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Authors: Audrey Harrison
An Inconvenient Trilogy
Published by Audrey Harrison
Copyright 2014 Audrey Harrison
Audrey Harrison asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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An Inconvenient Ward
This book is dedicated to Sam Gilbert and Christina Gilbert. They have been honest, constructive and cheeky in equal doses and I appreciate their friendship, comments and the laughter that we share along the way. When writing it is vital that an author receives honesty before publishing a novel because it is really hard to work on something for anything up to two years, to find purchasers picking at points that may have been missed. Being smacked around the head before that happens, is actually less painful and hopefully will increase the enjoyment of readers downloading the book.
So, thank you Sam and Chris, I really appreciate it! Lots of love, Audrey.
London. January 1815
Lord Dunham was bored. In fact he was bored, bored, bored. He looked at his reflection in the full length cheval mirror, as he struggled to fix his cravat. Normally this task would not be the ordeal that it had turned into today, so much so that his valet had wisely retreated to the rear of the large bed chamber. He watched in mortification as his master ruined one cravat after another as the struggle to tie one to his satisfaction continued. The pile of creased cravats on the bed mounted, and the sighs and curses increased equally as fast as Lord Dunham reached the end of his tether with his neckwear.
Michael paused and stared at the face looking back at him in the mirror. When had he lost his spark? He had until four years ago been plain Mr Michael Birchall. He was heir to the then Lord Dunham and in fact had been named after him in honour of the family connection. He had not seen much of Uncle Michael as he had grown up, knowing him only as a figure in the background who took a general, but distant, interest in his heir. Everyone, including the young Michael, had presumed Lord Dunham would marry, and produce his own heir and thus he would be disinherited. The expectation had not upset the young man, he refused to miss what he had never had, and he enjoyed the life he had been born to, to the full.
He had spent his formative years in the country. His father was Lord Dunham’s younger brother. He had married young, but an illness of the brain had prevented him taking part in family life. No one spoke about the illness; everyone was reluctant to acknowledge that there was madness in the family. Fortunately, his living in the country enabled such an affliction to be ignored by most of their society.
Michael had an older sister Violet, and, between his sister and mother, he had enjoyed a childhood knowing that he was loved. Once old enough, even though he may have been considered young by an outsider, Michael ran the estate in place of his father, due to his father’s illness. He became master in his own right when he inherited the estate after his father’s death. Michael had had to learn to deal in a matter of fact way with such a curse in his family.
His mother had passed away peacefully when he was in his late teens and he had mourned her loss, but he still had Violet, and the affection between brother and sister increased as their family became smaller. Violet had eventually married a good man, Edward Parker, whom Michael was happy to call brother, and she quickly produced three girls. Michael constantly teased her about needing to provide him with an heir, but she was content with her darlings. Her girls were showered with the same affection that Michael and Violet had been shown as children. She was a natural mother and the most important person in Michael’s life.
When Michael had come of age he had spent his time in the London Season and had enjoyed himself to the full. He was not seen as a great heir; Lord Dunham’s health was good and he was still seen as a good catch by many of the ladies, even some of the younger ones. Desire for a fortune often overcame any reserves that marrying a substantially older man might have caused. So Michael was able to enjoy the entertainments and parties without having any fortune hunters having him in their sights. There was no pressure on him and he took full benefit of the lack of restrictions.
Lord Dunham financed Michael’s Grand Tour and ensured that he was accompanied by a tutor who would instil the ways of a gentleman. So Michael learned and developed on the Continent, returning a finer gentleman than before. His return to London saw him conquer a few more hearts, but never seriously fall in love. He was having too much fun to settle down. If he yearned for family life he spent time with Violet, Edward and their brood.
The week after Michael’s twenty-fourth birthday, his life changed forever. A sudden, unexpected seizure caused Lord Dunham to pass away, long before anyone had anticipated. Michael was no longer just plain Mr Birchall, but the new Lord Dunham. Those who had previously dismissed him as a gentleman of no real importance suddenly wanted to become his friend. His good looks and manners had always made him popular with the ladies, but he now became so popular that he felt hunted.
