Authors: Guarding an Angel
GUARDING AN ANGEL
“I cannot understand why you are making such heavy weather of this, Gideon,” Lady Amelia Bradshaw said. “Eustace is not going to kidnap me and wed me at pistol point, you know.”
“You think not? He’s a damn—dashed loose screw, Amy. And rumor has it that he’s so deep in debt, he must either marry a fortune or flee to the Continent to escape his creditors.”
“Well, he is the Duke of Doncaster, after all. Even for Eustace, marrying money should not be too difficult now.” Amelia tried and failed to smile. Until four months ago, the title of Duke of Doncaster had belonged to her father, a man Society loved for his good looks and sporting skill and admired for his many charitable works. Amelia had loved him, revered him, and devoted her life to helping him in his work.
Though Gideon seldom spoke of his feelings, Amelia knew his love and gratitude for her father were boundless. During a time when she found it difficult to speak of a loss that was so profound and so new, she had turned to Gideon in part because she knew he shared her sense that the world had somehow been tipped off its axis by the duke’s death.
Her father’s title had descended—the perfect word, Amelia thought—to Eustace Mannering. And while Eustace appeared to be merely an affected and useless dandy, as harmless as he was silly, Amelia knew her father had never trusted his heir.
“Has he tried to take possession of any of the estates?” Gideon asked, unconsciously clenching and unclenching his hands. He was not used to having difficulty controlling his temper. But from the very first day they met, the urge to protect and defend Amelia had burned in his breast. He would have disliked anyone who took the duke’s place, and in effect drove Amelia from her home. But he had always despised Eustace. It was all he could do to refrain from driving his fist through the library wall at the thought of the new duke.
“Well,” Gideon said again, his voice as hard as iron, “has he?”
“He has informed me that he has no wish to inconvenience me, but he will establish himself at the Abbey after the first of the year. He and his mother will be spending Christmas here.” Amelia’s voice was colorless, and she sat quietly, pale and steadfast in her black woolen gown. But her eyes, stormy with emotion, betrayed her.
Gideon knew that the idea of Eustace taking over her father’s title and estates must be gall and wormwood to Amelia, but she gave no outward sign, except for those passionate eyes.
“He is going to spend Christmas here? With you?” Gideon demanded. “With whom for a chaperon? His mother? That archwife!” He surged to his feet and went to stand in front of the fireplace, where he kicked the logs until they fell apart in a shower of sparks.
“Please, Gideon, it does no good at all to rant and call names.”
Her tone was one of a nanny scolding a recalcitrant charge. Instead of resenting it, Gideon gave her a lopsided grin. She had always scolded him that way. It was difficult for some people to take Lady Amelia Bradshaw altogether seriously. She was tiny, with a curvaceous figure and a wealth of sunshine-colored curls. Her eyes were large and sky blue. She even had dimples. Gideon, however, had learned early in their acquaintance that she had a will of iron and a formidable intelligence.
“You still talk to me as if you harbored no hope at all that I would ever reform and curb my temper!” he said with a chuckle.
“And indeed I do not.” She tried to smile at him. “I only want you to see that I am not going to weep and faint and fall into a decline because of Eustace. Papa would never forgive me were I to do so.”
“As if you could ever do anything so poor-spirited! No, no, Amy, I am angry with the fates, not you! But I think you are over-sanguine about your cousin.”
“Second cousin,” Amelia reminded him.
“Thank God. The farther removed from you he is on your family tree—and in your life—the happier I will be. Can you not go to one of your friends in the country for Christmas?”
“I have been invited to a few of the quieter house parties. Most people do not want a woman in deep mourning at their gatherings. Besides, if I left London, I would not be able to spend the day with you, Gideon.” Amelia’s smile was brave. “And I was looking forward to it. It is the first time in so very long that you have been in England at Christmas. It would feel almost like the old days.”
Gideon took her hand. “I remember those Christmases, too. We will both be missing the duke. But we will have each other. I’ll make sure I spend Christmas Day with you if I have to take French leave to do it.”
Amelia’s answering smile went a little awry. “Oh, dear, Gideon, I had not meant to weep all over you, but you are my dearest friend and my closest link to Papa. You remember him as well as I do.”
“Indeed, I do.” Gideon rallied her. “I began by being terrified of him, but he gave me a gold guinea and told me that I could always run away again so long as I had it.” He released her hand, but only so he could embrace her shoulders and pull her close against his side. She felt so small and vulnerable that Gideon gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I still have it, you know. It gave me such a sense of freedom and power just to have money of my own.”
There was a silence between them for a few moments. Then Gideon said, “You are not going to stay here for Christmas, are you, Amy? Not with Eustace and his mother in attendance, lording it over the servants and counting the teaspoons.”
“No, the teaspoons are mine,” Amelia reminded him. “You know that. Papa left all of the money and unentailed property to me. That is why Eustace must hang out for a rich wife.”
“So he did. The duke always knew what Eustace was.” Gideon smiled reminiscently. “Do you remember that first Christmas when you brought me here?”
Amelia sighed a little and pulled out of the protection of his arm so that she could see his face. “Indeed, I do. I was so proud of myself and so sure that Papa would commend me for saving you.”
“Instead, we encountered the entire staff at the front door, sure that you had met with an accident or suffered some other catastrophe.” Gideon always remembered that day, eighteen years earlier, when he had come to the duke’s household as the day of his rebirth. He never forgot, however, that it could just as easily have been the day of his death.
Gideon had a double view of life—he always saw it as it was and as it might have been. Luck had played an enormous part in his life. Up to the time Amelia found him, it had all been bad, and he had already acquired the bone-deep cynicism that was still his hallmark. He knew only too well that much of life depended on luck. If yours was bad, the world would make you suffer for it and you could do nothing but endure until the luck changed. And if it was good, it behooved you to temper your joy with the certain knowledge that it could change again in an instant. And the world’s estimate of you would change just as quickly.
