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Authors: A Suitable Wife

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While Mother continued to protest, he marched toward the front entry. Neither she nor the sweep nor anyone else would keep him from obeying God’s prompting in this matter.

Crawford scurried ahead of him. “The nursery? The footmen’s corridor? A closet in the attic? Oh, dear, where shall we put him?”

Although Greystone knew the old fellow was talking to himself, he offered a hearty answer to set his mind at ease. “The nursery will do.”

They reached the entryway just as a footman responded to a knock on the door. When he opened it, Mrs. Parton bustled in, followed by Lady Beatrice.

“Do forgive us, Greystone. Where is your mama? I should like to take tea with her.” She stopped and stared at his sooty bundle. “Good gracious, my boy, whatever do you have there?”

But it was Lady Beatrice who held his attention. The regard filling her lovely blue eyes nearly made him stumble, nearly made him drop the child. After a long day in Parliament he would not mind coming home every day to that sort of admiration.

No, he simply must not think such things, must get away from her as soon as possible. But how could he when he would prefer nothing more than to sit down to tea with her and stare into those lovely blue eyes?

Chapter Four

B
eatrice could hardly contain her laughter at the sight of Lord Greystone holding a bundle of sooty rags. This was the same elegantly garbed viscount she had seen earlier in the afternoon on his way to Parliament. But now his handsome black suit was covered with gray dust, and his once-pristine white shirt and cravat bore black streaks, as did his nose and left cheek. Although she tried to keep her composure, a smile escaped her as she silently echoed Mrs. Parton’s question. Why on earth was the viscount carting about grimy trash when he obviously had sufficient staff for such menial work?

“Good afternoon again, Mrs. Parton, Lady Beatrice.” Standing at the base of the staircase, the gentleman spoke in a nonchalant tone at odds with his scruffy appearance. The aristocrats of Beatrice’s acquaintance would be mortified if caught in such a state. “Do come in. I am certain Mother will be pleased to see you.”

“Gracious, Julia.” Lady Greystone appeared from the drawing room on the right. “What an inconvenient time for you to call.” The lady glanced between her son and Mrs. Parton, and annoyance filled her countenance. “Never mind. You may as well come in. Perhaps you can help me dissuade Greystone from keeping this little gutter rat.” She waved her fan toward the rags in the viscount’s arms.

The rags moved, and a tiny, tear-streaked face turned toward the viscountess. Beatrice’s heart leaped into her throat. It was a child, a filthy street urchin. She had never known another person of any rank who would willingly touch such a creature, much less carry him.

“Why, it is a child.” Mrs. Parton bustled over to the viscount. “My dear Greystone, whatever are you doing?”

The gentleman started to speak, but his mother rushed to join them.

“You see, Greystone, even Julia agrees. The brat has no place in this house. Oh, do come to your senses—”

“Mother!” The viscount sent her a scolding glare, but quickly softened his expression. “Please, madam, permit me to do what I know to be right.”

Once again Beatrice’s heart skipped. Although she had no idea what drama was unfolding here, she could feel only admiration for the gentleman’s extraordinary kindness to both his mother and the child.

“Nonsense.” The viscountess returned a glare that did not soften. “You simply cannot give such notice to the lower classes. It teaches them to rebel against their God-given place. Have we not been through this before?” She glanced at Mrs. Parton as if for confirmation. “If you must rescue him from his dreadful owner, then send him to your orphanage in Shrewsbury.”

The viscount sighed. “Yes, perhaps I will. But he is injured, and I will not rest until the physician has tended him. Will you ladies excuse me?” He nodded to Mrs. Parton and Beatrice, then started toward the staircase.

“Greystone!” Lady Greystone stepped to the banister and gripped it with a gloved hand. “I forbid you to take him upstairs and spread his filth all over my household.”

He paused and slowly turned. Beatrice could not entirely read the expression in his eyes, but for the briefest instant, she thought she detected a silent reprimand spark from him toward his mother like a tiny bolt of lightning. But once again his countenance softened, and his smile brightened those brilliant blue eyes. “We will be careful, will we not, my boy?” Murmuring to the child as to an old friend, he climbed the stairs and disappeared from sight.

Quiet descended upon the spacious oak-paneled entryway. For several moments Lady Greystone stood like a marble statue and stared after her son. Beatrice could hear hushed voices and sounds of movement in the drawing room, but this chamber seemed silent as a tomb.

