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Authors: The Troublemaker

Rexanne Becnel (5 page)

BOOK: Rexanne Becnel
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He’d been simmering with barely repressed anger when first he’d approached the house this morning. Now, as he rode up the drive, he studied it with a more observant eye. Neat, well maintained. The manor house was not large by English standards, yet it was still substantial. And old. Older than anything in Boston or Washington. The gravel drive crunched beneath his saddle mount’s heavy measured tread.

Despite what he’d told Miss Palmer about viewing the architectural treasures of the area, Marsh did not generally care for old buildings. After all, the construction portion of his business was one of his most profitable ventures.

But as he stared at the house slowly revealed beyond the trees, he had to admit that there was something compelling about the place. The nearer he came to it, the harder his heart pounded. But not because of the architecture. His father may have lived here—he might still do so. And then what of other relatives? Grandparents. Uncles and aunts? Cousins? How big was his family?

Did they know about Maureen MacDougal and the child she’d raised in America?

He scanned the house, two stories of gray stone with freshly painted windows and three chimneys with ornamental pots piercing the low, undulating tile roof. Moss tinted the walls green in a few shaded areas. But the place looked well tended and fairly prosperous. Though hardly grand, it was a house anyone might reasonably want to possess.

Did he have a legal claim to it?

His jaw tightened. He would find that out soon enough, and if he did, he would pursue that claim no matter who opposed him. He’d had enough of his heritage stolen from him, and his poor mother had had her whole life ruined. It seemed only fitting that those who had benefited in the past should suffer in the future.

Beyond the kitchen garden a laundress gathered linens from the line, watching as he rode into the service yard. A boy with an armful of wood dropped it beside the door stoop, then dashed inside. “A gentleman’s comin’! Cook. Cook! A gentleman’s comin’, an’ to the back door!”

Two women appeared at once in the doorway, the aproned cook and her kerchiefed helper, plus the same lad peering out between them.

Marsh tipped his hat. “I thought, by way of thanks to your master and mistress, that I would make a gift of these fish, which I had the great pleasure of taking from their stretch of the river.”

The cook wiped her reddened hands on the skirt of her apron. “Very good, sir. Very good. But the family ain’t presently t’home.”

Disappointed, Marsh murmured, “I see.”

“Shall I call the housekeeper?” the woman added.

“No. There’s no need,” Marsh replied. In truth, he was more likely to learn details of the Byrde family through lesser servants than through the housekeeper, who was certain to be smarter and more loyal than this simple trio. “Please relay to Mr. Byrde my thanks, and I hope all of you will enjoy the fruits of my day’s sport.”

He handed down the fish, which the cook prodded the boy to collect from him.

“Thank you, sir. Thank you. But ’tis Lord and Lady Hawke,” the cook said, bobbing her head apologetically as she corrected him.

Lord and Lady Hawke? Marsh considered that surprising bit of information. Was Cameron Byrde a lord of the realm? Marsh frowned. The British class system was an enigma to any true American. Surnames
and
title names. As far as he was concerned, this business of titles was a joke. In his book all men were created equal, and he would let no man lord it over him, least of all a spineless cad who would use and abandon an innocent young woman like his mother.

“Well. Give my regards to Lord and Lady Hawke,” he said, trying not to choke on the words. “When do you expect them back?”

The boy started to say something, only to be silenced by one stern look from the cook. She shoved him and her silent assistant behind her before she answered. “I’m sure I do not know the plans milord and lady make. But I can send for Mrs. Hamilton. She’s housekeeper here.”

“Thank you, but I wouldn’t want to interrupt her.” With another tip of his hat, Marsh turned his animal, and at the same unhurried pace, he made his way out of the yard and headed back to the river road to Kelso. But though his pace was calm, inside tension held Marsh in a taut grip. Lord Hawke? Was that his father? Cameron Byrde, Lord Hawke—and some frivolous society woman his wife? Some woman he considered suitable in a way simple Maureen MacDougal could never have been?

Marsh stewed and seethed during his short ride to Kelso. If only the cook had been more forthcoming. But she’d been leery of him and though he’d deemed it best not to pump her, he’d had to bite his tongue.

Damn! He was a coarse American to the likes of Sarah Palmer, and a high-and-mighty gentleman to the sort of people who served her and her ilk. Was there no class in Britain that fell in-between the two? No middle-class folks independent of the great landowners, who were at liberty to speak the truth as they saw fit?

