Will expected that time would dull his decision. After all, that was his pattern. He might rage hot for a time, but eventually good sense prevailed. Since seducing, then marrying a woman he sometimes hated was not good sense, he thought two days away from Josephine would moderate his determination.
It did not. By the time he rode to the manor house two days later, his plan had coalesced into a cold hard fact. In his mind, the deed was already done. All that remained was the manner of her fall into his matrimonial trap.
With that thought in mind, he dressed with extra care and then made sure to be near the manor on the day his opponent arrived. Will already hated the man just because he was Josephine’s other suitor. But when Mr. Alastair Montgomery appeared, that hate became a living thing. The man was a popinjay! He rode up on a fine chestnut stallion. A good horse, Will begrudgingly admitted, but the rest was too much. The man wore blue! Dark jacket and pants above his black boots, but his waistcoat was a light blue with gold threads that shone in the sunlight. His cravat was elegant, which for riding was beyond silly, and his hat sported a peacock feather. A peacock, for Heaven’s sake!
Will knew he was being harsh. After all, he had enjoyed wearing different colored clothing as well, back when he was a child. But in Yorkshire, a man wore black or brown because the mud destroyed everything else. That’s what he was wearing—a good, solid Yorkshire brown—while this Scotsman wore blue that showed him for the dandy he was.
Sadly, women tended to like dandies, and the Lawton ladies all seemed to like this knave. The butler opened the door, and the women filed out with beaming smiles of welcome and giggles of delight.
Lady Lawton stepped out first, her gown a fine dark green. She greeted the man formally, as was proper, while her daughters stepped quietly behind her. The younger one—Megan—was first in a spotless white dress. Her head was bowed, her hands folded neatly at her waist, and she curtsied very prettily. But it was Josephine’s appearance that gave him his first shock of the day.
She was beautiful! And not in her usual spinning top kind of beautiful, but in the way of her sister. Her gown was a flowing yellow, dark enough to make her look like a woman set in gold. Her hair that usually appeared a living flame was tamed and coiffed, pulled tight to her head with only a single curl bouncing free. Her hands were gripped together—too tightly he thought—but when it came time for her to greet the man, she extended her arm like a queen greeting her knight errant.
The blackguard kissed it, of course, because that’s what dandies did. And he must have said something clever because Will watched as Josephine blushed a very becoming pink.
In the background, the dandy’s horse was pulled away, the butler opened the door wider to reveal a maid waiting with refreshments, and Lord Lawton made his appearance with a hearty laugh that carried easily across the lawn to where Will stood glowering. But that was all in the background. What Will saw most clearly was the way Josephine’s eyes followed the fancy boy. She watched him turn to greet her father. She took a demure step back, her eyes never leaving him as the man stripped out of his hat and gloves. She even tilted her head so she could watch him enter the house.
What was she thinking? He couldn’t read her expression from here, though her entire body screamed at him. It wasn’t that she was projecting her emotions. Far from it. She stood as if encased in stone: still, compact, and vibrating with tension that he could sense but not see.
Or perhaps he’d stood there too long and was beginning to get a brain fever. It was entirely possible, and yet he remained where he was. He watched her watch the Scot until everyone else had stepped inside. Then he saw her take a deep breath, shake out her skirt, and calmly step through the entryway. Will was taking his own deep breath, ready to go back to work when he saw the butler hold the door open a moment longer. A footman came out, frowning as he looked to the near field where Will was supposed to be working this day.
Ah, so he was being summoned already. Either Lord Lawton or the fancy Mr. Montgomery was wasting no time in learning about Josephine’s dowry. Very well. After all, he had a plan for this meeting and now was the perfect time to set it into motion.
Moving quickly through the trees, he cut around such that he nearly ran into the footman. It was Mark Brams’s youngest boy Hank. The boy gasped and stumbled backward.
“Mr. Benton!” he said when he regained his breath. “I was just sent to find you, sir.”
“And now you have.”
The boy nodded. “You’re to report to the manor house, sir. But Mr. Ransey said as that there was no need to hurry. You should take your lunch first.”
