My One True Love
Releasing January 24, 2021…
Widowed twice, she’ll never remarry. Rejected once, he’ll never risk his heart again. Never isn’t in Love’s vocabulary…
They had prepared for her the master suite, a massive corner room dominated by a four-post, green canopy bed overlaid with a lighter green coverlet. A small brass and black fireplace promised winter warmth while a pair of Aubusson rugs preserved most of the wood floor’s high polish. Gilded glass sconces affixed to faded gold-and-green-papered walls reflected the daylight bathing the room through dual-aspect, wood-framed windows and glass terrace doors that opened onto a balcony running the width of the room.
“This is it,” Maisie said breathlessly. “This is yours now.”
Yes, through no fault of her own.
Willing a smile to her voice, Margaret asked, “How long have you lived here, Miss Maisie?”
“Since I was born.” Her red brows furrowed with consternation. “Don’t you like it?”
“The room.” Maisie waved a hand. “You didn’t say anything about it.”
Margaret compressed her lips, surprised and impressed by the child’s perceptiveness. Though perhaps on the face of it, her ability to read between the metaphorical lines wasn’t unusual, despite her youth. Unable to read body language, she’d undoubtedly learned to compensate by interpreting what people didn’t say as much as she did their spoken words, tone, and volume. Which meant Margaret needed to be prudent in her speech, and silences, around this child if she didn’t want Maisie to translate her every nuance of emotion.
“I apologise,” she said. “I didn’t mean to seem ungrateful. I was simply more interested in learning about you than the house. But to answer your question, I do like it. It’s lovely.”
“It’s all right if you don’t like it,” Maisie said. “Joe said you might not. He said that you’re an English lady from England who used to live in a grand house there, and that you might not think this house is very grand. Uncle George hated it. Especially this room. He never slept here, even after Great-Uncle Cyril died. He just stayed in his room down the hall.”
“Oh, he did. Well, I see.” Margaret cleared her throat. “Your father is right. And…wrong. I am English and originally from England. But most recently, I’m from…Texas.” She’d almost said “nowhere,” as she hadn’t had a home to call her own since William’s death, unless she counted Sugar Hill. Which she didn’t. Not yet, anyway. “I’ve lived in America for four years. And where your father is wrong is with regard to this house. I think it’s quite grand, and this room is lovely. It’s very spacious, and the view out, of that rear garden…it’s impressive. I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t love this room.”
“Joe and I like the garden best, too,” Maisie said. “It smells heavenly this time of year. Uncle George didn’t like this room because it’s where his mama died. And I’ll be ten in August, so I’ve lived here almost ten years.”
With that, she gestured for the dog to remain in the corridor and strolled nimbly past the foot of the bed to open the terrace doors and saunter out on to the balcony, leaving Margaret to gape after her.
She’d known George’s mother was dead, yes. He’d told her he lost his mother when he was a boy, but he’d not gone into detail, and she’d not pressed him. His reticence to discuss his mother echoed hers when it came to discussion of her mother. She preferred not to relive painful memories and the grief that accompanied them, and she offered similar courtesy to those around her whenever she could. Some knowledge was simply not worth the pain of extracting it.
Swallowing the untidy decay of aged sorrow Maisie’s comments had inadvertently dug up, she lifted off her hat and, leaving it on the bed with her reticule, joined Maisie on the terrace.
It was a lovely, lovely garden.
Walled in by a tall hedge and framed by curving rock gardens flooded with bright blooms and shrubbery, the central lawn was large enough to host a game of polo. At its furthest reaches, a pond was sheltered beneath a broad oak, and to the east, the hedge was cut shorter, providing a clear view of the white cloths stretched over acres of tobacco as far as she could see.
And it was hers. All of it. The garden, the house. The tobacco plants. Even the workers in light-coloured shirts and broad-brimmed straw hats moving amongst the green leaves were ultimately her responsibility to keep employed. Their management she’d leave to Mr. Banner—for now.
Ignoring a surge of impotent angst, she asked, “What else can you tell me about Sugar Hill, Miss Maisie?”
Maisie, holding to the balustrade with both hands, her eyes closed and head tipped back to expose her face to the sun, straightened and turned towards her.
“What do you want to know?”
“Well…how about mealtimes?” That seemed a neutral enough topic to forestall any more startling if well-intentioned revelations from the child.
Her estimation proved right. Maisie rattled off a schedule of breakfast served promptly at eight in the breakfast room, lunch delivered at noon to wherever the master preferred, and refreshments served always on the front porch at four o’clock, with the evening meal at seven, or thereabouts, in the dining room.
