The Stanforth Secrets

Free The Stanforth Secrets by Jo Beverley

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Authors: Jo Beverley
looked around at the others. “Damn it. It’s not that I don’t want to play with Belinda. I just don’t want the fact there’s five of us to put off the game. I’m partial to a game of whist, and I haven’t had one for months. That useless Miss Forbes doesn’t know a heart from a handshake.”
    Lord Randal came over to take the old lady’s hand and kiss it. “Don’t worry, my dear. You will have your game. I think I’m the one here who is least fond of cards, so I’ll take Chloe’s place at the piano.”
    This arrangement suited everyone. The Dowager, to make up for her rudeness, insisted on playing with Belinda as her partner. She was well pleased when it became clear the young woman was a very skillful player, with an amazing memory.
    As Belinda calmly led out an unbeatable six of clubs, forcing a discard of his queen of hearts, Justin groaned, “Remind me, Aunt Belinda, never to play with you for high stakes.”
    The Duchess swept the cards up with a gleeful grin. “Ours again. Fine play, gel.”
    “Thank you, Your Grace.” She turned to Justin with a rueful smile. “Please, Lord Stanforth, can I prevail upon you to call me Belinda? If I was foolish before, it was only nerves, you see. We will be a laughing stock with you calling me aunt.”
    Chloe glanced at Belinda thoughtfully. Clever.
    While George had been alive, Belinda had been rather awkward in her manner, trying far too hard not to make mistakes. George himself did not help by being moody and petulant. For a while as a widow, Belinda had seemed to relax and become much more natural in her manner. Now, Chloe thought, Belinda had gained new poise. She was not displeased. The girl was now part of the family, and Chloe did not want to have to blush for her. On the other hand, she did not want Belinda to inveigle an offer out of Justin.
    Justin was also eyeing Belinda thoughtfully. “You are right, of course. Why do we not settle for ‘Cousin.’ It would capture the spirit of our relationship.”
    Belinda nodded. “I would be pleased to call you Cousin Justin.”
    “And I to call you Cousin Belinda.”
    “Cousins everywhere,” said the Dowager. She added with a sly smile, “Just remember, all of you. Cousins should never marry.”
    There was no reason for it, but at the word “marry,” Chloe’s eyes went to Justin’s, and surely his just escaped being caught in the same reflex.
    After a moment, his eyes returned deliberately to hers, filled with amusement. Chloe only then became aware of the melody Randal had suddenly began to play con amore , a popular ballad called “Now You Are Near.”
    Chloe blushed as she remembered the words: “Sweet, sweet the thought of you, my dear, But sweeter still the day now you are near. . . .”
    She glared at her cousin and, with an unrepentant grin, he slid off into a wordless tune. Chloe hastily dealt the cards for the next hand.
    The game broke up when Belinda was obliged to go up to her child, whom she nursed herself, and the Dowager admitted to needing her bed. Randal ceased his playing.
    “I had no idea you played so well, Randal,” said Chloe, with an edge in her voice as she leaned against the piano.
    “It’s a soothing occupation,” he replied innocently, “but not one to which I’m willing to apply myself. You play considerably better than I.”
    “But not so eloquently,” Chloe said, moving to stand beside him. “Keep your meddling fingers out of my business, coz,” she said pointedly and he laughed.
    Justin had come over to join them and she turned to him. “I know this is your house, Justin, but I have to ask if there is anything you need.”
    He took no offense at her words, but he seemed to eye her pose strangely. She realized she was resting one hand on her cousin’s firm shoulder, and removed it.
    “I’m only too pleased,” Justin said, “to leave the running of Delamere to you for a little while, if you will be so kind, Chloe. Tomorrow is soon enough even to think of

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