The Writer's Block
May 24, 2013, 03:13:34 AM
The Writer's Block
Touring the Continent
A Touch of Velvet - Book 2 in the "Realm" Series
Topic: A Touch of Velvet - Book 2 in the "Realm" Series (Read 542 times)
A Touch of Velvet - Book 2 in the "Realm" Series
February 11, 2011, 10:18:40 AM »
This is an excerpt from the second book in the "Realm" series. Ulysses Press will release the first book, the one I called
A Touch of Gold
, on March 1, under the title
The Scandal of Lady Eleano
r. Book 3 is complete and ready to go, and book 4 is in the draft stage. (Note! This story line deals with "adult" issues of abuse.)
Pretending to need to exercise his legs, Brantley Fowler stretched. “I believe I will take a walk,” he announced to the rest of the men gathered in the tent. Yet, before Bran could take more than five steps in the direction of an adjoining tent, a burly-looking Baloch soldier blocked his path. Without saying a word, the man told Bran to reconsider his choices.
For over a day, Fowler watched as various men entered the nearby tent. He had listened to the girl’s screams and had heard the brutal responses of her attackers. With each cry of pain, Fowler inwardly recoiled–his heart and mind tuned only to the abuse that the girl suffered; and she was a girl, probably no more than fourteen or fifteen. Bran had spied her when a guard walked her to a nearby area where she could bathe. Under Shaheed Mir’s orders, the Balochs had separated her from the other women in the encampment, as if she was a nonentity. Bruises had covered her face and arms, and Fowler imagined the rest of her body held similar maltreatment. However, he noted with interest that even with the physical markings, she had maintained a regal appearance–her body had been abused but her spirit had prevailed. Despite the abhorrent physical abuse she had suffered, his body had reacted to her immediately–coal black hair, sun kissed skin, and hazel eyes–so familiar, stirring something Fowler thought he left behind, but here it was again in this innocent.
“What do you plan to do?” his friend James Kerrington, the future Earl of Linworth, instinctively asked. It was no secret among the Realm members that Brantley Fowler took it personally when a man used a woman for his own pleasure, especially an innocent. Kerrington served as the group’s “Captain,” but he offered no direct orders when it came to a man fighting his own devils, and such molestation was Fowler’s “devil.”
Now, as Bran prepared to make his move, he innately knew the others in the group would support his current action. He noted from the corner of his eye that Gabriel Crowden, the Marquis of Godown, placed himself in a position to attack Mir’s men to his left, and Aidan Kimbolt, Viscount Lexford, to his right. Carter Lowery, Marcus Wellston, and John Swenton remained alert, waiting for Bran’s signal.
“Never mind,” he mumbled, backing away from the warrior. Raising his hands in submission, Fowler shrugged as if to agree with the Baloch guard blocking his way, but in a split second, he struck the man an upper cut, sending the guy reeling with a broken nose.
A heartbeat later, Fowler and Kerrington stood back-to-back, taking on all comers, delivering lethal thrusts after deathly jabs. “I have it,” Kerrington called as he parlayed a broken chair for a weapon. “Get the girl. Take her to the safe house in Bombay.” He shoved Fowler towards the girl’s tent.
Bran did not look back; he knew his friends would give him time to make a safe getaway. At a run, he covered the space between the two tents in seconds, delivering several blows to the mid section of an approaching guard and a chop across the larynx of another.
In the tent, the girl cried as the man posed to find his gratification. Tied to the makeshift bed’s posts, she could not move her upper body. Stripped naked, she had turned her face from the oncoming assault. She no longer fought the invasion of her body–accepting that she would die at one of her attackers’ hands–no longer caring. She possessed no reputation–no dignity; it deserted her when Ahmad Waaja raped her during a drunken fracas. Then Mir declared her marked as a “fallen” woman–actually saying her worth less than a rupee. So, man after man violated her, giving her a rupee for the pleasure of leaving his seed in her body. A cloth sack with over sixty rupees rested on the overturned basket. For two weeks, such attacks occurred several times per day.
