Castle Keyvnor, Cornwall ~ October, 1811
Lady Charlotte Beck took a step back and glanced at the door. She could make her escape and nobody would notice. Certainly not her father, who often forgot he even had a daughter when her older brothers were in the room.
The oldest, Anthony, Viscount Redgrave, lounged against a settee, a smirk upon his lips. Anthony enjoyed whenever Michael, the third born, was called on the carpet by their father.
The two brothers were as different as night and day, and had been since the moment of birth. Or so she suspected since she was seven years younger than her eldest brother. Anthony had always been the perfect son. He probably hadn’t ever cried as an infant and, more than likely, slept through the night from the start. Michael, on the other hand, probably started flirting with the nursery maid when he was only an hour old. And then there was Harry, the second born, who had recently returned from the Navy. He sat upright in his chair, watching the scene with great curiosity.
Or perhaps it was boredom. Harry left when Charlotte was only seven years old, and she didn’t really know him. She still was not certain if he was friend or foe.
Anthony and Michael were certainly foes. But for all of their differences, there was one topic in which they were in full agreement—any gentleman who might even glance in Charlotte’s direction was to be discouraged, then investigated. With those two always near, and glaring, it was a wonder any gentleman even bothered to sign her dance cards last season.
“Explain to me why St. Giles, Blackwater, and Ashbrook are at Castle Keyvnor,” her father, Marquess of Halesworth, demanded of Michael. The gentlemen were some of Michael’s closest friends, and it really hadn’t surprised Charlotte that the trio had traveled to Cornwall with her brother.
“They were with me in Newmarket when you ordered me here.”
“So you invited them?” His irate tone prompted Charlotte to edge closer to the exit. She caught Harry’s eye, and if she wasn’t mistaken, his lips quirked ever so slightly.
“Not so much invited,” Michael hedged. “Devon Lancaster is here too, and he wasn’t invited either.”
“You do realize this gathering is for the reading of a will. Not a house party!” their father roared.
“I don’t even understand why it’s necessary for all of us to be present,” Michael complained. “Banfield was Mother’s uncle, surely whatever was left to her is but a token and does not require the entire family to be present.”
If Father could breathe fire, it would surely be coming from his mouth and nose this very instant. At the very least, as red as his face had suddenly become, smoke should be coming from his ears.
Anthony’s smile broadened, Harry came to his feet and reached for his cane, and Charlotte slipped out of the room. Father’s temper was only going to get hotter, and she preferred to be far away.
A sigh escaped as she exited into the corridor, glad to be rid of her family and excited to be at Castle Keyvnor for the next sennight. Here she wouldn’t be watched nearly as closely as she had been anywhere else. Other than the four uninvited gentlemen, everyone else in attendance was some form of relation, no matter how distant. Not that she had cause to be worried about Lords St. Giles, Blackwater, Ashbrook, or Mr. Lancaster. Other than standing up with her on occasion at balls, none had ever showed her any interest, and she certainly had none in them.
“One would think those two would have grown up, at least somewhat, during my absence.”
A smile blossomed as Charlotte turned to find Harry behind her. Finally, someone who found Anthony and Michael as irritating and obnoxious as she did.
“Tell me, do either of them ever approach anything with any respect or seriousness?”
He planted his feet and put his hands behind his back--the stance of an officer used to being on the deck of a ship and ordering others about. Oh, she hoped he’d share stories of daring and danger with her one day, but they’d barely spoken since his return.
“Anthony can be very serious, downright stuffy even. However, when Michael is in trouble, he quickly reverts to a child.”
Harry’s frown deepened. “I’d heard Michael had a certain reputation. I’d hoped I had heard wrong.”
“Oh, he does.” She laughed. “A rake of the first order. Or, at least when I’m not around. If he’s tasked with escorting me, then he becomes the most protective chaperone to ever grace London.”
Harry gestured ahead and they moved further down the corridor, away from the parlor where the argument between Michael and their father was getting louder by the moment. There were times Harry leaned heavily on his cane, and at other times, like now, it was nothing more than an accessory, yet it was always with him.
Charlotte hated that he was in pain but was so grateful he was home with said leg intact. From what she understood, it had been a close as to whether the surgeon would allow him to keep it.
A shiver ran down her spine at the danger her brother put himself in for King and Country. She’d been too young to really understand where he went, but after Father showed her his name in the newssheets, Charlotte had saved every article where he’d been mentioned and wasn’t above bragging about him when she could.
Oh, if only she could experience just an ounce of the adventure Harry had. Charlotte nearly sighed. Adventure was well and good and something she craved, though she didn’t exactly wish to put herself in danger either. Unlike Harry, who faced it head on even when the odds were against him.
“You are one and twenty, correct?”
