The man made his way on a well traveled road away from Elmscourt. Too bad he couldn’t snatch the kid. But there were too many watch dogs, too many people around him. He shrugged. His master had said to be cautious and he was.
As he arrived at his inn, more a hedge tavern than an inn, he let the ragged stable boy take his horse. He gave the boy a penny, which he was happy to have. Back at the inn’s fireside, he toasted his cold feet, downed the inferior ale and complained of the weather. He’d made up a fictional master who demanded he get out and try to drum up business for pots and pans and other handy kitchen devices. He’d already bored the regulars to death with his talk and was pleased to be ignored. And, as always, he listened.
He’d already heard of Lord Dunphy’s unexpected inheritance and the house party. He even had a pretty fair idea of the guests’ identities. He knew nothing of any of them, but they were all lords and therefore effete and of not much concern. He was sure he could handle any of them.
He sighed contentedly, let the fire warm him and listened to the same gossip he’d heard yesterday.
At Elmscourt, the flakes were falling, filling the sky and making it ghostly. It was so quiet. Once all the children were safely in the house, Esther pulled on Ailesworth’s arm and said, “Let’s just stand here a minute.”
They stood side by side and let the silence enfold them. Esther had an ugly old hat of Kay’s on her head, but she looked like the Queen of Love to Ailesworth.
She caught him looking at her. “You are supposed to admire the snow.”
“But snow on you is far lovelier. Can I announce our betrothal this evening?”
“Yes,” and she leaned into him. Then they shook themselves and went in.
It was chaos in the front hall. The housekeeper was there, handing out cups of cocoa. Alma and her lover were talking again. She nodded and looked at his children with love glowing in her eyes. He regarded only her.
Everyone else, though damp and wet, were chattering together. De Sable was entertaining the Castles, Harmon and Charles with a funny story. De Sable hadn’t realized before that his horrid family could be a source of amusement for others.
Drum appeared by Ailesworth’s side. “I lost the bastard, but I’ll know his horse’s tracks again. The left rear horseshoe has a nick in it. Rather sizeable, too.”
“Where could he be staying?”
“Don’t know. I’ll ask John to send one of his grooms around neighboring inns and taverns tomorrow and see if they can discover where a stranger might be staying.”
“Very good. The groom will have to be a good dissembler to tell a reasonable story. Searching for his uncle or some such tale.”
“There’s always one of those around.” The two men exchanged smiles.
The day passed pleasantly for everyone. All were pleased to hang greenery and decorate the house. Alma and Lord Glenfanning always seemed to be near each other. Lord de Sable and Charles somehow made a place for themselves with the Castles and Harmon.
It had taken awhile for Charles to recognize his partner at resurrection. De Sable didn’t seem eager to talk to him but Charles cornered him. “You got home safely?” asked Charles.
“Yes. I had to play the drunken nobleman, out slumming.”
“Excellent! Your prospects look better now. You’re betrothed?”
“Yes.” De Sable straightened himself. “A fine young girl, Miss Pringle of Yorkshire. Excuse me,” and he moved away.
As the hours passed, Charles was interested to see that de Sable seemed to be a better man than he had appeared in the cemetery that night. His betrothal must have settled him. It worked that way for some men.
At first, Harmon was suspicious of de Sable, but once de Sable told them of his impending engagement, Harmon had relaxed. He’d never realized de Sable could be amusing. Maybe it was because he knew his bills were being paid and he no longer relied on getting his main sustenance from tea at some chit’s house.
Later, Harmon asked Maria about Miss Pringle. “A bit plump, but not fat, you understand. She’s mostly plump in her, um, chest.” Harmon grinned as she knew he would. She frowned sternly at him. It had no effect on his smile. “She’s my height, with rather a round face, but her eyes, her eyes are like Mrs. Beryll’s. Whatever you call them.”
“Enticing, I call them.” He gave her a quick squeeze which he was sure no one noticed. Only half the people in the room noticed. “What’s her father do?”
“Irons. I mean, iron work. I think he made guns or something during the war. My father says he made a great deal of money. I think he admires him.”
