Her heart breaking, twenty-six-year-old Lady Mariel Wythe stands before the ruins of her beloved ancestral mansion. Perched near the sea cliffs of northwestern England, Foxbridge Cloister has always been her home—a place of carefree times, but also of memories of sudden terror in the night. And now the dark curse that hovers over the legendary estate and all its inhabitants is about to come full circle.
The fire that destroyed most of the Wythe estate was no accident. And the danger is far from over. The town’s new pastor, Reverend Ian Beckwith-Carter, is determined to uncover the secrets that keep proud, fiercely independent Mariel from ever planning to marry. He may be too late. The seeds of a final retribution were set in motion decades before. As Ian fights to protect Mariel from the violent madness of her past, someone else is plotting to make her the last lady of Foxbridge Cloister.
Mariel is the 3rd book in the Foxbridge Legacy, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Foxbridge Legacy, Book Three
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
"Lady Mariel! Lady Mariel! The reverend is here to see you."
Sparks of blue fury snapped in her narrowed eyes as the woman turned to see the maid coming toward her. She stood and clapped her ash-coated hands together. A sooty cloud rose to dim the raven lights of her hair. She tugged irritably at the fashionable silk gown now marred by fingerprints and a rip on the left side of the pink skirt.
"The reverend? Why in the blazes would I want to talk to Reverend Tanner now?" She glanced around in disbelief. A fire-weakened beam creaked ominously overhead, and she stepped quickly out of what once had been the cell of a fourteenth-century monk. "Tell him I'm too busy investigating the extent of the damage to the Cloister."
"But, Lady Mariel—"
"For God's sake, Grace, just tell Reverend Tanner I'm too busy today. I'll see him next Tuesday about the society fundraiser."
"But, Lady Mariel—" She paused when she saw that Lady Mariel Wythe had turned back to her grim task. Grace shivered as she glanced at the destruction around her. The once-magnificent original section of Foxbridge Cloister had been reduced to smoking ruins. Her nose wrinkled in distaste. The place stank of damp, scorched wood. Even the strong breezes from the sea could not cleanse it.
She wondered why Lady Mariel had come out here. Lord Foxbridge would not be pleased to learn his niece had done something so dangerous. He would not want her poking about among the shattered glass and unstable stone walls. Even though he delighted in queer explorations, he wanted Lady Mariel to have, as he said so often, "a normal life."
Knowing it would be futile to argue with the chatelaine of the Cloister, she picked her way back to the "new" section. Built in the sixteenth century, it postdated the original monastery by nearly four hundred years. Fortunately, it had suffered little damage in the fire.
Mariel swore under her breath as she tripped on a fallen timber and scraped her shin on a stone bench in the center of the narrow hallway. Why the wide seat had been moved to obstruct the corridor, she could not guess.
With a sigh, she sat on it and gazed sadly around her. Sorrow pulsed stronger than anger within her. She had been born at the Cloister twenty-six years before. Memories of her childhood brought to mind scenes of playing games in these passageways and attending special family services in the now-decimated chapel at the end farthest from the "new" Cloister.
The fire had been an accident. How and where it had started, no one knew. Nothing could change it. Still, she longed to steal the gentle images from her heart and make them reality. No other children would play among the empty cells and dare the ancient spirits to awaken. All they would see was the empty-eyed stare of the glassless windows in the sections of wall still standing.
Tears burned her eyes as she gazed at the sky. The lead roof, which had survived King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the religious rage of the Civil War, and the Restoration, lay melted in great, cannon-ball-sized blobs on the stone floor. Her right forefinger still smarted from foolishly touching one of the hot masses.
A crunch made her whirl on the bench. Silk protested with a sharp rip, but she ignored it. If Phipps had not made her so furious, she would have changed before coming here. She had liked this tea gown. Now it probably was ruined beyond repair.
Her suddenly clear eyes met those of a stranger. She noted with minimal interest his sea-green eyes and dark hair. As he stepped closer, a flash of auburn blared as the sun struck his hair. His perfectly tailored morning suit was littered with ash.
"Lady Mariel?" His voice resonated richly through the remains of the long corridor. As he moved toward her, she saw he depended on a cane to walk.
Irritation overcame her instinctively courteous reaction. She had not slept since the fire started two nights ago. Fatigue lowered her barriers to release her true feelings.
"Who are you?" she demanded sharply. "What are you doing tramping through here? You could get hurt."
His professionally serene smile dimmed as he kept himself from retorting as curtly. He viewed her tattered gown and the streaks of dirt crisscrossing her face in the dried paths of tears. Her defensive stance reminded him of a medieval lady standing in the ashes of her ancestral home. It urged him to speak gently.
"My lady, I am Ian Beckwith-Carter, the new pastor at the church in Foxbridge."
"New pastor?" She scowled as she sought in her mind for an elusive memory. A cold smile settled on her lips. "Oh, yes, I remember hearing Reverend Tanner was retiring."
