Madeleine Willits pricked her finger.
"Ouch! Blast it." She dropped the offending rose into her arm basket and sucked on her finger. Narrowing her eyes, she glared at the Lord Penzance bush. Its remaining yellow-red blossoms waved lazily in the light breeze, taunting her.
"You mean thing -- take that!" With a flourish of her clippers, she snipped three more blooms, disentangled them gingerly from their treacherous brethren, and placed them with the others in her basket.
"Miss Maddie!" the housekeeper called frantically.
At the same time, a stentorian bellow rumbled out the master bedchamber window like a clap of thunder, and Maddie jumped. Dropping her clippers into the basket, she gathered up her skirt and ran for the kitchen entry.
Mrs. Hudson pulled open the door as she reached it, and Maddie shoved the basket into her plump arms. "What happened?" she called over her shoulder, running through the main hall toward the stairs to the second floor. Curious servants hurried into the hallway, creating still more obstacles for her to dodge.
"I don’t know, Miss Maddie," came from behind her. "Garrett was in with him!"
The butler appeared at the top of the stairs. Red-faced, he wiped at the thick brown trails of gravy running down the front of his black coat. "It was just the post!" he protested.
Bill Tomkins, closely followed by a tea saucer, exited the bedchamber at high speed behind Garrett. "He nearly killed me that time," the footman panted, leaning against the bannister.
"You shouldn’t have been in there," Maddie said unsympathetically, trying to regain her breath before she stepped into battle. She pulled the shawl from around her shoulders.
"What was I supposed to do, keep polishing the lamps while he’s yowling like a Bedlamite? Scared the devil out of me," the footman exclaimed, shuddering dramatically.
The butler chuckled. "Then you should thank him."
"Hush you two, before you set him off again." Sending the servants a warning glance, Maddie fluttered the end of her shawl into the doorway. "We surrender, Mr. Bancroft. The household has been vanquished."
More grumbling issued from inside the room, followed by the thudding sound of a pillow hitting a wall. "Humph. Stop that nonsense and get your pretty face in here, girl," Malcolm Bancroft’s irritated voice ordered.
Maddie entered the bedchamber. The remains of luncheon drippily decorated the near wall, while the pillows which had been propping Mr. Bancroft up in bed lay strewn about the floor, leaving her employer flat on his back amid a tangle of bed sheets.
"My, my. Such carnage." She clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
Awkwardly he lifted his head to pin her with a baleful, dark-eyed gaze. "Bah," he said, and lay flat again.
Stifling a grin, Maddie began gathering pillows in her arms. "Any interesting news in the post today?"
"I wouldn’t be so blasted clever if I were you, Maddie. It’s not news you’ll relish, either. Damned stuffed shirts."
An edge of uneasiness ran through her, but she shrugged it off and levered him into a sitting position with the help of the pillows. "I see you’ve appropriated my favorite term for the nobility. The new king is coming to visit, I suppose. Shall I have the silver polished -- or hidden? You know King George so much better than I."
As she expected, the mention of George IV distracted her employer from whatever it was that had upset him. "Mad King George, Fat King George. Who’s next -- Blind King George?"
Maddie chuckled, relieved as reluctant humor returned to his voice. "Royalty are blind to everything but their purses, anyway."
Mr. Bancroft snorted. "So they are." With his weakened left hand he gestured at a badly crumpled paper resting on a slice of toasted bread. "And that particular ailment infects most everyone in England who can lay claim to a title. Hand me that letter, my dear."
She complied, shaking crumbs off and resisting the urge to read it herself. He would tell her the news. He always did.
Awkwardly he flattened the paper against his chest. "Listen to this, Maddie. And brace yourself." He cleared his throat and lifted the wrinkled missive. "‘Brother.’" Mr. Bancroft stopped and looked up at her, obviously waiting for the significance of that single word to sink in.
Maddie’s insides jolted unpleasantly, and the last pillow slipped from her fingers and fell back to the floor. "The Duke of Highbarrow has finally answered your letter," she muttered balefully, sinking onto the comfortable chair beside his bed and suppressing an outburst of very colorful profanity.
"It’s been more than a fortnight since we wrote him. He was bound to answer eventually." He looked sideways at her. "I’d actually begun to wonder whether you’d burned the original letter."
Maddie straightened. "I told you I would send it," she said indignantly, wondering if he knew just how close she had come to ‘accidently’ misplacing the missive in her bedchamber fireplace.