“No doubt,” and the subject of the Pringles was dropped as they went back to talking of themselves.
Charles found himself strangely content to sit and talk to Mrs. Castle. It was somewhat similar to talking with his step-mama. The same concerns of family and their welfare occupied both.
Charles and Ailesworth had been able to talk several times but not at any length. Charles had confessed his need for an occupation, any occupation where he would be useful.
“But not in any put-up job, Garick. A real one.”
Ailesworth nodded. “I understand. Let’s talk about this later. Will you be going home after Christmas?”
“I’d like to. I had a strong attack of homesickness before I came here. I do want to see them again.”
“Good. We’ll talk when you return. Send word to me at my lodgings.”
Lord Glenfanning hadn’t announced his betrothal to Alma because he had to tell his children first. Surprisingly, they began to cry when he told them. He crouched and pulled them into his arms. “What’s the matter?”
“She’s not our Mama,” sobbed Lauren.
Frank stood there with a few tears on his face.
“No, she’s not,” responded Glenfanning. “I’m sorry I said that. What would you like to call her?”
“Nothing,” hiccoughed Lauren.
Worse and worse. “Shall I bring her up here to the nursery to meet you?”
Lauren shrugged. Frank said, “Yes, Papa, if you wish to.”
“I do wish. I love her very much.”
“But you love Mama!” said Lauren.
“Yes, I do. But love isn’t something small, to be kept close. It is grand, it expands and can take in new people.
“You know, I’ve been looking for a new mama, I mean, a wife for some months now. No, of course, you didn’t know. How could you?”
“Why, Papa?” asked Frank in a wondering voice.
Lord Glenfanning got up from his crouch and sat in a small nursery chair, drawing his children to him. “I wanted to find a new Mama for you. Not to replace the old one, but someone you’d love. I don’t understand a great deal about children and I need some help.
“Besides that, I was lonely. I missed your Mama and after six months or so, I thought I was ready to look for a new wife. But I wasn’t ready. I didn’t like any of them. Until yesterday when I met Mrs. Nelson. I’ve watched her with the children who know her–Jim and Catherine– and they clearly love her.
“I’m absolutely sure she’ll love you,” he added, a bit desperately.
Lauren gave a loud sniff. Frank looked seriously at his father and said, “I understand, sir. You need a friend, a lady friend. But you don’t need to marry her.”
“What do you mean, I need a lady friend? Where did you hear that?”
“The Bassetts.” The Bassetts were a large family in the neighborhood. The father was a squire but the whole brood of Bassetts seemed to have no direction at all.
Glenfanning kept his voice calm. “What did they say?”
Encouraged by his father’s calm voice, Frank said, “It was Jem Bassett. He said you needed a woman in order to do the bed sheet dance. I didn’t understand him.”
Lauren gave a giggle.
Good God! He should have stepped in months ago. Those children weren’t appropriate for his son to be with. No doubt Jem Bassett spent all his time in the stables.
“Frank, we have to have a talk about the Bassetts soon.”
Lauren began to dance around waving her hands in the air. “I’m holding a bed sheet and dancing.”
Frank at first frowned but then grinned. Glenfanning groaned. “Children, never let me hear about this subject again. It isn’t appropriate for you, not for children.”
They looked at him in confusion.
“I mean about bed sheets and…lor! What a mess I’m making of it.”
Lauren patted his knee. “That’s all right, Papa. We love you.”
Glenfanning took his children in his arms. “This takes time. I’ll bring Mrs. Nelson up to meet you.”
“An’ no more bed sheets, Papa,” Lauren said with another giggle.
He kissed them both and left. He’d kill Jem Bassett. Halfway down the stairs he again saw Lauren dancing with that silly grin on her face. He began to laugh. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he was helpless with laughter.
That’s where Alma found him.
As Ailesworth was dressing for dinner, Chambers brought in the box he’d gotten from Mrs. Batson. “My lord, have you forgotten this?”
“Yes, I have. I must tell Esther.”