At last the viscountess turned toward Mrs. Parton, her face a mask. “Shall we go to the small parlor for tea?” Her gaze landed on Beatrice, and one dark gray eyebrow rose.

“Yes, of course.” Mrs. Parton beckoned to Beatrice. “But first permit me to present Miss Gregory, my new companion.”


Miss
Gregory, indeed.” Lady Greystone emitted a mild, ladylike snort. “Nonsense. I know full well who she is.” She fixed her eyes on Beatrice with a hint of accusation. “Lady Beatrice, do not permit Julia to further endanger your marriage prospects by adding a lie to your résumé. It is enough that Lord Melton has done all he possibly can to destroy your family name.”

Her words pummeled Beatrice like a housemaid’s blows to a dirty carpet. If she was to be received in this manner everywhere Mrs. Parton took her, she might as well return to Melton Gardens.

“Now, Frances.” Mrs. Parton wagged a finger at her friend. “It is not her fault Melton fell in with a bad lot. You must help me repair the damage to her.” She looped an arm in Lady Greystone’s and ushered her toward a corridor, with Beatrice trailing behind. “She may be reduced to being only my companion but—” She leaned closer and whispered something to the viscountess.

Lady Greystone stopped abruptly and stared down at her shorter friend, then cast a suspicious glance at Beatrice. “Do not dare to think—”

“Humph.” Mrs. Parton urged her down the corridor again. “There are many fish in the sea, my dear.”

While Beatrice had no choice but to follow, her mind took another direction. She had never had a truly close female friend with whom to whisper secrets. But she could not imagine why jolly Mrs. Parton chose such a cold, unfeeling confidante like Lady Greystone.

Memories of Mama’s poise and graciousness swept into her thoughts. She straightened her shoulders and followed the other ladies into a bright, pretty parlor at the back of the house. No matter what her brother had done, no matter what censure came her way, she would hold her head high and never again deny who she was. Even when a gentleman like Lord Greystone withheld his good opinion from her, yet carried a dirty street child as if he were a precious jewel.

* * *

A myriad of thoughts assailed Greystone as he followed Crawford toward the fourth-floor nursery. He tried to concentrate on the imp in his arms, but the flawless, smiling Lady Beatrice invaded his mind. Had he mistaken her expression? Was she laughing at him or approving of his actions, as he had first thought? And why did it matter? Last night he’d dismissed any notion of taking an interest in her, a decision solidified by her brother’s association with that scoundrel Rumbold. As Mother had taught him from childhood, no good could come from ill-advised friendships, for a man could find himself too deeply involved to escape the evil influences such associations could bring.

At the thought of Mother a hint of shame struck him. As he often did, he recalled his debt to her. He owed her everything: his life, his faith, his moral standards, her restoration of the family fortune Father had gambled away. Yet since his illness last winter he found himself less and less amenable to her instructions. She had a harshness about her that had never bothered him before, but now he found it inconsistent with the improvements he wished to make in his own character. Furthermore he found he could no longer align himself with her every opinion. Now he wanted to learn about and follow the teachings of Christ. Still, he would never cease to honor her, as the Biblical commandment instructed.

The child moaned, then bit his lower lip and shuddered. “Sorry, gov’ner.” Tears filled his eyes, and he swatted at them with his uninjured hand.

“Never mind, my good man.” Greystone swallowed his own sentiments. He wanted to give the boy a reassuring squeeze, but that would doubtless cause him more pain. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time.” He eyed the footman posted on the landing. “Bring hot water and a tub to the nursery.”

“Yes, milord.” The man hurried downstairs.

“Ain’t ya gonna have me whipped, sir?” Curiosity rather than fear filled the boy’s expression.

Now Greystone’s emotions—rage at the master sweep, pity for the boy—threatened to undo him, so he did not risk an answer.

They reached the nursery, and Crawford held the door open. “’Tis a bit musty in here, my lord.”

“Of course.” Greystone stepped inside and surveyed the long-unused chamber. Dusty holland covers were draped over the furniture, and threads of light peered around the heavy drapes, glinting off dust motes hanging in the air. “Get someone in here to clean it as quickly as possible. But first uncover the bed so I can set my little friend down.”

“But my lord.” Crawford’s pale eyes widened. “He is not fit for a clean bed. He must have his bath first.”

