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Why in God's name had she requested this meeting?
For the hundredth time, Bryce Lyndley asked himself that question, pondering the motive behind what was about to occur even as he steered his phaeton through the iron gates of Lady Nevon's elegant country estate. Tension knotted inside him, having escalated with each passing segment of his twenty-five-mile journey from London to Hertford.
He had yet to find an answer that suited him.
Damn. This chapter of his life had been closed decades ago, and he had no intention of allowing it to be reopened -- especially not by the death of the very scoundrel who'd authored its pages.
Still, it was Lady Nevon who'd sent for him, Bryce reminded himself. And, even though his sole contact with her all these years had been through letters, the idea of refusing her fervent summons was unthinkable. He owed her a huge debt of gratitude -- one that no number of visits could repay.
No number of visits? he thought wryly. In truth, this was the first time she'd ever requested his presence at her home. Until now she hadn't dared see him, much less invite him to Nevon Manor.
Oh, he knew precisely why. He knew, he understood, and he accepted.
He was also aware that, as of a week ago, the reason prompting her restraint was gone, having died along with the man who'd created it -- the very man who'd been the insurmountable obstacle thwarting Lady Nevon's wishes, barring Bryce from his past.
Fine. So now Lady Nevon could send for him.
The question remained: why would she want to?
She, better than anyone, knew the past could not be undone. Like the cruelty and lies that defined it, the pastontact to dispute it, given his lack of objectivity.
Unless it was Bryce she meant to protect.
That prospect struck like a blow. Was it possible that, through his death, the duke had found a way to inflict some new plague on Bryce's life, one Lady Nevon intended to warn him of?
Impossible. Whitshire had believed Bryce dead. Lady Nevon herself had seen to that more than thirty years ago, convincing her brother that the bane of his existence had been cast into the streets, where he'd starved and perished.
Which eliminated Whitshire's will as a possible cause for today's summons.
Leaving the same nagging questions in its wake.
Easing his horses round the drive, Bryce abandoned his speculations. The manor loomed just ahead. Whatever Lady Nevon wanted, he'd learn about it soon enough. And whatever her request was, he'd find a way to oblige her -- without dredging up the ugliness of the past.
He'd hardly made his decision when a small white streak shot across the drive, directly into the path of Bryce's oncoming phaeton. The streak-which revealed itself to be a swift but thoroughly terrified rabbit -- froze for a moment, staring fearfully about before completing its mad dash to the opposite side of the Ave, where it disappeared into the woods.
Bryce's horses went wild.
Whinnying their distress, they came to a screeching halt, rearing up and tossing their heads in protest.
"Easy!" Bryce commanded, tightening his grip on the reins and fighting to bring the horses under control as the carriage pulled precariously to the left.
After a brief struggle, the skittish mounts complied, and the carriage eased to a stop, teetering at the very edge of the drive. "Damn," Bryce muttered. Peering t o his right, he scanned the woods, the fluttering leaves on the trees the only sign that they'd been recently disturbed.
"Sir! Pardon me -- sir!"
Bryce's head snapped about at the approaching sound of the feminine voice breathlessly accosting him from the same direction as had the white streak. "Yes?" He blinked as a delicate young woman sprinted toward the carriage, a cascade of chestnut hair billowing out around her smudged, fineboned face, her eyes -- a brilliant cornflower blue -- filled with worry.
"Did you see a white rabbit go by?" she panted, looking furtively about.
Despite the lingering effects of the past moments' tension, Bryce felt his lips twitch.
"Pardon me," the girl repeated, gazing at Bryce as if trying to assess his ability to hear. "Did you see a white rabbit go by? I spied him heading in this direction. I only pray your vehicle didn't strike him." With that, she forced herself to peer into the drive, her shoulders sagging with relief when she saw it was devoid of an injured animal. "Thank goodness. Still, I'm sure the commotion startled him. Lord knows where he went. I must find him before he gets hurt. He's too inquisitive for his own good. Oh, why did I doze off? I know Crumpet delights in racing off the first chance he gets. Are you sure you didn't see him -- a rather bewildered-looking white rabbit who rushes about as if he's in a frightful hurry?"
