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Unexpected Danger


By Lisa E. Pugh

Contents

Acknowledgments

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Epilogue

About Lisa E. Pugh

Connect with Lisa E. Pugh

Acknowledgments

To my husband, Richard, who always has my back. Thank you for your patience, child wrangling, and understanding. You have always supported me and our children like a champ.

To my daughter, Caitlin, and my friends, Fran Cecere and Penny Patterson, who provided beta-reading. To Caryn Moya Block, for all her help with the technical and marketing side of self-publishing.

To Debbie Lehner White who provided excellent editing of the manuscript and advice when asked her opinion over and over. You are a very patient person, and I’m very grateful.

Special acknowledgment goes to the Windmore Foundation’s Pen-to-Paper writer’s group whose members always provide encouragement and helpful criticism.

—Lisa E. Pugh

Chapter 1

Damn it! Margaret Taylor gazed with disgust at the box-filled room. She had been in her house for over forty-eight hours, and it looked just as cluttered and unfinished as when she first arrived. Even her phonograph blaring the latest hit, Rhapsody in Blue, did not help lighten her mood. Swearing in frustration, she rubbed her hazel eyes and brushed dirty fingers through her short black hair.

Was she ever going to be done?

She had moved to this small village in Oxfordshire to be closer to her research materials at the University. Certain Oxford colleges were given documents from the Great War—that travesty from 1914 to 1918. This academic coup was quite a feat since the ten-year-old papers were considered state secrets not long ago. Though some old-school-tie favoritism was suspected in which colleges were granted the materials, many journalists, writers, and scholars swarmed to view these relics from the very recent past.

She wanted access to those documents. She had planned to view them herself. Now, she wondered if she would have time to visit those hallowed halls at all.

The doorbell rang. With a sigh, Margaret walked into the foyer and answered the summons. Two ladies stood smiling on the threshold. One was a fresh-faced, dark-haired woman of about eighteen, perhaps nine years younger than Margaret. The other, more sophisticated in appearance, was dark blond and older, perhaps in her mid-thirties. Taken aback by their sudden appearance, she simply stared at them.

“Good morning,” said the older woman. “Miss Taylor, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Margaret replied, startled the stranger knew her name.

“My name is Teresa Houseman, and this is Lara Raimond. We heard that you were moving into the area, and we thought we’d come by to welcome you to the village.”

“Thank you very much. I’d love to ask you in for tea, but I’m afraid…” She gestured to the chaos inside.

“We quite understand. Your house must feel as cluttered as a pawnbroker’s after a stock market crash. That’s why we’d like to take you out to lunch. Consider it sort of a ‘new neighbor’ celebration-cum-work-break.”

“Thank you. I could use a break. Let me get my purse and freshen up a bit.” Glancing around, she stepped inside and cleared two chairs of their boxes. “You’d better come in. You can sit here. I won’t be a moment.”



Fifteen minutes later, the three ladies were gathered around a table in a small tearoom. Like many of the buildings on the main street, the structure was only two floors high. It had a limestone façade and a dark wood interior. Margaret thought the architecture a big switch from London's tall, imposing edifices of brick and stone.

She observed her companions over a cup of tea. They teased each other and laughed as only old friends could. If ever there were two people more different and yet more complimentary, she would be hard-pressed to find them.

Teresa Houseman may have been in her thirties, but she had the temperament of one much older and the well-aimed sarcasm of the landed aristocracy. Every once in a while, a flash of fire or levity lit her face and conversation, but she was otherwise very composed. Her honey-colored hair was styled so severely, Margaret wondered what crime it committed for punishment such as that.

Surprisingly, this aristocrat seemed perfectly open to the newcomer. She did not have the standoffish attitude new arrivals sometimes found in small villages. She also had a wicked sense of humor when she wished to and was not above indulging in verbal sparring. Her smile at Lara’s more animated behavior was often indulgent but rarely condescending.

Teresa had large gray-blue eyes and a wiry build. Her preferred mode of dress was the short-sleeve, dropped-waist frock and jacket of the modern woman at leisure. She smoked cigarettes casually from an amber holder. However, she was considerate enough to exhale the fumes away from those around her. Her face was thin and angular but quite pleasant when she smiled without irony.

Lara Raimond, on the other hand, was as effervescent as her companion was poised. She seemed completely without affectation. Talking with her but a few moments soon revealed that she was a romantic, though not a helpless one. Like Margaret, she was also a devotee of crime thrillers and mysteries.

Though Lara spoke freely and candidly, she lacked the pretension of confidentiality some put on their revelations. Yet she was never crude or common. Her ability to skirt what was sometimes a vague line spoke to her intelligence and probably the experience she had gained by being around Teresa.

Dark-haired, dark-eyed and vigorous, the younger woman had the robust and rosy-cheeked prettiness one expected in the countryside. Her fashion was that of long skirts, blouses, and vests in a more casual style than her friend. While not quite achieving a free-spirited persona, she managed to emanate a pixie-like quality that was both delightful and infectious.

It turned out that she was the schoolteacher’s daughter, so she had an education and, on some subjects, a strong sense of decorum and propriety. Teresa often teased her, making offhanded comments designed to shock. Yet they seemed to know each other’s limits and never went far beyond them, even in jest.