Bran burst through the tent’s opening, prepared to stop the girl’s suffering. His eyes adjusted quickly to the shadowed lighting, and he saw the man’s bare buttocks glowing like a lamp in the darkness. Bran sprang forward to encircle the Baloch’s neck, tightening the hold and wrenching it to the side. A loud crack of bones told him the attacker would die momentarily, and Fowler shoved the body aside.
The noise of the fight outside rose louder as he rushed to free her. He grabbed a robe and threw it across her body as he knelt to cut the ropes tying her to the post. “I will have you free in a moment,” his voice came breathy after the altercation. She refused to look at him, ashamed of her exposed body, but he heard a weak whimper of relief when the first rope gave way.
Realizing he had only seconds before the Realm would retreat to their horses, Bran frantically cut at the second rope. Free, at last, he jerked the girl to her feet and draped the robe about her, not taking time to fasten it. “Come with me,” he demanded taking the girl’s hand and pulling her to the opening. She paused only briefly to grab the rupee sack before following his urgings.
At the entrance, he slowed to check for an attack before sliding along the shadows. The girl said nothing, just tightened her hand around his and clutched the robe to her. Bran ran, a pistol in his right hand and his left holding the girl. Reaching the horses, he struck a guard across his head with the gun before pulling the tethering strings from the line, freeing all of Mir’s horses. “Yah!” he shouted, throwing his arms about to scare the animals away. They bucked and scattered in several directions. Then he released the holding ropes for his friends’ mounts. Swinging up in the saddle with one smooth movement, Bran reached down and caught the waiting girl’s shoulders and hauled her up before him.
Without looking back, he kicked the horse’s flanks and took off at a gallop. The girl swung before him, capturing the robe’s belt about her before Bran pulled her closer into his embrace, holding her tightly to his chest. “I have you,” he spoke close to her ear. “No one . . . no one will hurt you ever again!” The girl encircled his waist with her reedy arms and began to cry–sobs shaking her thin shoulders.
The feel of her pain and of her relief touched Bran’s heart. He saved another one. The thought of it caused his chest to heave with its own sorrow. At the hill’s rise, he glanced over his shoulder to assure himself his friends escaped. They escaped in three different directions. In two days, they would meet at the common house in Bombay’s dock district. “Let us see you to a safe place,” he assured the girl before kicking the horse again.
Lady Eleanor leaned back into the soft squabs of the coach’s bench seat. She knew not how long she might have to wait for him, but she would wait as long as necessary. Her driver had given her a look of disbelief when she ordered the coach readied long after most refined women retired for the evening. Now, well past midnight, she had periodically heard his humph of discontent as he shivered with the encroaching fog. However, what those at the posting inn had thought of her traveling the short distance from the inn to sitting outside the men’s club did not bother her. Lady Eleanor had come for him, and she would not return home without him.
Despair no longer lived in her heart; it and misery had died the day her father, the Duke of Thornhill, took his last breath. Now, only a desperate need to finish what she had started existed. Eleanor’s pride swelled. She had survived–she had overcome the piercing loneliness and the chaos of the last few years. Unconsciously, she fumbled in her reticule for the letter. It was too dark to read it, but knowing it was there reassured her within a few hours or even a few minutes, the searching would be over.
Her shadowed eyes surveyed the establishment’s door once again, praying it would open, and he would be there at last. Nerves and stress had ridden with her tonight, and a faint trembling shook her being. Would she even recognize him? “Eight years,” she whispered to the night, and the night responded ominously, “Nearly eight years may have dimmed your memory. A boy of seventeen and a man of five and twenty must not look the same.” Therefore, she studied each man entering and leaving the hall, looking for the familiar face.
Brantley Fowler absently watched the table’s other players and even those at the surrounding ones. Sometimes men set on manipulating the cards worked in pairs. Although surrounded by players, dealers, servers, and courtesans, he sat in isolation. A raised eyebrow periodically displayed his deference to polite society’s rules. Remote and enigmatic, he demanded attention. Usually a man would need another decade’s experience to control such regard, but no one who ever looked upon his face would doubt him to be anything but a man of action.
He narrowed his gaze. “Do you plan to wager, Sir Henry?” He drawled amusedly.
“I will get to it, Fowler,” Sir Henry’s voice betrayed his attempt at convincing his opponent that his cards were strong enough to justify his bet. Yet, Fowler heard the timbre of a bluff. Instinctively, he knew the hand was his for the taking.