"I know you did." Her employer smiled briefly, then returned his attention to the letter. "‘Brother, ‘" he began again. "‘Unfortunately I was away in York on business when news of your poorly-timed illness arrived. I have sat to write you immediately upon my return to Highbarrow Castle.’"
"You were right," Maddie noted, as Mr. Bancroft paused to catch his breath. He tired so easily these days. "He always uses the word ‘Castle,’ doesn’t he?"
"At every opportunity. To continue, ‘Victoria sends her wishes for a complete recovery, though as you know I really don’t give a damn one way or the other.’"
"My word, he’s awful."
"‘I am planting my crop at Highbarrow Castle at the moment. Otherwise, despite your past errors of judgment, I would make an effort to call upon you at Langley Hall.’"
"Of course," Maddie and Mr. Bancroft agreed in skeptical unison.
All she knew of the duke were tales of his monumental stuffiness and arrogance, and Maddie let out her breath in a silent sigh of relief. In truth though, she hadn’t thought he would bother coming. Thank heavens she’d been right. "So that’s that, then," she said, rising. "Hardly enough to warrant frightening me half to death, though. Shame on you."
"That’s the good news, I’m afraid."
Slowly Maddie sat down again. "Oh."
"Now please remain calm."
She nodded. "Just as you did."
"Hush." For a moment Malcolm looked at her, then returned his attention to the letter. "‘However, ‘" he resumed, "‘as getting the crop in at Langley is of paramount importance, I have spoken with Quinlan. He has agreed to journey to Somerset to oversee planting and to tend to the estate during your recovery. He follows immediately upon this letter, and should arrive at Langley on the fifteenth of the month. Yours, Lewis.’"
Maddie gazed out the window. The lovely morning, the first without spring rains in three days, had become a disaster. Worse than a disaster. She took a deep breath. "I assume His Grace is referring to Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft?" she said carefully.
Her employer nodded, a sympathetic grimace touching his gaunt face. "Afraid so. The Marquis of Warefield, himself."
Maddie cleared her throat. "I see."
He reached out and squeezed her fingers. "I’m dreadfully sorry, my dear. You are acquainted with him, I suppose?"
She shook her head. "Thankfully not. I believe he was in Spain during my . . . visit to London." Maddie frowned at the memory. "If you could call it that."
"It wasn’t your fault, my girl," Malcolm soothed, his concerned expression easing a little.
She eyed him fondly, wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom. "You’re the only one who thinks so. None of them -- not one of them -- saw anything but that stupid kiss, and that stupid man trying to shove his hand down my dress. They didn’t care that I wanted nothing to do with it, or with that awful scoundrel Spenser. And I want nothing to do with London, ever again."
"Well, Quinlan didn’t see anything at all, so don’t worry yourself. He wouldn’t say anything anyway. Wouldn’t be polite, you know."
"I’m not worried." Maddie sat up straighter, pulling her fingers free from his comforting grip. "Nor am I the least bit faint of heart, Mr. Bancroft."
He chuckled. "I never said you were."
"It’s merely that I’m . . . annoyed." Ready to throw a screaming fit would be closer to the truth, but she’d had the feeling lately that her peaceful days at Langley Hall were numbered. Once the letter to Highbarrow Castle had gone out, someone had been bound to reply. She’d merely managed to fool herself into believing that none of the Bancrofts would actually bother coming.
And it didn’t matter, anyway, whether or not she knew the Marquis of Warefield. She knew of him. Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft was the very pink of the ton, a favorite of the new king, the bluest of blue-bloods, the epitome of propriety and dignity. And she loathed him without ever having seen his pampered, spoiled, self-important visage. He was one of them.
‘Nobility’ might be what society called them, but from her experience, the word had nothing at all to do with their character. "I thought we informed His Grace that you had someone tending to Langley during your illness."
"You didn’t expect him to care about that, did you? He owns Langley Hall, my dear; I only manage it for him. And he will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve his considerable monetary well-being, with or without my consent. You know that."
She sighed. "Yes, I know that. Even so, he might have asked whether you wanted assistance before he foisted his son off on you."
Unexpectedly, Mr. Bancroft laughed again, rare color touching his pale cheeks. "I don’t believe Quinlan allows himself to be ‘foisted’ on anyone."
"How noble he must be," Maddie noted unenthusiastically.
Her employer narrowed his eyes, suspicion momentarily touching his expression. "Just remember, my dear, the less trouble you make for him, the shorter and less painful his visit is likely to be."
A flash of guilt ran through her. After all, this deuced marquis was Mr. Bancroft’s nephew, and she knew for a fact that it had been at least four years since they had seen one another. And even though she might detest him and the rest of the damned aristocracy, she also knew quite well how lonely Malcolm must feel being cut off from his family.
