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Miss Briony Winters raised her eyes briefly to the leaden sky. It had been a fitting day for the funeral, grey and sombre, matching her mood exactly, she decided, turning away from the window in order to bid a final farewell to the last of the mourners.
'Thank you for coming, Dr Mansfield. Although you've only quite recently come among us, you've already earned the respect of many in our community. You certainly made a favourable impression on my dear godmother when she required your services not so very long ago.'
Far from appearing gratified, the young practitioner gazed sombrely down at the slender hand he retained in his clasp. 'It's a great pity I was unable to diagnose Lady Ashworth's condition at the time. She complained only of feeling unusually tired and betrayed no other symptoms of a weak heart.'
'No one could possibly blame you, sir, least of all me,' Briony assured him gently, while finally becoming conscious of the inordinate amount of time her hand had been resting in his comfortable, consoling clasp and withdrawing it at once. 'My godmother was fortunate enough to enjoy shockingly good health throughout most of her life. No one suspected how ill she was. I don't believe she even realised it herself. She merely thought she was overtired. She made numerous trips during the last twelve months of her life, visiting various friends and relations. She even went so far as to add considerable miles to her most recent journey by visiting London late last year and remaining for a week or two in the capital.'
Briony took a moment to regain command over her emotions. She had stoically maintained control throughout the ordeal of the funeral and had no intention of breaking down now, at least not while mourners remained in the house.
'Besides which, I believe my godmother would have chosen to go that way,' she added, determined to appear mistress of her emotions by discussing a topic that was still so very painful. ' She had scant regard for those who continually cosset themselves, or take to their beds over the slightest ailment. A long drawn-out illness would have been the very last thing I would have wished upon her. All the same, the unexpectedness of Lady Ashworth's passing is a little hard to come to terms with.'
'And that is why you must not shut yourself away from the world for too long,' the doctor cautioned, while at the same time casting an expert eye over much-admired features, which clearly betrayed those telltale signs of strain and grief. 'I know you've many good friends hereabouts who would be only too willing to offer comfort and support. And I sincerely trust one day you will come to look upon my sister Florence and me in just such a light.'
The pretty young woman at his side readily concurred and went on to issue a verbal invitation to dine in the not-too-distant future. Unfortunately Briony couldn't imagine she would ever attain much pleasure in socialising again, most especially as the wonderful person who had stood in place of a mother during the past dozen years would no longer be at her side. None the less, mindful of the social niceties which her beloved godmother had succeeded in drilling into her during their time together, she sounded sincere enough when she announced she would look forward to the evening.
The invitation to dine at the vicarage, which followed immediately afterwards, was no less graciously accepted. Even so, the instant the vicar and his good lady wife had accompanied the Mansfields from the room, Briony slumped down on one of the comfortable sofas, feeling all at once emotionally drained, yet attaining some comfort from the knowledge that she had behaved on what had been one of the most trying days of her entire life as her dear, late godmother would have wished.
Sighing, she rested her head against the comfort of the upholstery, wondering why, now that the last of the mourners had finally taken their leave and she could give way to emotion, the tears simply refused to come.
Maybe there were no more left to shed, she reflected. After all, hadn't she cried bucketfuls since the morning her beloved benefactress had been discovered lifeless in her bed? Would she ever forget the moment when she had taken that cold hand in her own and had realised the heartrending truth? She had never forgotten the day a dozen years before when that self-same hand had grasped hers, warm and consoling, as she had watched her mother being placed in the ground. She would never have supposed it possible, then, that she would ever come to look upon another female in the light of a mother, but she had. Lady Ashworth had quickly won a young girl's love and respect, and in so doing had succeeded in transforming a somewhat tomboyish rapscallion, too fond of climbing trees and getting into all sorts of mischief, into a young woman who would not seem out of place in the most elegant London salon.
No mean feat! Briony was silently obliged to acknowledge, a moment before her attention was claimed by the late Lady Ashworth's cook-housekeeper, and almost lifelong companion, who had slipped silently into the room.
'Seen the last of them to their carriages, Janet?' A spontaneous smile clearly betrayed the fond regard in which she held the middle-aged servant. 'What would I have done without you this day?'
The smile in response held no less warmth. 'Oh, you'd have coped, miss. Hidden depths, that's what you've got, Miss Briony. Mistress always said so. Said you'd always come through in times of trouble.'
'And I sincerely hope she will be proved to be right.' Experiencing anything but conviction over her hidden reserves of fortitude, Briony rose from the sofa and went across to the window once again. This time, as she stared out, it wasn't the grey and overcast sky she saw, only the prospect of a somewhat gloomy future. The truth, however, had to be faced. Better to do so now, she told herself, than retain false hopes.
