My latest book from Robert Hale is released this month. On October 10th I will be at The Forum, Norwich, for an informal launch. As I have not received any copies of the book it's going to be very informal!! I have lots of earlier titles to sell, so do come along and see me if you are in the area.
This is the first few pages of Two Gentlemen From London - hope you enjoy it enough to order it from your local library.
'Miss Bentley, lawks a mussy! They're here. Young Fred saw the carriage turn into the lane not ten minutes ago.'
Annabel Bentley dropped the jar of bramble jelly she had been about place on the shelf in the pantry. 'After so long? I had thought Mama and I safe from him.' Stepping over the sweet mess on the flagstones she gathered up her skirts, calling over her shoulder as she ran. 'You and Tom know what to do; we have about thirty minutes before they arrive.'
How had he found them? They had been so careful these past years, had not even attended church or visited Ipswich themselves. Her heart pounding, she ran upstairs calling her mother.
'Mama, we are discovered. We must get organized or it will be too late.' She had hoped never to be reminded of that black time again.
Lady Sophia appeared from the south facing chamber she used for her studio, as usual she had paint streaks on her face and fingers. 'Are you quite certain, my love? I can hardly credit that monster has been able to find us.'
'Well, he has. Mary and Tom are putting on the holland covers, we have to clear your studio.'
In the beginning they had practiced this exercise several times, but as the months, and then the years, slipped by they had stopped rehearsing. However, the boxes were ready and it was the work of moments to fill them with the paraphernalia.
'Quickly, open the panel and I'll start taking things through.' Annabel tried to recall how long it was since she had checked their intended hiding place. It must be almost a year, the two secret rooms would be dust covered, but it was too late to worry about that. There was the clatter of footsteps and their servants arrived to disguise the bed chambers they had been occupying with covers.
'Miss Bentley, everything's ready downstairs, we shall have your rooms done in a trice. Fred is moving the horses, I reckon we'll be prepared in good time.'
'This room is finished; all we need is sufficient food and water for today and tomorrow. No doubt you will be obliged to offer accommodation tonight, but when he finds he's mistaken, he will surely leave first thing.'
'He'll not get a meal he'll enjoy tonight, I'll make sure of that.'
'Thank you, Mary. I cannot imagine why the three of you have stayed with us so long in this isolated place, but we could not have managed without you.'
'Bless you, miss, it's been our pleasure. You mustn't worry. If you and Lady Sophia get settled, we'll be up with what you need as soon as we've done here.'
Annabel stepped into the hidden passageway, relieved to see her mother had not been idle, the sconces were burning and she had sufficient illumination to fasten the panel behind her and to pick up one of the remaining boxes.
The passageways and narrow staircase led from top to bottom of the ancient mansion. The place had once been used by smugglers and although the exit to the beach had fallen into disuse years ago, it was still possible to get from the kitchen to the hidden apartment in the attic.
She followed the twists and turns without hesitation, it was fixed in her mind. She could hear her mother moving about ahead of her and guessed she would be setting up her easel.
'There you are, my love. I shall run back and fetch the last box whilst you check we have
everything we need up here. I fear the bed linen will be damp after so long.'
Annabel didn't bother to argue that she was younger and fitter and should be the one to go back, for it would be untrue. Her mother was barely eight and thirty, and she nineteen on her last name day, they would be taken for sisters if ever they appeared together in public.
These secret rooms had been constructed when the house was built. There was no way to enter them via the attics, the only panels that opened were in the room that had been used as a studio and the boot room in the basement. She walked across to the low doors that opened onto the roof.
She pulled them back and stepped out, knowing she could not be seen from below. Brandon Hall, originally built in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, now had a false edifice making it appear what it was not. Behind the brick frontage, hidden between two chimney breasts, was a space more than large enough to walk about. She carefully removed the brick that filled the peephole.
Her throat constricted and her hands clenched. Fred had not been mistaken. Already half way down the long curving drive was a smart, black travelling carriage. They had not received a visitor since they had joined Great-Aunt Beth, nobody knew they were there. It could only be her stepfather, Randolph Rushton, and his loathsome man of affairs.
A vivid flash of lightning split the sky. She counted, had reached five, when the thunder followed. The storm they had been anticipating all day would be upon them within the hour. She prayed the river that ran parallel to the lane would not flood, the last time it had done so it had been a week before the road was passable.
Her mother appeared at the door, her face pinched and pale. 'Come in, my dear, we must get ourselves settled whilst it is still light enough to do so. You know we cannot risk more than a single candle once it is dark.'
