Betrayed, p.12

Betrayed, page 12

 

Betrayed
 


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  He touched the almost-new fabric of his sleeve. “A contribution from the mayor himself. I gave Pic my others. There’s still a bit o’ wear in ’em.”

  Notch refused to refer to the items that came his way as charity. He accepted all of the “contributions,” then doled out garments, food, and precious pennies to the other children. One day soon they’d escape the darkened alleys and smelly mews. Once in the orphanage, Notch would spend his days in the classroom and his spare time—as he was now—simply being a boy. Precious moments like these would be the standard in his life rather than the exception.

  He made clicking sounds and cooed praises to his imaginary steed. “Lady Sarah?” he said. “Cholly says the general’s taking lunch today with that buttonmouthed ol’ countess.” Sneaking a glance at Rose, he waited to see if she would reprimand him. When she did not, he added, “Carried a satchel of papers with him.”

  “I’m certain they had business matters to discuss.” It was better said that they had a lack of financial prospects to ponder.

  “Will he be keeping his promise to contribute shoes to the cause?”

  “Yes,” Sarah said without pause. Michael Elliot was unhappy with her, but he would not make the orphans suffer. For the sake of the cause, she would put aside their quarrel today. She had agreed to call for him this afternoon, and she would—but in an unexpected and, she hoped, convincing fashion.

  “Mistress Rose?” Another subject captured Notch, and his voice broke. “Does that countess know how to read?”

  The maid peered at a spot on the already sparkling glass. “She don’t read anything to sweeten her bitter humors.”

  Notch laughed and Sarah did too. But curiosity filled her. Lady Emily had been suspiciously quiet since Michael stepped foot on Scottish soil—not that Sarah frequented the same homes or merchants as the countess. Sarah enjoyed going to market with Rose, and she’d yet to see Lady Emily in the bookstore or the stationer’s shop where Sarah purchased quills and ink.

  They did not attend the same church; Sarah preferred the uplifting atmosphere at Saint Margaret’s Chapel to the dour crowd at Saint Stephen’s. Did Michael plan to attend services with his mother?

  Like an awesome specter, a vision of Michael Elliot loomed in her mind.

  Why did you propose marriage to Henry?

  On his lips the question sounded like an accusation, which it was, if she believed his daring behavior and blatant promises of seduction. But if she were forced to defend herself to Michael, he should do the same. Were his reasons for wanting her honest ones? Nothing about their association was untainted. The Elliots wanted—needed—her dowry. Michael could not know the truth about the betrothal, on that she’d stake her very salvation. What troubled her most was her own ambivalence on the regrettable subject of her promise to wed Henry.

  Notch cackled with glee. “Cholly says you marched the general out the front door yesterday and bade him take his scandal-ridden self elsewhere. Did you truly blister his ears and send him off with his tail ’tween his legs?”

  Remembering the ugly scene, Sarah winced. “We disagreed on an important and private matter. I hope the streetsweeper can be trusted not to spread the tale to anyone else.”

  Watching her, Notched looked puzzled. “Cholly laughed beyond measure at the telling of it, but he don’t mingle with the gentry.”

  Rose marched out of the stall. “Just to be sure, I’ll be having a talk with that Cholly.”

  Notch sprang from the saddle. “Oh, nay, Mistress Rose. Cholly don’t have nothing to do with women. He swears they’re no better’n the plague. You get closer’n a broom’s length of him, and he’ll run the other way.”

  Drawing herself up, Rose huffed in disgust. “He oversteps himself.”

  A common occurrence among the men of Edinburgh, Sarah thought. She was still boiling mad at Michael Elliot, but she couldn’t help wondering how he fared in the meeting with his mother.

  * * *

  And stay away, Michael Elliot!

  Oh, he’d darken Sarah MacKenzie’s door again, but next time he’d be more circumspect in his questioning of her. He wouldn’t be deceived by a pretty face and alluring manner, for beneath her ladylike exterior and charitable disposition lurked a veritable virago.

  You’re a conniving, deceitful Elliot.

  He’d yelled back that he wasn’t his brother.

  You’re worse.