"Remember hearing? I assume you are not a regular churchgoer, Lady Mariel?"
Her hands settled on the bench as she struggled to remain calm. She grimaced as the coarse soot ingrained in her palms cut into her skin. Ignoring the aggravating pain, she stood.
"Reverend, if you have come to Foxbridge Cloister to lecture me on my laxness in attending church, you chose the wrong day. You are new here. When you've been in Foxbridge a while, you'll learn, as everyone else has, that it is too late to save the souls of those crazy Wythes." She brushed off her hand and extended it to him. "Good day, Reverend."
He refused to accept her dismissal. "My lady, I make it a practice to call on all my parishioners, and—"
"Consider that obligation fulfilled." She turned to walk away. When he called after her, she paused. With a sigh worthy of a martyr, she said, "Very well, Reverend. I see you are less easy to dispense with than that old fool Tanner. I will meet you in fifteen minutes in the front parlor. We shall chat as you wish." Her eyes swept the littered hallway. "There's nothing more I can do here now."
He watched as the fierce martinet transformed into a pretty woman whose heart was shattered by the destruction of her home. That image lasted only a second before her stern expression reasserted itself. He stepped back hastily as she brushed past him to return to the undamaged section of the Cloister.
"Fifteen minutes," she called over her shoulder.
With a smile, he wondered if that was also the amount of time she would grant him for this reluctant interview. He did not move until she was out of sight amid the rubble. His eyes twinkled as he imagined the confrontation to come. He had been warned, but that made him only more anxious to meet the fiery, opinionated Lady Mariel Wythe.
Picking his way back the way he had come to find her, Reverend Beckwith-Carter anticipated their meeting in the fabulous house. From his small home in the village, he had seen Foxbridge Cloister perched majestically near the sea cliffs. It overlooked the land it once had controlled. Although most of the land was owned by the families of the onetime tenant farmers, he guessed the Wythes had lost none of their imperious attitude. He suspected he would be sure of that when this meeting was completed.
By the time Mariel reached her rooms on the second floor of the Cloister, she was livid. Reverend Tanner had been bad enough, with his bigoted ideas of where women fit into the scheme of the world. His continual, far from subtle hints that she should find a husband and raise a brood of children to repopulate the Cloister irritated her. She was sure he wanted only to stop her interference in village affairs. More than once he had denounced from the pulpit the law that allowed women to vote in local elections.
His retirement should have come as a relief, but instead she would be saddled with this new, more irritating minister. That she had backed down during this first encounter must not have any bearing on their future meetings. She was so exhausted and was burdened with the task of writing to her uncle to inform him of the damage to his home. Otherwise her usually sharp wits would have found a way to send the new parson back to town after ordering him to leave her in peace.
She stormed into her room. It was situated across the hall from the master suite where her uncle slept when he resided in the Cloister. Her rooms were almost as grand, for she had had all the suites of the massive house to use in shopping to select the furniture she wanted.
The sitting room, in its pale shades of blue, was empty as she swept through it. She ignored the quiescent fireplace and the shelves of books. Too often had she seen the comfortable chairs and large desk to notice them when she was lost in her outrage.
Her bedroom overlooked the ocean on the western side of the house. She loved this room because she was never without the changing temper of nature. Wind, rain, and sun struck uncompromisingly on this side of the house. She reveled in the difference of each day.
Throwing her hat on the clean covers of her tester bed, she caught her reflection in the cheval glass and scowled. Stamping past her dressing table and the couch where she often read late into the night, she glared at her own dirty face. That she had met the new minister while she looked as if she had been cleaning chimney pots added to her fury. She rubbed some of the ashes from her cheek, but succeeded only in making a wider streak across her face.
She shouted for her companion Phipps as she stripped off her gown. Only by getting this aggravating, social obligation completed could she be rid of Reverend Beckwith-Carter. She forced his handsome face from her mind and concentrated on his officious attitude. Already she could tell the man would prove to be intolerable. Grimacing at her image in the dressing-table mirror, she winced while trying to brush the ashes from her tangled hair.
She paused in mid-stroke as the gray flakes dropped around her like dirty snow. Sorrow dimmed the rage within her. Uncle Wilford, who bore the title of Lord Foxbridge, loved this house as she did. So often when she was younger, he would lead her by the hand and point out the beauty of the ancient house. Together they had frequently stood on the parapets. Leaning on the machicolations between each tooth of stone, they would watch the sun disappear into the ocean at their back door.
Where was Uncle Wilford now? She reached for a well-read letter. The postmark had been blurred by its transatlantic journey: United States of America. She hoped he liked it better than he had Panama. He wrote of mosquitoes and humidity that left him drenched. She was glad to know he was away from there. With the tense situation between Spain and the war-hungry United States, Central America was not safe for travelers.
Tonight she could not delay writing to him at the British embassy, which would forward any correspondence to him at his most current address. She could not soften the news.
