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Only the steady ticking of the mantel-clock disturbed the silence now pervading the parlour at Foxhunter Grange. Miss Abigail Graham, resolutely staring through the window, her eyes carefully avoiding that area of garden beyond the shrubbery where she no longer ventured, was finally coming to terms with the fact that she simply could not, would not, continue with her present lifestyle.
'Well, child? Have you nothing to say?' the master of what was generally held to be a very fine country residence at last demanded, his voice noticeably harsher than it had been a short time before, when he had calmly revealed the arrangements made for her immediate future. 'Can you not find it within yourself to offer a mere word of thanks for the trouble I've taken to ensure you will be suitably entertained during my absence? Am I not to receive the smallest token of gratitude?'
'Gratitude?' Abbie echoed, finally abandoning her silent contemplation of the late spring blooms in the largest of the flower-beds, and turning to look at him.
No one could have failed to perceive the strong resemblance between them. Although thankfully having been spared the strong, hawklike nose that characterised most male and several unfortunate female members of the family down the generations, Abbie had inherited the striking Graham colouring of violet-blue eyes and silky black hair. At a glance no one could fail to appreciate too that Mother Nature had seen fit to bless her still further with an elegant carriage, and a slim, shapely figure that even the plainness of her grey gown, more suitable for a governess, could not disguise. Nor could her hair, swept severely back and arranged in a simple chignon, detract from the loveliness and perfect symmetry of features set in a flawless complexion.
'If I thought for a moment the arrangements you have undertaken to ensure that I do not remain here at the Grange during your absence stemmed from a wish to offer me the opportunity to enjoy the company of the godmother I haven't seen for almost sixteen years, I would be exceedingly grateful.' Only the pulsating vein at her temple, clearly visible beneath the fairness of her skin, betrayed the fact that Abbie was perilously close to losing her admirable self-control for the very first time, and giving way to years of pent-up frustrations in an explosion of wrath. 'But I know you too well. The only reason you desire to see me safely packed off to Bath is merely an attempt on your part to prevent a closer friendship developing between me and our new practitioner.'
Only briefly did Colonel Augustus Graham betray a flicker of unease, as he studied the surprisingly hard set to his granddaughter's features.
'You are talking nonsense, child!' he announced, as he reached for the glass of fine brandy at his elbow with a hand that for once was not perfectly steady. 'You are clearly ailing for something. Perhaps it would be wise to delay your departure for a few days, until you are more yourself.'
'Oh, no, Grandfather,' she countered. 'Ailing or no, I shall leave early tomorrow, as arranged. If the female my godmother is kindly sending to bear me company does indeed arrive as planned later today, she should feel sufficiently restored to commence the return journey first thing in the morning.'
The note of determination clearly came as a further surprise to the gentleman whose granddaughter had always been wont to show him the utmost respect. He rose at once to his feet to rest an arm along the mantel-shelf, before once again regarding her from beneath bushy, grey brows. 'Evidently you are piqued because I chose not to disclose until today the arrangements I had made with Lady Penrose for your sojourn in Bath.'
'I should like to have been consulted, certainly,' Abbie admitted, still somehow managing to maintain her admirable self-control. 'And although I'm positive it wasn't your intention, in point of fact you've served me a good turn, sir. Living with my godmother during the next few weeks will grant me ample opportunity to take stock and decide where and, more importantly, by what means I shall support myself until I attain the age of five and twenty, and inherit the money left to me by my mother.'
'What on earth are you talking about, child?' the Colonel demanded, making no attempt whatsoever to conceal his increasing displeasure. 'Quite naturally, you will return here. The inheritance your mother left you is a mere pittance when compared to what you'll receive from me. You'll be a wealthy woman once I'm gone, with money enough to live comfortably throughout your life providing, of course, you give me no reason to alter my will.'
It needed only that totally unnecessary and unsubtle threat to sever the rein she had maintained on her temper. 'Change it and be damned to you, sir!'
Abbie was well aware that few men, let alone a woman, would dare to speak to her grandfather in such a fashion, but she was beyond caring now. The fact that his own eyes were glinting ominously and his mouth was set in a grim straight line, evidence of his own ill humour, could not deter her from at last revealing her strong sense of ill usage, and the unhappiness she had suffered at being treated with cool indifference by the gentleman who, throughout her childhood, couldn't have been more loving or considerate towards her.
'You are not the same man who brought me here fifteen years ago, Grandfather. You couldn't have been kinder to me then, more gentle or understanding.' She thought she detected a muscle contracting along the line of his jaw before he turned briefly to glance at the portrait of his late wife, taking pride of place above the grate. 'But all that changed, did it not, the moment I dared to go against your wishes by refusing to marry that precious godson of yours?'
'The manner of your refusal was inexcusable,' he reminded her, his voice harsh, unbending. 'It was ill done of me, yes,' innate honesty obliged her to concede. 'I should have been more gracious in my refusal. But I had only just turned seventeen. And you offered me no opportunity to discuss the matter with you in private first.'
There was no response forthcoming, and Abbie, easily discerning the taut, uncompromising set of his features, realised he was in no mood to unbend towards her even now, and faced the fact there and then that, in all probability, he never would.
'I cannot alter what has happened in the past, Grandfather. And, given the opportunity, I tell you plainly, I wouldn't attempt to try. I could never bring myself to marry a man I did not both love and respect.'
