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"He is here? Now?" Sophia Meriweather stared at Ogden, the family's butler, in dismay.
Ogden nodded, his silvery hair catching the light from the book-room window. Even though he had been in service in the house since her father was a boy, the butler was not bent with age. His black livery was perfect, as always, but she noticed the slightest quiver in his fingers. And why not? Everything was going to change from this moment forward.
That was not quite true. Everything had changed when Sophia's father took his last breath without a male heir. Without a brother or even a nephew. Only a distant cousin several times removed who had never visited Meriweather Hall on its promontory overlooking Sanctuary Bay. A distant cousin named Edmund Her-riott who now possessed the title of Lord Meriweather and held claim to the estate and all it contained.
Including the previous lord's older daughter.
Not that she was property, but it was assumed by her mother and sister and by the residents of the nearby village that Sophia Meriweather would do her final, most important duty to her father and marry the new baron and give him a male heir to keep an unbroken line at the estate.
Sophia slowly rose from the rosewood desk in the book-room. If she did not marry the new lord, she and her mother and sister would be relegated to the dower cottage where nobody had lived for more than thirty years. Her fingers curled on the edge of the desk. Papa had assured her that once the war was over, they would travel to the places on the Continent that he had visited on his grand tour before the French Revolution and Napoleon's wars.
But her father was dead, and she was expected to marry a man she had never met.
Sophia raised her chin. She had promised Papa before he died that she would take care of Mama, her sister, Catherine, and Meriweather Hall. That was a promise she must keep. Therefore she would present Meriweather Hall in its best light and at its most welcoming. It did not matter that the new baron had not had the forethought to send a messenger ahead to alert them to his arrival so early in the day. Learning to live with how the new Lord Meriweather handled his household was something they must do.
Affixing a smile, she said, "Thank you, Ogden. I trust you had him escorted to the formal parlor."
The barons of Meriweather Hall had received guests in that room since the manor house was built in the 16th century. But the new Lord Meriweather is no guest. She silenced that perfidious thought. She had known this day was coming, and she had prayed to be prepared for it. Now she must trust God would help her be.
"They are waiting for you there, Miss Meriweather." Ogden's voice was calm.
Hers was not, because it squeaked when she asked, "They?"
"Lord Meriweather has not traveled here alone." The butler's face was placid. Only that faint tremble in his fingers revealed that he was as on edge as she was.
Sophia squared her shoulders. Greeting the baron and his traveling companions was her duty. Mother still was not receiving because she remained in mourning.
"Where is Catherine?" she asked, for she had not seen her younger sister that morning.
"Miss Catherine is in her private chambers. Shall I let her know of Lord Meriweather's arrival?"
"Do so, and have rooms aired for the baron and his guests." She added as the butler turned to obey, "Ogden, my mother need not be bothered now. I will inform her of Lord Meriweather's arrival after I have greeted him and his companions."
"As you wish, Miss Meriweather. But if she asks "
"Tell her the truth that I have made arrangements for the baron and ourhis other guests." She hoped she would not speak unwisely in the presence of the new baron. Meriweather Hall was no longer her home. It belonged to a man who was setting foot in it for the very first time today.
Sophia took a steadying breath as she walked into the corridor that lead to the front of the house and the formal parlor. A few lamps had been lit to fight back the gray dreariness of the rainy September morning. She did not need light to wind her way past tables and cabinets and the pictures that were lost in the shadows.
She knew each inch of the house, because except for a single visit to London for the Season, she had spent every night beneath its roof.
She heard the men's voices before she reached the formal parlor. The sound, deep and resonant, seemed out of place in the house. One man chuckled, and she wondered if she had heard a male laugh in Meriweather Hall since her father took ill.
Taking a deep breath as she paused by the wide staircase that led to the gallery above, Sophia murmured a quick prayer that God would put the right words on her lips. If it were only her future, she might find this easier, but she had to think of her duty to her family.
Beside the doorway stood Jessup, one of the footmen, who must have escorted the guests there. She smiled a greeting, but he looked hastily away. He probably wished to keep her from seeing how upset he was by the abrupt change in the house.
Her eyes widened when she saw three men in the chamber. All wore rain-drenched brown greatcoats and mud-splattered boots. Their tall hats perched on the circular window seat in the bow window. She was glad they had not thrown their coats on the yellow settee or the marble-topped tables. But mostly, she was pleased to see they were of above-average height. Her one Season in London had been humiliating, because she had not been able to ignore the whispers about how tall she was and who would marry such a Long Meg when there were many petite dolls to choose from?
If her distant cousin shared that belief, it could be disastrous for her family. So, which of the three men was Edmund Herriott?
Was he the redhead who stood with his hands clasped behind his back by the window that offered the best view of Sanctuary Bay? Or was he the light-haired man examining a painting on the chimneypiece? That man was at least five inches shorter than the man by the window, which meant he probably would stand eye to eye with her.
Surely the new Lord Meriweather must be the third man. He was also not as tall as the gangly ginger-haired man, but was well over six feet tall with broad shoulders. He stood in profile to her, so she had an excellent view of rugged features beneath his black hair. Well-shaped mouth, aristocratic nose, firm jaw. His greatcoat was whipped back on one side to reveal an unadorned black waistcoat with silver buttons. Dark brown breeches ended in his mud-stained boots, which he wore with the ease of a man used to a rough life of overseeing his estate and tenants.
Her gaze was caught by his eyes that were as dark as his hair. Heat scored her face when she realized he had been watching her appraise him with candid curiosity. In return he regarded her with cool detachment before looking away as if she were unworthy of his time.
