The Widowed GovernessOf Aldhury Manor
“Alex, darling,” Teresa Newfield, said, walking down the hallway. “It is time for bed.”
There was no answer, of course, and Teresa was almost positive she knew where her son was. She gave Beth, the housekeeper, a sheepish smile and patted her on the shoulder.
“I will tend to him tonight, Beth,” she said. “You can be dismissed for the evening.”
Beth Eston had been her father’s housekeeper since she was a child. She had also served as a mother figure to her because her own mother died shortly after she was born. Now, the short, round woman clucked her tongue and wagged her finger gently.
“I will do no such thing, Lady Belmure,” she chided sweetly. “I will help you find him.”
“We won’t need to search for long, I’m sure,” she said. “I believe I know just where he is.”
Beth gave her a knowing look.
“I can go fetch him, if you like,” she said.
Teresa shook her head.
“That won’t be necessary,” she said. “However, some cakes and wine after I put him to bed would be lovely.”
The housekeeper gave her a sympathetic smile and nodded.
“I shall go see that right away,” she said.
Teresa nodded. As the housekeeper disappeared to fulfill her request, Teresa continued on down the hall. Her suspicions were confirmed even before she reached the door toward which she had been heading. She could see it was open, and inside, she heard Alex talking inside. She paused, listening. Though she couldn’t hear much of what he was saying, she could tell he was pretending to be conducting a business meeting. She smiled softly as she approached the door and knocked on the frame of the doorway.
“Mother,” he said in his most businesslike tone. “Please, come in.”
Teresa smiled again as she entered her late husband’s study. Her son was seated at the desk on a stack of books so that he sat at the level a grown man would. He had a glass of water sitting beside him and an unlit cigar in his hand. She was stunned at how much he looked like his father. But his next words proved he was nothing like the deceased baron.
“Would you like for me to ask Mrs. Beth to fetch you some refreshments?” he asked. “Or can I get you a fresh rose from the garden?”
Teresa smiled fondly at her son. He was a sweet and thoughtful boy, and his offers to get her refreshments and a flower had been sincere. His resemblance to his father was only skin deep. He was the exact opposite of the late Baron of Belmure in every other way. Especially in all the ways that truly mattered.
“No, thank you, darling,” she said. “You can, however, get yourself to bed. It is well past your bedtime.”
The boy looked disappointed, but he nodded, immediately leaving the chair and joining his mother near the doorway of the study.
“Yes, Mama,” he said, smiling at her despite his previous displeasure. “Will you read to me tonight?”
Teresa kissed the top of her son’s head and tousled his hair.
“Of course, I will, darling,” she said, taking his hand. “Come. Let’s get you to your room.”
The child grinned, dragging her down the hallway, up the stairs and to his room. He loved it when they read before bed, and truthfully, so did she. She helped him get into his nightclothes and then tucked him in before grabbing the adventure novel that sat on top of his small bedside table.
“Are you ready?” she asked, giggling as her son squirmed.
“I cannot wait any longer, Mama,” he said, propping himself up on his elbow. “Please, read to me.”
Teresa complied with her restless son’s request. She cleared her throat and then delved into the fourth chapter of the latest book they had started reading; a story about pirates braving the rough seas. It never ceased to amaze her how much her six-year-old son loved stories about great adventures on the sea.
She was as enthralled with his interest in the stories she read to him as he was in the books themselves. She had even adopted voices to use when she read to him. There was no sound more musical to her than the sound of her son’s delighted laughter when she used her deepest voice possible for characters such as pirates in the stories.
As she reached the part, a few chapters later, where the pirates were intently focused on some treasure they set out to find, she noticed that the boy was beginning to drift off to sleep. She kept reading, but she took one hand and stroked his hair for a while. A few minutes later, Alex was sound asleep, and she closed the book and put it back on the table. She quietly slipped out of his room and closed the door, then went to her own bedchambers, where a tray of her promised refreshments awaited her, with a glass of wine already poured for her.
