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Bullets whined through the still morning air, striking with alarming accuracy the boulder behind which Tuscaloosa Tom Pardee hunkered. War whoops and vicious curses rent the air. The woman cowering next to Tom wept piteously.
"We know you're there, Tuscaloosa Tom!" a whiskey-voiced malefactor exclaimed.
"Ah, but goodness and right are on my side," Tom declared stoutly. "You, villains, are the devil's spawn!" He punctuated his declaration with a volley from his trusty firearm.
"Oh, Tom!" the woman sobbed.
"Fear nothing," the heroic man assured her. "I will rescue you!"
"I know you cannot fail me," Miss Abigail Faithgood choked out, flinching at each new auditory assault upon her senses. Oh, my, she was frightened! Yet she knew -- she knew -- Tom would not fail her. He had never failed in his life.
Suddenly, with a bloodcurdling howl, an Indian brave leaped from the boulder above them to confront Tom, the feathers in his headdress bristling, his war paint vivid in the noonday sun. Miss Abigail Faithgood screamed.
Without flinching, Tom...
"Tom what?" Chewing on the end of her pen and patting at the hair coiled over her left ear, Claire Montague stared at the paper on her desk. "Botheration. And how can it be a clear morning if it's noon?"
Claire jerked in alarm, and the pen dropped from her fingers to clatter on the blotter. She hadn't heard the door open. Well, why should she? She herself had oiled those hinges faithfully every single Monday of her life for ten years now.
"Good heavens, Scruggs, you frightened me to death."
The butler's lugubrious expression lengthened. "I beg your pardon, Miss Montague. But he's here." Scruggs sounded as though he were reporting the arrival of doom. "His carriage just drew up outside."
Claire's hand flew to her throat. She didn't need to ask who he was. Her palpitating heart thundered so violently that for a second she feared she would lose consciousness. She pulled herself together. This reaction was absurd; she knew it.
"Thank you, Scruggs. I shall descend immediately."
"Very good, ma'am. Mrs. Philpott is preparing refreshments." Scruggs's face, which Claire often thought more nearly resembled that of a morose moose than anything else, disappeared.
Mrs. Philpott was the cook, and Claire suspected she was at this moment weeping into her teakettle. With a big sigh she rose from her desk, slipped her work in progress into its special drawer, and locked it away with the key she kept on a chain around her neck.
Composing herself with some effort -- after all, it wasn't every day one met the man of one's dreams, the man who haunted one's every daylight hour and filled one's nights with alluring fantasies -- Claire stood up straight and tall, entirely too tall, in fact. For at least the thousandth time she regretted her unladylike inches. Oh, well, there was nothing she could do about them. Patting her severe hairstyle once more to make sure no unruly strands poked out, she adopted her best housekeeperish expression.
Then, gulping an enormous breath for courage, she walked out of her room and prepared to greet the new master of Partington Place.
Tom Partington wished it weren't so blasted dark. He'd love to get a glimpse of his new home. But it had been twilight when his rented coach barreled him through Marysville. The night was black as pitch now and raining fit to kill as well. A couple of his many old wounds had begun to ache earlier and now throbbed in earnest. Tom was used to pain, though. Besides, nothing could subdue the excitement bubbling within him tonight.
Oh, he knew life was what one made of it. And he certainly didn't expect to be handed anything else on a silver platter anytime soon. Once was plenty, more than life generally offered a fellow, in Tom's experience.
Excitement gripped him, though. There was something about this place that made one dare to dream, an atmosphere of unrefined excitement. Confidence bubbled in the air. This land wasn't so much raw as it was untamed. The clinging vine of civilization had yet to choke the life out of California, and the climate fairly vibrated with energy.
Tom felt a liveliness here, had felt it as soon as his ship docked in San Francisco. The atmosphere wasn't like that of the cities back home: stifled, stuffy, lifeless. There was something in the wind here that felt like a promise, if not of hope fulfilled, then at least of hope eagerly pursued. It was a promise that assured him that if he couldn't achieve his dream, he could damned well chase it for all he was worth. Tom had never felt so optimistic in his life.
Staring into the impenetrable night, he couldn't keep the smile from his face. It had been there ever since he'd learned the terms of his uncle Gordon's will. Tom still couldn't believe the old buzzard had left his entire fortune to him.
When the carriage slowed, he couldn't even wait for the horses to come to a full stop before he pushed the door open and jumped out. His bad leg gave a tremendous throb when he landed on the graveled walkway, but Tom didn't care. He took the steps to the grand double doors of his new house -- house, hell! It was a damned mansion! -- two at a time and yanked the bellpull with an exuberance he hadn't felt in years.
Several minutes had passed, and Tom was on the verge of tugging on the pull again, when the door creaked open. A man who looked as though he'd walked straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story peered at him. Tom figured him for the butler.
Silence reigned for several seconds before Tom broke it with a broad smile and said, "Hello, there. I'm Tom Partington."
The ghoulish man took a step backward and pulled the door open. "Please come inside, sir."
So Tom did. In spite of the butler's gloomy demeanor, Tom's sunny mood prevailed. "Thanks. It's cold as the dickens out there."