With the younger one providing frankness, simplicity, and a break from the pomposity and posturing of the elder’s social class, it was a happy arrangement. Judging by Lara's clothes and conversation, Teresa had introduced her to a world of sophistication, style, and modern thought.

Even though Margaret was only the daughter of a country squire, Teresa, who had a better pedigree, seemed pleased to have a fellow member of nobility in her village. She especially appreciated that Margaret was from the City.

“It is wonderful to have someone here who has lived in London,” she admitted. “Until you came, Lara was the only other person here with whom I could converse about anything besides crops and livestock.”

The two friends certainly seemed well informed on all the gossip of the village. They told her which shopkeepers tended to overcharge, which men to beware of, and which members of the community could be trusted. But, amidst this flood of information, there was one thing they did not tell Margaret. In the end, she decided to ask.

“As I drove into the village yesterday, I saw a large Tudor-style house just beyond the outskirts. Who lives there?”

After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Lara answered. “That is the Tobias manor.”

“Who is that?”

Puffing a smoke cloud in the air, Teresa explained, “The Tobiases, who are the Earls of Yawron, have been here longer than any other noble family. Their roots even predate the Conqueror. A timely marriage to a Norman permitted the family to retain their holdings after Hastings fell, and they added to the original parcel of land through centuries of political and military maneuvering.”

“I see.” It was an old story. Ambition, greed, and Machiavellian maneuvering had created pockets of strong personal influence all across Britain. Why should this village be any different?

Teresa continued, “They owned this village until the turn of the century. Even though their legal responsibility has ended, their influence continues to be felt. Many repairs to the village are still funded, at least in part, by the Tobias family. They see it as their duty. Noblesse oblige and all that.”

“That’s remarkably generous of them.” Margaret frowned. “So why the awkward silence when I asked about the house? If there’s no real bad blood…”

Teresa gave her a strange look and stayed quiet. Lara picked up the story. “Christopher Tobias, that’s the present earl, hasn’t been seen in the village for over fifteen years. He doesn’t even ride through as his father sometimes did. His groceries are ordered by his butler and delivered to his door.”

“Why does he keep away?”

Lara raised a shoulder to her ear in a half-shrug. “They say an accident left him terribly disfigured, and he locked himself away to avoid looks of horrified disgust.”

“Oh. And no one has talked with him since then?”

Teresa shook her head. “Some friends and other locals tried for a while. After they were continually turned away, well… they just stopped. Almost no one has been there in ages.”

The woman paused to exhale smoke away from her companions. “The village physician, Doctor Rowan, is perhaps the one exception. He saved the current Lord Yawron’s life and helped him through his recovery. He used to go there quite frequently. I don’t think even he has been there since the elder lord’s last illness at the end of the War. All the earl’s servants come into town for help. Otherwise, the doors are sealed to all visitors. But they needn’t be. No one would go up there.”

“Why not?”

“There are rumors that the isolation has turned his mind.” Lara gave the answer in a hushed excited tone.

Margaret snorted. “They say that about everyone who lives alone. People probably have said it about me. Hasn’t anyone gone to verify this rumor?”

“Oh no,” Lara said, shaking her head vehemently. “No one dares. When I was younger, just leaping the wall was a sign of bravery, and that’s nowhere close to the house. No one has ever dared to do more than that.”

“Oh,” Margaret glanced out the window. “It must be terribly lonely up there.”

Lara frowned as if considering that idea for the first time. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

“The exile is self-imposed,” Teresa remarked brusquely.

“That seems a bit unkind.” Margaret reacted with a wince. “True, but still…”

“Let’s not talk anymore about it,” Teresa said with firm finality. “This was supposed to be a party, remember? So, Margaret, what do you think of your new house?”



As the days passed, Margaret got her house in order. It was a small bungalow but quite generous for a single person. The large, hedge-enclosed garden that surrounded it had a lovely, chaotic order to it. Most importantly, the house had plenty of room for her books and papers. All in all, it was a snug little home.

She continued to exchange visits with Lara and Teresa. Through them she learned more about the families in the district. The Tobiases still held a fascination for her, but she tried not to be too obvious in her prying.

Teresa seemed strangely reticent about the current earl and his family, despite the fact that she obviously knew them and their long history well. She even seemed irritated by Margaret’s natural interest.

Though she could not find out anything more about the peer, the history of his ancestors was gradually revealed to her. What she did not learn from her friends, she could easily find from others in the village, the local museum, or the library.

The family began in the normal way, with the bloody escapades of knights. A few royal sexual favors to the wives and daughters of these knights, and the financial and social advancement that often followed, allowed the family rank and fortune to rise. They gained land by the sword and between the sheets for many centuries. The last recognized bastard appeared during the reign of Charles II.

Though knights as a fighting force died out long ago, the Tobias men’s military service continued up to the present lord’s accident. Colonel Richard Tobias, his lordship’s father, had served in India, Africa, Asia, and in the Boer Wars. It was expected from the young heir’s birth that he would follow him into the service.

Many said that the disappointment of this ambition, together with the early death of her ladyship, broke the old man’s heart. The former earl died within a few years of his wife. The current Lord Yawron was an only child, and, of course, he had never married. With him the ancient line will die. Distant cousins in Scotland would take up the robes instead.