'Very well, Mama, the carriage will be here imminently. We can't move about once it arrives, you know how sound echoes down the passageway.'
The coach rocked violently. 'God's teeth! Sinclair, are you certain we have taken the correct turning?'
Colonel Robert Sinclair grinned at his companion. 'The yokel the coachman questioned a while ago directed us along this godforsaken track. It's your family we're visiting, Dudley, not mine, remember.'
'My sister said she lives in rural splendour, not that she lived somewhere as inaccessible as this.'
The horses slowed to a walk and Robert lowered the window. 'I can see something carved into the gatepost.' He leant out and could just make out some letters under the verdigris. 'Yes, it's definitely Brandon Manor.' He shouted up to the coachman. The groom sitting next to him on the box, hung precariously over the edge to listen. 'This is it. The drive is in no better state than the lane. Take it carefully, I don't want my horses lamed.'
'Very well, Colonel, we'll take it steady.'
The driver waved his whip in acknowledgement and Robert resumed his place on the squabs. This was turning out to be a more interesting excursion than he'd anticipated. When Dudley had suggested a visit to darkest Suffolk to see his sister Amelia, he had agreed. Since Waterloo, and reduced to half pay, even a sojourn in the country seemed preferable to kicking his heels in town, and having too much time to dwell on his loss.
'I know your sister has been widowed, but surely her finances are not so parlous that the estate has fallen into disrepair?'
'To tell you the truth, I know little about Brandon Manor or her dead husband. She met and
married Sir John Barton whilst I was on the Peninsular with you fighting Napoleon. She has two
children, I misremember their names, but from what I recall, Barton was a young man with deep pockets. Amelia wouldn't have looked at him otherwise.'
Robert smiled. 'She always said she would marry money; but I'm surprised she chose someone who lives so remotely. I doubt she has much social life stuck out here in the back of beyond.'
The sky was rent by a sheet of lightning closely followed by the rumble of thunder. 'That's all we need, a storm. The going is too poor for us to make faster progress; I fear we're going to be caught in a downpour.'
'At least we will be well looked after when we arrive. Amelia keeps a good table. This journey has been beyond tedious, I cannot wait to stretch my legs and enjoy a decent meal.' Simon Dudley shuddered. 'The repast we were given last night beggars belief.'
'It didn't prevent you from finishing it,' Robert said dryly. The carriage dropped into another pothole tilting dangerously; he was catapulted from his seat. 'Dammit! That's the axle gone. God knows how we're going to get it fixed out here.'
He untangled himself from his friend and reached up to grasp the door which was now above his head. 'Did I hurt you?' Major Dudley shook his head. 'I must get out and help Jethro with the horses. We're still a mile from the house; I fear we're going to have to walk.'
The team might be in imminent danger of entangling themselves in the traces. He prided himself on having four incomparable matched bays and had no intention of letting any one of them injure themselves. Heaving himself upright he smashed the door open; he thrust through the opening to roll down the carriage to the ground.
His driver was before him and had his knife out to slice through the leather. There was
no sign of the groom. He ran to take hold of the bit of the lead horse, he pulled the animal's head
down and spoke soothingly until it calmed. 'Where's Billy?'
'I ain't had time to check, sir, he went over the side and I've not seen him since.'
There was the thump of boots as they hit the ground behind him. 'Dudley, my groom's hurt. Check on him.' He knew his friend wouldn't question his orders; after all he'd been following his commands during the years they had served together in the same regiment.
'A concussion, he's out cold, but his pulse's steady. How the devil are we going to get him to the house?'
'I can see help arriving; there's a pony and trap heading this way. I find it decidedly odd that Amelia can provide us with nothing better than that.'
Dudley shrugged. 'I suppose it might have been sensible to have informed her of our coming.'
'Good God! How did the regiment survive with you in charge of transport? I should not have agreed to accompany you, or use my carriage, if I had known we were not expected.'
The trap clattered to a halt beside them and an elderly retainer scrambled out, a younger version, obviously his son, close behind. 'It's going to rain something heavy any time now, sir, so we best get you to the hall before it do.'
Robert nodded. 'My groom is injured, take him and our bags. Major Dudley and myself will ride.' The man touched his cap and vanished to the far side of the tilted carriage to collect the patient. He was about to swing up on the horse he was holding when something the man had said made him stop. 'Is this Brandon Manor?'
The two servants staggered around, the comatose body between them. The older man answered. 'Bless you, sir, no it ain't. This is Brandon Hall. Brandon Manor is ten miles away, at Upper Brandon. This here place is Lower Brandon.'
Miss Bennet & Mr Bingley is available from The Book Depository and Amazon for £11.99