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Lady of a Thousand Treasures

Chapter One

September 1866

Watchfield House, Oxfordshire, England

A threading of voices spooled throughout the expansive chamber wherein we waited, voices so decently quiet as to be murmurs. All present quickened as lightning pierced the ground just outside the wide panel of windows, like a finger pointing deep within the earth. Perhaps it was the good Lord’s way of informing us exactly where the soul of the recently departed had found its final resting place.

I did not believe Lord Lydney had ascended.

And yet Lydney had been my father’s friend, patron, and benefactor. Many spoke admiringly of him. Truth be told, he had on occasion been charitable to me. I had once believed he would be my father-in-law.

That notion had passed.

I was at Watchfield House, English country estate of Baron Lydney, once more to pay my respects and then leave as quickly as possible, putting the past firmly behind me.

My gaze shifted to Harry and, against my better judgment, rested upon him. His fair skin and unruly toss of auburn hair were admirably set off by the black he—we all—wore. I averted my gaze before he could catch me staring.

“A murder of crows.” Marguerite nodded toward a clump of unfriendly men who bobbed their heads at one another as if pecking, stiff in their age and black coats.

My dearest friend, Marguerite. Although we were nearly of an age, as a widow, she made a suitable chaperone for me whenever one was required, which was not often for a person of my social status. She knew my habit since childhood had been to sort into collectives, especially as a means of regaining control in any situation which forced my anxieties to the surface. It was a custom particularly suited to the daughter of and assistant to a conservator for collectors. I was now a conservator and valuer in my own right. Almost, anyway.

“A singular of boars.” I feigned a yawn.

She looked in Harry’s direction. “A rake of mules?” she teased.

I smiled at the jest but knew she could not truly believe that; she had always been fond of Harry, at least until he’d disappeared. Like each of us, Harry had his faults but was certainly not a rake. He’d ever only shown interest in one woman.


My heart wavered. Till that interest suddenly waned. I allowed myself to look at him once more.

He stood tall and sturdy among recognizable peers; he carried himself as a man who was confident, as indeed I’d always known him to be—except in the presence of his father. Near the center of their gathering was a woman I did not know. Her hair was as black as our mourning garments; she was beautiful and young. Her jet jewelry flirted with the lamplight. I held my breath as I watched Harry look at her, his gaze and attention steady.

“An ostentation of peacocks,” I whispered to Marguerite. At that, the group of them turned and looked at me. A flush reached up my neck and I was glad for my high collar. I repented of my whisper. It was one thing to reassure oneself, quite another to be unkind, even if born out of sorrow. “Could they have heard me?”

Marguerite tucked a loose strand of her blonde hair back into its upswept style and squeezed my elbow in solidarity before shaking her head. “I think they know something that you do not . . . not yet.”

Now that she mentioned it, I had noticed eyes upon me disconcertingly and unusually all morning. I turned and faced her. “And that you know, too?”

She nodded. “I only overheard a bit of uncertain gossip whilst in the hallway, but I believe you shall find out soon . . . if it’s true.” Marguerite inclined her head toward the dark-haired beauty at the heart of their circle and whispered to me, “She returned with him from Venice.” Then my friend slipped away.

I caught my breath and turned away lest my countenance betray my dismay and surprise. To steady myself, I walked toward an over-upholstered chair in which an elderly acquaintance appeared to be drowning, to see if he needed a gentle tug back to the surface. As I made my way forward, a man stepped into my path, blocking my progress. He stood confidently, the stance of a man unused to being told no. His jawline was chiseled and the waves of his platinum hair held in place seemingly without pomade. He seemed vaguely familiar, but I could not place him.

“The Viscount Audley.” He bowed. “At your service.”

I did not think it was particularly serviceable to prevent me from walking. “Miss Eleanor Sheffield. I’m certain I do not need your assistance, though I’m grateful for the offer.”

“Oh, I know your name; we’ve met.” He lowered his voice. “I believe you do need my assistance. You are a woman alone, or soon shall be. That makes you vulnerable, does it not?”

I shivered at the naked honesty and implied threat of his statement but said nothing. He did not need a further prompt.

“My help comes as advice: he’ll exploit your goodwill, you know. As he always has, as his father condescended to your father. Their benevolence has never been selfless, has it been, Miss Sheffield? Nor has either proved faithful, at the end.”

“I’m sorry, Lord Audley. I’m sure you mean well. But I don’t know of whom you are speaking.” A pack of lies.

“I believe that you do.” He looked at Harry, then back at me, and then bowed and returned to the others.

I did not know what to make of Lord Audley’s comments except to assume that he, too, knew the secret that was apparently not a secret from anyone but me.

Out of habit, I glanced up at the magnificent mantel clock. Made of French walnut, it was adorned with the three Greek Graces. To my utter surprise, it seemed to indicate the correct time. I looked at my own timepiece; yes, yes, the times were exact. But was the clock’s wood brighter than it had been? I thought so. I stepped closer to it. I could not see the works but could faintly hear them; they purred along. The glass face shone. Our firm’s associate, Mr. Clarkson, had perhaps polished it when he was here some months earlier to care for the collection in my absence.

