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Lady Mary

UN ROMANZO STORICO GEORGIANO

Traduzione di Mirella Banfi

La saga della famiglia Roxton, quarto volume

1770, Gloucestershire and Hampshire. Rimasta vedova e indigente, tutto ciò che resta a Lady Mary Cavendish è il suo orgoglio. Figlia di un conte e nipote di un re Stuart, gli obblighi e le aspettative familiari richiedono che si risposi. Ma non un uomo qualunque; suo marito dovrà far parte della nobiltà. Innamorarsi del suo attraente ed enigmatico vicino è fuori questione. Come sempre, Mary farà il suo dovere e ignorerà il proprio cuore.

Lo squire di campagna Christopher Bryce ama in segreto la sua vicina Mary da molti anni. Eppure è rassegnato alla crudele realtà che non sono socialmente uguali e che quindi non potranno mai avere un futuro insieme. Per non dire poi che il suo scandaloso passato e un segreto straziante lo rendono completamente indegno di una tale fiera bellezza.

Ma con l’aiuto di un fantasma di famiglia, e gli anticonformisti membri della famiglia Roxton, Mary e Christopher si rendono conto che, dopo tutto, un lieto fine potrebbe essere possibile.

Chi ama questa saga sarà lieto di incontrare di nuovo gli affascinanti, sorprendenti e mai convenzionali membri della famiglia Roxton.

Reader’s Favorite- Medaglia d’argento e B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

Avventura romantica
Non esplicito (moderata sensualità)
150.000 parole

 

 

Della Saga Della Famiglia Roxton

 

 

 

Commento in Evidenza

Non mi lascio mai sfuggire un libro scritto da Lucinda Brant e, avendo amato ognuno dei libri precedenti della saga della famiglia Roxton, era inevitabile che LADY MARY entrasse a far parte della mia lista di libri da leggere. LADY MARY è una storia di amore non corrisposto e amore e passione inaccettabili. Ma se abbiamo imparato qualcosa nelle precedenti storie della famiglia Roxton, l’amore ha un suo modo di superare tutti gli stereotipi e le regole. E quindi Lady Mary, un vero romanzo storico georgiano, continua la tradizione delle opere d’arte tenere e coinvolgenti di Lucinda Brant.
★★★★★ ALL-TIME KEEPER SHELF
 SWurman Night Owl Reviews

Ancora una volta sono stata completamente stregata. Un altro libro eccellente da aggiungere a una serie altrettanto superba. Se non avete ancora letto gli altri libri della saga, potete aspettarvi molte ore di meravigliosa narrazione… .
★★★★★
Carol Cork, Rakes And Rascals 

Anche se LADY MARY si può leggere come libro a sé stante, sarà molto più piacevole leggere la saga in ordine per conoscere poco a poco e imparare ad amare questa famiglia, come ho fatto io e molti altri lettori. Ogni libro è stato una gioia, e non posso raccomandarlo abbastanza.
★★★★★
Lady Wesley Romantic Historical Reviews

 

 

 

ALBERO GENEALOGICO

 

 

DIETRO LE QUINTE

Andate dietro le quinte di Lady Mary—esplorate i posti, gli oggetti e la storia del periodo su Pinterest

 

 

 

Anteprima

GLOUCESTERSHIRE, AUTUNNO 1777

IL SIGNORE CHRISTOPHER BRYCE era seduto alla sua scrivania nell’ufficio del sovraintendente e stava leggendo una lettera. Com’era uso fare dopo essere venuto a cavallo ad Abbeywood Farm dalla sua tenuta nella valle vicina, si era tolto la redingote e l’aveva appesa a un gancio dietro la porta. Il suo assistente teneva sempre la stanza troppo calda. Restare seduto in maniche di camicia era preferibile a dover guardare l’ometto magro raggomitolato in fondo alla scrivania che tremava per il freddo.

Senza rendersene conto, si passò le lunghe dita tra i riccioli scomposti e sentì il nastro che li teneva sciogliersi tra le dita. Senza distogliere lo sguardo dalla lettera, tirò indietro i capelli lunghi fino alle spalle e legò nuovamente il pezzo di seta nera stropicciato. Anche la cravatta, come il nastro, era stropicciata e le pieghe del tessuto erano avvolte molli intorno al collo forte. E anche se aveva raschiato le suole degli stivali prima di entrare in casa dall’entrata di servizio, il cuoio era schizzato di fango e sporcizia per aver condotto la sua cavalcatura fino alla scuderia. La giumenta aveva perso un ferro.

Ma non poteva incolpare quella disavventura per il disordine del suo abbigliamento. Lo Squire Bryce sembrava sempre essersi vestito in fretta e furia, afferrando quello che era a portata di mano, senza mai guardarsi nello specchio prima di salutare il mondo. 

Trasandato era la parola che si sentiva spesso dire dalle matriarche della piccola nobiltà e della borghesia locali. Se fosse stato qualunque altro proprietario terriero del distretto, non avrebbe subito uno scrutinio così attento. Ma lui non era come tutti gli altri Squire, tutt’altro. Era il padrone di una villa giacobiana, un luogo storico in effetti: Brycecomb Hall, e possedeva parecchie tessiture. Inoltre, era tornato recentemente (otto anni erano considerati ‘ieri’ dagli abitanti di quell’angolo remoto delle Cotswold) dopo più di una decade passata all’estero. E, cosa ancora più importante, non era sposato.

Poco importava ai genitori delle ragazze nubili che il signor Bryce si stesse avvicinando alla quarantina o che, una volta conosciuto, si rivelasse una delusione. Non perché non avesse un profilo degno di essere immortalato sulla tela, perché era eccezionalmente bello. Aveva un bel naso, un mento deciso e un paio di umidi occhi castani che gli davano l’aria di un cucciolo. E i suoi riccioli color tiziano erano così folti da essere l’invidia di molte donne. Le fanciulle a volte si erano sentite le ginocchia molli vedendolo. Particolarmente quando era in sella al suo cavallo, spettinato dal vento, con le lunghe gambe muscolose messe in evidenza dai calzoni da cavallerizzo che sembravano frutto del lavoro di un pittore invece che di un sarto. Le madri rimproveravano le figlie per le loro occhiate poco consone a delle gentildonne, eppure, segretamente, sospiravano pensando a ciò che sarebbe potuto essere, se avessero avuto l’età delle loro figlie.

Non era l’aspetto di Christopher Bryce, ma il fatto che non legasse con i suoi vicini, in particolar modo le femmine in età da marito, la causa della loro delusione. Che fosse bello e scapolo rendeva solo più evidente il suo distacco. Era impervio alle attenzioni delle padrone di casa più affascinanti, che facevano del loro meglio, ma non riuscivano a suscitare l’interesse dello Squire per le loro parenti nubili. Non era sgradevole, ma nemmeno gradevole. Poteva sorridere e rispondere educatamente a tutte le domande che gli venivano poste ma non cercava di continuare la conversazione, che si concludeva prima ancora di cominciare. Non era il tipo di Squire che la piccola nobiltà e la borghesia locali si aspettavano di trovare a Brycecomb Hall.

Henry Bryce, il padre dello Squire attuale, era stato il più affabile degli uomini e quando era viva sua moglie, nella villa giacobiana c’erano stati ricevimenti mondani, feste e battute di caccia. Quelli abbastanza anziani da aver conosciuto i Bryce e aver partecipato a quegli eventi, sapevano anche che il loro unico figlio, in gioventù, era stato socievole come i suoi anziani genitori. Ma tutti quegli anni passati dall’altra parte della Manica, in mezzo a quei tipi stranieri, lo avevano cambiato.

Christopher Bryce aveva passato talmente tanti anni nei paesi stranieri che i suoi vicini si erano aspettati che tornasse alla valle con una montagna di storie sulla gente che aveva incontrato e i posti che aveva visitato. Ma il signor Bryce non raccontava nulla dei suoi viaggi, né spontaneamente né quando glielo chiedevano. Era come se non fosse mai stato oltre Stroud, e anche allora, si fosse avventurato in città solo nei giorni di mercato. I suoi argomenti di conversazione restavano decisamente provinciali. E questo bastava ai suoi colleghi agricoltori, ma non alle loro mogli, ai loro figli e certamente non alle loro figlie, che desideravano ardentemente un po’ di eccitazione nella loro routine quotidiana. Toccava alla loro fertile immaginazione domandarsi che tipo di vita avesse vissuto lontano dalla valle, da non desiderare di discuterne nemmeno in parte.

E la loro immaginazione si scatenava, nelle conversazioni sussurrate quando capitava che passasse davanti a loro nelle strade del villaggio in sella al suo cavallo, salutandoli con un cenno del capo, senza mai fermarsi. O quando si sedeva, in silenzio, nel banco della sua famiglia per la funzione domenicale, senza guardare né a destra né a sinistra, con il vicario che si fermava a metà della frase quando l’intera congregazione sbirciava in direzione dello Squire Bryce. Si diceva che perfino la moglie del vicario avesse fatto notare a un gruppetto di parrocchiane, mentre il signor Bryce se ne andava sistemandosi il tricorno, che lo Squire era un enigma. I suoi sforzi sartoriali lasciavano parecchio a desiderare, ma guardarlo in movimento era qualcosa di straordinario. Era la somma impressionante delle sue straordinarie parti. Ognuna delle donne aveva annuito con entusiasmo, con il polso che batteva forte.

Perché era quando era in movimento che emergeva la vera bellezza mascolina di Christopher Bryce. La popolazione femminile del villaggio aveva puntato il dito su che cosa c’era precisamente nei movimenti dello Squire che lo differenziava dai suoi colleghi: era tutto nel suo portamento. Non si muoveva lentamente o a scatti come un giovanotto, e di certo né arrancava né camminava con passo stanco. Né teneva le spalle curve o metteva le mani nelle tasche della redingote. Si muoveva con un’eleganza e un agio senza fretta, eretto e disinvolto. Evidenziava gli anni che aveva passato tra gli stranieri, esattamente come il fatto che non parlasse più nel dialetto delle Cotswold della sua gioventù.

Christopher Bryce poteva fingere di rimanere insensibile all’effetto che facevano i suoi vestiti, la sua persona, il tempo passato all’estero e il suo portamento sui suoi vicini, in particolare le femmine, ma era acutamente conscio delle conseguenze che le sue decisioni e le sue azioni avevano sugli altri. Quindi, all’apparenza poteva anche fingere di essere completamente assorto nella lettera davanti a lui, ma aveva sentito le voci alterate dall’altra parte della porta del suo ufficio e aveva un’idea abbastanza precisa di che cosa le stesse provocando, e sapeva che il suo assistente ne era stato distratto abbastanza da lasciar perdere i suoi conti.

La penna dell’ometto restava sospesa sopra il calamaio.

“Sarà meglio che la invitiate a entrare, signor Deed,” disse Christopher senza alzare gli occhi.

“Chi, signore?”

“Lady Mary.” 

Il signor Timothy Deed era scettico. Non solo perché non aveva riconosciuto la voce di Lady Mary in mezzo al trambusto, ma perché nei due anni da che era impiegato in quella casa, lei non aveva mai visitato l’ufficio del sovraintendente. Se la piccola, imperiosa signoria desiderava parlare con il signor Bryce, lo convocava in salotto, ed era la cosa giusta da fare. Certamente non invadeva il dominio dei servitori, né alzava la voce nei corridoi mal illuminati. Quindi il signor Deed esitò a fare ciò che gli era stato chiesto, dando voce alla sua sorpresa.

“Lady Mary, signore? Qui? Perché?” 

“Lo scopriremo quando aprirete la porta e la farete entrare.” Quando dopo la sua risposta tranquilla ci fu silenzio, lo Squire alzò gli occhi sull’espressione interrogativa del suo assistente. Gli diede una spiegazione. “Forse avete dimenticato che John Twisell, Jethro Tanner, e i Blandford avevano fino a oggi per accettare le loro nuove condizioni?”

Nel sentire i nomi dei quattro servitori che erano ad Abbeywood fin da prima della morte del suo proprietario, Sir Gerald Cavendish, il signor Deed capì, e le sue sopracciglia scattarono verso l’alto.