So, little as she liked Warefield’s coming, she had no intention of stomping her feet and throwing a tantrum. Not in front of her employer, anyway. "I shall behave," she assured him.
He smiled. "I have no doubt that you will."
"So long as he does," Maddie added.
"He will. I already told you, he’s the epitome of good manners."
"I am bereft of words at the very idea of setting eyes upon his illustrious personage."
"Maddie," he warned with a slight grin. Malcolm pulled himself into a more upright position, grunting with effort as his still legs hampered the movement. "Best send Mrs. Iddings down to the village and have her spread the word."
"So the local folk can flee into the hills, I suppose?"
"Our neighbors will never forgive me if I don’t give them advance notice that the Marquis of Warefield is coming to Langley. An actual title appearing in this part of Somerset is rarer than a camel passing through the eye of a needle."
She sighed and bit back a caustic retort. "They will be beside themselves with excitement. I daresay I have no idea how I will contain my feelings, myself."
"Do try, won’t you?"
Maddie smiled. "Yes. Of course. But only for you."
He looked at her fondly, with an understanding her own father had never possessed. "Thank you."
"You’re welcome." She stood. "I’ll bring you up some more tea."
"And peach tarts, if you don’t mind. My luncheon seems to have met with an accident."
She glanced over her shoulder and chuckled in genuine amusement. "Lucky we kept some sweets in reserve, isn’t it?"
Maddie apprised Mrs. Iddings of the Marquis of Warefield’s imminent arrival, and then sent the cook down to Harthgrove to purchase vegetables and gossip away the afternoon. After bringing Mr. Bancroft his replacement luncheon, Maddie escaped out to the garden potting shed, where she could bang about and curse without being overheard. Stupid, stupid noblemen, always showing up where they weren’t wanted! Or needed.
"Damnation," Maddie muttered, wiping her hands against her pelisse. "In here, Mrs. Fowler," she called.
She’d hoped to have until tomorrow before the neighbors came prying for information. Apparently Mrs. Iddings’s gossip was even more efficient than Mr. Bancroft had anticipated. Smoothing the annoyed expression from her face, she stepped out of the shed.
"Oh, there you are, Maddie." Jane Fowler was wearing her favorite visiting dress; no doubt she intended to carry her news to every home along the lane once she’d pried it out of Maddie.
"I should say so." Mrs. Fowler sighed happily, her rounded cheeks dimpling. She plucked a stray leaf from Maddie’s hair. "I hear that we’re to have an important guest in Somerset. I am quite beside myself."
"Oh, well, you--"
"My goodness," Mrs. Fowler continued, clapping her hands together, "a marquis." She leaned forward and lowered her voice, even though there was no one about to hear them except for the finches. "And I hear that he’s very handsome, and that he has twenty thousand a year. Can you imagine? Twenty thousand pounds a year!"
Swallowing her annoyance at such awestruck pointlessness, Maddie nodded and started back toward the house at a brisk pace. Bad enough she had to host Warefield, without having to talk about him, as well. "You seem to know a great deal about him, Mrs. Fowler."
"Mrs. Beauchamp does. Her cousin is Baron Montasse, you know."
"Yes, I had heard that." Endlessly and repeatedly.
"How long will he be staying at Langley?"
"I really don’t know. With the Season starting soon, I’m certain it can’t be too long."
Mrs. Fowler sighed reverently. "Ah, yes, the Season."
The worshipful look on her face made Maddie want to laugh. "Have you told Lydia and Sally the news?"
"They were the ones who told me. Such good girls, they are. And Lydia has become quite proficient at the pianoforte, you know."
"Yes, I d--"
"Oh, I know Sally isn’t quite out yet, but she is seventeen. Here in the country, so very far from London, Lord Warefield couldn’t expect us to stand on such strict ceremony, don’t you think?"
From what she’d heard of the marquis, he stood upon strictest ceremony at all times. "Oh, of course he couldn’t," she agreed, hiding her sly smile. If anything could encourage Warefield to shorten his stay at Langley, it would be the Fowler girls.
"Marvelous, marvelous." Mrs. Fowler continued on beside her, then stopped and lifted her handkerchief to her mouth, unsuccessfully stifling a rather giddy gale of giggles. "Oh, I have just thought of the very thing!"
Maddie reluctantly halted her escape. "Whatever might that be?"