I should ask him if he had repaired the works. If so, he was quite a bit more accomplished than would be expected. For that, I was glad.

I looked around the room, now filled with several dozen men and women, titled and not, the rich collectors who had been the baron’s friends and, some of them, my father’s commissioners. And, of course, Harry.

He caught me that time. He held my gaze as he had hundreds of times over the course of more than a decade, first as a gangly younger man, then as one who had thickened with muscle and maturity. I held my breath. I would not lie: I had loved both the boy and the man. He smiled. I ducked a slight head bow in his direction before looking away as the tributes began.

Several in the room spoke well of the late Lord Lydney—their kind accolades seemed genuine, and even the vicar seemed at least neutral where the man had been concerned. However, several others looked at the table when the tributes were offered and did not nod or hum an agreement, and the praise soon tapered off.

I prepared to return to my room, but a man touched my arm gently. “Miss Sheffield?”

I nodded, and he introduced himself. “Sir Matthew Landon. I am the late Lord Lydney’s solicitor. A word, if I may?” His face looked to have once been angular, but it had been gently larded with years of fine living. His hair, the proverbial snow-white, was pulled back in a short queue.

I followed him to the library. Marguerite trailed discreetly behind, chaperoning. Once we three were in the room, she pretended to browse the many titles on the shelves whilst Sir Matthew led me to the late Lord Lydney’s great desk.

Harry’s great desk now. All that had been the late Lord Lydney’s was now rightfully Harry’s.

We sat, Sir Matthew on one side, myself on the other, and then he leaned across the desk. His breath smelled of crushed fennel seed. “I’ll come directly to the point. Lord Lydney has requested that you act as temporary trustee of his collection and then dispose of it at your discretion—according to his stated options, of course. You’ll be well acquainted, better than most, with the vast treasure that is represented by the pieces in his collection. Hundreds of pieces of art and armor. Glass and porcelain. Jewelry. Silver. Furniture. Portraits. Sculpture.”

A collection, as it was commonly known, consisted of all the treasures a person, or a family over many hundreds of years, had accumulated and assembled. The treasures of the highborn and well-to-do represented riches indeed. More than that, they represented family history, affection, personal interests, and the heart of the house.

“There are perhaps as many as a thousand pieces overall,” I replied. “We have the inventory.”

Sir Matthew nodded. “Perhaps a thousand, then. The late Lord Lydney feels certain that you are the best person to ascertain if the collection should remain in situ or be donated.”

“Doesn’t all this come to his son? As Lord Lydney’s only child? Living child,” I hastily corrected myself.

“His son has inherited the title, the London house, and the country estate, both of which need considerable repair.” Sir Matthew shrugged. “There was nothing to be done about those bequests, one suspects. The horses are his, via his late mother.”

“But not the collection?” It was worth an untold sum. Without it, Harry’s homes would be stripped bare of everything but the carpets and the drapes.

For as long as I’d been alive, the baron had depended on our family firm, Sheffield Brothers, to acquire, value, caretake, and curate the art. That’s what our firm and others like it did for our wealthy patrons. Now, with my papa dead and Uncle Lewis flickering unreliably as he approached seventy years of age, there were no Sheffield brothers. There was only me.

And dear Mr. Clarkson, of course. But he was not family and therefore not a principal in the firm.

“Not the collection,” Sir Matthew affirmed. “The late Lord Lydney indicated to me in a letter and legal documents, latterly, when he became certain that his demise was imminent, that he wanted to leave the disposal of his art at your discretion. He does not trust himself to make the right decision because of his persistent grief over the death of his first son, Arthur, and disappointment in his second son. I’m sure you must understand that disappointment better than most.”

I remained resolutely silent in word and impassive in expression.

“The late Lord Lydney knows you, as your father’s daughter, will understand the care and importance of each piece—as well as have the judgment and experience to determine where it should finally be housed.”

I do not want this responsibility. “What would the late Lord Lydney have me do?”

Sir Matthew smiled. “He told me you’d agree, and he is right, as always. His son does not seem to have an interest in art, unless the pieces may be sold to fund the purchase of horses for sport and amusement, that is.”

At that, I looked up. “Pieces have been sold?” Mr. Clarkson had said nothing to me of this after the last inventory, so it would have to have been more recent. “The new Lord Lydney is buying additional horses with the proceeds?”

“I cannot say. I cannot say upon what he draws an income, even. Likely he has none, as his father did not provide one for him.”

I nodded. I did not know what to make of that. A year earlier I would have defended Harry’s trustworthiness and honor. Now? I was not certain. And it was true—Harry had no love of antiquities.

Sir Matthew continued, “As your final duty toward the Lydney Collection, and as Sheffield Brothers’ final task as longtime curators and co-stewards, Lord Lydney would like you to carefully consider the options and then choose to donate the entire collection, in his name, to the South Kensington Museum.”

I shivered, suddenly realizing, He speaks in present tense, as if the man were still alive!

“Or, upon reflection, you may decide that his son meets the qualifications his father does not currently see, though he once did, and allow the collection to remain at Watchfield House. The late Lord Lydney prefers that it be left in the hands of someone who will not sell any part of it. He wants it to be seen, enjoyed, and appreciated as the pieces relate to one another.”

