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The Maid of Fairbourne Hall(2)

By:Julie Klassen

Margaret smiled as she neared the trio, hoping no one noticed her brazen approach. She willed Lewis to look her way, hoping his face would light up when he saw her. She paused before them and Lewis glanced over, but her appearance brought no light to his countenance. If anything, caution shadowed his dark eyes, at least that was how her insecure soul read his expression. Don’t appear too eager, she reminded herself. A man like Lewis Upchurch was accustomed to desperate women and their desperate mammas throwing themselves at him. She must be careful.

“Miss Macy,” he acknowledged politely.

She nodded at him, then turned her most beguiling smile—she hoped—on his friend instead. “Mr. Saxby. You may not remember me, but I was at school with your sister, Lavinia.”

Piers Saxby was a few years older than Lewis, his features somewhat ordinary. But he invariably embellished his appearance with all the trappings of a dandy: fine clothes, quizzing glass, and snuffbox.

The man’s dull grey eyes lit with recognition if not interest. “Ah, Miss Macy, of course. Indeed, I recall Lavinia mentioning your name.” He bowed, and Margaret dipped a curtsy sure to show off her feminine curves. She hoped Lewis was watching.

But when she glanced back up, her heart fell. For Lewis had already returned his attention to the woman beside him. The very beautiful woman, Margaret now saw at closer range.

Sensing her gaze, Lewis Upchurch cleared his throat and said dutifully, “Miss Macy. Have you met the lovely Miss Lyons?”

Margaret turned to the striking brunette. “I have not had that pleasure.”

“Then allow me. Miss Barbara Lyons, may I present Miss Margaret Macy. I believe you are acquainted with her stepfather, Sterling Benton?”

The woman’s dark eyes sparkled. “Indeed I am. An exceedingly handsome man and most charming too. Do you not find him so, Miss Macy? Why, if he were my stepfather I should never leave home.”

Margaret swallowed the hot retort burning her throat and pasted on a false smile. “I don’t actually think of Mr. Benton as a stepfather, as I was already grown when he married my mother.”

“Quite right, Miss Macy.” Barbara Lyons grinned. “If I were you I should not care to think of such a man as my stepfather either.”

Margaret shuddered at the woman’s innuendo.

“How you must enjoy living in Mr. Benton’s fine house in Berkeley Square,” the woman added.

Margaret noticed neither she nor Saxby showed any sign of leaving Lewis’s side.

“I miss the country, actually,” Margaret replied. “And from where do you hail, Miss Lyons?”

“Ah, you must excuse us, Miss Macy,” Lewis Upchurch interrupted. “For Miss Lyons here has promised me the next dance, and the musicians are even now preparing to play.”

“Oh . . . of course,” Margaret faltered, observing with chagrin that as yet only one musician had returned to his place. “Em . . . enjoy your dance.” She again curtsied and turned away.

It hadn’t been the cut direct, but close to it. Cheeks flaming, she walked toward the door, trying not to hurry, hoping her mortification was not obvious to the milling throngs. Nor to Marcus Benton.

She escaped the ballroom and hastened across the hall to the salon designated as the ladies’ dressing room for the evening. Inside, her friend Emily Lathrop tied a cloak about her shoulders and replaced her reticule over gloved wrist.

“Emily! How glad I am to see you. Are you leaving already?”

“Yes. Mamma has a headache and wants to go home.”

“So do I, as it happens. Might I beg a ride?”

“Of course. But surely your family would—?”

“Oh . . .” Margaret feigned a casual air. “The Bentons are not ready to leave, and I do hate to spoil their evening.”

Emily touched her arm, eyes concerned. “They cannot force you to marry him, you know.”

Margaret arched one brow. “Can they not? I shall hold you to it.” She gathered her shawl and followed her friend into the hall.

There, raised voices from the ballroom drew them back to its doors. Bang. Squeal—wood against wood. An overturned chair slid across the floor. The music stopped, one violin shrieking in protest as the musicians lowered their instruments one after the other, and dancers scattered.

Emily grasped Margaret’s wrist and pulled her into the ballroom. Margaret resisted, not wanting anyone to see her dressed to depart, but Emily ignored her and stepped closer. Both young women craned their necks to see past taller gentlemen and ladies’ feathers to identify the cause of the commotion.