“Nessuno di loro ha accettato?”

“Mancano ancora alcune ore alla fine della giornata. Ma visto il baccano, sembrerebbe così.”

Le sopracciglia del signor Deed tornarono al loro posto e lui digrignò i denti. “Allora non sono solo pigri, sono anche stupidi!”

“Ma forse qualcuno ha dato loro delle false speranze…?”

Lo sguardo del signor Deed andò alla porta. Anche se sembrava ci fosse una banda di gente arrabbiata raccolta fuori, non riusciva ancora a sentire la voce della padrona di casa.

“Da sua signoria…?”

Christopher Bryce non rispose alla domanda, ma il suo silenzio diceva tutto. Mise da parte la lettera e ne prese una con il sigillo ancora intatto dal mucchietto accanto al calamaio. Proveniva da Sua Grazia il nobilissimo duca di Roxton, lo stesso corrispondente che aveva scritto a lui e la cui lettera aveva appena letto. Quella che aveva in mano ora era indirizzata a Lady Mary Cavendish. Era sicuro che le due lettere non potevano essere più diverse nel tono e nel contenuto, e gli prudevano le dita dal desiderio di gettare la corrispondenza non ancora aperta tra le fiamme del camino. Non lo fece. Invece la nascose sotto la lettera del duca per lui, si tolse dalla mente quel nobiluomo e guardò il suo assistente, trovandolo che lo fissava. Sperava che la sua espressione non avesse rivelato i suoi pensieri quando disse con calma: “La porta, signor Deed.”

Timothy Deed annuì, mise in fretta la penna nella boccetta dell’inchiostro e tirò indietro la sedia. Tirando le punte del suo semplice panciotto fatto a maglia attraversò la stanza, raddrizzò le spalle quando fu accanto alla porta, come preparandosi per ciò e chi c’era oltre, poi la spalancò.

Una ventata di aria fredda e il clamore di un gruppetto di servitori rissosi, gli fecero fare un passo indietro. Il rumore cessò immediatamente, sostituito dal silenzio dell’ansia e del timore di ciò che sarebbe successo ora che avevano provocato lo Squire Bryce, senza che nemmeno uno di loro avesse avuto le buone maniere e il coraggio di grattare alla sua porta per chiedere udienza. La diceva lunga sullo Squire e su di loro che tutti quanti, eccetto una, facessero un passo indietro quando dal fondo della stanza arrivò la voce gradevole da baritono del signor Bryce.

“Signor Deed, non fate aspettare sua signoria.”

Fu allora che il suo assistente notò Lady Mary, l’unica nella stanza che era rimasta al suo posto. Lo stava guardando, in silenzio, sicura che lui si sarebbe spostato senza che lei dovesse chiederlo, cosa che lui fece, e con un inchino. E quando lei fu entrata nella stanza, senza guardare né a destra né a sinistra, il signor Deed riprese il controllo di sé abbastanza da ordinare al gruppetto di servitori scoraggiati di non attardarsi e di andare a svolgere il loro lavoro. E lo fece con un gesto imperioso della mano sottile, prima di chiudere loro la porta in faccia.

Christopher fu in piedi prima che Lady Mary arrivasse davanti alla sua scrivania con passo sicuro, le mani unite davanti a sé sopra il grembiulino di organza, il mento alzato imperiosamente. Lui si chiese quante ore aveva passato a rimuginare e chiedersi se dovesse convocarlo o andare lei da lui. E dalla sua espressione cocciuta, fare il gran passo di andare da lui era stata una lotta interiore di proporzioni epiche.

Dopo tutto, e lui sapeva che lei lo credeva implicitamente, attraversare il confine che separava il padrone dai servitori non era la cosa corretta e giusta da fare per la signora della casa, oltre a tutto la figlia di un conte. C’era un giusto ordine nella vita. Tutto e tutti avevano il loro posto. E il posto giusto di Lady Mary era in cima, tra la nobiltà, quelli che governavano e davano ordini. Tutti gli altri, incluso il signor Christopher Bryce di Brycecomb Hall, appartenevano alla periferia di quel mondo elegante e abbagliante, lontani dagli occhi e dalla mente finché non erano necessari e venivano chiamati.

E, poiché Christopher Bryce non dubitava che la certezza che Lady Mary aveva che quelli che vivevano alla periferia sarebbero arrivati quando chiamati fosse naturale in lei come respirare, era pronto a essere flessibile e a perdonare la sua ignoranza di una visione più illuminata del mondo. Dopo tutto, non la considerava intrinsecamente intollerante o scortese. Era solo il modo in cui era stata educata dai suoi nobili genitori, un’educazione rigida, potenziata quando era diventata la moglie di un pomposo bigotto pieno di sé. Ma questo non voleva dire che lui si sarebbe adeguato o che le avrebbe permesso di interferire con le sue decisioni. Tutt’altro. Ciò di cui aveva bisogno sua signoria, e che lui era fin troppo desideroso di fornire, era, ogni tanto, una bella scossa alla sua visione del mondo.

Ma era consapevole che non era una delle sue piccole scosse che l’aveva portata alla sua porta quel giorno, ma qualcosa che doveva averla fortemente sconvolta. E quindi chiese al signor Deed di prendere una sedia e aspettò che lei si sedesse. Ma lei ignorò la sua offerta e la sedia e si mise davanti alla scrivania, dicendo, senza preamboli: “È vero che avete licenziato altri quattro servitori?”

“No, milady, non li ho licenziati.”

“Oh?! Pensavo…” Lady Mary rilassò le spalle ed emise un sospiro di sollievo senza rendersene conto. “Allora c’è stato un malinteso. I Blandford dicono di aver ricevuto il preavviso e anche il vecchio Jack Twisell e il giovane Tanner.”

“Non avrebbero dovuto infastidire voi. Non volete sedervi, milady?”

Lei ignorò di nuovo la sua offerta, pertanto lui e il suo assistente restarono in piedi.

“Non l’hanno fatto, signor Bryce. Hanno giustamente parlato con la signora Keble e, quando lei non è stata in grado di trovare una soluzione, è venuta da me, ed era la cosa giusta da fare.”

Christopher alzò leggermente le sopracciglia sentendo menzionare la governante. Sospettava che Susanna Keble incitasse i servitori contro di lui tutte le volte che ne aveva l’opportunità. La donna aveva un’errata fiducia nella propria autorità. La signora Keble si illudeva che la sua relazione illecita con Sir Gerald, della quale Christopher era al corrente ma era sicuro che Lady Mary non ne sapesse niente, e il fatto che Lady Mary non voleva sentir dire una parola contro di lei, le desse uno status speciale e dei privilegi ad Abbeywood. Lui le aveva tolto in fretta quell’illusione. La donna aveva perfino tentato di sedurlo, ma lui si era mostrato deliberatamente cieco davanti ai suoi squallidi tentativi. Non sarebbe stato un uomo se non avesse notato che era carina, ma era una bellezza superficiale che nascondeva un cuore gelido e un’indole calcolatrice. Era abbastanza furba da relegare al piano della servitù le sue macchinazioni per minare l’autorità di Christopher e in sua presenza era sempre docile. Anche i giorni della signora Keble in quella casa erano contati.

“La signora Keble non aveva il diritto di infastidirvi, milady,” rispose tranquillamente Christopher. “Mi dispiace, ma in questa faccenda non ci sono alternative da discutere. Non ho intenzione di cambiare idea.”

Lady Mary batté gli occhi, sorpresa e poi sorprese anche lui.

“Perché pensate che sia venuta qui per persuadervi a cambiare idea, signor Bryce? Non mi aspetto di essere consultata su faccende che vengono considerateimportanti. Non è mai successo in passato. Nessuno ha mai chiesto la mia opinione, quindi non si tratta solo di voi.”

Anche se avevo sperato, in effetti lo avevo pensato la prima volta che ci siamo incontrati, che foste diverso… disse una voce nella testa di Mary. Lei si liberò in fretta di quella speranza e continuò.

“Quindi, quando dite che non cambierete idea, lo do per scontato. Sir Gerald non mi ha mai consultato, si limitava a dirmi. Esattamente come state facendo voi ora. Ma questo non significa che, solo perché non ci posso fare niente, io non abbia un’opinione, o dei sentimenti o che non desideri un risultato diverso.”

Quel discorso suscitò solo silenzio nei due uomini che non erano in grado, o non volevano, aggiungere inutili osservazioni perché non c’era niente da aggiungere alla verità. Eppure, il suo commento finale suscitò una reazione in Christopher, che disse sottovoce: “Se può servire a tranquillizzarvi, milady, non li ho buttati fuori, senza amici e senza un soldo. Hanno un impiego e un tetto altrove.”

“Un impiego e un tetto… altrove?” Ripeté. “Ma… I Blandford erano ad Abbeywood da prima che arrivassi io da sposa. La lealtà non conta qualcosa?”

“Serve che me lo chiediate? È altrettanto importante avere un lavoro pagato. Cosa che i Blandford, il giovane Tanner e il vecchio Jack non avevano. E che ora avranno, e un tetto. Per favore, sedetevi, milady.”

Lady Mary rimase in piedi.

“E gli otto servitori che avete licenziato mentre ero via, al matrimonio di mio fratello? Hanno anche loro un lavoro e un tetto altrove?”

“Sì. Loro…”

“La signora Keble mi ha detto che li avete messi a lavorare nelle vostre fabbriche. È vero?”

“Ho offerto loro un impiego nelle mie manifatture, e hanno accettato. E mi scuserete se vi correggo. Quegli uomini non erano vostri servitori. Li aveva assunti Sir Gerald. Gli incarichi che avevano in questa casa erano inutili, uno spreco. In effetti stavano conducendo una vita senza scopo e le loro menti stavano stagnando. Un servo muto aveva più vita e lavoro da svolgere di quegli uomini. E come voi ben sapete, la situazione finanziaria di Abbeywood, così com’è, non permette di pagare il legno e la vernice di cui sono fatti quegli oggetti.”

Christopher diede un’altra occhiata al suo assistente. L’uomo anziano si era aggrappato a un angolo della scrivania per restare in piedi, quindi Christopher disse, in modo più brusco di quanto intendesse: “Sedetevi, milady!”

“Non ho voglia di sedermi, signor Bryce. E non capisco perché insistiate che mi segga.” Lady Mary si sentì di colpo scomodamente calda sotto lo sguardo fisso dello Squire, si guardò attorno, vide le fiamme nel camino e fece una smorfia. “Né capisco perché questa stanza debba essere calda come una cucina nel giorno di panificazione quando, come dite, questa casa non può permettersi sprechi. E non ditemi che non è troppo caldo qui dentro perché voi, signor Bryce, vi siete spogliato fino a essere in… in maniche di camicia, che è un modo estremamente scortese di ricevere i visitatori…”

“Non mi aspettavo una vostra visita, milady,” la interruppe gentilmente Christopher, anche se dovette nascondere in fretta un sogghigno davanti all’espressione oltraggiata della donna per quella scorrettezza sociale. “Forse, se mi aveste preavvisato della vostra visita mi sarei preso la briga di mettermi la redingote per restare seduto a sudare, in attesa del vostro arrivo.”

“Come siete divertente, oggi, veramente, signor Bryce.”

Christopher inclinò la testa. “Un’occasione rara, milady. Non quanto vedermi su una pista da ballo, ma oggi non è nemmeno un giorno per ballare.”

O guardarmi nuotare nudo in uno stagno. Anche se sospetto che una cosina corretta come voi, mia cara Lady Mary, perderebbe i sensi alla vista di tanta virilità provinciale gloriosamente in mostra.

Christopher non era tipo da scommettere, era troppo cauto con i suoi soldi, e ancora di più con ciò che apparteneva ad altri, ma avrebbe scommesso che il defunto marito, Sir Gerald, non aveva mai avuto le cattive maniere, o la spavalderia, di togliersi la camicia da notte in presenza di sua moglie, anche nella più intima delle situazioni, e restare nudo davanti a lei. Dopo tutto, adempiere il suo dovere coniugale era solo uno dei compiti che Sir Gerald, essendo un baronetto, era obbligato a svolgere. Così aveva confidato a Christopher dopo una lunga notte di bevute.

