A GEORGIAN HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Roxton Family Saga Book 5
Romance. Drama. Intrigue. Family secrets. There’s never a dull moment for the 18th Century’s first family…
Widowed and destitute, Lady Mary Cavendish is left with only her pride. Daughter of an earl and great-granddaughter to a Stuart King, family expectation and obligation demands she remarry. But not just any man will do; her husband must rank among the nobility. Falling in love with her handsome and enigmatic neighbor is out of the question. As always, Mary will do her duty and ignore her heart.
Country squire Christopher Bryce has secretly loved his neighbor Mary for many years. Yet, he is resigned to the cruel reality they are not social equals and thus can never share a future together. Never mind that his scandalous past and a heartbreaking secret make him thoroughly unworthy of such a proud beauty.
Then into their lives steps a ghost from Mary’s past, whose outrageous behavior has Mary questioning her worldview, and Christopher acting upon his feelings, and for all to see. The mismatched couple begin to wonder if in fact love can prevail—that a happily ever after might just be possible if only they dare to follow their hearts.
Fans of the series will also delight in being reacquainted with the fascinating, always surprising and never ordinary members of the Roxton family.
Character-driven romantic adventure
Non explicit (mild sensuality)
Story length 152,000 words
Deluxe Trade Paperback (coming soon)
Ebook ISBN 9780987073877
Kindle ASIN B01N6VMCHS
FEATURED REVIEWSThis is the 5th book in Lucinda Brant’s superb Roxton Family Saga series and, once again, I was totally captivated by Christopher and Mary’s tender and beautiful love story.
MY VERDICT: Another superb book to add to an equally superb series. If you have not yet read this series, then you have many hours of wonderful storytelling to look forward to. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE.
—Carol Cork Rakes And Rascals
I always feel a bit like a time traveler when reading one of Ms. Brant’s books. Using her impeccable research, she creates such an authentic 18th century world, and employing her wonderful imagination, she writes multi-layered stories with intricate plots. These talents are put to particularly good use in Proud Mary. While Proud Mary can be read as a standalone, there is much more pleasure to be had by reading the series in order and learning to know and love this family as much as I and many other readers have. Each book has been a joy to read, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
—Lady Wesley Romantic Historical Reviews, Rated 5 STARS
I never pass up anything written by Lucinda Brant and having loved each and every previous book in the Roxton Family Saga it was inevitable that PROUD MARY wind up on my must read list. PROUD MARY is a love story of unrequited and unacceptable love and passion. But if we’ve learned anything in the previous Roxton Family tales love has a way of conquering all stereotypes and norms. And so PROUD MARY, a true Georgian historical romance, carries on a proud tradition of endearing and engaging works of art by Lucinda Brant
—SWurman, Night Owl Reviews
TOP PICK ALL-TIME KEEPER SHELF
I recently read a review of a Lucinda Brant novel which said that reading her books is like eating chocolates…you just can’t stop at one. That’s it in a nutshell for me. MY VERDICT: I shall be very sad when Lucinda Brant brings this series to a close and I know that time is looming. But I reassure myself with the fact that it’s all on my kindle, book shelves and audio library to reach for whenever I need a-love-and-fuzzy-feeling fix! I am so looking forward to SATYR’S SON which is a very apt title to bring this superb series full circle. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE.
—Wendy Loveridge Rakes And Rascals
GLOUCESTERSHIRE, AUTUMN, 1777
MR. CHRISTOPHER BRYCE sat at his desk in the steward’s office reading a letter. As was his practice after riding across to Abbeywood Farm from his estate in the next vale, he had removed his frock coat and hung it on a peg behind the door. His assistant always kept the room too warm. Sitting in his shirtsleeves was preferable to watching the thin little man huddled at the end of the desk shivering with cold.