“Yes and directly on a path to spinsterhood if those two have their way.”
“You know, my first night back the three of us spoke—actually they spoke, and I listened—about all the things they felt I needed to understand. One of those ‘things’ was you.”
Oh dear. Maybe Harry was a foe after all.
“They warned me that you are much too curious for your own good, that you need to be watched, and that left to your own devices, you might go off somewhere and find yourself in all kinds of trouble.”
I’m going to kill them both the first chance I have.
“I feared that perhaps you were the one who hadn’t grown up and were still very much the seven-year-old that I left behind.”
“Please, Harry,” she begged. “I’ve enough of our family treating me as a child.”
“As well you should.” He stood back and took a good look at Charlotte. Admiration shone in his deep brown eyes. “What I see is a woman who knows her own mind, intelligent, and sensible.”
Relief flowed through her. Finally, a family member who wouldn’t hover. “Why can’t you stay here and send Anthony and Michael off to the Navy?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “My dear Charlotte. They’d not last a fortnight, which would result in me becoming the heir and that would never do.”
Charlotte reached out and took his hands in hers. “I hope you’re home for a while and that we can spend more time together.”
His smile softened. “Perhaps. We shall have to see how this leg of mine progresses.”
Michael stormed out of the parlor and headed towards them.
Harry pulled away from Charlotte. “Well, I’m off to explore the grounds of this supposedly haunted castle.”
She intended to disappear just as quickly. That last thing Charlotte wanted to do was hear Michael complain about their father. “Do warn me if you come across any ghosts.”
Harry chuckled. “You and I both know that is not likely to happen,” he called back as he headed toward the large castle door and Charlotte ducked into the sitting room.
“Oh, Harry, why couldn’t you have come back sooner?”
However, she was happy he was here now. If anything, it would make being with her other brothers immensely more bearable.
With a grin, Charlotte twirled around in the center of the room. The history of this gothic castle fascinated her, even if the stories were a bit embellished. She certainly believed people had been executed and witches burned, not that they were really witches of course. Gruesome events had transpired all throughout history, so it wasn’t surprising that some horrific things happened here. But, what was truly entertaining was that people actually believed there were still ghosts, fairies, and witches about. And, even better, apparently a band of gypsies actually lived on Banfield land.
There was so much to explore, and she couldn’t wait. But first, she must know where to find the gypsies. She could have asked Harry to keep an eye out for them while he was exploring, but she wanted to keep his good opinion of her and not make him question if Anthony and Michael were correct and that she lacked sensibilities.
Not that she believed in curses or fortune telling or any of that nonsense, but it would be delightfully fun to have her fortune told just the same. Would they use a crystal ball? Cards? Read the lines on her hands?
“Why in the world is Lord St. Giles here?” Lady Cassandra Priske, her cousin, entered the room and dropped onto a settee across from Charlotte. Oscar, her cousin’s bothersome black poodle, hopped up beside his owner. Had she known Cassy was bringing Oscar, Charlotte might have brought Princess, her black cat, who thoroughly enjoyed chasing the yappy dog.
“Michael said he invited himself. No idea why he’d want to be here if he didn’t have to be.” However, she couldn’t complain of his presence or that of any of Michael’s friends since they would keep her brother occupied. It was a shame Anthony hadn’t brought a friend as well, then she’d have all the freedom she needed.
A breeze swept through the room and goose pimples popped out on Charlotte’s arms just as Oscar barked and stood at attention. She may adore old castles, but they could be downright chilly at times.
“Heavens!” Cassy exclaimed.
One would have thought Princess just sauntered into the room by the way that dog was behaving. “What’s wrong with Oscar?”
Cassy blinked at her cousin. “Didn’t you feel that?”
Charlotte frowned slightly. “Feel what?”
“Like a breeze or a wind blow through the sitting room?”
Charlotte shook her head. “It’s an old castle. All the rooms are drafty.”
Oscar barked again, much to Charlotte’s irritation. If she could figure out a way to muzzle that dog, she would.
“Ahem!” Someone cleared her throat in the threshold and Charlotte glanced up to find the stern housekeeper frowning at them. “We do not have animals on the furniture at Castle Keyvnor.”
“Oh!” Cassy snatched Oscar up in her arms and he nestled against her chest.
“Sorry, Mrs. Bray,” Charlotte said. “We didn’t know.”
The woman narrowed her eyes on Cassy. “Well, now you do.”
Now was not the time to upset the housekeeper since there was still so much Charlotte needed to learn. She pushed out of her seat and gave the woman what she hoped was a kind and apologetic smile. “Um, Mrs. Bray, I wonder if you could answer a question for me.”
“Yes, Lady Charlotte?” she asked with suspicion.
