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When We Touch
By Heather Graham
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 Shannon Drake
All rights reserved.
Maggie, Lady Graham, daughter of the late and renowned Baron Edward Graham, felt an odd foreboding as she approached the town house, seeing the carriage with the emblem of her crest emblazoned on the door. No hackney, the conveyance that had arrived at her doorstep. It meant that her uncle Angus had arrived, and since he seldom came without sending a note of his intentions to call, there was certainly a dire problem somewhere within the family.
She swore softly beneath her breath — something she quickly assured herself that no lady would do. And, yet, of course, that was her title, despite the fact that her late husband had been a commoner. As the daughter of a baron, she was entitled to be called "lady" until the day she died. Not that it mattered so terribly to her. But then, beyond a doubt, she was the black sheep of her family — sooted and grimed, she was certain, in the eyes of her oh-so-social-conscious uncle, aunt, and cousins.
Angus, she thought, with a twinge of humor entering her tired mind, must surely regret his older brother's marriage — and the fact that, after several childless years, her mother had produced not just one child, but two, in the form of twins. In the great scheme of legal matters within Great Britain, her own birth mattered little. But seconds after her arrival, Justin had entered the world. And thus ended Angus's hope for her father's title. Actually, it was all quite amazing. Justin was hardly a boy any longer, and Angus still swaggered about as if he were head of the family.
"The ogre is here!" Mireau said softly from behind her.
"You mustn't refer to Angus as an ogre," she said, flashing a quick smile to her friend. Jacques Mireau had come into her life at a far happier time. Since then, he had decided that he must be her defender. Also, as he was an aspiring author, he needed patronage while he penned his golden tomes. Theirs was, therefore, quite a beneficial friendship, though she was certain there were others who saw far more into the relationship than what existed. She didn't particularly care. Illusions of grandeur were not a part of her existence. She felt blessed to have had a short piece of magic in her life that had taught her the beauty of what might be in truth, and the suffering to be found in the hypocrisy of so much that was done in the pursuit of a life that was customarily no more than image and mirage.
"You refer to him as an ogre," Mireau reminded her.
"Only when we're alone."
"We haven't yet walked in the house," he said. "And your footsteps are slowing, as if you are loathe to do so."
"I shall admit, to you and you alone, that Uncle Angus is not my favorite person."
Mireau's hands fell softly on her shoulders and his powder blue eyes widened, as if with dire dread and alarm. "We must face the firing squad quickly! The longer one lingers in the agony of doubt ... the deadlier the pain!"
"What nonsense — facing a firing squad would make it all over, wouldn't it?" Maggie said, forcing a note of impatience. But at his teasing, she quickened her steps. Angus was there. Might as well find out why, and endure whatever lecture he now had to give.
At the top step, she suddenly swung on Mireau. "I can handle any ogre!" she assured him, drawing closed a small parasol as they entered the house.
Clayton was at the door, as if he had known of her arrival just outside. As if he had been waiting, and watched her pause. She inclined her head slightly at the skeletal old dear who doubled as their butler and her brother's valet, brows knitting into a frown.
"Lord Angus is here, Lady Maggie," he announced, though the announcement was surely not necessary. Still, quite correct.
She smiled. "Thank you, Clayton," she said, undoing the tiny little buttons at her wrists and removing her gloves as he took her cape from her shoulders. "Have you offered my dear uncle tea as yet?" She gave Clayton her gloves and the small reticule she had carried.
"My lady, we have just been waiting your arrival so that you might serve," Clayton told her.
She delicately arched a brow. Was she being tested on her ability to serve tea — at this late date?
"How delightful and courteous that Angus has waited," she said, certain that her uncle could clearly hear her every word. "We shall certainly hasten ourselves right into the parlor, then."
Clayton blocked her path and whispered softly, "The family only!" A wiggle of his eyes back and forth informed her that she was to leave Mireau behind.
"I'll be in my attic garret, when you need me," Mireau said quickly.
"Coward," she said with a smile.
"Indeed. He might well be here to inform you that I must be out of the house."
"Rubbish. He hasn't the right."
"Lady Maggie, may I suggest that you not keep Lord Angus waiting?" Clayton prompted softly. He cleared his throat, taking a liberty. "Your brother has kept him sole company quite long enough, under the circumstances."
Maggie frowned again, nodded to Mireau, and approached the parlor. For once, she wished that she were better dressed. But she had spent the morning on charity work, a cause near and dear to her heart, so much more so because she had learned from Nathan of the poverty and squalor to be found just beyond the opulence of so much of London. She was very simply dressed in black linen from head to toe, her outfit devoid of lace or decoration of any kind. Dirt and grime were the only adornments on her skirt. She had two great passions in her life then — easing the lives of the ragged and starving orphans to be found in the East End, and unmasking the charlatans who claimed to be "mesmerists" and cheated rich and poor alike out of their livelihoods while promising to contact their deeply mourned departed.
