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Authors: Donna Lea Simpson

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BOOK: A Scandalous Plan
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“Lady Theresa, what is going on? What was that all about?”

“Just village gossip,” she said feverishly, guiding him toward Mr. Dartelle’s office.

He grasped her arm, stopping her. “What is going on?”

She stopped then and drew herself up. She was tall, eye to eye with him. “Why, nothing at all, Mr. Martindale. Folks are just surprised to see Mr. Gudge looking so good. He broke his leg in a fall some time ago and has not been able to walk since.” She shrugged and repeated, “People are just surprised.”

He had to be satisfied with that and allowed her to guide him to Dartelle’s office, where he had business to conduct.

“I will meet you at the livery stable, sir. I think we have done enough . . . uh . . . well, I think you have
met
enough of the villagers for now.”

Her color was high and he was suspicious, but he could not imagine what she would be hiding.

Dartelle was a portly, prosperous-looking man in his late forties. His hair was thinning on top and his chins were multiplying, but for all that he was pleasant-looking. He greeted James with a vigorous handshake and they got down to business. When it was accomplished, James frowned and sat back in his chair.

“Mr. Dartelle, I have just come from meeting some of the villagers.”

“May I hope that you will be thinking of offering for Meadowlark Mansion? Did they make you feel welcome in our village?”

“Yees,” James said, drawing it out, doubt lingering as to what his recent experience really meant. “Do you know a Mrs. Harriet Parsifal?”

“The widow Parsifal; indeed I do.” He sat back in his chair, resting his hands on his paunch and steepling his fingers. A stray beam of sunlight in the dim office glanced off his balding pate.

“Did she recently come into an unexpected inheritance?”

“She came into an inheritance,” he said cautiously. “But it was hardly unexpected. She has known about it for some time, but she is not one to talk, you know. How, if I may ask, did you come to know about it?”

“It is being talked of in the butcher shop. But it is clearly being spoken of as unexpected, as though she had no idea it was coming and it was some sort of miracle.”

Dartelle shrugged. “Misunderstanding, merely. Things get twisted in the telling, you know. One person whispers, another mishears . . . happens all the time.”

“I suppose,” James said, reluctant to let go of the mystery. He toyed with a seal on the desk, turning it over and over. “If someone had not named my son in conjunction with it, I would not be even mentioning it. But someone said something about Jacob and a visit to Mrs. Parsifal before she learned of the inheritance.”

“Preposterous,” Dartelle said, sitting up sharply, his chair clunking down on the wood floor. “Widow Parsifal knew about the inheritance before you and your children even came to St. Mark.”

There was no arguing with such certainty, so what he heard must be gossip or misunderstanding only. James stood and extended his hand. “Thank you, Dartelle. I will see you again soon. I am still thinking about buying Meadowlark. My concern is my children, but they seem to be getting along much better, thanks to Lady Theresa.”

The other man stood. As he took James’s outstretched hand and shook, he chuckled and said, “That lady is a spark, Mr. Martindale! If she is sponsoring you, you are assured of acceptance in this village. Old family, sir, and an honored one.”

James was tempted—so very tempted—to ask questions concerning the lady’s single state. It was a mystery to him how a woman with charm, family, and money could have remained in her single state. It had to be by choice; there could be no other explanation. Or there could, he supposed, be some tragedy there of which he knew nothing. But he would not expose her to gossip by asking Dartelle.

He left with more questions than he had when he arrived.

Ten

 

 

Two long, wearisome days had passed since she had been in the village with Mr. Martindale. Lady Theresa, accompanied by her maid, could barely summon the energy to control her mare, so it was lucky that the horse knew her own way home. She was so very tired and sad. Helen, her good friend from childhood, had given birth to her child the night before, but it was, tragically, dead. Theresa thought, looking back, that Helen had suspected it; whenever her husband would speak of their coming child, their first to be carried the full nine months, she was silent and occasionally tearful. She may have known she was carrying a dead child; after all, there must have been no movement, and there should have been some.

She was just able to hand the reins of her gig over to old John, who took one look at her and stayed silent, not even asking after the baby, which he normally would do. She had already sent her maid ahead with the order to prepare her bed and a cup of hot tea, and she trudged wearily up to the house alone, her eyes dazzled by the angle of the setting sun and the tears that would not abate.