Bran’s eyes darkened, and a decided coolness spread across his features. “I only asked because I wished to be home before dawn. At this pace, we will be lucky to finish the game before your wife comes to root you out.” A smirk played across the corners of his mouth. This was not London; it was a thriving town in Cornwall, and although there were signs of decadence, no one would refer to it as a gaming hell.
Sir Henry tossed away the card and requested another from the stack. Smiling, he had made the wager only to find Fowler’s hand the stronger one. “It appears as if you win again,” Sir Henry grumbled as Fowler gathered his winnings.
He had heard that tone before. Fowler paused giving the man a warning look. “Men have many vices,” Bran spoke with a quiet assurance, “but I limit mine to cards, Sir Henry. I win often, but I also lose. Tonight, however, was not one of those times.”
Sir Henry flustered; he had looked about, hoping the other players might also object to losing to Fowler, but his tablemates diverted their eyes. “I did not . . . I did not mean an offense, Mr. Fowler,” he stammered.
“Of course, you did not,” Brantley chuckled lightly. “It is just the hour’s lateness. It makes enemies of men who can be friends in the daylight.”
Sir Henry nodded. “We are friends, Mr. Fowler,” the apology inherent in the words.
Brantley’s smile showed a confidence he knew the others lacked. “I count you as a friend, Sir Henry. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I believe I will call it an evening.” He pocketed his winnings. Making a polite bow to the table, Fowler picked up his walking stick and headed towards the door. He retrieved his hat and cloak from the hostess and bid the doorman a good night.
Stepping into the intruding dampness and fog, Fowler breathed deeply, clearing his lungs of the cheroot smoke and the smell of stale whiskey. He paused, allowing the night to creep into his blood. But an unusual sight caught his attention: A woman of society descended from a coach parked directly before the club. A footman assisted her, and for a few brief seconds, Fowler found the scene anachronistic. Why would a refined lady be in this part of town–in this town, even–and at this time of night? Then his gaze fell on the livery, and his heart stopped. Nearly eight years ago he divorced himself from any connection to that line. Raising his eyes, they locked on the woman’s face standing before him.
“Brantley?” her voice caressed the air.
“Ella?” The word caught in his throat. “Ella, is that you?”
An elongated second held before she was in his arms. “Thank God, I finally found you.”
Fowler directed Eleanor’s coach to follow his. He could not take her to the posting inn at such a late hour, and his household staff adjusted to his unusual comings and goings years ago. The shock of seeing her on Cornwall’s streets after all these years nearly sent him into apoplexy. Sitting in his favorite carriage’s darkness, amazement became his companion. “Thank God, I finally found you,” she had said. How had he known the woman standing before him was Eleanor–his Ella? The last time he had seen her, she was but thirteen. He supposed it a combination of recognizing the Thornhill crest and the sound of her voice–a voice, which brought back a flood of memories. She did not say why she had come, but Brantley knew: His father no longer lived. That would be the only reason Eleanor would come for him.
In her coach’s luxury, Eleanor rolled towards his residence. She had spent a small fortune finding him, but now Bran could no longer hide from his future. Instinctively, she reached for the letter again. Eleanor had read it so many times that she could repeat it from memory. “From the age of seventeen, Fowler sold his services to various foreign dignitaries. As a youth, he served in different mercenary units–fighting for causes no Englishman would deign worthy; and as a young man, he offered protective services to the rulers of several foreign countries, thwarting the plans of assassins and spies. Reportedly, Fowler nearly died on three separate occasions, as he has a penchant regarding the protection of innocent women and children. His time dealing with the Punjab earned him a fortune. By all monetary standards, Brantley Fowler would be deemed a man of success. He has lived for years in Brittany–yet, the wars with Bonaparte have driven him home. He returned to England nearly two years ago, living in Cornwall.” Now, Eleanor wondered if she could convince him to really return “home.”
The coaches rolled to a halt before a stately, but moderately sized manor on a secluded lane. Eleanor only glimpsed at the house’s exterior: Her thoughts remained on her mission. Within moments, a footman set down the steps, and Bran extended his hand to assist her down. They climbed the few stairs to the entrance, her hand cupped in the crook of his arm.