"Uncle Angus!" she said, sweeping into the parlor. Even as she did so, her voice perfectly modulated, her every move that of the lady born and bred, she couldn't help but notice the genteel poverty of her own homestead. The divan was growing threadbare at the edges, as was the one-time exquisite Persian carpet on the hardwood floor.
"My dear." Angus had been sitting at one of the high-backed chairs around the divan. A stiff chair, and his posture was equally as stiff. He had known she had arrived, of course. He had waited for her arrival in the room to stand.
He came forward, tall and imposing, white-haired, muttonchopped sideburns, small mustache and goatee perfectly groomed. His waistcoat and jacket were elegantly tailored, and she could see the shimmer of his sterling watch bob. Angus cut quite a figure, she had to admit. And in looks, he reminded her of her father, though that dear man became more of a wisp of memory as the years since his death passed by.
He caught both of her hands, then kissed each of her cheeks, as if he had spent most of his time on the Continent. He had not. He worked for the Queen's household, though in just what capacity, she had never quite known.
"Maggie," Justin said softly, rising as well. She glanced quickly at her brother. He looked ghastly.
They were twins, and certainly bore a resemblance. From their mother they had inherited an unusual shade of hair — a true reddish blond, gold in the light of the sun, light, and yet, very rich. Nathan had once told her that it was like a shining halo — not the halo of a soft or silly angel, but rather that of an avenger, out to bring Almighty Justice. It was part of her temper, he had teased. And part of the fighting spirit that he'd vowed he so loved.
In his memory, she would never cut it.
Justin, too, seemed quite fond of his, wearing it a bit longer than the fashion. He was clean shaven, which suited him, for his features were cleanly cut, and decidedly strong, very handsome. Today, however, her handsome sibling looked not only ashen, but bent, as if holding his own frame erect was a terrible effort. He offered her a weak smile, looked sicker still, and sat again.
"Ah, the tea!" she said, as Clayton entered, bearing the tray. She went about the business immediately of pouring, telling Angus, "Uncle, I believe you prefer it with just one lump and a bare touch of cream?"
"Indeed, my dear."
"Molly's scones are beyond delight, sir. You must taste one."
Angus accepted his cup of tea, but waved his hand impatiently at the offer of a scone. "Pour your brother his tea, my dear. And find a perch for yourself, for the business at hand is serious."
She couldn't help a quick glance at Justin. He refused to catch her eye. He didn't look one bit like Lord Graham, a grand baron of the Ton. He looked like a stricken invalid.
She passed him a cup of tea, noting that his hands were trembling and the fine china service clattered dangerously in his grip. She pretended to ignore his state, keeping her composure as she poured tea for herself, purposely adding fuel to her uncle's fire as she took her time, then found a seat in the straight, wing-backed chair opposite him.
"So, Uncle, this is not a social call," she said at last.
"Hardly social," Angus said, and she thought she detected a snicker to his words.
"Pray then," she said, slightly hiking a brow, "do enlighten us."
Angus leaned forward, setting his cup on the Oriental table before him.
"I can no longer afford the behavior of this branch of the family!"
She was startled enough that her own cup clattered upon its saucer. "My dearest uncle, I am offended. For though we would never fail to bow to your wisdom — or forget that you are the brother of our dear departed father — it is my brother, Justin, who bears the family title."
"And has made waste of all that the family has gained!" Angus said angrily.
Her eyes flew to her brother at that point and sickness fell to the pit of her stomach with a walloping thump. Justin would still not look her way.
"Justin has gambled away all but the title, I'm afraid. I've kept this home afloat — and your brother from his gambling debts — longer than I am able. Your cousin Diana is due to make her first appearance in society this season. You and Justin must now bear responsibility for your own welfare."
"But — but — !" Maggie stammered, then grew furious with her own lack of composure. "We were left in secure finances."
"You were — you are now in deep debt — to me, and not just to me! God knows what other creditors there are who have not been paid," Angus said contemptuously.
Justin suddenly came to life, and whatever he had done, Maggie was proud of him in that one moment of righteous anger he showed. "My lord uncle! It was you who suggested that I spend my nights following in the party of our dear royal Eddy, and it is thus, sir, that I have come to these lamentable circumstances!"
"Lamentable, indeed. If you do not change your ways or find some means of salvation, you are likely to find yourself in the debtor's section of Newgate!"
As she had heard far more than anyone really wanted to know about the prison, Maggie was instantly horrified.