“Well, I heard tale that there were gypsies on Keyvnor land. Is there any truth to that?”
“The Earls of Banfield have always welcomed their lot,” Mrs. Bray replied. “They have a camp near Hollybrook Park.”
“That is delightful.” Charlotte grinned at the news.
“You best not be disturbing them,” Mrs. Bray warned. “We stay away from them, and they stay away from us, even if his lordship welcomed them.”
“Yes, of course.” Charlotte schooled her features. “I was simply curious. I would never dream of visiting gypsies.”
The older woman shrugged and then departed as Charlotte fell back onto the settee. “I can’t wait to have my fortune told.”
“I think you’ve lost your mind.” Cassy shook her head, and that nasty little dog barked.
As much as she wanted to go, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if she were alone; and with that thought, Charlotte slid forward in her seat. “It’ll be a grand adventure, Cassy, just think! A band of marauding gypsies telling tales by the fire. It’s just a lark, of course. Something to pass the time while we’re here.”
“It sounds perfectly horrid.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “You are too stuffy by half, did you know?” She should have known Cassy wouldn’t go with her. After all, her cousin never did anything daring.
“You think I’m stuffy? I can’t wait to hear you tell Anthony, Harry, and Michael that you mean to visit a band of gypsies.”
She wouldn’t tell them, would she? Cassy and she may not enjoy the same pastimes, but they’d always held each other’s confidences. “You can’t tell them!” Charlotte insisted. “They’ll ruin any bit of enjoyment there is to be had here.”
“We’re here for the reading of a will, not enjoyment.”
She sounded like Papa. “You can find enjoyment anywhere,” Charlotte claimed. “Or at least you can if your overbearing brothers don’t know what you’re about.” Even though Harry didn’t appear to be overbearing, she wasn’t about to chance this either. “You must promise me not to tell them.”
“I’m not going to tell them,” Cassy vowed. “But I don’t think you should visit the gypsies. It could be dangerous, and I have an awful feeling about Keyvnor. Don’t you feel it too?”
Where Charlotte craved adventure, Cassy’s imagination was as adventurous as she got. “I think your imagination is running wild again.”
Oscar barked, hopped off Cassy’s lap and bolted towards the doorway. Charlotte glanced up, hoping Mrs. Bray hadn’t returned, but found Lord St. Giles leaning against the doorjamb instead. Dear Lord, she hoped Michael wasn’t nearby. He’d ruin everything.
The poodle sat before the baron and panted up at him as though waiting for a treat.
Nasty little beggar.
Then, St. Giles winked at Cassy, completely taking Charlotte by surprise, before he gave a small bite of something to the dog. Had St. Giles taken an interest in her cousin? Charlotte wasn’t sure if she should warn him away or be delighted and watch how the situation progressed. St. Giles did have a certain reputation, not much better or worse than Michael’s, and they both left broken hearts in their wake.
“What did you give him?” Cassy pushed off the settee.
“Charmed a scullery maid for a bit of pheasant.”
Charlotte nearly snorted. Charm should be St Giles’s middle name, and the same could be said of Michael.
“Are you attempting to bribe my dog?” Cassy demanded.
“Bribe? What an ugly word.” St. Giles gave her cousin an unrepentant grin. “Simply making a new friend. You can never have too many, after all.” Then he glanced towards Charlotte. “And your secret is safe with me, my dear. None of your brothers will hear of your expedition into gypsy territory from my lips.”
Blast, he had heard and her face heated with embarrassment. “Lord St. Giles,” she greeted him.
The baron stepped further into the sitting room. “I am a firm believer in having a bit of fun every now and then, so I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of you having yours.”
Perhaps St. Giles had more substance than she’d given him credit for. Just because he was a good friend of Michael’s didn’t mean there wasn’t some worth to him. Besides, she could do far worse in having someone to take her side should her brothers learn of her plans. As he said, you could never have too many friends. She just never thought to consider him as such. “Thank you.”
“You sent for me, Puri daj?” Adam Vail asked his grandmother as he stepped into the gypsy camp.
“It’s going to rain,” she announced. Her back was permanently hunched from age and years of bending over palms and telling fortunes. Her once black hair was more grey and white, though she tried to smooth her frazzled mane back into a knot behind her head.
“You summoned me to tell me it’s going to rain?” She was getting on in years, ancient even, though Adam could only guess at her age. Grandmother had never summoned him for something as trivial as the weather.
“You’ll be needed.”
He glanced around. The brightly painted wagons were pulled into a half circle and the small cottages along the tree line were lit from within, except for one. It belonged to his grandmother. Adam had had it built, but she refused to live in something so permanent. This was where the gypsies, his mother’s family, would spend their winter. It had been this way since his father married Lela Boswell, daughter of the woman who had sent for him.
