Miss Cassandra Paxton put on her spencer and settled her bonnet on her golden head, then turned to her maid.
'Lord Deverill lives on the Steyne. It's time for us to pay him a visit.'
'I don't like it,' grumbled Moll. 'You was brought up proper, Miss Cassie. You shouldn't be going visiting gennulmen on your own.'
'I'm not on my own,' teased Cassandra as she picked up her parasol. 'I'm with you.'
She opened the door and the two of them stepped out into the summer morning. Standing on the top step, she breathed in deeply, inhaling the tang of salt that was carried to her on the breeze, and lifted her face skyward as the cry of gulls filled the air.
'I'd forgotten how much I loved being in Brighton,' she said. 'I shouldn't have stayed away for so long.'
'That's a fact. The house is in a muddle, being as how it was left shut up for a year,' said Moll, adding dourly, 'It's a wonder we haven't got rats.'
'Well, we haven't,' said Cassandra, who was used to Moll's grumblings and ignored her gloomy manner. 'But you're right about the muddle. We will have to clean the house and tidy it from top to bottom when we return.'
'A rare treat,' said Moll, in an aggrieved tone of voice.
Cassandra led Moll down the narrow street then turned a corner. In front of them lay the sea. It was spread out like a piece of watered silk, undulating gently towards the horizon in a blaze of brilliant blue that reflected the clear blue sky. Fishing boats were dotted here and there on its surface, and their colourful sails blew in the breeze. Nearer to hand, more boats were drawn up on the shore, and next to them fishermen were mending their nets. A nursemaid was walking past them, keeping a watchful eye on a little boy who was playing with the waves.
'When we reach Lord Deverill's house, I want you to be quiet and let me speak,' said Cassandra, as she and Moll began to walk along the sea front.
'Yes, miss, I'll keep my mouth shut,' Moll grumbled, 'but don't say as I didn't warn you if Lord Deverill tries to take advantage of you.'
'As if you'd let him,' returned Cassandra.
Moll had been her nurse for many years and had stayed on with the family, becoming first of all a housekeeper and then a maid of all work. She had comforted Cassandra when her parents had died and again when her brother had died, and Cassandra knew that Moll was utterly devoted.
'I think I'll go bathing tomorrow,' said Cassandra, as they walked past a row of bathing huts pulled up on the beach.
'Nasty habit,' said Moll with a shudder. 'Climbing up them steps. Riding in a hut. Bumping over that beach on those big wheels and all to get into the water. If you wants a bath you can have one at home like a respectable body, instead of frolicking about in your chemise.'
Cassandra twirled her parasol. 'But it's not so easy to swim in the bath,' she teased.
'If you drowns yourself, don't come complaining to me,' said Moll, determined to have the last word.
It was not long before they reached the Steyne, a large grassy area set at right angles to the beach. It was empty apart from a footman who was hurrying across it, and who stopped to exchange a word with a lusty milkmaid before hurrying on. Its emptiness reminded Cassandra of how early it was and she felt a moment of doubt. It might be impossible for her to see Lord Deverill because he might not yet have risen. Living in the country, she had forgotten that the fashionable people in Brighton kept different hours, but she had gone too far to turn back. Summoning her courage she went up to the door of Lord Deverill's house. She lifted the lion's head knocker. It seemed to grin as she dropped it with a loud clang. She fiddled with her reticule as she waited patiently for the door to open, but nothing happened.
'Just as well,' said Moll with dour relish. 'Now we can go home again.'
But just as she turned away from the door, it opened, and a superior butler stood there. He lifted one eyebrow when he saw Cassandra, then his gaze passed on to Moll.
'Yes?' he enquired.
'I am here to see Lord Deverill,' said Cassandra.
He lifted his eyebrow even further.
'Lord Deverill is not at home,' he said in a stately fashion.
'Then I will wait until he returns,' said Cassandra firmly.
The butler looked as though he was about to say that Lord Deverill was not in need of another barque of frailty when he caught Moll's eye and changed his mind. He stood aside.
'If you will wait here,' he said, as he allowed Cassandra into the hall. 'I will see if his lordship has returned.'
Cassandra looked around her as the butler disappeared. Like all town houses, it was comparatively small, but there was no denying that it was elegant. A number of prints lined the walls, and a vase of flowers was arranged attractively on a console table. Three x frame stools were pushed back against the wall, and beyond them a modest staircase led upwards. The baluster was made of mahogany and the treads had been polished until they shone. She had time to notice nothing more before the butler returned and said, 'Lord Deverill will give you five minutes of his time.'
Cassandra followed him up the stairs and into the drawing-room. It was an elegant apartment, decorated in shades of gold and green, and was surprisingly spacious. There was an impressive marble fireplace, over which was hung a painting of the sea. The windows were large and damask curtains arranged themselves in sumptuous folds as they fell to the floor. To the side of the fireplace was a wing chair and there, sitting in his shirt and breeches, with a large hound at his feet, was Lord Deverill.
Her eyebrows lifted in surprise and she halted, momentarily taken aback. He was not at all what she had expected. She had thought he would be much younger, about twenty-two or three years of age, with dissolute features and a wild air, instead of which he was about thirty years of age. His hair was dark and his eyes were a clear sage green. His features were craggy, with a broad forehead and a strong nose and chin, but something about his mouth suggested that he could be good humoured if he pleased. He looked up as he saw her, and for a fleeting moment she thought she saw a glint of recognition in his eye. But that was absurd. He had never met her.