Unconsciously, he raked long fingers through his untidy curls and felt the hair ribbon come loose between his fingers. Without taking his gaze from the letter, he pulled his shoulder-length hair back to his nape and retied the crumpled piece of black silk. His stock, like the hair ribbon, was also crumpled, the folds of linen wrapped loosely about his strong neck. And while he had scraped the soles of his jockey boots clean to enter the house via the servant’s entrance, the leather was splashed with the mud and filth of having led his mount through to the stables. The mare had thrown a shoe.
But it was not this misadventure which could be blamed for his want of dress. Squire Bryce always appeared to have dressed in haste, grabbing whatever garments were to hand, and never to have glanced in a looking glass before greeting the world. Disheveled was a word that often tripped off the tongues of the local gentry matriarchs. Had he been any other farmer in the district, he would not have come under such scrutiny. But he was not like any other squire—far from it. He was master of a Jacobean manor house—a local landmark in fact—Brycecomb Hall, and owned several prosperous cloth mills. Also, he had recently—eight years was considered yesterday to the inhabitants of this sleepy pocket of the Cotswolds—returned from more than a decade of living abroad. Most vital of all, he was unmarried.
It was of little concern to the parents of unmarried daughters that Mr. Bryce was approaching forty, or that upon first acquaintance he proved a disappointment. It was not that he lacked a profile worthy of immortalization in oils, because he was exceedingly handsome. He had a fine nose, a determined chin, and a pair of damp brown eyes that had something of the lost-puppy look about them. And his auburn curls were so thick they were the envy of many a female. Maidens had upon occasion gone weak at the knees at the sight of him. This was particularly so when he was astride his horse, hair wind-tussled, long muscular legs shown to advantage in soft leather riding breeches that looked to have been applied by a painter rather than his tailor. Mamas reprimanded daughters for their unladylike gawking, yet secretly sighed at what might have been, had they been their daughter’s age.
It was not Christopher Bryce’s looks, but his lack of engagement with his neighbors, most particularly their eligible females, that was cause for disappointment. That he was handsome and unmarried only made his detachment that much more palpable. He was impervious to the attentions of even the most charming of hostesses, who did their best but failed to ignite the Squire’s interest in their unmarried female relatives. He was not disagreeable, but he was not agreeable, either. He might smile and politely reply to any enquiry put to him, but he made no attempt to further the conversation, which was concluded before it began. It was not what the local gentry was used to in a squire of Brycecomb Hall.
Henry Bryce, the present squire’s father, had been the most congenial of fellows, and when his wife was alive, many routs, shoots, and social gatherings were held at the Jacobean manor. Those old enough to have been acquainted with the Bryces and to have attended such events, also knew that their only child had been, in his youth, just as sociable as his elderly parents. But all those years living on the other side of the Channel amongst foreign types had changed the son.
Christopher Bryce had spent so many years in foreign climes his neighbors had expected him to return to the vale with a wealth of stories about the people he had encountered, and the places he had visited. But Mr. Bryce neither offered, nor provided when prompted, any anecdotes about his travels. It was as if he had never been anywhere beyond Stroud, and even then he only ventured to town on market days. His topics of conversation remained decidedly provincial. This satisfied his fellow farmers, but dissatisfied their wives, their sons, and most certainly their daughters who craved a little excitement in their daily routines. It was left to fertile imaginations to wonder at what sort of life Squire Bryce had led far from the vale that he had no wish to discuss any part of it.
And imagine they did, in whispered conversation when he happened to pass them in the village street astride his mount, acknowledging them with a nod but never stopping. Or when he quietly slid onto the family pew for Sunday service, neither looking left nor right, the vicar pausing mid-sentence at the collective sly glance of the congregation in Squire Bryce’s direction. Even the vicar’s wife was heard to remark to a clutch of female parishioners, as Mr. Bryce strode away setting his tricorne in place, that the squire was an enigma. His sartorial efforts left much to be desired, but watching him in motion was something to behold. He was the arresting sum of his extraordinary parts. Every female eagerly nodded in agreement, pulse racing.
