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The Master of Grex by Joan Wolf (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Anne was brushing her beloved old mare’s blood bay coat when Toby, the only groom left on the estate, came to tell her that her father had returned from London and wished to see her.  She mustered up a smile and handed Molly’s lead to Toby.  “Take her back to her stall and make sure she has fresh water,” she said.

“Of course, my lady.”  Toby, who had to be at least sixty, sounded injured. 

Anne put her hand on his arm.  “I’m sorry.  I know you would never forget the water, Toby.  I’m just a little … concerned at the moment.  And not about Molly.”

He gave her his toothless smile.  “That’s all right, my lady.  I’ll take good care of the princess here.”

Anne flashed him a smile, then turned to walk across the paddock, past the stables and up the dirt road to the house.  Her old governess, who had been with her since she was five, was waiting at the door.   “He’s in the library,” she reported tersely.  “Didn’t look happy.”

Percival’s lost money at the races.  The thought flashed instantly into Anne’s brain as her brother had been losing races ever since he went away to school.  Granted, in Percival’s case, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.  Anne’s father, the Earl of Grex, had been losing races for a lot longer than his son. 

Anne moved gracefully down the hall to the small parlor, one of the few rooms on the ground floor that was still usable.  She pushed open the door and saw her father standing in front of one of the tall windows, his back toward her.  “You wished to see me, Papa?” she asked.

He swung around to face her.  The Earl of Grex was a tall man with a red face and a well-established stomach.  He was scowling.  “There you are, Anne.  Come in, come in, I must speak to you.”

Anne walked into the room.

“Your brother has finished me,” the earl said furiously.  “On the very day that I won a considerable amount of money at Newmarket, what must he do but go and lose even more than I won!  It cost me all my winnings and then some to pay his debt!”

“Well, why did you pay his debt, Papa?” Anne asked reasonably.  “You must know he’ll only bet on more horses.”

The earl let out a long, exasperated breath.  “Sit down, Anne.  There are some matters we must discuss.”

Anne complied, seating herself on a tattered velvet sofa.  The earl sat across from her in a tired looking tapestry chair.  “Percival and I had some dealings a few months ago that perhaps you should know about.”

Anne was mystified.  Her father never discussed any of his dealings with her; he only complained that he had no money.

“It has to do with the entail,” Lord Grex said.

The fine lines of Anne’s eyebrows drew together.  Entails were legal documents that obliged a man’s property, money, and title if he had one, to pass to his closest male heir.  Which, in her father’s case, was her brother Percival.

She said, “You cannot disinherit Percival, Papa.  He is your legal heir.”

“I know that.”  Anne’s father glared at her.  “If you would let me proceed….”

“I beg your pardon,” Anne said softly.  “I am listening.”

“There is a clause in the entailment law that allows the entail to be broken if the heir – who must be of legal age – agrees to it.”

Anne was stunned.  She had known nothing of this.  “Papa, did you make Percy agree to break the entail if you paid his gambling debts?”

The earl looked as embarrassed as it was possible for him to look.  “No, he agreed to break the entail a few months ago if I would pay him a certain amount of money.”

“And did you pay it?”

“Don’t look at me like that, missy!  It’s paid now, that’s for sure.  Which means I can finally sell this crumbling old house and its useless property.”

Sell Grex?  Anne had few illusions about her father, but whatever may have been left of her esteem for him came crashing down with this news.  She loved her home.  It might be old and falling apart, but it was her home.  It was where she felt safe.

“Mama is buried here!  And Grandpapa and Grandmama, and all of their forebears going back hundreds and hundreds of years!  You can’t sell Grex, Papa!”

The earl looked at his daughter in a considering way.  “If you care about it so much, I will give it to you for your dowry.”

Anne looked at her father in utter bewilderment.  “My dowry?”

“Yes.  You are nineteen years of age and it’s about time you got married.  In fact, you must get married.  I cannot afford to keep an unwed daughter.  Just think - if I sell Grex, you’ll have nowhere to go if you’re not wed.  I’m sorry, my dear, but the truth is, you’ve become a burden I can no longer afford.”

The color drained from Anne’s face.  She and her father had never been close, but this felt like a punch in the stomach.  To be told that she must marry herself out of his way because she was a burden!  She tried to quell her rising distress and to apply calm logic.

She said, “You have never put me in the way of meeting any eligible men, so I wonder at your dismay that I am still single.”

“I know, I know.  It’s always my fault.  But I have kept the town house in Berkeley Square for you.  It will have to be sold, of course, but you can use it this spring to make your come-out.  Perhaps it will be another inducement besides Grex.  I’m afraid I shall have to use your dowry to pay for your come-out.”