He was now twenty-eight. Four long years had passed since he had enjoyed a carefree lifestyle. Most days it felt as if decades had passed. At times like today when he really studied his reflection in his looking glass, he hardly recognised the man he had become.
No-one could accuse him of being unattractive; his dark, slightly curly hair fell naturally in all the latest fashions. His skin was pale and unblemished, and his eyes were a deep brown that seemed to reflect his very soul when they were not guarded. Nowadays, only Violet saw them sparkle with laughter or warm with feeling; most of his friends or acquaintances saw the closed expression of a man keeping his distance. Little did they know that part of that reserve was caused by the fear that he would suffer the same fate as his father had. Once madness was in a family, all of its members feared contamination. Every new emotion was examined by Michael to see if it was a sign that the illness had started.
He had taken to managing his new estates seriously. He had had a lot to learn and when he had seen what his life would be once he had inherited the title, he had preferred to immerse himself in learning everything he needed to know about estate management on a huge scale. He had a large estate in Somerset, tucked away but still convenient, as it was within easy reach of Bath. It was the Dunham principal home and was a beautiful Jacobean building that rambled over three floors. Michael had continued the improvements that had been planned, and anyone lucky enough to visit commented that although the property was grand in appearance it was also a comfortable, welcoming home.
A house in Belgrave Square and a hunting lodge in Leicester completed his property portfolio and gave him enough escape to maintain his sanity. Michael had enjoyed the London life as a gentleman about town, but once he had discovered just how little he enjoyed the fickleness that a title attracted, he very often escaped to Somerset, or to Violet’s home in Hampshire. Sometimes, though, he was forced to come to London and this was where he found himself now. Forced to spend the Season in London because of an agreement his uncle had made years ago. It was this that had put him in the foulest mood he had experienced for a long time. Finally, with a sigh, he accepted that he could not put off the morning any longer and went to greet his solicitor, leaving his valet to mourn over the destruction of so many freshly starched cravats.
Michael entered his library, usually a place he enjoyed spending time, but it offered no pleasure on this morning. He greeted his solicitor in his usual brusque way. “Have you managed to find a way out of this mess for me? Any last minute miracles that will spare me spending the Season in this godforsaken place?” They were the same questions he had been asking over the last few months.
“No, your Lordship, the agreement is immutable; there is no way out of it. The only advantage is that it will last a lot less than a year.”
“From my perspective, that is still an inordinate amount of time ahead of me!” came the disparaging reply.
The solicitor was enjoying this meeting as little as Lord Dunham, and answered a quiet, “Quite so.” The quicker all the details could be finally agreed on, the quicker he could return to the sanctity of his office and leave his Lordship to deal with the situation as he chose.
A few moments later the silence was interrupted by the butler who announced a Miss Elizabeth Rufford and Miss Martha Fairfield. Michael had moved forward slightly to greet the newcomers, but the sight before him stopped him in his tracks. Miss Fairfield was obviously a governess or something similar. She was around thirty, dressed in the grey high-necked dress that was the accepted uniform of a governess, finished with a shawl and bonnet. She had a pleasant face and was as presentable as most of her supposed profession were; the sight that had stopped Michael was Miss Elizabeth Rufford.
Bounding into the room was a vision of purple and orange ruffles and feathers. He had never seen anything like it before in his life. Her dress was of the brightest purple and edged in bright orange ribbons and frills. The hat she wore looked too big and had huge purple and orange feathers coming out of every possible surface. Michael could hardly see the person underneath for the curling feathers. The lady’s figure he could not judge because of the amount of frills and ruffles that surrounded her and he could see no hair from underneath the bonnet. No ringlets framed the lady’s face as was the custom, not a hair was visible and for a split second Michael wondered if she was bald. The only redeeming feature was her eyes; they were hazel in colour and sparkled with laughter as she took in the astonishment of the two gentlemen who stood before her.