For it was when he was animate that Christopher Bryce’s true masculine beauty became apparent. The village’s female inhabitants confidently put their finger on precisely what it was about the squire’s movements that set him apart from his fellows—it had everything to do with the way in which he carried himself. He did not amble or lope like a youth, and he certainly did not trudge or plod. Nor did he slouch or shove his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. He moved with an elegance and ease of movement which was unhurried, upright, and unselfconscious. It underscored the years spent among foreigners; as did the fact he no longer spoke in the Cotswold vernacular of his youth.
Christopher Bryce might pretend to remain insensible to the effect his clothes, his person, his time abroad, and his deportment had on his neighbors, particularly the females, but he was acutely aware of the consequences his decisions and actions had on others. Thus he may have had the appearance of being wholly absorbed in the letter in front of him, but he had heard the raised voices on the other side of the office door, had a fair idea what the commotion was about, and knew his assistant was sufficiently distracted by it to have left off his arithmetical reckonings.
The little man’s quill remained poised over the inkwell.
“You had best invite her in, Mr. Deed,” Christopher said without looking up.
Mr. Timothy Deed was skeptical. Not only because he had not discerned Lady Mary’s voice amongst the din on the other side of the door, but because in his two years employed in this household, the mistress had never visited the steward’s office. If her imperious little ladyship wished to speak to Mr. Bryce, she summoned him to her drawing room, which was right and proper. She certainly did not trespass into the servants’ domain, nor raise her voice in ill-lit corridors. Thus Mr. Deed hesitated to do as he was told and voiced his surprise.
“Lady Mary, sir? Here? Why?”
“We will find that out when you open the door and let her in.” When there was silence after this flat reply, the Squire lifted his gaze to his assistant’s quizzical look. He offered an explanation. “Perhaps you forget that John Twisell, Jethro Tanner, and the Blandfords had until today to accept their altered circumstances?”
At the mention of four servants who had been at Abbeywood since before the death of its owner, Sir Gerald Cavendish, Mr. Deed’s eyebrows shot up in understanding.
“None have accepted?”
“There are still a few hours left in the day. But given the hubbub, that would seem to be so.”
Mr. Deed’s eyebrows came down and he ground his teeth. “Then they are not only lazy but fools!”
“But given false hope perhaps…?”
Mr. Deed’s gaze darted to the door. Though there seemed to be an angry mob gathered on the other side, he still could not hear the voice of the mistress of the house.
“By her ladyship…?”
Christopher Bryce did not answer the question, but his silence said everything. He set aside the letter, and took from the small pile beside the standish one with its seal intact. It was from His Grace the most noble Duke of Roxton, the same correspondent who had written to him and whose letter he had been reading. This letter was addressed to Lady Mary Cavendish. He was very sure no two letters could be so different in tone and content, and he itched to toss this unopened correspondence to the flames in the grate. He did not. Instead he tucked it out of sight under his letter from the Duke, shook his thoughts free of that nobleman and looked at his assistant to find him staring at him. He hoped his features did not give away his thoughts, when he said evenly,
“The door, Mr. Deed.”
Timothy Deed nodded, quickly set his quill in the ink pot, and scraped back his chair. Pulling on the points of his plain knitted waistcoat as he crossed the room, he squared his shoulders at the door, as if steeling himself for what and whom lay beyond, then wrenched it open.
A blast of cold air made him take a step back, so did the clamor of a cluster of squabbling servants. The noise ceased almost immediately, replaced by the silence of fearful expectation as to what would happen now that Squire Bryce had been roused, and without one of them with the good manners and courage to scratch at his door to seek an audience. It said as much about the Squire as it did about them when everyone in the room, bar one, took a step back when Mr. Bryce’s smooth baritone was heard from deep within the room.
“Mr. Deed! Do not keep her ladyship waiting.”