“You can’t use my dowry!  My mother left it to me for my marriage.  You have no right to touch it.”

“You will sign it over to me, missy, so I can pay for your damn come-out.”  He rose to his feet.  “Now - I don’t want to hear another unpleasant word.  Go and huddle with that Miss Bonteen of yours.  She will tell you that I’m right.  The only future for you, Anne, is to get married.  And quickly!”

He stalked out of the room, his exit being made less dramatically effective by the stomach that caused him to waddle.

#   #   #

Anne rushed up the stairs and into the arms of her old governess.

“I heard his lordship’s raised voice, my love,” Miss Bonteen said worriedly.  “Are you all right?”

Anne lifted her head.  It was a little difficult to bury her face in Miss Bonteen’s shoulder, as Anne was four inches taller.  “I would like to kill him, Bonny,” she said through her teeth.  Her brown eyes blazed.  “He is such a failure!  A failure as a man, a failure as a noble, a failure as a Grex!”  She unburdened herself to her dearest friend about everything her father had said.

Miss Bonteen sighed heavily.  “I’m not surprised, my love.  Your papa threw away his inheritance on the horses, and your brother followed in his footsteps.  That’s why you didn’t make your come-out last year, as you should have.  There was no money.”

Anne looked into the clear hazel eyes of the only mother she had ever known; her birth mother having died when she was but four.  “He said I could have Grex as my dowry.  Perhaps there is a chance that we can stay here.”

“Oh Anne.  It would cost a fortune to put Grex into livable shape.  I doubt there are many men who would spend their money on a falling down house in Yorkshire.”

“I hate him!” Anne said with passion.  “And I hate Percival too!”

“Hate is a very strong word, my dear.”

“I know.  Strong and accurate.”

Miss Bonteen gave her a stern look.  “You have been brought up to be a Christian woman, Anne Saxton.  I don’t ever want to hear talk like that coming from your mouth.”

Anne sighed, some of the anger dissipating, as it always did when Miss Bonteen spoke to her in that tone of voice.  “I’m sorry, Bonny,” she said.  They both moved toward the small sofa that stood in front of Anne’s fireplace.  “I’m curious about one thing, though,” Anne said as they sat beside each other on the old chintz sofa.

“What is that, my love?”

“Where is Papa going to find a lady to launch this come-out he is so set upon?  I must have a sponsor.”

“Don’t you worry, my dear.  His lordship will find you a sponsor.  Of that I am quite certain.”

Anne sighed.  “I wouldn’t mind a chance to go to balls and the theatre and the opera.  And I’ve always thought I would marry.”  She sighed again. 

She sounded so gloomy that Miss Bonteen picked up her hand and squeezed it.  Anne turned to her and smiled.  “No one is going to want to marry me, Bonny.  The only dowry I have is Grex, and who will want that?  I love it, it’s part of who I am, but no sensible man would want to encumber himself with such a falling-down wreck.”

“I’ve never said this to you, Anne, because I didn’t want to turn your head, but you’ve turned into a beautiful young woman.  Some man will fall in love with you and marry you and give you babies.  I’m sure of it. “

Anne smiled again and shook her head.  “Dearest Bonny, you always try to make me feel better.”

Miss Bonteen smiled back and patted her hand.

#   #   #

Miss Bonteen had been correct about the earl’s ability to find a sponsor and chaperone for his daughter – he produced a cousin from his deceased wife’s side of the family, the Luptons.  Cousin Julia had married an earl and presented him with five sons but no daughters, and she would be delighted to take Anne under her wing. 

“Very high ton,” Lord Grex told Anne.  “Julia knows everyone who matters.  She’ll see to it you get to all the proper balls.  And to Almack’s, of course.”

“I don’t believe I’ve ever met Cousin Julia,” Anne said.  Father and daughter were standing on the back lawn of Grex House where Anne had been throwing a ball for her spaniel.  Anne pushed a lock of hair that had come loose from its tie off her face, and gave the ball to Dorothy to hold in her mouth. 

“She’s a cousin of your mother’s,” Lord Grex said.  “I haven’t had much to do with that family since your mother died.  They’re so respectable they make me want to puke.”

Anne had an idea that it wasn’t her father who had broken the connection.  Lord Grex’s lamentable life-style would put off any respectable family.

“Your cousin said you could reside at her London house,” Lord Grex continued.  He smiled with satisfaction.  “Thank God.  Now I won’t have to open the house in Berkeley Square.”

“That should save you some money, Papa,” Anne said, her tone of voice distinctly acidic.

He gave her a long stare.  She stared back.  This duel was broken by the spaniel who dropped the ball and sneezed on the earl’s polished boots.  Lord Grex swore and raised his foot as if to kick the dog.