“Did he now?” That was the butler again, putting words in Lord Lawton’s mouth that likely hadn’t been said. “Well, I’ll keep that in mind.”
The boy nodded and was about to turn back to the house when Will gripped his arm.
“How’s your papa faring? Can he walk yet?”
The boy’s face darkened. “Just round the house and the like. The knee was bad enough, but his hip won’t hold him after his fall.”
“That’d be hard on a man like him.”
The boy nodded but didn’t speak. It was clear that the family was going to struggle without the father’s work on the farm. Even worse, Hank had no interest in farming. He preferred to toil at the manor and was hoping to be butler there one day. And he’d be a much better one than Ransey, but not if he had to quit to work his family’s farm.
“You know, Coop’s two boys are looking for work. They’re a mite young, but I know their ma would appreciate getting them off her hands.”
Hank shook his head. “We can’t pay them—”
“You leave it to me and your papa to figure out the pay. Now go back to Ransey and tell him I’ll be there in a lick. And that I’d like a word with him if he’s a moment to spare.”
The boy nodded, excitement warring with hope on his face. “Yes, sir! Right away, sir!” He started to turn, but then stopped suddenly to shake Will’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you!”
Will smiled, knowing he was committed now. He would have to find a way to make the money work, even if it meant supplementing from his own pocket. But it was the right solution, and so he didn’t begrudge the money.
At least he didn’t begrudge it much, though he wondered again if his brother had saved any money. If together they could buy back what should never have been sold. If… If… If…
He clamped down on his thoughts and turned his attention to the coming meeting. He walked steadily, as was his habit, and arrived just as the butler was opening the door for him.
“Master William! You didn’t need to come so quickly, sir.”
“Didn’t I now?” he asked, his expression on the cool side of friendly.
“No, sir. The call from Hisself was not urgent. But Hank said you wished to speak with me?”
“We can go into my sitting room. His lordship is in his library, but he can wait. Especially as the room isn’t all that pleasant right now. Much nicer in my parlor.”
Will frowned. “There is something wrong with the library?”
“Terrible shame. Seems a maid spilled some rotten cream. Fumble fingers, but Hisself frightens the staff, you know.” Ransey gave Will a sly wink, showing that he had been the one to purposely spill the cream. “In any event, come along here, Master Will. Mary’s even made us a pot of tea.”
William didn’t respond until the door was shut behind them in the butler’s sitting room. It wasn’t a large room by aristocratic standards, but for a butler, it was huge. He shared it with his wife, Mary the housekeeper, and at one time he and Grant had played here with their children. Will knew every stain in the floorboards and mark on the wall. Hell, he’d been the one to put most of them there.
But unlike Mr. Ransey, he also knew that children grew up, land changed hands, and that a man either adjusted to the new wind or was destroyed by it.
“Well now, a little cream then with your tea, Master Will?”
“No thank you, Mr. Ransey, I’m afraid I won’t be staying that long.”
“Hisself will wait. Rest easy on that.”
William looked about the room. He saw his childhood here, and he saw everything that might have been. Like a vast panorama, he remembered it, knew the dreams he’d had, and in one mental sweep of his arm, he threw it all away. It would never be, and it was damn well time for everyone to see it.
When he spoke, his voice was cold and clipped as had never been heard by this elderly retainer. Especially since this man had been more father to him than his own.
“Hisself is Lord Lawton and the master of this house,” he snapped.
“Well he shouldn’t be! You are the rightful lord here with your brother gone. The Lawtons will never be one of us. We in Yorkshire know what’s what. We know—”
“That Lord Lawton is your employer? Do you understand that he is directly responsible for the food on your table and the clothes on your back?”
Mr. Ransey’s eyes widened in shock, but Will was on a roll, his voice and his anger finding a target in a man who had pushed too far.
“Do you think you are helping me?” he continued. “Do you think by making me appear before Lawton covered in mud one day, then have him wait on my attention the next, that you are helping anyone at all? Because I assure you, you are not. I had to stop the man from sacking you yesterday—”
“Sacking me! Well just let him try! I’ll have all the maids—”
“Pouring bad cream in the corners? Good God man, don’t you understand? The Crowles are no more!”