Margaret was fascinated by the story. She knew that her mother would have been shocked by several of the more salacious details. Yet this was the twentieth century, and Margaret had developed a more open-minded viewpoint.



One weekend, on her way to London to visit her mother, Margaret stopped her trusty Morris motor outside the walls of the Tobias estate. Walking to the gate, she gazed at the weathered-stone walls of the mansion set high on a hill. She paid special attention to the windows of the towers. There seemed to be no movement within. The house looked deserted. If anyone saw her from inside the house, she did not see them.


Arriving home from her trip, Margaret found an envelope pushed through her letter box. The message within was on a very high-quality pasteboard and written in an elaborate Edwardian script. It said:

Miss Margaret Taylor,

I request the honor of your company at dinner a fortnight from tomorrow, April the twentieth, at six o’clock.

Christopher Tobias, Forty-Fifth Earl of Yawron


“Well, I never,” Margaret swore under her breath. “His lordship ‘requests the honor’ of my company. I’ll have to give this proposition careful thought.”

Chapter 2

“You can’t seriously consider this invitation, Mags,” Lara declared.

Lara gave Margaret the pet name, Mags, within two weeks of their acquaintance. The familiarity was perhaps created a little quickly, but Margaret did not mind. Lara was like that; open to just about everyone. Margaret was happy that she found someone so willing to be her friend, when acceptance in small towns could be difficult for outsiders.

It was three days after the letter’s arrival, and Margaret had invited her two friends to lunch. They were gathered in the breakfast nook by the bow window. Though she already knew what their answers would be, she asked them about the earl’s request.

“Why shouldn’t I, if he’s serious about inviting me? I’ve never been asked to the house of a baronet, let alone an earl. I should at least consider it.”

“No you shouldn’t,” the girl insisted. “You don’t know the man. And you’re thinking about going to his house alone?”

“Would you like to come as a chaperone?” Margaret flashed her teeth in a parody of a smile.

“Not for all the chocolate in Belgium!”

Teresa laughed, incredulous. “But, Margaret, darling, you simply can’t be serious! We’ve explained what he’s like.”

“You’ve explained what you think he’s like. Have either of you ever met him?”

Lara shook her head. “I was too young when the accident happened. Besides, I’m not an aristocrat.”

“Of course, I’ve met him,” Teresa replied coolly.

Startled by this reply, Margaret asked, “When?”

“Oh, it was years ago. We moved in the same circles, you see.”

“How did you find him?”

“He was a fine-looking man at the time. He seemed charming, well-mannered, generous, and all that, but I was young and flighty, and that was…”

“That was before he became a hermit. So no one knows what he might be like now?”

The older woman shrugged. “If you meet Timothy Brenlaw, you could ask him.”

“And who is he?”

“He’s Lord Yawron’s butler. He comes in with the grocery order for the house. He’s a good man, loyal and honest, hard-working, and as discreet as they come. My father tried to win him away for our family more than once. Never succeeded, more’s the pity.”

Lara glanced out the window. “Why, there he is now, going into Mr. Logan’s shop. That’s a strange bit of luck.”

The man Lara indicated entering the grocer’s store was not what Margaret would have expected. Her image of a butler was a tall, severe, funereal man, who was so old that he might have been Moses’ personal friend. Brenlaw was tall and certainly not young, but his face had a healthy fullness and rosy color. He smiled and politely greeted everyone who passed him.

“Sherlock Holmes once said that a dog reflects the household,” Margaret mused. “I wonder what he would say about butlers.”

Lara snorted. “Mr. Brenlaw’s probably just glad to get out of that house. I know I would be.”

“Perhaps.” Margaret had not taken her eyes off the figure across the street.

“Well, Mags, now is your chance to ask about the earl.”

“Of course, you don’t have to,” Teresa pointed out. “You could just leave it alone and say no.”

“True, I could.” Margaret rose from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

She hurried outside without looking back. The road, as usual, was fairly quiet. With a quick look left and right, she trotted across the street.



“What do you think?” Teresa asked, watching with an evaluating gaze as her friend entered the grocer’s store.

“She’ll turn down the offer,” Lara replied confidently.

“You think so?”

“She’s a fool if she doesn’t. What are you thinking?”

“Well, I don’t think she’s a fool. No more than the rest of us. But she has a great deal of curiosity. She also may have as bad a case of the romantics as you do.”

Lara rolled her eyes at the commonly used insult. “She wouldn’t risk her life just to satisfy her curiosity.”

“People have done it before. I might, in her shoes.” She frowned, and then smiled. “But I am sure you’re right. Margaret is quite level-headed. She would never do anything truly dangerous.”



Margaret walked into the shop in what she hoped was a casual manner. Inside, she was as nervous and excited as a tomcat crawling through an unfamiliar alley. Trying to school her voice, she called, “Good morning, Mr. Logan.”

“Good morning, Miss Taylor,” The heavyset, brown haired and mustachioed grocer replied. “Oh, Miss Taylor, I don’t think you’ve met Mr. Timothy Brenlaw, Lord Yawron’s butler.”

“No, I haven’t.” She acknowledged the stranger's bow and offered her hand.

