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Awkwardly he flattened the paper against his chest. "Listen to this, Maddie. And brace yourself." Malcolm cleared his throat and lifted the wrinkled missive. " 'Brother.' " He stopped and looked up at her, obviously waiting for the significance of that single word to sink in.
Maddie's insides jolted unpleasantly, and the last pillow slipped from her fingers onto the floor. "The Duke of Highbarrow has finally answered your letter," she muttered, sinking onto the comfortable chair beside his bed.
"It's been more than a fortnight since we wrote him. He was bound to answer eventually." He looked sideways at her. "I'd actually begun to wonder whether you'd burned the original letter."
Maddie straightened. "I told you I would send it," she said, wondering if he knew just how close she had come to 'accidently' misplacing the missive in her bed chamber fireplace.
"I know you did." Her employer smiled briefly, then returned his attention to the letter. " 'Brother,' " he began again. "'I was away in York on business when news of your poorly timed illness arrived. I have sat to write you immediately upon my return to Highbarrow Castle.' "
"You were right," Maddie noted, as Mr. Bancroft paused to catch his breath. He tired so easily these days. "He always uses the word 'castle,' doesn't he?"
"At every opportunity. To continue, 'Victoria sends her wishes for a complete recovery, though as you know I really don't give a damn one way or the other.' "
"My word, he's awful."
" 'I am planting my crop at Highbarrow Castle at the moment. Otherwise, despite your past errors of judgment, I would make an effort to call upon you at Langley Hall.'
"Of course," Maddie and Mr. Bancroft agreedin skeptical unison.
All she knew of the duke were tales of his monumental stuffiness and arrogance, and Maddie let out her breath in a silent sigh of relief. He wasn't coming. "So that's that, then," she said, rising. "Hardly enough to warrant frightening me half to death, though. Shame on you."
"That's the good news, I'm afraid."
Slowly Maddie sat down again. "Oh."
"Now please remain calm."
She nodded. "Just as you did," she teased.
"Hush. 'However,'" he resumed, "'as getting the crop in at Langley is of paramount importance, I have spoken with Quinlan. He has agreed to journey to Somerset to oversee planting and to tend to the estate during your recovery. He follows immediately upon this letter, and should arrive at Langley on the fifteenth of the month. Yours, Lewis.' "
Maddie gazed out the window. The lovely spring morning, the first without rain in three days, had become a disaster. Worse than a disaster. She took a deep breath. "I assume His Grace is referring to Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft?"
Her employer nodded, a sympathetic grimace touching his gaunt face. "Afraid so. The Marquis of Warefield himself."
Maddie cleared her throat. ''I see."
He reached out and squeezed her fingers. "I'm dreadfully sorry, my dear. You are acquainted with him, I suppose?"
She shook her head. "Thankfully not. I believe he was in Spain during my . . . visit to Londonif you could call it that." Maddie frowned at the memory.
"It wasn't your fault, my girl," Malcolm soothed.
She eyed him fondly, wondering who was supposed to be comforting whom. "You're the only one who thinks so. None of themnot one of themsaw any thing but that stupid kiss, and that stupid man trying to shove his hand down my dress. They didn't care that I wanted nothing to do with it, or with that awful scoundrel Spenser. And I want nothing to do with London society, ever again."
"Well, Quinlan wasn't there, so don't worry yourself. He wouldn't say anything, anyway. Wouldn't be polite, you know."
"I'm not worried." Maddie sat up straighter, pulling her fingers free from his comforting grip. "Nor am I the least bit faint of heart, Mr. Bancroft."
He chuckled. "I never said you were."
"It's merely that I'm . . . annoyed." Ready to throw a screaming fit would be closer to the truth, but she'd had the feeling lately that her peaceful days were numbered. Once the letter to Highbarrow Castle had gone out, someone had been bound to reply.
And even though she didn't know the Marquis of Warefield, she knew of him. Quinlan Ulysses Bancroft was the very pink of the ton, a favorite of the new king, the bluest of blue bloods, the epitome of propriety and dignity. She loathed him without ever having seen his pampered, spoiled, self-important visage. He was one of then.
"Nobility" might be what society called them, but from her experience, the word had nothing at all to do with their characters. "I thought we informed His Grace that you had someone tending to Langley during your illness."
"You didn't expect him to care about that, did you? He owns Langley Hall, my dear; I only manage it for him. And he will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve his considerable monetary well-being, with or without my consent. You know that."
She sighed. "Yes, I know that. Even so, he might have asked whether you wanted assistance before he foisted his son off on you."
Unexpectedly, Mr. Bancroft laughed again, rare color touching his pale cheeks. "I don't believe Quinlan al lows himself to be 'foisted' on anyone."
"How noble he must be," Maddie said unenthusiastically.
Her employer narrowed his eyes, suspicion touching his expression. "Just remember, my dear, the less trouble you make for him, the shorter and less painful his visit is likely to be."
A flash of guilt ran through her. After all, this deuced marquis was Mr. Bancroft's nephew, and it had been at least four years since they had seen one another. Even though she might detest him and the rest of the damned aristocracy, she knew all too well how lonely Malcolm must feel being cut off from his family.
So, little as she liked Warefield's coming, she had no intention of stamping her feet and throwing a tantrum. Not in front of her employer, anyway. "I shall behave," she assured him.
He smiled. ''I have no doubt that you will."
Copyright ) 1998 by Suzanne Enoch