Anne snatched the spaniel up into her arms.  “Don’t take out your bad temper on my dog, Papa!”

Lord Grex muttered a curse under his breath.  “That dog’s a menace.  It’s because you spoil her.  Dogs need discipline, Anne.  You must remember that.”

“Dogs need love, Papa.  All living creatures need love.”

“I have no time for love just at the moment, Daughter.  I need money.  A great deal of money.  If I can get you off my hands, sell the London House – and maybe even Grex itself – then I shall have time for all the love in the world.”  He gave her one last stare, turned on his heel and walked away.

Anne watched her father’s retreating back and tried to stifle the fury that was running through her veins.  She had always vaguely disliked her father, but until now she had never held him in contempt.  The spaniel wiggled in her arms and she bent to put the dog down.  “I don’t know who he thinks will marry me,” she said to Dorothy, who was assiduously sniffing the grass.  “I have no dowry.  Of course, strictly speaking, I suppose that’s not true - he’s going to offer Grex as my dowry.  I expect he thinks there will be men lining up to be the owner of this ruined estate.”  She sniffled and swallowed hard.  “But I love Grex, Dorothy.  Our family is one of the oldest in Great Britain – there are records that show that.”

Dorothy, looked up and wagged her tail in joyous agreement.

Anne laughed and brushed away the few teardrops that had slid down her cheeks.  “Come along, sweetie.  We’ll go to the stable to see Molly.  Maybe we’ll even go for a ride.  Would you like that?”

The spaniel knew the word ride and gave an eager bark.  “Come along, then, let’s go.”  Anne crossed the lawn and turned right to take the road that led to the stable.

#   #   #

Unlike Anne, Miss Bonteen was ecstatic that her charge would be going to London to make her come-out into society.  “Lady Moresack is one of London’s great hostesses, my love.  If she is to sponsor you, you will go to all the greatest balls - and you’ll be assured of an entrée to Almack’s.”

Anne smiled at her governess-turned-companion.  “I suppose you know about Lady Moresack from all the on-dits you read in the newspaper.” 

Living as they did in the ‘wilds of Lancastershire’ as Miss Bonteen would say, the Post came to them a day late.  This didn’t disturb Miss Bonteen, however.  Since Waterloo had ended the war against Napoleon, her chief interest was the goings-on of the upper class.  Anne hardly read the paper at all.  She preferred the books in the Grex library.

The invitation to join Lady Moresack in London came a week after Anne’s conversation with her father.  The Countess wrote she was ‘so looking forward to meeting Anna’s little girl.’  As she had no daughters of her own, she would regard Anne as an adopted daughter and ‘move heaven and earth’ to find her a husband.”

“It must really be bad if Lady Moresack thinks she will have to move heaven and earth to get me married,” Anne said gloomily to Miss Bonteen as they sat at the breakfast table with the butter-stained letter they had passed back and forth.

Miss Bonteen said firmly, “Do not be such a pessimist, Anne.  You are a beautiful young lady.  You come from one of the oldest families in Great Britain.  Not every gentleman is fixated on the amount of one’s dowry.  With Lady Moresack to stand behind you, I am sure you will have more offers than you know what to do with.”

Bonny was trying so hard to cheer her up that Anne elected not to disagree.  She looked into her companion’s lovely eyes and smiled.  “You’re right, Bonny.  I must be more optimistic.  Perhaps there will be a prince for me in London.”

Miss Bonteen smiled back.  “That’s better.  That’s how I like to hear you sound.  Now, be sure to keep me apprised of how you go on.  I shall be looking for a letter every day.”

Anne put down the piece of toast she was about to bite into.  “You won’t need to wait for a letter, Bonny.  You’re coming with me.”

Miss Bonteen dropped her eyes to her plate.  “My dearest girl,” her voice was very gentle, “Lady Moresack will have her own servants.  She won’t need me.”

There was a long silence, and when finally Miss Bonteen looked up from her plate, Anne said slowly and clearly, “You are not a servant, you are my dearest friend.  I will not go if you won’t go with me.  If Lady Moresack doesn’t have a room for you, you can sleep in mine.”

“My darling, it won’t be for you to decide this question.”

“Yes, it will be.  And I never want to hear you call yourself a servant again.  You are the only mother I’ve ever had and I’ll be…damned …if I’m going to leave you at home.”

Tears began to run down Miss Bonteen’s smooth cheeks.  “I shall treasure those words forever, Anne.  Thank you.”

Anne pushed her chair back and went over to give her friend a hug.  “I love you and I won’t have you diminished – not even by yourself.  Is that clear?”

Miss Bonteen looked up into the young face of the girl she loved more than anything in the world.  “Yes,” she said.  “It’s perfectly clear.”

 

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