Twenty-five years ago, today, my maternal grandfather died. He was a proud man. A hard man. He was also a man who loved his family–though he had a terrible way of expressing it.
Demanding, and critical, he was also–in his own way–caring.
Your car died? He was the first one to lift the hood and try and fix it.
You left your car running, with your kids in the backseat? He was the first to give you an earful about the dangers of carbon-monoxide poisoning.
You were beat down and exhausted? He’d invite you to grab a chair and sit with him under the apple tree, where he’d peel a Granny Smith and share it with you. You didn’t have to talk–he often preferred if you didn’t–but you could sit there with him listening to the wind whisper in the Maple’s boughs, and the bumble bees buzzing from clover bud to clover bud.
Grandpa inspired Dianna’s father, Edward Marshall, Earl of Ansmall, in My Dear One. I share with you this scene of Dianna and her father, from my second novel, My Own…
Excerpt, My Own, copyright Deborah Small, 2018, all rights reserved.
Mother Mary was snoring softly in the depths of a wing chair, her head angled to one side, the Bible open on her lap. Dianna eased it from her fingers, lifted an afghan from the sofa back and draped it over her, unwilling to disturb her sleep.
She needed it, poor dear. A week on, and she was still not fully recovered from the debilitating illness that had kept her bed-bound on the Olympic.
The elder woman snuffled, wriggled deeper in the chair, but didn’t wake. Smiling, Dianna straightened. And frowned.
When had such deep grooves developed around the Mother Superior’s mouth, and so many silver strands infiltrate the narrow strip of hair visible along the edge of her slightly skewed nun’s veil? Had her hair not been more cinnamon-coloured but two years ago? Her eyebrows, too, were heavily striated with silver.
Feeling oddly bereft about the irreversible changes age was tolling on her mentor and friend, and mildly guilty for not having recognised it sooner, she followed the earl to his office. By the time she closed the study door with a soft click, and faced him, he’d poured a glass of amber liquid. She compressed her lips.
Could he not get through one night without the blasted stuff?
Jake rarely drank anything stronger than coffee. He believed in facing issues head on, with a clear mind. He had told her once, if the time ever came and he needed liquid courage, she should shoot him, because he would rather die than draw strength from a bottle. However, it was not the time for lectures. Even if it was, Papa would never listen.
He never did.
But he would this time. He would listen, or she would—
“Would you like a drink?” He gestured with the hand holding the glass. “This is Chivas, but I have sherry, or brandy if you prefer.”
“I don’t drink.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.” She willed a smile. “Thank you, but I never acquired a taste.”
His forehead wrinkled, as though she had spoken an unfamiliar language. “Then what do you drink?”
“No. Please. It’s after eleven. Let the maid sleep. I’ll be fine. I only want to talk—” She grasped the back of a chair facing his desk, struck by a dizzying flush.
“Sorry.” She swallowed. “I’ve not eaten since this morning. Or slept well in days. I just…need a moment.”
“Sit.” Papa guided her to one of a pair of red-leather chairs facing the fireplace, an ivory chess set on a round table between them.
Eyes closed, and breathing slowly through her nose to disperse the heat and fatigue prickling below her skin, Dianna tugged off her gloves and tucked them in a pocket of her coat, before wresting out of it. Leaned back, she opened her eyes to find the earl on his knees stoking the fire. The coals were red hot. The maid must have added fresh fuel before retiring for the night. It truly was the earl’s habit to return late and sit up.
He stood, returned to the credenza, and a moment later a snifter of topaz-coloured liquid joined the glass of scotch next to the chess set.
“Brandy. For you,” he said as he settled in the opposite chair with a pop of joints. “I know,” he added when she started to protest. “Consider it medicinal in its purpose. It will help ease the tremors.”
“You haven’t stopped quaking since we met up.”
But it was true. She had her hands clasped in her lap, not because she was cold—she wasn’t—but to still the palsy better-suited to someone four-times her age. Focused as she was on finding clues in Papa’s facial expressions and mannerisms, she’d ignored her own conduct.
“Try it,” he said raising his glass to his mouth. “You might discover you like it.”
Another excellent reason to refrain. Yet, as though possessed by a spiteful spirit, her hand unlinked itself from its partner and took up the snifter.
The first sip made her cough and her nasal passages burn. The second was less troubling, perhaps because the first mouthful had numbed her palate. She exhaled, surprised how quickly the alcohol moved through her veins warming her blood, forcing another flush to the surface of her skin.