Per Christopher c’erano state parecchie di quelle lunghe notti nello studio del suo vicino, ad ascoltare Sir Gerald dilungarsi sulla propria importanza, il suo posto nel “grande schema delle cose”, e su come intendeva lasciare la sua impronta nel mondo, sorprendendo i famigliari di sua moglie e lasciandoli tutti, il duca di Roxton in particolare, senza parole.

A Christopher era stato affidato il compito di scoprire esattamente come Sir Gerald intendesse lasciare la sua impronta, sapendo che doveva avere a che fare con la guerra nelle colonie americane. Il capo dello spionaggio inglese, Lord Shrewsbury, sospettava Sir Gerald di alto tradimento per aver passato segreti di stato ai francesi per aiutare i loro recenti amici, i patrioti americani, a vincere la guerra contro i loro padroni inglesi. Christopher doveva raccogliere le prove di questo tradimento, passando più ore di quante volesse ricordare a tenere compagnia a quell’ubriacone del suo vicino.

Le informazioni raccolte in quelle conversazioni erano state scritte nei rapporti inviati al capo delle spie. Ma c’erano alcuni particolari che Christopher aveva tenuto per sé. Particolari che avrebbe preferito non conoscere, particolari intimi sul matrimonio del suo vicino e su Lady Mary. E che confermavano l’opinione privata di Christopher: una piccola testa rossa carina come Lady Mary era sprecata per uno zotico come Sir Gerald. A che cosa serviva fare l’amore se non erano coinvolti tutti i sensi? Andare a letto con lei avrebbe dovuto essere un onore e un piacere…

Guardarla, denudata dal corsetto e dalla chemise, con le sue curve femminili bagnate dal morbido bagliore giallo delle candele, con i meravigliosi capelli rossi che ricadevano fino in vita… I suoi fianchi che si muovevano con desiderio mentre lui…

“Signor Bryce, signor Bryce, mi state ascoltando?” Gli domandò Lady Mary, avvicinandosi di un passo alla scrivania quando lui non reagì né rispose immediatamente. “Sapevo che venire qui avrebbe causato parecchia curiosità, ma non sono riuscita a pensare a un altro modo per parlare con voi in privato perché io… Signor Bryce?” Lady Mary lo fissò, aggrottando la fronte, rendendosi conto che i pensieri dell’uomo erano ovunque ma non lì. “Siete sicuro che non faccia troppo caldo qui dentro? Perché avete il volto arrossato e sembrate…”

“No. Non fa troppo caldo!” Sbottò bruscamente Christopher, con la concupiscenza e il senso di colpa causati dai suoi desideri illeciti che rendevano il suo tono più duro di quanto avesse inteso. “Posso o no tenere il mio ufficio caldo come voglio e lavorare in maniche di camicia… o-o in camicia da notte, se lo desidero!?”

“Sì. Sì, certo che potete,” balbettò Lady Mary, sbalordita per la sua inaspettata e insolita maleducazione.

Eppure, quando lei continuò a fissarlo, il rimorso crebbe, mentre si chiedeva se in effetti la sua espressione non avesse, in qualche modo bizzarro, rispecchiato il più profondo e irraggiungibile dei suoi desideri. Così ridicolo da essere risibile, e patetico, perché a lei non sarebbe mai venuto in mente, nemmeno in mille lune piene, che i sogni a occhi aperti di uno Squire delle Cotswold fossero pieni di pensieri lascivi su di lei.

Ma dato che il signor Deed lo stava fissando come se lui avesse avuto un momentaneo scivolone mentale, diede una spiegazione contorta, fatta non solo per permettergli di riprendere il proprio equilibrio, nel corpo e nella mente, ma anche per ristabilire, anche se erano stati solo i suoi pensieri a superare lo spartiacque sociale, la distanza necessaria tra il sovraintendente e la figlia di un aristocratico; lo richiedevano la loro nascita diversa, il rango di Lady Mary, e la propria posizione. Quindi dichiarò ciò che era ovvio, e che lei sapeva già e che avrebbe sicuramente ricostruito quel muro di pietra metaforico di gelida cordialità e formalità che doveva esistere tra di loro.

“Non vorrei dovervi ricordare che questa tenuta è in condizioni finanziarie disastrose…”

“Sono perfettamente conscia delle sue, delle sue… condizioni, signor Bryce. Me lo ricordate a ogni occasione…”

“… perché Sir Gerald viveva ben oltre i suoi mezzi,” continuò Christopher in tono inespressivo. “I desideri di vostro marito eccedevano di molto i suoi bisogni e i suoi introiti. Spendeva troppo per tutta una serie di oggetti privi di utilità, come tabacchiere, porcellane di Sèvres e costosi orologi da carrozza, oggetti inutili per la gestione efficiente di questa tenuta. Aveva inoltre un gran numero di servitori, assunti per svolgere i compiti più modesti. Un’affettazione inutile, che non poteva veramente permettersi. Senza dubbio la nuova tassa governativa sui servitori maschi, per pagare la guerra nelle colonie, inciderà poco sul personale domestico di Sua Grazia di Roxton. Il peso maggiore di quella tassazione, come sempre, ricadrà su quelli probabilmente meno in grado di sopportarlo. So che non volete che vostro nipote riceva una tenuta gravata di debiti quando diventerà maggiorenne.”

“Signor Bryce, avete ragione. Non voglio che Jack erediti una rovina economica. Né mi serve un’altra predica sugli eccessi di Sir Gerald. Ma forse voi avete bisogno che vi ricordi che, in qualità di sovraintendente, il vostro compito è far quadrare i conti, non giudicare il carattere di mio marito. Né capisco perché abbiate scelto di censurare proprio Sua Grazia di Roxton. Il duca vi ha generosamente concesso di fare ciò che volete quando si tratta di questa tenuta, anche se potrebbe, se lo volesse, togliervi questo incarico e affidarlo ad altri.”

Christopher aprì la bocca per commentare quando il tonfo di una sedia che colpiva la parete richiamò la sua attenzione verso il suo assistente. Il signor Deed era barcollato all’indietro ma in due passi Christopher lo raggiunse, afferrandolo per il gomito ossuto e rimettendolo in piedi. Raddrizzò in fretta la sedia e fece sedere gentilmente l’uomo anziano, dicendogli sottovoce di restare seduto. Poi tornò dietro la sua scrivania e indicò la sedia messa lì apposta per Lady Mary.

“Sedetevi. Non ve lo sto chiedendo. Insisto. Quando lo farete, potrò sedermi anch’io. E il signor Deed potrà restare seduto e alleviare il dolore alle sue ginocchia artritiche. So che non volete essere scortese. Né vorrete negargli il calore di un bel fuoco di modo che possa fare il suo lavoro a favore di questa tenuta senza soffrire.”

Lady Mary si sentì immediatamente contrita e si sedette come le aveva chiesto. Allargò le sue sottane imbottite e si appollaiò proprio sull’orlo della sedia, con la schiena diritta e le mani in grembo. La sua occhiata e il piccolo cenno con la testa verso il signor Deed ammorbidirono la bocca di Christopher che si chinò in avanti sulla sedia, con le mani sulla scrivania e si rivolse a lei come se fosse l’unica persona nella stanza.

“Non voglio discutere con voi, milady,” disse con calma. “Ma siete male informata se credete che il duca di Roxton abbia un qualche potere su di me. Ho assunto il ruolo di sovraintendente perché Sir Gerald, nel suo testamento, mi ha assegnato questo compito e io l’ho accettato. Se volete controllare il documento…”

“No. No. Non lo sopporterei. Non di nuovo. È già abbastanza umiliante che mio marito abbia ritenuto giusto redigere un testamento così spregevole. Che mia figlia e io siamo state lasciate alla mercé di un estraneo…”

Gli occhi di Christopher si spensero e lui si tirò indietro.

“Un estraneo? Non proprio. Certo, come vostro vicino, non sono stato un estraneo negli ultimi otto anni. Ma, prego,” aggiunse mellifluo, con il metaforico muro sociale tra di loro tornato definitivamente al suo posto, “ditemi, in che modo siete alla mia mercé?”

“Sapete perfettamente ciò che avete fatto!” Ribatté Lady Mary, e dovette immediatamente spremersi le meningi per trovare almeno un esempio plausibile dell’interferenza dello Squire nella sua vita quotidiana che non la facesse sembrare meschina e ingrata.

Dopo tutto, lei e Teddy restavano ad Abbeywood grazie a lui e, a essere sincera, le loro vite erano cambiate pochissimo dopo la morte di Sir Gerald. Eccetto forse per ciò che riguardava la loro libertà di movimento, in particolare quella di sua figlia. Quindi si aggrappò a quell’esempio tangibile, quello che continuava a frustrarla e a sconcertarla.

“È un mistero per me, e in effetti per la mia famiglia, il motivo per cui Sir Gerald abbia nominato voi come tutore legale di Teddy, e non un membro della sua famiglia. Mio fratello, suo zio, sarebbe stata una scelta più consona. Teddy adora suo zio Dair e hanno un temperamento simile. Entrambi preferiscono stare all’aperto ed essere fisicamente attivi. Certo, ammetto che Dair non era sposato al momento della morte di Sir Gerald, ma anche voi siete scapolo, signor Bryce. E da più lunga data di mio fratello, che si è appena sposato. E sua moglie, Lady Fitzstuart, è la creatura più dolce che si possa immaginare. E a prescindere dal suo stato di uomo sposato o scapolo, avrebbe accettato volentieri l’opportunità di essere il t...”

“In questo momento Lord Fitzstuart è in viaggio per l’isola di Barbados. Quindi non solo è un marito assente, ma sarebbe stato anche un tutore assente.”

“Non ha abbandonato la sua sposa per andare a Barbados per scelta! Come vi ho comunicato nella mia lettera da Treat, è andato a cercare nostro padre. Il conte è scomparso da quando un uragano ha devastato l’isola. Si dice che ci siano stati migliaia di morti e che ogni struttura e alloggio siano stati ridotti in briciole! È la più orribile delle circostanze e con tutta probabilità nostro padre è… nostro padre è…morto, e lui… Dair… avrà il macabro compito di identificare un cadavere putrescente! E voi avete l’impertinenza di suggerire che poiché sta facendo il suo dovere non sarebbe un tutore adatto per mia figlia?”

“Sì. E mi dispiace,” rispose Christopher, chinandosi sopra la scrivania e offrendole il suo disadorno fazzoletto di lino.

Mentre parlava, Lady Mary si era agitata sempre più, infilando le mani sotto il grembiule, nelle aperture delle sottane, cercando nelle due tasche, presumibilmente, il fazzoletto. Quindi Christopher fu lieto quando prese il suo e si asciugò gli occhi. Detestava vederla in lacrime e si odiava per averle causato angoscia.

“Non era mia intenzione sconvolgervi, solo farvi comprendere che se il maggiore Lord Fitzstuart fosse stato il tutore di Teddy, essendo lui ora assente dall’Inghilterra, non avreste avuto la sua guida nel caso vi servisse. E lui non ha bisogno dell’ulteriore responsabilità, mentre sta svolgendo il suo dovere nei confronti di suo padre, di doversi preoccupare per sua nipote. Perlomeno può respirare liberamente, sapendo che c’è chi si occupa degli interessi di Teddy, e concentrarsi sul compito doloroso che lo aspetta. Che abbia dovuto lasciare la sua giovane sposa un mese dopo la loro luna di miele è certamente più di quanto un uomo dovrebbe sopportare.”

Lady Mary annuì, molto più calma, e piegò il fazzoletto che ora aveva in grembo.

“È vero, signor Bryce,” ammise. “Ma se non Dair, allora Sir Gerald non doveva cercare oltre mio cugino Roxton. Il duca è il capo della mia famiglia. In effetti è il capo di molte grandi famiglie collegate al ducato per nascita o per matrimonio. È il tutore del nipote ed erede di Sir Gerald, Jack, da quasi dieci anni. Ed è un padre eccellente e amorevole per i suoi stessi figli. Capirete certo che Roxton era la persona giusta e consona da nominare tutore di Teddy.”

