Lady Violet Enjoys a Frolic — Book Four
Book 4 in the Lady Violet Mysteries series
Having enjoyed her tour of the Scottish countryside, Lady Violet Belmaine is reluctant to return to London. Her escort, Hugh St. Sevier, suggests a detour to the Lakes, where his former army connections have invited him to renew old acquaintances. Violet is happy to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, but all is not right with St. Sevier’s friends.
Their host’s estate is struggling, several marriages from the old regiment appear to be faltering, and somebody is intent on making a bad situation worse. From slashed portraits to sheep trampling the garden, St. Sevier’s former comrades are engaged in some sort of rural war against an unknown foe. Sebastian MacHeath arrives to help solve the mystery, but his presence only makes matters more tense. Violet refuses to leave without putting the puzzle pieces together, no matter how dangerous the process or how shocking the eventual solution.
Enjoy An Excerpt
Lady Violet and her escort, Hugh St. Sevier, have arrived at Rutland Wood, a grand estate situated amid the spectacular vistas of the Lake District and owned by an old military acquaintance of St. Sevier’s….
Had anybody told me that my host, Damien, Lord Rutland, had charm to eclipse even the vast stores St. Sevier claimed, I would not have believed them. His lordship was no boy, his blue eyes having crow’s feet, his countenance being a trifle weathered. His physique was trim and muscular though he lacked a few inches of St. Sevier’s height, and the barest thread of silver graced his temples.
His smile was nonetheless the warmest, friendliest, merriest specimen I had encountered in many a year. Faint echoes of my late husband’s insouciance echoed in that smile, as did the ability to create an instant conspiracy for two against all the world’s seriousness and woe.
“Lady Violet will want a tour of the gardens, I hope,” his lordship said, tucking my hand over his arm and escorting me up the several dozen terraced steps leading to a wide front portico. “You may rest your weary bones, St. Sevier, for I intend to take her ladyship captive.”
St. Sevier merely cocked his head, silently asking me if I was willing to be captivated.
How well he knew me, already. “St. Sevier will find his way to your library, my lord, and plunder all of your botanical pamphlets and medical treatises. I will accompany you on a tour of the garden, the better to abet your truancy from correspondence, ledgers, and other duties.” Also to move after hours of drowsing in the coach.
“You have found me out,” his lordship said, patting my knuckles. “I do adore a discerning woman.”
He ushered us into the house, though house was too modest a term for the vast edifice the baron called home. Our steps echoed in a soaring circular foyer, and afternoon light poured in through tall windows and a central skylight. Gleaming white marble floors, alabaster statuary, and portraits in gilt frames all added to a sense of grandeur, though having grown up in a rambling country house myself, all I could think was that in winter, the foyer would be an ice house.
And white marble floors showed every speck of dirt.
We commended St. Sevier into the keeping of a pretty, mob-capped housekeeper whose smile was genuinely cheerful. Perhaps the crisp northern air made the locals happy, just as London’s smoke made the capital’s denizens ill.
St. Sevier sent me a wink over his shoulder, and I was abandoned into Lord Rutland’s keeping. I should not have minded that I had no idea where Hugh would sleep or how to find him, but two years of mourning had left me with nervous tendencies, and thus I admitted to slight anxiety as I saw him disappear up a majestic white curving staircase.
“Away with us,” Lord Rutland said, taking my hand and replacing it on his arm. “A soldier learns to treasure the fine weather, because the other kind inevitably comes around at the most inconvenient moment. The gardens are just beginning to bloom, and Athena and I are insufferably proud of them.”
“Do you miss army life?” I asked, as he led me into a corridor that opened off the foyer. An abundance of windows, one might even say an extravagance of windows, filled even this part of the house with sunlight and warmth. The corridor begged for green plants and for the occasional napping cat, but instead held more art.
“I miss army life probably in the same way you miss the Season you made your come out. You have memories of that time gilded with a fond, inaccurate patina. You made great friendships that you will treasure into old age, and yet, you would not wish that same ordeal on anybody you cared for.”
He’d got the last part right.
“Tell me, Lady Violet, how does my friend St. Sevier honestly fare?”