Chambers put it on the dressing table. He brushed invisible lint off Ailesworth until Ailesworth shrugged him off and walked out of the room. He’d bring it to her later, to her room. He felt a rise of excitement as he approached her door. He knocked.
“Come in.” He entered.
Esther had bought a new dress. It was a blue that matched her eyes and made them brilliant. It also showed more cleavage than she usually wore.
She smiled saucily up at him. “Do you like it, my lord?”
“I do. But I think it requires something more,” and he took a long slender box from his pocket and gave it to her.
She opened it. The pearl necklace lay on white satin. “Oh, Garick!” He took them out and fastened them around her neck. She turned and looked in the mirror. “Garick. They are perfect. How did you know I love pearls?”
“Do you? How very wise of me. I saw them years ago and assumed Arnwasser had sold them. He did but he had recovered them again.”
He’d been right. Against her skin, they almost glowed and made her skin even creamier–so tempting to touch. “Do we make our announcement tonight?”
“Yes. Before dinner? During?”
They left arm in arm, Esther glowing in her new gown and pearls and Ailesworth hoping his privy member would be at rest by the time they reached the drawing room. He thought of cold baths and snow and ice.
Ailesworth waited until everyone was in the drawing room. After he’d made his announcement, John called for champagne. Kay was in alt. “So much romance this Christmas! Lord Harmon and Miss Castle also betrothed and Lord de Sable says an announcement of his betrothal will be in the paper soon. How lovely!” She cast a teasing glance at Glenfanning.
The champagne arrived and all drank to the three couples. Alma and Lord Glenfanning stood side by side. He looked down at her. “Soon. Tonight go with me when I say good night to them.”
Alma nodded, happy and yet frightened that they might not like her.
When the footman arrived in the doorway, those near the door put down their glasses, assuming it was time for dinner. Instead he went to Kay’s side, looking worried. She frowned as he bent to whisper in her ear. Then her face paled, and she told him to tell Cook to set back dinner for ten minutes and to set another place. He left.
She turned to face her silent guests. “Lord Versland has arrived. He’ll join us in ten minutes.” She looked at John who was already heading for the door.
Esther’s fingers bit into Ailesworth’s arm. “There’s nothing we can do. We must even be polite to him. Oh, I wish I had a gun!”
Ailesworth smiled at her. He had sent a message for several brawny dockers who wanted to earn some extra pay. He’d asked for three by name as he knew they were intelligent as well as strong and quick.
He knew Kay believed Versland would employ guile first, but Ailesworth knew he’d use force if that didn’t work.
Versland kept them waiting twenty minutes. When he entered the drawing room, all conversation stopped and everyone looked at him. He seemed unaware of them and headed straight for Kay.
He was a fellow of average height. He was so immaculately dressed that he looked like an advertisement for a gentleman’s tailor. But nothing of his clothing was overdone: no too-high shirt points or lavender waistcoat. His waistcoat was black with very small swirls of red. De Sable gritted his teeth: another fashionable man.
But it was his face that drew all eyes. Never, Drum decided, had he seen a more bored, disdainful look. If you didn’t know that he was avid in his interest in at least one member of the household, you’d think he was just doing his Christmas duty, visiting his poor relations. A master dissembler.
He bowed over Kay’s hand. “Holiday cheer, cousin,” he said, in a disinterested voice.
“The same to you, Robert. Let us go in to dinner.” She took his arm and marched him out the door.
Everyone exchanged smiles. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.
Dinner was awkward. Versland sat on Kay’s right and Kay had put Esther next to him. Ailesworth was on Kay’s other side and she kept bobbing back and forth between them. Esther was stiff until Ailesworth winked at her. Then she relaxed and was able to enjoy her dinner. Her beast would keep her safe.
At first the conversation was desultory. Then it picked up as it became clear that Versland was not going to devour them.
“Kay, I don’t know, do you have a full nursery?”
“You’d know, Robert, if you’d ever kept in touch.” Then she relented. “John and I have two, Eric and Clarissa. No doubt you’d like to meet them, you’re so fond of children.”
