Mimi MatthewsMimi Matthews

A Lady of Conscience Excerpt

Book 5: Somerset Stories

Beasley Park
Somersetshire, England
January 1844

Hannah Heywood slipped out the kitchen door of Beasley Park, her hooded velvet cloak drawn up over her head against the winter chill. There was a full moon tonight. It shone, luminous as a pearl, in the midnight sky above, shimmering over the snow that covered the empty stable yard. She raised the small oil lantern she carried in her gloved hand, lighting the way to the stone stable block beyond.

After an evening of dancing and merriment, she’d been too restless to sleep. It didn’t help that she hadn’t successfully settled into her room. Her first night as a guest at the grand West Country home of the Earl and Countess of Allendale had been marked by much tossing and turning, and this night promised to be no better.

She was missing her pets, of course. Hannah supposed it was to be expected. This was the first time she’d left them—or her parents—for any length of time. Worries had begun to plague her from almost the first moment she and her older brother, Charles, had departed Heywood House. Thoughts about Evangeline, her three-legged spaniel, refusing to eat, or about Tippo, her aged pug, whining at the door of her empty bedchamber for hours on end, waiting in vain for his young mistress’s return.

They were no overly sentimental imaginings. They were rational fears motivated by fact. Hannah knew her pets. She knew they would be pining.

But it was only for a day longer. She and Charles were traveling back to Heywood House in the morning, their brief stint as the guests of the vivacious Lady Kate Beresford, daughter of Lord and Lady Allendale, at an end.

Hannah was eager to return home. In the meanwhile, her restlessness was best assuaged by checking on the only animals of hers that were still readily within her control.

She let herself into the darkened stables. Her family’s team of carriage horses—Dandy and Walter—had been housed inside since Hannah’s arrival three days ago. Along with Evangeline and Tippo, they’d never been far from Hannah’s thoughts during her stay. She made a point of personally looking in on them every day.

Each time she’d visited, it was always the same. They’d been comfortable, well-fed, and contented. It was no different on this occasion. Entering the stable, she found them dozing peacefully in their looseboxes, settled in for the night on thick beds of fresh straw. She was moving toward them, their names on her lips (“Walter! Dandy!”), when a sound arrested her step.

There was someone else in the darkness of the stable. A gentleman stood in front of one of the looseboxes at the end of the aisle, his tall, broad-shouldered frame just visible in the glow cast from her lamp.

Hannah’s heart leapt into her throat. She recognized that icy blond profile. That height, those shoulders, and the adamantine firmness of that uncompromising chiseled jaw.

It was James Beresford, Viscount St. Clare.

Lord St. Clare was the eldest of Lady Kate’s three older brothers. He was also, quite possibly, the handsomest gentleman Hannah had ever beheld. So disturbingly handsome that, from the minute they’d been introduced to each other, Hannah had found it rather difficult to look him in the eye.

It was childish, really. He’d been nothing but civil to her. Coldly, excruciatingly, civil.

But she’d felt his penetrating gray gaze on her at the dance this evening—both during the giddy, stomach-fluttering moments when they’d waltzed together, and during those moments when she’d been dancing with someone else.

No doubt he found her an oddity. Her mismatched blue and brown eyes were often an arresting sight to strangers, and her extreme shyness frequently put them off. Even the warmest people sometimes found it trying to converse with her. And Lord St. Clare was the very opposite of warm. He didn’t laugh or jest like the rest of the Beresfords. Indeed, he rarely spoke at all except when absolutely necessary, and only then, with the strictest formality.

But there was nothing formal about him now.

He was in his shirtsleeves; absent the impeccably tailored evening coat and elegant black silk cravat he’d worn when he’d waltzed with her earlier that night. His golden-blond hair was mussed, his mouth curved in something like a scowl. He was out of countenance, possibly even angry—the tight hold he kept over his emotions temporarily relaxed because he’d believed himself to be alone.

She lowered her lamp, instinctively shrinking back into the shadows. There was little worse than intruding on a person’s private moment, especially if that person was a frost-hearted viscount who prided himself on his unrelenting sense of control. He wouldn’t thank her for having spied him without it. Quite the reverse.