The question took me somewhat aback, for I was not Hugh’s wife, nor even his official intended, that my counsel on the subject of his wellbeing should have been sought.
“He is well,” I said, which was true. Hugh enjoyed roaring good physical health and impressive animal spirits. “As far as I know, Monsieur is happily settled into civilian life.”
“His situation was difficult,” Lord Rutland said, ushering me through another door onto a sprawling back terrace. “He served well, despite all, and his facility with the French language was abundantly useful. Welcome to my garden, Lady Violet.”
I stepped out into the sunlight, and was immediately aware of the scent of the forest rising up behind the house.
Forests in southern England tended to roll placidly along next to farmland, tamed in antiquity and put in service to civilization. Many had been reduced to mere home wood status, providing fuel, game, and timber for a specific estate.
In contrast to that sylvan domesticity, Rutland Wood manor was enthroned before high hills blanketed with conifers. The forest remained primeval here, dense, dark, and imposing, despite the grand gleaming manor seated on its border. Oaks and other hardwoods lined paths to the stables and outbuildings, but I had no doubt that given a few generations of freedom, the mountain forest would swallow every evidence of civilization.
Perhaps Rutland enjoyed the challenge of keeping nature battled into submission, for the struggle would be endless. His gardens were not safe from the mountain’s encroachment, for all they were exquisite. Formal parterres were lined with brilliant beds of tulips in a repeating pattern of red, yellow, and white. A few precocious irises—alternating beds of purple and white—lined up along the central walkway, and faded daffodils had been subdued into tidy bundles along the peripheries.
“How delightful,” I said, resisting the urge shake free to my escort and wander at will. His lordship would march me up and down the rows, I was certain. We’d march sedately and smiling all the while, but we’d travel the route of his choosing at the pace he set.
“Athena loves her garden,” Lord Rutland said, “and I love Athena, hence, we indulge our gardeners.”
A profession of husbandly devotion ought to have charmed me. I instead found it a trifle off-putting. A man should show the world he loved his lady rather than bandy the words so genially before a near-stranger. Freddie had been full of adoring words, as he slipped out the door to cavort with his mistresses.
Or perhaps a devoted husband ought to do both—make the professions and perform the devoted deeds. I was hardly a qualified judge of marital romance.
“Your garden reminds me of one facet of London life that pales compared to rural splendors,” I said. “And how I adore the scent of the forest. I’m put in mind of my recent stay in Perthshire.”
Though in central Scotland, the forest had a more stately quality, perhaps because the pines were enormous, and thus spaced more widely.
“Did you enjoy your time in up north?” Lord Rutland asked, leading me down the steps.
“Very much. The people are quite friendly, the scenery breathtaking. I did not want to leave.”
St. Sevier had escorted me north to attend a friend’s wedding, and he and I had got more than we bargained for in terms of pre-nuptial intrigue. I had also seen, for the first time, the ancestral home of Sebastian MacHeath, Marquess of Dunkeld. Sebastian had been a dear acquaintance of my youth, but military service and misunderstandings had parted us.
I had only recently begun to rebuild my friendship with the marques, and I hoped in future to continue with the project.
“I did not want to leave Rutland Wood,” my host said, starting me down a path along a south-facing fruit wall. “But my family has had military connections for generations, back to the original baronies, and probably to Roman days. I could not fail my heritage, and I wasn’t about to let old Boney threaten all of this.”
Boney’s hopes of invading England had been dashed when Nelson had dispatched the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. British troops had not been dispatched to the Iberian peninsula until several years later, and I was still hazy regarding the precise motivation for their deployment.
I did not raise that question with my escort, knowing how military men could wax lyrical regarding battles, campaigns, and marches. My brother Felix had served, and from him I’d gained a realistic and ugly picture of warfare.
“Your wife has a military background, does she not?” I asked.
“Born in an officer’s tent while her papa was on maneuvers,” Rutland said, bending to snap off a fading daffodil and toss it into the opposite lavender border. “Athena knows military history better than Oxford dons know their Latin, and she’s the equal of Wellington for planning a campaign. I sometimes think she married me so she could divert herself managing a hundred-odd inside servants and another sixty out of doors. We did not expect you quite so early in the day, and she will be mortified to have missed your arrival.”
