Lady Sarah stood on tiptoe, resting her crossed arms on the fence railing, and gazed in fascination at the four-month-old colt.
"Is it not marvelous, Tyler? A miniature replica of his sire ! I pray he will run as fast as his papa," she laughed, watching the colt nuzzle the mare for attention.
"Aye milady, 'e be a fine one. Next year, send 'im to Newmarket, and ye'll 'ave a moneymaker. No doubt 'bout it," Tyler nodded sagely.
Sarah had hoped to increase the finances of the estate by purchasing three broodmares and then splurged on costly Stud fees for a thoroughbred at the nearby farm. Now, with this new colt, it looked as if the investment had paid off.
Sarah had worked hard to reach this point. After her mother's death from influenza five years ago, her father, the Earl of Cranleigh, began drinking heavily, resulting in his own death two months ago.
For the past four years, because of her father's continuous decline, the responsibility of the estate's management fell to Sarah. Relying on her common sense and mathematical skills, she mastered the complexities of the account ledgers and the problems involved in managing the huge estate.
A great accomplishment, she thought, for a woman at the age of two and twenty.
"Looks like ye be gettin' visitors," Tyler remarked, turning to watch a traveling coach coming along the tree-shaded driveway. It was followed by another coach loaded with luggage.
"Good Heavens ! Who could that be, I wonder? The last thing I need now are house guests !" Sarah said in exasperation.
Brushing the dust from her black bombazine dress, and tucking a stray curl back into the black velvet ribbon tying her auburn hair, she hurried across the stable yard toward the driveway.
Two gentlemen, and a lady, descended from the carriage. The older gentleman raised his quizzing glass to survey the manor and its surroundings in a proprietary manner, then clasping the elbow of the anxious looking woman, proceeded toward the entrance to the manor.
A bemused frown wrinkled Sarah's brow as she observed them. Who are these people? How presumptuous of them to come to a house, still in mourning, carting all that luggage as if they planned to stay for months!
Reaching the front entrance as they ascended the marble steps, Sarah greeted them apprehensively, glancing at the servants emerging from the second coach.
"Good afternoon gentlemen . . . madame, welcome to the Prescott Estate. I'm Lady Sarah Prescott, how may I be of service?" Sarah asked.
"I believe you mean the Earl of Cranleigh's estate do you not?" the older gentleman sneered, surveying Sarah with interest, as his eyes skimmed her auburn hair and shapely figure.
"Well, yes . . . it was, but it is known as the Prescott Estate. You see . . ."
"My dear Lady, you are mistaken," he rudely interrupted, "It is still the Cranleigh Estate. Since your father died, the Cranleigh title, and this estate, had passed on to me, your father's cousin. I'm Lord Albert Trillwell, the present Earl of Cranleigh," he said while brushing a speck of lint from his lapel, and with a slight nod at the other two behind him added, "This is my wife, Winifred, and my son, Bertie."
Murmuring a greeting to the nervous woman who avoided looking directly at her, Sarah turned her attention to the other gentleman. A chill went through her when she looked into the man's glittering eyes leering at her.
"Now, miss, if you do not mind, it has been a tiresome, dusty ride, and we prefer to freshen up before anything else," the new Earl demanded. He turned and called to one of his servants.
"Dunston! Take my things to the master suite, then inform the Cranleigh servants to ready our baths."
"Aye, milord ! "
Speechless, Sarah stared at him as the servant entered the house, followed by the gentleman. This new earl had taken her completely by surprise, for he had neither corresponded, nor attended the funeral of either of her parents.
Although she knew someone would inherit the title as the Earl of Cranleigh, Sarah was stunned to learn that her home which had been in the Prescott family long before her birth, now belonged to this distant relative she did not know or even recalled having heard his name mentioned by her father.
Thoughts of this odious man and his wife occupying her parents room, angered Sarah. Taking a deep breath and bring her temper under control, she hurried after him.
"Sir! Ah, I mean my lord," Sarah said through gritted teeth. The last thing she wanted to do was acknowledge him as the new lord of her estate. "We do not have servants, except for the cook and housekeeper. I had to let them go, and you will find that most of the furniture in the house is under holland covers. Since the death of my parents I have had to economize in the management of the estate," Sarah explained. To think that I have worked so hard, and for what? For this . . . this creature to walk in and take over !
Sarah's first impression of the new earl, was a tall distinguished man, although arrogant, and probably in his late fifties. On closer observation, she could see the dissolution in his features. The wife, a plump nervous woman, barely coming up to his shoulder in height, obeyed her husband's every command, and the son, a heavyset man of thirty, was slovenly dressed, and from his behavior apparently half-witted.
"And I see you have done a fine job, my dear. My solicitor has assured me that the estate is free of debt," he said with an insolent smile, as he again surveyed her youthful figure and apparent naivete.
"Later, you and I will have to discuss the matter . . . privately
. . . in the library," he remarked.
Within days after their arrival, Sarah was ready to leave the home of her birth.
Bertie would follow her around with a crazed gleam in his eyes, and she was afraid to be alone with him. The Earl kept hinting of a marriage between Sarah and Bertie to spare the expense of finding a wife for him in London.
Also, her cousin's excessive friendliness grated on Sarah's nerves. On the first day in the library, she felt as if she was an object under scrutiny in the way she imagined the men observed the horses at Tattersall's. Whenever his wife left the parlor, he would boldly put his arm around Sarah squeezing her waist in a lecherous way.
On her way to her bedroom, Bertie had cornered her in the upstairs hall by the door. He pushed her up against the wall, and kissed her neck with his fat moist lips while grabbing at her skirt to pull it up. Sarah had taken the book she had in her hand, and swung it at his head, jarring him enough to loosen his clutching hands. Escaping, she locked herself in her room.
Not being able to stand another day of this treatment, she packed her portmanteau, slipped out of the house in the middle of the night, and left on one of the horses. Sarah had always ridden bareback as a child, and was thankful for that, as she did not have to bother with saddling the horse. As soon as she reached the outskirts of the village a few miles away, she dropped her portmanteau, dismounted, and with a slap sent the horse back to the estate stables, to prevent being followed.
Picking up the portmanteau, Sarah walked to the house of her friend, Mrs. Alma Hartley, the vicar's wife. The Hartleys were shocked at hearing of her predicament, and insisted she stay as long as needed. Mrs. Hartley suffered a greater shock upon discovering Lady Sarah intended to seek employment.
Sarah did not have a choice. Now that her cousin had possession of
the title and all it entailed . . . Lady Sarah Jordan Prescott had been
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