Marguerite slid a book sharply back into the case.

My stomach lurched. “I am to decide if Harry is disinherited or not?”

Sir Matthew grimaced as I mistakenly used that familiar name. “Harry? There is no engagement, is there? His father was given to believe . . .”

I shook my head. “There is no arrangement.” That had become clear when he’d promised to return by early last spring but did not return for six months more, and then, I’d since learned, with a Venetian beauty in tow.

“You have no professional contracts with the South Kensington, either?” Sir Matthew asked. “It would be best if, during the period of trusteeship, you have no personal or professional understanding with either party which could call your objectivity into question.”

I shook my head again. I could but wish that Sheffield Brothers had a professional arrangement with the budding museum or its supporters.

“Good. I shall make that clear to the potential recipients, as well.” The solicitor handed a packet to me. “You are to determine where the treasures will go. Your firm has been paid to carry out its responsibilities until the conclusion of the year, is that not so?”

“Yes,” I replied. A commission long since spent.

“Please do not speak of this matter with anyone who might profit from your decision until said decision is final,” Sir Matthew continued. “You’ll find papers within that may supplement your own inventories and perhaps inform your assessments.”

I stood and took the packet from his hands. “How long do I have?”

He appeared to calculate. “It’s a little more than three months till the year’s end. It will take me that long to conclude probate and further details with the estate. Is that sufficient?”


“Very good, Miss Sheffield. I shall forward any further pertinent documents should I come across them.”

As soon as he left the library, Marguerite drew near. “What shall you do?”

I sighed. “I could simply decide, here and now, to have done with it and give it all to the museum. I already know Harry’s not trustworthy.”

“Do you?” she asked. She must have seen the anger I felt cross my face because she put her hand up as if to quiet me. “I agree, dearest, that his disappearing for six months—especially in light of your, er, unspoken understanding—does not speak well for him. And yet, for the many years that preceded those six months, you trusted him implicitly.”

“I was an untested girl. I held foolish dreams. I misinterpreted his actions.”

She laughed quietly. “You are far too wise for that. Though none of us is immune to being misled by our hearts.”

“You think he should have it, then?” I asked, bewildered.

“I think you should investigate and find the truth, as you always do with your treasures.”

I opened my mouth to tell her that Harry was not one of my treasures. Was he? I closed it without speaking.

He left me and did not return when he said he would. Not once, but twice.

Marguerite waited for me to speak, and finally I did, after a realization. “This collection was my father’s as much as the late Lord Lydney’s. I must see this honestly through—where would it be best placed?—though it’s most likely that in the end, I will come to the same conclusion his father did.”

“Delivering those valuable objets d’art to the South Kensington Museum would be a fine means by which to serve justice to the new Lord Lydney,” she said. “Is that what you intend?”

“Does Harry know you are his champion?”

“I am your champion, dearest. But I have witnessed several occasions when you were happy together and I want to see you happy again—under whatever circumstances make that possible. I don’t want you to rush toward a justice which may not be just.”

“Why shouldn’t justice be served? I have been led along and then abandoned. Giving the collection to the South Kensington may be just after all.”

“That’s very possible; perhaps it’s even probable. His father has asked you to confirm that. And if you determine that justice will be served, it should be served cold, and I shall be gladdened when you find happiness elsewhere.”

Would I find happiness at all? Marguerite had not, not really. Perhaps happiness was not something to wish for.

We left the library, and as we entered the main reception area, all eyes turned to me. Now I knew why. Perhaps Sir Matthew had told them—perhaps the late Lord Lydney himself had signaled his intentions to his friends. The young woman I had seen with Harry earlier appeared to circulate through the crowd, more hostess, it seemed, than guest.

They all watched as Harry looked at me and I back at him. He began to make his way toward me. I did not move.

Friends and associates of the old man likely believed the late Lord Lydney had placed this decision in my hands because he trusted me but did not trust himself to see or act with impartiality after the untimely death of Harry’s older brother, Arthur. Perhaps they were right. But Lord Audley was not amiss in pointing out that the late Lord Lydney had not been a pleasant man, nor one who was reluctant to use other people to reach his own goals regardless of the cost. It had been no gift to force me to decide whether to plunder the house of the man I’d once loved. To do so would be to publicly confirm his father’s claim that Harry was neither trustworthy nor honorable.

But did Harry deserve the collection, should it be freely given? That raised the next question: Had he ever deserved me? My heart, so freely given?

Harry finally arrived at my side and drew close to me, the bergamot and spice of his cologne enveloping me. The color of his eyes, which changed from hazel olive to hazel brown with his mood, reflected affection—hazel olive. I took a deep breath to steady the swelling emotions his nearness provoked. Instead, the scent of him made me waver even more.

He glanced at my ring finger and found it bare. “Seven tonight?”

He did not need to say where. I knew.

Duty-bound and prepaid, I could not avoid determining the fate of the riches. I could, however, have declined to meet Harry at seven.

But I did not.

Lady of a Thousand Treasures
by by Sandra Byrd