From Ruin to Riches(8)

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 ‘That is consumption, is it not?’ As he had said, a death sentence. ‘I expect the doctors think saying it in Greek makes them seem more knowledgeable. Or perhaps it justifies a higher bill.’

 ‘You have no great love of the medical profession?’

 How elegant his hands were with the long bones and tendons. The heavy signet on his left ring finger was so loose that the seal had slipped round. ‘No,’ Julia admitted. ‘I have not. No great faith, would perhaps be truer.’ The doctors had done little enough for Papa, for all their certainties.

 ‘You seem to understand that speaking about problems is a relief after everyone pretending there is nothing wrong.’ He looked away from the fire and into her eyes and for a moment she thought the flames still danced in that intent gaze.

 Jonathan’s beautiful blue gaze was always impenetrable, as though it was stained glass she was looking at. This man’s eyes were windows into his soul and a very unpleasant place it seemed to be, she thought with a shiver at her Gothic imaginings.

 ‘Would it help to confide your story in a total stranger? One who will take it to—’ He broke off. ‘One who will respect your confidence.’

 Take it to the grave. He was no priest bound to silence, she could hardly confess to her actions and expect him to keep the secret, but perhaps talking would help her find some solution to the problem of what she could possibly do now.

 ‘My father was a gentleman farmer,’ Julia began. She sat back in the chair and found she could at least begin as though she was telling a story from a book. The hound circled on the hearth rug, sighed and lay down with her head on her master’s foot as if she, too, was settling to listen to the tale. ‘My mother died when I was fifteen and I have no brothers or sisters, so I became my father’s companion: I think he forgot most of the time that I was a girl. I learned everything he could teach me about the estate, the farm, even purchasing stock and selling produce.

 ‘Then, four years ago, he suffered a stroke. At first there was talk of employing a steward, but Papa realised that I could do the job just as well—and that I loved the place in a way that an employee never would. So I took over. I thought there was no reason why we could not go on like that for years, but last spring he died, quite suddenly in his sleep, and my Cousin Arthur inherited.’

 She would not cry, she had got past that. Just as long as the baron did not try to sympathise: she could not cope with sympathy. Instead he said, ‘And there was no young man to carry you off?’

 ‘I had been too busy being a farmer to flirt with young men.’ He had seen, and heard, enough of her now to understand the other reasons no-one had come courting. She was hardly a beauty. She was too tall. And too assertive, too outspoken. Unladylike hoyden, Cousin Jane called her. A managing, gawky blue-stocking female with no dowry, that was what Jonathan had flung at her. He was obviously correct about her lack of attraction—it was quite clear in retrospect that she had been a complete failure in his bed.

 ‘My cousins allowed me to stay because I had nowhere else to go, but it was unsuitable for me to take any interest in the estate, they said, and besides, they made it very clear that it was no longer any of my business. Cousin Jane found me useful as a companion,’ she added, hearing the flatness in her own voice. A drudge, a dogsbody, the poor relation kept under their roof to make them appear charitable.

 ‘But then it changed?’

 ‘They must have grown tired of supporting me, I suppose. Of the cost, however modest, and tired too of my interference in estate matters. There was a man—I think they intended to make it worth his while to take me off their hands. He did not offer marriage.’

 * * *

 A squalid story, Will thought as Miss Prior ran out of words. Those lips, made for smiles, were tight, and she had coloured painfully. It was unwise of her to flee her home, but the alternative seemed appalling and few unprotected young women would have had the resolution to act as she had done. ‘You ran away, eventually found yourself in my parkland and the rest we know,’ he finished for her.

 ‘Yes.’ She sat up straight in the chair as if perfect deportment could somehow restore her to respectability.

 ‘What is their name? Someone needs to deal with your cousin. Even if he had not been in a position of trust, his behaviour was outrageous.’

 ‘No! Not violence...’ He saw her bite her lip at the muttered curse that escaped him. She had gone quite pale.

 ‘No, of course not. You need have no fear that I might call him out. I forget sometimes that my fighting days are over.’ Damn. And he hadn’t meant to say that, either. Self-pity was the devil. ‘I am not without influence. It would be my pleasure to make his life hell in other ways than by threatening him at swordpoint. Is his name Prior? Where is your home?’

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