“Good morning gentlemen, I hope you are well. When will his Lordship be joining us? I hope he is of a strong constitution!” She laughed and Michael wondered how it was possible that her eyes seemed to sparkle even more.
The solicitor started to speak, but Michael cut him off with a glare. He bowed in greeting, but instead of introducing himself he started with a question. “Why does Lord Dunham need to have a strong constitution?” He asked curiously.
“Well actually I hope he doesn’t,” she answered frankly, but with a mischievous smile. “I’m hoping that one look at me will give him a heart attack and then this silly ward thing will be at an end before it has started.”
Michael raised his eyebrows and said with a drawl. “A little harsh, I think Miss Rufford, wishing to murder your guardian.”
“I don’t wish to murder him. I just want to release us both from this nonsense.”
“His Lordship wishes release as much as you appear to do, I assure you.” Michael responded drily, but with feeling.
“Oh, does he? That’s excellent. I thought he might be one who would try and dictate how I should live my life and how I should act. I never wanted a guardian!” she responded.
“I can assure you that your guardian never wanted a ward.” Michael responded with a shudder.
“My Lord, if you please...” the solicitor interrupted, looking uncomfortable.
Michael sighed. “Miss Rufford, my solicitor seems determined to spoil the sliver of fun in this otherwise extremely tedious day. Please let me introduce my solicitor Mr Hammond, and please allow me to introduce myself, Lord Dunham. I am at your service madam.” Michael finished the introduction with a flourishing bow that any dandy would be proud of.
Elizabeth’s eyes opened wide, she looked from one to the other as if waiting for them to announce that it was a joke. Seeing the expressions on their faces she realised that they were serious. “But you are not old!” she exclaimed, finally accepting that she really was faced with the real Lord Dunham.
“Thank you for the compliment, Miss Rufford,” Michael responded coolly. “I don’t consider myself to be in my dotage quite yet.”
“How can you be my guardian? You cannot have studied with my father when the agreement was made. This must be wrong!” Elizabeth’s sparkling eyes had been replaced with eyes that flashed with frustration, something which amused Michael. It was some comfort to know that he was no longer the only one suffering because of the situation.
“I can confirm that I did not study with your father. My uncle, the previous Lord Dunham, was your father’s friend, and he was the one who made the agreement. Unfortunately for us both I have the same name as my uncle, Michael Thomas George Birchall, Lord Dunham. Your father’s will did not specify which Lord Dunham, just the full name, which I share. Believe me, I have had the legalities checked and double checked. Until your twenty-first birthday, I am your guardian.” Michael spoke as if the whole situation bored him.
“Well that changes everything!” Elizabeth responded after taking a moment or two to absorb the information. “It looks like you have been travelling with a grotesque monster for nothing, Martha.” Elizabeth had turned to her companion and smiled apologetically. She took off the hat and threw it down on a seat. “I’m glad to take that thing off; you would not believe the stares I have received whilst wearing it.”
“Oh I think I would Miss Rufford.” Michael replied with a raise of an eyebrow.
Elizabeth laughed. “All that planning for nothing! Oh damn and blast! What am I going to do now?”
Michael was intrigued by the woman seated before him. He had not known what to expect, but she was proving to be more interesting than he had imagined. She had recovered from news that would have mortified any other lady of his acquaintance and instead of swooning away, had cursed as any man would have done. He still was not happy with the situation and needed to draw things together further so they could be efficiently and quickly sorted out. The less time he needed to spend acting as a guardian the better.
“Would you like to accompany me to the drawing room? We can take some refreshments and discuss what you are going to do while in London.”
He rang for tea and led the way into his drawing room. It was a large square room with two large windows, facing onto the street and allowing in as much light as possible. The fireplace was marble and Adams styled, with two pillars at each side of the fireplace. The mantelpiece was decorated with a central urn and with the characteristic vines stretching out across the marble, it was simple, but stylish. Blue and gold patterned wallpaper adorned the walls with matching material covering the sofas and chairs, and the curtains were of a shimmering gold, bringing out the gold in the furnishings. The room was grand, but so understated that it managed to have a light airy feel to it.