It was then that the assistant noticed the Lady Mary, the only one in the room to stand her ground. She was regarding him in silent expectation that he would instantly shift out of her way without the need to speak, which he did, and with a bow. And after she had passed into the room, neither looking right nor left, Mr. Deed regained enough of his composure to order the clutch of silent downcast servants not to linger, and to get about their business. And he did this with an imperious wave of a thin hand before shutting the door in their faces.
Christopher was on his feet before the Lady Mary swept across to his desk with a firm tread, hands clasped in front of her gauze apron, chin level with the floor. He wondered how many hours she had spent arguing with herself as to whether she should summon him to her, or she go to him. And by her mulish look, taking the monumental step of coming to him had been an internal struggle of epic proportions.
After all—and he knew she believed this implicitly—it was not the right and proper action for the mistress of the house, the daughter of an earl no less, to cross the household divide that separated master from servant. There was a correct order to life. Everything and everyone had a proper place. And Lady Mary’s proper place was at its apex amongst the nobility—those who governed and gave orders. Everyone else—Mr. Christopher Bryce of Brycecomb Hall included—belonged to the periphery of this elegant and dazzling world, out of sight and out of mind until wanted and called.
And because Christopher Bryce did not doubt Lady Mary’s expectation that those who lived on the periphery would come when called was as natural to her as breathing, he was prepared to give her ignorance of a more enlightened world view some latitude. After all he did not think her inherently intolerant or unkind. It was just the way she had been raised by her noble parents, a rigid upbringing reinforced as wife of a pompous self-important bigot. But that did not mean he would conform to type or allow her to interfere in his decisions. Far from it. What her ladyship needed, and he was only too willing to provide, was to have her outlook given a shake now and again.
But he was wise to the fact it was not one of his little shakes that had brought her to his door on this day, but something that must have greatly upset her. And so he had Mr. Deed fetch her a chair and waited for her to sit upon it. But she ignored his offer and the chair and came right up to the front of his desk, saying without preamble,
“Is it true you have dismissed four more of the household servants?”
“No, my lady. I did not dismiss them.”
“Oh?! I thought…” Her shoulders relaxed and she let out a sigh of relief without realizing it. “Then there has been a misunderstanding. The Blandfords say they were given notice and so too, old Jack Twisell, and the Tanner boy.”
“They should not have bothered you. Won’t you sit, my lady?”
Again she ignored his offer, and so he and his assistant remained on their feet.
“They did not, Mr. Bryce. They rightly spoke to Mrs. Keble, and when she was unable to find a suitable resolution, she brought the matter to me, which was the right thing for her to do.”
Christopher’s eyebrows rose slightly at mention of the housekeeper. He suspected Susanna Keble of inciting the servants against him whenever an opportunity presented itself. The woman had a misplaced confidence in her authority. Mrs. Keble was under the delusion that her illicit affair with Sir Gerald—of which he was well aware, but was certain Lady Mary was not—and the fact Lady Mary would not hear a word against her, gave her special status and privileges at Abbeywood. He had quickly disabused her of this notion. She had even tried to seduce him, but he was deliberately blind to her tawdry attempts. He would not have been male had he not noticed she was pretty, but it was a brittle prettiness that hid a cold heart and a calculating disposition. She was cunning enough to hide her below-stairs machinations to undermine his authority, and in his presence was always biddable. Mrs. Keble’s days were also numbered in this household.
“Mrs. Keble had no right to bother you, my lady,” he replied evenly. “I am sorry, but in this matter there are no alternatives to discuss. I cannot be persuaded to change my mind.”
Lady Mary blinked at him in surprise, and then she surprised him.
“Why would you think I came here to persuade you otherwise, Mr. Bryce? I never expect to be consulted on matters that are considered important. I never have in the past. My opinions have rarely been sought, and I don’t single you out in this.”
Though I had hoped—indeed when I first met you I had thought—you were different… said the voice in her head. She quickly shook herself free of wishful thinking and continued, no emotion in her voice.
“So when you say you will not change your mind, I accept that as a given. Sir Gerald never consulted me—he told me. As you are telling me now. But that does not mean, just because I cannot do anything about it, I do not have an opinion, or feelings, or wish for a different outcome.”