  Just as she slammed the door in Michael’s face, an anxious Turnbull had come running out of the alleyway.

  Women weren’t supposed to guard their privacy or overvalue their own opinions. Michael thought she excelled at both.

  She’s a thinker, Henry had said of Sarah. Give her to the count of ten to ponder an answer, and you’ll rue ever posing the question.

  Michael blew out his breath in frustration.

  “It’s rather boring to me, too,” his mother said, misinterpreting his sigh.

  Michael didn’t bother to correct her; he was too confused about his feelings for Sarah MacKenzie.

  Standing in a hallway in Glenstone Manor, he stared at the tartan-clad image of the fifth earl of Glenforth. If he ignored the dated clothing and beard, Michael could have been staring at a looking glass, so similar were his features to those of his famous ancestor. If the broadsword in Hamish Elliot’s massive hands were an indication of his prowess, Michael’s great-grandfather had been a formidable soldier. He’d also been both a ruthless businessman and a notorious womanizer.

  “A Dutchman painted that,” Lady Emily offered. “The Elliots had fled to Europe with Charles I. Garish, those Dutch, and heavy with a brush. Henry chose a good English painter for his.” With her handkerchief she swiped at the canvas bearing Henry’s regal likeness. The gesture was useless; the surface of the painting and the frame were as clean as the rest of the mansion. Even the occasional shield and well-worn battle-ax were polished.

  Michael knew little about his ancestors. That knowledge and the Elliot legacy at large had been passed on to Henry. Their grandmother had lived at the estate in Fife, where Michael had been raised, and some of her possessions remained there. But she’d died years before Michael had been born.

  The old caretaker had sworn the dowager countess couldn’t abide Glenstone Manor after Michael’s mother came into the family. The caretaker’s wife believed Lady Emily had packed off her mother-in-law to the country. For the moment, Michael sympathized with his grandmother, but his mother had requested this meeting, and he still harbored hope that they could find common ground on which to build a measure of civility.

  After all, she was his mother. She had likes and dislikes, pleasures and sorrows. Only by getting to know her would he cease to see her as a stranger.

  He chose a benign subject. “Have you seen the great old tapestries in Rouen? I imagine those would be to your liking.”

  “Yes. Henry took me there the year after he returned from his grand tour. I did find those ancient weavings cheerful and pleasing. Henry, of course, prefers manlier works in stone and marble. He dragged me all over Europe and would have only the best accommodations for us.”

  Michael didn’t miss the pride and affection in her tone. Her spirits always brightened when she spoke of his brother and the past. For that closeness, Michael felt a stab of jealousy. But Henry had spent his life under the same roof as their mother. Michael must now make his own way with her. She could do her part in bridging the gap by asking him questions; as yet, she was disinclined to do so.

  Again, he took the lead in the conversation. “The sultan’s palace in Bombay is filled with Moroccan mosaics. They cover the floors and soar to the ceilings.”

  “Heathens.”

  She couldn’t be as ignorant as that, and she certainly wasn’t a zealot.

  Michael felt bound to defend the country he’d called home for so many years. “Their artistry is timeless and not always of a religious nature. Chesterfield bought an entire wall from an old palace near Bombay and shipped it home to Bath, pie
ce by piece. They say he acquired it for a paltry sum.”

  “Did he now? I wonder you didn’t send one to us.”

  She could have asked him why he hadn’t brought home a band of Bedouins, so surprised was Michael. “I did not know your preference on such matters.”

  More reasonably, she said, “You never inquired after the needs of this family.”

  “Yes, well . . .” He turned and started down the hall toward the morning room. “I can see why you wanted a portrait gallery.”

  The family heirlooms were scattered about the hallways, rooms, and the stairway landings. The disarray mirrored perfectly his own feelings for his kin.

  “I suppose we could manage with only a few windows, but anything less than a dozen will shout the news that our straits are dire. The embarrassment will be devastating.”

