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Close of the "Little Season" In London
Soon after Rance arrived, the countess decided to give her handsome, dark-haired, young visitor a piece of her mind--a minor scolding--along with a bit of grandmotherly advice.
The Dowager Countess of Pennyworth was a small, bird-like woman with softly waving, silvery hair. Her aristocratic attitude and posture would be noticed even if she were never seen anywhere else but in her elegant sitting room at the Burgoyne's ancestral mansion at Woodcliff. She wore a gown of rustling, black silk, with a fine lace cap tied under her chin. A great sapphire, circled by diamonds, sparkled on one of her age-wrinkled fingers.
"I never imagined that a grandson of mine would be ungracious enough not to spend the holidays with his doddering, rich relative. Especially if he expects to receive a nice inheritance when she turns up her aging toes."
Six feet tall, a handsome man coming into his twenty-ninth year, born under the astrological sign of Sagittarius Rance Burgoyne dressed conservatively and correctly in a dark blue tailcoat and fawn-colored inexpressibles. At the moment he paced distractedly across Clara's sitting room, raking fingers through his already disordered black curls.
"Forgive me, Grandmama, but I have never seen you dodder." Rance's lips pulled into a wry smile. "However, I'm here at last, and I've come to apologize. Another invitation was extended a month ago, and I accepted it, planning several weeks in Scotland with Bryce. I had no idea I was expected to be at your holiday party."
Rance's grandmother turned eighty thisyear. It dawned on him she might not be around to scold him very much longer. After all, his grandfather had stuck his spoon in the wall two decades ago. Not that he wished his grandmother's demise to occur anytime soon, but she and he were generations and worlds apart. And the countess had a tendency to nag him about not having an extra heir, other than himself, to carry the family name through the next several decades. His grandmother, however crusty, was generous and provided Rance with a fine quarterly allowance ever since he left Cambridge.
The look in her grandson's eyes caused her a small concern, but Clara Burgoyne, after whom he was named, ignored his expression. The last thing she wanted was to wallow in his pity. The damned London physicians must all be dotty or in their cups if they entertained such a gross misdiagnosis of her health. She had no reason to leave this earth while suffering only a few troublesome aches and pains.
"As you can readily see, Grandmama, I've come to visit as well as to accede to your other wishes. Bryce will have to go to Scotland without me and take Julian with him instead." He paused where Clara sat in the center of an elaborate sofa covered with blue brocade, trimmed with gold fringe.
He sighed, then said, "I was truly looking forward to tasting the haggis I've heard so much about."
"Eh? I don't think you'd like it much, my boy. A horrid-looking and terrible tasting dish to put in front of anyone who doesn't have a strong stomach." The aged countess sniffed audibly. Leaning toward him and whispering, she continued, "I want you here, my dear, a few days before Christmas, not a minute later, do you hear me?"
Rance wondered if his grandmother had suddenly gone deaf, so he moved a bit closer and plunked his backside next to hers on the plump cushions.
"You may bring along a friend or two if you wish. I fear I may be short of eligible males at my dinner table. Woodcliff is only a short drive from London and, mind you, I have special plans for the upcoming holiday entertainment."
Rance noticed that his grandmother had been fiddling with a heavy ring on one of her gnarled fingers, turning it around and around as if...
Is she feeling pain? It seems to me she's shrunk in size since the last time I saw her. When was that? Last summer? Blast me! Could it have been that long since I visited?
Pangs of remorse settled deep into Rance's bones. He loved the old lady dearly, even more so after losing his parents in a carriage accident. However, he dared not question his grandmother about her health problems. She would stare him down the way she had since he was a mere boy.
Pricked by conscience, Rance knew in his heart he should have visited more often. He'd procrastinated simply because his grandmother brought up his unmarried state, again and again, like a dog worrying a bone. She was anxious because his elder brother and his wife had two girls but seemed unable to produce another child, especially a male. He might have been footloose since the war on the Continent had ended, but Rance definitely wasn't ready to settle down.