He stood up and said to his butler, 'Thank you, Manby. That will be all.'
'Very good, my lord.'
'Won't you sit down?' he asked Cassandra, when the door closed behind the butler.
Cassandra settled herself on the sofa and Moll sat down on a Chippendale chair by the door. Lord Deverill resumed his seat, crossing his feet at the ankle. He looked at her thoughtfully.
'Now, how may I help you, Miss . . . ?'
'Paxton,' said Cassandra. 'I've come to speak to you about my brother, my lord.' Did she imagine it, or did something wary come into his eyes? She pressed on. 'I found a letter when I was going through his things -' He looked surprised. 'I know it's a year since he died, but I didn't have the heart to turn out his pockets at the time,' she explained. 'I've come to ask you if you know what it means.'
She took the letter out of her reticule and handed it to him.
'As you can see, in it Rupert says he has done something terrible. I have been haunted by visions of a . . . ' She hesitated, and then went on ' . . . a young lady seduced and left without support.'
'Miss Cassie!' exploded Moll, rising to her feet.
'Sit down, Moll,' she said impatiently. 'This is no time to be missish.' She turned to Lord Deverill. 'You knew Rupert. Do you know what happened? Is there some young lady in desperate circumstances because of my brother's actions? If there is, I mean to do what I can to help her, and if she has no one else to turn to, she is welcome to come and live with me.'
He looked at her for a long moment, his face unreadable, then he handed the letter back to her.
'I shouldn't worry. It was probably nothing. He doesn't speak of harming anyone. He probably meant that he had drunk too much, or lost more than he wanted to, gambling.'
Cassandra felt a flood of relief.
'If that's all he meant . . . But do you know for sure?'
He regarded her as though deciding what to say, then said, 'You may rest assured that no young ladies have been left destitute by your brother.'
'Thank you.' She smiled. 'You have set my mind at rest. I mean to ask his other friends,' she said, rising, 'but if they tell me the same then I will be able to forget the matter.'
'I shouldn't go and see them if I were you,' said Lord Deverill, rising, too.
'Oh? Why not?'
'Because they are not all of them . . . reputable.'
'I am not fresh from the schoolroom -'
'No?' he asked, lifting one eyebrow.
'No. I am two and twenty, and I am not ignorant of the ways of the world. I know my brother was a little wild, and I know that his friends are likely to be a little wild as well. I don't mean to bother them, merely to ask them if they know what my brother meant. Perhaps you can tell me where I can find them? Mr Peter Raistrick, and Mr Geoffrey Goddard?'
He thought for a minute and then said, 'Goddard's out of town at the moment, but Mr Raistrick is to be found in all the usual places. You will see him if you attend any of the assemblies.'
'Thank you. I am going to the Castle Inn this evening. I will hope to see him there. And now I must take up no more of your time.'
The butler entered.
'Mr Standish, my lord.'
'No need to announce me, Manby, I -'
The fair young man who had entered stopped short as he saw Cassandra.
'Pray don't heed me,' she said. 'My maid and I are just leaving.'
And with this she left the room. Leaving Lord Deverill and Mr Standish looking after her.
'Tell me I'm dreaming,' said Matthew Standish, as the door closed behind Cassandra.
'No. You're not.' Justin, Lord Deverill drew his attention away from the door and gave it to his friend.
'What was she doing here?'
Justin leant against the marble mantelpiece.
'She came to ask me about Rupert.'
'She found a letter in one of Rupert's pockets when she was going through his things. In it, he said he'd done something terrible,' Justin said.
Matthew flinched. 'Did he say what?'
'No, thank God. The letter was unfinished, and he never posted it. He wrote it in a drunken stupour, I would guess, and then stuffed it into his breeches pocket, forgetting all about it the next morning.'
'And soon afterwards, he was dead. What did Cassandra want?'
'She wanted to know whether he'd seduced a young lady and left her destitute. She wanted to help the young lady if that was the case.'
'Help her?' Matthew looked surprised. 'That doesn't sound like a Paxton, wanting to help someone else.'
'She might not be like her brother,' said Justin, his eyes returning to the door.
'And she might be exactly the same. What did you tell her?'
'That she had no need to worry. That Rupert didn't leave any desperate women behind.'
Matthew breathed a sigh of relief. 'Disaster avoided.'
Matthew looked at him questioningly.
'She's going to see the rest of Rupert's friends. She wants to ask them if they know what he was talking about before she is satisfied.'
'Hm. That could prove difficult. And just which of Rupert's friends does she know about?'
'I'm not sure. She mentioned Peter Raistrick and Geoffrey Goddard.'
'She should be safe enough with them.'
'She should. As long as it goes no further.'
'So what are you going to do about it?' asked Matthew, sauntering over to a sofa and throwing himself down in a negligent attitude.
'I'm going to have her watched. See where she goes and who she speaks to.'
'That's a good idea.' Matthew looked up at Justin. 'Because if she stirs up the past, she could put us in danger.'
'Yes, she could,' agreed Justin thoughtfully. 'Mortal danger. And not just us, but herself.'
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