That did it.
Bryce's shoulders began shaking with laughter. "I'm not certain," he managed. "Was this rabbit wearing a waistcoat? Contemplating a pocket watch, perhaps?"
At first the young woman's brows drew together, distress precluding comprehension. Then realization struck and her eyes began to twinkle. "No. Actu ally, he was quite bare."
"Ah. In that case, I can put your fears to rest. The scamp who, mere seconds ago, tore across the drive, terrorizing my horses and nearly catapulting my carriage from the road, was definitely white and assuredly bare. My guess is he's the rabbit you're searching for. If so, he's quite intact." Bryce pointed. "He darted into those woods, right beyond that elm." Another grin. "Will you be going in after him?"
One dimple appeared in each smudged cheek. "I think not. As long as he's in the woods, he's safe. So I'll let him have his fun. He'll be scolded later."
"With a scolding to look forward to, I doubt he'll return."
"Oh, he'll return -- when the desire to eat overcomes the fear of reprimand." The girl tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Or when he consults his fictitious pocket watch and learns that it's mealtime," she added, laughter lacing her tone. Tilting back her head, she regarded Bryce with undisguised interest. "You must be Bryce Lyndley. Aunt Hermione's been expecting you."
Aunt Hermione? Now, that was an unknown scrap of information.
"Indeed I am," he said aloud. "I'm also at an obvious disadvantage. You know my name, but I haven't a clue as to yours. Unless, of course, it's Alice."
She flashed him another smile. "No. It's Gaby -- Gaby Denning. Nevon Manor is my home." She backed away as she spoke. "Let's avoid making this an official introduction. Aunt Hermione would be most upset if she were to learn I'd met you when I was in such a disheveled state. She's very proud of you, youknow. You and your accomplishments. She wants all of us to look and act our best when we're introduced to you. So I'd best hurry inside and make my self presentable. I'll see you...meet you" -- she corrected herself -- "shortly."
With that she darted toward the manor.
Bryce stared after her, amused by the encounter, intrigued by what he'd learned.
So Lady Nevon had a niece. Odd, he'd never known of her existence until now. Then again, he hadn't exactly been apprised of family matters. Evidently that was about to change, if all Lady Nevon's niece had just said was true. If what she'd blurted out was any indication of what lay ahead, he was about to meet an unknown number of people, all of whom had been advised to make a favorable impression on him.
There was only one way to find out.
Taking up the reins, Bryce urged the horses toward the manor.
"Good day, Mr. Lyndley. Lady Nevon is expecting you." A tall, stately butler opened the door, giving Bryce a lightning-quick head-to-toe perusal that, had Bryce been a tad less observant, would have escaped him. "Welcome to Nevon Manor," he continued with a practiced bow. Straightening, he held his chin high, his dark hair and pencil-thin mustache impeccably groomed, just barely tinged with gray. "My name is Chaunce. Anything you require, please let me know and I'll see that you get it."
"Thank you, Chaunce," Bryce responded, intrigued once again by the enthusiasm of his welcome, though still baffled by its cause. From the corner of his eye he spied a line of footmen, all darting about in a sudden flurry of motion, some carrying trays, others polishing the wood, all of them casting curious glances in his direction. Dryly, he wondered if they intended to line up and throw rose petals at his feet as he strolled the balls. "I truly require nothing, other than knowing where Lady Nevon is, that is."
"She's in the library, sir. I'll take you there myself, then see to your refreshment." The butler cleared his throat purposefully. "Correct me if I'm wrong, sir. As I understand it, you prefer coffee to tea. You take it black, no cream or sugar. As for what accompanies it, you fancy cinnamon cakes -- with raspberry jelly, of course -- rather than scones." A pause. "Any errors, sir?"
"Not a one." Bryce inclined his head, a fascinated gleam lighting his eyes. "Tell me, is there anything about me you don't know, Chaunce?"
