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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Shouts came from the entrance hall. Loud shouts. Startled shouts. What was going on?
Catherine Meriweather rushed toward the front of the house. She should be asking: What else was going on? Her cousin Edmund, who had inherited the title of Lord Meriweather from her late father, had let their neighbor Sir Nigel Tresting persuade him that it would be fitting for the new baron to reinstate the old tradition of a Christmas Eve masquerade ball. But why hold it this year when her sister Sophia was getting married just before Christmas? The last Christmas Eve ball at Meriweather Hall had been years before Catherine was born. However, Cousin Edmund had bought the idea completely.
And then promptly handed the planning over to the Meriweather women. Her older sister, Sophia, was busy with her wedding gown, and their mother had gone to York to visit her sister who was recovering from a broken leg. That left Catherine with the responsibility for the assembly, which made no sense. She was the one who often overlooked details, the one who never managed to get anything organized the right way, the one with her head firmly in the clouds the one whose faith had grown weak, so she did not have God to turn to when she felt overwhelmed. That was most of the time now; yet to leave the matters in Cousin Edmund's hands would be a disaster, because he could not make the simplest decision.
But what was happening in the entrance hall?
"Get him!" That shout rang through the corridor, and she walked a bit faster.
Other voices came quickly. "I got him! No! He got away from me!"
"Grab him! Don't let him get behind you."
"He bit me!"
Gathering her skirt in her hand, she ran toward the commotion. Men stood in the doorway, shouting and pointing and jostling. They paid her no mind when she asked them to let her by. She gritted her teeth, stuck out her elbow and pushed her way past them.
"What is going on?" she asked.
A large dark blur raced toward her.
"No, you don't!" A hand reached out and grabbed at the blur. As it slowed, she realized it was a gangly black-and-white puppy.
Then she looked at the man keeping the puppy from jumping on her, and she gasped in astonishment. Jonathan Bradby was the tallest man in the entrance hall, even taller than Ogden, their butler. His ruddy hair had been blown every which way by the wind, and snow was melting on the shoulders of his dark greatcoat.
And he was the last man she had expected to see at Meriweather Hall today. Mr. Bradby had written in response to the note she had sent him, inviting him to Sanctuary Bay, that he was not able to come for either the wedding or the Christmas Eve ball. He had explained that his work as a solicitor prevented him from leaving Norwich, even for the wedding of one of his best friends. Catherine's sister and her fiance had been disappointed, and so had Catherine. Mr. Bradby's jests during his previous visit had eased the pain in her heart whenever she thought of her late father or of her dear Roland who had died so far from home during the war.
"Mr. Bradby! What are you doing here?" she asked before she could halt herself.
"At the moment, I am trying to get this horse disguised as a pup under control." He looked toward Fog-gin, the blond-haired footman. "How badly did he bite you?"
Foggin flushed. "It is nothing. His teeth grazed my hand. He never bit down."
The black-and-white pup pulled away from Mr. Bradby and lunged again at Catherine, yelping in excitement. She sidestepped the ungainly dog before he could jump on her, and then cupped his head to hold him gently in place. He slobbered a kiss on her cheek.
"And who are you?" she asked as she wiped her face.
"An intruder," Mr. Bradby replied. "I would make mention of what the cat dragged in, but I daresay, it was the dog that dragged me in here from the courtyard."
Chuckling at his jest, she said, "I thought That is, we thought you were not coming."
"I changed my mind when your cousin asked me to come here to advise him on some papers he intends to sign. As I was coming here anyhow, I thought I might as well attend the wedding. I know the banns have not yet been read, but I thought I should take advantage of more clement weather for my journey. As you can see, that did not go according to plan." He shrugged, and melting snow fell off his greatcoat. He pulled it off to reveal that he was dressed conservatively.. for him. His coat and breeches were a somber black, but his waistcoat was an eye-scorching yellow with red-and-green embroidery.
"I know the feeling too well." Her laughter faded as her memory spewed forth the day Roland Utting and she had last made plans for their future. He had asked her to wait for him and told her that they would marry when he came back from the war against the French and the Americans. That had not gone as they had planned, because, though she had waited, he had never come back, dying in distant America.
"I am dripping on your floors," Mr. Bradby said, forcing away the image of the day when she had believed that God truly wanted her to be happy. "Are the rooms I used before available for me?"
Instead of answering him, she asked, "Who is this big guy?" She patted the puppy between his floppy ears as the footmen and Ogden returned to their duties. The pup rolled onto his back so she could rub his damp belly.
"A stowaway in my carriage."
She bent to pet the puppy's belly and cooed nonsense words, then asked, "A stowaway? I thought that was only for ships."
"I have no other idea how to describe him. He crawled into my carriage after I had stopped at a coaching inn one night. When I went back, the owner told me that the pup was now my problem. I think the innkeeper was glad for an excuse not to feed him any longer. I stopped at a couple of villages along the way to see if someone wanted a puppy. No one wanted one this big, so he has traveled with me."
"What did you name him?"
"I just call him pup. He seems to like it."
Straightening, she smiled. "Because he knows no better. Don't you think he deserves a name of his own?"
"So far he has chewed one of my boots and two of my socks and swallowed a button that he threw up on my best waistcoat." His tone was grim, but his pale blue eyes twinkled with amusement. "He has left hair on the seat of my carriage and relieved himself on its wheels. I am not sure he deserves a name of his own." Despite his complaints, Mr. Bradby tethered himself to the dog with a leash.
Catherine squatted to pat the puppy again. "We shall have to see what name suits him." She stood. "Shall we talk in a warmer part of the house?"
"Of course." He motioned with the hand holding the leash for her to lead the way.