As she sipped her glass, she thought back over the previous six months. It had been a rough time for Alex, as he had taken his father’s death hard. Mourning the late baron was something that only the boy experienced, however, and sometimes Teresa wondered if she did well enough in hiding her lack of grieving from her son. She wore the proper dark and black dresses as was expected of grieving widows in the ton. However, she didn’t feel the same sense of loss that her son did, and she did her best to keep that from showing.
Her marriage to George Newfield, the Baron of Belmure, had been an arranged one, set up by her brother out of necessity. She had started out her marriage trying to build something of a romance with him, but before their first anniversary, it became clear to her that no such thing would happen. She and the baron were not compatible; he was little more than cold and demanding of her. He was never abusive, in any way. They just never shared a bond that would make Teresa miss him after his death.
But as a father, the baron had been as devoted and doting as her own. And their son had adored and looked up to his father. She offered him all the solace she could at every opportunity. But She still felt that her lack of sadness over the death of her late husband could affect her son in a negative way. So, she did her best to offer her son more leniency and devotion after his father’s death, as compensation for her own indifference.
She was grateful to the late baron for one thing, however. Despite the fact that there had never been anything close to love between the two of them, he had given her one thing that could never be weighed against any amount of gold or measure of wealth or renown. Alex was the most precious gift that Teresa could have ever wished or hoped for. He alone made her entire marriage worth it. She could have lived without the benefit of her husband’s fortune, or the respect his title bestowed upon her, even after his death, so long as she had her son. He was her greatest treasure and her biggest source of pride. She loved him with all her heart, and there was nothing she wouldn’t do for him.
She finished her wine, abandoning her other treats in favor of sleep, which was quickly slipping up on her. As she lay in bed with her eyelids fluttering, she envisioned her son’s smiling face. She hated the idea of having to send him off to Eton.
Though it was a very common thing for boys who were to inherit noble titles from their fathers to attend the school, Teresa had hoped to never need to. But one thing she, as a woman, could not do was train him to take over his father’s legacy. He would make a wonderful baron, she knew. But she would miss him terribly while he was gone.
ONE YEAR LATER
Teresa stared in awe at the paper before her. She had been working with Alex on school lessons since his father died. She had intended to wait until he turned six to begin then. But after the baron passed away, she thought it would help his grief to keep him busy with his learning. And he was a very bright child, so he had taken to his lessons like a fish to water.
“This is flawless, Alex,” she said, lifting the page on which he had been practicing his penmanship and studying it carefully. “There’s not one single mistake. I am very proud of you, sweetheart.”
The boy beamed up at her.
“I tried really hard, Mama,” he said. “And I’ve been looking at some of Papa’s old ledgers. I wanted to write just like he used to. Since I will be an important businessman someday.”
Teresa nodded, her heart squeezing. Though theirs had been a loveless marriage, he had been a doting and attentive father. The child loved spending so much time in his father’s study because the baron had often held him in his lap when he was working. Alex was such a good child that he was content to sit and watch his father balance his ledgers, and he was perfectly quiet whenever a partner came calling to discuss business. Teresa was sure that her son would take to business like he had to reading and penmanship.
“You certainly will be,” she said. “And I know you will make a wonderful baron, too.”
Her son frowned.
“But how can I be both a baron and a businessman?” he asked.
Teresa giggled. She guessed that her husband had never gotten around to explaining to their son that a large part of being a baron involved various business dealings.
“You will see, darling,” she said. “For now, let us finish your penmanship lesson.”
Her son nodded, waiting patiently for her to find a page in one of the books she used for their lessons for him to copy. She was well aware that Alex would soon need a proper tutor. He needed to have a formal education, as he would someday be going off to Eton. It was something Teresa had been putting off. Alex was, and likely would always be, her only child. She struggled with the notion of him growing up. But she understood that, someday, she would be unable to put it off any longer.
She had just found a page with more advanced words for him to copy and pointed it out to him when she heard a carriage pulling into the driveway. A few minutes later, a housemaid entered the schoolroom.
“Lady Belmure?” the maid asked, curtseying hastily. “Mr. Fairfax just arrived. He is requesting to see you straightaway.”
Teresa’s stomach twisted into knots at the sound of her brother’s name. It had been months since she saw Patrick, but no amount of time would ever be enough. He never came to see her without some hidden agenda. He seemed to see her as his means to meet every end he wanted to meet.