"I will speak to Mr. Fowler, and we shall hold a country ball in honor of Lord Warefield. Won’t that be spectacular? And I shall invite everyone -- oh, everyone but the Dardinales. That Miss Dardinale is completely unacceptable."
And by coincidence, Patricia Dardinale was also the prettiest young lady in the countryside. "I shouldn’t think you would mind one more girl, Mrs. Fowler. I have heard Lydia’s singing is much improved over last year. I believe if there is one thing to sway a gentleman’s interest, it is a song well sung."
Mrs. Fowler clutched Maddie’s arm. "Thank you, my dear. And you shall come as well, for I can’t think that Mr. Bancroft would venture from Langley these days without you. Unless the marquis takes over his care, of course. How noble that would be. Oh, my, yes."
Maddie frowned. She hadn’t considered that. It made sense that a meddling, busybody nobleman would think a woman incapable of her duties, however proficient she’d been with them over the past four years. "Yes, how noble, indeed."
For the forty-seventh time, Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft lost his place in Ivanhoe. He dropped the book onto the black leather seat beside him and, holding onto his hat with one hand, leaned his head out the window. "Really, Claymore, must we take a census of every wheel rut, rock, and puddle in Somerset?"
The groom’s face appeared over the high corner of the coach. "Sorry, my lord," he said, and vanished again. "If you don’t mind my saying," the voice drifted back after a moment, "it’s my thinking that King George ain’t traveled upon these roads, lately."
Quin sat back and resumed reading, until another hard bump jolted him against the cushions. "Lucky George," he muttered.
Reluctantly he set the book aside again and stretched his long legs out to rest them on the opposite seat. With a sigh he settled back to watch southern Somerset County pass by outside. At least the weather had turned agreeable, and the green, tree-covered countryside smelled more of meadow grass than it did of cattle.
The marquis pulled his pocket watch out of his waistcoat and glanced down at it. By his estimation, another twenty minutes or so should finally put him at Langley Hall. Three damned days in a coach, with a perfectly good mount tethered behind. He might have left his luggage to follow and ridden on to Langley in half the time -- except that the duke, his father, had written to indicate that he would arrive on the fifteenth.
Uncle Malcolm would undoubtedly take a hasty arrival as a threat against his management of Langley. And if there was one thing Quin did not wish to do, it was to further the antagonism between Lewis and Malcolm Bancroft. So he would not, under any circumstances, arrive before the fifteenth.
Little as he relished the idea of being his father’s sacrificial lamb, the seven years of silence between the Bancroft brothers had long been a topic of jest and gossip in London’s highest circles. Uncle Malcolm had always been his favorite relation, and even if it meant spending time with the rustics, he intended to do his damndest to see that the wags were finally silenced. It looked very shabby, and set a poor precedent before the rest of the nobility.
With any luck, he should be able to organize Langley’s books and get the crop in the ground with little bother -- which hopefully would make Uncle Malcolm feel more favorable toward making amends with his brother, which hopefully would leave His Grace feeling more amenable toward everyone in general.
And if events transpired as smoothly and quickly as he hoped, he would even have time to return to Warefield for a few weeks before the Season began. Lord knew, the coming summer would leave little time for him to be off on his own. Once he arrived in London his first task would be to make wedding arrangements, and the remainder of his social engagements would stem from that.
Quin stretched, yawning. At least marriage looked to be fairly painless. Eloise had been dropping more hints than usual in her letters of late, and their understanding needed to be formalized. The sooner, the better. The duke’s grumbles about grandchildren had grown into bellows over the winter -- as if he needed another excuse to bellow.
"My lord," Claymore called from his perch, "Langley, I believe."
Quin shifted to look out the opposite window. Sprawling at the top of a slight rise and overlooking a quaint wildflower garden and a small forest glade, Langley Hall rose red and white into the cloud-patched noon sky. Barely more than a cottage by London standards, the estate did offer some of the best fishing in Somerset -- small recompense though that was, for the journey.
"I’ll have stew of you, ye blasted beast!"
A gargantuan cream-colored pig squealed and ran full tilt across the road. A farmer, followed by another man and a red-faced woman, all three brandishing pitchforks and rakes, headed at full speed after it. The high-spirited coach horses skittered sideways, nearly dumping the lot of them into the spiny hedge bordering the road.
"Woah, lads!" Claymore bellowed, while Quin slammed into the side of the coach and lost his hat to the floor. "Apologies, my lord!" the groom called. "Damned country folk. No manners at all!"
The marquis leaned down and retrieved his chapeau. "Splendid," he sighed, dusting off his hat and resettling it on his head. "Country folk. Bloody marvelous."
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