This speech was met with silence from both men, who were unable or unwilling to add to her observations because there was nothing to add to the truth. Yet, her final comment did elicit a response from Christopher, who said quietly,
“If it will ease your mind, my lady, I have not turned them out, friendless and penniless. They have employment and shelter elsewhere.”
“Employment and shelter—elsewhere?” she repeated. “But… The Blandfords have been at Abbeywood since before I came here as a bride. Does not loyalty count for something?”
“Need you ask me such a question? It is just as important to be gainfully employed. Which the Blandfords, young Tanner, and Old Jack were not. And now they will be, and housed. Please sit, my lady.”
Lady Mary remained standing.
“And the eight servants you dismissed while I was away at my brother’s wedding? Are they gainfully employed and housed elsewhere, too?”
“Mrs. Keble told me you put them to work in your mills. Is that so?”
“I offered them employment at my cloth mills, which they accepted. And you will excuse me for correcting you. Those men were not your servants. Sir Gerald hired them. The positions they had within this household were unnecessary and wasteful. In fact they were leading meaningless lives and their minds had become stagnant. Inanimate companions had more life and occupation than those men. And as you are well aware, Abbeywood’s finances, such as they are, can ill-afford to pay for the board and paint from which such figures are formed.”
Again he glanced at his assistant. The elderly man now had hold of a corner of the desk to keep himself upright, so he said more curtly than he intended, “Sit, my lady!”
“I do not wish to sit, Mr. Bryce. And I do not understand why you insist I do.” She suddenly felt uncomfortably warm under the Squire’s steady gaze, looked about her, saw the well-lit fire in the grate, and frowned. “Nor do I understand why this room is permitted to be kept as warm as a kitchen on baking day when, as you say, this household cannot afford to be wasteful. And do not tell me it is not overly warm in here because you, Mr. Bryce, have stripped to your—to your—shirtsleeves, which is a most impolite way to receive visitors—”
“I was not in expectation of a visit from you, my lady,” Christopher cut in blandly, though he was quick to stifle a smirk at her expression of affront at his social solecism. “Perhaps if you’d sent word of your coming I’d have roused myself to the trouble of throwing on my frock coat to sit sweltering, waiting your arrival?”
“How droll you are today, to be sure, Mr. Bryce.”
He inclined his head. “A rare occasion indeed, my lady. Not as rare as seeing me upon a dance floor, but today is not a day for dancing either.”
Or witnessing me swim naked in a mill pond. Though I suspect such a prim little thing as you, my dear Lady Mary, would faint at the sight of provincial masculinity gloriously on show.
Christopher was not a betting man—he was too cautious with his money, and even more so with what belonged to others—but he would’ve laid good odds that her late husband Sir Gerald would never have had the bad manners, or the bravado, to remove his nightshirt in his wife’s presence, even in the most intimate of situations and stand naked before her. After all, carrying out his marital duty was just one of the chores Sir Gerald, as baronet, was obliged to perform. So he had confided in Christopher after a long night of heavy drinking.
For Christopher there had been many such long evenings in his neighbor’s book room, listening to Sir Gerald drone on about his self-consequence, his place in the “grand scheme of things”, and how he intended to make his mark on the world that would surprise his wife’s relatives, and leave them—the Duke of Roxton in particular—speechless.
Christopher had been tasked to discover precisely how Sir Gerald intended to leave his mark, knowing it had to do with the war in the American Colonies. The Spymaster General Lord Shrewsbury suspected Sir Gerald of high treason for passing state secrets to the French to help their new-found friends, the American patriots, win the war against their English masters. Christopher was to get the proof of this treason, spending more hours than he cared to remember keeping company with his drunkard neighbor.
