Jennings was not happy to hear about little Eliza. Through clenched teeth, he muttered darkly, “I know in my bones that her ‘fever’ was not a natural event!”
“I feel that very strongly myself,” Elizabeth said. “Though I have never met her, the poor little thing, and I have only the slightest memories of meeting my cousin Marcus when I was very small, I remember him being a kind man. Indeed, he is the most selfless man imaginable, if he thinks he importunes me when he is suffering so!”
“We cannot tell him about the ring,” Jennings asserted. “It would no doubt crush him to think he had done anything to hurt her.” He frowned deeply. “But how then do we get the ring away from him? We must intercept it, surely, before Isabelle – or whoever has taken your great-grandmother’s place – takes it and passes it on to some new unsuspecting victim.”
“I had not thought of that,” Elizabeth said, horrified by the notion. “It seems a strange thing to request, since I had never laid eyes on the girl, to ask for such a personal memento. But outside of that, I cannot immediately think of a plausible reason.” She gasped, stricken. “It has been some days, sir,” she noted. “I am sure Eliza has already been laid away. Whoever controls the rings now, this person must already have taken the amethyst!”
“Of course,” Jennings said. After a moment, his brow cleared, and he looked meaningfully at Elizabeth. “Could you – you have been so resourceful these past weeks – could you contrive to ascertain the identity of the person who took the amethyst?”
Elizabeth smiled. “I believe I can, sir,” she said brightly. “I will write my cousin at once.”
While Jennings lingered over his coffee, Elizabeth opened the other letters that had come for her. As she read through the pages her stepmother had written, she abruptly leaned forward and reached a hand across the table toward her husband.
“I fear we have received this letter too late to do aught about it, sir,” she said. “My stepmother is informing me of her planned visit here. She will arrive later this morning, if the roads favour.”
“That is excellent news, my dear,” Jennings said placidly. “Why would we wish to do ‘aught about it’? I had thought you liked your stepmother.”
“I do,” Elizabeth asserted. She considered his question for a moment, then answered, “I suppose, sir, that I do not wish to disrupt your household without warning, when you are so preoccupied with this mystery.”
Jennings smiled softly and took her hand. “It is your household too, my love, and I could use a distraction from the mystery.” He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “It gives me headache.”
It was uncertain if a visit from Charlotte Carlisle would rid him of his headache; Elizabeth’s stepmother was bubbling over with excitement at seeing Elizabeth, and hastened to share all news in a blur of words that was, functionally, a single sentence, delivered with unabashed grins and a dozen embraces.
“It has been so very long, dearest Lizzie!” she cried happily. “I have missed you so terribly!” She and Elizabeth had settled in the small sitting room at the front of the house, and Mrs. Carlisle more than once looked over her shoulder and out into the hall. “I am not alone,” she explained presently, after all the gossip she had stored in her brain had been revealed to her stepdaughter. “That is, he said that he would be following close on my heels.”
“Father?” Elizabeth asked dubiously.
“Indeed no,” Mrs. Carlisle said with a slight scoff that she quickly smothered. “He is much as he has always been,” she went on. “But he at least made no objection to my visiting you. No, I have come here with Mr. Cedric Delacourt, your father’s cousin, upon whom your father’s estate is entailed.” Her smile faltered slightly. “Of course, one hopes that there will be heirs soon enough,” she said, as brightly as she could muster. Her five-year marriage to Sir James Carlisle had been childless so far, but, as she had confided in Elizabeth long ago, her doctor had told her that all was well, and that she would no doubt be able to provide her husband with any number of male offspring who would inherit his rather large estate. It had been a source of some upset for her, but on this even Sir James seemed optimistic and unaffected, telling her that she was a young and healthy girl, and that there was plenty of time. If Elizabeth secretly believed that her father simply didn’t care who inherited his estate, or what might happen to the females attached to it, she kept this opinion to herself, and contented herself to pray with her stepmother that that lady might soon be with child.
“But it is always best,” Mrs. Carlisle continued, looking once more into the hall. “To prepare for whatever may befall one. And so I thought it prudent to invite Mr. Delacourt to visit, and to make friends with him, so that – well, if your father were to – well, so that I would not be unknown to him.”
“You are quite wise to do so,” Elizabeth said placidly. “It is always better to foster friendship in such situations, I believe.”
“Just so!” Mrs. Carlisle agreed. “And when his visit unexpectedly coincided with my plans to come here, I naturally thought he might like to make your acquaintance as well, with which notion he readily agreed, but he did insist on driving himself because he did not wish to importune me or to do anything that might have even the semblance of impropriety.” She smiled. “Is he not the most gentlemanly man? I think you will like him very well!”
