A chill shivered across Victoria's skin. “Hush, Francine. You’re talking nonsense.” Even so, she glanced up the winding stairs to the second level. The sun from the window above sparked off the crystals of the large chandelier, spattering rainbows across the vast walls. The brilliant colors were hardly ghostlike, and she tried to shrug off the prickles of awareness dancing over her body. “My father may have written a few ghost stories in his lifetime, but I was never one to believe.”
The butler opened the double doors to the drawing room and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. “You may enter, Miss Fawson.”
She nodded to Francine to remain in the hallway. Victoria stepped across the Persian rug to the black and white checkered marbled parlor floor.
Her gaze immediately fell to the handsome man standing by the fireplace. No more than thirty, if that, he held a brandy snifter and flashed her a dazzling smile, his dark hair gleamed in the sunlight peeking through the window, and his eyes roved the length of her. Victoria gulped, suppressing the urge to squirm. To the gentleman’s right, sat the lovely woman Victoria had met in Exeter a few weeks ago. Bethany Maitland’s red hair was wound fashionably atop her head with wispy tendrils decorating her forehead and ears—the vision of every woman’s envy—she appeared more refined perched in her winged-back chair than she had during their meeting on the street.
Bethany settled a porcelain teacup on the small table beside her and swept an assessing gaze over Victoria. “My dear, Miss Fawson. It’s so lovely to see you again.” She motioned to the man by the fireplace. “May I present my husband, Roderick Maitland.”
Victoria bobbled an uncertain curtsy. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir.”
The older woman indicated to the chair next to her. “Please sit with me, my dear.”
Through quaky nerves, Victoria put on her best smile and sat in what she prayed was a delicate, ladylike fashion.
Mrs. Maitland patted Victoria’s cold hand. “We shall have such a wonderful time together, you and I. Earlier I told my husband what a joy you were when we met.”
Victoria arched her brow. “Indeed? I’m surprised you found me so interesting. We didn’t converse for very long that day.”
The other woman laughed, the sound forced and dry. “Nonsense. I found our brief conversation extremely delightful.”
Uncomfortably Victoria smiled in return. “As did I, Mrs. Maitland.”
Still lingering near the fire, Mr. Maitland chuckled. “Bethany, you were correct about Miss Fawson. She’s charming.”
For some reason, Mr. Maitland’s cheerfulness seemed forced as if he was struggling to be nice. Still, it bothered Victoria to think Bethany Maitland would suggest matching Victoria and Jonathan in the first place. According to society’s rules Victoria was considered at a highly unmarriageable age. Being the daughter of an adventurous American novelist kept her living a life most men did not agree with. That, and most men didn’t want a woman who possessed the ability to think for herself.
Victoria shouldn’t be fickle. If her upbringing didn’t keep men away, her daring personality would. Her uncle couldn’t wait to get her married off and out of his household, so when he heard about Victoria’s visit to Maitland Manor, it was the first time she could remember that her relative looked excited.
Apparently, she wasn’t the only person in need of help in the marriage market. Why else would the Maitlands seek available women for Roderick’s youngest brother, Jonathan? Why couldn’t he find a suitable bride for himself? Perhaps he was deformed or severely obese. Inadvertently Victoria shuddered. Or did it have something to do with the family’s secrets? Gossip from the Maitland family’s past boasted of dark shadows, and Victoria’s inquisitive mind couldn’t put them to rest; neither could she ignore the teeming questions surrounding her father’s relationship with Justin Maitland.
Where is Justin Maitland anyway? She could hardly blurt out the question seeing as she’d come to the manor to court his brother. Surely, Justin would make an appearance before long. According to her father, Justin served as Master of the house and was indeed, a fine man.
“How was your journey, my dear?” Roderick Maitland’s melodious voice brought her out of her thoughts. She startled. He’d moved across the room to stand directly in front of her.
“Splendid.” She shifted back in her chair. “I was surprised at how far away your estate is from Exeter. Quite a bumpy ride, I’ll admit.”
“Yes, that’s the inconvenience of living so far from civilization,” Bethany said. “Would you like to see your room now?”
Victoria smiled. “Do you not want me to meet Mr. Jonathan first?”
“In due time, my dear.” Roderick helped her stand then hooked her hand over his arm and pressed it against his side. “My brother is still out riding and probably won’t return for several more hours. I’ll have Horace take you to Mrs. White, who’ll show you to your room.”
“Before I go, may I ask a question?”
“But of course, my dear.”
“Is there a chance I could meet Justin Maitland?”
Her host’s eyes widened and his wife sucked in a quick breath.
