read the announcement in the papers.”
Gemma wished she shared her aunt’s optimism about her prospects, but decided not to air her doubts just now. It was quite late, after all, and they both had to rise early to get Dahlia on the road.
“Neither of us will do anything unless we get to bed soon,” she said, helping her aunt to her feet. “I can’t believe you’re leaving us already. It feels as if you only just arrived.”
Slipping her arm around Gemma’s waist, Dahlia allowed her niece to help her from the room and up the stairs. “You must promise to write me as soon as Sophia is increasing. I know she’ll want to wait but I trust you to keep me informed. And tell her I can be here in a week’s time if she needs me.”
For someone who was so against the notion of marriage, Dahlia was very much in favor of infants, Gemma thought with a smile.
Aloud she said, “I promise. And of course I’ll write regardless.”
They reached the door to Dahlia’s bedchamber and she gave her niece an impulsive hug. “I’ve enjoyed these weeks here with you girls,” she said. “I am so grateful to Celeste for giving you this opportunity. I only pray you won’t make the same mistakes I made and squander it.”
Before Gemma could ask what she meant, she turned, and shut the door firmly behind her.
Copyright © 2018 by Manda Collins