This claimed his full attention, and once again Abbie found herself on the receiving end of that hard, uncompromising gaze to which she had grown all too accustomed in recent years. 'How can you say so? You were fond enough of Bart when you were a child,' he reminded her.
'Yes, perhaps I was, a little,' she acknowledged, after giving the matter a moment's thought. 'But children grow up, Grandfather. We simply wouldn't have suited.'
He dismissed this with an impatient wave of his hand. 'And how you can say you do not respect a gentleman who has served his country so courageously during the recent conflict with France, earning a commendation from the Regent himself no less, is beyond my understanding.'
'His bravery on or off the field of battle is not the issue here,' she pointed out. 'His principles, however, are a different matter entirely.'
'Principles!' he barked. 'Let me tell you, my girl, his principles are above reproach. If it hadn't been for Bart's intervention, I would have gone after you that day and administered the thrashing you so richly deserved!'
If he had expected this admission to endear her to the godson he had always so admired, Abbie wasn't slow to dis-abuse him. 'Then he served me an ill turn by interfering, for I would far rather have suffered a beating than the cool indifference I've been forced to endure since that day. And if you imagine for a moment,' she went on, not granting him the opportunity to respond, 'that, after attaining my majority, the reason I continued to tolerate being treated little better than a servant was because I feared finding some means by which I might support myself, you couldn't be more wrong. I did so because I hoped that one day you'd find it within you to forgive me, and we might enjoy the wonderful companionship we once shared. But I refuse to delude myself any longer.'
Abbie could see by the contemptuous curl on his thin lips that he considered her resolve no longer to be dependent upon him an empty threat, a mere passing whim, even before he snapped, 'Don't be ridiculous, child! How on earth do you suppose you could support yourself?'
Steadfastly refusing to be disheartened by the belittling tone, Abbie returned his openly scathing look with one of her own. 'At the very least I could attain a post as a housekeeper. After all, I've been running this establishment for nigh on six years. A governess is not out of the question, either. I've been given ample time to improve my mind during those numerous occasions when you've done your utmost to ignore my very existence, and have left me to my own devices, while you've been out and about enjoying the company of your friends.'
Abbie attained a modicum of satisfaction in seeing the curl fade from his lips, and a flicker of uncertainty appear in his eyes, before she transferred her gaze to the portrait above the grate. 'And there is always the possibility that I might be able to make good use of the gift I seem to have inherited from Grandmama, a gift which only you have failed to acknowledge I possess. Then, of course, I don't rule out marriage entirely. But if and when I am ever tempted to take the matrimonial plunge, it will not be to our local practitioner, even though I value his friendship highly. And it will most certainly never be to that precious godson of yours, whom I hold in utter contempt.'
The fist he brought down hard on the mantel-shelf came perilously close to sending several ornaments toppling to the floor. 'Damn it, child, why? What did Bart ever do to give you such a disgust of him?'
The disdainful curl on her lips was a masterly reproduction of the one he had perfected only a short time before. 'It is a little late to ask that of me now, Grandfather. Besides which, I am no talebearer. If you're so keen to discover just what turned me against Bartholomew Cavanagh, then ask the man himself what took place in the summerhouse six years ago on the very day he proposed marriage to me.'
Not prepared to discuss further an incident she would far rather forget, Abbie went across to the door. 'I shall not be joining you for dinner this evening,' she announced, 'I have my packing to organise. So I shall take my leave of you now, and wish you a pleasant sojourn with your friend in Scotland.'
Abbie did not look back before she left the room, and so omitted to see the thoughtful expression coming into her grandfather's eyes a moment before he went over to take up her former stance before the window. Raising his head, he stared across the vast south lawn at the corner of the garden, where that ornamental wooden structure stood, hardly visible now behind shrubs and trees. The summerhouse, he well remembered, had once been a favourite haunt of his grand-daughter's, just as it had been a favoured retreat with both his wife and his son. It was true that for some considerable time Abbie had never ventured into that area of the garden. Why had he never appreciated that fact before?
Then he shook his head, dismissing it from his mind.
The hired post-chaise, conveying Abbie and her godmother's personal maid, reached the outskirts of Bath just after noon, three days later. They had made the journey in easy stages, and in weather that had been kind to them by remaining clement; but even if this had not been the case, Abbie would still have enjoyed the experience.
It had been many years since she had travelled any great distance from her grandfather's home, set in the heart of Leicestershire's famed hunting country, and she had discovered much on the journey to capture her interest. Most of all, it had been the companionship of her godmother's personal maid that had made the journey so vastly enjoyable.
Miss Evelina Felcham was unlike any other maid Abbie had known before. All the servants at Foxhunter Grange, wary of the Colonel's uncertain temper, were wont to treat their master with the utmost respect at all times. It had quickly become clear that Felcham wasn't in the least in awe of her mistress; nor was she reticent to voice her opinions, whether or not she had been called upon to do so.
'I do hope Godmama isn't worried because we didn't arrive earlier in the day. But I do not get to travel about the country, and I didn't wish to hurry the journey,' Abbie remarked, peering interestedly through the window as the post-chaise progressed along the busy streets in the centre of the city, and, in consequence, didn't notice she was being regarded keenly.
'Lord bless you, miss! Don't you fret none over that,' Felcham advised. 'Lady Hetta don't concern herself nowadays over much at all, leastways, not as you'd notice. Grown dreadfully indolent since the master died, so she has. Might have been otherwise had she been blessed with children of her own. But it wasn't to be. Your visit will do her the world of good, I'm sure.'