When she heard the voice she was not sure who it was at first, an error that could only be explained by her exhaustion.

“So, you’re home at last, back from your latest round of meddling!”

She halted, shaded her eyes, and stared. “James!” she blurted, forgetting her usual careful address. She felt a little spurt of happiness that he should be there to greet her, but then his tone rather than his words sank into her weary brain. “Is something wrong?”

“It is. Unless you can explain to me why you made my son into some kind of human lucky charm, a rabbit’s foot to be rubbed when people need a shot of good luck!”

She stared, unable to take in what he was saying. She was so very tired from the devastation she had witnessed, a young family blighted by tragedy, and she could not comprehend this accusation. Tomorrow. She would talk to him tomorrow. “Go away, James,” she said, plodding past him.

“No. You will explain now, if you please!” He caught her arm and spun her around.

She lashed out at him, slapping his hand, tears dried in her sudden fury. “Let go of me, if you please! I said tomorrow. I’m tired. You have no idea what I have—”

“No!” His voice was bitter with accusation. “This is your doing and I will have an explanation! Was it a joke? A hoax? Did you think it was humorous to pull the wool over the eyes of the villagers, even at the expense of my poor son?”

“I wasn’t making a joke of Jacob. That you could even say that . . .” She broke off, no words being adequate to express her anger.

“But what do I really know about you? You have already confided your cynical tutoring of my daughter, teaching her to manipulate others with sweet behavior. Clearly you follow that philosophy. Jacob and I have been your cats’ paws.”

She gazed at him, trying to understand his anger, trying to know what to say, but it was no use. She had seen such sadness, felt such grief; she had no more emotions to feel. She was numb and didn’t care what he said or what he did. “Think what you will. You are now welcome in our village, are you not? People are kind to Jacob, aren’t they?”

James thrust his face into hers and she instinctively recoiled.

“Because they think he’s a bloody talisman! They want him to ensure the harvest, rub their afflicted foot, bring them an inheritance!” His face was red and he looked like he was going to fall down in an apoplectic fit. “I had begun to think the people of St. Mark mad! Everyone we visit wants Jacob to come; they want him to rub their mare’s belly or touch poor old Aunt Mehitabel’s boil! It is disgusting, the way you have used that poor child!”

“Don’t speak to me that way,” she said, trembling. Her limbs were near collapse, her hands shaking as if palsied. The last two days had been a nightmare, and it continued.

Old John came charging out of the stable with a pitchfork in his hands. “You, get out o’ here. If’n I’d known you wus gonna terrorize the mistress, I’da run ya off!”

James stalked away to where his horse stood, calmly surveying the scene. “Lady Theresa, I would ask that you keep your distance from my children in future. If you had some explanation, or if you were sorry . . . But I don’t need their brains poisoned with your nonsense, and I must now find a way to undo the hideous damage you have done to my son by making him some kind of superstitious spectacle for backward villagers.”

Theresa found the energy to run all the way up to her room, not even stopping for her father, who begged to know what was going on. But once in her room, secure with the door locked, the tears still didn’t come. She was utterly spent and fell into a deep sleep, not to awaken until late the next day.

 

• • •

 

“Why doesn’t Lady Theresa come around anymore? It has been days since we saw her.”

James looked up from his desk and frowned at Angelica’s question. “We’ve disagreed on some things, and I feel it is in your and Jacob’s best interest not to see her again.”

“You’re just being hateful,” Angelica said, stamping one foot. “You just don’t want me to have any fun.”

“That isn’t true, and you know it.”

“Then what have you disagreed about?”

“It is adult business.”

“In other words, something stupid.”

“Go to your room,” James said, bending back over his papers.

“No, not until you tell me—”

“Go to your room,” James thundered, rising from his desk and planting both hands on the surface.

Jacob edged into the library and stared at his father. Angelica stalked back, took her brother’s hand and said, “Fine, we’ll go away and leave you alone the way you want it. The way you’ve always wanted it.”