“Good evening, Sir.”
“Good evening, Mr. Horace.” Brantley’s voice not betraying the angst he felt. “Mr. Horace, I shall entertain Lady Eleanor in my study. Please have someone bring us tea and something to eat.”
Eleanor turned in surprise. “Bran, that is not necessary.” She wondered what Bran’s staff must think of her coming to his home in the middle of the night.
“It is necessary, Ella,” he cautioned. “We are likely to be some time in renewing our relationship.”
Fowler handed Horace his cloak, walking stick, and hat. “I also need the large guest room for Lady Eleanor.”
“Where are your trunks, Ella?” Bran returned his attention to her.
“At the Fin and Fowl.” Not sure what to expect, she finally took a long look at the entranceway. Tastefully elegant in its presentation, the décor reminded her of her mother’s influence.
“Mr. Horace, send a footman to the Fin and Fowl to retrieve Lady Eleanor’s belongings. Be sure to give her coachman proper shelter, as well as housing her coach and cattle in the stables.”
“Right away, Sir.”
“Ella, did your abigail remain at the inn?” He watched her as she scrutinized his household.
“She did.” Her answer relieved his concern. The idea of Eleanor traveling so far alone worried him.
“Be sure the lady’s maid is brought here and housed properly.”
“Yes, Mr. Fowler. Anything else, Sir?”
“No, Mr. Horace. Once those needs are met, please release the staff for the evening. Lady Eleanor and I will have a late breakfast so allow everyone a few extra hours of sleep in the morning.”
“Thank you, Sir. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness. The tea will arrive shortly. I will bring it myself, Sir.”
Displaying his acceptance, Bran simply acknowledged the gratitude with an aristocratic nod of his head. Taking Eleanor on his arm, he led her to his study. Upon entering the room, she strolled to the sofa and settled herself comfortably among the cushions, while he took up residence in an opposing wing chair.
Waiting for a response, which never came, Bran cleared his throat. “You certainly gave me a surprise, Ella. I never expected to see you on The Blue Bull’s steps. I am not sure I would have recognized you without the livery. Your looks have changed from that gangly girl that I used to chase away from my room.”
“Your looks, too, matured. You filled out nicely, Bran. However, your image surrounds me daily at Thorn Hall.” Silence followed her remarks as they both allowed their eyes to assess the person before them.
The butler arrived with the tea, scones, preserves, and seed cakes. He placed the tray on the low table between them. “Shall I serve, Sir?”
“No, Lady Eleanor will serve. See to the other arrangements, and then you may retire.”
“Yes, Sir.” Horace made his bow, exiting the room and closing the door behind him.
Eleanor poured them both a cup before she spoke again. “I suppose you know, Bran, why I came,” her voice barely above a whisper.
“I suppose I do.” Bran placed the teacup down on a side table before seeking the brandy decanter from his desk. “I believe I will need something stronger than tea.” He poured two fingers’ worth, tossed it off, and then poured another. “When?” he began after a long silence. “When did he die?”
“A little over a month ago.” Eleanor’s words held no true regrets. “He really passed nearly two years ago. He was nothing but a figurehead for some time. I have run the estate since he began to suffer from the infirmity of his mind. We kept it as secret as possible.”
“Then why are you here, Eleanor. Surely you do not think I mourn the man? The day I left, I said farewell to Thornhill and all claims I might have. You are welcome to it. If you have the competence to run it, then be at it.”
“If I had a legitimate claim to Thornhill, I would not be here, Bran. I would leave you to your life. I understand you amassed a substantial fortune on your own. My reports say you live the life of a rake–gambling and women being your products.”
He cautioned, “Eleanor, bitterness does not play well for a refined lady.”
She barked out a laugh. “Then you deny the reports? Are you more, Brantley, than what your critics say?”
“How I live my life is my business,” he charged. “I have just told you, I hold no desire to claim Thornhill. Take it and do what you will.” He strode to the chair and flopped down, ignoring what he did to his clothing.
“Bran, when you walked away from Thornhill, you also walked away from me and from Velvet. You left us to survive on our own. Excuse me if I resent having to ask you to return home; yet, I have no other choice. Our father left the estate entailed upon the male line. Even though it has been mine to oversee from the age of nineteen, I cannot succeed. The estate and title are yours.”
