In Hadley Green…
A gust of wind rattled the windows of Ashwood. Lily glanced up from the mess she’d made of the wall in the salon to see autumn leaves scudding past the window in small clusters of red and gold. Dark clouds were accumulating on the horizon, seeping in over the golden landscape. Lily could hear Linford, the old Ashwood butler, shouting at the chambermaids to close the windows ahead of the rain that would surely fall.
He might shut the windows, but couldn’t stop the leaks around the old window frames. Or patch this hole she’d made. In a moment of mad frustration, Lily had taken it upon herself to remove the wallpapering. It had begun with a frayed corner, and she’d seen paneling beneath it and she’d thought, how difficult can it be to remove the paper? She’d ripped off a strip. And then another. And several more with varying degrees of success. It seemed that the paste held quite well in some places, and not in others.
Her inability to do something as simple as remove the papering made her anger soar. She wished the rain would fall so hard that it washed away Tiber Park. She pictured it; the grand Georgian estate sweeping down the river, colliding with the construction of Tiber Park’s new mill, and both being churned to pieces.
“Have a care in your wishing, lass,” she muttered, and gave the paper a hearty tug. Two small pieces came off in her hands. “Blasted wall!” Given her luck of late, it was far more likely that Ashwood would wash away. In fact, she was rather surprised that Tobin Scott hadn’t ordered it up. Oh, what delight he’d take in seeing Ashwood wash away and Lily Boudine turning head over heels down the river with it!
With a sigh, she let the torn paper flutter onto the pile she’d made as Linford hobbled in.
“Oh dear, does your knee pain you, Linford?” Lily asked.
“A bit,” the old man agreed with a slight grimace. “Foul weather is coming. Mr. Fish has come, mu’um. I took the liberty of ringing for tea.”
They might be poor, but they were quite rich when it came to decorum. “Thank you. Please ask Mr. Fish to come in.”
A moment later, Mr. Fish, who stood two inches shorter than Lily in his boots, entered, his expression stern. He slowed his efficient step when he saw the mess Lily had made, and gave her a questioning look.
With the back of her hand, Lily pushed a dark lock of hair from her brow. “You look rather glum, sir.”
His frown deepened. “Five tenants have notified the estate that they intend to farm greener pastures.”
Lily’s pulse ratcheted. She folded her arms. “I suppose you mean to Tiber Park.”
There was no end to it! Since she’d come back to Hadley Green, Lily had suffered through a slew of letters, all from Mr. Sibley on behalf of Tiber Park, all demanding one thing or another. One letter informed her that Tobin had offered her tenants a lucrative share of the harvested crop at Tiber Park in exchange for their tenancy. Another letter reported that he’d lured men away from the mill she was building at Ashwood, in the hopes of generating some income, to build his bigger and better mill upstream. She’d lost three footmen to Tiber Park, as well as a groom.
And of course, there was the one hundred of her most profitable acres, against which he’d filed a suit, claiming they rightfully belonged to Tiber Park. Mr. Fish and Mr. Goodwin, Ashwood’s solicitor, had assured her that he would be successful in his suit, and that at a hearing on the morrow, Eberlin—Eberlin! Honestly, not Tobin Scott, but Count Eberlin of Denmark, of all things!—would receive the acreage, all because of some arcane, ridiculous glitch in the laws of inheritance and entailments.
Lily had argued that her standing as the new, rightful countess of Ashwood might work in her favor. The estate and titles had been ordained by none other than King Henry VIII himself, when, in giving the gift of Ashwood to the first earl, had set out the permissions of inheritance: to wit, any heir, male or female, had title to the land that was Ashwood, and claim to the title! Any blood heir, any adopted heir, any heir at all!
But Tobin had found some tiny keyhole in the law that allowed him to take her acreage. “It would take a miracle of Biblical proportions for the ruling to go in your favor, I fear,” Mr. Goodwin had said apologetically.
And now five tenants were leaving. “What did he offer?”
“I cannot say precisely,” Mr. Fish said. “But apparently, new cottages have been constructed and fields that have lain fallow for years have been harrowed. They will sow them in the spring.”
Honestly, if Lily had a canon she’d point the thing at Tiber Park and light it herself. “Which tenants?”
“The Peterman family. There are five crofters with that name, all related by marriage, all farming on the east end, and all convinced of the prosperity at Tiber Park,” Mr. Fish said.
The east end was the opposite end of the one hundred acres and, naturally, the next most productive, profitable bit of land at Ashwood. “He is awfully determined, is he not?” she snapped as Linford hobbled lopsidedly into the room carrying a tea service. “As if destroying Ashwood will bring his father back,” she added angrily. She whirled around to the window.
“As we have discussed, you are suffering from years of poor fiscal management here at Ashwood, and he is a master at preying on estates such as this. And yet, there is more,” Mr. Fish said.
“More!” she exclaimed, and turned around.
Mr. Fish sipped from his cup of tea, then put it aside.
He looked thoughtfully at his hand. He squared his shoulders.