Despite her unhappiness, she smiled at the maid and nodded.
“Very well,” she said. “Show him to the drawing room. I shall be down presently.”
Alex jumped up from his chair and grinned.
“Uncle Patrick?” he asked, taking her hand in both of his. “Can I come with you to speak with him?”
The knots in her stomach tightened, and she swallowed to hide her displeasure. She knew that her brother was the closest thing to a father figure that her son had. However, she would prefer that Alex take a shine to a homeless man living in the gutter than to look up to her brother.
She could say none of that, however. She did her best to muster a smile and squeeze her son’s hand.
“Of course, darling,” she said. “You have done well enough with your lessons. I see no harm in letting you join Patrick and me downstairs.”
The child grinned, releasing her hand and skipping ahead of her a few paces.
“Then hurry up, Mama,” he said, clearly excited about having company. “We mustn’t keep our guests waiting.”
Teresa laughed, though it was with notable nervousness. But she forced herself to continue to smile as they went down the stairs and toward the drawing room, where her brother waited in the hallway just outside the drawing room door. As soon as he heard them enter the room, Patrick turned around, beaming too widely at his seven-year-old nephew.
“Who is this handsome young man?” he asked, giving Teresa a sideways glance before winking at Alex. “I do not believe we have been introduced.”
Alex laughed. It was the usual exchange between Patrick and Alex, and it never tired with the child.
“It’s me, Uncle Patrick,” he said. “Alex.”
Patrick gasped in mock surprise, stepping forward to ruffle the boy’s hair.
“Well, I’ll be,” he said, kneeling so he was eye level with the boy. “You certainly have grown since last I saw you. I almost didn’t recognise you.”
Alex stood beaming with pride at his uncle’s lavish compliments. Teresa, however, was not so easily fooled. She felt sure that her brother was there for some hidden reason. She just needed to get him alone so that she could find out what that was.
“Mama says my penmanship is perfect,” the child bragged. “I’m almost ready to be a businessman, just like you and Papa.”
Patrick looked at Teresa, feigning pleasant surprise.
“Is that so?” he asked, sounding amazed. “Perhaps, I will get to see some of your wonderful penmanship while I am here.”
“Perhaps,” Teresa said, her tone clipped and cool. “What is it that brings you here unannounced, Brother?”
Patrick did not answer at first. Instead, he pulled out a bag from his jacket, dangling it in front of his young nephew’s face. It only took them a minute to realize it was filled with sweetmeats.
“Oh, wow, Uncle Patrick,” Alex gushed, embracing his uncle tightly before taking the bag from him. “Thank you so much.”
Patrick ruffled the child’s hair again, giving Teresa the smallest smirk. She ignored her brother, kneeling down to feign interest in what he had brought for her son.
“Look, Mama,” he said, holding open the bag.
Teresa took a big, exaggerated whiff as she tried to think of how to send Alex off without making him feel dismissed or discarded.
“Thank you, Brother,” she said as an idea came to mind. “That was a rather thoughtful gesture. It is very kind of you to drop by, just to give Alex a nice gift.”
She knew that whatever his motivations, Patrick would never discuss his version of adult business in front of his nephew. For all his cursed faults, he also loved Alex. At least in his own way. Perhaps, he didn’t want to be a bad influence on Alex. But it was more that he wouldn’t want the child to think less of him. Though Teresa wondered if that was the same courtesy when the boy was grown.
Her brother shrugged his shoulders and patted the boy on the back.
“Contrary to popular belief, I do enjoy stopping by to check in on my sister and nephew,” he said.
Teresa continued smiling, but she could see that Patrick wouldn’t ask to speak to her alone. Though she hoped he wouldn’t be staying that long, she decided that she could speak with him privately over dinner. Alex still ate with his nursemaid at his age, unless Teresa requested that he join her in the dining hall. She did so whenever she herself dined there. But most often, she took late dinner in her bedchambers, or just tea and cakes after her son was asleep.
“Lady Belmure,” Mrs. Eston said, bustling into the room. “Is everything all right?”