“No, milady, non lo capisco.”

Christopher non aveva mai incontrato il duca e sperava di non avere mai un motivo per farlo. Tra le varie confidenze di Sir Gerald, alimentate dall’alcol, c’erano stati molti aneddoti riguardanti il cugino di Lady Mary, nessuno dei quali lusinghiero. Aveva saputo che Roxton era la ragione per cui Sir Gerald si era ritirato dall’alta società. Anche se aveva ben poco rispetto per quell’uomo, ed era certo che l’alta società non sentisse la mancanza del pontificare presuntuoso di Sir Gerald, provava una certa compassione per il meschino trattamento riservato al baronetto da parte dei parenti di sua moglie. Le confidenze di Sir Gerald sul comportamento lascivo di Roxton e di quelli come lui non erano state una sorpresa, ma Christopher non aveva creduto per un solo momento alla voce più salace che il duca, e non Sir Gerald, fosse il vero padre di Teddy. Se non altro perché non riteneva Lady Mary capace di slealtà, carnale o di altro tipo. La sua arroganza non le avrebbe mai permesso di abbassarsi a essere l’amante di un uomo, nemmeno se quell’uomo era un duca. Era solo l’ubriachezza di Sir Gerald che parlava. Anche se era assolutamente sicuro che Sir Gerald era stato completamente sobrio quando aveva stipulato nel suo testamento che la sua unica figlia, Theodora Charlotte Cavendish, doveva passare gli anni fino al suo ventunesimo compleanno, oppure fino al suo matrimonio, ad Abbeywood, sotto la tutela del suo vicino, il signor Bryce, o rinunciare alla dote di quattromila sterline conservate in un fondo fiduciario.

“Se accettaste l’invito del duca di visitare Treat,” argomentò Lady Mary, “e se permetteste a Teddy e a me di accompagnarvi, sono sicura che sareste d’accordo che la tenuta è il posto più adatto dove vivere, per lei… per noi.”

“Voi siete libera di vivere dove vi piace, milady. Ma Teddy resterà qui, come desiderava Sir Gerald.”

“Se foste un genitore, capireste che non sono libera. Né desidero essere libera, se significa essere separata da mia figlia. Sono sua madre, e anche voi sapete che le voglio un bene immenso, quindi devo vivere dove vive lei.”

“Allora siamo d’accordo, milady. Rimarrete entrambe ad Abbeywood. E se mai desideraste visitare i vostri cugini, siete libera di farlo. Ora, se è quello il motivo per cui siete venuta qua, per cercare di persuadermi, ancora una volta, a permettere a Teddy di andare a vivere con i suoi cugini Roxton, allora, ancora una volta, devo deludervi.”

Estrasse la lettera sigillata del duca di Roxton da sotto quella che stava leggendo prima che Lady Mary interrompesse il suo programma per quel mattino, e gliela porse. Sperava che sarebbe servita a far sparire l’espressione cocciuta e qualunque rancore stesse ancora provando per ciò che lei senza dubbio considerava la sua prepotenza. Poi fece per alzarsi.

“Questa lettera è arrivata oggi, e proviene dal vostro illustre parente. Senza dubbio contiene le notizie che stavate aspettando di sentire. Ora, vi prego, scusatemi; ci sono parecchie persone che aspettano di vedermi.”

La diceva lunga su quanto Mary fosse assorbita dai suoi pensieri quando scambiò il fazzoletto con la lettera con un frettoloso ‘grazie’, e poi se la infilò in tasca. Quindi lui aspettò pazientemente che parlasse, sorpreso per la mancanza di reazioni. Normalmente, quando le consegnava della corrispondenza dai suoi parenti, Lady Mary era tutto un sorriso e talmente ansiosa di leggere le loro notizie che riusciva a malapena ad aspettare che lui se ne andasse per poterla leggere in privato.

Non quel giorno. E quindi Christopher aspettò in silenzio che gli dicesse perché aveva fatto il viaggio fino al suo ufficio sul retro della villa.

“Signor Bryce, avevo sperato di parlare con voi completamente da soli, ma non voglio nemmeno scomodare il signor Deed chiedendogli di lasciare il calore di questa stanza, quindi se lui può assicurarmi che ciò che ho da dire non uscirà da qui, allora mi confiderò con voi. Non ho voglia di sconvolgere i servitori…”

“Milady, la mia discrezione è assoluta!”

“Grazie, signor Deed,” disse Christopher allo sfogo del suo assistente, e annuì verso Lady Mary. “Come posso… come possiamo… esservi d’aiuto?”

Lady Mary restò seduta, rigida per un attimo prima di chinarsi in avanti, come se non desiderasse che l’ascoltassero per caso. Sgranò gli occhi viola e le tremò la bocca. Christopher non poté fare a meno di chinarsi in avanti anche lui, guardando non i bellissimi occhi, ma il labbro inferiore pieno e quel tremore. La voce di Lady Mary era un sussurro e lui dovette sforzarsi per sentire ogni parola.

“Signor Bryce, c’è… cioè… sono sicurissima… che la stanza di Sir Gerald siainfestata. C’è un fantasma!”

MR. CHRISTOPHER BRYCE sat at his desk in the steward’s office reading a letter. As was his practice after riding across to Abbeywood Farm from his estate in the next vale, he had removed his frock coat and hung it on a peg behind the door. His assistant always kept the room too warm. Sitting in his shirtsleeves was preferable to watching the thin little man huddled at the end of the desk shivering with cold.

Unconsciously, he raked long fingers through his untidy curls and felt the hair ribbon come loose between his fingers. Without taking his gaze from the letter, he pulled his shoulder-length hair back to his nape and retied the crumpled piece of black silk. His stock, like the hair ribbon, was also crumpled, the folds of linen wrapped loosely about his strong neck. And while he had scraped the soles of his jockey boots clean to enter the house via the servant’s entrance, the leather was splashed with the mud and filth of having led his mount through to the stables. The mare had thrown a shoe.

But it was not this misadventure which could be blamed for his want of dress. Squire Bryce always appeared to have dressed in haste, grabbing whatever garments were to hand, and never to have glanced in a looking glass before greeting the world. Disheveled was a word that often tripped off the tongues of the local gentry matriarchs. Had he been any other farmer in the district, he would not have come under such scrutiny. But he was not like any other squire—far from it. He was master of a Jacobean manor house—a local landmark in fact—Brycecomb Hall, and owned several prosperous cloth mills. Also, he had recently—eight years was considered yesterday to the inhabitants of this sleepy pocket of the Cotswolds—returned from more than a decade of living abroad. Most vital of all, he was unmarried.

It was of little concern to the parents of unmarried daughters that Mr. Bryce was approaching forty, or that upon first acquaintance he proved a disappointment. It was not that he lacked a profile worthy of immortalization in oils, because he was exceedingly handsome. He had a fine nose, a determined chin, and a pair of damp brown eyes that had something of the lost-puppy look about them. And his auburn curls were so thick they were the envy of many a female. Maidens had upon occasion gone weak at the knees at the sight of him. This was particularly so when he was astride his horse, hair wind-tussled, long muscular legs shown to advantage in soft leather riding breeches that looked to have been applied by a painter rather than his tailor. Mamas reprimanded daughters for their unladylike gawking, yet secretly sighed at what might have been, had they been their daughter’s age.

It was not Christopher Bryce’s looks, but his lack of engagement with his neighbors, most particularly their eligible females, that was cause for disappointment. That he was handsome and unmarried only made his detachment that much more palpable. He was impervious to the attentions of even the most charming of hostesses, who did their best but failed to ignite the Squire’s interest in their unmarried female relatives. He was not disagreeable, but he was not agreeable, either. He might smile and politely reply to any enquiry put to him, but he made no attempt to further the conversation, which was concluded before it began. It was not what the local gentry was used to in a squire of Brycecomb Hall.

Henry Bryce, the present squire’s father, had been the most congenial of fellows, and when his wife was alive, many routs, shoots, and social gatherings were held at the Jacobean manor. Those old enough to have been acquainted with the Bryces and to have attended such events, also knew that their only child had been, in his youth, just as sociable as his elderly parents. But all those years living on the other side of the Channel amongst foreign types had changed the son.

Christopher Bryce had spent so many years in foreign climes his neighbors had expected him to return to the vale with a wealth of stories about the people he had encountered, and the places he had visited. But Mr. Bryce neither offered, nor provided when prompted, any anecdotes about his travels. It was as if he had never been anywhere beyond Stroud, and even then he only ventured to town on market days. His topics of conversation remained decidedly provincial. This satisfied his fellow farmers, but dissatisfied their wives, their sons, and most certainly their daughters who craved a little excitement in their daily routines. It was left to fertile imaginations to wonder at what sort of life Squire Bryce had led far from the vale that he had no wish to discuss any part of it.

And imagine they did, in whispered conversation when he happened to pass them in the village street astride his mount, acknowledging them with a nod but never stopping. Or when he quietly slid onto the family pew for Sunday service, neither looking left nor right, the vicar pausing mid-sentence at the collective sly glance of the congregation in Squire Bryce’s direction. Even the vicar’s wife was heard to remark to a clutch of female parishioners, as Mr. Bryce strode away setting his tricorne in place, that the squire was an enigma. His sartorial efforts left much to be desired, but watching him in motion was something to behold. He was the arresting sum of his extraordinary parts. Every female eagerly nodded in agreement, pulse racing.

For it was when he was animate that Christopher Bryce’s true masculine beauty became apparent. The village’s female inhabitants confidently put their finger on precisely what it was about the squire’s movements that set him apart from his fellows—it had everything to do with the way in which he carried himself. He did not amble or lope like a youth, and he certainly did not trudge or plod. Nor did he slouch or shove his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. He moved with an elegance and ease of movement which was unhurried, upright, and unselfconscious. It underscored the years spent among foreigners; as did the fact he no longer spoke in the Cotswold vernacular of his youth.

Christopher Bryce might pretend to remain insensible to the effect his clothes, his person, his time abroad, and his deportment had on his neighbors, particularly the females, but he was acutely aware of the consequences his decisions and actions had on others. Thus he may have had the appearance of being wholly absorbed in the letter in front of him, but he had heard the raised voices on the other side of the office door, had a fair idea what the commotion was about, and knew his assistant was sufficiently distracted by it to have left off his arithmetical reckonings.

The little man’s quill remained poised over the inkwell.

“You had best invite her in, Mr. Deed,” Christopher said without looking up.

“Who, sir?”

“Lady Mary.”

Mr. Timothy Deed was skeptical. Not only because he had not discerned Lady Mary’s voice amongst the din on the other side of the door, but because in his two years employed in this household, the mistress had never visited the steward’s office. If her imperious little ladyship wished to speak to Mr. Bryce, she summoned him to her drawing room, which was right and proper. She certainly did not trespass into the servants’ domain, nor raise her voice in ill-lit corridors. Thus Mr. Deed hesitated to do as he was told and voiced his surprise.

“Lady Mary, sir? Here? Why?”

“We will find that out when you open the door and let her in.” When there was silence after this flat reply, the Squire lifted his gaze to his assistant’s quizzical look. He offered an explanation. “Perhaps you forget that John Twisell, Jethro Tanner, and the Blandfords had until today to accept their altered circumstances?”

At the mention of four servants who had been at Abbeywood since before the death of its owner, Sir Gerald Cavendish, Mr. Deed’s eyebrows shot up in understanding.

“None have accepted?”

“There are still a few hours left in the day. But given the hubbub, that would seem to be so.”

Mr. Deed’s eyebrows came down and he ground his teeth. “Then they are not only lazy but fools!”

“But given false hope perhaps…?”

Mr. Deed’s gaze darted to the door. Though there seemed to be an angry mob gathered on the other side, he still could not hear the voice of the mistress of the house.

“By her ladyship…?”