Ransey’s two fists slammed down hard on the table, rattling the saucers and spilling the tea. “Never say that, Master Will! You’ll rise again, you wait and see.”
“And if I do, I will sack you myself! Goddamn it Ransey, you do me no credit, spoiling the library and sending false messages. Do you think you’re untouchable here? Do you think I’d like to see you and Mary tossed out on your ear?”
The man straightened to his full height. He barely topped Will’s nose, but it didn’t matter. The man could put on airs as well as any duke. But for the first time, the attitude just looked sad to Will. A man holding on to something that could never be.
“Let Hisself try! I won’t be leaving this house until my deathbed!”
Will just looked at him and shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was soft and sad. And that tone, more than anything else, seemed to shake the aged man to the core.
“You shame me and the Crowle name, Ransey. With every botched message, with every bad odor, you show that the Crowle rot infected everything. Not just my father and his father, but the staff, the town, everything. That not a one of us can do our jobs with the strength and the stamina of a true man. You are the head of the house staff, man. Everyone takes their lead from you. Show yourself to be a true butler to his lordship, or for God’s sake, step aside and let Hank do the job.”
“Hank!” the man gasped. “Hank is a boy!”
“But he knows how to do his job. Do you?”
The man swallowed, his eyes rimming red with tears that he would not shed. Will didn’t compromise his stance. He couldn’t. He couldn’t let a man who had been a father to him risk his livelihood pursuing a dream of bygone days. And in the end, Ransey proved himself to be a man worthy of respect.
“I will do you proud, Master Will.”
“Thank you, Ransey.”
The man nodded, took another moment to gather himself, then walked stiffly to the door. “I will show you to Lord Lawton now, sir. If you would please follow me?”
Will knew the way. Of course he knew the way. He’d grown up here. But protocol had to be observed, so he followed as if he were… well, as if he were exactly what he was: a steward to Lord Lawton, here to report to his employer.
Ransey escorted him to the library and announced him in sonorous tones. Lord Lawton was there, along with the damned Scot. Will walked in with his hat in his hand. Meanwhile, Ransey followed him, walked to the library’s corner and grabbed a large potted plant. Will didn’t help the old man as he lifted the heavy thing. That was presumably the source of the sour milk scent that permeated the room. He merely stepped out of the way as the man shuffle-stepped out of the room.
“What the devil are you about Ransey?” asked Lord Lawton.
“The plant has gone bad, my lord. I thought to remove it.”
Lawton frowned. After all, the thing looked healthy enough, but surely he knew it was the source of the sour milk smell. A moment later, he proved that he was no fool because he simply nodded and waited for the door to close. Then he leveled a hard look at Will.
“So can I hope to have hot food now? Sheets that are not scorched? No dead cats in my bed?”
Will’s eyebrows raised. “There was a dead cat in your bed?”
“Um, no, sorry. That was a rat. And I believe that was courtesy of my wife’s cat. Damned thing is always leaving me gifts.”
To the side, the Scotsman choked back a laugh. “My sister’s feline was always doing the same thing. Which is why I got a dog as soon as I was able. A big, ugly, cat-eating dog. Never found another present—dead or otherwise. God, I loved that dog.”
“Miss Josephine prefers cats,” Will said.
The Scot turned and frowned down at him. “What did you say?”
Will lifted his chin, not backing down even though it was a ridiculous discussion and not at all relevant to anything. “Miss Josephine, sir. Your intended? She prefers cats. Hates dogs.”
“Does she now?” No hint of malice, just an underlying current of wariness. “And how do you know that?”
“Nearly five years ago when she first came to this village, she was attacked by a crofter’s dog. Ever since then we keep the dogs back from her.” In truth, the crofter had set his dog on Josephine, so Will had tossed that man and his mangy dog out the very next day. And good riddance to the blackguard.
Meanwhile, the Scotsman was watching him with eyes that were much too intelligent. “So she developed a fear, did she?”
“Yes, sir. So if you want the woman, perhaps you’d best learn to like cats.”
“Or perhaps I’ll teach her to overcome her fear.”
And just like that, the battle lines were drawn.