He took her palm with the utmost politeness, but he shook it almost reticently as if unused to the common greeting. Perhaps he was unaccustomed to shaking hands. It was not the traditional way to greet another person’s servant, after all.

Margaret smiled, hoping to smooth over any faux pas she might have committed. “Glad to meet you, Mr. Brenlaw.”

“And I you, Miss Taylor. I was just telling Logan here that we may need more provisions in a few weeks. I hope you will choose to accept his lordship’s invitation.”

“I am giving it careful consideration. Actually, I wanted to ask you about that. How did he know about me?”

“The village was buzzing about your arrival for weeks before you actually arrived. The servants of the house were speculating like mad about you. He could not help but hear about it. And while observing the countryside with binoculars, he saw you stop at the gates the other day—‘looking up,’ as his lordship put it, ‘with such naked curiosity and shameless intensity that the house blushed’—he decided he wanted to meet you.”

So that was when he saw me. Margaret stifled a smile. “I see. Still, dinner with a stranger?”

“It was the most convenient time for him.” He grinned briefly. “He is used to things being convenient for him.”

“Of course. I understand he doesn’t usually have guests.”

In an instant, the man’s face turned grave. “No, miss. Not these fifteen years or more. We are all very happy that he is willing to entertain again.”

“All?”

“I am not his only servant. His old nurse, who now acts as housekeeper, is still a part of the household. And there are the footmen, the parlor maids, the chambermaids, the cook and her staff, and the grooms at the stables.”

“He rides?”

“Yes. He is not the total recluse people believe. No, he rides around the grounds quite often. His life is lonely, but it has its amusements. Shall I tell him you will come?”

“Ah.” Margaret paused.

Trying to convince her, he casually pointed out, “It will not be just you and him. Since he has been isolated up there, he has permitted us to join him at table. In that way, his meals are not so boring.”

“Can I rely on you to act as chaperone?” she asked, “Or should I regard you the way servants are portrayed in Gothic literature, soldiers totally loyal to their masters and not to be trusted?”

He blinked at her direct question. She could not tell if he was amused or scandalized. Thinking a moment, he answered carefully, “My allegiance and sympathies may be to my employer, but I do not wish to see his reputation tarnished any more than I would wish that on you. Mister Logan can speak to my own and my family's honor, or lack of it. If you let several of your friends know of your plans, nothing nefarious can happen to you without someone noticing.”

“That is true. Mr. Logan?”

The shopkeeper turned from tactfully sorting shelves behind the counter, so it did not seem he was listening, and raised an eyebrow. “Given your original question, I'm amazed you would accept information or assurances from any of us in town. For centuries, our families were dependent on the Tobiases. In some ways, we still are.”

Margaret laughed. “You forget that I have heard you in the pub. You are far more socialist than traditionalist.”

The gruff man smiled. “Still, I'm flattered that you'd trust me.”

“I do. Teresa and Lara say good things about you, and I trust their judgment.”

“I can tell you this, miss. I have known Timothy here since we were young boys. I've never known anyone more honest or reliable. If he gives you his word on something, it's gospel. Even if it goes against his best interest.”

Turning back to the butler, she asked, “Will you promise to see me through this adventure safely, Mr. Brenlaw?”

“I will.” He sighed in obvious relief. “If you come to the house, I will make certain nothing offensive or untoward happens to you. You will be treated as an honored guest, and no one—and I mean no one—will accost you under our roof, on the estate, or anywhere between there and your house. I swear on my life.”

She stared at him speculatively a moment longer. He sounded about as genuine as a man could sound. The pride and assurance in his voice inspired confidence.

Straightening her shoulders, she replied, “Then yes, I’ll come.”

“Thank you, miss. Good day, then.” Repressing a smile very badly, the man bowed slightly, touched his hat, and departed.

As soon as he was gone, Margaret turned to the grocer. “Oh dear. What am I going to tell Teresa and Lara?”

Mr. Logan rested both hands on the counter and leaned on them. “The truth, I suppose. Not much else you can tell them, is there?”

“No, I guess not. Thank you for the introduction and the testimonial.”

“My pleasure. And don't believe everything you hear about his lordship. I may be 'more socialist than traditionalist' as you say, but that man doesn't deserve the talk that surrounds him.”

“I tend to make up my own mind. Ta!” With a wave, she strolled out of the store.



As soon as Margaret reached their table, Lara remarked excitedly, “You were gone a long time. What happened?”

Margaret sat down calmly, braced herself and admitted, “I told him I’d go.”

“What?” Teresa cried.

“You must be joking!” Lara added.

Margaret shook her head. “I assure you, I’m not.”

“Do you have any idea how dangerous that is, Mags?”

“This isn’t some Gothic horror story. He won’t be chasing me around with a hatchet or locking me up in the dungeon.”

“You never know…”

“He’s not alone there. The house has plenty of servants. And, Teresa, you told me yourself that Brenlaw is a good man. He said he would make certain nothing would happen. Mr. Logan also assures me that his word is good. Besides, he doesn’t seem the sort to lure unsuspecting females into what the novelists call ‘his master’s web of debauchery.’ ”

“Maybe not and yet…”

“Besides, according to Brenlaw, he doesn’t spend all his time in the house. He gets out onto the estate and rides.”

