It wasn’t hard to show suitable enthusiasm. Parford Manor was a beautifully maintained house. It seemed lived in without being ragged. Even the parquet floors had an understated beauty, the sort of luminous glow that came from years of beeswax and care.
The manor was even older than that long-ago split between the Turners and the Dalrymples, he mused as he was led outside into the formal gardens. The grass was green and springy beneath his feet. No lawn a mere decade old could ever achieve that complacent health. It seemed not just a bit of turf, but an entire organism, spread before him.
His many times great-grandfather had once been lord here. The man had perhaps once walked upon this very path. He might have turned this selfsame corner, around the long, low holly, and seen the slow roll of the river beyond.
A bit daunting, that history. When he was a boy, his father had taught him about his noble relations, as if that ancient history somehow made him special, more interesting than other mill owners’ children. But that happy accident, that divergence from nobility all those great-grandfathers ago, hadn’t done any of the Turners much good. It hadn’t fed them or clothed them. Fortunes had come, and fortunes had been given away in mindless acts of insane charity.
Now, Ash stood on the cusp of the dukedom. He’d vowed he would care for his dependents—every one of them, from Mrs. Benedict, who continually stopped to reaffix her cap with pins that kept sliding from her gray hair, down to the last maid toiling over a copper kettle in the scullery.
Parford had, of course, got the matter completely backwards.
Yes, he’d thought of revenge. But thoughts of cold vengeance had given way to stark reality. There was no use trading eyes for eyes, when he’d been able to provide for his brothers by trading rubies instead.
Ancient history, indeed. The families had split, probably around the same time that the solid row of elms had been planted along the western drive. Ash’s fore-bearer, a younger son, had married a manufacturer’s daughter for wealth. He’d taken the name of Turner in exchange for a fortune—much to the fury of the rest of the Dalrymple family, who’d viewed the act as a mercenary betrayal. Time had passed. The elms reached halfway to the heavens now. The old Turner money had dwindled and disappeared before Ash had resurrected it. And yet the remnants of that bitter dispute still festered.
No; Ash didn’t just want revenge. He also wanted to take care of his own. Until this morning, however, he’d thought only of his brothers and his business. He hadn’t comprehended precisely how many responsibilities he was inheriting.
His responsibilities were not all unpleasant, though. There was, after all, Miss Lowell.
Miss Lowell was a surprising, delectable contradiction of a woman. She was intelligent, fierce and loyal. She looked soft in all the right places, but when it came to the ones she cared for, she was hard as flint. She seemed formidable, and Ash appreciated formidable women.
She was a mystery, and Ash was going to enjoy unraveling every delicious clue, until he’d stripped every last inch of her naked. In every sense of the word.
Their group made its way back to the manor by way of a path that hugged the river. When they reached the house once more, the steward and the majordomo took their leave. Mrs. Benedict opened the outside door to the glassed-in conservatory. It was littered with buckets of rose cuttings and potted plants, awaiting permanent placement. From there, she led him down a hall and into another parlor. Windows looked out over the gray river in the distance.
“There’s one last thing,” Mrs. Benedict said, coming to a halt. “I have standards for the conditions under which my girls must work.”
“In my London townhouse, I grant my servants a half day every week and a pair of full days each month.”
She let out a puff of air. “That’s not what I meant.” She squared her shoulders fiercely and then looked up. “I insist on this, Mr. Turner, as a condition of my employment. You and your brother are young, healthy males. I’ll not have you imposing on my girls. They’re from decent families. It’s not right to put them in a position where they can’t truly say no.”
Ah. Those sorts of working conditions. Ash had a feeling he was going to like Mrs. Benedict.
“You won’t have to worry about my brother,” Ash said. Unfortunately. “As for myself, I didn’t get where I was by indulging my wants indiscriminately. Besides, I had a sister, too. I couldn’t use any woman so cavalierly without her memory intruding.”
What he had planned for Miss Lowell could hardly be considered cavalier. He considered it more along the lines of a regular campaign.