“Bath?” The boy squirmed, then cried out and grasped his injured arm with his good hand. At each of his movements, Greystone could feel the child’s bony frame.

“Never mind the bedding. It will wash.”

With a martyred sigh, Crawford folded away the holland cover and turned down the counterpane on the four-poster bed. Greystone gently laid the boy down, amazed at his resilience. Although the lad shuddered and bit his lip, he did not cry out again.

“There, my lad. The physician will be here shortly to see to your arm.” Greystone turned to leave, but the boy grabbed his hand.

“Gov’ner, won’t ya let me go to my brother? The master’ll beat him if I’m not there to take it for him.”

Greystone cleared his throat to cancel the emotion this revelation caused. “Do you not recall? I have ordered your master to bring your brother here to keep you company.”

The child blinked and frowned, then glanced toward the door with a wild look in his eyes, as if planning to escape. Hoping to reassure him, Greystone sat on the edge of the bed and patted his shoulder. “You may trust me, lad. Now tell me, what is your name?”

The boy gulped. “Kit, gov’ner.”

“Do not say governor, boy.” Crawford stood on the other side of the bed, where he had just opened the drapes, letting in a stream of sunlight. “You must address Lord Greystone as ‘my lord.’”

Kit eyed Greystone, and Greystone offered a wink of confirmation.

“Now, Kit, you must wait here, or you may miss your brother’s arrival. I shall send up someone to keep you company. What do you say to that?”

Kit’s forehead furrowed. “I don’t know, gov...milord.”

Crawford harrumphed. “Why, you say I thank you, of course.”

Kit spared him a glance before fixing a serious stare on Greystone. “I thank ya, o’course.”

Greystone coughed away a laugh. “You are welcome, Kit.”

“Ah, here you are.” Mrs. Parton bustled into the room with Lady Beatrice in her wake. “Greystone, your mother is quite beside herself over your unexpected guest. I have relieved her mind utterly, for I plan to take on this little fellow’s care myself.”

“I beg your pardon?” Greystone stood and gazed at the lady in puzzlement.

“The child, my boy.” Mrs. Parton laughed in her inimitable way. “I plan to take him away from you and care for him myself. With Lady Beatrice’s help, of course.” She gave Kit a maternal smile. “We shall make him quite our little pet, shall we not, my dear?” She sent the young lady a glance before approaching the bed.

Lady Beatrice gave him an apologetic shrug. “Lady Greystone does seem unhappy about your project.”

“But you see, dear ladies, it is just that—
my
project. I have already made friends with young Kit, and I have no intention of surrendering him to you.”

Kit’s eyes darted from Greystone to Mrs. Parton and back again. Greystone gave the boy another reassuring wink.

“Hmm. Just as I suspected.” Without a hint of hesitation Mrs. Parton patted Kit’s dirty cheek with her gloved hand. “But do you have any idea of what you are doing?”

Feeling a bit put upon, Greystone stepped between the older lady and his new ward. “I shall inquire of the physician.”

“Humph.” Mrs. Parton wagged a sooty finger at him. “And what do you suppose a physician knows about taking care of children?”

He opened his mouth to answer, but had no idea what to say.

“Just as I thought.” The lady shook her head, and her red curls bounced merrily. “You must let me have him, Greystone.”

Here was another lady who had nurtured him all his life and for whom he had the greatest respect. Unlike Mother she harbored no secret bitterness, but was merry and generous in every way. Still, he was done with letting these good women rule his life.

“Forgive me, madam, but I cannot do that. His brother will be here soon, and I plan to care for the both of them.”

Mrs. Parton scowled at him, at least as much as her permanently merry face would permit. “Your mama will be greatly disappointed. As will Lady Beatrice. Won’t you, my dear?”

The young lady blinked in obvious confusion. “I... Well...yes, of course. But Lord Greystone must do what he thinks is best.”

“I thank you, madam.” He gave her a nod. “At least someone thinks I can manage it.” From the startled yet pleased expression on her lovely face, he wished he had not shown quite so much gratitude.

“Very well. Have it your way.” Mrs. Parton looped an arm around Greystone’s and moved him away from the bed. “But you will grant us visiting privileges.”

“Yes, of course.” The words came out before he had time to consider all the implications. Had he granted Lady Beatrice unlimited access to his house just when he had determined it was best to avoid her very appealing presence? How could he possibly retract his words without appearing ungentlemanly?

BOOK: Louise M Gouge
10.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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