Teresa scoffed, “And that indicates a sane man?”

“I thought it would, especially for landed gentry.”

“Perhaps so, in just about any other case but this one.”

“At least he’s not stuck in that house all day.”

Horrified, Lara tried again, “Please, Mags, reflect. You’re planning to go to the house of a man you’ve never met—an isolated house, mind you, miles from anywhere.”

“Yes, I know. I can’t explain it. I’m just trusting my instincts.”

Teresa blew a ring of smoke into the air. “The risk to your reputation should be enough to give you pause.”

“It’s not like I plan to stay the night.”

“An hour or two can produce notoriety just as easily. Take care.”

“The offer of the position of chaperone still stands,” Margaret suggested, glancing at her companions expectantly. “No? I didn’t think so.”

“Teresa’s right,” Lara commented. “You can’t risk your life and reputation.”

“Brenlaw assured me that nothing was going to happen. He has a good reputation in this village. Surely his word in my favor should count.”

Teresa snorted. “Now you are just being deliberately naive. A place like this thrives on gossip, the more prurient the better.”

Margaret paused. Worry and fear flashed over her face. A shudder ran up her spine. She knew the sort of rumors Teresa meant. Could she tolerate such slanders? And for what? A man she had never met?

And yet, the writer and journalist in her could not give up such a fascinating story or abandon such an enigma. Maybe it was her “romantic nature,” but something about his situation called to her. It drew her like a moth to a flame. Hopefully, it would not have equally disastrous results.

She stiffened her spine and set her face in stubborn lines. “Say what you like. I’ve accepted the invitation, and I can hardly withdraw it.”

“Why not?”

“It would be… impolite.” Margaret scowled, daring her friends to laugh at her explanation.

“Mags, what’s a little rudeness compared with your life?” Lara insisted.

“I won’t have him thinking that I was scared off by wild tales.”

“Why should you care what he thinks?”

“He took a risk inviting me. You both said he hadn’t invited anyone there in years.”

“And if the rumors prove true?”

“If they prove true, then you can put on my tombstone, ‘Here lies Margaret Taylor, a conceited bitch who just wouldn’t listen to her friends.’ ”

“We just might have to do that,” Teresa remarked dryly.

Chapter 3

As the days passed, Margaret began to wonder if her friends were right. What did she really know about this strange earl? She only knew what Teresa and Lara told her, and most of that was conjecture. How would the village interpret her visit?

Why did he invite her in the first place? It was a strange thing to do. She was new to the district, he did not know her, and her family was not of a rank that would make such an invitation obligatory, even under ordinary circumstances.

She had almost convinced herself that a polite withdrawal would be for the best, when a dozen white carnations were delivered to her door. The note attached simply said:

Miss Taylor,

Thank you for accepting my invitation. It was very kind of you. I look forward to meeting you on the twentieth.

Christopher Tobias, Forty Fifth Earl of Yawron.

“I wonder if this man can read minds,” she wondered. “He certainly timed these flowers right.”

She studied the note. It was definitely in the same hand as the first message. This time, the elegant penmanship was a little more cramped and sharp. If words could have a personality, she would describe this brief missive as nervous and excited. There was a suppressed agitation, implying the writer had kept himself under tight control while writing. It seemed Lord Yawron was looking forward to her arrival.

What must it be like to live for fifteen years with no friends at all? Servants were not friends, no matter how liberal the employer. Barriers still existed. He or she could not have certain kinds of discussions with them. Brenlaw was probably intelligent enough to have such conversations, but there were always boundaries of propriety and pride.

She had experienced a few periods of social isolation, but she was able to move somewhere else and make new connections. She was not tied to any one place. There was nothing physical about her that would prevent or even hinder building new friendships.

If Lord Yawron had been seriously injured or maimed, any chance to start over would be severely hampered. His roots were here, and his estate was here. He could be just as alone in London as in his home village. Given what Brenlaw said about his lordship's expectations, he probably would not tolerate pity or rejection from anyone, stranger or friend.

“I’ll go. It is probably the most ridiculous, reckless, and irresponsible thing I have ever done, but I want to meet this man.” Sighing, she shrugged. “I have always been too curious for my own good.”

Turning the situation over in her mind, she went to get a vase.



The big day arrived with squalls and sheets of rain. If she believed in omens, Margaret would have said the tempest did not bode well. However, never one to have the weather dictate her behavior beyond her choice of clothes, she removed a sleeveless black evening dress—a fashionable yet modest two-and-a-half inches below the knee—from her closet and began to get ready.

Her hair was short, so a few moments with curling tongs were all she needed to achieve the look she wanted. She adorned herself with simple earrings and her favorite glass-bead bracelets and necklaces. Taking into account his upbringing, she was a little conservative with her eyeliner and other makeup. She considered, for a moment, wearing her feathered headband. In the end, she settled for a simple diamond hairpin with a slight flourish of red feathers.

Best not push too much modernity on the poor boy, she thought with a smile. Then with a final check in the mirror, she pulled on her slicker and rain hat and headed out the door.



She left early on account of the storm. Even so, the country roads were atrocious. She had to drive slowly to avoid doing real damage to her beloved Morris motor, a dependable dark green automobile she had worked hard to afford.