"I try to be thorough, sir. Lady Nevon prefers it that way. Now, if you'll follow me." The butler gestured grandly, then turned and, hands clasped behind his back, headed down the polished hallway.
Bryce followed, feeling suddenly and uncustomarily off-balance. It took a great deal to unnerve him, which was why he was so bloody good at his profession. Yet now, preparing to face the woman who'd spared his life and ensured his future, he felt oddly uneasy, plagued by an awareness that old demons were on the verge of being confronted.
First a bantering session with a girl straight from the pages of a novel, now this.
For a man who was ruled by fact, rooted in thought rather than emotion, this day was turning out to be most unsettling.
"Yes?" a delicate voice responded to Chaunce's knock.
"Forgive me, madam," the butler began, opening the library door a crack, "but Mr. Lyndley is here."
"Thank God," Bryce heard her murmur to herself. Then: "Please, Chaunce, show him in."
Chaunce threw the door wide and gestured for Bryce to enter.
Slowly Bryce complied, wondering if the memory he'd carried with him all these years -- of a tiny lady with aristocratic featur es and a knot of upswept honey blond hair -- would match the woman he about to see for the first time in twenty-three years.
"Bryce." The elderly matron who approached him, hands outstretched, was a replica of his memory, save the color of her hair -- now snow white -- and the previously absent lines of age set into her cheeks and brow. "Oh, Bryce." Tears shone in her pale blue eyes as she drank him in feature by feature, nodding her approval and clasping his hands in hers. "You look wonderful. Tall. Handsome. Even I couldn't anticipate..." She broke off. "Forgive me."
"It's good to see you too, my lady," Bryce returned, his voice raw as childhood memories slammed from past to present at a breakneck pace. "You're looking well -- precisely as I remembered you, in fact." He kissed her hand.
"Hardly. But bless you for saying that." Her lips curved, and she released his hands with great reluctance. "Please, sit. Chaunce will fetch our refreshment. Then we'll talk."
Nodding, Bryce waited for her to be seated, then lowered himself into a library chair. "I came as soon as I got your message."
"Yes. I hoped you would." She fell silent as Chaunce reentered and placed a tray on the side table.
"Shall I pour, my lady?" the butler inquired.
"No, thank you, Chaunce. I'll pour."
"Very good. Will there be anything else?"
"Not at this time. I'll summon you shortly."
"Of course, my lady." Chaunce bowed. "Enjoy your visit."
Lady Nevon waited until the door had closed behind him. Then she turned her attention back to Bryce. "I have so very much to say to you. I always have, though I never could. But now, with Richard dead..."
"Please accept my sympathy on your loss."
Her brows rose. "Why woul d you offer something you can't possibly feel?"
"I beg to differ with you. I do indeed feel sympathy. Granted, it's for you, not the duke. But my personal opinion of him detracts nothing from the fact that he was your brother. The sympathy I'm offering is therefore quite genuine, I assure you."
A small smile curved Lady Nevon's lips. "You haven't changed, Bryce. You're still as straightforward and honest as ever. And as skilled at driving home your point. 'Tis no wonder no other barrister in England can compare with you. I thank you for your kind wishes. As for my feelings, they're mixed. You, better than anyone, know how very different my brother and I were. I loved him -- but I very seldom liked him. To be frank, a part of me feels naught but relief at his death." She inclined her head. "Do I sound like a monster?"
"No, Lady Nevon. You sound human."
In reply, she took up the coffeepot, poured two steaming cups. "Lady Nevon. How very formal. Tell me, Bryce, after all these years, do you think you might call me Hermione?"
"If it would please you."
"It would." She handed him a cup, along with the tray of cinnamon cakes. "I trust these are still your favorites?"
"Excellent. My cook has made dozens. Please help yourself."
Bryce placed two cakes on his plate, lounging back in a posture that was deceptively casual. "Forgive me, my lady, but am I the fly and you the spider?"
Lady Nevon's lips paused at the rim of her cup. "What on earth do you mean?"
"Only that you and your staff seem to be making the most extraordinary effort to please me. Am I being led to slaughter?"