  Her selfishness troubled Michael. Rumor would be the only evidence that the Elliot purse had grown short; she dressed in the latest styles. Today she wore a morning gown of pale green silk with outrageously wide panniers trimmed in golden tassels and bows. Her towering powdered wig played host to a real bird’s nest complete with a feathered occupant. The creature looked so real, he expected to see sparrow droppings splatter her bare shoulders at any moment.

  Michael chastised himself for the unkind thought. He’d never establish a foundation for affection between them if he continued to judge and malign her for circumstances beyond her control. Henry managed—or mismanaged—the family assets. She was a powerless mother, dependent on the sons of her clan. Assurance was what she needed. “I’m certain our circumstances will improve.”

  She sighed painfully. “Oh, when will Henry be free to come home and make sense of it all?”

  Michael felt her anguish and rose to the occasion. “I plan to go to Fife and see what can be done about the coal concerns. I have some experience with commerce.” He’d actually commanded thousands of workers building roads and shoring up dikes before the monsoon season, but he worried that his mother might view his volunteering that information as bragging.

  She looked up at him, but her gaze flitted away. “Wouldn’t your time be better spent with that reprehensible MacKenzie girl? Twenty thousand pounds of ready cash is what we need. She and her father did promise it. If Henry is to be held accountable for a wager he innocently made with a corrupt duke, His Grace of Ross should be made to own up to an honorable agreement made with decent people.”

  Her convoluted rationale baffled Michael, and his first impulse was to defend Sarah, but then he remembered her angry words.

  Trouble yourself no more, Michael, on the matter of my betrothal to your brother. I’d rather give myself to the church than wed Henry Elliot.

  “Are you listening, Michael?”

  At the reprimand in his mother’s voice, Michael returned to the present. “You’ll get the dowry money only if Henry marries her.” Even as he voiced it, Michael discarded the notion. In spite of their angry parting, he still wanted Sarah for himself.

  He would face her father and demand the dowry only when he had the right, as Sarah’s husband, to do so.

  His mother grew vindictive. “We’ll get the money. You just wait and see.”

  “Mother,” he said patiently. “Do not expect Lady Sarah to rush to London soon to speak her vows over a gaming debt.”

  She glared up at him. “I ask you, Michael. Whose fault is that? Henry wooed her once. Surely you can champion his causes. You are his brother, and although you haven’t his wherewithal, surely you can make an effort.”

  He felt like a servant charged with a duty for which he was unprepared. Or was he oversensitive? He didn’t know. Stretching the truth seemed wise. “I’m actually a stranger to both Henry and Lady Sarah.” He almost added, “and to you,” but just the thought made his mission appear impossible.

  “Yes, you have been away from civilization for a very long time. Young women today have improper ideas about the formality of making a match. I counseled Henry against offering for her in the first place.”

  She had an odd way of putting it, considering the size of Sarah’s dowry. “What precisely did Henry offer for her?”

  “Our good name and legitimate heirs. He even agreed to those silly stipulations of hers.”

  Oh, Sarah, he thought, for a woman with such noble ideas, you’ve a way of stirring up the devil’s own wrath. “What stipulations?”

  “Lot of ridiculousness.” Lady Emily paused to scrape a piece of wax from one of a pair of standing candelabrum. “Separate properties for any daughters she bears. Promises to educate all of the children—even the girls.”

  What would Mother say if she knew that Michael had agreed to share his knowledge of world history with the children in Sarah’s orphanage? The occasion loomed like a patch of calm on a stormy sea.

  She huffed in disgust. “A morning in that woman’s company, and ’tis plain to see why women have no business in the schoolroom, let alone standing at the head of it.”

  Mother’s shallowness chipped away Michael’s good intentions. “Even if Sarah passes on her knowledge to the unfortunates of Edinburgh? Surely you can see the benefit in educating the orphans.”

  “Apprenticeships have always sufficed for those urchins. Good, honest work to keep them off the streets and out of our purses.”

  A point to consider, Michael had to agree. In addition to reading and writing, the children needed to learn a trade. “Why haven’t the local craftsmen taken the children in?”

  “I’m sure I wouldn’t know—except to say that she has probably driven off the best merchants with her offensive demands and hoity ways. She expects Henry to give her allowances for her charity work.” Lady Emily shivered with revulsion. “Allowances for books and money for passage home to the Highlands every New Year’s Eve. She even required a holiday in the fall in London.”