“They tried to hustle you off to the kitchen, I remember.” Amelia was still reliving that red letter day.
“And you clung to me like a limpet.” Gideon’s smile was warm. Two people were exempt from his jaundiced view of mankind—Amelia and her late father. They had saved his life, and from that day forward Gideon had sworn that he would lay down his life for them, should the need arise.
He had read of King Arthur and the Round Table when the duke had sent him to school, and he immediately recognized their code as his, and Amelia as his lady. He would stand in the background of his lady’s life, never giving the slightest thought to actually possessing her. No, he would guard, he would protect her with silent devotion. Although he later laughed at himself and his grandiose notions, which were very out-of-date in these modern times, he had never forsworn his vow. He remained, in silence and in secret, the last knight of the Round Table.
“Yes,” Amelia continued, “I was determined that Papa should see what a wonderful deed I had done. I knew he would recognize you.”
“Recognize me?” Gideon raised his dark winged eyebrows in his typical expression of amused skepticism.
“Yes, of course. I knew you were going to be special. I could tell the minute you opened your eyes.”
Amelia had insisted on this at the time, Gideon remembered. When Somers, the butler, had tried to lead the dirty little urchin into the back of the house—and from there, Gideon was sure, right out the door and back onto the street—Amelia had resisted.
“No, he must stay here. Papa must speak with him. He is not to be simply fed and sent away.” Even at six, Amelia had a will of iron. And when that did not suffice, she gave the world a melting smile and a limpid gaze. That card always took the trick.
So Gideon had stayed in the drawing room, delighted that he had won out over the starched-up old stick, as he’d thought of Somers then. He remembered being too afraid to sit down.
“You were the most intrepid little thing,” he said, amazed as always at the lion’s heart hidden beneath the kitten’s surface. His memory of the little girl tended to superimpose itself on the reality of the woman. When he looked at her, he was sometimes unsure of which he was gazing at.
“Gideon.” The sound of Amelia’s voice did not immediately draw him from his reverie. For a moment he was suspended between past and present, some of the emotions of each swirling in his heart and brain.
“Look, Cook has made you your favorite currant scones, Gideon.”
Their homey fragrance drew him back to the present. He smiled apologetically at Amelia and sat down opposite her, watching as she poured his tea. “You reminded her to do so, Amy. Cook always swore I would eat the duke out of his dukedom.” He grinned at her. “It would have been porridge for me and not too much of that if not for you.”
“In any event, here they are and you must eat several so as not to hurt her feelings.” Amelia handed him his cup and prepared to give him a scone as well.
Gideon was just taking his first sip when the knocker at the front door sounded. Somers appeared in the doorway moments later. “Mrs. Mannering has called, my lady.”
“Oh, never mind.” The shrill voice came from the doorway as well. “As if she would not want to see me! Really, my good man, you take a great deal upon yourself, indeed you do.”
With those words, Hortense Mannering, the new Duke of Doncaster’s mother, swept through the door. She took in the cozy room with its well-worn carpet and walls of books and dismissed it with a glance. Her eyes were cold as agates, and Gideon could see her add up the value of everything in the room in less than a minute. Ignoring Gideon as beneath her notice, she smiled at Amelia and bustled over to kiss her effusively. “My dear girl, it is so sad to see you here, all in black, with no one but servants and hangers-on!” she said, her voice dripping honey. “How glad I am that Eustace and I will be able to bear you company for the holidays! I told him that I simply could not bear thinking of you with no family about you at such a time.” Hortense patted Amelia’s hand. “All alone as you are, my poor dear.”
Amelia’s eyes met Gideon’s for a moment of shared, silent laughter. “Have you met Captain Gideon Falconer, Cousin Hortense?” Amelia said sweetly.
“Why, yes, he was at your dear father’s obsequies. Indeed, I believe the captain received a bequest in the late duke’s will.” At the thought of the document that had deprived Eustace of the fortune that should by rights have been his, Hortense’s lips tightened.
“Mrs. Mannering.” Gideon, who had risen when she had entered, gave her a bow. “How pleasant to see you again.”
“Gideon comes as often as his duties permit.” Amelia smiled gently. “And, of course, my friends have been everything that is kind. I have not been alone, you see.”
Hortense gave her another bright, meaningless smile, and sat down in one of the tapestry-covered armchairs that flanked the tea table. “But none of them are
my dear Amelia. Eustace and I want you to know that we will be only too happy to devote ourselves to your welfare. We want you to consider both the Abbey and this house as your homes.”
“Thank you, Cousin Hortense.” Amelia’s voice was colorless, but Gideon noticed that the hands clasped in her lap showed white at the knuckles. “May I offer you tea? And perhaps a scone? Cook makes excellent ones.”
“Yes, my dear, I’m sure your cook is all very well for plain fare like scones. But, really, in a house of this stature, you should have a French chef who knows how to make those dainty little iced cakes.”
“Petits fours,” Gideon said politely.
“I beg your pardon?” Mrs. Mannering’s tone was icy.
“The little cakes. They are called petits fours.” Gideon’s face was without expression. Only his dark, hooded eyes, as bright as a falcon’s and as unforgiving, gave any hint of the murderous anger that consumed him.
Amelia, forced to put up with this spiteful, vulgar woman and her man-milliner son! Cook, who had been with the Bradshaw family practically since her birth, to be fired! He set his teeth and vowed to keep his temper. Usually he had no trouble doing so. His sangfroid was legendary in his regiment, but he had a strong desire to run Hortense Mannering through with a sword, or lacking that, any sharp instrument that came to hand.