If he is the baron, give me patience, dear God, she prayed. She had seen men with an expression like his in London. Men so certain of their place in the world that they disdained anyone else's. If she were to marry him She shivered at the very thought.
"Good morning," Sophia said as she stepped into the room. She hoped her fingers did not shake visibly as Ogden's had. "I am Sophia Meriweather, and I welcome you to Meriweather Hall. I trust your journey here was uneventful. North Yorkshire autumns can be beautiful, even though today's rain and chill winds off the sea are dismal." She was babbling, but she could not halt herself as the three men focused on her. Wishing the new baron would identify himself, she decided she must guess. She turned to the dark-haired man. "We hope you soon will feel at home here as we do, Lord Meriweather."
His eyes narrowed, but she saw something flicker within them. She was unsure what the strong emotion was. "I am not your cousin," he said, then gestured to the light-haired man by the hearth. "Herriott, come forward and greet your cousin."
Heat scored Sophia's face. She wished she could leave and come back in again so she could avoid such a faux pas. Why had she assumed the man with the most powerful aura was the new baron? Her distant cousin had held no title before, and the dark-haired man exhibited the air of someone accustomed to deference.
Shrugging off his greatcoat, the new Lord Meri-weather hurried to greet her. He was well-favored, but his face did not hold her gaze as the dark-haired man's had. Who was the other man?
She could not ask that now. She must greet her cousinthe new Lord Meriweatherprettily. He had an uneasy smile as his gaze swept over her. Was he shocked at her height as other men had been? He was, now that he stood in front of her, a bare inch taller than she was. She resisted the urge to pat her blond hair to be sure it had not loosened from its chignon. She realized she should have changed before greeting the gentlemen, because she wore a simple light blue gown that had no lace or ruffles on its hem. What must Lord Meriweather think of her receiving them in such a simple gown?
"Forgive me," he said. "I was captivated by the elegant brushstrokes in the painting and failed to keep an eye on the door to take note of your arrival." He bowed his head to her. "I am Edmund Herriott, your cousin. I trust I may address you as Sophia since we are family."
"Of course." How could she say no? That would suggest that she had no interest in truly welcoming him into the family. He could then assume that, in spite of everyone's expectations, she did not want to marry him. Even though that was the truth, insulting him now would be unwise. The dower house was in no condition for her mother.
"And you must call me Edmund. I know my proper address might be uncomfortable for you now." Her cousin gave her a lopsided smile. She was grateful for his understanding how unhealed the loss of her father remained, even though almost a year had passed. She realized that he was as nervous as she was. For the first time, she wondered if he had brought the others with him to avoid being alone at this first meeting. He straightened his shoulders, much as she had, before adding, "Allow me to introduce my two friends, both of whom served with me on the Continent. May I present Jonathan Bradby?"
The redhead stepped forward and gave a half bow to her. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Meriweather. I must say your family chose the most desolate location possible for a house. I have never visited North Yorkshire before, but I now understand its reputation for putting even the strongest man to the test." He raised his head, making her tilt hers to look up at his smile, something she seldom had to do. His grin told her that he was attempting to put her at ease. "Crags and storms."
"But you cannot fault the view, Mr. Bradby," she replied, appreciating his efforts. "It is spectacular."
"I shall let you know once it stops raining." He laughed, and she realized it had been his laugh she had heard earlier.
She would have enjoyed engaging Mr. Bradby further in conversation, but her gaze was drawn back to the dark-haired man. Unlike his now smiling friends, he remained somber. She wondered if she could ever be unaware of him when he stood nearby.
Her cousin glanced from her to his friend before saying, "May I also present Charles Winthrop, Earl of Northbridge?"
Sophia's breath caught as the earl lowered his head in a gracious greeting. Light played across his sharply sculpted face, and her eyes riveted on the white puckered line of a scar that ran from the middle of his left cheek to his temple before vanishing into his black hair. She could not regain her composure before he straightened and caught her reaction. Any hint of emotion vanished from his face while hers grew warmer with each passing second.
Oh, bother! She was making a difficult situation even worse by gawking at Lord Northbridge like an untutored child. Whether he had been injured in the war or elsewhere, she should not stare. Had she learned nothing from being stared at herself? She must say something to atone for her rude behavior.
She chose the first words that popped into her head, praying they would be the correct ones. "I apologize, Lord Northbridge, for mistaking you for my cousin. I hope I did not discomfort you."
His ebony brows lowered. "Quite to the contrary, Miss Meriweather. I would venture that you are the one who has been put to the blush."
"A most flattering shade it is," Mr. Bradby said with another friendly grin. He pulled off his greatcoat to reveal a peacock's attire. His green coat was worn over an eye-searing blue waistcoat and ruddy breeches.
Jessup rushed in to collect the coats. The footman's eyes almost popped from his head as he stared at Mr. Bradby's garish clothing. Then he recalled himself and held out his arm for the other men's coats. Cousin Edmund handed over his coat, but Lord Northbridge did not remove his. Jessup waited a few seconds, then took the two coats where they could be cleaned and dried.
"Allow me to add, Miss Meriweather," Mr. Bradby said, "that your home was a welcome sight on such a stormy day."
"We have rooms ready for you," Sophia said, her aplomb in place once again. "I trust you will find them suitable for your needs, and I can assure you that each has a splendid view of the sea." She allowed herself the slightest smile. "Or they shall once the sky clears. If there is anything special you require, please ask, and we will do our best to provide it."
"Thank you, Sophia," said her cousin, who then looked at the earl. "Northbridge, don't you have something special to ask of our hostess?"
Sophia stiffened, unsure what the earl would say. Her cousin had treated her with respect and kindness, but she knew none of these men. Would they hoax her for their amusement?