Christopher Bryce did not answer the question, but his silence said everything. He set aside the letter, and took from the small pile beside the standish one with its seal intact. It was from His Grace the most noble Duke of Roxton, the same correspondent who had written to him and whose letter he had been reading. This letter was addressed to Lady Mary Cavendish. He was very sure no two letters could be so different in tone and content, and he itched to toss this unopened correspondence to the flames in the grate. He did not. Instead he tucked it out of sight under his letter from the Duke, shook his thoughts free of that nobleman and looked at his assistant to find him staring at him. He hoped his features did not give away his thoughts, when he said evenly,

“The door, Mr. Deed.”

Timothy Deed nodded, quickly set his quill in the ink pot, and scraped back his chair. Pulling on the points of his plain knitted waistcoat as he crossed the room, he squared his shoulders at the door, as if steeling himself for what and whom lay beyond, then wrenched it open.

A blast of cold air made him take a step back, so did the clamor of a cluster of squabbling servants. The noise ceased almost immediately, replaced by the silence of fearful expectation as to what would happen now that Squire Bryce had been roused, and without one of them with the good manners and courage to scratch at his door to seek an audience. It said as much about the Squire as it did about them when everyone in the room, bar one, took a step back when Mr. Bryce’s smooth baritone was heard from deep within the room.

“Mr. Deed! Do not keep her ladyship waiting.”

It was then that the assistant noticed the Lady Mary, the only one in the room to stand her ground. She was regarding him in silent expectation that he would instantly shift out of her way without the need to speak, which he did, and with a bow. And after she had passed into the room, neither looking right nor left, Mr. Deed regained enough of his composure to order the clutch of silent downcast servants not to linger, and to get about their business. And he did this with an imperious wave of a thin hand before shutting the door in their faces.

Christopher was on his feet before the Lady Mary swept across to his desk with a firm tread, hands clasped in front of her gauze apron, chin level with the floor. He wondered how many hours she had spent arguing with herself as to whether she should summon him to her, or she go to him. And by her mulish look, taking the monumental step of coming to him had been an internal struggle of epic proportions.

After all—and he knew she believed this implicitly—it was not the right and proper action for the mistress of the house, the daughter of an earl no less, to cross the household divide that separated master from servant. There was a correct order to life. Everything and everyone had a proper place. And Lady Mary’s proper place was at its apex amongst the nobility—those who governed and gave orders. Everyone else—Mr. Christopher Bryce of Brycecomb Hall included—belonged to the periphery of this elegant and dazzling world, out of sight and out of mind until wanted and called.

And because Christopher Bryce did not doubt Lady Mary’s expectation that those who lived on the periphery would come when called was as natural to her as breathing, he was prepared to give her ignorance of a more enlightened world view some latitude. After all he did not think her inherently intolerant or unkind. It was just the way she had been raised by her noble parents, a rigid upbringing reinforced as wife of a pompous self-important bigot. But that did not mean he would conform to type or allow her to interfere in his decisions. Far from it. What her ladyship needed, and he was only too willing to provide, was to have her outlook given a shake now and again.

But he was wise to the fact it was not one of his little shakes that had brought her to his door on this day, but something that must have greatly upset her. And so he had Mr. Deed fetch her a chair and waited for her to sit upon it. But she ignored his offer and the chair and came right up to the front of his desk, saying without preamble,

“Is it true you have dismissed four more of the household servants?”

“No, my lady. I did not dismiss them.”

“Oh?! I thought…” Her shoulders relaxed and she let out a sigh of relief without realizing it. “Then there has been a misunderstanding. The Blandfords say they were given notice and so too, old Jack Twisell, and the Tanner boy.”

“They should not have bothered you. Won’t you sit, my lady?”

Again she ignored his offer, and so he and his assistant remained on their feet.

“They did not, Mr. Bryce. They rightly spoke to Mrs. Keble, and when she was unable to find a suitable resolution, she brought the matter to me, which was the right thing for her to do.”

Christopher’s eyebrows rose slightly at mention of the housekeeper. He suspected Susanna Keble of inciting the servants against him whenever an opportunity presented itself. The woman had a misplaced confidence in her authority. Mrs. Keble was under the delusion that her illicit affair with Sir Gerald—of which he was well aware, but was certain Lady Mary was not—and the fact Lady Mary would not hear a word against her, gave her special status and privileges at Abbeywood. He had quickly disabused her of this notion. She had even tried to seduce him, but he was deliberately blind to her tawdry attempts. He would not have been male had he not noticed she was pretty, but it was a brittle prettiness that hid a cold heart and a calculating disposition. She was cunning enough to hide her below-stairs machinations to undermine his authority, and in his presence was always biddable. Mrs. Keble’s days were also numbered in this household.

“Mrs. Keble had no right to bother you, my lady,” he replied evenly. “I am sorry, but in this matter there are no alternatives to discuss. I cannot be persuaded to change my mind.”

Lady Mary blinked at him in surprise, and then she surprised him.

“Why would you think I came here to persuade you otherwise, Mr. Bryce? I never expect to be consulted on matters that are considered important. I never have in the past. My opinions have rarely been sought, and I don’t single you out in this.”

Though I had hoped—indeed when I first met you I had thought—you were different… said the voice in her head. She quickly shook herself free of wishful thinking and continued, no emotion in her voice.

“So when you say you will not change your mind, I accept that as a given. Sir Gerald never consulted me—he told me. As you are telling me now. But that does not mean, just because I cannot do anything about it, I do not have an opinion, or feelings, or wish for a different outcome.”

This speech was met with silence from both men, who were unable or unwilling to add to her observations because there was nothing to add to the truth. Yet, her final comment did elicit a response from Christopher, who said quietly,

“If it will ease your mind, my lady, I have not turned them out, friendless and penniless. They have employment and shelter elsewhere.”

“Employment and shelter—elsewhere?” she repeated. “But… The Blandfords have been at Abbeywood since before I came here as a bride. Does not loyalty count for something?”

“Need you ask me such a question? It is just as important to be gainfully employed. Which the Blandfords, young Tanner, and Old Jack were not. And now they will be, and housed. Please sit, my lady.”

Lady Mary remained standing.

“And the eight servants you dismissed while I was away at my brother’s wedding? Are they gainfully employed and housed elsewhere, too?”

“Yes. They—”

“Mrs. Keble told me you put them to work in your mills. Is that so?”

“I offered them employment at my cloth mills, which they accepted. And you will excuse me for correcting you. Those men were not your servants. Sir Gerald hired them. The positions they had within this household were unnecessary and wasteful. In fact they were leading meaningless lives and their minds had become stagnant. Inanimate companions had more life and occupation than those men. And as you are well aware, Abbeywood’s finances, such as they are, can ill-afford to pay for the board and paint from which such figures are formed.”

Again he glanced at his assistant. The elderly man now had hold of a corner of the desk to keep himself upright, so he said more curtly than he intended, “Sit, my lady!”

“I do not wish to sit, Mr. Bryce. And I do not understand why you insist I do.” She suddenly felt uncomfortably warm under the Squire’s steady gaze, looked about her, saw the well-lit fire in the grate, and frowned. “Nor do I understand why this room is permitted to be kept as warm as a kitchen on baking day when, as you say, this household cannot afford to be wasteful. And do not tell me it is not overly warm in here because you, Mr. Bryce, have stripped to your—to your—shirtsleeves, which is a most impolite way to receive visitors—”

“I was not in expectation of a visit from you, my lady,” Christopher cut in blandly, though he was quick to stifle a smirk at her expression of affront at his social solecism. “Perhaps if you’d sent word of your coming I’d have roused myself to the trouble of throwing on my frock coat to sit sweltering, waiting your arrival?”

“How droll you are today, to be sure, Mr. Bryce.”

He inclined his head. “A rare occasion indeed, my lady. Not as rare as seeing me upon a dance floor, but today is not a day for dancing either.”

Or witnessing me swim naked in a mill pond. Though I suspect such a prim little thing as you, my dear Lady Mary, would faint at the sight of provincial masculinity gloriously on show.

Christopher was not a betting man—he was too cautious with his money, and even more so with what belonged to others—but he would’ve laid good odds that her late husband Sir Gerald would never have had the bad manners, or the bravado, to remove his nightshirt in his wife’s presence, even in the most intimate of situations and stand naked before her. After all, carrying out his marital duty was just one of the chores Sir Gerald, as baronet, was obliged to perform. So he had confided in Christopher after a long night of heavy drinking.

For Christopher there had been many such long evenings in his neighbor’s book room, listening to Sir Gerald drone on about his self-consequence, his place in the “grand scheme of things”, and how he intended to make his mark on the world that would surprise his wife’s relatives, and leave them—the Duke of Roxton in particular—speechless.

Christopher had been tasked to discover precisely how Sir Gerald intended to leave his mark, knowing it had to do with the war in the American Colonies. The Spymaster General Lord Shrewsbury suspected Sir Gerald of high treason for passing state secrets to the French to help their new-found friends, the American patriots, win the war against their English masters. Christopher was to get the proof of this treason, spending more hours than he cared to remember keeping company with his drunkard neighbor.

Information gleaned from these conversations was written up in reports to the Spymaster. But there were some details Christopher kept to himself. Details he would rather not know, intimate details about his neighbor’s marriage, and the Lady Mary. And it confirmed Christopher’s private opinion: Such a pretty little redhead as the Lady Mary was wasted on the likes of the boorish Sir Gerald. What was the point of making love if all the senses were not engaged? Bedding her should have been an honor and a delight…

To gaze upon her stripped out of corset and chemise, feminine curves bathed in the soft yellow glow of candlelight, glorious red hair tumbled to the small of her back… To have her hips moving with desire as he—

“Mr. Bryce—Mr. Bryce, are you attending me?” Lady Mary demanded, taking a step closer to the desk when he did not blink or answer immediately. “I knew my coming here would cause considerable curiosity, but I could think of no other way of speaking with you in private because I—Mr. Bryce?” She peered at him, frowning, realizing his thoughts were anywhere but in his office. “Are you certain it is not too warm in here because your face is flushed and you are looking—”

“No. It is not too warm!” he blurted out rudely, lust and the guilt which came with illicit longing making his tone harsher than he intended. “I may, may I not, keep my office as warm as I please and work in my shirtsleeves—or-or nightshirt—if I so wish it!?”

“Yes. Yes, of course you may,” she stammered, shocked by his unexpected and uncharacteristic incivility.

Yet when she continued to stare at him, his guilt increased, wondering if indeed his expression had in some bizarre way reflected his deepest unattainable desire. So ludicrous it was laughable, and pathetic, because it would never occur to her, not in a thousand full moons, that a Cotswold squire’s daydreams were filled with wanton thoughts of her.

But because Mr. Deed was also staring at him as if he had had a momentary mental lapse, he offered up a convoluted explanation, one designed not only to allow him to regain his equilibrium in mind and body, but which would also reinstate—even if it was only his thoughts which had wandered across the social divide—the societal distance required of him as steward and a nobleman’s daughter; their disparate births, her rank, and his position demanded it. So he stated the obvious, which she already knew, and which would surely reconstruct that metaphorical stone wall of icy cordiality and formality that must exist between them.

“I should not need to remind you that this estate is in dire financial circumstances—”

“I am well aware of its-its—circumstances, Mr. Bryce. You remind me at every opportunity—”

“—because Sir Gerald lived well beyond his means,” Christopher continued tonelessly. “Your husband’s wants far exceeded his needs and his income. He spent excessively on all manner of impractical objects—snuff-boxes, Sevres porcelain, and expensive carriage clocks—items of no use to the effective management of this estate. He also kept a vast number of servants, employed to perform the most menial of tasks—an unnecessary conceit, and one he could ill-afford. No doubt the government’s new tax on male servants to pay for the war in the colonies will have little effect on the size of His Grace of Roxton’s household retinue. The burden of such taxation, as always, falls on those least likely to be able to carry it. I know you do not wish your nephew to be presented with an encumbered estate when he comes of age.”