Together they left the room. But Jacob threw one long, puzzled look over his shoulder, leaving his father shaken. James sank back into his chair and buried his face in his hands. His anger hadn’t abated, but his natural good sense had taken over or come back, whichever was the best description. He thought back to that evening several days before. He should have seen how tired Theresa was. Perhaps he should give her another chance at explaining.

What explanation could possibly make up for the mess, he didn’t know. But still—

Tomorrow. He would do it tomorrow.

But the next day left him unsure. He sat in the morning breakfast room and ate toast, chomping through piece after piece, barely aware that he was eating.

Angelica, who normally took her breakfast in the nursery with Dora and Jacob, edged into the room, the sullen look still on her face. It changed a bit, muted by indecision.

“I’m sorry I bellowed at you yesterday, Angelica. I apologize.” James set the toast aside and swung around in his chair, putting his hands on his knees and staring at his daughter. She was a pretty child now that her complexion had cleared some and her frame had filled out from the stick thinness of London days.

“I know why you’re angry,” she said, coming forward. She stood in front of him and stared into his eyes. “It’s Jacob. It’s the trick Lady Theresa played on the villagers.”

“You’re right,” he admitted, surprised into honesty by her perspicacity. “I don’t like it. It’s just as bad as when they thought he was a bad omen, don’t you see that?”

“But she said it would take a long time for people to accept him. Maybe never. This was like a shortcut.”

“I don’t take shortcuts.”

“But sometimes they make life easier, Lady Theresa says. Lady Theresa says that some people are . . . are hidebound and impossible to change, and that you’re justified then in tricking them into something for their own good.”

“That’s a dangerous way to live your life, Angelica.” He tried to put his thoughts into words, struggling with concepts he knew were deep within him, but that he had never needed to voice. “Come here,” he said, pulling her onto his lap like he did when she was a little girl. He hugged her, smelling her hair and her “child” essence. He had forgotten how good it felt to hold his children. Though Angelica was a child no longer. This summer was likely the last time she would seem so. “Maybe Lady Theresa was trying to help, but then, when some of these people don’t have good luck, or if something happens—a cow Jacob touched dies or a person gets sicker—then they could blame him. That will make things much worse.”

She thought about it and nodded. “I suppose that’s true.”

“But beyond that, Angelica, how we live our lives every day makes us who we are. If we trick the people around us into doing things, even for the right reasons, how are we better than folks who trick people for the wrong purposes, to hurt them? And where is the line? We can so easily fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing things for some good purpose when it’s self-interest at work.”

She frowned.

“Look, when you were a little girl, you used to ask for treats for Jacob just because you knew you would get them yourself. You didn’t really care about Jacob, just about getting something for yourself. But I would wager you thought you were doing it for him, at least some of the time.”

There was silence for a minute, and then his daughter leaned her head on his shoulder. “But I miss Lady Theresa, Papa. And Jacob does too.”

“So do I,” he said, realizing it was true. Days were darker. Hours were longer. He set Angelica away from him. “I have to go out,” he said, making up his mind. He had to give her another chance to explain herself. He wouldn’t believe she was careless and unthinking, not when she had done so much good. And he had to explain his own side of things.

Eleven

 

 

Theresa stood, arms wrapped around her gaunt frame hugging herself, staring out the open window across the misty meadows of Leighton. Strings of low fog caressed spikes of bearded purple iris and cornflowers like fingers, waiting to pluck them. When she was a child her mother had told her the mist was magical; if you could feel its touch on your skin it was a blessing from the fairies. And yet, she felt no temptation to go out in it that moment. If Angelica had been there she might have, but not now.

It had been a long few days without Angelica and Jacob . . . and James. Theresa had kept herself busy, but the emptiness in her heart could not be busied away.

She had never seen James so angry, and she couldn’t pretend that she didn’t know what it was about. Somehow the innocent deception she had perpetrated on the folks of St. Mark had gotten out of hand. She had expected it to be a mild diversion, to last just long enough so people could see that Jacob was just a quiet boy, a little different than others but not some evil harbinger of doom.

She had thought that if they could just get over their initial aversion they would come to accept him as he was. Instead, a hysteria had arisen, and many swore now they had seen Jacob charm the animals. What a muddle.