Mr. Delacourt did not arrive for another fifteen minutes; he explained, amidst a number of earnest apologies, that his curricle had slipped into a muddy rut, and there was some difficulty in extricating it.
He was a tall young man, and rather lanky, and Elizabeth thought, as she looked on him, that he seemed very familiar to her. Perhaps it was the faint resemblance to her father, she mused, for he and this cousin shared a similar quality around the eyes. In all other respects, he was nothing like the austere and peremptory Sir James. His clothes and hair were simple but elegant, and arranged extremely meticulously; his manner was one of easy-going self-assurance, bordering on arrogance, but his smiles were genuine, and he greeted Elizabeth with a warm and friendly handshake.
“Dear Cousin Elizabeth!” he said, beaming at her. “I have long heard so much about you from Sir James! It is most gratifying indeed finally to make your acquaintance!”
Elizabeth could not help but like this man, whose gaze and demeanour were so frank and direct that she felt it impossible to doubt his sincerity. “Cousin Delacourt,” she responded. “I am also pleased to meet you. My father has spoken highly of you.”
“And for that I am doubly grateful!” Mr. Delacourt announced, still grinning. “For he and I had never met before yesterday! Except that I believe he visited my father when I was a very tiny boy, but I can’t think that signifies, can you, Cousin? – for I have no recollection of it, and to be sure I am not the same as that little boy your father would, I am sure, have entirely ignored.” His eyes twinkled merrily, and Elizabeth laughed.
“You are quite right, sir,” she agreed. She gestured into the front sitting room where she and Mrs. Carlisle had just been ensconced. “Shall we not sit?” she invited. “I will have Mrs. Raleigh bring us refreshments.”
“That would be absolutely delightful!” Mr. Delacourt said, offering one arm to his cousin and the other to Mrs. Carlisle, and escorting both ladies into the sitting room. They conversed quite comfortably for some time, and Mr. Delacourt was very complimentary of his cousin, of her household, and of her refreshments. He told her that she seemed a first-rate sort of person, and that he counted himself fortunate to have two such excellent ladies among his friends. “For we are friends, are we not, Cousin?” he asked, with an air that suggested he would be quite unhappy to hear otherwise. “I know – that is, I would not wish to say anything to upset you, dear Cousin, but I am aware – and most distressed by it, I assure you! – that my Cousin Carlisle has distanced himself from you, but I would not want you to think, even though I am his heir, that I would consider any such circumstances to be part of my inheritance!” After this lengthy but heartfelt speech, he patted her hand reassuringly. “We shall be great friends!” he decided. “And you and your stepmother need never have any concern for your futures!” He stopped then, and laughed rather loudly. “Of course,” he said. “I had crafted these words well before I heard that Mr. Jennings had asked for your hand. I daresay my humble offers must seem a trifle silly when your future is so completely assured!”
Elizabeth leaned forward and touched Mr. Delacourt’s arm. “Not at all, sir,” she said earnestly. “Kindness is never ill-timed. That you would hear of the rift between me and my father, and think first of how best to help, speaks greatly to your character.” She smiled. “I will gladly call you friend, sir.” She tilted her head, looking at him quizzically. “Are you quite sure that we have not met?” she asked. “I had thought that I only spied a resemblance between you and my father, but now I am convinced that I have met you somewhere before.”
“Well, as to that,” Mr. Delacourt said. “I am often in London. I adore balls and assemblies.” He squinted at her. “But I am certain that I have never seen you in attendance at any of them.”
“No,” Elizabeth said, smiling wryly. “My father is not fond of those sorts of amusements. In fact, the party at Lady Morton’s where I – where I met Mr. Jennings, is one of the only parties I have attended in my life.” She frowned slightly, considering her cousin’s words. “You come often to London?” she asked. “Why, then, have we not met you?”
Mr. Delacourt made a face, and looked sheepish. “Well, Cousin,” he explained. “I thought it might be a bit rude to descend uninvited on your father, for although I am his heir, that state of affairs was not his idea. I did not wish to appear to be ingratiating myself, or to be assessing the property, or any such distasteful thing.”
Elizabeth raised an eyebrow. “And my father never invited you?”
Mr. Delacourt opened his mouth to speak, paused, and, twisting his mouth ruefully, said, “No.” He laughed. “But as I said, I hardly expected him to be anxious to meet me, and he has quite often corresponded with me on matters of the estate, and has been perfectly courteous in those letters. I had no reason to complain or to feel slighted, and I will say that he has been all that is cordial since my arrival yesterday!”
Mrs. Carlisle scoffed. “I cannot see how!” she averred drily. “I have not seen him above ten minutes these past two days!”