Information gleaned from these conversations was written up in reports to the Spymaster. But there were some details Christopher kept to himself. Details he would rather not know, intimate details about his neighbor’s marriage, and the Lady Mary. And it confirmed Christopher’s private opinion: Such a pretty little redhead as the Lady Mary was wasted on the likes of the boorish Sir Gerald. What was the point of making love if all the senses were not engaged? Bedding her should have been an honor and a delight…
To gaze upon her stripped out of corset and chemise, feminine curves bathed in the soft yellow glow of candlelight, glorious red hair tumbled to the small of her back… To have her hips moving with desire as he—
“Mr. Bryce—Mr. Bryce, are you attending me?” Lady Mary demanded, taking a step closer to the desk when he did not blink or answer immediately. “I knew my coming here would cause considerable curiosity, but I could think of no other way of speaking with you in private because I—Mr. Bryce?” She peered at him, frowning, realizing his thoughts were anywhere but in his office. “Are you certain it is not too warm in here because your face is flushed and you are looking—”
“No. It is not too warm!” he blurted out rudely, lust and the guilt which came with illicit longing making his tone harsher than he intended. “I may, may I not, keep my office as warm as I please and work in my shirtsleeves—or-or nightshirt—if I so wish it!?”
“Yes. Yes, of course you may,” she stammered, shocked by his unexpected and uncharacteristic incivility.
Yet when she continued to stare at him, his guilt increased, wondering if indeed his expression had in some bizarre way reflected his deepest unattainable desire. So ludicrous it was laughable, and pathetic, because it would never occur to her, not in a thousand full moons, that a Cotswold squire’s daydreams were filled with wanton thoughts of her.
But because Mr. Deed was also staring at him as if he had had a momentary mental lapse, he offered up a convoluted explanation, one designed not only to allow him to regain his equilibrium in mind and body, but which would also reinstate—even if it was only his thoughts which had wandered across the social divide—the societal distance required of him as steward and a nobleman’s daughter; their disparate births, her rank, and his position demanded it. So he stated the obvious, which she already knew, and which would surely reconstruct that metaphorical stone wall of icy cordiality and formality that must exist between them.
“I should not need to remind you that this estate is in dire financial circumstances—”
“I am well aware of its-its—circumstances, Mr. Bryce. You remind me at every opportunity—”
“—because Sir Gerald lived well beyond his means,” Christopher continued tonelessly. “Your husband’s wants far exceeded his needs and his income. He spent excessively on all manner of impractical objects—snuff-boxes, Sevres porcelain, and expensive carriage clocks—items of no use to the effective management of this estate. He also kept a vast number of servants, employed to perform the most menial of tasks—an unnecessary conceit, and one he could ill-afford. No doubt the government’s new tax on male servants to pay for the war in the colonies will have little effect on the size of His Grace of Roxton’s household retinue. The burden of such taxation, as always, falls on those least likely to be able to carry it. I know you do not wish your nephew to be presented with an encumbered estate when he comes of age.”
“Mr. Bryce, you are correct. I do not want Jack to inherit an economic ruin. Nor do I require another lecture on Sir Gerald’s excesses. But perhaps you require reminding that acting as steward, it is your business to balance the books, not to pass judgment on my husband’s character. Nor do I understand why you have singled out His Grace of Roxton for particular censure. The Duke has graciously permitted you to do as you please where this estate is concerned, even though he could, if he so wished it, remove you from your post and put another in your place.”
Christopher opened his mouth to comment when the thud of a chair hitting up against the wall turned his attention to his assistant. Mr. Deed stumbled backwards but in two strides Christopher had him by his bony elbow and pulled him to his feet. He quickly set the chair to rights and eased the elderly man onto it, telling him in an undervoice to remain seated. He then returned to stand behind his desk and pointed to the chair set out for Lady Mary.
“Sit. I am not asking you. I insist. In doing so, I may sit. And Mr. Deed may remain seated and ease the pain in his arthritic knees. I know you do not wish to be impolite. Nor would you deny him the warmth of a good fire so that he may do his work on behalf of this estate without pain.”