A breath of laughter greeted his assessment. "No, Bryce. I assure you, you're quite safe." Her laughter faded, replaced by a sad, wistful look. "'Tis only that I thought this day might never come, that I might never open my home to you as I have my heart. If I've gone too far...caused you any discomfort..."
"Of course not." Bryce felt a stab of remorse -- and more than a twinge of guilt. "I apologize. My comment was rude and ungrateful." He pursed his lips, staring into his coffee. "To be frank, I'm not certain how to act. I owe you my childhood, my schooling, my career -- my very life. But your message made me distinctly uneasy."
"My message, or me?"
"That depends upon your reason for sending it."
"I thought as much." Hermione emitted a long, resigned sigh. "You're furious with me." Setting down her saucer, she added, "I don't blame you. I've neglected you all these years, left you virtually alone since the Lyndleys died. My only excuse is that I'm weak. I feared for your life -- and my own. I hadn't the strength to combat Richard's reaction had he guessed what I'd done, what I continued to do. So I kept my distance, to protect you -- and myself. I'm a coward, Bryce. And because of it, you've had to grow up with only my letters for family. Can you ever forgive me?"
Bryce shoved his plate aside, amazed and appalled by such unwarranted self-censure. "Forgive you -- for what? Sparing me the horrors of being cast into the streets to die like an animal? Secreting me in a place where Whitshire couldn't find me? Giving me two fine parents, a life, and a future?"
"Perhaps merely for having so heartless a man for a sibling," she replied quietly.
"Lineage is an accident of fate. I, better than anyone, know that -- from firsthand experience. Let's compare my blood ties with my act ual ones. Whitshire, the man who sired me, not only refused to acknowledge me but did all he could to guarantee my demise -- and all so he could be spared the embarrassment of a bastard son. And my mother? She was either too weak, too frightened, or too selfish to keep me. She abandoned me on your doorstep and rushed back to the stage and her flourishing career. So much for bonds of the flesh. Now let's discuss true bonds. The Lyndleys raised me. They were fine, decent people who taught me right from wrong, conveyed to me -- by example as well as by word -- the importance of hard work, gave me a sense of belonging. They were my actual parents, Hermione -- in every way that matters. They still would be, had that wave of influenza not killed them when I was ten."
"A tragedy I should have relayed to you, along with the rest of the disconcerting truth, in person, not by way of some cold, passionless letter."
"Your letter was neither cold nor passionless." Bryce visualized the bewildered ten-year-old boy who'd pored over an explanation that had forever altered his life. "It was filled with pain and sorrow -- and a fervent wish that things could have been different."
"Do you have any idea how badly I wanted to come to you? To ride to Eton and sit beside you as I explained the details of your parentage, answered whatever questions I could? To assure you, time and again, that you were precisely the same extraordinary young man you'd always been -- that nothing and no one could change that fact?"
Hermione pressed her trembling palms together.
"But I didn't dare. Richard's connections extended to every prestigious member of Eton's admissions committee. There was but one man, Edward Strong, I truste d, and that was because he'd been a longstanding friend of my late husband, John. Edward was the person through whom I made all my anonymous payments for your schooling. As for the others -- if any of them had seen me, there's not a doubt Richard would have heard about it. My brother was far from stupid. He'd have questioned me, delved until he discovered the truth. I couldn't risk it. I also wanted you to have more than my word on your true lineage. I wanted you to have written confirmation, should a situation ever arise in which verifying your true identity would prove necessary or useful. So, along with my letter, I had my messenger deliver all the papers your mother provided me when she abandoned you on my doorstep. I sent all those documents off to you -- and then I waited, half praying you'd contact me, knowing full well you wouldn't."
"You implored me not to," Bryce reminded her, his tone more strained than he intended. "You wrote that we could have no contact other than through your letters. You said you feared for my fife if Whitshire were to learn the truth."
"I most certainly did." Hermione paused. "And if I hadn't? Would you have contacted me had you not been forbidden to?"