“There’s someone to see you, my dear.” Her father approached her from behind and put his arms around her, giving her a brief hug and releasing her.

That in itself was odd. He was a reserved man. All of the outward signs of parental love she had ever experienced had come from her mother. When Lady Leighton died she had felt so horribly alone. It was only in the last few years that she had reached out to her father, making him submit to her embraces.

“Someone to see me?” she repeated.

“Mr. Martindale.”

“I don’t wish to see him.”

“Don’t be a fool,” her father replied.

“What?” She turned and stared at him, wondering at his unwonted harshness.

“Don’t be a fool.” His eyes were kind, even if his words were harsh. “I have never seen you so sad—or at least not since your mother died—as you have been since your argument with Mr. Martindale. Yes, I know about it,” he said at her surprised exclamation. “Don’t you think old John talks to me? I don’t know what it was about—” He held up one hand as she began to speak. “And I don’t want to, but you miss him and his children.”

“I do.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and stared into her eyes. “My dear, I’ve noticed a change in you this year, even before you met Mr. Martindale. I don’t think this life is enough for you anymore.”

“What are you saying?”

He squeezed her shoulders and released, his arms falling back to his sides. He stepped back from her. “Perhaps it’s time for you to move on with your life and take some risks. You haven’t been up to that challenge. It was all right as long as you were happy, but I think you need more in your life than just me and this house.”

“Are you trying to get rid of me?” Her voice was strange, clogged with tears. She wrapped her arms around herself again, squeezing, fighting back the weepiness that she despised.

“No. I will miss you if you leave.”

“Where would I go?”

“Theresa, my dear, I know you have fallen in love with Mr. Martindale.”

She stiffened. It sounded so bold and foreign coming from her father. A lady did not admit to feelings before the gentleman. “But I can’t just tell him that and say ‘So, let’s marry.’ Can I? And I don’t think he feels the same for me.”

“He’s here now. Go and fight it out, whatever your ridiculous argument was. I think you might be surprised . . .” He shook his head and stopped. “Not my place. I cannot speak for him.
Should
not speak for him. Go,” he said, turning her around and shoving her gently toward the door. “Go and talk to him. He’s waiting in the morning parlor.”

James heard her come in and turned from his perusal of the view. His first thought was that she looked even more gaunt than usual and pale. Not the laughing, happy woman of a few days before by the stew pond.

And he remembered the evening of their confrontation, when she had been coming from her friend’s home. She had been distraught, it seemed to him. Previously she had spoken of her friend’s situation as a happy one, but childbirth was risky.

“I neglected to ask you the other evening, how does your friend do? Is she well?”

“She lost the baby,” she said, and then turned her face away. “Their little boy was born dead.”

“Oh, my God, Theresa, and then I badgered you . . .” He moved forward without thinking, and before he knew it she was in his arms. “I am so sorry,” he whispered into her hair, rubbing her back with one hand. He felt her shudder, her whole body convulsing, but when she lifted her face and moved away from him her eyes were dry.

“You didn’t know,” she said, her voice soft.

He gazed at her and took in a long breath.

“How are Angelica and Jacob?” she blurted out, twisting her hands together.

“Fine. Just fine.” He frowned. “No, that’s not true. Angelica misses you horribly and Jacob has withdrawn again. I try so hard, but he doesn’t respond to me sometimes. He shrinks away when I try to touch him.”

“You want so much
from
him and
for
him. I think he senses that and it frightens him. Just relax in his presence and let him be who he is.”

“Do you think that will help?”

“I know it will. You’ve done it before, you know, without effort. He loves you so much, even though he can’t say it.”

“You have such a natural way with him,” James whispered. “The children have missed you. I’ve missed you, too.”

“Have you?” Her voice was soft and breathless.

He had to keep himself from moving back to her and taking her in his arms again. It had been so natural before, but it wouldn’t be that way again. And there were problems.

“I cannot condone what you did, Theresa. You made my son into a talisman, some unnatural fairy charm. It is wrong. Either people accept him the way he is or they can go to hell.”

She smiled, not the reaction he was expecting.