Instantly, Lady Mary was contrite and sat as requested. She spread her quilted petticoats and perched on the very edge of the chair, back straight and hands in her lap. Her glance and small nod of acknowledgment at Mr. Deed softened Christopher’s mouth, and he leaned forward in his chair, clasped hands on his desk, and addressed her as if she were the only person in the room.
“I don’t wish to argue with you, my lady,” he said quietly. “But you have been misinformed if you believe the Duke of Roxton has any power over me. I have taken on the role of steward because Sir Gerald, in his last will and testament, charged me with this duty and I accepted it. If you wish me to go over that document with you—”
“No. No. I could not bear it. Not again. It is enough of a humiliation my husband saw fit to draw up such a despicable will. That my daughter and I are left to the mercy of a stranger—”
Christopher’s eyes went dull and he sat back.
“A stranger? Not quite. Surely, as your neighbor, I have not been a stranger to you these past eight years? But, please,” he purred, the metaphorical societal wall between them well and truly back in place, “tell me in what way you are at my mercy?”
“You know perfectly well what you have done!” Lady Mary retorted, and immediately had to rack her brain to come up with at least one plausible example of the Squire’s interference in her day-to-day life that would not make her sound petty and ungrateful.
After all, she and Teddy remained at Abbeywood under his good graces, and if she were truthful, their lives had changed minimally since Sir Gerald’s death. Except perhaps where their freedom of movement—her daughter’s in particular—was concerned. So she latched on to this tangible example, one that continued to frustrate and confound her.
“It is a mystery to me—indeed to my family—why Sir Gerald appointed you as Teddy’s guardian, and not a member of her family. My brother—her uncle—would have been a more suitable choice. Teddy loves her Uncle Dair, and they have similar temperaments, both preferring to be out-of-doors and physically active. I grant Dair was unmarried at the time of Sir Gerald’s death, but you, too, are a bachelor, Mr. Bryce. And of longer standing than my brother, who is newly married. And his wife, the Lady Fitzstuart, is the sweetest creature imaginable. Regardless of his unmarried or married state, he would have welcomed the opportunity to be T—”
“At this moment Lord Fitzstuart is on his way to Barbados. So he is not only an absent husband, but you would have him an absent guardian, also.”
“He did not leave his bride to sail off to the Barbados by choice! As I told you in my letter from Treat: He’s gone in search of our father. The Earl has been missing since a hurricane devastated the island. Many thousands are said to have perished, and every structure and living thing flattened to dust! That is the worst of possible circumstances, and in all probability our father is—our father is—dead, and he—Dair—he will have the gruesome task of identifying a rotting corpse! And you have the-the impertinence to suggest because he is doing his duty he would not be a fit guardian for my daughter?”
“Yes. And I am sorry for it,” Christopher replied, leaning across his desk and offering her his plain linen handkerchief.
While she had been talking, Lady Mary had grown increasingly agitated, shoving her hands under her apron and into the slits in her petticoats, searching the two pockets for, he presumed, her handkerchief. So he was pleased when she took his and dabbed at her eyes. He hated seeing her in tears, and loathed himself for causing her distress.
“It was not my wish to upset you, only to make the point that had Major Lord Fitzstuart been Teddy’s guardian, and he now absent from England, you would be without his guidance should you require it. And he does not need the added burden while carrying out his duty to his father, of worrying over his niece. He can at least breathe easy, knowing her interests are being taken care of, and concentrate on the distressing task before him. That he has had to leave his young bride a month after their honeymoon is surely more than one man should have to bear.”
Lady Mary nodded, a good deal calmer, the folded linen handkerchief now in her lap.
“That is true, Mr. Bryce,” she conceded. “But if not Dair, then Sir Gerald did not have to look further afield than my cousin Roxton. The Duke is head of my family. Indeed he is head of a great many families connected by birth or marriage to the dukedom. He has been guardian to Sir Gerald’s nephew and heir Jack for almost ten years. And he is a most excellent and loving papa to his own children. Surely you must see that Roxton was the right and proper person to be named Teddy’s guardian.”
