Read The Letter Online

Authors: Sandra Owens

Tags: #General Fiction

The Letter (9 page)

BOOK: The Letter
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He should not have brought up the past.

“She has a lot of hurt in her heart, that one does,” Obadiah observed.

Michael jerked his gaze to Obadiah’s wizened face. His old friend had always been able to recognize a wounded soul. “She does and the blame for it is mine.”

“Then you best be putting her back to rights, my boy.”

He had been “my boy” to Obadiah at the age of five and still was at the age of six and thirty. His gamekeeper had never been impressed with his title, had never once used it. “That is my intention. Would you spend an hour or two in the afternoons with the boy? Like his mother, he has had a difficult life and, well, I’ve never forgotten how you once helped me. I’m hoping you can do the same for him.”

Obadiah smiled. “I can do that. You going to marry his mother?”

No, he was going to marry Serena. “What makes you say that?”

“I seen the way you look at her. Like you be dying of thirst and she being a cold drink of water.”

No, the only thing in his eyes when he looked at her was concern. And perhaps regret. Michael shook his head. “Sometimes you see things that aren’t there, Obadiah.”

“I see what I see. Now might be a good time to tell me the boy is yours.”

“Christ, you scare the bloody hell out of me, old man. But I don’t know for sure. He might be, but I have no way of being certain.”

Obadiah cackled and walked away to collect the rods and Michael’s trout. He returned, handing Michael the basket. “Here you are, my boy. Take your fishes to the kitchen and then go see about your lady.”

She wasn’t his lady. Not anymore.

When Michael reached the house, he came across Roger. “Did you just return?”

“Aye, my lord, and Mr. Johnston returned with me. Him and a lady’s maid are waiting for you inside. I meant to return soon as I delivered your letter, but he bade me wait and ride Reckless back. Most fun I ever had, if you don’t mind me saying, your lordship. That horse is a right one, he is.”

Michael agreed, glad to have his feisty horse back with him. “Johnston’s here?” He should have known his secretary would be compelled to investigate his request for a lady’s maid and a tutor.

“Aye, my lord.”

He sent Roger on his way, and after delivering his basket of fish to his cook, went to the study. “Johnston, I do not recall requesting your presence.”

Johnston stood and bowed. “My lord, I thought it best to ensure all arrived safely.”

Five years ago, Michael had rescued Johnston in a gaming hell. The young man had been caught cheating at cards, and Michael had seen the despair in his eyes. When the Viscount of Englemore called Johnston out, the pup, visibly shaking, had quietly asked where and when. Michael did not condone cheating, but for reasons he still did not understand, he had stepped in and saved the man.

Once inside Michael’s carriage, Johnston confessed he had a mother and six sisters to care for. One of his sisters was sick and there was no money for food or a doctor. He swore this was the first time he had cheated, but that he had been desperate. Michael had sent for a doctor for the sister, sent his cook out to purchase food for the family, and offered Johnston a position as his secretary, something he had never had before and didn’t think he needed. But he had never regretted it.

Much to his relief, Johnston proved his worth. He stepped in and organized Michael’s life to an extent he had never dreamed possible. Johnston also believed his position included protecting the earl from fortune seeking ladies. Thus his secretary’s presence here today.

Michael snorted. “More like you thought to ride to my rescue. But that discussion is for later. I take it this is the lady’s maid I requested?” He nodded at the young woman sitting in front of his desk.

“Yes, my lord. This is Fanny and she comes with excellent references.”

The woman stood and curtseyed. “My lord.”

She looked to be in her mid-twenties, and though plain of face, her eyes were bright and alert. If Johnston had found her, then she was suitable.

“Where are Hansen and the tutor I asked for?”

“They will arrive tomorrow. The tutor, Mr. Denton, needed an extra day to take care of his affairs, so your valet stayed behind to escort him here. Mr. Denton also comes with excellent references, having recently been tutor to the Duke of Cordale’s sons.”

“Why is he willing to leave such a highly placed position?”

“The youngest son started Eton this week.”

“Very good. Please keep Fanny company for a few minutes until I return.”

Michael went upstairs and knocked on Diana’s door. It was opened by Jamie.