But there was no hiding. Not now he’d seen her.

“Miss Heywood,” he said coolly. He bowed to her in the darkness.

Hannah swallowed hard. Stiffening her spine, she made herself step forward, revealing her face to his view. “Lord St. Clare.” She dropped a reflexive curtsy. “Good evening.”

Unsettling as his presence was, it behooved her to stay on good terms with him. She doubted this would be her last visit to Beasley Park. Unless she was very much mistaken, her brother Charles was halfway to being in love with Lady Kate. Which meant that, eventually, the two of them would marry. It also meant that very soon Lady Kate’s three brothers would be as good as family to Hannah.

One brother in particular.

Lord St. Clare came down the aisle to join her. “Dare I ask what you’re doing out here at this time of night?”

I might ask you the same, Hannah nearly replied. But she wasn’t one to banter. Neither was she an accomplished flirt. Her shyness prevented all but the barest conversation with strangers. Unless, that is, she was talking about her animals.

“I’m looking in on my horses before retiring,” she said.

His gaze was inscrutable. “Had you reason for concern?”

“Only that they’re in a strange place, far from home.”

“You need have had no apprehension on that score. Our head groom is excellent.”

“I’m certain he is, sir.”

“Yet still you’re here.” He dropped an enigmatic glance down the front of her velvet cloak, to where the cloth gaped to reveal the silk gown beneath. “And still in your evening dress.”

A flare of self-consciousness heated her cheeks. She drew her cloak more firmly about herself. “I-I was too restless to retire to my room after the dance,” she said, stammering a little. “I’ve had no opportunity to change.”

He looked at her steadily. “Ah yes. The dance. I’d almost forgotten.”

Hannah’s blush deepened. Naturally it hadn’t meant anything to him. He was a gentleman of breeding and bearing. A man of five and twenty, far older in both age and experience than her meager nineteen years. The waltz they’d shared this evening had been a thrillingly romantic event to her, but one he’d plainly forgotten the instant the music had ended.

“I’m not accustomed to parties,” she said in an effort to explain. “We live a quiet life at Heywood House. Even a small dance in a private drawing room is a great cause for excitement.”

He joined her at the side of the loose box. His arm brushed lightly against hers as he cast a brief look in at Dandy. “Whatever the cause for your excitement, you may be assured your horses are content.”

Her pulse fizzed at his touch, the same way it had fizzed when he’d taken her hand to dance with her. He wasn’t a comfortable gentleman to be around by any means. His very proximity did odd things to her circulation.

She followed his gaze into the loose box, ignoring the quivering in her stomach. Dandy was snuffling in his sleep, one back foot cocked at rest. Hannah’s mouth curved in a fond smile. “Yes, I see that now.”

“You weren’t genuinely worried, I trust.”

“I always worry about my animals.” She paused, struggling to explain in words what she so easily articulated in the letters and anonymous opinion pieces she wrote in support of the burgeoning animal welfare movement. “They can’t speak for themselves, you see. Not in a way that human beings can readily understand. It’s up to me to give them a voice. To be their advocate, if necessary.”

Her words were met with a prolonged silence.

Hannah’s growing sense of discomfiture increased exponentially. She supposed that, given her shyness, she didn’t strike him as much of an advocate. Naturally he underestimated her. He knew nothing about the strength of her convictions or about the lengths she was willing to go to for a noble cause.

“An admirable philosophy,” he replied at length.

She couldn’t tell if that was sarcasm in his tone. “It’s not a philosophy. It’s a moral duty.”

“Is that why you don’t eat animal flesh?”

He was the first one of the Beresfords to ask Hannah about it outright. The others had merely accepted her dietary restrictions as a matter of course. Hannah suspected that her brother had privately addressed the matter with Lady Kate when they’d arrived, thereby avoiding any awkwardness with the menu during their stay—or any awkward questions.

But Hannah didn’t mind questions about her convictions. Not if they were asked in a spirit of sincerity.

