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Wiley Cross, just outside of Elstead
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, Charlotte, 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, Charlotte, 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 moldy, and the repairs went downhill from there.
Since Max had himself just inherited a cartload of moldy thatch, so to speak, he listened to the details of the discussion only half-aware of the tone of Charlotte’s questions and of her responses to Richard’s answers. However, somewhere in his brain he registered the way she remained calm and thoughtful and did not assign blame.
Then came a rather long pause. Charlotte 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 Charlotte 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.”
With a heavy heart Max accepted the sympathy implied in the greeting. 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 a beautiful vista of a vast meadow spreading out from Wiley Cross, where the rolling hills of Surrey disappeared into the distance and merged with the boundary of his newly inherited estate, Thornton Park.
“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. What Richard had said was right, but only partly. “It’s one thing to act as the guardian of the estate until an heir is of age. It’s quite another thing to –” here he stumbled against a hard truth and changed his phrasing from secure the line to “ – be fully responsible.”
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 savored 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 is it going for you, man?”
Since Jonathan’s death from what seemed like little more than a head cold, Max had felt many things. Shock and sadness, certainly. Selfish resentment and shameful anger to have gone – overnight! – from happy-go-lucky spare to grief-stricken heir, with the whole of his emotional landscape tinged with fear of his new burdens, fear of the unknown. And laced through it all was the feeling of his life spinning out of control.
He said with complete honesty, “I’m not going to cheapen our friendship by telling you I’m fine. I am not. You know how close Jonathan and I always were. My god, you loved him as much I did. The three of us in our youth forever kicking up larks, plaguing the neighborhood!” Here his voice broke and he took a different tack. “Of course he and I didn’t see one another as much once he took over the reins and set up his nursery, while I took up residence in town. Nevertheless losing him … well, it’s like losing a part of myself, and now the whole falls on my shoulders. But I’ll adapt, as you’ve said.”
Richard said, his voice rough with emotion, “I’m sorry, old chap. You know I’ll do anything I can to help you.”
Max nodded. “I know, and thank you.” He took another sip of brandy and bethought himself of a piece of good news he had heard earlier in the day. Since raw emotions were no excuse for bad manners he put them both aside. Recalling a stray bit of information he said, “Let us speak of a happier subject.”
“Do you know of such at the moment?”
Max twirled his glass. “You cannot think of one?”
Richard’s face was an expressionless mask.
Max cracked a laugh. “Just because I’m in mourning doesn’t mean I’m incapable of fellow feeling for the happiness of a good friend. I’m speaking of your engagement and impending marriage. I’m to congratulate you – unless I’ve heard wrong.”
Richard’s brows flew up almost comically, and because he was cursed with fair skin a flush rose up his neck. He growled in embarrassed pleasure, “No, you haven’t heard wrong and, yes, Mrs. Wroxton – Amelia – has done me the honor of accepting my offer of marriage. I believe she knows you from town.”
“Ah, yes, charming woman.”
“Indeed, she is very charming, as you say.”
Since Max did not often cross paths with respectable widows, no matter how young, he had only guessed at this lady’s probable attractions. He sidestepped the issue of his lack of memory of being acquainted with her by saying, “I’m happy for you, Richard. You’ve been alone for too many years since losing your Jane, and I can only hope you made many secret trips to town to indulge in passionate trysts before revealing your love to the world. How did you manage it?”
Richard’s flush deepened. “I’m not sure I did manage it. It was Charlotte’s doing, rather. Looking back I can see that she – and her many circles of friends whose various intersections I cannot keep straight! – concocted a list of eligible females and mounted what I can only describe as a… as a …..” He dropped off, clearly at a lost for words.
“Wedding campaign,” Max supplied, nodding wisely, “which was so stealthily strategized you had no idea you had been a castle to besiege and conquer until your affections were engaged by one or another of the fair ladies they presented to you.”
Richard laughed ruefully and took refuge in a sip a brandy. After a bit of bluster he said, “I do admire Amelia. More than that, really. I – I – ”
Max held up a hand to forestall an embarrassing profession of love. “You need say no more! You have been a kind and steady friend to me in the last two months of my time of need, and it gives me great pleasure to wish you happy. It’s a marvelous turn of events for your entire family.”
Richard harrumphed. “It would be if only Charlotte hadn’t taken a maggot into her head. Now that she has provided me with a wife, she is determined to move out. She means to take up residence with one of her lady friends in the village, so I gather. It is the outside of enough. This is her home, always has been and always will be!”
For Max, upon hearing these words, it was as if the sun dawned in his head and turned the dark night of his thoughts to bright daylight. He heard the echo of Charlotte’s soothing voice as she worked through the problem of the moldy thatch. Calm, thoughtful, competent Charlotte. She was determined to find a new place to live. He needed a wife. Charlotte was perfect. His brilliant idea grew wings and took flight.
Max settled back in his chair. “Well, now, I, for one, am not sorry to hear of Charlotte’s desire to move.”
Richard’s brows rose again, this time in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“As I said earlier, it’s one thing to act as guardian of the estate until an heir is of age.”
He was now able to state his case forthrightly. “With the birth of my latest niece I’m now the one who has to secure the line.”
“That’s right,” Richard replied, somewhat blankly.
“Which means I need a wife.”
“Quite.” Still blank.
Max pursued, “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.”
“No impulse this time, Richard.”
He rationalized his statement thusly: after having acted on a sufficient number of flights of fancy which had turned out well (or, at least, had not ended in disaster), he had decided to understand them as end-products of long unconscious thought processes. Imagining Charlotte as his wife was simply the most recent, apparently long-incubated idea to come to life.
“I have a well-considered plan,” he said, “involving marriage to a woman whom I’ve known my entire life.”
“Good, then. Your plan might work. Who is she?”
Richard’s face suffused a dull red. “Charlotte?!”
Max waited to let the idea sink in. Then, with a frown, “I’m not sure if your shock betrays an insult to me –” he paused delicately “– or to Charlotte.”
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 … Charlotte ….”
Max raised his brows in challenge, now convinced he was on the right track. 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’ve had Charlotte to yourself all these years since the death of your dear Jane. Charlotte 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. And since you have told me of her plan to move out of this house, I would like to offer her a place in mine.”
Richard’s face was now bright red.
With a turn of fugitive humor, Max considered reminding Richard that he had offered to do anything to help. However, handing over one’s sister decidedly crossed a line, and the business of marriage was no laughing matter. Whatever the case, it wasn’t Richard’s consent he needed.
Max said, “What would you say to the idea we let Charlotte decide whether or not she would accept my offer?”