His stomach growled, for he’d missed the midday meal. As he approached the Cock and Bow, he was hoping the landlady had something left to tide him over until suppertime. Then he spied a familiar-looking horse, a pretty sorrel mare, and all thoughts of food vanished. The animal stood alongside an expansive cottage with deep eaves and roses climbing up the walls. Was this where Sarah Palmer lived, not a stone’s throw from his own temporary quarters?

One side of his mouth curved up in a sardonic grin. Perhaps, after a quick wash-up, he would make it his business to find out.

Chapter 5

S
ARAH
felt much better. She’d ridden into town to post a letter to her mother and to call on the vicar and his new wife. She could have taken the curricle, however for her one of the pleasures of the borderlands was the different set of rules that governed young women. Here, if she rode astride, it might be considered unusual, but it was by no means shocking. Well, Agnes had been shocked. But the woman had been wise enough to keep her opinion to herself.

So Sarah had taken the refreshed mare and come into town to do her duty as sister to the predominant landowner in this part of the Tweed River valley.

Now, as their visit was winding down, Mrs. Liston, the vicar’s wife, smiled at Sarah. That smile faded a little, however, when they stepped into the yard and she spied not a carriage, but a mare tethered outside the garden. “You must plan to attend the subscription ball tomorrow evening, Miss Palmer. I’m certain Mr. Liston would be pleased to retrieve you in his carriage. Woodford Court is not so very far,” she added most solicitously. Beside her Mr. Liston smiled and nodded, but he said nothing.

Sarah gave her a bland smile. “I’m sure I could not think of inconveniencing him so. Besides, I’m staying at Byrde Manor, not Woodford Court.”

“Really?” Mrs. Liston looked momentarily nonplussed. “But Woodford Court is so much grander.”

“Indeed it is. But I prefer Byrde Manor. Well, then. Good day.”

“But what of the ball?” Mrs. Liston went on. “You will need some sort of escort. You cannot mean to arrive alone.”

“I’m sure I shall manage,” Sarah answered, her smile beginning to strain. She understood now Mrs. Hamilton’s remarks about the vicar’s new wife. Mrs. Liston was as pretentious as the vicar was simple, and as pushy as he was mild. Sarah started at a determined pace for the horse.

“Perhaps I may call on you?” Mrs. Liston continued, still trailing after Sarah. “I should so like to hear the latest news from London.”

“How nice that would be…” The rest of Sarah’s words petered out at the sight of the man striding purposefully toward her.

Marshall MacDougal.

Dear God! Surely he did not mean to reveal her shameless behavior to the vicar!

To her relief—and chagrin—Mr. MacDougal did not acknowledge her at all, save with a tip of his hat to them all. Instead, he addressed Mr. Liston, as very well he ought.

“Good day, Mr. Liston. May I introduce myself? I am Marshall MacDougal, come lately to Kelso from America for a visit. The innkeeper at the Cock and Bow suggested I present myself to you as a new parishioner.”

It took all Sarah’s willpower to bite her tongue. A new parishioner indeed! But sweet-natured Mr. Liston was unaware of the dubious nature of his new acquaintance. He beamed up at the scoundrel and in short order introduced both Sarah and his wife to the man.

To Sarah’s relief, Mr. MacDougal appeared determined to display only his very best behavior. “How do you do, Mrs. Liston. Miss Palmer.”

When he bowed over Mrs. Liston’s hand, setting the woman to fluttering, Sarah’s eyes narrowed. The wretch! He was equally circumspect toward her. Though he held her gloved hand a little too long, it was not enough for Mrs. Liston to notice. But it was long enough, unfortunately, to cause Sarah’s heart to hammer within her chest. She snatched her hand back, then knotted them both behind her back, fuming all the while.

At least they had their “proper” introduction out of the way, she reminded herself. At least she no longer had to worry about him embarrassing her on that score.

But then he spoiled everything when he stared too deeply into her eyes. As before, their gazes did not cling long enough for Mrs. Liston to notice. But the impact on Sarah was nevertheless devastating.

She took an awkward step back, feeling short of breath and disoriented. Her stomach clutched just as it had when he’d kissed her, and she had to swallow a little gasp of dismay. Wretched, wretched man. How could he affect her so?