“In large part, yes,” she said. She’d given up eating meat several years ago, in consultation with her long-distance correspondent, Miss Mitra, and other female members of the movement. “It isn’t exceptionable. Many in the world refrain from eating animals. The Hindu, for example.”

Lord St. Clare’s icy expression didn’t change. Hannah nevertheless thought she detected a faint hint of incredulity at the back of his eyes. As though he’d expected her to be ignorant of the world or wholly immature—or both.

“I read books,” she informed him. “And I correspond with all manner of interesting and well-informed people.”

“Do you indeed?”

“I do. I’m a capital correspondent.”

The barest trace of a smile shadowed the firm line of his mouth. “I’m sure that you are.”

She drew back from him with a frown. She didn’t like to be teased. Not by him. Not about something so serious as her feelings toward animals. “You think me amusing, I daresay.”

Lord St. Clare met her eyes in the lamplight. “What I think, Miss Heywood, is that your commitment to your beliefs shows a rather impressive largeness of mind.”

She blinked. “Oh.”

“I also think that if you remain out here for a moment longer in service to those beliefs, you’re likely to catch your death.”

“I’m perfectly warm in my cloak,” she assured him. She hesitated before adding, “It’s you I worry about.”

His brows lifted slightly. “I?”

“Do you often venture out into the snow without your coat or your neckcloth?”

“No. Not often.” His forehead creased. He lapsed into silence again for several seconds before admitting, “I’ve just come from the library, and a rather heated exchange with one of my brothers. The snow was the best remedy for my temper. That and a visit with my stallion. A few moments in his company never fails to restore my equanimity.”

Hannah nodded in immediate sympathy. She knew there had been tension in the house this evening, much of it owing to Lord St. Clare’s younger brother, Ivo Beresford, having invited the daughter of an estranged neighbor to their family party.

“Horses have that talent,” she said. “Troubles never seem so great when you’re standing beside one of them. It’s owing to their size, I believe. It dwarfs us, and our problems.”

“Very well put.”

“I contributed a brief article about the effect to a new journal on animal welfare that one of my correspondents is publishing in Bath. I mean to procure a copy for myself when next I visit.”

He gave her another of his unfathomable looks. “You’ll be traveling there in the spring?”

Hannah was surprised that he knew of her plans. She hadn’t talked about her upcoming season in Bath during her visit, except when in company with Charles and Lady Kate. “It’s to be my formal debut.” She felt compelled to add, “London wouldn’t have suited me. I prefer things to be simple.”

“Don’t we all.” He offered her his arm. “If you will permit me to escort you back inside?”

She cast a last glance at Dandy and Walter before taking it. “Very well.”

The muscles in Lord St. Clare’s arm were powerful under the curve of her gloved hand, unhindered by the thick layer of his coat. He was an athletic gentleman. A man as strong in his body as he was in his self-restraint.

His composure had been wobbling tonight in the aftermath of his argument with his brother. A disconcerting sight. She wondered what it would look like if the viscount ever lost control completely. If he ever succumbed to the wild, reckless, passionate nature for which the Beresford family was rumored to be famous.

It wasn’t likely to happen. And even if it did, Hannah wouldn’t be around to see it. In the spring she would go to Bath, where she would meet and marry a sensitive, bookish gentleman, as unlike the cold-blooded viscount as night was to day. It was for the best. She required warmth in her life. She required joy. Despite the cracks she’d observed in his armor, Lord St. Clare didn’t seem capable of either.

Back at the house, he held the kitchen door for her and waited as she preceded him inside.

She drew back the hood of her cloak, revealing the plaited coiffure of her dark auburn hair. “Thank you, my lord,” she said breathlessly. “I shall bid you goodnight.”

“Sleep well, Miss Heywood.”

“And you, sir.” With that, she hurried from the kitchens, her heart beating heavily at her throat. She was certain she felt the weight of his lordship’s gaze at her back, following her until she’d disappeared from his sight.

Excerpted from A Lady of Conscience by Mimi Matthews. Copyright © 2024 by Mimi Matthews.

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