“I do not want it, Eleanor!” He leaned forward to make his point. “I want nothing that once belonged to our father–not the title–not the estate–not the position–and not the money!”
“Then you will leave Velvet to Cousin Horton’s touch. Shall you leave Horton the estate, the title, the money, as well as the girl you once promised to marry? I suppose he will allow me to continue on as Velvet’s companion, a poor relative. Imagine a duke’s daughter in such a position. Will that not set tongues wagging?”
The mention of Velvet Aldridge’s name brought a brief smile. He had wondered about her forever. When he had lain on a muddy battlefield in those early years, it was Velvet’s innocent face, which kept him alive–kept him going. However, he had betrayed her–betrayed her with a need to never be like his father. Decidedly, Bran had placed his memories away on the shelf, never to disturb them again. “Velvet surely does not expect my attentions after all these years?”
“We purposely did not discuss Velvet’s hopes since before father’s illness, but I seriously doubt she expects anything from you, Brantley. You were seventeen when you swore to love her forever–Velvet was not yet twelve. If she holds any such delusions, she does not openly speak of them, and truthfully, our cousin does not need your regard. Velvet has turned out quite lovely. If father’s illness did not prevent us a proper coming out, we both could be established elsewhere, and Thornhill’s fate could be someone else’s problem. However, father’s lifestyle only allowed for his own needs. Cousin Horton is five and twenty years older than Velvet; he suffers from gout and rheumatic spasms. Worse than that, the man’s reputation for debauchery far outshines father’s. Will you leave her and me to such a fate? Horton will run through the money within a year. We will be destitute, and we will be subject to the same kind of profligacy Father brought daily into our lives.”
Bran flinched from the memories. “Tell me how he died.” His words sounded far away, even to him.
Ella assumed a practiced control. “Our father, according to the official story, suffered from pneumonia and never fully recovered.”
Bran’s eyes searched her face. “What is the truth?”
“Frankly, his lust–his licentious lifestyle brought him the diseases, which killed his desire while eating away his mind. He spent the last two years in a bed, often restrained or medicated to keep him from hurting himself or others. Ironic, is it not? I mean, that he ended up confined to his bed.” A rueful chuckle escaped her lips. “When he had a lucid moment, I convinced him to sign his name to page after page of paper. Then I ordered what the estate needed, with his signature to verify it to be our father’s wish.”
“You were very resourceful, Ella.” Bran meant it as a compliment, but her body language told him she heard it differently.
Before he could explain, his sister interrupted. “Do you realize, Bran, that I no longer have any friends? Do you remember how many young ladies used to stay with us for weeks on end?”
“Of course,” he added quickly. “Sometimes the number of bonnets and ribbons floating up and down the grand staircase overwhelmed me.”
“Father put an end to those friendships. He began by intruding on my time with our visitors. He would feign being interested in what my friends discussed or what they did. Then he would try to lure the girls alone–in a hallway–in a private room. Once I saw him touch Jane Breckington’s breast. He simply reached over her shoulder and caressed it. I was outside the room. Jane ran from him, nearly knocking me over; her terrified countenance still haunts me. Father simply laughed when he espied me standing in the doorway. Jane and my other friends left that day. They never returned; they never spoke to me again. They knew what type of man our father was.”
Bran heard the sadness and the loneliness. “I am so sorry, Ella. When I left, I should have taken you and Velvet with me.”
The insensibility of his words did not change his sentiment. He could not, in reality, have taken the girls with him; his fortune had yet to be made. However, his sister’s hoarse reply sent a shiver down his spine. “If you think, Bran, I forgive you for leaving me at Thorn Hall–to care for myself and to protect Velvet–you would be in error. You have stolen my childhood as much as father stole yours. That is something for which I will never forgive you.”
Her charges put him on the defensive. “I did what I had to do. If I stayed at Thorn Hall, I would have killed him with my own hands. I wanted him dead. God forgive me, but I wanted him dead!”
“And you think I did not wish him the same fate?” The sarcasm dripped from her mouth. “Yet, unlike you, circumstances forced me to stay and make something out of nothing, and I will not see everything for which I sacrificed turned over to the likes of Horton Leighton. I do not deserve it; Velvet does not deserve it; the people who depend upon Thornhill for their existence do not deserve it.”