She made an abbreviated farewell and a hasty exit. But she was well aware of Marshall MacDougal’s gaze upon her back, as real as a caress. Again she stifled a groan. Not until she had ridden down the street and around the corner did she remember to breathe. And even then, it was a very shaky breath.

Good Lord! What was it about that man? He was rude and hateful and much too bold to suit her. Yet still he managed to rattle her right down to the toes of her Spanish leather riding boots!

Her fingers tightened around the reins and on impulse she leaned low over the mare’s neck. At once the animal responded. As one, they flew down the main street toward the river.

Only when they were almost at the turn in the road that led to Byrde Manor did she remember her intention to call upon Adrian. She shifted her weight and the nimble creature beneath her at once shifted direction. Left and across the old stone bridge they thundered, unfazed by two hounds that gave halfhearted pursuit.

Too quickly they reached the scattering of cottages where Adrian and his mother lived. When Sarah dismounted, she was still flustered. And when Estelle Kendrick came to the door, then frowned, it did nothing to improve her mood.

Was there no one in all of Scotland who was pleasant and uncomplicated?

“Hello, Estelle. It’s Sarah. Sarah Palmer.”

“I know who you are.” Estelle crossed her arms over her rather generous chest and leaned one shoulder against the doorjamb. “What I’m wonderin’ is why you’re here.”

Sarah flicked her left palm with the ends of the reins. “I hoped to call upon Adrian, for I understand he has returned from school. Is he perchance at home?”

“No.”

The fine hairs on the back of Sarah’s neck raised up in irritation. Just as Mrs. Hamilton had warned, Estelle had a chip on her shoulder that no amount of civility seemed able to pierce. Well, if Neville’s financial support had not worked, nor Olivia’s many attempts at friendship, Sarah’s efforts now were not likely to win her over either.

For Adrian’s sake, however, Sarah resolved to remain civil, no matter the other woman’s rudeness. “I see. Do you expect him to return home soon?”

Estelle shrugged. “Hard to say. You know how high-spirited young men can be.”

Especially if the young man in question has a mother who encourages him to think solely of himself
. But to Estelle she only said, “Would you be good enough to tell him that I called? And also that I’m staying at Byrde Manor and would welcome a visit.”

“I’ll tell him. Oh, yes, I’ll tell him,” the woman said. Then her mouth twisted in an unpleasant sneer. “An’ you tell your sister that I don’t appreciate the way she’s turned Neville away from my boy!”

“Turned him away?” Sarah glared at Estelle, appalled by the woman’s narrow view of the situation. “Neville has been nothing but good to Adrian, and with Olivia’s full support. From what I hear, ’tis you—” She broke off, remembering almost too late her vow to be civil. It was pointless anyway to argue with such an unpleasant creature as Estelle Kendrick.

“’Tis I who love the boy,” the woman stated, her brown eyes burning with dislike. “An’ he loves me. So there’s no use you comin’ around here, doin’ your duty all proper-like. I said I’d give him your message. So whyn’t you go now, Miss Sarah Palmer?”

The woman drawled out that last with such contempt Sarah was tempted to slap her. It took every bit of her self-restraint to turn away, remount her horse, and with a curt nod just ride off.

Once outside the cottage yard, however, she was rewarded for her restraint. For who should come cantering up the road on a sweaty, heavily muscled animal but a lanky, dark-haired youth who bore an unmistakable likeness to his Uncle Neville Hawke?

With a cheeky insolence that made her frown, his clear blue eyes swept over her, head to toe and back again. “Well, hello to you.” He doffed his hat, winked, and gave her an appreciative grin.

She straightened in the saddle and gave him a stern look. “Hello, Adrian. I suppose you don’t remember me. I’m Sarah Palmer. Olivia’s sister.”

“Sarah Palmer?” From cocky youth to pleased youngster, in an instant his expression altered. “Sarah! Of course I remember you. How grand you look. But why are you come all the way up here to the hinterlands, and in the middle of the season?”

Not much mollified, she gave him a steady look. “I might ask as much of you. Why aren’t you at school impressing the tutors there with your grasp of Latin and French and mathematics?”

He had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Me and Eton, we just don’t mix. Too much work.” His grip on the reins tightened, causing his horse to back up before he brought it back under control. “Too many snobs.”