“Mr. Bryce, you are correct. I do not want Jack to inherit an economic ruin. Nor do I require another lecture on Sir Gerald’s excesses. But perhaps you require reminding that acting as steward, it is your business to balance the books, not to pass judgment on my husband’s character. Nor do I understand why you have singled out His Grace of Roxton for particular censure. The Duke has graciously permitted you to do as you please where this estate is concerned, even though he could, if he so wished it, remove you from your post and put another in your place.”

Christopher opened his mouth to comment when the thud of a chair hitting up against the wall turned his attention to his assistant. Mr. Deed stumbled backwards but in two strides Christopher had him by his bony elbow and pulled him to his feet. He quickly set the chair to rights and eased the elderly man onto it, telling him in an undervoice to remain seated. He then returned to stand behind his desk and pointed to the chair set out for Lady Mary.

“Sit. I am not asking you. I insist. In doing so, I may sit. And Mr. Deed may remain seated and ease the pain in his arthritic knees. I know you do not wish to be impolite. Nor would you deny him the warmth of a good fire so that he may do his work on behalf of this estate without pain.”

Instantly, Lady Mary was contrite and sat as requested. She spread her quilted petticoats and perched on the very edge of the chair, back straight and hands in her lap. Her glance and small nod of acknowledgment at Mr. Deed softened Christopher’s mouth, and he leaned forward in his chair, clasped hands on his desk, and addressed her as if she were the only person in the room.

“I don’t wish to argue with you, my lady,” he said quietly. “But you have been misinformed if you believe the Duke of Roxton has any power over me. I have taken on the role of steward because Sir Gerald, in his last will and testament, charged me with this duty and I accepted it. If you wish me to go over that document with you—”

“No. No. I could not bear it. Not again. It is enough of a humiliation my husband saw fit to draw up such a despicable will. That my daughter and I are left to the mercy of a stranger—”

Christopher’s eyes went dull and he sat back.

“A stranger? Not quite. Surely, as your neighbor, I have not been a stranger to you these past eight years? But, please,” he purred, the metaphorical societal wall between them well and truly back in place, “tell me in what way you are at my mercy?”

“You know perfectly well what you have done!” Lady Mary retorted, and immediately had to rack her brain to come up with at least one plausible example of the Squire’s interference in her day-to-day life that would not make her sound petty and ungrateful.

After all, she and Teddy remained at Abbeywood under his good graces, and if she were truthful, their lives had changed minimally since Sir Gerald’s death. Except perhaps where their freedom of movement—her daughter’s in particular—was concerned. So she latched on to this tangible example, one that continued to frustrate and confound her.

“It is a mystery to me—indeed to my family—why Sir Gerald appointed you as Teddy’s guardian, and not a member of her family. My brother—her uncle—would have been a more suitable choice. Teddy loves her Uncle Dair, and they have similar temperaments, both preferring to be out-of-doors and physically active. I grant Dair was unmarried at the time of Sir Gerald’s death, but you, too, are a bachelor, Mr. Bryce. And of longer standing than my brother, who is newly married. And his wife, the Lady Fitzstuart, is the sweetest creature imaginable. Regardless of his unmarried or married state, he would have welcomed the opportunity to be T—”

“At this moment Lord Fitzstuart is on his way to Barbados. So he is not only an absent husband, but you would have him an absent guardian, also.”

“He did not leave his bride to sail off to the Barbados by choice! As I told you in my letter from Treat: He’s gone in search of our father. The Earl has been missing since a hurricane devastated the island. Many thousands are said to have perished, and every structure and living thing flattened to dust! That is the worst of possible circumstances, and in all probability our father is—our father is—dead, and he—Dair—he will have the gruesome task of identifying a rotting corpse! And you have the-the impertinence to suggest because he is doing his duty he would not be a fit guardian for my daughter?”

“Yes. And I am sorry for it,” Christopher replied, leaning across his desk and offering her his plain linen handkerchief.

While she had been talking, Lady Mary had grown increasingly agitated, shoving her hands under her apron and into the slits in her petticoats, searching the two pockets for, he presumed, her handkerchief. So he was pleased when she took his and dabbed at her eyes. He hated seeing her in tears, and loathed himself for causing her distress.

“It was not my wish to upset you, only to make the point that had Major Lord Fitzstuart been Teddy’s guardian, and he now absent from England, you would be without his guidance should you require it. And he does not need the added burden while carrying out his duty to his father, of worrying over his niece. He can at least breathe easy, knowing her interests are being taken care of, and concentrate on the distressing task before him. That he has had to leave his young bride a month after their honeymoon is surely more than one man should have to bear.”

Lady Mary nodded, a good deal calmer, the folded linen handkerchief now in her lap.

“That is true, Mr. Bryce,” she conceded. “But if not Dair, then Sir Gerald did not have to look further afield than my cousin Roxton. The Duke is head of my family. Indeed he is head of a great many families connected by birth or marriage to the dukedom. He has been guardian to Sir Gerald’s nephew and heir Jack for almost ten years. And he is a most excellent and loving papa to his own children. Surely you must see that Roxton was the right and proper person to be named Teddy’s guardian.”

“I do not see it, my lady.”

Christopher had never met the Duke and hoped he would never have cause to do so. Amongst Sir Gerald’s alcohol-fueled confidences had been many an anecdote about Lady Mary’s cousin, and none of them complimentary. He had learned that Roxton was the reason Sir Gerald had withdrawn from Polite Society. While he had little respect for the man—and he was certain Polite Society did not miss Sir Gerald’s self-important pontifications—he did have some sympathy for the Baronet’s shabby treatment at the hands of his wife’s relative. Sir Gerald’s confidences about the lascivious behavior of Roxton and his ilk came as no surprise, but Christopher did not believe for one moment the more salacious rumor that the Duke, and not Sir Gerald, was Teddy’s true parent. If for no other reason than he did not believe the Lady Mary capable of deceit, carnal or otherwise. Her conceit would never allow her to stoop to being a man’s mistress, not even if that man was a duke. That was Sir Gerald’s drunkenness talking. Though he was very sure Sir Gerald had been utterly sober when he stipulated in his will that his only child, Theodora Charlotte Cavendish, must spend the years until her twenty-first birthday, or her marriage, whichever was the sooner, at Abbeywood, under the guardianship of his neighbor, Mr. Christopher Bryce, or forfeit a dowry of four thousand pounds held in trust.

“If you were to accept the Duke’s invitation and visit Treat,” Lady Mary argued, “and if you were to allow Teddy and me to accompany you, I am convinced you would agree that the estate is the most suitable place for her—for us—to live.”

“You are free to live where you please, my lady. But Teddy will remain here, as was Sir Gerald’s wish.”

“If you were a parent you would understand that I am not free. Nor do I wish to be free if it means being parted from my daughter. I am her mother, and even you are aware that I love her very much, and so I must live where she lives.”

“Then we are in accord, my lady. You both will remain here at Abbeywood. And if ever you desire to visit your cousins, you are free to do so. Now, if that was why you came here, to try and persuade me, yet again, to allow Teddy to go live amongst her Roxton cousins, then, yet again, I must disappoint you.”

He extracted the Duke of Roxton’s sealed letter out from under the one he had been reading before Lady Mary had interrupted his morning’s schedule, and held it out to her. He hoped it would banish her mulish expression and any ill-will she was feeling at what she no doubt considered his high-handedness. He then made motions to stand.

“This came today, and it is from your illustrious relative. No doubt it contains the news you’ve been waiting to hear. Now please excuse me; there are quite a few persons waiting to see me.”

It said a good deal about her preoccupation with her thoughts when she exchanged his handkerchief for the letter with a perfunctory “thank-you”, then slipped it into a pocket. So he patiently waited for her to speak, surprised at her unresponsiveness. Usually when he handed over correspondence from her relatives she was all smiles, and so breathless with anticipation to read their news that she could hardly wait for him to quit her company so she could read in private.

Not today. And so he silently waited for her to tell him why she had made the journey to his office at the back of the manor house.

“Mr. Bryce, I had hoped to speak to you entirely alone, but I also do not want to inconvenience Mr. Deed by having him leave the warmth of this room, so if he can assure me what I have to say will go no further, then I will confide in you. I have no wish to upset the servants—”

“My lady, you have my complete confidence!”

“Thank-you, Mr. Deed,” Christopher stated at his assistant’s outburst, and nodded to Lady Mary. “How may I—how may we—be of assistance?”

Lady Mary sat up very straight before leaning forward, as if not wishing to be overheard. Her violet eyes widened and her mouth trembled. Christopher could not help but lean forward, too, his gaze not on her lovely eyes but on her plump lower lip and that tremble. Her voice was a whisper, and he strained to hear her every word.

“Mr. Bryce, there is—that is—I am very certain—Sir Gerald’s bedchamber is-is haunted. There is a-a ghost!”

MR. CHRISTOPHER BRYCE sat at his desk in the steward’s office reading a letter. As was his practice after riding across to Abbeywood Farm from his estate in the next vale, he had removed his frock coat and hung it on a peg behind the door. His assistant always kept the room too warm. Sitting in his shirtsleeves was preferable to watching the thin little man huddled at the end of the desk shivering with cold.

Unconsciously, he raked long fingers through his untidy curls and felt the hair ribbon come loose between his fingers. Without taking his gaze from the letter, he pulled his shoulder-length hair back to his nape and retied the crumpled piece of black silk. His stock, like the hair ribbon, was also crumpled, the folds of linen wrapped loosely about his strong neck. And while he had scraped the soles of his jockey boots clean to enter the house via the servant’s entrance, the leather was splashed with the mud and filth of having led his mount through to the stables. The mare had thrown a shoe.

But it was not this misadventure which could be blamed for his want of dress. Squire Bryce always appeared to have dressed in haste, grabbing whatever garments were to hand, and never to have glanced in a looking glass before greeting the world. Disheveled was a word that often tripped off the tongues of the local gentry matriarchs. Had he been any other farmer in the district, he would not have come under such scrutiny. But he was not like any other squire—far from it. He was master of a Jacobean manor house—a local landmark in fact—Brycecomb Hall, and owned several prosperous cloth mills. Also, he had recently—eight years was considered yesterday to the inhabitants of this sleepy pocket of the Cotswolds—returned from more than a decade of living abroad. Most vital of all, he was unmarried.

It was of little concern to the parents of unmarried daughters that Mr. Bryce was approaching forty, or that upon first acquaintance he proved a disappointment. It was not that he lacked a profile worthy of immortalization in oils, because he was exceedingly handsome. He had a fine nose, a determined chin, and a pair of damp brown eyes that had something of the lost-puppy look about them. And his auburn curls were so thick they were the envy of many a female. Maidens had upon occasion gone weak at the knees at the sight of him. This was particularly so when he was astride his horse, hair wind-tussled, long muscular legs shown to advantage in soft leather riding breeches that looked to have been applied by a painter rather than his tailor. Mamas reprimanded daughters for their unladylike gawking, yet secretly sighed at what might have been, had they been their daughter’s age.

It was not Christopher Bryce’s looks, but his lack of engagement with his neighbors, most particularly their eligible females, that was cause for disappointment. That he was handsome and unmarried only made his detachment that much more palpable. He was impervious to the attentions of even the most charming of hostesses, who did their best but failed to ignite the Squire’s interest in their unmarried female relatives. He was not disagreeable, but he was not agreeable, either. He might smile and politely reply to any enquiry put to him, but he made no attempt to further the conversation, which was concluded before it began. It was not what the local gentry was used to in a squire of Brycecomb Hall.

Henry Bryce, the present squire’s father, had been the most congenial of fellows, and when his wife was alive, many routs, shoots, and social gatherings were held at the Jacobean manor. Those old enough to have been acquainted with the Bryces and to have attended such events, also knew that their only child had been, in his youth, just as sociable as his elderly parents. But all those years living on the other side of the Channel amongst foreign types had changed the son.