"Probably not." Bryce looked away. "At least not at once. I needed time to make sense of things, to accept the enormous revelation I'd been handed." He swallowed. "Finding out I'd been lied to for ten years was quite a blow -- one I had to contend with, and recover from, on my own."
"I didn't sleep for weeks, worrying over your reaction," Hermione added softly.
"I got over it." Bryce drew a sharp breath, determined to bring this conversation to an immediate halt. "In any case, you have nothing to apologize f or. Certainly not, for Whitshire, who committed his sins of his own accord. What's more, he's dead. Therefore he's no longer a threat to either of us. So why are we discussing him?"
"Why indeed." Hermione studied Bryce's expression thoughtfully.
"Let's get back to your note. Affection notwithstanding, it didn't sound to me as if you were inviting me to a reunion. Your tone was terse, strained. So why don't you tell me what's on your mind."
Hermione smoothed her hair in a light, fluttering gesture. "Goodness, but you're formidable. I wouldn't want to face you in a court of law."
A corner of Bryce's mouth lifted. "That's as it should be, given the enormity of your investment. You ensured me the finest education and training -- Eton, Oxford, the Inns of Court."
"I paid only for you to attend. The fact that you flourished at each of those fine institutions was your feat and your feat alone." Rising, Hermione glided slowly across the library, in that majestic way Bryce remembered marveling at during her visits to the secluded cottage she'd established as the Lyndleys' home -- his home.
The first and last home he'd known.
Fetching a volume from the bookshelf, Hermione opened it, smoothing out the pages of what appeared to be a scrapbook of sorts. "You finished at the top of your class, year after year," she cited aloud, flipping through the pages, caressing each one as if it were a precious jewel. "These are letters of commendation from the headmaster at Eton and from countless tutors at Oxford and the Inns of Court. You became thoroughly versed in both law French and law Latin. You were one of the youngest and most avid students to sit at Westminster Hall, and are now perhaps the mos t eloquent barrister to address the Chancery, King's Bench, and the Common Pleas Courts."
Again she turned the page, pointing at a newspaper clipping. "You're working toward establishing a General School of Law, which would teach both those reading for the bar and articled clerks alike. You're also making astonishing headway in the area of married women's property law, which would afford women rights they once never dreamed possible." Hermione looked up, proud tears glistening in her eyes. "And I have it on the finest authority that you are not only sought after by every respected solicitor in England but that, if the benchers at Lincoln's Inn have their way, you will one day be the youngest barrister ever to become Queen's Counsel -- an incredible feat, given your humble origins." A half smile. "Shall I continue?"
"That scrapbook is a history of my life?" Bryce managed, stunned beyond comprehension. "You've actually kept records of every step of my schooling and my career?"
"Indeed I have. And not only through letters from the schools you attended and newspaper clippings extolling your fine legal accomplishments. My investigators have been quite thorough, informing me of all those things not covered by newspaper clippings and letters: your financial security, your connections to all the right people. So, yes, Bryce. I took -- take -- great pride in your accomplishments. And I follow your life with the utmost care."
"I see." His throat felt oddly tight.
"Did you think my only contact with you was through the occasional letter I dashed off?"
"In truth? Yes. Why in the name of heaven would you want to...?"
"Because my investment, as you call it, delves far deeper than you realize; it was more emotional than financial. Yes, I paid for your schooling. Yes, I bought your clothing, books, everything you needed to get by. But you're forgetting why I did all that, why I sequestered you in my late husband's obscure little Bedford cottage, selected my trusted servants the Lyndleys to fill the role of your parents while making sure Richard never knew. I did that, Bryce, because I cared about you-as I care about you still. You're my nephew, the closest thing I have to a child of my own. Were it not for Richard's coldhearted stubbornness..." Abruptly she swayed, clutching the bookshelf for support.
"Hermione, what is it?" Bryce was by her side in an instant, seizing her elbow and leading her back to the settee. "Are you ill?"
"Not ill. Old." A tired smile curved her lips. "Old and very, very weary."