“Ah, good, you are here, also. I need to talk to you and your mother for a few minutes.” He looked over Jamie’s head to where she sat on the window seat. “As we have a chaperone in young Jamie here, may I come in for a few minutes?”

She nodded. Jamie began recounting the size of the fish he had caught. Michael took the opportunity to look around the room. Decorated in cheery greens and yellows, it was a room his young bride-to-be would have loved. Somehow, it no longer seemed to suit her. He made a mental note to ask if she would like to redecorate it. No, she wouldn’t be here long enough for it to matter.

He pulled a chair near her and sat down. “Come here, Jamie.”

An apprehensive look came over her face and Jamie, obviously taking his cue from his mother, crawled onto the window seat next to her. He scowled. Michael recognized that look. It was one he had seen in his mirror many times. The boy has my scowl, he thought with delight. Was that proof of anything?

“No need to make such a fierce face, lad. I am here to bring you some interesting news.”

Jamie’s frown lifted into a smile. “A surprise?”

“I suppose so. It concerns your education. Tomorrow a Mr. Denton will be arriving and he is to be your tutor.”

“I have never had a tutor before. Will I like it?”

“If you are anything like me as a boy, sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t. He will teach you all sorts of interesting things and some things you won’t find so interesting. But you are a baron and if you are to be a good one, they are things you need to learn.”

“What sorts of things?”

“Mathematics, science, Latin, and so on.” He waited while Jamie considered this new change.

“I think I would like to learn mathematics and science, but I’m not sure about the Latin.”

“That is just how I felt about it, but if you are to go to Eton, then Latin is a must.”

At the mention of Eton, a look of panic entered Diana’s eyes.

“Eton is years away,” he said softly. Three to be exact, but he kept that information to himself.

“I know,” she said. “It is only that he is growing up too fast.”

At least she had been there for the first ten years of her son’s life. If Jamie was his, Michael thought he might be very jealous of her for that.

He glanced at her. “I have more news, but this time it is for your mother.”

“Is she getting a tutor like me?” Jamie asked, causing Michael to chuckle.

“No, but she is getting a lady’s maid.”

“Oh. Then may I go to my room? I want to practice shooting my marbles.”

“Is that all right with you, Diana?”

****

No, it wasn’t all right with her. She didn’t want to be alone with Michael, but didn’t feel like she could say so after what he had just done for her son. She gave Jamie a kiss and sent him off, then waited for Michael to speak.

“As much as I have enjoyed playing your lady’s maid these past few days, there is a young woman named Fanny sitting in my study as we speak. She is here to step into the role.”

Did that mean no more kisses on her forehead before she retired?

“Tell me what you are thinking. You sit there so contained and quiet. I can’t tell if this pleases you or not.”

She couldn’t tell him she would miss the feel of his lips on her skin, so she said what she thought he wanted to hear. “It pleases me. I haven’t had a lady’s maid since I left my father’s house, and I have missed having one.” Somehow, she would have to find a way to keep the woman from seeing her.

His eyebrows furrowed, and he frowned. “Why haven’t you?”

She shrugged as if the answer didn’t matter. “Leo didn’t allow it.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I don’t know, he never explained why. Likely just another way to isolate me, or perhaps it was nothing more than to prove I was at his mercy. It could even be simply because he didn’t want to spend the money on me. Maids expect to be paid, you know.”

There was anger in his eyes again, but she understood his wrath was for her and not directed at her. Every day she waited for him to show his true colors, and every day he was nothing less than kind and caring. She shrugged. “Who knows what Leo thought. I certainly never did.”

Dark blue eyes fixed on her, the rage in them giving way to sadness and regret. For so long, her heart had been encased in ice. Against her will, she felt a crack in that block of frozen wasteland, the sound of it so loud she feared he might have heard. She didn’t want to feel charitable toward him, was surprised when her hand reached out to touch his face.

He gave her an astonished look, and then closed his eyes, leaning into her palm. He was like a great cat in need of a pet. She pulled her hand back before the urge to do so overtook her. He sighed and opened his eyes. They were watery, and he blinked several times before standing and holding out his hand. She would love to know his thoughts.

“Shall we go downstairs and introduce you to your lady’s maid?”