“Or that’s how Miss Alma said it used to be,” Maisie concluded, “when Great-Great-Uncle Terrence and Great-Uncle Cyril were alive. She said when Uncle George was master, he preferred to take all his meals in his study when he was here.”
“Did he?” Margaret asked cheerily to mask her growing confusion. Not about George’s preference for eating alone or in the study—he’d carried that habit into their marriage, so it was hardly surprising to learn he’d initiated it here—but about the familial relationship between him and this child. Before she could ask, a knock echoed within the bedchamber.
She returned inside as Mr. Banner and Mr. Rufus entered, Mr. Banner lugging her overstuffed suitcase and hat box while Mr. Rufus carried her smaller bags. After depositing her belongings where she indicated, Mr. Rufus offered a quick nod and departed. Mr. Banner remained.
He glanced at Reba, patiently crouched by the door and looking out at the terrace. “Did Maisie leave?”
“No. She’s—” Margaret broke off and, frowning, stepped onto the balcony, her confusion ratcheting to alarm when she noticed a pair of white, child-sized shoes and frilly socks abandoned on the otherwise empty terrace. “Maisie?”
Heaven. The child was seated on a roof dormer. She had her dress tugged over her knees, and bare feet planted to keep her from sliding off the steep slope.
“Maisie Marie Antoinette. What did I tell you about climbing up there?” Mr. Banner spoke with the cold exasperation of a parent out of patience. Maisie’s mischievous grin faded. She brushed a hand over her skirt.
“That when the new owner got here, I wasn’t allowed to visit the main house anymore without invitation. I wasn’t to climb onto the manor’s roof, or the trellis, or the trees in the yard anymore, either. I’m to behave and not make a nuisance of myself. But you only told me last night, and I…forgot.”
Margaret pressed her lips together. It would not do to undermine Mr. Banner with a chuckle. He was clearly embarrassed, either by his daughter’s actions or by her sullenly exposing his recently changed expectations to his new boss.
Perhaps he feared she would think him irresponsible for allowing his daughter to roam the estate so freely.
Whatever the impetus of the flush darkening his already swarthy skin, it might have surprised him to know she empathised with him. Indeed, she thought him avant-garde.
He trusted his young daughter to handle herself around the estate without constant oversight. That explained her bold and confident nature—and her less-than-subtle rebellion at having her loose lead abruptly cut short. Not that Mr. Banner was unwise in his decision to rein her in.
As someone who’d been born into—and later married into—inherited wealth, she understood how laddered hierarchies worked. Above and below stairs.
While very little changed along the lowest rungs when the new heir assumed control of the grand house, servants clinging to the middle and uppermost rungs were in a precarious position.
A new heir didn’t necessarily translate to a youthful one. So, by the time many ascended, they no longer lived in the family seat, if they ever had, and they arrived at the grand house with a whole retinue that may or may not include a wife and children but almost always included favoured servants. This meant existing servants were shuffled, with the best retained in their positions or receiving a promotion. The less competent or well-liked dropped a rung or three on the ladder. Or they were pushed off altogether. Usually with a reference, but still.
For Mr. Banner, who had, for all intents and purposes, occupied the top rung for a decade, the drop to second rung no doubt precipitated considerable angst. And rightly so.
In theory, his position as second-in-command was in the greatest peril. In practicality, he was the only person she couldn’t easily replace on short notice, the way she might a housemaid or groom.
He had to know that. Or at least she hoped he’d not think her foolish enough to release a seasoned and competent overseer on her first day here. Or even in her first month. Yet, rather than presume he had a lock on his position, he’d prepared his daughter, and presumably everyone else at Sugar Hill, for imminent and immediate leadership changes by adjusting boundaries to reflect that their new employer may not be as congenial or forgiving as their former one.
She liked that. Not that she would admit as much to him. Not when he’d put on her notice the moment she’d stepped on estate ground. However, watching him now, she had to wonder if she hadn’t misread him earlier.
Positioned below Maisie with his hands upraised to catch her should she fall, he exhibited none of the predatory instinct she’d sensed out in front the house but guided his daughter’s sightless and careful progress with precise, clearly audible, and gentle instruction. Not that Miss Maisie seemed to need it.
The lack of hesitance or of fear on her face as she adroitly rolled to her belly to slither over the edge of the roof’s precipice suggested she’d performed this daredevil act—without help—many times. Her father’s patient focus as he grasped her around the waist and lifted her the remaining distance to the terrace was far more telling. And it made Margaret’s throat cinch closed.