A large fire burned at the center of the camp, and many of his relatives moved about preparing food and settling in. They’d only arrived a few days earlier, and he was glad they were once again where they belonged. Or at least near where they belonged.
“Exactly how will I be needed?” he asked.
“You shall see.” His grandmother was often cryptic, and many times it irritated him to no end. But Adam still did as she asked.
He glanced to the sky. It had been overcast all day, but not a drop of rain had fallen. He wasn’t about to argue with his grandmother, however. If she said it was going to rain, then it was going to rain and he’d be needed here. He’d long ago stopped questioning her premonitions because she was never wrong. The gift of second sight, his mother had claimed. One he had not inherited.
“What are you working on?” His grandmother sifted through beads, feathers, shells and gems. Selecting some, discarding others, and pushing the ones she approved into a small leather pouch.
“Making a talisman.”
“A young lady will need it to protect her at Castle Keyvnor.” His grandmother sighed. “The vision is not yet clear. I’ll know more when we meet.” She dropped a feather into the putsi.
“Just because Banfield allowed you to live on his land does not mean you can go about handing out talismans to the castle’s guests.” Several of Banfield’s relatives had recently arrived to attend the reading of the late earl’s will. Adam couldn’t remember the last time so many had been at the castle at one time, if ever.
“She will come to me,” his grandmother insisted, not bothering to look at Adam as she continued sifting through charms. “You know we never venture inside the walls, and I don’t like it when you do either.”
Though how a putsi could protect anyone from anything was beyond Adam, yet he was never without his, the one Grandmother and his mother had made upon his birth. Too often she was correct about the unexplained, and at a young age, he learned to trust in her counsel when it often had no meaning and was beyond his understanding. There were simply things in the world, and particularly at Castle Keyvnor and in this corner of Cornwall, that could not be explained away with reason. If his grandmother believed that evil dwelled within the walls, Adam believed her. Not that he’d experienced anything evil on his visits, but the place was certainly haunted.
“Aren’t you concerned that once the will is read you’ll be without a winter home?” The Earl of Banfield was now dead, and Adam knew nothing about the heir.
“There is no reason to worry about things that cannot be changed.” This was often his grandmother’s approach about anything. But in his twenty-seven years, she’d also not had to worry about where her family would spend the winter.
“What if he has you removed?”
She finally glanced up at him, her dark eyes clouded with age. “Dear boy, all things will be as they should be, as it always is.” His grandmother patted his hand.
If things were as they were supposed to be, his gypsy relatives would be living at Hollybrook Park, but his cantankerous grandfather refused to allow them safe harbor. His mother’s people should be on his father’s land, not just on the other side of the border, living off the generosity of a neighbor.
“You have not shaved,” she nodded in approval.
“As is custom.” Adam hadn’t followed all the Gypsy customs upon the death of his older brother, but he’d not taken a razor to his face and would not until after Thomas was placed in the ground. On second thought, he might not shave until next spring, when he returned to London, only to further irritate his grandfather.
“You will wear white!”
“I will wear black,” Adam corrected. There would be mourners at the cemetery, and they might believe he’d lost his mind.
“Red handkerchief and waistcoat,” she proclaimed.
Mourners were to wear white for purity or red for vitality. As there was nothing even remotely pure when it came to Thomas, or Adam for that matter, he’d wear red.
“Your stepmother, sisters, and brother? Have they returned?”
His stepmother had taken her children, four daughters and a son, from Hollybrook Park as soon as Thomas returned home. She feared them becoming infected somehow. That was nearly two years ago and he hadn’t seen them since. “No.”
If something happened to his grandfather, his five younger half-siblings would become his responsibility. Adam’s stomach churned at the very thought, though they apparently were doing well without him or their grandfather.
Grandmother pursed her lips in disapproval and shook her head. “You asked for forgiveness?”
“Yes, Puri daj, as you instructed.” Not that his older brother had been in a state of mind to accept any apologies, and Adam had been hard pressed to find something he was sorry for. It was his brother who should have been seeking compassion, but his mind was already gone.
She nodded. “It is good. You will make a better viscount.”
“I never wanted to be a viscount.” His life was simpler before Thomas became ill. Hopefully his grandfather was too stubborn to die, and Adam wouldn’t have to assume the title, or responsibility to the estate, town and smugglers for many, many years.
“A man like Thomas did not deserve to be viscount.” Her dark eyes looked into Adam’s. “He was one of them.” She practically spit out the word. “You, my dear boy, are one of us. A Rom.”
If anyone else referred to him as a dear boy, Adam would take issue. But, this was his grandmother.
And, he was Rom. It was in his bones. He much preferred the life of a gypsy, though that wasn’t his lot in life. He was destined to be the next Viscount Lynwood.