Setting the snifter aside, she swallowed a couple times to stretch her stunned throat muscles, and then asked, “Where is my husband?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
Yes, he had told her, numerous times in the carriage over from the parliament buildings. Twice again outside on the street, before insisting they carry the conversation inside.
“You must know something, Papa. You must. Your man disappeared the very day I arrived asking questions. And then there’s the woman—”
“You think Buckland’s leaving was my idea? Or that I know this woman? Don’t be ridiculous. I’d no idea you were this side of the Atlantic, until an hour ago. I only heard of your husband’s presence this side of the ocean, after he’d visited with your mother. And I know nothing about any woman. How do you know your husband didn’t meet her here, or arrange to meet her here, and go off somewhere?”
She stared, struck by his tone. Intimation. “Are you implying my husband…left me? For another woman?”
The earl shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.”
The constable in Hereford had hinted something similar, only with far more subtlety, phrasing his suspicion in the form of questions about the state of her and Jake’s marriage, Jake’s mental well-being, and their finances. She’d wanted to club him over the head with her reticule, but a sharp look and soft word from Mother Mary reminding her PC Good would be derelict in his duty if he didn’t ask basic questions, had prompted her to contain her outrage enough to convince the officer she and Jake’s marriage was strong, their finances more than adequate, and his decision to travel to England at her behest. She felt no differently, now.
She pushed forward on the chair. “He did not leave me. He came here for…business. And now he’s missing. The last person he spoke to at Ansmall was your man. Tell me Buckland never wrote you about his conversation with Jake. Mama said she saw him talking to him, and that she’d told Jake you were in London. Was he here?”
“Why would your husband come here when he told your mother he was bound for Scotland?” The earl arched his brows. “Cows. He claimed he was here to look at cows. There are no cows in London proper. Even if there were, I had no time in August to breathe, let alone entertain your husband.”
“Jake. His name is Jake.”
The earl lowered his gaze to his drink, pursed his lips. She glared at the fire, waited for the urge to cry to subside.
Two years, and he still clung to his abhorrence of Jake for protecting her from…him.
“We interviewed every servant left,” she murmured. “No one seemed to know where Buckland went. Most claimed ignorance of his leaving. He never wrote you? Never mentioned Jake? Never hinted that he was planning to resign?”
He continued to avoid her gaze by watching the contents of his glass which he swirled slowly with one hand. The perfect image of relaxed innocence if not for his other hand, which gripped his knee with enough force to turn his knuckles white. He tilted the tumbler to his mouth and finished the whiskey in a single swallow. Lowering his arm until his hand, still holding the glass, dangled over the end of the rest, he stared moodily at the flames.
“He sent a wire. About your husband’s visit. Said he’d scared him off—”
“Scared him off?” She frowned. “Why? Why would he scare him off? He was there to visit.”
“Was he?” The earl locked eyes with her. “Was that his only reason for showing up, to visit? Cows? Cows and a…keen interest in meeting his wife’s family. Particularly, William. Why? Why would he be so interested in my son? What would drive a man to leave his wife and family to cross an ocean, and despite the outbreak of war in the country when he arrives—where prudence would urge him leave immediately and return home to safety with his wife and family, especially a family recently aggrieved after losing a child—he instead detours for an unannounced visit with people he knows look upon him with disfavour? And not only does he expect courtesy and hospitality upon his arrival, but he explicitly requests to see my son, and daughter.”
She’d not looked upon Jake’s visit in such manner. She’d viewed it as a necessary deception—one she’d hoped Mama and the earl would view as she and Jake had decided he would play it: an attempt to breach the discord and resentment separating all of them. Which could have proved a real possibility—provided they’d not had JJ.
And they don’t. A fact that made hearing the earl’s interpretation of Jake’s unexpected sojourn to Ansmall, palatable. Sensible, even. She could see her and Jake’s plan for the disingenuous ploy it was, and appreciate the earl, and Mama’s, unwillingness to entertain it.
Part of her wanted to cling to some justification for her and Jake’s decision, convince herself she’d have not suspected the earl of nefarious intent were roles reversed, but…she’d suspected him, first.
So why then did she believe that she and Jake deserved enhanced consideration?
As though he’d heard, and agreed, with her thoughts, the earl shoved out of his chair and crossed to the credenza. With his back to her, he poured another measure.