Arriving at the estate entrance, she stopped her car and began to open the door. Two figures scurried out of the gloom, men with mackintoshes and slouch hats. They signaled for her to lower the window.

“Miss Taylor?” One of the shadows asked.

“Yes?”

“We was told you was coming. Just you stay where you are, miss. We’ll open the gates for you.”

Quickly, they pulled the portal open. They were efficient and focused, their serious faces occasionally lit by the car’s headlights. With a thank you and a wave, Margaret started up the long drive.

The approach to the house looked unkempt and sagging, but it might have been the storm’s work. There were huge oaks with overhanging limbs on either side of the road. The lightning revealed that she was traveling through a large wood. Blazing white flashes displayed the trees in startling, almost frightening silhouettes.

How large is this estate? Margaret wondered as the road twisted and turned up the hill.



After driving about a quarter-mile, a faint, steady glimmer indicated that Margaret was, at last, approaching the house. The road curved, and suddenly she was facing the mansion. Her headlights illuminated the entrance’s carved door and glistened off the wet stones of the facade. Candles lit the rooms on the lower floor. The flickering light glowed through the windows, some of which were stained glass and clearly of great age.

As a proper butler should, Brenlaw met Margaret at her car with an umbrella. In full uniform, he looked much more as she had originally imagined him. With detached politeness, he opened the car door and guided her inside.

Once within the massive doors, he took her coat and hat and led her through the front hall. He was fastidiously correct and eminently professional. Yet Margaret could see a hint of satisfaction in his eyes and a ghost of a smile on his lips.

Well, he’s certainly glad I’ve come, she thought.

Armed with a candelabrum, Brenlaw showed her through the dark foyer. The room's high ceiling disappeared into inky darkness. Above their heads, a shadowy minstrel gallery ran the perimeter of the room.

He guided her slowly through a long hall with imposing historical portraits lining the walls. The blank stares of the art unnerved her. The whole thing was chillingly closer to the Gothic tales she had mocked so casually the other day.

Finally, he opened a door into a spacious chamber, a sort of drawing room, and indicated the large lighted fireplace. “If you would like to warm yourself for a moment, I’ll bring you something to drink. His lordship will be down presently.”

She gratefully crossed the room to the large fire. “Thank you, Mr. Brenlaw.”

“Please, miss, it’s just Brenlaw here.”

“Oh.” She turned to him and blinked, startled.

“It’s custom.” The butler shrugged apologetically.

“Of course. I understand. Sorry.” She had forgotten the practice. It had been years since she lived in a home with a manservant, or, indeed, any servant after she left her mother's house.

“That’s all right, miss.” With a bow, he departed.

Left by herself, Margaret put her hands toward the heat and looked around the darkened room. The family’s coat of arms was mounted above the mantelpiece. Stylized dragons and lions rampant raged from the edges of a shield that bore symbols which described the family's connections clearly to someone who could understand them. Someone who knew what bars and chevrons meant. She was not one of those people.

The complexity of the elaborate decoration both impressed and intimidated her. This family had a long and storied history with layers and layers of blue blood. Hers had some age to it but nothing like this.

Compared to Lord Yawron, she was a peasant. Her father was a country squire in Cambridgeshire. She did not belong in an earl's home. This place was so far beyond her usual class that it boggled her mind.

The flickering light danced across antique furniture. Tapestries, watercolors, and oil paintings faintly echoed some of the flames' glow. The room was large, however, and the firelight did not penetrate the corners and niches.

The darkness was unnerving. The wind howled, moaned, and whistled through the ancient house as the storm continued to rage outside. Margaret’s stomach twisted and her fingers tingled with every flash of lightning and crash of thunder. Almost instinctively, she moved closer to the safety and warmth of the fire.



“Ah, Miss Taylor, I am glad we could meet at last.”

The sudden remark made her jump. She spun around. At that moment, lightning forked across the sky, illuminating the entire room for a moment.

The new arrival was caught in the flash. He was tall and slender and wrapped in a long cloak with a wide hood. A second later, the blaze on the hearth was the only light, and she could see very little of him.

The dark figure approached her apologetically. “I am sorry. I did not mean to startle you.”

“The storm was so loud, I didn’t hear you come in.” Suddenly remembering to whom she was speaking, she dropped into a clumsy curtsy. “My lord.”

“Please!” With a chuckle, the man reached out his long hand and helped her to her feet. “I get enough of that from the servants. I invited you here for some company. I wish for us to spend the evening as simply friends. Therefore, all formalities are waived for the entire night. You may call me Christopher.”

He had a pleasant laugh, and his rich cultured voice spoke of a very expensive and thorough education. He displayed excellent manners. As fitted his original intended career, he possessed a military bearing and the air of an officer.

Margaret definitely did not feel comfortable addressing an earl by his Christian name. Years of training would not be so easily overcome. “Yes, my lord.”

“Please,” he corrected gently, “Christopher.”

She bit her lip in thought. What harm would it cause to do as he asked? He wanted her to call him by his first name, so why not?

Nodding, she replied, “Christopher.”

“That is better.” He inclined his head regally.

