Inside the post-chaise, Nell Stornaway – now Nell Staple – admitted the truth to herself.
She was nervous about meeting her new family.
For the last six years, she had been focused on her grandfather and his estate, Kellands. She had spent most of her life buried in the country, and although her grandfather had convinced her Aunt Sophia to give her a London Season, Nell had not taken. She was too forthright, too used to country ways, and too large. Nell had been able to laugh at the sight of herself in the horrid hoop-skirted dress required for a Court presentation, but her poor Aunt had not been blessed with that ability.
Neither of them had been sad when the Season was over, and Nell departed with a trunkful of gowns, leaving her aunt plumper in the pocket. That had been the last time she had seen a fashionable modiste, and for seven years Nell had made them last. She had grown accustomed to wearing her riding habit day in and day out, saving her more refined clothes for wear in her grandfather’s presence. Her clothes were severely out-of-date, of course, but her grandfather never have noticed as long as she kept them in good repair. Riding habits suited her better than fancy gowns anyway, with their sleek lines and lack of frills – and their freedom.
Now, however, as a married lady, everything was different. John was no dandy himself, but men’s fashions generally didn’t change as frequently. Of course, her husband did not seem to care overmuch what she wore, and now she was in mourning. He had expressed a preference to see her in green – the color she had worn when he first laid eyes on her, and when she became his wife. A good dark rich green was, Nell had to admit, her best color – far better than white or the insipid pastels that were expected of fashionable young girls. So before leaving Kellands, Nell had allowed Rose to take her to their local dressmaker and have some gowns made.
John might not be concerned with fashion, but he had heartily approved of the expense. Nell had expressed her sneaking suspicion his mother and sister might judge her wardrobe more harshly, especially his sister. Women who had dresses made in London could scarcely avoid noticing how shabby and outdated her dresses were. John had assured her that his mother was bound to love the girl he brought home, but his sister Fanny could be more difficult to please. She hoped he was right about his family. He seemed to think that they would view her wardrobe as an opportunity, and predicted that Fanny would be excited to no longer be the tallest woman in the family.
They had married in unseemly haste, at her grandfather’s deathbed by his request. Nell would have married John anyway, having tumbled into love at their first meeting, but she owned she was glad her grandfather – the only member of her family left, not counting her unsuitable cousin Henry – had seen her marry John. Now, Henry was gone too, shot by a criminal he had regretted conspiring with. At least the circumstances of his death brought no more shame on the name of Stornaway than he had already acquired.
That had been a month ago. Part of the reason for the delay had been the search for the next heir to Sir Peter Stornaway’s title and estate, as Nell’s deceased older brother and the unlamented Henry had been his only heirs. Kellands was no great inheritance, and Nell had worried about providing for the older servants. John had an estate of his own, but Nell thought it doubtful all of her grandfather’s people would want to leave. When Henry had been next in line, Nell had known that many of the improvements she’d made would be squandered, but at least Henry was a known quantity.
The solicitor’s search had eventually turned up a descendant of her great-grandfather, a middle-aged tutor named Matthew Stornaway. Luckily, he had a small inheritance from a relative on his mother’s side, for Kellands brought no real money with it. He had been pleased at the idea of inheriting a tidy place, and had made Nell feel a little better. They had been able to pension off Winkfield, and Joseph Lydd had agreed to accompany them to Hertfordshire. Kellands’ cook and other servants wished to remain, and Matthew Stornaway was agreeable – and a single man at that.
Nell almost regretted that she would not witness the positive orgy of matchmaking that was about to begin in the area, but at least she knew she was leaving Kellands in good hands.
There had been a more agreeable reason for staying at Kellands, and that was to attend the wedding of Jerry Chirk and Rose Durward, her faithful maid. John had suggested that perhaps the couple could be married by special license, as he and Nell had done – thanks to her grandfather’s determination. He’d even offered to accompany Jerry up to London. The reformed highwayman – now a man of substance thanks to his part in solving the mystery at Kellands – had merely looked at her husband with knowing eyes.
“Not for love or money, Soldier, would I travel with you up to London! I can only imagine what trouble you’d be like to find along the road,” Jerry had replied with a laugh. “We’ll have the banns read out proper, and be married here.”
Nell could hardly blame him. After all, John Staple had just been on his way to someone else when he had stopped at their local toll-gate, and become embroiled in all of their concerns. Nell knew she was lucky he had stopped. It was, in fact, something she was thankful for every night. Not only had she found a man who looked at her and saw a beauty – and made her not feel over-large and ridiculous – but he had saved her. She shuddered to think what her spineless cousin might have acquiesced to, what Nathaniel Coate might have demanded.
So the banns had been read, and she and John had danced at Rose and Jerry’s wedding. Young Ben, the previous gatekeeper’s son, would be joining them on the neat little farm Jerry had purchased with the reward money. Nell would miss her faithful Rose, but she could not deny her the happiness she had so clearly found.
After that, however, there had been no real reason to stay any longer, no excuse to avoid meeting her new family. John had written a brief note to his mother, one that Nell imagined had probably given that lady the vapors.
When they pulled up in the yard of a not-too-grand house, Nell breathed a sigh of relief. At least the waiting was over. The carriage door opened, and John offered her his hand. “We’re home, my love.”
She reminded herself that no matter what, John would be beside her.
“So we are,” she said lightly as they made their way to the door.
As long as he was beside her, it would be home.