"Nonsense." A muscle flexed in Bryce's jaw as he settled her in her seat, perched on the settee beside her. "I've never met anyone with more energy thanyou."
"You haven't seen me since you were eight, Bryce. Twenty-three years is a long time. I've aged -- a lot." She patted his hand. "Which brings me to the reason why I summoned you. I need your help, if you'll agree to offer it."
"Consider it yours. How can I assist you?"
Another smile. "You're as gallant as you are intelligent and honest. I've chosen well."
"To begin with, to revise my will. I have changes to make, things I want to secure, people I want to provide for. 'Tis imperative that all my papers and affairs be put in order. I'm asking you to take care of that for me."
"Of course. But what about your customary solicitor?"
"He's perfectly adequate. In this case, however, I need someone superi or, someone I trust implicitly to effect these changes. I need you."
"I'm flattered." Bryce crossed one long leg over the other. "Very well, Hermione, I'd be pleased to lend my services."
"Good. Then you'll stay a few days."
"A few days?" His brows drew together in puzzlement.
"Certainly. It will take at least that long to review the details. I'll have Chaunce gather up all the household accounts and we can go through them together."
Bryce studied Hermione's earnest expression closely. If he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn he was being manipulated. But why? What could she hope to gain -- unless it was company? Could she truly be lonely, frightened by her weakened condition? If that was the case, Bryce had no intention of denying her what she wished.
"All right," he agreed. "A few days, then. We'll revise your will and get your affairs in order."
"Excellent." She beamed, a bit of color returning to her cheeks as she lifted her cup to her lips. "That takes care of my immediate dilemma. Once we've addressed those issues, we can discuss the rest of your duties -- those associated with your inheritance of my estate, your overseeing of my home and loved ones." Grandly she gestured toward the plate of cinnamon cakes. "Please have another."
"What did you say?" Bryce demanded, his every muscle going rigid.
"I merely urged you to -- "
"Not about the cakes. Before that."
"Before that..." Hermione pursed her lips as she contemplated Bryce's question. "I believe I said we can discuss the remainder of your duties later. Is there some problem with that?"
"Hermione." Bryce gripped his knees. "Let's stop playing games. Did you just imply you'll be appointing me as beneficiary to y our estate?"
"I didn't imply it. I stated it. Why -- is that so surprising? As I said, you are my nephew, whether anyone else is aware of it or not. You're also a brilliant, accomplished, and compassionate man. Knowing you'll be inheriting my home, looking out for those I care for, will grant me peace of mind as my time draws near."
"So that's what this visit is all about."
"Whatever do you mean?"
Bryce tamped down on his exasperation, his trained legal mind striking out in a pragmatic direction. "Whitshire's son, Thane -- he's your nephew, too. And were he your beneficiary, your estate could pass down without a shred of scandal. Surely you've considered that?"
"Of course I have. And you're quite right -- as my legitimate nephew, Thane is, in the eyes of the world, the obvious choice. Up till Richard's death, he was my only choice. But that's no longer true, I'm relieved to say."
"Relieved? Why? Is Whitshire's son untrustworthy?"
"Oh, no, anything but. Thane is honest, decisive, and intelligent -- a most remarkable man. Unfortunately, he's also overburdened with all the obligations associated with the management of Richard's empire, which was evidently more vast than any of us realized. The last thing he needs is another estate -- and its residents -- to oversee."
"That doesn't explain your relief that he's no longer the only possible choice of beneficiaries. If he's such a fine man, I would think you'd be eager to turn everything over to him -- and terribly disappointed that his other commitments preclude him from accepting."
"That's why you're the barrister and I'm the wise old matron," Hermione replied, sipping at her coffee. "You think with your mind, and I with m y heart. And what my heart tells me -- what it's always told me -- is that you're the best, the only, choice."
The only choice?
That prompted another thought.
"Your heart seems to have forgotten your niece," Bryce inserted dryly. "Even if, for whatever reason, you've deemed Thane unsuitable as your heir, that still leaves her."
Now it was Hermione's turn to look surprised. "My niece?"