This man carried himself as one accustomed to being obeyed. Yet, there was a strange awkwardness to him. He did not seem certain about how to approach someone who was not a servant. He surely knew at one time, but that was fifteen years ago. Maybe he realized that times have changed.

“Then it would only be fair if you called me Margaret.”

“Margaret.” He spoke her name in agreement. When she smiled and nodded, he relaxed noticeably.

“However,” she pointed out, “I think I’ll still use your title in front of the servants, for propriety’s sake.”

“That would be reasonable, I suppose.”

Keeping his face carefully hidden, he turned Margaret to the flickering light. He held her hands in his elegant fingers and stood still, watching her. It was like being stared at by an imposing stone monk.

Under his unseen gaze, she shifted, feeling her face slowly flush. Heat rushed over her as she struggled not to squirm. Just when she felt she would have to turn away out of sheer embarrassment, he released her and stepped back.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, “Horribly bad form. I just wanted to look at you for a moment. I’d only seen you once, when you stopped outside the gates, you see. Very rude of me, all the same.”

“From that one glance at a stranger through binoculars, from a distance of a quarter-mile, you decided to request that I come for dinner?” At his invitation, she sat on the settee near the fire.

“It is not that far as the crow flies. Besides, few people come to this village,” he replied, casually sitting a respectable distance from her. “And the locals have avoided this place for years. I thought I might have a better chance at an affirmative if I invited an outsider rather than an old neighbor, don’t you know.”

“Why? Is today a special occasion?”

The door opened before the earl could answer. Brenlaw came in carrying champagne. Behind him came two maids with lighted candelabra in each hand and two footmen carrying fluted glasses. The little procession entered with perfect poise and almost militaristic precision.

With practiced ease, the maids placed their burdens where the candles would illuminate the room while keeping their master’s face in shadow. Brenlaw placed the ice bucket on a side table and passed glasses to Lord Yawron and the puzzled Margaret. Brenlaw poured champagne for them.

As the butler moved to leave, his lordship called him back, “Where do you think you’re off to, Brenlaw? You have to give the toast.”

“Begging your lordship’s pardon, I thought, under the circumstances…”

“Nonsense, Brenlaw. You’ve done the toast for thirty-three years, in one form or another. Just because I have company doesn’t get you out of your customary duty, you know. I’m sure Miss Taylor won’t mind if you stayed.”

“Of course not,” Margaret replied firmly. She certainly didn’t want to break tradition on her first day.

“Very well, my lord, miss.” Brenlaw turned to a footman, who produced another glass of cut crystal apparently from thin air, handed it to the butler, and followed the other servants out.

Brenlaw poured a discreet amount of champagne for himself. Raising his glass, the manservant began the toast. “On this most auspicious occasion, we raise our glass to young Christopher Tobias, who has been a good lord to us these ten years. He came into this life, a delight to his parents and a gift to the world. When it seemed his story would end prematurely, God granted us a reprieve. His lordship has given us reason to be grateful for that every day since. Happy birthday, my lord, and may you have many more.”

“H-happy birthday,” Margaret repeated, flustered. She processed the surprising information furiously, sipping the drink to hide her confusion and discomfort.

She had been invited to his birthday dinner. She had not lived in the village for long at all, less than two months. They had never met before this night. Had he really thought there would be a better chance that she would come instead of his neighbors?

Or was he protecting himself, making sure he would have been comfortable with whatever decision she made? If she had said no, he could be disappointed but not upset. A stranger said no. It would not be shocking or particularly devastating. If someone he knew most of his life refused, that would have hurt badly.

After they took a sip, the earl rose and responded, “Thank you, Brenlaw, Miss Taylor. Thank you both very much. This is a particularly special day for me because, not only have I my trusted servants with me, but I also have the pleasure of the company of a beautiful and charming lady. I would like, if I may, to toast her health now. To my new friend, Miss Margaret Taylor.”

They all drank again. The butler turned toward the door. His employer called to him again, “Brenlaw, where are you going?”

“I must check on dinner, my lord.”

“Good man—smart thinking.”

“Oh, and, my lord?”

“Yes?”

Without showing any preference either way, he asked, “Begging your pardon, my lord, but do you want the servants to eat in the kitchen?”

“Ah. That, I think, is our guest’s decision.” He returned to his seat. “You see, Miss Taylor, since no one has been here in years, it was the practice for the servants to be present at my birthday dinner. It is a treat for them and some company for me, you understand.”

“Of course.” She knew, from her conversation with Brenlaw, that at least a few of the servants regularly shared his meal. If he did not say anything, it was not her place to mention it. In some circles, especially the one he grew up in, to be “reduced” to eating with servants would have been extremely embarrassing.

“Now you’re here and…”

“If I might interrupt you, my lord? Since this is my first time at your house, and we have only just met, I think that the tradition should stand—for propriety’s sake, if for nothing else.”



Brenlaw stifled a smile. She was clever! She knew that it would be easier for her to counter gossip if there was a room full of witnesses to attest to Miss Taylor and his lordship’s behavior.

And she was kind too. She let the tradition stand, when she did not have to. He knew several women of his lordship's class who would have risked the scandal rather than share a table with servants.

This remarkable woman continued, “Likewise, as a newcomer here, I would not want to upset custom on my first day.”