Claire stopped at the top of the wide staircase, the voice at the front door having momentarily stunned her. It couldn't have been better if she'd selected it herself. Deep and resonant, a rich, pure Alabama drawl, it touched Claire in places she'd never dared hope would be touched.
She devoutly prayed the face, frame, and character that went with the voice would not disappoint. After all, she'd often been told photographs did not tell the entire story. Claire had invariably laughed and said she provided her own stories, but tonight was different. She wanted former Brevet General Thomas Gordon Partington to live up to her expectations more than she'd ever wanted anything in her life, barring a genteel background and great literary talent. She already knew those two commodities had been denied her.
Drawing in one more deep breath and exhaling it slowly, Claire put her hand on the polished banister and began her descent.
"Miss Montague will be with you in a moment, General Partington," the butler said drearily. "She will see you to your room."
"Mr. Partington will do quite well," Tom said, trying to keep the acid out of his voice. He looked around the foyer of his new home and nearly laughed out loud when he saw the fancy Oriental carpet and all the polished wood and marble. Great God, this was fantastic! He'd scraped and slaved and saved for fifteen years now, hoping he'd one day be able to afford even a small place to call his own, and now, with a few magnanimous strokes of his late uncle's pen, he'd been handed all this.
"Very good, sir."
Tom thought the fellow sounded as though he were agreeing to commit murder. "And what is your name, my good man?"
Just Scruggs? Oh, well, who was Tom to argue? Anyway, it didn't matter. "Just Scruggs" was his butler now. His very own butler. Ha!
"Right, Scruggs. Well, will you please take my coat and hat somewhere? They're dripping onto the carpet." And what a carpet it was! Tom knew absolutely nothing about carpets, but he'd seldom stood on anything this thick. And it was his! With difficulty he checked an exultant laugh.
"Very good, sir."
Shaking his head, Tom watched as Scruggs bore his coat and hat away as though each item weighed a thousand pounds. Good grief, what kind of people had Uncle Gordon employed here anyway?
On the other hand, what the hell did he care? After all, he was rich as Croesus now, thanks to Uncle Gordo. As Tom had been dirt poor all his life in spite of the Fine Old Family Name, the change delighted him. Not even that death's-head butler could blight his happiness.
He heard the stairway creak. Looking up quickly, he discerned a tall, elegant, albeit severe-looking, female making her way down the staircase.
Aha, the housekeeper. Tom had heard about her. According to the letters Uncle Gordon had written to Tom's mother, people in the town of Pyrite Springs had at first been quite scandalized about the relationship between old Uncle Gordo and his housekeeper, Miss Montague. They'd soon gotten over it.
Peering at the woman descending the staircase toward him, Tom had a hard time crediting the rumors. Unless his uncle's taste had improved since Gordo had fallen in love with Tom's mother, this woman seemed entirely too majestic a female to have been the focus of salacious gossip linking the two of them. Maybe the citizens of Pyrite Springs possessed lively imaginations.
This creature certainly did not appear to be the stuff of romantic tales. Granted, her features were fine, her nose was small and straight, and her mouth quite prettily shaped. Still, she appeared quellingly rigid. Spectacles glittered across her face in the lamplight, and she wore her hair in a dreadful style, braided and coiled into two tight little knots above her ears. Her hair reminded Tom of a pair of rattlesnakes about to strike, although that thought was undoubtedly the product of too many years on the frontier.
Nevertheless, he had been reared to be polite to ladies, no matter how regal their manners and no matter how far his life had divided him from his gracious youth. He walked to the foot of the stairs and smiled.
"Yes," Claire breathed. "I am she."
Good heavens, the man was perfection. His limp, though barely perceptible, hinted of gallant deeds and suffering. His blond hair was just a bit too long for fashion but perfect for him, and it glimmered like gold in the candlelight. That famous mustache of his outlined lips too beautiful for words although God and the whole country knew Claire had used enough of them in her many feeble attempts to do them justice. His eyes were blue as cornflowers. In this dim light she could barely perceive their color, but their size, depth, and luminosity were spectacular. And his smile. Claire swallowed. His smile could melt a heart of ice.
Southern gentleman, fearless soldier, brave frontiersman. Brevet General Thomas G. Partington was the living personification of Tuscaloosa Tom Pardee. Claire very nearly fainted. Taking several careful, deep breaths, she spared herself the indignity of tumbling down the staircase and landing insensate at his feet, but she managed to negotiate the few last steps with a modicum of dignity.
Her hand shook when she extended it to accept his, and he helped her into the foyer. Good heavens.
Dianthe, she thought suddenly...a little sadly. I must introduce him to Dianthe. They were made for each other.
"You are Claire Montague? My uncle's housekeeper?"
"Yes. Yes, I am the housekeeper," Claire replied breathlessly.
"Good. I'm very pleased to meet you. Mr. -- er -- Scruggs told me you'd show me around my new home."
Claire told herself sternly to get a grip on her senses. At the moment they were fluttering in her middle like deranged butterflies. This would never do.