Relieved the strange moment of intimacy had passed, she placed her hand in his. When they entered his study, a young woman dressed in a plain brown dress stood and curtseyed. Standing next to her was a gentleman. He gave her a respectful bow.

“Johnston, allow me to introduce you to Lady Brantley. My lady, Johnston is my secretary and has arrived uninvited due to his overwhelming curiosity as to why I would need a lady’s maid.”

The tone of Michael’s voice was mocking. She looked at the man to see his reaction. Mr. Johnston’s lips twitched and his eyes sparkled with humor. She smiled. “Mr. Johnston, though it is a pleasure to meet you, I would not wish to be the cause of unexpected travel.”

“Pray do not concern yourself on my account, my lady. I have other business to discuss with Lord Daventry and then I expect to be ordered back to London tomorrow.”

“Or I may even order your meddling self to return today.”

Diana turned to Michael. “Oh, you must not. It is too late in the day for travel, and Mr. Johnston should be invited to join us for dinner.”

“Well then, Johnston, the lady wishes you to stay and so you shall. We went trout fishing today and have more than enough to accommodate your surprise appearance.”

The crack in the ice widened. She had spoken without thinking. If she had done so with Leo, he would have knocked her across the room. But she never would have made such a mistake with her husband. Yet in Michael’s presence, it seemed a natural thing to do. Even more astonishing, he granted her request.

“Thank you, Lady Brantley,” Mr. Johnston said. “As you have likely saved me from the danger of being accosted by highwaymen in the dark of night, I am in your debt. And, I should add, I dearly love trout.”

“You are too dramatic by half, Johnston—” Michael turned to the maid. “Fanny, this is your new mistress, Lady Brantley. You will see to her every wish or whim. I imagine you would like to settle in. I will have my housekeeper give you a tour of the house and show you to your room. In one hour please present yourself to your lady to help her dress for dinner.”

After Michael sent the maid off with Mrs. Bartlett, Diana excused herself and returned to her room. Her mind spun like a child’s top. It was time to stop believing all men were like Leo. She knew that. She did. But ten years of constant cruelty by word and deeds had turned her into a woman she didn’t like. One afraid to be happy, afraid of a man’s power over her.

Men could beat a woman down if they had it in them. She had the scars to show for it, both unseen and visible. The physical marks on her body she couldn’t change, but she could change her thinking. She could learn to be strong again, to be a woman she liked. It was her choice to remain as she was, or she could choose to be happy. It would be her gift to herself. Beginning now. It would take practice, but she was determined to succeed.

Excitement bubbled inside her at the possibility of putting her demons to rest. She had once thought to find happiness in marriage to Michael and the children they would have. That dream had been stolen, ripped away in the blink of an eye. What would truly please her now was a quiet, peaceful life with Jamie, but how to achieve that?

Chapter Seven

The following morning, Michael stood on the steps next to Diana and Jamie as they watched his carriage roll away, carrying Johnston back to London. He glanced at the woman at his side. There was something different about her, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Last night at dinner and this morning, she seemed, well—happier.

Why?

He planned to give her Leo’s letter to read this morning. Now, he was hesitant, afraid of destroying the hint of sparkle in her eyes. At breakfast, she laughed. He was so startled, he swallowed his tea wrong and almost spewed it out of his mouth.

“Well, I daresay Mr. Johnston is pleased to be making his return journey in the daylight.” She waggled a finger at him. “It wasn’t very nice of you to threaten to send him off last night as bait for highwaymen.” Her lips curved into a grin. “It was because you knew he was a better marble player, wasn’t it? You thought to rid yourself of him before he showed you up in front of Jamie.”

Michael stared at her.

She took her son’s hand. “Come with me, Jamie. We must allow his lordship time to contemplate his poor behavior.”

Jamie looked over his shoulder as a chuckling Diana led him away. Michael thought it likely his face showed the same puzzlement as the lad’s.

Who was this woman?

He sure would like to understand what had brought the glow to her eyes. Last night and this morning, she reminded him of the young woman he had once loved. At the breakfast table, he hadn’t been able to take his gaze away from her, his eyes too often settling on her pink, smiling lips. There had been a time when he knew that mouth intimately, along with other lovely parts of her.

BOOK: The Letter
4.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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