Her father had acted with similar gentleness and composure when she’d managed to get her four-year-old self stuck up a ladder when a gardener had left it against the front of house after a morning of trimming ivy away from windows. And though he must have been horrified as he’d looked up from his desk in his first-floor study to see his youngest daughter gaping back at him in terror through the closed window, she couldn’t recall him expressing even a flicker of fear.
Instead, he calmly set aside his pipe on the desk, walked to the window, and eased it up, offering her soft words of reassurance as he leaned out to take hold of her and haul her inside. Then he’d held her in his arms for a long, long time while she sobbed in petrified relief.
She’d forgotten that day until just now. It, like so many of her happier childhood memories, had vanished under a seemingly endless and accumulating landslide of bad news and grievous losses since her eighth summer.
Tucking yet another unspooled memory’s nostalgia away, she willed a pleasant and hopefully neutral expression on her face as Maisie’s bare feet touched the terrace and Mr. Banner gently but firmly turned her to face Margaret.
“What do you say to Mrs. Sweeney?” he demanded in a low voice.
Maisie sank her chin to her chest. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Sweeney,” she murmured. “I shouldn’t have climbed on your roof.”
“Thank you, Maisie,” Margaret said, careful to sound serious despite the imprudent kinship she felt for child.
It was never easy living up to another’s expectations, especially when doing so required one to fit her expansive spirit into a small box of approved behaviour.
“Your father is quite right,” she continued. “The roof is a dangerous place, even for an adult. However”—she offered Mr. Banner a cordial smile—“you are welcome to visit here any time you would like, provided your father is in agreement.”
Maisie straightened, her face lighting. “You mean it? I can come to the big house whenever I want—Oh. I can’t.” Her face darkened. “I have to go to Chloe’s during the day.”
“A friend?” Margaret asked.
“On the neighbouring estate,” Mr. Banner murmured.
“I see,” Margaret said. “Well, I’m sure we can come up with a time that works for all of us—”
“Four o’clock. I’m always back by four.” Maisie grinned. “That’s when Miss Lisette and I take refreshment on the porch with Miss Alma and Rufus.”
“Is it?” Margaret did not look at Mr. Banner, who’d stiffened at yet another of his precocious daughter’s innocent revelations of relaxed protocols. “Well, maybe I could join in, and we could all visit together. What do you think, Mr. Banner? Might we make it an even six for four-o’clock refreshments?”
His cheek flinched, and his callused fingers tensed lightly on Maisie’s shoulders.
“I work ’til six,” he said. “Often later.”
“I see.” She willed a smile. “Well, then, it will be five for four-o’clock refreshments—if you think the others will be agreeable?” she added to Maisie.
Maisie nodded vigorously. “They will. We—”
“Time to go, Maisie,” Mr. Banner said, bending to retrieve her shoes and socks. He handed them to her. “Mrs. Sweeney needs to get settled. Say goodbye now.” His tone, though lacking heat, offered no compromise, so Margaret stifled the urge to ask if Maisie might be permitted to stay longer.
Belongings clutched to her narrow chest, Maisie smiled.
“Goodbye, Mrs. Sweeney.”
“Not goodbye, Maisie. Until tomorrow. Four o’clock.” She held her smile as Mr. Banner offered a straight-faced nod before shepherding Maisie and the dog away.
Closing the bedchamber door on them, she rested her forehead on the carved wood and eased out a shaky breath.
The child’s frank manner and courageous spirit sparked a sense of protectiveness in her. Protectiveness and curiosity.
The man and his daughter were as different as coal and flame. Maisie possessed the bubbly, friendly nature of a well-loved and cherished child, while Mr. Banner seemed…distant. Aloof. Towards her, at least.
Pressing two fingers to the spot between her eyebrows, she massaged the pounding pulse that had not left her since the morning following George’s death, when she’d wakened to the realization it had not all been a terrible dream.
When the ache thumping behind her eyes refused to cease, she dropped her hand in defeat and turned around to stare out at the exquisite garden.
Oh, George, this isn’t right. I don’t belong here. This is your home, not mine.
But she was here. And against every decent thing she believed in, it was now her home.
A flash drew her attention to the elegant walnut escritoire tucked in the far corner beneath the window, and the gold-plated fountain pen laid at an angle on a pad of lined notepaper, sunlight sparking along its length as if to remind her of her promise to write to Dianna the minute she arrived at Sugar Hill.
Grateful for the prospect of something intimately familiar after two days of feeling as wobbly as a giraffe balanced on a wooden raft at sea, she plucked off her gloves, tossed them on the bed with her hat, and crossed to the desk.
The chair’s green-and-gold-striped fabric was faded, but its padded seat was comfortable enough.