She remained where she was, limbs trembling with increased adrenaline charging through her, before belatedly lurching to her feet.
He didn’t move–did not lift his hand from the neck of the Chivas bottle. His other hand pressed flat on the credenza’s polished top and his head bowed, as though he were contemplating a nick in the glossy surface.
“I’m sorry,” she rasped. “I’m sorry I disappointed you. You and Mama. And that I…we. We lied to you.” She stared at his image reflected in the window, angular face smudged to an indistinct oval by the desk lamp’s illumination. She inhaled. “Jake came here to see if…to see if you’d taken JJ.”
With the jerky motion of a marionette he straightened, one vertebra at a time, and slowly spun to face her. His lips were white, and his ice-blue eyes brilliant with disbelief. “Why in God’s name would you think such a thing?”
“I…It was me. Not Jake. I was mad with grief. Out of my mind with losing my…son.” She brought a hand to her chest, hardly able to breathe for the pain. “I overheard Elaina describing how little William looked like my JJ, and I got it in my head….In my head that he had to be here. Had to be…alive. So, I made Jake come and look. Look and see if—” She hunched as sobs tore from her, and jerked when her father’s hand closed on her arm.
“Sit,” he said, directing her back to her chair. She collapsed in it, and folding her arms around her waist, she bowed her head, rocking as she fought for control.
“God’s teeth, daughter,” he whispered. “Why would you ever think I would take your son? I am deeply sorry for your loss. Deeply. And bloody appalled you’d think I’d have anything to do with it, though…I suppose I can, understand it.” She heard a thump signalling he’d dropped into his chair. “I’ve not been the best…father,” he said with careful consideration. “I mistreated you, and for that I am sorry. I suppose I earned your distrust, but I can assure you, Dianna, that I have no idea what has happened to your son, or your husband. Or to Buckland, for that matter.”
She stilled, her limbs and tongue held hostage by the shock of his apology, and, when she finally forced her head up, the damning sight of a single, glistening bead at the corner of his eye.
Anger, she knew. Disgust, reproach, criticism…these types of outbursts, she expected from him. But this…sorrow. Regret. It was nothing she’d have predicted, and recognizing it now was paralysing. She knew not what to do: Look away and give him time to regroup and exhibit an emotion they would both find more comfortable, like anger—or move beyond the past and offer solace and understanding? Her stomach cramped with either choice, so she did nothing.
He must have interpreted her silence as rejection, because he launched to his feet.
“Go to bed,” he said. “I’ll try to locate Buckland. Find out what he knows, if anything. And I’ll reach out to Chief Constable Richardson about the woman in the carriage. Ask him to have his men canvas the entire county for information. I can’t say how long any of this will take, and I cannot guarantee even if found, Buckland knows anything. He was in service to the Queen once, and though I suspended his recall on the basis of age, there’s every possibility his decision to decamp service to me was compelled not by deceitful purpose, but duty, in favour of lending himself to the King.” He put his back to her, and picked up the whiskey tumbler—silent dismissal.
She gripped the chair’s arms.
She’d forgotten Buckland had served. And had hoped to never see—and certainly to never speak—him again. But it seemed she’d have no choice but to spend at least a few minutes in his defiling presence if he was located—and she wished to learn anything more about what he and Jake had discussed. Whether Jake had mentioned going anywhere else, with anyone else, before leaving Ansmall for good. Because regardless of the earl—and PC Good’s—intimations, she knew Jake had not left her for another woman.
She stood, and stiffened her spine to control a palsy of exhaustion and anguish. “Papa?”
He stared at her reflection in one of the windowpanes. She held his gaze.
“Th—thank you,” she said.
His eyes lingered on her a moment, then he looked away and raised the glass to his mouth.
Swallowing a sting of disappointment she didn’t deserve to feel at his refusal to acknowledge her apology—she was no better, having believed the worst of him simply because he’d always demanded more from her than she’d ever considered fair—she collected her coat.
In the hallway, she paused, her face tilted to the ceiling and eyes squeezed shut, as she fought a portent of tears.
Mother Mary’s sonorous exhalations echoed from the front room. Silence throbbed behind the study door. But in the instant before she had eased the door closed, she could have sworn she’d heard the earl rasp, “For what it’s worth, I am sorry, Dianna, daughter of my heart.”
My Own is book II of the Dear One series and continues Dianna and Jake’s love story that began in book I, My Dear One. Both books are available in A Dear One Duo.