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It was a full minute before Miss Annis Milbank could recover sufficiently from the shock to exclaim, "But, my dear ma'am! What in the world makes you suppose that I am the most appropriate person to aid you? For all that I endeavour to behave as my dear mama would have wished, I remain shockingly outspoken on occasions. In consequence, I'm ill equipped to take upon myself the role of mediator, most especially in such a delicate matter as this."
Lady Pelham merely smiled that serene smile of hers, as she raised her eyes to study the delightful features framed in a riot of glossy chestnut curls.
Beautifully candid as ever, her goddaughter had spoken no less than the truth. Yet, even though her manners and behaviour were somewhat unorthodox on occasions, and there were those who considered her a little too self-reliant for someone of her tender years,Annis had been blessed with her mother's serenity, not to mention kindness and understanding, and her father's determination and sound common sense.
These admirable traits, coupled with an abundance of roguish charm, made her the ideal person to adopt the role of envoy.
"You err, my dear," she countered gently. "Your not being afraid to speak your mind in this instance might well prove advantageous."
Annis betrayed her misgivings by lifting one fine brow in a decidedly sceptical arch. "Ma'am, if the present Lord Greythorpe resembles his predecessor in character, is it likely he'll listen to anything I might choose to say?"
"The truth of the matter is, child, I've no notion of what manner of man the current holder of the title might be," Lady Pelham confessed as she rose wearily to her feet and went across to the window. "Opinions vary. I've heard it said that he's very like his late father in so much as he has a tendency to be cold and unapproachable on occasions; others, so I understand, hold a very different view of him. I myself am endeavouring to keep an open mind."
Her expression suddenly grave, Lady Pelham swung round to stare at her goddaughter. "Please do not imagine I ask this of you lightly," she revealed at length. "In fact, if I could have turned to any other, a member of my own immediate family, or some close friend here in Bath, I should never have written in such a melodramatic fashion, begging you to visit here without delay. You must have been a little concerned when I offered no explanation in my letter."
Her lively sense of humour coming to the fore, Annis couldn't help smiling at this gross understatement. The instant she had received the communication, she hadn't hesitated to make all haste to Bath. The journey from her Leicestershire home had been achieved swiftly enough, but even so she had been granted ample time to imagine the worst.
On her arrival a short time earlier, she had half-expected to be met with the intelligence that Lady Pelham was gravely ill, or at the very least that some shocking misfortune had befallen Helen, her godmother's niece. Never in her wildest imaginings had she supposed she had been summoned for the sole purpose of acting as go-between and spokesperson, a role for which she had had no previous experience. Therefore she could only assume the situation must be more dire than she had first supposed.
"Ma'am, perhaps I have not perfectly understood,'she felt obliged to admit. "You say you received a communication, quite out of the blue, from Helen's half-brother, inviting you both to spend a few weeks at the family's country residence in Hampshire, and that Helen herself was not altogether enthusiastic about accepting." Annis found it impossible to suppress a wry smile. "Well, ma'am, I for one can fully appreciate her feelings on the matter. She appears to me to have gone on well enough without being acknowledged by any member of her late father's family throughout her life."
"Helen feels neither bitter nor resentful towards any member of the Greythorpe family,'Lady Pelham assuredAnnis, before subjecting her to a thoughtful stare, as she resumed the seat opposite. "Which is something I have strongly suspected that you yourself have experienced increasingly over the years towards your mother's relatives, my dear."
Annis's refusal to be drawn on the irksome topic of her late mother's close relations ignited a glint of respect in Lady Pelham's eyes. "Do not misunderstand me," she went on. "I for one felt nothing but admiration for your mama. Unlike my sister and myself, she at least possessed the strength of character to go against her family's wishes and marry a man of her own choosing. How different Char-lotte's and my life might have been had we possessed the courage to follow a similar path!"
Although she knew a great deal about Lady Pelham and her late sister's marriages, neither of which had been even a moderately successful alliance, though both blessedly of short duration, Annis felt obliged to have one salient point confirmed at this juncture, and so did not hesitate to ask that all important question.
"There has never been any doubt in my mind that the Sixth Viscount Greythorpe was indeed Helen's sire," Lady Pelham answered, the conviction in her voice unshakeable. "My sister's behaviour might not have been altogether wise, though understandable in the circumstances. Married to a highly cynical and unapproachable being, many years her senior, was it any wonder she responded to the gentle attentions of the young man commissioned so early in the marriage to paint her portrait? Charlotte freely admitted that she sought the artist's company frequently during those few weeks he stayed at Greythorpe Manor. But she swore their association never went beyond mild flirtation. It was perhaps unfortunate that Helen was conceived at that time," Lady Pelham felt obliged to concede. "More unfortunate, still, was that she should have been cursed with the red hair that has not infrequently crowned the heads of certain members of our family down the generations, myself included."