“You may be right,” she said with a rueful tone. “But let me at least explain my reasoning. You must know, first, that I would never do anything to purposely hurt either Angelica or Jacob.”

“I know that,” he said. “I was angry the other night, and I was wrong to imply that you would.”

Her expression softened, and his heart thudded. She had felt, in his arms, as if she belonged there, and that was an alarming thought.

“Thank you. I have never had a man apologize to me before. What a novelty!”

He laughed. She always managed to make him laugh.

But then her whimsical smile died and she turned away. “I have been realizing how foolish I was. You are right and I was wrong. Jacob deserves more than just to have people want to use him.”

“I know your intentions were good—”

“But hell is paved with good intentions.”

“Johnson said that.”

“No, he rephrased it, merely,” she corrected. “It is an old aphorism.”

“Good God, a bluestocking!”

She laughed, a burbling sound that rose from her like a bubbling stream. “Would you sit, James? I hate standing and speaking of serious things. I’d like to explain.”

His name on her lips sounded right and he took in a deep, shaky breath. There was something between them, this unlikely woman and himself. Guided by her motion, he moved to a sitting area by the window, a bow window overlooking the garden path. He waited for her to sit and took the chair closest to her.

“My mother told me this story. Once, there was a young girl who married a very handsome gentleman, an eminent peer of the realm. She didn’t know him very well, but he was kind and soon she found that she had fallen in love with him, and he with her. But the people of his village didn’t understand her well because she was dreamy and odd, and she sometimes pretended to hear voices and see visions, just for fun. People began to speak of her as if she was possessed. It was rumored that one Midsummer’s Eve she stayed out all night, and everyone knows that dancing with the fairies on Midsummer’s Eve leaves a person fairy-charmed. Or mad.

“But then one day she visited a farm where the child was sick and there was no money for the apothecary to visit, nor for medicine even if he did. The family was proud and the young wife knew they would never accept charity, not even to save their child. It was a hard kind of pride. So she invented a distant relative for them and had the town’s solicitor deliver to them an ‘inheritance.’ She enjoyed so much giving these people the money anonymously—and saving that child’s life, perhaps—that she did other things, and accidentally a legend was born. She became a good omen.”

James nodded. He thought he saw now how that had inspired her to use the same methods for Jacob. “That lady was your mother. Did she ever regret what happened?”

“No. Eventually people came to love her for who she was, and I think most folks eventually understood that she was behind folk’s good fortune, but not in any supernatural sense.”

“And you thought to do the same with Jacob?”

Theresa leaned forward. “Only at first! I thought to use Harriet Parsifal’s inheritance and Albert Gudge’s healed leg, just to make people open their hearts to Jacob as Mr. Gudge did. I knew once they got to know you all, they would love you.”

James considered how best to say what he needed to say. He cared too much for her to want to hurt her. “Did you never consider that if things had gone wrong they would blame Jacob? It could have turned very bad.”

“I realize that now,” she said, gazing out the window. “It was wrong to try to recreate artificially what had occurred naturally with my mother. How could I have been such an imbecile?”

“Theresa,” he said, leaning toward her and taking her hands in his. “I know you did not do this cavalierly.”

“Do you? I don’t. I didn’t even think of the consequences, James! I just went ahead and did it. Even when a good and trusted friend, the reverend, warned me away from it. I didn’t listen to him, and I should have.”

“At least you did something! I can see now how wrong I was from the start to separate my family from the villagers. It only encouraged people like Bill Johnson and Mrs. Hurst in their vicious lies. If I had joined in village affairs from the start instead of isolating us, things might never have gone so far wrong.”

“You were only trying to protect your children.”

“I should have asked your aid. Why did you enlist Angelica’s help?”

“She is very intelligent and . . . well, devious enough. It was wrong of me. Please don’t blame her; I actually bribed Angelica to go along with the fiction.”

“Bribed her? What did you promise her?”

Theresa grimaced. “A white pony and riding lessons. She so wants to ride, James, but you won’t let her because you worry about Jacob wanting to ride, too. But I think Jacob
could
learn to ride. He has been so much better lately, don’t you think, and . . .”

He did the only thing he could, in the circumstances. He pulled her to her feet, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her.

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