'Of course, I shan't know until I've had the meeting with Lady Ashworth's man of business, but it's almost certain I shan't be able to continue living here. Apart from anything else, I simply couldn't afford to do so.'
Turning away from the window, Briony considered the house she had called home for half her life. Although perhaps not a very large or particularly opulent dwelling for the widow of a wealthy baron, at least not by some standards, the building was well proportioned, boasting half-a-dozen roomy bedchambers and a very elegant west-facing main reception room. The drawing room was undoubtedly her favourite salon, she decided, glancing absently about her, possibly because she had spent so much time here in the company of her godmother.
'Mistress wouldn't have left you without the means to support yourself, miss, that I do know,' Janet assured, after catching the wistful expression on the delicate face that was quite without flaw, except perhaps for a slightly over-generous mouth. 'She came to love you, looked upon you as the daughter she'd never been blessed to have.'
'That's as may be, Janet. But she also looked upon that wretch Luke Kingsley as the son she'd never been blessed to have. And he is blood kin, let me remind you.'
Briony gave herself a mental shake in an attempt not to allow personal prejudice cloud her judgement, but she was only partially successful in her endeavours, as her next words proved.
'You know better than anyone how she raised him from when he was little more than a babe in arms. Showered everything upon him. Even persuaded her brother to arrange a commission for him so that he might enter the army when he'd finished at Oxford. And how does he repay all those years of devotion ? He cannot even bestir himself to attend his aunt's funeral!'
'Well, I expect Master Luke had his reasons for not being here today,' Janet countered, proving at a stroke that she held her late mistress's favourite relative in somewhat higher regard. 'Since he became his uncle's heir, and left the army, he's been kept busy, I expect. What with dancing attendance upon Lord Kingsley in Kent, and travelling so often to the capital, I don't suppose he's time for much else.'
'Much else other than his string of lightskirts!' Briony countered. 'If the gossips are to be believed, the infamous Lady Tockington's his latest strumpet. I wonder how long she will reign supreme? Not long if past conquests are anything to go by. He's not what you'd call constant in his attentions, now is he? His list of entanglements is legend!'
'Well, upon my word! What would the mistress say if she heard you talking like that?'
Briony couldn't resist smiling at this pitiful attempt at a reprimand. 'She'd try to appear affronted, much as you're doing now. But she'd have made a somewhat more convincing show of doing so.' All at once she was serious. 'But even you must own to the fact that God-mama began to despair at some of the rumours circulating about her precious nephew.'
'That's as may be,' the housekeeper conceded, 'but that don't alter the fact the mistress thought highly of Master Luke, no matter what the gossipmongers said about him. And mistress was a fine judge of character. After all, she knew you'd turn out well, right enough. So very proud of you she was, too.'
The sudden shadow of grief passing over Briony's features was unmistakable and resulted in the housekeeper rushing across to her side to offer comfort, just as she had done time and again during the past ten days or so.
Slipping an arm around Briony's slender shoulders, she held the younger woman close. 'There, there, Miss Briony chin up! The servants are all looking to you to see them right, remember? The Lord alone knows what will become of us all! As you say, Master Luke might well inherit the house. But who's to say he wouldn't sell it? When all's said and done, he's been content to remain most all year round in the capital since he left the army. And don't forget he's got his own fine place in Derbyshire. Mayhap he's no taste for country life n'more.'
'No, perhaps not,' Briony agreed. 'All the same, I'm sure he'd do everything within his power to ensure you, at least, could remain in the house. Even I recall how very fond of you he used to be.'
'That's as may be, miss,' Janet responded, after releasing her hold to go about the room in order to plump up cushions. 'But I shan't stay here, not without you.
'Now, miss, it's not a ha'p'orth of good you trying to change my mind,' she went on, when Briony was about to protest. 'I decided what I was going to do the day we found the poor mistress cold in her bed. Lady Ashworth would have expected me to continue caring for you. I'm sure the mistress has left you something in her will. Just as I'm certain she wouldn't have forgotten me. Said she'd look after me in my old age. And mistress always kept her word. I'm not saying it'll be much, but enough, I shouldn't wonder, for us to set up house together.'
All at once she appeared almost cheerful. 'Why, we could go and live on the coast together and mayhap open a small boarding house for genteel ladies! Sea bathing has become quite popular in recent years, so I'm told.'
Briony smiled fondly. 'It would seem you have our futures all mapped out for us. And who knows, opening a genteel little boarding house might be just the thing for us! But until I've had that all-important interview with Mr Pettigrew, I'll not know for sure just how we're situated.'