It was one thing to dream about being a lady in distress, Katherine Ralston had recently realized, and quite another entirely to be one. Particularly troubling was that a white knight, who never failed to make a timely appearance in fictional realms, was in this instance nowhere to be found. She would have to make do on her own, and though she was becoming accustomed to that idea it did not make the circumstance any more pleasant, or comforting.
"...so, you see, it's already done, m'dear. The passage was purchased a week ago." Simon Ralston looked up briefly from the papers he was shuffling across his late brother's dark mahogany business desk and then lowered his head again when Kate made no reply. "All taken care of," he went on after a moment.
"I'm not leaving," Kate grumbled, her eyes on the rose-patterned carpet that she had played on as a child and her fists clenched so that she wouldn't be tempted to do any of the unladylike things she was contemplating. "This is my home."
"Well, m'dear, me being your guardian, as named by your dear father, it's mine for the next two years, and I'll run it as I see fit, thank you very much. And you won't have any say anyway, young miss, because you are going to London, at the kind invitation of your godparents."
Kind and convenient, more like, Katherine thought bitterly. As soon as she was out the door Uncle Simon would likely sell off Crestley Hall piecemeal and pocket the profits. She had never liked her father's younger brother, and in the months since her mother's death her aversion had deepened to hatred. What had possessed her father to name Simon her guardian until her twenty-second birthday she couldn't imagine, though at the time the will had been drawn up the idea that Sir Richard Ralston would be killed in a carriage accident and his wife Anne would die of pneumonia two years later had seemed absurd. Now, however, she found her home and her life in the hands of a man who would sell either for a good gambling stake.
He didn't even look like a Ralston, she decided as she stared at the wiry brown hair on the top of his head, the only part of his face that she could see now that his shuffling of papers had resumed. Both Kate and her father had the fair complexion and wavy black hair of all the other Ralstons she had ever heard of. Her own tresses cascaded down to her waist when she brushed them out.
The one feature that her father and Simon did share was their brown eyes, so gentle and good-humored in her father and so stony in his brother. She herself thankfully took after her mother's blue-eyed Irish ancestors, and the lack of resemblance between her and Uncle Simon had lately become something of a comfort. The less she had in common with him the better she liked it.
"You'd best take your sulks upstairs and finish packing, because I won't have another outburst of that damned temper of yours. Coach leaves first thing in the morning." Simon Ralston didn't even glance up this time.
After a moment of deliberate disobedience she stood and left the room. They had argued over her leaving several times over the past week, and she had known that nothing she said was going to change his mind. She had therefore completed most of her packing already, little of it that there was to do. She was being sent away with what she could carry, and more than doubted her uncle's word that the rest of her "necessities" would follow her to London.
Most of the servants had been let go during the course of the nine months since her uncle's arrival, a forced exodus which had begun as soon as her mother had become too ill to notice and Katherine too concerned over the Lady Anne's failing health to inform her of the doings. Tonight the house seemed even quieter than had become usual, and she wondered if its dead emptiness pressed on her uncle as it did on her. She dearly hoped so, but after a moment's reflection doubted he would notice such a thing.
She had been to London only once before, when she had begun her Season two years ago. The death of her father had ended the festivities after only a fortnight, and she didn't care if she ever went back again. Her current reason for going, as her uncle had made clear, was to get her away from Crestley. She wondered fleetingly if he had somehow arranged the invitation that had arrived a month ago from the Baron and Baroness of Clarey, her mother's dearest friends and her godparents, but swiftly brushed the thought away. The idea that Lord Neville or Lady Alison could be manipulated for even one moment by the likes of Uncle Simon was unthinkable, even to someone of her rather fanciful imagination.
It was Timms, one of the few remaining members of the staff, who scratched at her door the next morning to carry her baggage downstairs. The old butler lifted the two valises and turned toward the doorway, then stopped and cleared his throat. "Miss Kate?"
"Yes, Timms?" she responded, looking away reluctantly from what might be her last view out of her window at the failing gardens and the meadow and woods beyond.
"Take care, milady."
"Thank you, Timms," she responded, forcing a smile.
Downstairs she found her uncle waiting by the front door, and her spirits sank even further. She had hoped that he wouldn't bother to rise. She did not want her last sight of Crestley Hall to include him. There seemed to be no avoiding it, however, for though she passed by him without a word he turned and followed her outside and down the front steps to the waiting hack.
She stopped and turned back to face him, wishing that she had inherited some of her father's height. "If one piece of furniture, one candlestick, one teacup is removed from Crestley Hall in my absence I will carve the value of it out of your hide with my father's sword."
"You mind the Baron and Baroness like a good girl, Kate, and I might even inquire as to their working on trying to find you a husband, if anyone'd have a shrew like you." He pointed a finger at her. "Crestley Hall's a long way from London, and London's a bad place to be all on your own. You watch yourself."
Katherine stared at him for a moment, sudden uneasiness vying with her indignant anger at his insult. If he meant his concluding words as a threat, it was the first time he had handed her one openly. He was up to something.
Timms handed her up into the carriage. The hack would take her to the Red Boar Inn where she would meet the mail stage to London. As they left the long drive she looked back at Crestley, already showing signs of the neglect her uncle had forced on it. And standing at the foot of the front steps, watching her out of sight, was Simon Ralston. Whatever he was planning, she would be back, and she would claim what was hers.
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