“Thank you,” His lordship replied quietly, his tone infinitely relieved and grateful. He was not comfortable with the idea of breaking the tradition either. He was that kind of master, a good one. “Brenlaw, tell the others to lay the plates as usual plus one, with Miss Taylor next to me.”

“Yes, my lord.” With a firm nod, Brenlaw glided serenely from the room.



“Brenlaw seems happy,” Margaret commented, watching the older man fairly skip out the door. Or at least as close to it as he could achieve.

“Yes. And a little smug, dash it.” He paused, turning toward her. “Thank you for being so understanding. I would have hated to tell these people, who have been so loyal and patient with me, that they could not come to this particular celebration.”

“I would not have you do that.” Margaret gazed into the dark cowl for a moment, and then dropped her gaze. “They have a right to enjoy this far more than I have.”

“Is something wrong?” He tensed, waiting for a bombshell to fall.

“No. I just feel a bit like an interloper, crashing into a party without a gift.”

“Nonsense.” The gentleman waved away her concerns with casual dismissal in his voice.

“Did you instruct Brenlaw that, if he met me, he should not tell me about the importance of the date?”

His lordship tensed again. He shifted a little, discomfort in every line of his body. “I may have suggested it. I did not want you to trouble yourself buying a present for someone you never met, that’s all.”

“Oh?”

He shrugged, adding, “And I thought it would seem strange that I invited you to my birthday feast based solely on a glance from a window.”

“It would have. It rather does now, actually.”

“Would knowing that I was inviting you to a celebration like this have altered your decision at all?”

“I do not know. I certainly would have questioned Brenlaw about it a bit more.”

“I wonder what he would have said,” he mused.

“I am sure whatever was perfect for the occasion.” Margaret thought a moment. “Does my being here make the others uneasy?”

He tilted his head. “Why? Do you feel like it does?”

“Not from Brenlaw, but I know him. And he is trained not to let such things show, isn’t he? No, it’s more from the maids and the footmen. I felt they were discreetly sizing me up when they first came in.”

“Well, you are worth a gander. And you can hardly blame them for being curious. You’re the first guest we’ve had here in fifteen years. For some of them, you’re the first since they began working here.”

Margaret shook her head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps I’m the one that’s nervous. It’s just that I know how I'd feel in their position.”

“How is that?” He sounded genuinely curious, as though she was giving him information he could never get himself.

“They’ve worked here for years, some of them for most of their lives. For a long time, they only had you to look after. Then one day, a stranger is allowed in—an unknown, an alien. No one knows what she'll be like. Will she refuse them their customary celebration? Will she be arrogant, ignorant, gauche?”

“They don’t have to be at the dinner, if they make you uncomfortable.”

“But they do,” she insisted. “What they fear is that life is suddenly going to change. We must assure them it won’t. I want them at the celebration. I want to be one of your circle, not the one who breaks it.”

He was silent for a moment. His hands fidgeted in his lap, an obvious nervous habit. Then he remarked quietly, “You are very considerate.”

“I try to be. The truth is I’m simply someone whose circles were often broken.” A bell rang in the distance. “Does that mean dinner is ready?”

“Yes.” He rose to his feet. “Come, I’ll escort you. We shall brave the servants’ gawks together.”

“They say, ‘courage mounteth with occasion.’ I only hope my courage can follow suit,” Margaret remarked.

“Extraordinary! Miss Taylor, I think you and I are going to get along famously.” They left the room arm-in-arm.

Chapter 4

As they walked through the passageway, Margaret noticed how carefully her companion prevented light from hitting his face. Disconcerted and trying desperately not to think about it, she asked, “What usually happens at these affairs?”

“Oh, a lot of toasting and anecdotes.”

“About your family?”

“And the servants’ families as well. There’s one they tell about Brenlaw’s father and Mr. Logan senior, the present grocer’s father.”

“I’d like to hear it.”

“Oh, it comes up every year. Though I should warn you, it’s a bit vulgar in its humor.”

“If I might be quite frank, Christopher, I don’t think there’s a story in the world crude enough to shock me.” She declared proudly, adding with an airy wave of her hand, “I’ve heard it all.”

“I just thought I’d warn you.” There was a definite grin in his voice. He seemed to see her confidence as a challenge.

When they stepped into the dining room, the servants, who were arranged around the large rectangular table, stood and turned to watch the new arrivals’ entrance. As the two continued their progress toward the head of the table, Margaret whispered, “Do they usually do this?”

“I’m afraid so,” he replied wryly.

“I feel like a goldfish in a bowl.”

“And a very beautiful goldfish you are,” Lord Yawron replied, chuckling.

“Thank you very much,” she grumbled.

The pair reached their seats. The earl pulled out Margaret’s chair, and, when he had seen her safely seated, he sat at the head of the table. Soon as he took his seat, so did everyone else.

His lordship spoke, “My good friends and loyal companions, this is Miss Margaret Taylor, a newcomer to the village. She has graciously accepted my invitation and asks that she be admitted as one of our company. She expects no special treatment above that of any guest in any house. She wishes this celebration to go on as it always has—that includes your story, Brenlaw.” There was a ripple of laughter. With the skill of an experienced raconteur, he waited before continuing. “So, let’s have ourselves a wonderful evening.”


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