This is the first part of my new short historical romance story, Lord Blackwell’s Rude Awakening. The full book is now available for download on my website. Please click here to download your copy.
Max approached the library. He was about to announce himself to Richard, one of his oldest friends, when he caught a snatch of the conversation in progress on the other side of the door. The words “It’s a large expense, I know, Diana, and I’m sorry I failed to mention it to you earlier” stopped Max from entering the room. He half-turned to go, knowing he should give the pair within their privacy. But something – call it curiosity – caused him to stay.
He overheard Richard informing his sister, Diana, of all that had gone awry during the recent repairs of the cottages on the east edge of their estate. The bungles seemed to have begun with the purchase of a great deal of thatch that turned out to be mouldy, and the repairs went downhill from there. Since Max had himself just inherited cartloads of mouldy thatch, so to speak, he hardly listened to the details of the discussion. Instead he listened to the tone, to Diana’s questions, and to her responses to Richard’s answers. She was calm. She was thoughtful. She did not assign blame. Then came a rather long pause. Diana broke it by saying,
“It’s a large expense, yes, and horribly wasteful, but we can absorb it. I know the places in my budget where I can make adjustments.”
Thereafter the discussion wrapped up quickly. When Max sensed Diana was about to leave the room, he pulled himself into an alcove around the corner. He waited until her footsteps disappeared down the hallway before returning to the library door. He knocked once then entered before being invited in.
Richard looked up from the papers littering his desk and exclaimed, “Max!” He rose and crossed the room to clasp Max to his chest. “So glad you’ve come. Was hoping you would. Heard the news.”
Max accepted the sympathy implied in the greeting. He had originally come to absorb this sympathy. However, as a result of the overheard conversation, his goal had now changed. When he was released from Richard’s embrace, he said, simply, “Yes, the news.”
Richard’s expression affected appropriate dismay. He gestured for Max to sit then gestured at a decanter on a side table. “Brandy?”
Max chose a worn leather chair in front of the desk and sat down. He glanced over his shoulder to the wall of windows. He beheld the vista of rolling hills of Surrey disappearing into the distance where it merged with the boundary of his newly inherited estate.
“I was going to wait until the sun went down to, ahem, celebrate,” Max said, “but it has sunk low enough now, I think, to justify it.”
Richard splashed enough brandy into two glasses to make the drinks stiff. “A healthy, new-born child is always cause for celebration,” he said in such flat tones that Max had to laugh.
Accepting the glass Richard offered him, Max raised it and said, “To my newest niece. May she thrive.”
Richard repeated the toast, took a sip, and asked, “And Eleanor?”
“She’s an old hand at childbirth now. She’s doing well.”
Richard nodded and sat back down in the chair at his desk. He said, “Even if your sister-in-law had delivered herself of a boy, you would not have been let off scot free.”
Max rubbed his chin. Richard had said the truth, but only part of it. “It’s one thing to act as the guardian of the estate until an heir is of age. It’s quite another thing to have to secure the line.”
Richard ventured, “At least you now have the title.”
Max appreciated Richard’s attempt to put a good face on the disaster that began two months before with Max’s older brother’s sudden death and culminated this morning with the birth of his brother’s fourth daughter.
Max pronounced, “Lord Blackwell.” He took a sip and savoured the taste of the brandy but not his new title. He shook his head. “Never wanted it.”
“You weren’t raised for the position, it’s true, but you’ll adapt.” Richard swept his hand above the papers on his desk. “It’s not so bad, once you get used to it. And I believe Jonathan was a good enough steward to have left Thornton Park in reasonable shape.”
“Reasonable enough,” he agreed but refrained to mention the very rough financial edges he had discovered in the course of recent weeks.
Richard opened his mouth then closed it again. He dropped his cheery demeanor and said, “It’s a damnable hand you’ve been dealt. How are you holding up, man?”
Max considered the question. Since Jonathan’s death from what seemed little more than a head cold, he had felt many things. Grief, certainly. Selfish anger at having his pleasant life turned upside down. Resentment of the weight of his new burdens. A touch of fear of the unknown. Since this morning, an urgent desire to find a way to restore some of his old life. And uppermost was abhorrence of not being in control. However, he was good at getting what he wanted. To get what he wanted now, which he had determined all of five minutes ago, he would have to use both art and surprise in this interview – as well as in the next one he would engineer.
He began honestly enough, “I’m not going to cheapen our friendship by telling you I’m fine. I am not. Jonathan and I had different temperaments, as you well know, but we were always close. Losing him … well, it’s like losing a part of myself, and now I have to take over his reins. But I’ll adapt, as you’ve said.” He veered into misrepresentation when he continued, “And since it was always possible the baby would be a girl, I’ve also had these weeks to consider my future.” In point of fact he had spent the past two months avoiding thoughts of his future and praying desperately for a boy, but the statement served nicely to set up his finishing touch. “I know my duty, and I’m prepared to fulfill it.”
Richard nodded once, as if impressed with Max’s resolve, but then shook his head in mild reproof when Max added,
“And feel I must do so immediately.”
Richard sighed. “Ah, Max, ever impulsive.”
Now came a bald lie. “No impulse this time, Richard. Rather a well thought-out plan, which involves marriage to a woman who, I daresay, is perfect for me.”
Richard’s brows rose. “You have a particular woman in mind?”
“I do, and I’ve known her for most of my life.”
“Good, then. Your plan might work. Who is it?”
Richard’s face suffused a dull red. “Diana?!”
Max waited to let the idea sink in. Then, very deliberately, “I am not sure if your shock betrays an insult to me –” here he paused delicately “– or to Diana.”
Richard gobbled a couple of words before he managed, “As your friend I’ve never given your reputation a second thought, but – but, in the context of my sister, well! Let’s just say your reputation doesn’t recommend you to a future father-in-law or, in my case, brother-in-law.”
Max’s argument was ready-made. “My relationship with women until now was determined by the fact I had nothing of true substance to offer. My resources have now changed and, as you’ve remarked, my estate is in respectable order. Furthermore, if it’s of any concern to you, I broke amicably with my latest mistress even before Jonathan’s death.”
Richard was speechless for several moments before he was able to say, “You’re known for your high-fliers. Beauties, all of them!”
“And so? We’re speaking now of marriage and a wife.”
“But – but … Diana ….”
Max raised his brows in challenge. Under other circumstances, Richard’s visible consternation would have been an object of amusement. Under this circumstance Max did not hesitate to use it to his advantage. When it was clear Richard could not finish his thought, Max slid in under his friend’s guard and said with a sly smile,
“You don’t want to give up your comfort, do you? You’ve had Diana to yourself all these years since the death of your dear Jane. Diana has been a mother to your son and the manager of your household, and my guess is she does it all perfectly. But perhaps she would also like to be a wife one day.”
Richard’s face was now bright red.
Pressing his advantage Max added, “What would you say to the idea we let Diana decide whether or not she would accept my offer?”
Categorised in: Lord Blackwell's Rude Awakening
This post was written by Julie Andresen