She took a single step before her heel caught on the rough edge of a tile. He grabbed her arm, and his other arm swept around her to keep her from falling. He held her up against his strong chest until she was steady on her feet; then he bent to pick up the leash he had dropped.
"Thank you, Mr. Bradby," she said as she carefully drew herself away from him without looking in his direction.
"I am glad to have been of service. So tell me, how are the wedding plans coming?"
"As well as one can possibly hope." That was not quite the truth, but she was not going to lay all her worries at Mr. Bradby's feet.
"Your cousin tells me that you will be going to London for the opening of Parliament. You must be excited."
She glanced at him, then quickly away. What would he think if she told him that she had a single reason to go to London? She planned to visit the new exhibit at the British Museum of the sculptured panels that once had graced the Parthenon in Athens. The Elgin Marbles, as they were commonly called. She was going to see them, not just for herself, but for Roland who never had the chance.
Dear Roland, the only man who ever understood her love for art and did not consider it worthless. The only man whom she had ever trusted with her heart. She blinked back tears. The two years since his death in battle had not lessened how much she missed Roland.
Instead of answering Mr. Bradby, she ruffled the pup's fur.
His tail wagged so hard it almost became invisible as he looked up at Cat with adoration.
"What do you say, pup," she asked, "if I take you to the kitchen and see what scraps Mrs. Porter has? You can chew on a bone by the fire tonight."
Mr. Bradby shook his head. "You don't need to impose on your cook. He can sleep in the stables with the horses. After all, he is about the same size."
"He may be big, but he is a puppy. It will be very cold outside tonight, and he will be far more comfortable by the kitchen hearth." She smiled at him. "Don't try to change my mind on this."
He grinned back. "Thanks for the warning, Miss Catherine, but to own the truth, I suspect that your cook will soon be begging you to send him to the stables."
"He snores. Loudly."
Catherine laughed as they and the pup walked along the corridor toward the kitchen stairs. It was good to have Mr. Bradby's sense of humor back under their roof. She was sure to need it in the coming days.
Why was he here?
As Jonathan Bradby strode toward the grand staircase at the front of Meriweather Hall, he reminded himself that he could have ignored the request from Edmund Herriott. He could have remained in his comfortable home in Norwich, where he could admire the cathedral's spire from his office window. Instead, he had driven north along the coast to Meriweather Hall. The estate had been inherited by Herriottno, he needed to think of him as Meriweather now that he had claimed his titleupon the death of his distant cousin Miss Catherine's father.
Jonathan had, if he were honest with himself, looked forward to seeing Miss Catherine again. When he had visited the baronial estate two months ago, she had always laughed at his jests rather than looking at him with pity, as others did, when he acted silly.
He ground his teeth as his jaw worked. Was he becoming just like the rest of his family? Their lives were one continuous illusion. His siblings played roles, changing like chameleons to attract an admirer with both title and wealth, as they took advantage of the social whirl. Creating such a persona was a skill they had learned from an early age, when their parents had chosen to live separate lives but maintain the image of the perfect family.
Now he had become like them, pretending that a lie was the truth. Everyone believed he was a hero who had saved his best friend's life on the battlefield. If he had spoken up the first time someone had lauded him for saving Northbridge, he would not have to be living now with the abhorrent lie. But he had not admitted that he had stumbled and slammed into the French soldier. It had been enough to keep the Frenchman's sword from slicing off Northbridge's head, leaving his friend only with a scar where the blade had glanced off his cheek.
But that did not make Jonathan a hero. It made him a clumsy oaf, as his father had called him so often, when Jonathan was struggling to get used to growth spurts that had him sprouting up two or more inches seemingly overnight.
He should have told the truth from the beginning. Now it was too late, and he had become the very thing he despised. An illusion that everyone accepted as the truth. He had no idea what his friends would think of him, if they discovered the truth now, but he also did not know how much longer he could live what both he and God knew was a lie. He often wondered if God had let him leave the battlefield alive in order to right the mistake he had made. If so, he was letting God down a second time.
"Bother!" came Miss Catherine's voice through an open doorway just in front of him. "You didn't do that, did you? I cannot believe this!"
Jonathan waited to hear a reply, but there was none. Curiosity drew him to the door that was flanked by suits of armor. He looked in to see a fire dancing on the white marble hearth. Carved with vines and birds and lush grapes, it was too ornate for his taste. Books covered every shelf in the bookcases that lined the other walls, and more were piled on the floor and on the overstuffed chairs.
Cat stood by a rosewood desk covered with stacks of papers, her fists clenched on one pile. Cat. He had not thought of Catherine's childhood nickname since he had left Meriweather Hall, but it suited her. She was small, at least a foot shorter than his six-foot-four height, and her black hair was as sleek as a cat's fur. Instead of green eyes, she had earth-brown ones. Yet they sparked like a cat's when her emotions were high, as they were now.
"Is everything all right?" he asked from the doorway.
She whirled, her eyes wide.
"I didn't mean to startle you," he said.
"I was lost in thought." Her voice was filled with frustration. "I was doing some work for the Christmas Eve ball."
He stepped into the room. "And it sounds as if there is a problem."
"It would appear that Cousin Edmund forgot that he had asked me to send out invitations to the wedding and the assembly. I spent hours on them. If I had not had Vera's help, I doubt I could have gotten them done on time."
He nodded, recalling that Vera Fenwick, the vicar's sister, was Cat's bosom-bow. "I see."
"No, you don't." She pushed away from the desk and leaned her fists on the back of one of the chairs. "I am receiving replies from invitations that I did not send, people telling me that they are delighted to attend. All I can figure is that, after asking me to handle the invitations, Cousin Edmund went ahead and invited more people without telling me."