Teresa turned to her, giving her a grateful smile. As always, the housekeeper had impeccable timing. Teresa knelt down and patted the bag of sweetmeats in Alex’s hand.
“Darling,” she said, giving the housekeeper a pointed look. “Would you like to go and share your sweetmeats with Mrs. Eston?”
The boy lit up instantly and nodded.
“I would love to,” he said, reaching for the housekeeper’s hand.
Mrs. Eston gave Teresa an understanding smile and nodded.
“I would enjoy some sweetmeats just now,” she said. “And I will see to the arrangements for tea for the two of you.”
Teresa nodded, blowing a kiss to Alex as he led the housekeeper out of the room. Once she was sure they were gone, she turned back to her brother.
“Would you care to join me for tea?” she asked, gesturing to the drawing room.
Patrick returned to his previous smirk as he nodded.
“I would be delighted,” he said.
Teresa and her brother entered the drawing room, taking seats opposite each other. Teresa stared at him for a few minutes, while he glanced around the room, pretending to be casual. But she knew better.
“Why are you here?” she asked when he refused to speak first.
Patrick looked taken aback.
“Why, Sister,” he said, putting a hand to his chest. “If I didn’t know better, I would think that you are displeased to see me.”
Teresa frowned at her brother, hardly in the mood for his games and taunting right then.
“You expect me to be pleased for some reason?” she asked.
“I am your brother, after all,” he said.
Teresa’s frown deepened.
“Perhaps, if you acted more like you were my brother, I would be pleased,” she retorted.
Patrick gasped with pretend surprise.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked.
Teresa shook her head in exasperation.
“You didn’t attend Alexander’s funeral,” she said. “You didn’t even bother to reply to the letters I’ve sent you since then. Those are not the actions of a brother, Patrick.”
Her brother laughed sardonically.
“That’s rich,” he said. “You needn’t try to pretend that you cared for Alexander. I am the one who arranged your marriage, remember?”
Teresa’s stomach turned again as her brother spoke.
“How could I forget?” she asked. “You made the decision without a single thought as to what I might have wanted.”
Patrick chortled again.
“You should be grateful that I managed to secure you a good match,” he said.
Teresa narrowed her eyes on her brother.
“I could have found one on my own,” she said bitterly. “I hardly needed you to match me with a man who didn’t even love me.”
“What has love to do with it?” he asked. “Arranged marriages are the staple of ton society. You lived well, and you still do now that he has passed. And you got your precious son out of the deal. Why are you angry?”
Teresa clenched her jaw. She knew that Alex could come seeking her, or his uncle, any time. The last thing she wanted was for him to catch them fighting.
“I am not in the mood for any of this,” she hissed. “Either get to the point or take your leave. I need to care for my son.”
Patrick rubbed his hands together and grinned.
“I am glad that you said that,” he said in a voice that Teresa was sure she wasn’t going to like. “I have an interesting proposal that I wish to discuss with you.”
Teresa nodded, giving her brother a smirk not unlike his own.
“I knew you were up to something,” she said. “Very well, out with it.”
Just then, the tea arrived, carried by a blank-faced Mrs. Eston. She glanced at Teresa, who gave her a tight smile.
“Thank you,” she said to the housekeeper.
As soon as the woman exited the room, Teresa turned her attention back to her brother. Patrick, however, didn’t speak right away. She was left trying to study the face of the brother who might as well have been a stranger to her. She couldn’t guess what he was thinking, or what he wanted from her. What was he concocting now?
Edward Thatcher scribbled away on the ledgers he was compiling for the shipping company. He had gotten a little behind, allowing himself to spend too much time dwelling on the past. But as he closed the third one for the day, he thought he might finally be making crucial progress. He needed to have the ones he had worked on complete before noon the following day. He glanced over his desk for the next ledger, and his heart stopped.
Just behind the ledger he needed was the glass paperweight shaped like a giraffe that Caleb, his best friend and fallen comrade, had given to him just before they began working on the mission that had ultimately killed him. Caleb and Edward had allowed themselves to become distracted as they prepared to arrest a pair of criminals and they hadn’t noticed that one of them pulled two pistols out of the back of his pants.