But Mrs. Benedict must not have heard that unspoken caveat. She gave him a sharp nod. “You’re not what I expected, sir.”
“I’m not what I expected, either.”
She let loose a sharp chortle and reached into the pocket of her apron. With a metallic clink, she withdrew a chatelaine, heavy with keys, and unfastened the clasp of the ring. “I believe you.” She fished around and removed one. “Here.”
He held out his hand.
“It’s the master key.” She placed it into his waiting palm. “If you misuse it, I’ll have your ears, duke’s heir or no.”
The key she put into his hand was heavy iron, the bow fashioned into wrought curlicues. Interwoven amongst those was the stylized sword that was so prominent on the Parford coat of arms. Ash stared at it in bemusement before shoving it into a pocket. Mrs. Benedict, however, was already opening the door onto a long hallway, her interview of him concluded. She marched away as if she were the commanding general. Ash shrugged and followed after.
“Now,” she said as he came abreast of her once more, “tell me of your dining arrangements. Shall I manage the menus, or do you need to be consulted?”
“I trust you. But speaking of dining, it occurs to me that my brother and I make dreadfully uneven numbers. Once the rest of my men arrive from London, there will be no remedying that, not with any influx of women. But for this evening…” He trailed off invitingly.
Mrs. Benedict frowned as she walked. “Well, there’s the Misses Duprey, Amelia and Catherine, over north of Yeovil. They’d be delighted with an invitation. Further afield, we might think of Lady Harcourt’s daughters—a bit on the young side, fourteen and sixteen. Though Lady Harcourt wouldn’t mind in the least—she’s eager to marry them off.”
Ash choked. God. A fourteen-year-old child. He wouldn’t know what to say to such a creature.
“No,” he choked out. “Not Lady Harcourt. Definitely not her daughters.” Whoever they were. When he became the duke, he would have to know who these people were. He’d have to figure out the best way to accomplish that—after all, it wasn’t as if he would actually read a copy of Debrett’s. “Nor the Misses Duprey, whoever they might be. The lack of feminine conversation, you see, will be felt in a few hours’ time—and I doubt Lady Harcourt would forgive me if I sprung an invitation on her with no notice at all. No, Mrs. Benedict. I was thinking more along the lines of…you.”
This last line was delivered as they stepped from the hallway into the grand entryway.
“Me!” The housekeeper’s mouth dropped open. She stopped walking—right in the midst of the grand tiled hall—and clutched her skirts. She turned to him and peered into his face. Perhaps she was looking for telltale signs of madness. Finding neither rolling eyes nor froth at his lips, sh
e shook her head.
“Me?” She managed to turn the syllable into a question. “I’m no lady to be taking my meals with the master. I’m a servant, sir, and a good one. I wouldn’t know—that is, I couldn’t carry on a conversation with a duke’s heir.”
“Nonsense,” Ash said. “You’ve done precisely that, this past half hour. You’ve watched the Dalrymples, haven’t you?”
At her faint nod, he smiled. She was already disposed to like him, however tentative that feeling was on her part. Now it was time to foster that delicate inclination.
He heard a noise from upstairs, as of a door closing. After a few moments, the quiet echo of footsteps in the upper gallery followed. The hairs on the back of his neck tingled.
“Can I tell you a secret? You must know the family history—that there was bad blood between the Turners and the Dalrymples, that my brothers and I grew up in near poverty.”
She sniffed and looked away. “This isn’t a household prone to gossip about its masters. I see to that. In fact, if you do hear any such talk, don’t you listen to it. Come to me, straight away, and I’ll set the culprit straight.”
“Oh, no. I’m not accusing you of gossip. But perhaps you might, from time to time, have heard about the masters’ less fortunate relations?” He gave her his most cajoling smile, and she softened.
“Perhaps,” she allowed.
“The truth is, I feel more comfortable conversing with servants than I sometimes do with my peers. This transition has been most sudden for me. A person like you could do a lot of good for someone like me. The way I see it, you’re barely a servant. You’re essentially the mistress of this house.”