Their reaction brought a flush to Victoria’s cheeks. “I—I’m sorry. Is something wrong?”
“Oh, my dear Miss Fawson,” Roderick said. “I thought you knew…but my brother died in a house fire a little over a year ago.”
Her heart sank with such force her chest ached. No! Justin Maitland could not be dead. She needed him to be alive. He alone held the answers she so desperately sought. He was her sole reason for traveling to the manor. How else could she discuss her father? Tears stung her eyes. No wonder he had never returned her letters.
She swallowed hard. “Please forgive me for speaking of such a painful subject. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Tell me, Miss Fawson.” Bethany scooted to the edge of her chair, eyes bright with curiosity. “How did you know Justin?”
Victoria shrugged. “I didn’t. My father knew him and spoke so highly of Justin that I’d hoped to meet him.” She shifted her gaze from Bethany to Roderick. “Again, I apologize for mentioning your late brother.”
Roderick patted the hand still hooked over his arm. “Quite all right, my dear Miss Fawson. May I offer my condolences for your own loss?”
She nodded and looked away, the agony which must be painted on her face was real, but hardly for the reason the Maitlands would suspect. Victoria sucked in a cleansing breath, pondering her dilemma. With or without Justin she had a mystery to solve. She couldn’t leave. Someone besides Justin had to know about her father. “Did you know my father, Mr. Maitland?”
“By reputation only,” he replied without looking at her. “Horace?” Roderick motioned his butler.
“Kindly show Miss Fawson and her maid to their quarters. See to it that their needs are met with the utmost haste.”
“As you wish.” Horace looked at Victoria. “Miss, would you follow me, please?”
As Victoria followed the butler, her maid walked beside Victoria. Francine’s face was a touch pinker than earlier, and as she glanced around the hall, her eyes grew wide.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Victoria whispered.
Francine smiled. “Extremely lovely. I’ve never seen anything so grand.”
A woman with a curvy figure bustled in from one of the side rooms, her smile stretching from ear to ear. She wore the crisp gray dress and white apron of a housekeeper. Perhaps in her late forties, the woman still held a bit of her youth even through the silver streaks lightly touching her dark hair.
“Good morning.” The woman bobbed in a curtsy. “I’m Mrs. White, the housekeeper.”
Victoria nodded. “Good day.” Mrs. White surprised Victoria. Housekeepers were supposed to be pleasantly plump and old…at least the ones Victoria knew.
“Miss Fawson, please follow me and I’ll show you and your maid to your quarters.”
Mrs. White hurried down the long corridor, stopping in front of a closed door where she withdrew a thick set of keys from her apron pocket and opened the door. “If you need anything or have a problem, please don’t hesitate to ask me.” She nodded up the hall. “I’ll show your maid to the attic dormitory where the other servants reside.”
“Oh, no!” Victoria touched the housekeeper’s arm. “I must have Francine in the room next to me, if at all possible.”
The older servants’ eyes clouded, her expression blank for several tense moments. Finally she gave a curt nod. “As you wish. The room next door is vacant.”
Victoria forced a smile to ease the apparent tension. “Thank you.”
Mrs. White rushed inside, straight to the closest window. She pulled the tassel cord and opened the green velvet curtains. Sunlight spilled into the room and Victoria squinted against the sudden brightness.
Such beautiful chambers. Much better than the room in her uncle’s little cottage. The bed reminded her of the one she had as a child, nearly fit for a queen with many pillows and white silk hangings around the posts. An armoire and two chests of drawers stood along the walls. A small sofa and reading table sat next to the largest window, and a separate bathing chamber adjoined the room.
Mrs. White turned from the last window. “You may rest for a few hours, then I’m quite certain Master Roderick and his wife would enjoy your company for tea this afternoon. I’ll fetch you then. Mistress Bethany is hoping Mr. Jonathan will also be there.”
Victoria ran her hand over the downy comforter. “I look forward to meeting him.”
Mrs. White released a heavy sigh and shuffled nervously, clasping and unclasping her hands.
Victoria arched her brow. “Is something wrong?”
Mrs. White smiled. “The whole household has been aflutter, hoping you and Mr. Jonathan will make a fine match, but…”
Mrs. White took a step closer. “There’s something I must tell you,” she whispered, her dull brown eyes narrow with warning. “Neither you or your maid are allowed in the East Wing. Under no circumstances should you wander to that side of the manor. If you’re found there, Mistress Bethany will dispatch you home with all haste. Do you understand, Miss Fawson?”
Victoria’s mouth fell agape. The Maitlands were hiding something. Determination to find out what surged like fire in her veins—she was her father’s daughter after all—she’d search the household from top to bottom after everyone retired.