Edward didn’t realize it until after the first shot, aimed at his head, was fired. The bullet narrowly missed him, but because of his old war injury, he didn’t recover in enough time to cover Caleb. By the time Edward was back on his feet, the second and third shots had been fired, both of which had stricken Caleb.
His friend had lived only five minutes longer, dying right in front of Edward minutes before the constables arrived. The criminals were apprehended in the end, and Edward was commended for a job well done. But Caleb was still dead, and that was something that Edward would regret for the rest of his life. But it wasn’t the only thing he regretted. Nor was it the only thing that kept him awake at night.
After the mission, he had set out to comfort Esme, Caleb’s younger sister and the woman who, at the time, he had been courting. He had intended to offer his condolences and to pay for any of Caleb’s final expenses, to try to eradicate some of the guilt he felt for having failed his best friend when it mattered most. He had also expected to hold his lady friend in her time of need and be her strength and solace. However, when he had arrived, she had slapped him and told him that she never wanted to see him again. The most that he got in the way of an explanation was that she felt it was his fault that her brother died. And maybe she wasn’t wrong.
As he reached for the paperweight, he wondered for what had to be the hundredth time in the two years since Caleb’s death if it wasn’t, in fact, his fault. He had, after all, been too slow to help get Caleb out of harm’s way. His bum leg had locked up after he ducked to avoid the first bullet. If it hadn’t been for that, he might have been able to save them both. Or, at least, he might have been able to take the fatal bullets for his friend. That is precisely what I deserved, he thought sadly.
His brother had been the only person to show him kindness after he retired from the War Office. Graham had offered to let him take over the shipping company that he himself had inherited as part of the viscount’s affairs that Graham had taken on when their father died.
As the youngest son of a viscount, Edward himself had no claims to the title, fortune or any of the business ventures. But he and Graham had always been close and watching Edward wallow in his sorrows had been too much for the new viscount. And when his brother made the offer, Edward had gladly accepted. But sometimes, he felt that even that was more generous of a fate than he deserved.
Will I ever forgive myself? Edward thought as he twirled the paperweight in his hands. Do I deserve such peace? Graham had tried to tell Edward that Caleb would not wish to see him suffer so. But each time he thought about the day that his friends died, Edward couldn’t quite bring himself to agree with his brother. Caleb had been a strong, smart and capable crown agent. Edward wholeheartedly believed that, had Caleb been partnered with anyone else that day, he would still be alive. He knew deep down that he would never come to terms with what happened to his dear friend that day.
“Mr. Thatcher?” Bernard Jones, the butler, said, startling Edward from his thoughts.
Edward stood quickly, instantly regretting it as pain coursed through his bad leg. He dropped the paperweight, not recovering quickly enough to catch it before it fell to the floor. The butler gave him a sympathetic look as Edward gave him an awkward smile.
“Yes, Bernard?” he asked.
The butler bowed.
“Viscount Aldhury has just arrived,” he said. “Do you need a minute before I show him in?”
Edward cleared his throat and shook his head, using the drink cabinet behind his chair as an excuse to collapse back into his chair.
“No, Bernard,” he said, shaking his head sheepishly. “Please, show him in.”
“Too late, dear brother,” Graham said, gliding into the room and giving Edward a warm smile. “It is good to see you again, Edward.”
Edward returned his brother’s smile, holding up two glasses and Graham’s favorite liquor: scotch.
“How about I pour us a drink?” he asked. “Please, sit and make yourself at him while I do.”
Graham nodded eagerly, approaching the desk and taking the seat across from Edward.
“That sounds wonderful, Brother,” he said.
Edward nodded, pouring the drinks and placing one before his brother. They toasted to nothing in particular, just as they always did. They drank from their glasses and then both settled back in their respective seats.
“It is good to see you, as always, Brother,” Edward said sincerely. “But what brings you here with no warning?”
Graham opened his mouth and pretended to be mortally offended.
“Can I not come to pay my little brother a visit for no reason?” he asked, his lips twitching.
“No,” he said with warm joviality. “You certainly cannot.”