Christopher Bryce had spent so many years in foreign climes his neighbors had expected him to return to the vale with a wealth of stories about the people he had encountered, and the places he had visited. But Mr. Bryce neither offered, nor provided when prompted, any anecdotes about his travels. It was as if he had never been anywhere beyond Stroud, and even then he only ventured to town on market days. His topics of conversation remained decidedly provincial. This satisfied his fellow farmers, but dissatisfied their wives, their sons, and most certainly their daughters who craved a little excitement in their daily routines. It was left to fertile imaginations to wonder at what sort of life Squire Bryce had led far from the vale that he had no wish to discuss any part of it.

And imagine they did, in whispered conversation when he happened to pass them in the village street astride his mount, acknowledging them with a nod but never stopping. Or when he quietly slid onto the family pew for Sunday service, neither looking left nor right, the vicar pausing mid-sentence at the collective sly glance of the congregation in Squire Bryce’s direction. Even the vicar’s wife was heard to remark to a clutch of female parishioners, as Mr. Bryce strode away setting his tricorne in place, that the squire was an enigma. His sartorial efforts left much to be desired, but watching him in motion was something to behold. He was the arresting sum of his extraordinary parts. Every female eagerly nodded in agreement, pulse racing.

For it was when he was animate that Christopher Bryce’s true masculine beauty became apparent. The village’s female inhabitants confidently put their finger on precisely what it was about the squire’s movements that set him apart from his fellows—it had everything to do with the way in which he carried himself. He did not amble or lope like a youth, and he certainly did not trudge or plod. Nor did he slouch or shove his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. He moved with an elegance and ease of movement which was unhurried, upright, and unselfconscious. It underscored the years spent among foreigners; as did the fact he no longer spoke in the Cotswold vernacular of his youth.

Christopher Bryce might pretend to remain insensible to the effect his clothes, his person, his time abroad, and his deportment had on his neighbors, particularly the females, but he was acutely aware of the consequences his decisions and actions had on others. Thus he may have had the appearance of being wholly absorbed in the letter in front of him, but he had heard the raised voices on the other side of the office door, had a fair idea what the commotion was about, and knew his assistant was sufficiently distracted by it to have left off his arithmetical reckonings.

The little man’s quill remained poised over the inkwell.

“You had best invite her in, Mr. Deed,” Christopher said without looking up.

“Who, sir?”

“Lady Mary.”

Mr. Timothy Deed was skeptical. Not only because he had not discerned Lady Mary’s voice amongst the din on the other side of the door, but because in his two years employed in this household, the mistress had never visited the steward’s office. If her imperious little ladyship wished to speak to Mr. Bryce, she summoned him to her drawing room, which was right and proper. She certainly did not trespass into the servants’ domain, nor raise her voice in ill-lit corridors. Thus Mr. Deed hesitated to do as he was told and voiced his surprise.

“Lady Mary, sir? Here? Why?”

“We will find that out when you open the door and let her in.” When there was silence after this flat reply, the Squire lifted his gaze to his assistant’s quizzical look. He offered an explanation. “Perhaps you forget that John Twisell, Jethro Tanner, and the Blandfords had until today to accept their altered circumstances?”

At the mention of four servants who had been at Abbeywood since before the death of its owner, Sir Gerald Cavendish, Mr. Deed’s eyebrows shot up in understanding.

“None have accepted?”

“There are still a few hours left in the day. But given the hubbub, that would seem to be so.”

Mr. Deed’s eyebrows came down and he ground his teeth. “Then they are not only lazy but fools!”

“But given false hope perhaps…?”

Mr. Deed’s gaze darted to the door. Though there seemed to be an angry mob gathered on the other side, he still could not hear the voice of the mistress of the house.

“By her ladyship…?”

Christopher Bryce did not answer the question, but his silence said everything. He set aside the letter, and took from the small pile beside the standish one with its seal intact. It was from His Grace the most noble Duke of Roxton, the same correspondent who had written to him and whose letter he had been reading. This letter was addressed to Lady Mary Cavendish. He was very sure no two letters could be so different in tone and content, and he itched to toss this unopened correspondence to the flames in the grate. He did not. Instead he tucked it out of sight under his letter from the Duke, shook his thoughts free of that nobleman and looked at his assistant to find him staring at him. He hoped his features did not give away his thoughts, when he said evenly,

“The door, Mr. Deed.”

Timothy Deed nodded, quickly set his quill in the ink pot, and scraped back his chair. Pulling on the points of his plain knitted waistcoat as he crossed the room, he squared his shoulders at the door, as if steeling himself for what and whom lay beyond, then wrenched it open.

A blast of cold air made him take a step back, so did the clamor of a cluster of squabbling servants. The noise ceased almost immediately, replaced by the silence of fearful expectation as to what would happen now that Squire Bryce had been roused, and without one of them with the good manners and courage to scratch at his door to seek an audience. It said as much about the Squire as it did about them when everyone in the room, bar one, took a step back when Mr. Bryce’s smooth baritone was heard from deep within the room.

“Mr. Deed! Do not keep her ladyship waiting.”

It was then that the assistant noticed the Lady Mary, the only one in the room to stand her ground. She was regarding him in silent expectation that he would instantly shift out of her way without the need to speak, which he did, and with a bow. And after she had passed into the room, neither looking right nor left, Mr. Deed regained enough of his composure to order the clutch of silent downcast servants not to linger, and to get about their business. And he did this with an imperious wave of a thin hand before shutting the door in their faces.

Christopher was on his feet before the Lady Mary swept across to his desk with a firm tread, hands clasped in front of her gauze apron, chin level with the floor. He wondered how many hours she had spent arguing with herself as to whether she should summon him to her, or she go to him. And by her mulish look, taking the monumental step of coming to him had been an internal struggle of epic proportions.

After all—and he knew she believed this implicitly—it was not the right and proper action for the mistress of the house, the daughter of an earl no less, to cross the household divide that separated master from servant. There was a correct order to life. Everything and everyone had a proper place. And Lady Mary’s proper place was at its apex amongst the nobility—those who governed and gave orders. Everyone else—Mr. Christopher Bryce of Brycecomb Hall included—belonged to the periphery of this elegant and dazzling world, out of sight and out of mind until wanted and called.

And because Christopher Bryce did not doubt Lady Mary’s expectation that those who lived on the periphery would come when called was as natural to her as breathing, he was prepared to give her ignorance of a more enlightened world view some latitude. After all he did not think her inherently intolerant or unkind. It was just the way she had been raised by her noble parents, a rigid upbringing reinforced as wife of a pompous self-important bigot. But that did not mean he would conform to type or allow her to interfere in his decisions. Far from it. What her ladyship needed, and he was only too willing to provide, was to have her outlook given a shake now and again.

But he was wise to the fact it was not one of his little shakes that had brought her to his door on this day, but something that must have greatly upset her. And so he had Mr. Deed fetch her a chair and waited for her to sit upon it. But she ignored his offer and the chair and came right up to the front of his desk, saying without preamble,

“Is it true you have dismissed four more of the household servants?”

“No, my lady. I did not dismiss them.”

“Oh?! I thought…” Her shoulders relaxed and she let out a sigh of relief without realizing it. “Then there has been a misunderstanding. The Blandfords say they were given notice and so too, old Jack Twisell, and the Tanner boy.”

“They should not have bothered you. Won’t you sit, my lady?”

Again she ignored his offer, and so he and his assistant remained on their feet.

“They did not, Mr. Bryce. They rightly spoke to Mrs. Keble, and when she was unable to find a suitable resolution, she brought the matter to me, which was the right thing for her to do.”

Christopher’s eyebrows rose slightly at mention of the housekeeper. He suspected Susanna Keble of inciting the servants against him whenever an opportunity presented itself. The woman had a misplaced confidence in her authority. Mrs. Keble was under the delusion that her illicit affair with Sir Gerald—of which he was well aware, but was certain Lady Mary was not—and the fact Lady Mary would not hear a word against her, gave her special status and privileges at Abbeywood. He had quickly disabused her of this notion. She had even tried to seduce him, but he was deliberately blind to her tawdry attempts. He would not have been male had he not noticed she was pretty, but it was a brittle prettiness that hid a cold heart and a calculating disposition. She was cunning enough to hide her below-stairs machinations to undermine his authority, and in his presence was always biddable. Mrs. Keble’s days were also numbered in this household.

“Mrs. Keble had no right to bother you, my lady,” he replied evenly. “I am sorry, but in this matter there are no alternatives to discuss. I cannot be persuaded to change my mind.”

Lady Mary blinked at him in surprise, and then she surprised him.

“Why would you think I came here to persuade you otherwise, Mr. Bryce? I never expect to be consulted on matters that are considered important. I never have in the past. My opinions have rarely been sought, and I don’t single you out in this.”

Though I had hoped—indeed when I first met you I had thought—you were different… said the voice in her head. She quickly shook herself free of wishful thinking and continued, no emotion in her voice.

“So when you say you will not change your mind, I accept that as a given. Sir Gerald never consulted me—he told me. As you are telling me now. But that does not mean, just because I cannot do anything about it, I do not have an opinion, or feelings, or wish for a different outcome.”

This speech was met with silence from both men, who were unable or unwilling to add to her observations because there was nothing to add to the truth. Yet, her final comment did elicit a response from Christopher, who said quietly,

“If it will ease your mind, my lady, I have not turned them out, friendless and penniless. They have employment and shelter elsewhere.”

“Employment and shelter—elsewhere?” she repeated. “But… The Blandfords have been at Abbeywood since before I came here as a bride. Does not loyalty count for something?”

“Need you ask me such a question? It is just as important to be gainfully employed. Which the Blandfords, young Tanner, and Old Jack were not. And now they will be, and housed. Please sit, my lady.”

Lady Mary remained standing.

“And the eight servants you dismissed while I was away at my brother’s wedding? Are they gainfully employed and housed elsewhere, too?”

“Yes. They—”

“Mrs. Keble told me you put them to work in your mills. Is that so?”

“I offered them employment at my cloth mills, which they accepted. And you will excuse me for correcting you. Those men were not your servants. Sir Gerald hired them. The positions they had within this household were unnecessary and wasteful. In fact they were leading meaningless lives and their minds had become stagnant. Inanimate companions had more life and occupation than those men. And as you are well aware, Abbeywood’s finances, such as they are, can ill-afford to pay for the board and paint from which such figures are formed.”

Again he glanced at his assistant. The elderly man now had hold of a corner of the desk to keep himself upright, so he said more curtly than he intended, “Sit, my lady!”

“I do not wish to sit, Mr. Bryce. And I do not understand why you insist I do.” She suddenly felt uncomfortably warm under the Squire’s steady gaze, looked about her, saw the well-lit fire in the grate, and frowned. “Nor do I understand why this room is permitted to be kept as warm as a kitchen on baking day when, as you say, this household cannot afford to be wasteful. And do not tell me it is not overly warm in here because you, Mr. Bryce, have stripped to your—to your—shirtsleeves, which is a most impolite way to receive visitors—”

“I was not in expectation of a visit from you, my lady,” Christopher cut in blandly, though he was quick to stifle a smirk at her expression of affront at his social solecism. “Perhaps if you’d sent word of your coming I’d have roused myself to the trouble of throwing on my frock coat to sit sweltering, waiting your arrival?”

“How droll you are today, to be sure, Mr. Bryce.”

He inclined his head. “A rare occasion indeed, my lady. Not as rare as seeing me upon a dance floor, but today is not a day for dancing either.”

Or witnessing me swim naked in a mill pond. Though I suspect such a prim little thing as you, my dear Lady Mary, would faint at the sight of provincial masculinity gloriously on show.

Christopher was not a betting man—he was too cautious with his money, and even more so with what belonged to others—but he would’ve laid good odds that her late husband Sir Gerald would never have had the bad manners, or the bravado, to remove his nightshirt in his wife’s presence, even in the most intimate of situations and stand naked before her. After all, carrying out his marital duty was just one of the chores Sir Gerald, as baronet, was obliged to perform. So he had confided in Christopher after a long night of heavy drinking.

For Christopher there had been many such long evenings in his neighbor’s book room, listening to Sir Gerald drone on about his self-consequence, his place in the “grand scheme of things”, and how he intended to make his mark on the world that would surprise his wife’s relatives, and leave them—the Duke of Roxton in particular—speechless.