"Uncle," Justin said quietly, "I believe you're being a bit dramatic. The new prison for debtors is in Pentonville, if I'm not mistaken." He looked at his sister dryly. "It's considered quite a model prison. There's good ventilation, and it's solitude they put you in these days, hours and hours alone to contemplate your sins. Truly, the building is supposed to be a gorgeous example of the genius of Victorian architecture."
Angus was furious. He wagged a finger at Justin. "Let me tell you, my worldly young lord! You may still be hauled into Newgate until your trial takes place, and believe me, the rats and the stench remain! Along with many of those hardened criminals awaiting execution."
"They don't execute men for debt," Justin said coldly.
"This cannot be true!" Maggie said. "I knew that we were rich in the sense of family and title if not in vast estates, but there was a trust!"
"There was a trust. No more."
Maggie stared at her brother again. Now, his eyes, as rich a blue as her own, stared back. "I'm afraid it isn't easy keeping up with the Prince, or his companions," he said.
"There should be a rich marriage in the offing for your brother. In time," Angus said. "I have been quietly making inquiries, intent upon finding the proper bride."
Maggie could well imagine. Angus would be looking, certainly. He would be seeking an aging dowager with properties and monies in abundance. However, she would be far beyond the age when a child might be produced, and therefore, the title would fall to Angus and his heirs.
"Now, I may suggest first that you cut down on your household — starting with the chaff," Angus said.
Angus grimaced in a fashion that made his lips very slim. "The man is a leech."
"A friend, a poet, and one day, a famed writer, I am certain," Maggie said.
"There are whispers about you," Angus said.
"I'm sorry, Uncle, as I know how very much the opinions of those in your strata matter to you. What is said about me is not important."
"For your brother's sake, it is highly important." Angus's fingers were all but white as he gripped the arms of his chair. "As if you have not embarrassed the family enough already — marrying a policeman!"
"Well, then, thank God that he died so young, rather than embarrassing us further!" Maggie cried, unable at that point to restrain her fury.
She wasn't at all sure herself why this argument seemed to be so much between her and Angus — she wasn't the one who had gambled away the family fortune. But then she realized suddenly that she was under personal attack, and she knew that she was about to discover why.
"There is a solution," Angus said.
"And that is?" she demanded.
"Well," she said, glancing at Justin again. He was to be wed to an old dowager. However innocently he might have fallen into vice, he was the one who had done so.
"And, pray, what marriage might you have negotiated in my brother's behest?"
"Your brother's marriage, my girl, is still under negotiation."
"I'm sure she's rich and charming — and certainly, sir, with your wisdom, you've chosen someone with a definite measure of ... maturity," Maggie said politely.
Justin let out something that sounded strangely like a snort, not at all becoming a baron. Nor did he seem to care — it was a sound of self-loathing, and disturbed Maggie greatly.
"There is surely a way out of this rather than a hasty and unhappy marriage for my brother," Maggie informed Angus sternly. "This is, after all, the nineteenth century."
"Maggie!" Justin protested, forming words at last. "It isn't my impending marriage that brings such a searing sense of pleasure and satisfaction to our dear uncle's face."
His sarcasm did not go unnoticed.
"Ungrateful whelp!" Angus said angrily, almost rising.
"Ah, but titularly, he is the head of the family," Maggie murmured.
"Others of far greater magnitude have rotted away in Newgate," Angus reminded her.
"The marriage he has planned — and, oh, yes, certainly to a person of wealth, charm, and maturity, is for you," Justin said.
Stunned, Maggie gasped aloud. "Me!"
"Why so surprised, my dear niece?" Angus asked. He wore a look of feigned distress, while she knew that he secretly relished her amazement and discomfort. She shuddered within, wondering what manner of man her uncle might have found for her.
Angus stood, hands clasped behind his back as he paced around the chair. "Frankly, I'd not have thought of such a happy remedy for your plight on my own, I fear." He stopped and stared straight at her, shaking his head with dismay. "You had such a brilliant season in your youth, my dear! You dazzled the Ton, and you had the credentials to bring about a splendid marriage. But you chose to disgrace the family and take up with a commoner!"
She thought wryly that he might have been less disproving had she opted to commit murder.
"I know, Angus, that this is something completely beyond your realm of understanding, but I married Nathan because I fell in love with him." She was standing herself, and realized that her fingers had knotted so tightly into her palms that she was digging holes into her own flesh. "In fact, sir, I remember your kind, sympathetic, and so completely understanding words at his funeral. That I was somewhat young still, and though tarnished, I might still have some redeeming value!"
Excerpted from When We Touch by Heather Graham. Copyright © 2004 Shannon Drake. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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