Graham chuckled and shook his head softly.
“Well, as it happens, you are correct,” he said after a minute. “I will be returning to the countryside in a few days.”
Edward nodded, raising his eyebrow.
“I knew it,” he said, playfully pointing his finger at his brother. “You are not as underhanded as you might think.”
Graham waved away his brother’s finger with another laugh.
“That is not the largest part of that news,” he said. “It is the rest of what I have to say that I thought you might want to hear.”
Edward sighed with exaggeration.
“If I must,” he said. “I apologise, Brother. Please continue.”
Graham smiled and nodded.
“Very well,” he said. “I am going to the countryside. The reason is because Joanna plans to host a few summer activities at our countryseat. I came to ask if you would consider joining us in the country this summer.”
Edward looked at his brother with mild surprise.
“That is a very kind offer,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind coming for a visit. In between business meetings here in London, of course.”
Graham fell strangely solemn for a moment.
“We are always happy to have you come and visit,” he said carefully. “But I was thinking more of you spending the entire summer with us. Mother would love it if you were to attend the events that Joanna has planned.”
Edward was genuinely surprised. He sipped his drink again before setting it aside and raising his eyebrows to his brother.
“Mother wants me to spend the summer there?” he asked. “Why?”
Graham took a gulp of his drink and shrugged. He cleared his throat and put down his own glass before speaking again.
“I think that Mother wants to see you mingle a bit more in the coming months,” he said with as much care as he had spoken previously.
Edward nodded slowly. He hadn’t been to his family’s country home in quite some time. But he had been needed almost round the clock in London to operate his rapidly growing shipping business. He felt guilty for having not been with his family much since the business started expanding. But he still wasn’t sure whether he could do that on such short notice.
“That sounds very lovely,” he admitted after a moment of considering his older brother’s words. “But I don’t know if I can accept your invitation.”
Graham frowned, clearly disappointed and discouraged.
“Why?” he asked.
Edward pointed to a stack of ledgers sitting on his desk as he smiled sheepishly.
“Because I might have underplayed my upcoming business obligations,” he said.
Graham looked at the stack and chuckled.
“You have your manager, do you not?” he asked.
Edward nodded thoughtfully.
“I do,” he said. “But I don’t know how much he can handle on such short notice.”
Graham shook his head.
“Edward, brother,” he said. “This is precisely one of the reasons why we have business managers. I am sure he is more than capable of handling the bulk of the business in your stead. And you can always come back to London for the important meetings.”
Edward shook his head, running a hand through his hair.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I would also have to get my things packed, as well. Had I known a month or so ago, I would feel better about just absconding to the countryside. But I should probably stay, at least for another few weeks. I could come for a few days after that, though, perhaps.”
Graham clapped his hands together in a gesture of prayer, and he did his best to look like an innocent, pleading child.
“Edward, please,” he said. “It has been far too long since we have all been together in our countryseat. I will personally oversee the packing of your things. I will ensure that your shipping manager has more than he needs to take over for you until we return. I will even help you with your ledgers, if that’s what it takes. I am begging you, Brother. Say you will join us.”
Edward laughed at how ridiculous his brother looked. But he was also touched that his presence in the countryside meant so much to Graham.
“You are not going to let this go, are you?” he asked.
Graham shook his head firmly.
“I will live right here in the chair until you agree,” he said with determination.
“You’d only live there until you starved to death,” he said. But despite his continued hesitation, his brother’s insistence was admirable.
“You wouldn’t allow that to happen, would you?” he asked.
Edward chuckled and shook his head.
“You have certainly made it difficult to refuse,” he said.
Graham’s face lit up.
“Then, accept,” he said.
Edward grinned impishly.
His brother raised his glass again and grinned.
“I knew you couldn’t resist,” he said.
Edward topped off their glasses and joined his brother in his second toast. As Graham sat with a satisfied smile on his face, Edward let himself really consider his decision. Everything Graham had said was true. He did love and miss his family, and his business manager could, indeed, handle the business’s affairs for a while. And he hadn’t taken more than a few hours off work in months. Maybe spending some time in the country with his mother and brother would do him some good, after all.
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