“I do not see it, my lady.”
Christopher had never met the Duke and hoped he would never have cause to do so. Amongst Sir Gerald’s alcohol-fueled confidences had been many an anecdote about Lady Mary’s cousin, and none of them complimentary. He had learned that Roxton was the reason Sir Gerald had withdrawn from Polite Society. While he had little respect for the man—and he was certain Polite Society did not miss Sir Gerald’s self-important pontifications—he did have some sympathy for the Baronet’s shabby treatment at the hands of his wife’s relative. Sir Gerald’s confidences about the lascivious behavior of Roxton and his ilk came as no surprise, but Christopher did not believe for one moment the more salacious rumor that the Duke, and not Sir Gerald, was Teddy’s true parent. If for no other reason than he did not believe the Lady Mary capable of deceit, carnal or otherwise. Her conceit would never allow her to stoop to being a man’s mistress, not even if that man was a duke. That was Sir Gerald’s drunkenness talking. Though he was very sure Sir Gerald had been utterly sober when he stipulated in his will that his only child, Theodora Charlotte Cavendish, must spend the years until her twenty-first birthday, or her marriage, whichever was the sooner, at Abbeywood, under the guardianship of his neighbor, Mr. Christopher Bryce, or forfeit a dowry of four thousand pounds held in trust.
“If you were to accept the Duke’s invitation and visit Treat,” Lady Mary argued, “and if you were to allow Teddy and me to accompany you, I am convinced you would agree that the estate is the most suitable place for her—for us—to live.”
“You are free to live where you please, my lady. But Teddy will remain here, as was Sir Gerald’s wish.”
“If you were a parent you would understand that I am not free. Nor do I wish to be free if it means being parted from my daughter. I am her mother, and even you are aware that I love her very much, and so I must live where she lives.”
“Then we are in accord, my lady. You both will remain here at Abbeywood. And if ever you desire to visit your cousins, you are free to do so. Now, if that was why you came here, to try and persuade me, yet again, to allow Teddy to go live amongst her Roxton cousins, then, yet again, I must disappoint you.”
He extracted the Duke of Roxton’s sealed letter out from under the one he had been reading before Lady Mary had interrupted his morning’s schedule, and held it out to her. He hoped it would banish her mulish expression and any ill-will she was feeling at what she no doubt considered his high-handedness. He then made motions to stand.
“This came today, and it is from your illustrious relative. No doubt it contains the news you’ve been waiting to hear. Now please excuse me; there are quite a few persons waiting to see me.”
It said a good deal about her preoccupation with her thoughts when she exchanged his handkerchief for the letter with a perfunctory “thank-you”, then slipped it into a pocket. So he patiently waited for her to speak, surprised at her unresponsiveness. Usually when he handed over correspondence from her relatives she was all smiles, and so breathless with anticipation to read their news that she could hardly wait for him to quit her company so she could read in private.
Not today. And so he silently waited for her to tell him why she had made the journey to his office at the back of the manor house.
“Mr. Bryce, I had hoped to speak to you entirely alone, but I also do not want to inconvenience Mr. Deed by having him leave the warmth of this room, so if he can assure me what I have to say will go no further, then I will confide in you. I have no wish to upset the servants—”
“My lady, you have my complete confidence!”
“Thank-you, Mr. Deed,” Christopher stated at his assistant’s outburst, and nodded to Lady Mary. “How may I—how may we—be of assistance?”
Lady Mary sat up very straight before leaning forward, as if not wishing to be overheard. Her violet eyes widened and her mouth trembled. Christopher could not help but lean forward, too, his gaze not on her lovely eyes but on her plump lower lip and that tremble. Her voice was a whisper, and he strained to hear her every word.
“Mr. Bryce, there is—that is—I am very certain—Sir Gerald’s bedchamber is-is haunted. There is a-a ghost!”
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