  “A holiday?”

  “She has a sister there—and almost everywhere else. Her father is as base as a mongrel dog.” Her mouth snapped shut like a trap. “The rogue, they called him,” she said through gritted teeth. “But I was willing to overlook all of that because Henry wanted the girl.”

  This version differed greatly from Henry’s. The only opinion of the affair they shared was disapproval of Sarah MacKenzie. “My brother actually confessed to you that he loved Sarah MacKenzie?”

  “Love? What a silly notion, Michael. Marriages are made for practical reasons. Although Henry did not take my advice, he knows the value of my experience.” She choked up with tears. “I should like to go to London and comfort him. But we haven’t the money.”

  She needed the comfort, not Henry. Michael couldn’t help offering solace. She was his mother. “I’ll see what I can do.”

  Her mood turned gay, and she smiled. “I’m relieved to hear that. We thought you’d forsaken us.”

  Did she really think that? Odd, since the Elliots hadn’t bothered with him. How could a lad, fostered out early to an estate miles away, be expected to acquire an affinity for those who turned him out? He’d done what he could from Fife and India to foster his own loyalty to the Elliots. As a boy, he’d written to his father every Saturday, as duty dictated. But without reciprocation, the exercise was doomed to failure. And more, the lack of interest in him by his father increased Michael’s belief that as a second son he was expendable. Only in India had he prospered and become his own man.

  “It’s ironic, Mother. You thought I’d forsaken you, and I felt you’d abandoned me.”

  Missing the point, she said, “I’m not condemning you, limited as your prospects must be, but it is about time you contributed to the family coffers.”

  In an absurd way, she was justified in her belief. Not counting honorable service to the crown, what had he ever done for the family except send a little money home? Part of the blame for his estrangement rested squarely on his shoulders, he realized. Telling her of his successful investments would ease the way between them.

  The voice of reason, the voice in hi
s mind that had kept him alive in battle and enabled him to succeed in commerce, spoke loudly to Michael. It demanded to know if purchased approval and acquired loyalty were valuable. He wasn’t sure, but hoping to change the situation, he took the initiative. “I’ll have Turnbull make the arrangements.”

  “Where did you get the money?”

  For lack of anything else, he said, “Where do you think?”

  Her look turned knowing. “The faro table at Trotter’s!” She threw back her head, sending a shower of wig powder onto the carpet. “You and Henry are more alike than I thought. You both were gifted with good luck by my family. The Fletchers have a knack for a profitable wager.”

  Losing fifteen thousand pounds of someone else’s money and insulting an influential peer in the process could hardly be termed a profitable wager. An error in her logic, but Michael saw no reason to point out that he and his brother were as different as rock and glass. Instead, he smiled benevolently and tossed one of her own insults back in her face. “I can see to your passage and other necessities. Will two hundred pounds be enough carrying-around money?”

  She did not miss the sarcasm, for her lips tightened. “Now that that’s settled, I have a surprise for you. Henceforth you will style yourself Viscount Saint Andrews. There’s no property or money with it. The title belonged to your grandmother’s father, but I think you should have it, Lord Michael.”

  He’d been addressed as “sir,” or “general,” or simply, “Elliot,” for so long, Michael wasn’t sure how he felt about the title. “I don’t know what to say.”

  “You needn’t go on about it, but I think you owe me an explanation for your actions regarding the customs house. You had no right to buy that building and then give it away. I’m appalled.”

  She spoke as if his money were hers. Outrage threatened to rob him of composure, and he had to struggle to maintain a civil demeanor. How dare she speak to him as if he were an ungrateful son living on her patronage? “Did the mayor tell you I plan to call it Elliot’s Haven for the Poor?”

  “I care not if you put pearly gates at the front of it. You should have spoken with me first. I forbid you to put our name on a charitable institution, especially when we have no money. Henry is imprisoned. Every shilling should be pledged to remedying that sad state of affairs. He is the heir and deserves all of our attention.”

 
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