Mr. Delacourt laughed. “He sat with me for some time,” he assured her. “While you were visiting your friend – Mrs. Stoke, was it?”
“He left you there alone!” Mrs. Carlisle pointed out, apparently feeling this slight to be quite scandalous.
Mr. Delacourt laughed again, and shook his head. “I was not alone more than ten minutes before your return, dear Cousin! And he very graciously invited me to dine with him at his club, and to introduce me to his cronies.” He leaned forward and once more patted Elizabeth’s hand. “And I am so very delighted to have been able to follow Cousin Charlotte here!” he announced cheerfully. “And to meet you!” A thought occurred to him, and he added, “Where, indeed, is your Mr. Jennings, Cousin Elizabeth? One hears nothing but good of him, and I had hoped to make his acquaintance.”
Elizabeth smiled broadly. “He is truly the best of men,” she said. “He is gone out with his steward, Mr. Davies, to inspect some part of the grounds – an issue of engineering governing one of the boundary walls, I believe. He did not think it should take long, and I expect him any moment. You will be staying to lunch with us, will you not, Cousin?”
Mr. Delacourt seemed sincerely flattered by the invitation, and hastened to tell his cousin that he would be more than glad and honoured to stay. “I had intended to return to Everdale – my estate – this afternoon, but I have been persuaded by both Cousin Charlotte and Sir James to join them for a week at the lake lodge.”
“You will love it there!” Elizabeth informed him enthusiastically. “It is the most beautiful part of the country!”
“Will you and Mr. Jennings not join us, Cousin?” Mr. Delacourt asked. “It has been nearly three months since the rift, as you called it; do you not think he might have softened his heart by now?”
Elizabeth exchanged a glance with her stepmother. “I believe my father’s heart has not changed overmuch in all the time that I have known him,” she said, her words delivered gently and without rancour. “He is who he has always been, and I would expect nothing else.”
Mr. Delacourt looked as though he wished very much to disagree with her, but even his brief acquaintance with the gruff Sir James led him to see that Elizabeth was likely quite correct, and he contented himself instead to suggesting gently, “Perhaps in the coming years – when there are grandchildren to think of, you know – he will change his mind.”
“Perhaps,” Elizabeth acknowledged. “I think that would be nice.” She smiled warmly. “But do not let it concern you, Cousin,” she told him. “I believe you will enjoy yourself prodigiously at the lodge. You will not want to leave at the end of the week!”
“So I told him as well!” Mrs. Carlisle said, adding teasingly, “But he will go to some ridiculous wedding!”
“Of my oldest friend, dear Charlotte!” Mr. Delacourt defended himself. Turning to Elizabeth, he explained, “My boyhood friend Ned Fitzhugh is to be married in less than five weeks’ time, and I must – of course – abduct him in the meanwhile for one last round of adventures!”
“That sounds very exciting!” Elizabeth said, her eyes twinkling. “But does the young lady approve of your abduction of her bridegroom so soon before the event?”
Mr. Delacourt let out a bark of laughter. “She has been most understanding!” he said. “More so than one might have thought, given her circumstance.” He lowered his voice and spoke rather conspiratorially. “She is a prominent member of a wealthy clan, and this union with Ned has been something of a to-do since they first set eyes on one another. Both families have sizable fortunes to bring to it, and this marriage is being viewed as a most eligible political alliance.”
Something tugged at Elizabeth’s memory. “What is the lady’s name?” she asked.
“She is the honourable Miss Isabelle Fetherston, daughter of Sir Richard Fetherston.” He looked quizzically at her. “Are you acquainted with that family?”
“Oh, my, how famous!” Mrs. Carlisle exclaimed, clapping her hands together.
Elizabeth blinked, incredulous at the coincidence. “Why, she is my cousin, sir!” she said. “On my mother’s side. Not close enough a cousin for her family fortune to be in any way my family fortune, but still, what an extraordinary thing! We had just learned of her engagement some days before lady Morton’s party!” She thought briefly of the haughty, rather acerbic girl who had, during their brief and infrequent encounters, looked down her nose at Elizabeth, and considered herself to be much superior to those who made the grave mistake of not being a Fetherston; it seemed strange and almost unbelievable that such a woman might now be described as ‘most understanding.’ Of course, Ned Fitzhugh’s family was only one step away from the Fetherstons, and his fortune by all accounts was quite large; Isabelle might have reserved her good conduct for such a worthy object – and for his particular friends.
Mrs. Carlisle did not attempt to be circumspect. “I’m quite surprised to hear that she is understanding, Cousin Cedric, I don’t mind saying! She was always very cool to us here, and not just to me – who is not properly her family at all – but to Lizzie as well, who never did a thing to her except to be kind! But she was very young when she last visited; I suppose time might have changed her.”