“Only two.” His glance went up the table to John. “Strange, I’d always thought John the–“
”Silence!” Kay hissed. “None of your vulgar humor here, you–“
”Tch, tch! Now, watch yourself, Kay. You always did have a fiery temper.”
Down the table, John saw Kay’s anger. “Don’t you agree, Kay?” He called down the table. “Havenshield’s hounds are better than Buckworth’s?”
“Oh, yes, indeed. I agree.”
The whole table turned and glared at Versland. He continued eating with aplomb. Ailesworth thought he detected a small particle of satisfaction on his face. Maybe he would try to divert them by insulting them all.
Interesting strategy. He still wanted to pound Versland into the floor. It was a shame that he had to wait for some provocation, some move against the children.
Both Esther and Drum saw Ailesworth’s face. Drum hoped Ailesworth wouldn’t leap up and beat Versland, but it would be a worthy task. Esther felt more secure than ever. With Ailesworth around, Versland was nothing but a flea.
It was time to turn to Versland from her other dinner partner. “My lord, I’m afraid I don’t know where your home is. Is it near?”
Versland was launched. He told her where it was, how many acres he owned, how many head of cattle. He didn’t stop.
What was this, wondered Drum and Ailesworth, who were able to carry on conversations with their partners while hearing every word. A new strategy, to impress people to death? Or bore them into incomprehension? Versland was able to go on until dessert when he turned to Kay again. He went back to insulting her. Her temper began to rise until she looked at John. He shook his head. She smiled and made vague responses to Versland. After that nothing he said could upset her. She babbled on about her household, her sick butler and her admirable housekeeper. Eventually, he gave up.
After dinner, Kay took Versland around to meet her guests. When they came to the Castle’s, he greeted them politely while seeming to sniff. As they moved away, Versland said, “Guests who smell of the shop? Bad ton, dear Kay.”
Kay gave an irrepressible giggle. “Not the shop, dear cousin. The slaughterhouse. Mr. Castle sells mutton.” She had her eyes on him and saw him flinch in distaste. “They are my guests, Robert. You’ll be polite.”
He looked at her down his nice, long nose. Kay had always thought he looked a bit like a woodpecker. “Of course.”
“And without sneering down that beak of yours. Here’s Mr. Miggs, Ailesworth’s brother.” Her eyes were dancing. She saw it took only a second to realize Miggs was a bastard.
Since the last guest was Drum and clearly Robert had found him acceptable, Kay deserted him with a sigh of relief. He was swollen up with sense of his perfecta rightness.
Everyone retired early. No one had wanted to play cards. Ailesworth had left from the dining room to check on his children. Once there, he’d sent the guard downstairs to collect any gossip in the servants’ hall about Versland or his valet.
The guard returned in twenty minutes. Ailesworth brought him into the bedroom for he wanted the children to hear.
“They’s plenty of talk about the new lord. His man is grim, very fussy. Wants hot water when he wants it.”
“What kind of man is he?”
“They say he seems sturdy enough. One maid thought he was all muscle.” A snort from the speaker showed how little he thought of that. “But could be. He don’t wear his coat as tight as his master. And he brought two grooms with him. Big ‘uns.”
“Thank you,” and Ailesworth gave him a coin. The guard went back to his post in the hall.
Ailesworth examined the doors. A new lock had been put on.
“All right. Catherine, come here.” He seated himself on Jim’s bed. “Lord Versland arrived before dinner. He’s as insufferable as I’d imagined. Very full of himself . But still dangerous.”
Jim was listening with great intensity. “Sir, I have something to tell you. But not until I see Lord Versland.”
Ah, here it was, finally. Ailesworth knew Jim had been keeping a secret all these past weeks. Now they were to hear it.
“All right. Tomorrow I’ll be sure you meet him.” Catherine leaned heavily against Jim’s side. Jim seemed to ignore her, but Ailesworth knew Catherine’s sympathy and love were very important to Jim. Together they’d been able to survive those years in the cellar. Thank God for those children who’d broken in and played with them. He must do more for those children and those adults who had occasionally fed them.
“Tell me a story,” Jim asked.