"It does seem strange that the late Lord Greythorpe didn't appreciate this fact himself," Annis remarked.
"He might well have done so," Lady Pelham acknowledged, after a moment's intense thought. "A gentleman prone to moods of deep depression he might have been, but I never heard it said he lacked intelligence. He might have taken into account too that it is not uncommon for two people with very dark locks to produced auburn-haired off-spring. It was just unfortunate that the artist himself had Titian hair."
"Unfortunate, indeed," Annis agreed. "But if, as you say, Helen feels no bitterness towards her late father's family, why is she so unwilling to accept the invitation to visit the ancestral pile?"
"Oh, she isn't wholly against the notion," Lady Pelham corrected gently. "It is simply that we had previously accepted an invitation to spend a few days with a friend of Helen's in Devonshire at the end of February, which was the time Lord Greythorpe proposed for the commencement of the visit to Hampshire. So I wrote back explaining this, and suggested a shorter visit might be more appropriate for Helen's first stay at Greythorpe Manor."
"Is Helen against a protracted sojourn in the country?" Annis queried when her godmother relapsed into silence.
"Oh, no. I think, had circumstances been a little different, she might well have been quite happy to oblige her half-brother," Lady Pelham revealed, her expression suddenly grim. "As things stand, however, it doesn't suit Helen at all to remain away from Bath for a lengthy period at present."
Annis's attention was well and truly captured, for she felt that at last they had arrived at the crux of the matter. Consequently she did not hesitate, yet again, to have her curiosity satisfied.
"Because shortly before we received Lord Greythorpe's invitation, Helen's path was, regrettably, crossed by a handsome, silver-tongued young rogue, who has been paying her marked attention ever since," her godmother revealed without a moment's hesitation.
Annis wasn't slow to comprehend. "A fortune-hunter, ma'am?"
"Undoubtedly!" Lady Pelham concurred. "Surprisingly, Helen has yet to see him for precisely what he is. However, as you know yourself, she is not prone to folly, and is mature for her years. It is my belief that, given time, she will overcome this foolish infatuation of hers and common sense will prevail, providing she is granted that all important time."
Once again, Lady Pelham rose from her chair, only this time to pace about the room, clearly revealing her troubled state of mind. "My one great fear is that, if forcibly removed from Bath, while she remains utterly besotted, she just might be persuaded into an elopement. Then, I'm afraid, there would be nothing either her trustees or I could do to prevent that young ne'er-do-well, Mr Daniel Draycot, from getting his hands on at least part of her inheritance."
Such was her perturbed state, she appeared to find it necessary to adjust one of the ornaments on the mantelshelf a fraction of an inch, only to return it a moment later to its former position. "You see, my sister Charlotte was determined that Helen, like your own mother, should marry for love. Helen will come into her inheritance unconditionally upon marriage, at least the money left to her by her mother, which is not insubstantial."
Although Annis perfectly understood her godmother's concerns, she still considered the problem could be easily resolved. "Why not simply do what Helen herself wishes, ma'am, and write to Lord Greythorpe suggesting a shorter visit later in the year? Surely that will satisfy all concerned?"
"That is precisely what I did do, my dear, and my reply most definitely did not satisfy his lordship. He sent me this in response."
Lady Pelham went over to the escritoire, and, quickly locating a certain letter, promptly presented it for Annis to read. A moment later she watched her goddaughter's finely arched dark brows snap together, and the green flecks in the strikingly lovely grey eyes intensify, as they avidly scanned the missive written in a bold and unmistakably masculine hand.
"The arrogance of the man!'Annis tossed the letter aside in disgust. "Who on earth does he imagine he is, insisting his half-sister pays a visit when it suits his purposes? His maternal grandmother...?'She paused to consult the missive once more. "This Dowager Lady Kilbane is no relation to Helen, after all, so there is no necessity for Helen to be present at the proposed birthday celebration to be held at Greythorpe Manor early in the spring. If I were you, ma'am, when the carriage he clearly intends sending to collect you arrives next week, I'd send it back immediately, with a letter stating in no uncertain terms that you will decide when your niece shall visit Greythorpe Manor."
"Believe me, my dear, nothing would afford me greater satisfaction,'Lady Pelham divulged. "I very much fear Lord Deverel Greythorpe is not unlike his father, imperious and uncompromising, having scant regard for the feelings of others. Sadly, though, he is well within his rights to insist upon Helen visiting whenever he chooses." She smiled as Annis's expression turned to one of consternation. "The late Lord Greythorpe, for reasons best known to himself, never took steps to divorce my sister after their separation. When he died, guardianship of the daughter he never acknowledged as his own, along with everything else he possessed, passed to his only son and heir, the present holder of the title."