Her uncle had known such sorrow in the past decade. She did not want to augment it, but she had no choice.
Her frustration with the situation fueled her rage with the new parson's impertinent assumption that she gladly would set aside time in her day for him. She smiled wickedly. There were ways of dealing with such problems. She had done it before. Reverend Beckwith-Carter might be surprised with the result of his presumption.
Walking slowly across the beautifully trimmed lawns of the estate, the object of Mariel's rage simply enjoyed the perfection around him. This lush garden did not resemble the crowded yards of London or even the green carpet of his family's country home. Established here at the time of the birth of the Church of England, it had become one with its surroundings, like the Cloister itself.
He admired the lines of the house, trying to ignore the scorch marks on the stones. Stained glass twinkled at him in the sunshine. Three floors high, the building had weathered over time to match the color of the sea on a cloudy day.
Steps led up from the drive to a pair of plain-looking doors. A servant opened one as the new minister approached it. Curiosity emanated from his elderly face as he asked, "Did you find her, Reverend?"
"Yes, thank you." He stepped into the foyer, noting what he had seen before. A thick, oak banister wove its way up the stairs to showcase an intricate window on a landing. From the first floor, he could not determine its exact pattern, but he suspected it was a depiction of the family crest. "Will you direct me to the front parlor? Lady Mariel asked me to meet her there."
The butler could not hide his shock. "Are you sure you understood her correctly?"
Ian laughed shortly. He did not need to tell the impeccably dressed man that he had been forewarned by many about the headstrong Lady Mariel Wythe. Those who had spoken to him had exaggerated neither her stubborn nature nor her incredible beauty. He did not intend to let her waylay him from doing the work he had come here to do.
"The front parlor she said," he answered.
Dodsley, the butler, nodded. He appreciated the parson intentionally misunderstanding him. It would not be proper to show that Lady Mariel seldom bound herself to such normal conventions of behavior. "Please follow me, sir."
The room to which he led the auburn-haired man was warm with spring sunshine. After the butler said he would see to the tea tray, Ian sat on a green upholstered sofa. He glanced at the fine collection of antiques. Some of the pieces looked as if they had been purchased at the time the house was built. Heavy with wood and dark with age, they clustered in the corners of the huge room. Near the center, where he sat, the furniture was of a more current style, with horsehair upholstery and carved rosewood arms and legs. To one side, a huge piano waited with its keyboard exposed. He smiled as he noted it had not been draped to hide its legs, as society dictated was proper. He should have guessed Lady Mariel's family would not accept such prudish practices. From her outspoken reaction at their meeting, he was sure that she did exactly as she wished.
The musical instrument sat beneath a portrait of a woman dressed in the Elizabethan style. Her coloring matched Lady Mariel's enough for him to guess this must be some distant ancestress of hers. He dismissed the portrait as he glanced at the ceiling. A plaster ceiling medallion was surrounded by designs he could see needed refurbishing. Like the weathered stone on the outside of the Cloister, the interior showed signs of its many centuries. He rose politely as Lady Mariel Wythe entered the room accompanied by another woman and, surprisingly, an enthusiastic spaniel. He ignored the black and brown dappled dog as he regarded his hostess. Although his face remained serene, he was shocked by the transformation. The dirty-faced scamp had become the archetype of a titled lady in this sixtieth year of Queen Victoria's illustrious reign.
Her gown of deep green perfectly accented the decor of the room. Black lace hung from the high collar and draped across the front to hide the curves of her body. Matching lace at the cuffs accented the glistening sable of her hair, now demurely pulled back in a perfectly coiffed bun. The one thing that had not changed were her snapping eyes. They looked at him and away, obviously dismissing him as nothing more than a pest.
"Reverend Beckwith-Carter, please sit down," she said with what he knew was mock warmth. "Tea should be here soon. I anticipated that you would like refreshments before your journey back to Foxbridge."
"Assuredly, my lady." He hid his smile and his glance shifted to the other woman in the room. Her position as companion to the irascible Lady Mariel Wythe was proclaimed by her severe dress and the conservative style of her iron-gray hair.
"This is Amanda Phipps," Mariel said offhandedly. "She wishes to join our conversation, for she has wanted to meet you." She did not add that she had been disgruntled to have Phipps announce she was attending this meeting. Having her companion with her would mean she must watch her tongue. She did not want to distress Miss Phipps again by being impertinent to a man of the cloth.
Ian shook the older woman's hand gravely. "Miss Phipps."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Reverend," she said in her scratchy voice.
"Reverend Beckwith-Carter?" Mariel asked sharply. "I meant to ask you before. Are you related to the family at Beckwith Grange?"
He returned his attention to Lady Mariel, and willingly. She was lovely, and he admitted to himself that he enjoyed looking at her. He was glad others had prepared him for facing this adversary.
Excerpted from Mariel by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 1989 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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