"Yes. I met her a short while ago as my phaeton rounded the drive. Gaby, I believe she said her name was. I distinctly heard her refer to you as Aunt Hermione."
Hermione chuckled. "I should have known better than to think Gaby could wait to meet you when the others did. She has an abundance of curiosity -- it's twice the size she is."
"Actually, she didn't intend to meet me. She was pursuing a rabbit and rushed into my path. She specifically asked that we not make our introduction a formal one so she wouldn't disappoint you."
"She could never disappoint me," Hermione amended warmly. "Gaby is the most precious person in my life -- with the exception of you."
"Is she related to you through your late husband?"
"No. She's not related to me at all -- at least not by blood. But as you yourself just said, blood ties are not always the most meaningful. I love Gaby every bit as much as if she were my daughter. In fact, I've raised her for thirteen years, ever since she was orphaned at five."
"I see." Actually, Bryce saw very little. Something was going on here, something quite odd. The problem was, he had no idea what it was. All he knew was that his head was reeling, both from what he had been told and from what he hadn't. He needed time to ponder this entire arrangement as well as to consider Hermione's implications and her motivations.
"You're troubled," she determined, scrutinizing Bryce's brooding expression.
"No, I'm taken aback. I'd like a chance to digest everything we've just discussed."
"I assumed you might." Hermione set down her coffee cup, dabbing delicately at each comer of her mouth with her napkin. "So I took the liberty of having your chambers made up. Chaunce can show you to them as soon as you've met the staff." A warm smile. "'Tis, the one favor I ask of you before you retire to contemplate our chat. The servants are all terribly excited about meeting you, having heard years of praise regarding your achievements. I think you'll find my staff equally as exceptional as I do. As for your chambers, I think you'll be pleased with those as well. The wardrobe and chest have been stocked with every article of clothing you'll require, sized and styled to your precise needs and tastes, of course. As for the adjoining sitting room, it's been furnished with your most frequently consulted legal texts as well as a desk full of quills with which to pen your ideas, and paper upon which to pen them. In addition, the kitchen contains all your favorite foods, which Cook has been advised to prepare in whatever order you prefer. The wines -- "
"Stop." Bryce rose from the settee, eyeing Hermione with equal amounts of wonder and disbelief. "You went to all this trouble for a few days' stay -- and its intended outcome?"
"No, I went to all this trouble because pleasing you pleases me. As for the rest..." Hermione spread her hands with an optimistic sweep. "I can only pray that, once you've met my little family, pondered my request, you won't refuse what I'm asking of you."
"Family? What family?" Bryce was beginning to think he'd lost his mind.
"Why, the staff, of course." With that, she rang the bell beside her. "You will agree to meet them, won't you? Of course you will," she decided for him, gazing expectantly at the door, her expression brightening as she heard approaching footsteps. "Ah, Chaunce." She beamed as the butler entered the library.
"You've assembled everyone?"
"Indeed I have."
"Excellent. Then show them in."
Watching his retreating back, Hermione clapped her hands together, looking for the moment like an excited schoolgirl. "At last. All those I love will finally have the opportunity to meet one another."
Bryce remained silent, wondering at Hermione's choice of words as well as her enthusiasm. Obviously her staff meant far more to her than mere employees. That shouldn't astound him; after all, she'd always treated the Lyndleys as if they were dear friends rather than a housekeeper and a valet. Still, he'd always assumed that was a special affinity reserved just for his parents. It had never occurred to him that Hermione felt the same fierce commitment and affection for every member of her staff.
Perhaps that was because he'd never imagined so much love could exist inside one person.
Bryce's attention snapped to the doorway as a flurry of footsteps sounded from the hall, accompanied by a profusion of excited voices and an occasional "ssh" when the din got too loud.
An instant later Chaunce reentered the room, a dozen pairs of curious eyes peering around him. "We're all accounted for, my lady."
"Then by all means come in." Hermione gave a regal wave. "Everyone -- come in."
Cop yright © 1998 by Andrea Kane