“The coach made good time,” I replied. “For which a toll will doubtless be exacted when we continue south.”
“Then you must bide with us a while and fortify yourself for the looming ordeal,” Rutland said, his hand over mine on his arm. “We see little company here, except in high summer when the hill walkers swarm the surrounds. They appear for eight or ten weeks, like blooming roses, and then decamp for the south for another year. We are always glad to see them arrive, and equally glad to see them go.”
“Are your neighbors sociable?” I asked as we turned the corner at the foot of the garden.
“Oh, very, and I have created a sort of mini-regiment at the Wood as well. My old quarter master, Thomas MacNeil is my senior steward. Garth Jones, a former aide de camp, leases out the largest tenant property from us. Be warned: Athena will insist on taking you calling at Spruce Manor. I also employ Patrick O’Dea as my botanist and surveyor, another former aide de camp. We and our ladies form a very congenial company, and enlisted men who served under us have also found employment on the estate.”
Rutland was proud of his congenial company, as if he’d carved out a circle of civilization in some foreign province. Perhaps that instinct, to create a sense of home from a shared flask and stories around a campfire, was one of the military’s strongest and best qualities.
“I very much appreciate your hospitality,” I said, as we passed a bed of yellow tulips. A lone red specimen bloomed near the center of the bed, which I found whimsical. Life was like that—unexpected at times, refusing to follow the ordained pattern. “No traveling coach appeals after about the third day on English roads.”
“Excuse me,” Rutland said, peeling free of my hand. “Somebody has been lax.” He produced a pen knife and sliced off the red tulip, pitching it into a hedge before I could claim it. “With twelve under gardeners, and more than dozen apprentices to oversee, discipline is sometimes wanting.”
A horticultural staff that size would also be responsible for the kitchen gardens, apothecary garden, scent garden, and conservatory—on a large estate, much depended on the competence and diligence of the gardeners—but still… My father was an earl, and his seat was not nearly this impressive.
“We have been discovered,” Rutland said, taking my arm again. “My darling wife approaches, and she will steal you away from me.” He twinkled at me, as if he and I shared a luscious little secret, and then turned the same affable, boyish smile on the lady coming down the gravel walkway.
She was smiling as well, her skirts swishing as she marched along.
“You must be Lady Violet,” she said. “Rutland you are very naughty to whisk our guest off into the garden before she has been offered tea and chance to refresh herself. My lady, good day. I would ask my husband to make the introductions, but we aren’t particularly formal here at the Wood. I am Athena, Lady Rutland. My lord, be off with you. We ladies must get acquainted.”
Clearly, I was in the presence of the general’s daughter.
“I have my orders.” Lord Rutland bowed to me and kissed his wife’s cheek, though so casual was his aim that his lips grazed the corner of her mouth. She bore this affectionate display with good cheer—I had the sense her ladyship did everything with good cheer—and then took my arm with the same proprietary air her husband had displayed toward me.
“Come along, my lady. I have a tray on the way to the conservatory, and when we have drained the pot we will find Monsieur St. Sevier and demand that he escort us on a tour of the house. You will meet the others at dinner, but I must have you to myself for a little while first.”
Rutland beamed at me, saluted with two fingers, and strode off. Perhaps he enjoyed springing his wife on their guests, or perhaps the fault lay with St. Sevier, of the wistful smile.
In any case, Athena, Lady Rutland, was quite the most beautiful woman I had ever beheld.
End of Excerpt
Lady Violet Enjoys a Frolic — Book Four is Book 4 in the Lady Violet Mysteries series. The full series reading order is as follows:
Book 1: Lady Violet Investigates — Book One • Book 2: Lady Violet Attends a Wedding — Book Two • Book 3: Lady Violet Finds a Bridegroom — Book Three • Book 4: Lady Violet Enjoys a Frolic — Book Four • Book 5: Lady Violet Holds a Baby — Book Five • Book 6: Lady Violet Goes for a Gallop — Book Six • Book 7: Lady Violet Pays a Call — Book Seven • Book 8: Lady Violet Says I Do •