She studied the boy, taking in the dark, wavy hair falling over his brow, and the straight nose and well-formed lips. He was going to break many a young woman’s heart, she decided, many a heart before all was said and done. But if he’d inherited as much of the Hawke family intelligence as he had their striking good looks, the classes at Eton could not possibly have been too difficult for him.

“Is that what you shall tell your Uncle Neville when he returns from Glasgow, that Eton was just too hard? Somehow I don’t think that shall go over very well with him. And what of this horse?” she went on, not allowing him time to answer. “I assume Neville and Olivia gave him to you. How will you explain it to them should the animal come up lame from your madcap racing about, or if the poor creature should catch a lung infection from improper care?”

Though resentment sprang into Adrian’s eyes, the twin spots of color in his cheeks revealed his chagrin. “I’m planning to tend to him directly,” he protested. “I only stopped to speak to you.”

Sarah sighed. “I’m sorry, Adrian. Despite how it sounds, I did not come here to scold you. Rather, I wanted to invite you to visit me at Byrde Manor. I’m staying there while Livvie and Neville are away.”

When his jaw jutted forward as if he meant to decline, she hurried on. “I promise not to harangue you about Eton. I promise. Perhaps we could go riding tomorrow afternoon and you can show me the countryside. After all, I haven’t been here in several years,” she added, giving him her prettiest, most sincere smile.

It was almost ludicrous how swiftly his stiff jaw softened into a grin—and a little alarming as well. Though Sarah thought of him as a child still, a boy six years her junior, the glint of masculine appreciation she saw in his eyes now was definitely that of a lad on the verge of manhood.

“I’d be pleased to call on you, Miss Sarah.”

She pursed her lips and nodded. “Very well. Tomorrow, then.” But as she turned her mare and headed back toward Byrde Manor, Sarah had the sinking sensation that civilizing Adrian Hawke was going to be considerably more difficult than she’d originally imagined.

Back in Kelso, Marsh gazed around the vicar’s little office. Along one wall a tall oak bookcase bulged with the books of parish records dating back several centuries. Births, christenings, marriages, deaths—and every conceivable contract in between. Sales of land and livestock. Barters of produce and products.

“I apologize that I must depart just as you’ve arrived,” Mr. Liston was saying to him. “But one of my parishioners is very ill. Mrs. Liston can help you,” he added, glancing at his wife, who stood in the doorway eagerly nodding.

“Thank you,” Marsh said, hardly aware when the vicar took his leave. Somewhere in this room might be the answer to all his questions.

“Just what sort of family records are you seeking, Mr. MacDougal?” Mrs. Liston bustled about, wiping down the spines of the leather-bound tomes with her linen handkerchief. “My word, but the dust is terrible in Kelso. Just terrible. Not like York, where I am from.”

Marsh chose his words carefully, for he was not yet ready to reveal the true purpose of his search. “My dear mother, God rest her soul, may have been born here. She told me little of her home in Scotland, but she did mention Kelso once or twice. I was hoping to find a birth listing, or a christening which might then lead me to her family.”

“I see. What was her name?”

Marsh hesitated. It would not do to tell her his mother was a MacDougal, for that would imply she had never wed. Nor could he call her Byrde. Not yet. He pulled out one of the burgundy and gold-trimmed record books. “Shouldn’t I begin with the year, since records are listed chronologically?” He opened the book. “What a neat penmanship. Is it yours?” He gave her an earnest smile.

A faint pink blush crept into her wan cheeks. When she giggled and pressed her handkerchief to her mouth, she left a smudge of book dust on her chin. “My word, no. Mr. Liston tends to these records himself. He’s most particular, you know. As well he ought to be. It’s really too bad,” she added, lowering her voice to a confidential level. “Over at the Catholic church the priest is not nearly so careful or accurate.”

“Yes. That is just too bad,” he murmured. “I wonder. Might I trouble you for a cup of tea?”

To his relief, she was eager to accommodate him. By the time she returned, he was well immersed in records dating back over fifty years. An hour later when she returned with a refill, he’d discovered nothing about his mother, but plenty about his father. Bom in 1771, wed to Augusta Linden in 1797. Marsh’s teeth clenched. Cameron Byrde had married this Augusta woman
after
the birth of his son in America. And well after his first marriage to Maureen MacDougal.

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