“What is it, Mr. Fish?” Lily prodded him. “Please speak plainly, as I find myself desperately short on patience today.”
Mr. Fish cleared his throat. “I have been studying our ledgers. My fear is that if we do not stabilize the income of Ashwood over the winter, we stand to be bankrupt by summer.”
Lily could feel her blood rushing from face. “You must explain what that means.”
“That we’d go the way of some other estates. That is to say, sold in parcels to satisfy creditors. The house turned into a museum. Your title…” He glanced at Lily. “The title stays with the estate, of course.”
Lily couldn’t bring herself to speak for a moment. Her mind was full of conflicting, jumbled thoughts. “That is his plan, isn’t it? He intends to see us parceled out.” She began to pace, her mind racing, trying to think of something, anything, they might do. “We must do whatever it takes to avoid it,” she said to Mr. Fish. “Have you any idea how we might do that?”
“A few,” he said. “First, we must conserve cash. “We will look for any way that we might profit as we sow our winter crops. But Lady Ashwood, we cannot sow without crofters.”
“Perhaps we might reduce the rents to attract them,” she suggested. “Or sell things. Furnishings. Anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.”
“I dare say it will take more than a few furnishings to save the estate.”
There was something else that might save them: the missing jewels, wherever they were, but no one had managed to find them in in fifteen years.
“I have one suggestion,” Mr. Fish said, and surprisingly, his cheeks colored.
Lily paused in her pacing and looked at him curiously. “What suggestion?”
“You might actively seek a husband.”
Lily’s brows shot up.
“Madam, forgive me,” he said quickly, “but the original decree states that any female heir must marry a titled man or forfeit the estate and title upon her death.” At Lily’s look of surprise, he explained, “it was a way of protecting the property. No…ruffian could seduce his way into this holding. Your estate is your dower. You simply choose a titled man who is not entailed to his neck and has cash.”
“That is not precisely the way I intend to go about gaining a husband, Mr. Fish. And I daresay it is not as easy as that. To begin, after Keira’s disastrous turn here, I am hardly in high demand in society.”
Mr. Fish looked at his hands again. He cleared his throat once more. His cheeks were quite dark now. “Madam, forgive me for being forward, but I rather think any man worth his salt would fall in love with you given the slightest encouragement.”
“And the ladies in Hadley Green are very fond of matchmaking. Lady Horncastle in particular has connections in London. I am certain she would very much enjoy helping you.” He glanced up.
Lily gaped at him. Mr. Fish was a very clever man indeed. He’d devised a way she might kill two birds with one stone.
“At the very least, you might think on it,” he said.
“Yes,” Lily said, eyeing him closely. “I will think on it. However, I have a different suggestion.”
“Oh?” Mr. Fish asked, looking quite hopeful.
“We find ourselves in hemorrhaging cash because of him, do we not?”
“Yes, in part.”
Lily smiled a little crookedly. “Then if we knew what he intended to do before he did it, we might be able to take steps to prevent it.”
Mr. Fish looked confused. “Pardon?”
“Think of it, Mr. Fish,” she said, moving closer. “If we’d known of his offer to the Peterman family before he’d made it, we might have offered them something more attractive. Perhaps a larger share in the yields, for example.”
Mr. Fish’s look of surprise slowly melted into an indulging smile. “But madam…how could we possibly know what he intends to do before he does it?”
This part of her plan was a bit tricky. But Lily smiled right back as if she had it all charted out. “It so happens that on Wednesday, I went into the village, and Louis—the footman, you know him, do you not?”
Mr. Fish nodded.
“Louis accompanied me. A we were walking across the green, I noticed a young man who looked oddly familiar to me. I said as much, and Louis informed me that the young man was Agatha’s brother.” Her smiled widened. “Agatha is a chambermaid here.”
Mr. Fish looked puzzled. “And?”
“And?” she said, trying not to sound too terribly eager, “Agatha’s brother serves Lord Eberlin and he might be persuaded to relay information to us—”
“We would pay him, of course,” she said quickly.
Mr. Fish gaped at her. “Madam…are you suggesting that we spy on Lord Eberlin?”
“Yes!” Lily cried. “Indeed I am! We must do something before he ruins us!”
“But if you were caught—”
“If,” Lily said.
Mr. Fish blinked once. And then again. “I cannot advise it,” he said sternly, shaking his head and looking quite appalled.
Lily shrugged. “Unfortunately…it might be too late.” She smiled sheepishly. “I may have suggested to Louis…”
“Ah, for the love of heaven,” Mr. Fish muttered and in an uncharacteristic lapse of decorum, he sank onto a chair.
“Now, now, Mr. Fish. It is not as dire as you think,” Lily assured him, and took a seat across from him to tell him what she’d done.
And when Mr. Fish had left for the day—not the least bit pleased with her plan, and really, with his head hanging a bit, Lily reasoned that he was not entirely wrong in his objections. She would never have believed herself capable of such machinations and trickery.
But then, she had never run across the likes of Tobin Scott before.