Ailesworth went rapidly through his career aboard ship and selected one that could be heard by children. He settled back against the low footboard, the children scuttled under the covers together and he began talking.
In Esther’s bedroom later, he gave her the box. “You say it’s from Cousin William?” She handled it carefully and admired the multi-colored fine enameling and traceries of gold. On top of the box was a representation of Dramlee Park as it had been one hundred years ago, whe the Park had looked its finest. Hundreds of gardeners and grooms had labored to keep it always looking fit for a king’s visit. Esther traced the gold outlining the house. There were tiny sheep and an even smaller sheep dog. Someone had polished it until it shone in the candlelight.
“So beautiful. It didn’t look like that when I lived there. The roofs had begun to sag and the number of gardeners were cut back so the gardens were full of weeds. I’d hear Jessom and Mrs. Bender talking when they thought I was asleep. The Master was gaming his fortune away.
“How do I open it?”
“The key is lost. Here.” He took it and asked for one of her hairpins. Then he took his time and finally it popped open. Inside was a folded piece of paper. She took it out and unfolded it.
It was another letter from her father. She saw that the handwriting was different from the earlier letter, the one with the diamonds: it looked weak. The words were shaky and they barely held together.
Esther took a great breath and began to read.
My Dearest Daughter Elizabeth——
It is now several months since my misguided behavior caused you to flee from my house. I hope that you are well and that you never forget that you are the daughter of a Duke, no matter how deplorable some of the conduct of this Duke has been.
I expect soon to stand before my Maker, and I would like to think that I bring your forgiveness with me. I will not know if I have that forgiveness before I die, but knowing your sweet nature I am confident of it.
When I took you down to be presented to that vile company in the card room, it was only, pray believe me, to show off my favorite daughter. They
misconstrued my action and I beg your forgiveness for their remarks–and I pray
God that you never believed I would use you as a pledge for my gaming debts.
That, as far as I know in my heart, was not my intention.
You may be surprised by my addressing you as my dearest daughter
and my claim to be aware of your sweet nature. That you will be surprised is as
disgraceful to me as my behavior on that terrible night.
I know you were not your mother’s favorite daughter. She treated you as she did because you look so like me, unlike your sisters. It was for the best
that she did not care for you and ignored you.
I think of you every day now that the house is empty and there’s only
Mrs. Bender to care for me.
I have every confidence that the good things in our family heritage will sustain you in life and that the evil your father embraced will not leave his
mark on you.
With My Love, My Dearest Elizabeth, and May the
Pride of the Dramlees Sustain You—–
When she was through with it, she handed it wordlessly to Ailesworth. This was a different father from the one who’d left her the jewels. He’d truly repented of his sins. She would write Mrs. Bender and Jessom and tell them. It must have been all those prayers of Jessom’s. She’d tell her that.
Then she realized she was crying. All those years he’d loved her. She’d suspected it at times, but that awful visit to the smoky, stinky saloon where the men were gaming had shown her that he didn’t.
But here was his apology.
Ailesworth gathered her into his arms. She let the tears fall. She thought that these would be the last tears she’d ever shed over her family. She wanted to visit Jessom and Mrs. Bender but she knew the past was over, well over.
She wiped her cheeks and eyes. “Sorry. I always seem to be crying all over you.”
He folded the letter, put it back in the box and put the box on her dressing table. Then he stood her up off the bed and began removing her hairpins.
She looked up at him and sighed. She felt at peace.
Versland had seen his man before arriving at Elmscourt. He had no progress to report. Versland had been angry. He’d hoped it would all be over before he arrived, to greet a grieving house. But there were too many watching.
As Robert let his valet undress him that evening, then put his nightshirt over his head, he decided, reluctantly, that he would have to use stealth. Violence was so much better. He felt his ire increasing as he thought of how Carstairs had kept those children to work for him when they were supposed to be disposed of.
His shoulders hunched and his hands made fists. Then he caught himself and relaxed his shoulders. His valet had his teeth brushing water ready and he brushed his teeth carefully. Then he let his valet put a velvet robe on him and he sat in a chair by the fire. A balloon of brandy was ready for him. He’d brought his own. Dunphy could not afford the best. He’d give him a bottle. It would have to be still sealed or Dunphy wouldn’t take it.