Bran walked to the fireplace, stirring the embers and rekindling the fire. Artificial warmth radiated into the room. “From what you said earlier, Ella, you do not seem to believe my return would benefit Thornhill either. What did you call me? A rake? How would my lifestyle be different from our father’s or Horton’s?”
Eleanor finally allowed her eyes to meet her brother’s gaze. “You do not want the title, but it is yours. You may claim it and leave Thornhill to my care. As I did with father, I could act in your stead when it comes to the estate. You would be free to continue your lifestyle in London as a member of the ton. Town life surely holds more appeal than Cornwall for a young man. You would have a house and access to all the pleasures you desire. The title would open doors currently closed to you, and I could remain at Thorn Hall.”
“You thought this through,” he added with a renewed admiration for his sister’s intelligence. “Horton has no idea how persuasive you can be.”
“Then you will agree?” Eleanor’s voice jumped in anticipation.
“I will agree to think on it. I suggest we retire for the evening. After a good night’s rest, we will speak more of this. I never make such a momentous decision on such short notice. You will stay with me a few days, Ella, and then I will decide what is best for us. Come, I will show you to your rooms.”
For a few fleeting seconds, Eleanor started to object to his delay, but she knew the Fowlers never allowed anyone–friend or foe–to force them into making a decision. Instead, she lowered her eyes and allowed him to lead her to her private quarters. “Thank you, Bran,” she murmured.
“I am pleased that you are here, Ella.” He caressed her cheek. “I have missed you terribly.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “Besides I have someone to whom I wish to introduce you.” They were standing outside her suite. “Good night, Ella.” Bran turned the handle and waited for her to enter the room. “I will see you at breakfast.” With that, he was gone.
* * *
When Eleanor entered the morning room, she found Bran already seated at the table. Several newspapers lay folded and pressed beside his plate. He stood upon her entrance. “Good morning, Eleanor. I hope you slept well.” The footman held her chair.
“I did, Bran. Thank you for such an exquisite room.” She accepted the tea the server had placed before her.
“You deserve the best, Ella. What may I bring you from the sidebar?”
She smiled brightly at him. “You may choose. I wish to see if you remember some of my favorites.”
“I am pleased to see you smile at me,” he added, glancing over his shoulder at her. “After last night’s conversation, I feared you would be disputatious.”
“I was simply exhausted,” Eleanor added quickly. “Although you have given me no real answer, I trust you to make a fair decision; I will wait for you to do so.”
Bran’s eyebrow shot up with interest. “I have not chosen yet, Ella,” he cautioned.
“I know, Bran, even with your faults, you could not be a Fowler without a sense of honor.”
“How can you say such things? Obviously, our father, a Fowler, possessed no honor.” Bran filled her plate with coddled eggs and slices of ham.
“Our father was, generally, the exception to the rule. But even William Fowler had his moments. Besides, look at our grandfather and our great-grandfather,” she assured him.
Bran gave her a conspiratorial smile. “Then I shall strive, dear Ella, to do the honorable thing.” He placed the plate before her.
“That is all I ask, Bran.” She turned her attention to the food. “You did remember.”
“You are my favorite sister. Of course, I remember your eccentricities,” he teased.
She laughed lightly. “I might point out that I am your only sister.” Yet, she did not argue; she found it comforting to know Bran still thought some things about her. When he had left, and she had heard nothing from him, Eleanor often considered how much it hurt that he had not loved her enough to stay–that she was expendable to him. But hope flickered, and images of contentment crept into her thoughts as she watched with interest while he picked up the paper again, thinking if she could convince him, this could be her life: sitting with her brother and enjoying the conversation. “May I ask what you are reading?”
Bran reluctantly put the paper down. “I have business interests stretching from London to Scotland. I hope to gleam some hint as to which investments to push first.”
“What sort of investments? I understood you made your wealth as a soldier of fortune?” She held the fork suspended in the air.