Ringed by the cautious but curious crowd, two men stood, chests out, hands fisted. Both were tall and dark-haired. Lewis Upchurch stood facing their direction, his handsome features sparking with shock and irritation. For one moment, Margaret thought the other man was Piers Saxby, offended at the attention Lewis paid Miss Lyons. But in the next she remembered that Saxby wore evening dress beneath his tricorn hat, while the man facing Lewis wore trim buckskin breeches, tall boots, and a riding coat.

“You are needed at home,” the man growled.

Lewis smirked. “And hello to you too.”


The man’s profile came into view—a black beard obscured his features, making him look twice the pirate Saxby had appeared.

“Temper, temper, Nate. Are these the manners you learnt in the West Indies?”

Margaret gasped. It couldn’t be.

“And what of your manners?” the second man challenged. “Did Father not write and ask you to return home and do your duty?”

Nathaniel Upchurch. Margaret couldn’t believe it. Gone were the pale features, the thin frame, the hesitant posture, the spectacles. Now broad shoulders strained against his cutaway coat. Form-fitting leather breeches outlined muscular legs. The unfashionable dark beard emphasized his sharp cheekbones and long nose. His skin was golden brown. His hair unruly, some escaping its queue. Even his voice sounded different—lower, harsher, yet still familiar.

Lewis grinned. “I am doing my duty. I am representing our otherwise dull family during the important social season.”

Nathaniel glanced around as if suddenly aware of their audience. “Will you step outside to speak with me in private or shall I drag you?”

“You might try.”

Nathaniel grabbed Lewis’s arm, and Lewis lurched forward, caught off guard by the strength of the pull.

Beside her Emily whispered, “Is that Nathaniel Upchurch?”

Margaret nodded.

“But he is so changed. Had he not been arguing with his brother, I should not have recognized him. He looks, well, nearly savage, does he not?”

Again, Margaret managed a wooden nod.

“If I did not know better, I would think him a pirate.” Emily drew in a sharp breath. “Perhaps he is! Perhaps he is the Poet Pirate the papers are full of!”

Margaret barely heard her fanciful friend. Her mind was clouded with a vision of Nathaniel Upchurch as she had last seen him. Eyes wide, pained, and misty green behind smudged spectacles. His thin mouth downturned. Dejected.

Regaining his balance, Lewis shook his arm free. “Unhand me, ape.”

At the insult, Nathaniel slammed his fist into his brother’s jaw. Gasps and cries rose among the frozen guests, heating them to agitated life.

Margaret did not realize she had cried out as well, until Nathaniel’s head snapped in her direction.

For a second he stood there, stilled, one hand grasping his brother’s cravat, his other fisted. Across the distance, his gaze met hers. Margaret sucked in a breath at the intensity in those eyes. Intense not with love or longing, but with undisguised disgust. His thin lips twisted into a scowl, making his long nose hawklike.

If she had thought Lewis’s recent snub painful, Nathaniel’s reaction felt far more cutting, though not a single word had been exchanged. It was as she had feared. He had never forgiven her and could not stand the sight of her.

Margaret turned, snagging Emily’s hand and pulling her away.

“What a brute!” Emily panted behind her. “Are you not glad you rejected him when you did?”

Margaret was relieved. How fierce he looked. She had never before been frightened of him, nor had she imagined him capable of violence.

Margaret paused only long enough to whisper in her mother’s ear that the Lathrops were taking her home, then hurried away before she might object. Distracted as she was by the fight, her mother vaguely nodded. Sterling stood several yards away, his gaze trained on four guests in regimentals escorting the Upchurch brothers from the room.

A married woman could not own

property, sign legal documents or enter into

a contract, or keep a salary for herself.

—the legal doctrine of Coverture, English Common Law

Chapter 2

On the short ride to Berkeley Square, Margaret remained quiet as Emily described the fight to her parents. Her mind was preoccupied, reviewing the disturbing images, the disturbing memories, and her utter failure to achieve her ends.

The stately coach halted before Sterling Benton’s tall, terraced town house, and Margaret thanked the Lathrops and bid them good-night. The groom handed her down, and she walked the few steps to the front door. When the liveried footman opened it for her, she did not miss the crease in his brow at seeing her arrive alone. Perhaps he feared Sterling might somehow blame him for failing in his watchdog duty.