She tried on a smile and decided it fitted. "I should be happy to do so, sir. It's such a chilly, rainy night, though, perhaps you would like to take tea in the parlor first. I believe Mrs. Philpott, the cook, is already preparing refreshments. I'll be happy to tell you about your new home over a cup of tea before we attempt a grand tour."
If she didn't faint and drown in her own teacup. For a woman with such a dull exterior, Claire often thought the fates had teased her most unkindly when they'd given her these exalted sensibilities. She maintained her smile, though, and tried her best to appear unruffled. In truth she'd never been so ruffled.
"Thank you. I would like a chance to dry out and have a nip of...something."
"Yes, well, please follow me, Mr. -- General -- oh, dear."
Well, so much for aplomb. Claire could feel heat rise to stain her cheeks.
"'Mr.' will do nicely, thank you, Miss Montague." Tom paused. "It is Miss Montague?"
Flustered, surprised he'd even bothered to ask, Claire murmured, "Yes. Yes, it is." Then, impulsively, she added, "You see, Mr. Partington, your uncle spoke so glowingly of you that we denizens of Partington Place have become quite used to thinking of you as the Young General."
"My uncle was, I'm afraid, much given to exaggeration, Miss Montague."
Surprised by his tone of voice, which sounded exceedingly dry, Claire decided she'd best not respond lest she say something inappropriate. Opening the door to the parlor, she stepped aside and allowed her new employer to enter before her. She hoped he'd like the way she'd kept the house up. Even though her obligations to her publisher and her readers took a good deal of her time, Claire had always put her responsibilities as housekeeper at Partington Place above all else and hoped desperately to keep her job. Partington Place was her home. She was also proud of her skill at housekeeping because it was one at which she excelled, in spite of her tawdry origins.
Tom looked around the room with apparent interest. Claire trusted he would not object to the dried flower arrangement she'd set on the side table. The late Mr. Partington had enjoyed her attempts at flower arranging, but she had no idea what other men might appreciate. The only men she'd ever known in her life until Mr. Partington employed her were her father and her brother, neither one of whom counted.
Claire was so nervous it was an effort to keep her hands demurely clasped in front of her. They wanted to wring one another in agitation.
"This room is quite charming, Miss Montague," Tom said, making Claire's knees go weak with relief. "I expect your influence has held sway in Partington Place? I can't imagine Uncle Gordon having this much taste."
Surprised, Claire blinked several times before she managed to say, "Oh, no, General -- I mean, Mr. -- Partington, the late Mr. Partington had exquisite taste. He was a man of the most refined sensibilities."
"Really?" Tom leveled a perfectly gorgeous smile at her, and Claire's hands tightened around each other.
Swallowing, she said, "Yes, indeed. He was a most worthy gentleman."
A knock sounded at the door, and Claire blessed the interruption as she dashed to open it. Sure enough, it was Mrs. Philpott. Claire noticed the poor old cook's swollen, red-rimmed eyelids and gave her a commiserating smile as she took the tea tray.
Claire had already promised the cook she wouldn't introduce the new master until the following day when, Mrs. Philpott assured Claire, she would certainly have stopped weeping. Claire hoped so, although she didn't dare be too optimistic. Mrs. Philpott went through life as though pursued by her own personal storm cloud. No matter what the circumstances, Mrs. Philpott could find something to worry about.
"Here's your tea, Mr. Partington. Do you care for cream and sugar?" Pleased that her voice sounded steady, Claire dared smile at the devastatingly handsome man staring at the portrait of his uncle hanging over the fireplace.
He turned and smiled back, making Claire catch her breath and turn her attention to the tea things.
"Thank you, Miss Montague. I do take cream and sugar. One lump, please. I can understand why my uncle spoke so highly of you. You're a veritable paragon of housekeeperish virtues."
Claire's "thank you" sounded squeaky to her ears. She picked up Tom's teacup and prayed her hand wouldn't shake.
He murmured another polite "thank you," took the cup, and Claire was pleased to note she hadn't spilled a drop.
"Tell me, Miss Montague," he said after a sip of tea, "do you have any idea why my uncle left me this place?"
Startled, Claire said, "Why, no, sir. I just assumed it was because you were his only nephew."
"Hmm. No, he has others."
"I'm afraid I wasn't in the late Mr. Partington's confidence when it came to his personal financial matters."
With a grin Tom said, "No? Well, perhaps it doesn't matter."
"I do know that he held you in the greatest esteem, though." Claire was shy about telling him that but felt compelled to do so.
"Did he now?"
"Yes, indeed. Why, he read me every one of the newspaper accounts of your career." Claire stopped speaking suddenly, as though unsure she should have divulged so much.
"Ah, yes, the reporters," Tom said dryly. "Many's the times I was forced to save some citified newspaperman from his own folly." He took another gulp of tea. "Tell me, Miss Montague, I know the estate grounds are extensive. I'm interested in pursuing certain, oh, business matters and wondered if you knew the exact acreage."
Tom put his teacup down on an end table, reached into his coat, and, with a smooth, elegant gesture, withdrew a slim cigar. Claire watched, eyes widening. That was it!