Mr. Delacourt raised his eyebrows at Mrs. Carlisle’s words. “I am sure so, Cousin,” he said. “For she is now very much the gracious hostess, most pleasing indeed!” He chuckled. “Perhaps it is Ned’s doing! He is a very open and friendly man, and doesn’t stand on ceremony. One can’t know him for more than an hour and not be affected by his good nature!”
From the hallway came the sounds of the door opening, and of dogs milling about, and of Mr. Davies commanding them to clear away and to be quiet.
“Here is Mr. Jennings now!” Elizabeth said brightly, standing and walking to the door of the sitting room. When Jennings saw her, he broke into a happy grin, and, pushing the energetic dogs away from him, he moved quickly to join her.
“Your stepmother has arrived, I take it?” he asked her, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips.
“She has,” Elizabeth informed him, inviting him into the sitting room. “As well as my cousin, Cedric Delacourt, who is my father’s heir.”
Mr. Delacourt had come to his feet, and now greeted Jennings as though they had been old friends. “It is indeed a pleasure to meet you, sir!” he said jovially, shaking Jennings’ hand in both of his. “I – that is, Mrs. Carlisle and I – can well see how happy you have made Elizabeth, and that is worth the world to me, I assure you!”
Jennings, much as his wife had done, could not help but like this amiable visitor. “I am much obliged to you!” he said. Feeling an odd sensation of recognition, and fruitlessly searching his memory for Mr. Delacourt, he asked him, “Have we already met, sir? I have the distinct impression that I have seen you somewhere before.”
Mr. Delacourt cocked his head to the side and scrutinized Jennings’ face. “I agree, sir,” he said after a moment. “I believe I have met you before. I suppose it must have been at some assembly or other.” He grinned suddenly, and clapped Jennings on the shoulder. “But I am quite sure that we were never introduced, and so today is a most pleasant day indeed!”
Mrs. Carlisle, her heart overflowing with joy at the realization that her plan had worked – her husband’s heir seemed very ready to befriend Elizabeth and herself, and would no doubt be kind to her if anything should happen to Sir James – smiled and once more clapped her hands together. “Most pleasant!” she echoed. “And it is only just noon!”
They spent the afternoon touring Brightwood; Mrs. Raleigh, having predicted that these guests would wish to take advantage of the beautiful weather, had prepared a picnic lunch while they chatted in the sitting room, and they set out thus fully stocked to explore the estate. Cedric Delacourt proved to be an extremely easy man to know, and to be very contented to spend time with his cousins. It was with apparent reluctance that he and Mrs. Carlisle decided to end their visit – the sun already hanging rather low in the sky – and, as he climbed into his curricle, he said earnestly, “We must do this again very soon! Very soon!”
“We look forward to it!” Elizabeth assured him.
After the curricle and Charlotte Carlisle’s coach had driven up the lane and out of sight, Elizabeth turned to her husband. “And how do you like my Cousin Cedric?” she asked him, her eyes twinkling.
“He is most affable!” Jennings said. “He may come here as often as he likes!” He smiled wryly at Elizabeth. “It is a comfort to see such affection from your father’s side of the family.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “It is!” she said. “And I believe Charlotte is much relieved to make friends with him, for she has been concerned, I think, that upon my father’s death she would be cast out into the streets!”
Jennings raised an eyebrow. “Did it not occur to her that I would never allow her to be cast out into the streets?”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth admitted. “But I imagine she would not wish to importune you by asking.” She turned then to go into the house, only to stop in her tracks. “The portraits!” she cried, clapping her hand to her forehead. “I knew I had seen him before!”
“The portraits in my father’s house. Most are hanging on the walls in the small sitting room, but several of them are kept in a glass case in the front hall.” She looked perplexed, and stood apparently mulling something over.
“Is it unusual for his portrait to be among them?” Jennings asked. “Is he not part of your father’s family?”
“Yes,” Elizabeth answered. “But he is a young man, and the portrait is of a young man, and has been displayed in the case for as long as I can remember. And it sits with others from my mother’s family.” She frowned and bit her lip. “That makes no sense.”
“I’m sure it is just a resemblance, and is a portrait of some other cousin,” Jennings suggested. “Perhaps on our next visit into town, we could stop and look at them.”
“Oh, yes!” Elizabeth agreed eagerly. “Charlotte and my father will be gone to the lodge, and I am sure I shall be allowed in, just to look!” She shook her head, still frowning. “For I am sure it is his portrait, and that makes no sense. No sense at all.”