A thin smile appeared on his face. His valet wondered who was going to pay. It was clear his master wasn’t welcome here. It had to do with some children. He carefully brushed and put away is master’s clothing.
The next day was cold and clear. A tree had been brought in for the large parlor. It was not used very often. Kay had furniture from the attic brought down to fill it. None of the furniture matched, but having plenty made the room cosy. Everyone was recruited to decorate the tree and the room. The mistletoe was placed over the arched doorway. Kay had some large screens placed by the open arch so that drafts from the front hallway could not chill her guests.
Versland kept himself aloof from the other guests and their happy camaraderie. Charles stood on a shaky ladder and put the angel on top. Everyone but Versland applauded. Charles looked flushed and happy. He was very pleased he’d stayed. And with Versland present, there was a chance of a dustup. He would enjoy that.
Glenfanning and Alma had vanished to the nursery when he first arrived at the end of the breakfast hour, before the tree decoration had begun. Esther knew Alma was being introduced to Glenfanning’s children. She kept her fingers crossed, figuratively speaking.
In the nursery, Frank came slowly over to his father. He’d rather play with Jim but knew he had to meet his father’s lady. Lauren hung back. She had squeezed herself into a chair with Clarissa and Clarissa was complaining.
Frank gave a bow. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ma’am.”
Alma held out her hand and Frank took it and looked up at her. He liked what he saw. She was smiling and he tentatively returned her smile.
“Lauren. Come here.”
“I don’t want to, Papa.”
“Lauren.” Glenfanning put out his hand. Lauren slowly rose. Clarissa gave her a little push off the chair. Lauren came towards her father, dragging her feet. He crouched down. “Lauren, this is Mrs. Nelson. Give her a curtsey. You know how.”
Lauren gave a curtsey which looked like a stagger. Alma was reminded of Jessie’s curtseys.
“Lauren, I’d like you to meet Mrs. Nelson. Alma, this is Lauren. She’s five. Is that right, Lauren?”
Lauren nodded her head. She refused to look at Alma.
Alma crouched down. “Lauren, I don’t have any girls. It would be wonderful to have a five year old girl to play with.” A note of longing was in her voice. Lauren finally looked at her. She had beautiful blue eyes, like a blue bell in the sun. “Oh, Lauren! What lovely blue eyes!”
“My Mama said I was a beautiful princess.”
“And she was right. That’s what you look like.” Lauren began twirling her curly hair with her finger.
Frank was interested in Mrs. Nelson, especially if she was going to be his new Mama, but he was interested in Jim more. He began backing away, hoping his father wouldn’t notice.
He did. “Frank.” Frank stopped and looked at his father. “Make your bow to Mrs. Nelson, and then you can rejoin the boys.”
Frank did and was back at Jim’s side in a second, to hear of giant rats that lived in their cellar in London.
Lauren had fixed Alma with a stare. She stared and twirled her hair. Glenfanning was going to crouch again, but he decided he’d see what Alma would do with his stubborn daughter. Beautiful, stubborn daughter.
“Lauren,” Alma sat on the floor. That seemed to startle Lauren. Good. “For the past month or so, Mrs. Beryll and I have had the care of Catherine. I have enjoyed it so: reading to her and Jim every night, seeing her get new dresses that were pretty.” Here Lauren turned to Catherine and looked at her dress. It was a pretty pink with lots of ruffles because Catherine wanted them. Alma and Esther had thought them too many, but Catherine was making up for lost time, lost ruffle-wearing time. “I was also teaching her and Jim their sums. Mrs. Beryll taught them reading.”
Lauren was looking at her again, looking down at her. It made her feel funny. “You won’t take my Papa away?”
“No, I won’t. Nothing’s going to be taken away. Something’s going to be added. We’ll plan some time every day for you to be alone with your Papa. If you want, you can complain of me to him. Is that all right?”
Alma heard a bit of desperation in her voice. Lauren must accept her.