Christopher had been tasked to discover precisely how Sir Gerald intended to leave his mark, knowing it had to do with the war in the American Colonies. The Spymaster General Lord Shrewsbury suspected Sir Gerald of high treason for passing state secrets to the French to help their new-found friends, the American patriots, win the war against their English masters. Christopher was to get the proof of this treason, spending more hours than he cared to remember keeping company with his drunkard neighbor.

Information gleaned from these conversations was written up in reports to the Spymaster. But there were some details Christopher kept to himself. Details he would rather not know, intimate details about his neighbor’s marriage, and the Lady Mary. And it confirmed Christopher’s private opinion: Such a pretty little redhead as the Lady Mary was wasted on the likes of the boorish Sir Gerald. What was the point of making love if all the senses were not engaged? Bedding her should have been an honor and a delight…

To gaze upon her stripped out of corset and chemise, feminine curves bathed in the soft yellow glow of candlelight, glorious red hair tumbled to the small of her back… To have her hips moving with desire as he—

“Mr. Bryce—Mr. Bryce, are you attending me?” Lady Mary demanded, taking a step closer to the desk when he did not blink or answer immediately. “I knew my coming here would cause considerable curiosity, but I could think of no other way of speaking with you in private because I—Mr. Bryce?” She peered at him, frowning, realizing his thoughts were anywhere but in his office. “Are you certain it is not too warm in here because your face is flushed and you are looking—”

“No. It is not too warm!” he blurted out rudely, lust and the guilt which came with illicit longing making his tone harsher than he intended. “I may, may I not, keep my office as warm as I please and work in my shirtsleeves—or-or nightshirt—if I so wish it!?”

“Yes. Yes, of course you may,” she stammered, shocked by his unexpected and uncharacteristic incivility.

Yet when she continued to stare at him, his guilt increased, wondering if indeed his expression had in some bizarre way reflected his deepest unattainable desire. So ludicrous it was laughable, and pathetic, because it would never occur to her, not in a thousand full moons, that a Cotswold squire’s daydreams were filled with wanton thoughts of her.

But because Mr. Deed was also staring at him as if he had had a momentary mental lapse, he offered up a convoluted explanation, one designed not only to allow him to regain his equilibrium in mind and body, but which would also reinstate—even if it was only his thoughts which had wandered across the social divide—the societal distance required of him as steward and a nobleman’s daughter; their disparate births, her rank, and his position demanded it. So he stated the obvious, which she already knew, and which would surely reconstruct that metaphorical stone wall of icy cordiality and formality that must exist between them.

“I should not need to remind you that this estate is in dire financial circumstances—”

“I am well aware of its-its—circumstances, Mr. Bryce. You remind me at every opportunity—”

“—because Sir Gerald lived well beyond his means,” Christopher continued tonelessly. “Your husband’s wants far exceeded his needs and his income. He spent excessively on all manner of impractical objects—snuff-boxes, Sevres porcelain, and expensive carriage clocks—items of no use to the effective management of this estate. He also kept a vast number of servants, employed to perform the most menial of tasks—an unnecessary conceit, and one he could ill-afford. No doubt the government’s new tax on male servants to pay for the war in the colonies will have little effect on the size of His Grace of Roxton’s household retinue. The burden of such taxation, as always, falls on those least likely to be able to carry it. I know you do not wish your nephew to be presented with an encumbered estate when he comes of age.”

“Mr. Bryce, you are correct. I do not want Jack to inherit an economic ruin. Nor do I require another lecture on Sir Gerald’s excesses. But perhaps you require reminding that acting as steward, it is your business to balance the books, not to pass judgment on my husband’s character. Nor do I understand why you have singled out His Grace of Roxton for particular censure. The Duke has graciously permitted you to do as you please where this estate is concerned, even though he could, if he so wished it, remove you from your post and put another in your place.”

Christopher opened his mouth to comment when the thud of a chair hitting up against the wall turned his attention to his assistant. Mr. Deed stumbled backwards but in two strides Christopher had him by his bony elbow and pulled him to his feet. He quickly set the chair to rights and eased the elderly man onto it, telling him in an undervoice to remain seated. He then returned to stand behind his desk and pointed to the chair set out for Lady Mary.

“Sit. I am not asking you. I insist. In doing so, I may sit. And Mr. Deed may remain seated and ease the pain in his arthritic knees. I know you do not wish to be impolite. Nor would you deny him the warmth of a good fire so that he may do his work on behalf of this estate without pain.”

Instantly, Lady Mary was contrite and sat as requested. She spread her quilted petticoats and perched on the very edge of the chair, back straight and hands in her lap. Her glance and small nod of acknowledgment at Mr. Deed softened Christopher’s mouth, and he leaned forward in his chair, clasped hands on his desk, and addressed her as if she were the only person in the room.

“I don’t wish to argue with you, my lady,” he said quietly. “But you have been misinformed if you believe the Duke of Roxton has any power over me. I have taken on the role of steward because Sir Gerald, in his last will and testament, charged me with this duty and I accepted it. If you wish me to go over that document with you—”

“No. No. I could not bear it. Not again. It is enough of a humiliation my husband saw fit to draw up such a despicable will. That my daughter and I are left to the mercy of a stranger—”

Christopher’s eyes went dull and he sat back.

“A stranger? Not quite. Surely, as your neighbor, I have not been a stranger to you these past eight years? But, please,” he purred, the metaphorical societal wall between them well and truly back in place, “tell me in what way you are at my mercy?”

“You know perfectly well what you have done!” Lady Mary retorted, and immediately had to rack her brain to come up with at least one plausible example of the Squire’s interference in her day-to-day life that would not make her sound petty and ungrateful.

After all, she and Teddy remained at Abbeywood under his good graces, and if she were truthful, their lives had changed minimally since Sir Gerald’s death. Except perhaps where their freedom of movement—her daughter’s in particular—was concerned. So she latched on to this tangible example, one that continued to frustrate and confound her.

“It is a mystery to me—indeed to my family—why Sir Gerald appointed you as Teddy’s guardian, and not a member of her family. My brother—her uncle—would have been a more suitable choice. Teddy loves her Uncle Dair, and they have similar temperaments, both preferring to be out-of-doors and physically active. I grant Dair was unmarried at the time of Sir Gerald’s death, but you, too, are a bachelor, Mr. Bryce. And of longer standing than my brother, who is newly married. And his wife, the Lady Fitzstuart, is the sweetest creature imaginable. Regardless of his unmarried or married state, he would have welcomed the opportunity to be T—”

“At this moment Lord Fitzstuart is on his way to Barbados. So he is not only an absent husband, but you would have him an absent guardian, also.”

“He did not leave his bride to sail off to the Barbados by choice! As I told you in my letter from Treat: He’s gone in search of our father. The Earl has been missing since a hurricane devastated the island. Many thousands are said to have perished, and every structure and living thing flattened to dust! That is the worst of possible circumstances, and in all probability our father is—our father is—dead, and he—Dair—he will have the gruesome task of identifying a rotting corpse! And you have the-the impertinence to suggest because he is doing his duty he would not be a fit guardian for my daughter?”

“Yes. And I am sorry for it,” Christopher replied, leaning across his desk and offering her his plain linen handkerchief.

While she had been talking, Lady Mary had grown increasingly agitated, shoving her hands under her apron and into the slits in her petticoats, searching the two pockets for, he presumed, her handkerchief. So he was pleased when she took his and dabbed at her eyes. He hated seeing her in tears, and loathed himself for causing her distress.

“It was not my wish to upset you, only to make the point that had Major Lord Fitzstuart been Teddy’s guardian, and he now absent from England, you would be without his guidance should you require it. And he does not need the added burden while carrying out his duty to his father, of worrying over his niece. He can at least breathe easy, knowing her interests are being taken care of, and concentrate on the distressing task before him. That he has had to leave his young bride a month after their honeymoon is surely more than one man should have to bear.”

Lady Mary nodded, a good deal calmer, the folded linen handkerchief now in her lap.

“That is true, Mr. Bryce,” she conceded. “But if not Dair, then Sir Gerald did not have to look further afield than my cousin Roxton. The Duke is head of my family. Indeed he is head of a great many families connected by birth or marriage to the dukedom. He has been guardian to Sir Gerald’s nephew and heir Jack for almost ten years. And he is a most excellent and loving papa to his own children. Surely you must see that Roxton was the right and proper person to be named Teddy’s guardian.”

“I do not see it, my lady.”

Christopher had never met the Duke and hoped he would never have cause to do so. Amongst Sir Gerald’s alcohol-fueled confidences had been many an anecdote about Lady Mary’s cousin, and none of them complimentary. He had learned that Roxton was the reason Sir Gerald had withdrawn from Polite Society. While he had little respect for the man—and he was certain Polite Society did not miss Sir Gerald’s self-important pontifications—he did have some sympathy for the Baronet’s shabby treatment at the hands of his wife’s relative. Sir Gerald’s confidences about the lascivious behavior of Roxton and his ilk came as no surprise, but Christopher did not believe for one moment the more salacious rumor that the Duke, and not Sir Gerald, was Teddy’s true parent. If for no other reason than he did not believe the Lady Mary capable of deceit, carnal or otherwise. Her conceit would never allow her to stoop to being a man’s mistress, not even if that man was a duke. That was Sir Gerald’s drunkenness talking. Though he was very sure Sir Gerald had been utterly sober when he stipulated in his will that his only child, Theodora Charlotte Cavendish, must spend the years until her twenty-first birthday, or her marriage, whichever was the sooner, at Abbeywood, under the guardianship of his neighbor, Mr. Christopher Bryce, or forfeit a dowry of four thousand pounds held in trust.

“If you were to accept the Duke’s invitation and visit Treat,” Lady Mary argued, “and if you were to allow Teddy and me to accompany you, I am convinced you would agree that the estate is the most suitable place for her—for us—to live.”

“You are free to live where you please, my lady. But Teddy will remain here, as was Sir Gerald’s wish.”

“If you were a parent you would understand that I am not free. Nor do I wish to be free if it means being parted from my daughter. I am her mother, and even you are aware that I love her very much, and so I must live where she lives.”

“Then we are in accord, my lady. You both will remain here at Abbeywood. And if ever you desire to visit your cousins, you are free to do so. Now, if that was why you came here, to try and persuade me, yet again, to allow Teddy to go live amongst her Roxton cousins, then, yet again, I must disappoint you.”

He extracted the Duke of Roxton’s sealed letter out from under the one he had been reading before Lady Mary had interrupted his morning’s schedule, and held it out to her. He hoped it would banish her mulish expression and any ill-will she was feeling at what she no doubt considered his high-handedness. He then made motions to stand.

“This came today, and it is from your illustrious relative. No doubt it contains the news you’ve been waiting to hear. Now please excuse me; there are quite a few persons waiting to see me.”

It said a good deal about her preoccupation with her thoughts when she exchanged his handkerchief for the letter with a perfunctory “thank-you”, then slipped it into a pocket. So he patiently waited for her to speak, surprised at her unresponsiveness. Usually when he handed over correspondence from her relatives she was all smiles, and so breathless with anticipation to read their news that she could hardly wait for him to quit her company so she could read in private.

Not today. And so he silently waited for her to tell him why she had made the journey to his office at the back of the manor house.

“Mr. Bryce, I had hoped to speak to you entirely alone, but I also do not want to inconvenience Mr. Deed by having him leave the warmth of this room, so if he can assure me what I have to say will go no further, then I will confide in you. I have no wish to upset the servants—”

“My lady, you have my complete confidence!”

“Thank-you, Mr. Deed,” Christopher stated at his assistant’s outburst, and nodded to Lady Mary. “How may I—how may we—be of assistance?”

Lady Mary sat up very straight before leaning forward, as if not wishing to be overheard. Her violet eyes widened and her mouth trembled. Christopher could not help but lean forward, too, his gaze not on her lovely eyes but on her plump lower lip and that tremble. Her voice was a whisper, and he strained to hear her every word.

“Mr. Bryce, there is—that is—I am very certain—Sir Gerald’s bedchamber is-is haunted. There is a-a ghost!”