Bran’s eyes frowned although the rest of his face stayed the same. “It is true that when I left Thornhill with no money to purchase a commission of my own, I sold my services to the highest bidder; yet, I have not participated in such activities for many years. I prefer to earn my money by investing in schemes others see as fantastical. I see the future. I invested in mining advancements, for example, which the Welsh implemented, and it brought me a fine return for my money.”
“Interesting,” she murmured. “Maybe you will have some suggestions to make Thornhill run more efficiently.”
“Maybe I will.” His voice took on a teasing tone, but before he could say anything else, a noise from the hallway interrupted them.
“Papa.” A petite, dark-haired child came scrambling through the open door and crawled onto his lap.
He clasped the child to him in a tight embrace as the girl planted a wet kiss on his waiting cheek. “Hellion, what am I to do with you?” he feigned displeasure as he placed her on her feet. “How many times must I remind you a lady waits to be announced before entering a room?”
“I am sorry, Papa.” The child’s chin dropped, and her bottom lip came out in a pout.
“Do not pretend innocence with me, Child,” he half-heartedly cautioned. “I am on to your ways of twisting me around your finger.”
“I do not do it on purpose, Papa.” The child’s lip began to quiver.
Bran reached out his hand to caress her chin, cupping it in his palm and raising the girl’s face to meet his. “You are too beautiful, my Little One–just like your mother.” He tapped her on the chin with his index finger. “Now, turn, My Love, and make a proper curtsy to our guest.”
The child’s eyes grew in size as she turned towards Eleanor, who sat mesmerized by the scene playing before her. “Lady Eleanor,” Bran began, “may I present my daughter Miss Sonali Fowler.” The child made a quick curtsy before returning her attention to her father. Obviously, Bran had never allowed a woman to enter into his private realm. Although she was too young to express her concern, the girl’s eyes questioned him. He caught her hand and pulled the girl to stand close to his chair, and then Bran lowered his head to speak to her and her alone. “My Sweet, Lady Eleanor is my sister; she is your aunt. There is nothing to fear.”
Again, the child’s eyes expanded. “Truly, Papa?” she gasped.
“Truly, Little One.” His face was at her level. “Lady Eleanor arrived very late last night. That is why we waited until this morning to greet you.”
“What may I call her?” she whispered in his ear, cupping her small hands so Eleanor could not hear.
Bran smiled first at his sister and then at his child. He whispered loudly, pretending to speak only to his daughter, but allowing Eleanor in on his response. “I call Lady Eleanor ‘Ella’; I suppose with her permission you, my Sweetness, might call her Aunt Ella.”
The girl shot a quick glance at Eleanor and watched as the woman nodded her head in agreement. The child’s face lit up with excitement. “I am pleased for your acquaintance, Aunt Ella.” She curtsied again.
“Come here, Child,” Eleanor’s voice cracked with surprise. As bidden, Sonali came closer. “Let me look at you,” she said as she lifted the girl’s chin to take in her full countenance. “You do not favor the Fowlers,” Eleanor finally said without thinking.
“No, Aunt Ella.” Sonali gave Eleanor a full smile. “Papa says I am a small version of my mother. He says I keep her alive with my looks.” The girl turned her head towards Bran. “Is that not right, Papa?”
Bran’s smile did not fade, but his eyes told of the pain in the memory. “You are as beautiful as was your mother.” He swallowed hard, forcing the hurt away. “Now, Little One, you must return to the nursery. You may visit with Lady Eleanor later. She will be spending several days with us. Go at once, and mind Mrs. Carruthers.”
“Yes, Papa.” She nearly skipped to the door before she froze, half in and half out of the room. “Papa, may I take the strawberries with me to the nursery?”
Bran could see her mind working. She looked like Ashmita, but the girl possessed his quirky mind. “Yes, my Little One,” he said at last. “Mrs. Carruthers will carry the bowl to the nursery. Enough delay, be off with you,” he warned.
She bestowed a huge smile on him. “Thank you, Papa.” This time, she did skip. He could hear her light footfall on the staircase.
The girl was barely to the hallway before Eleanor exclaimed, “You married?” She could not grasp the concept.
“Ashmita and I met in the East.” Defensively, he chose to share the story he had told every one of his wife and his daughter. For now, Bran would not share how his and Ashmita’s lives were thrown together. “She was exquisitely lovely, and I fell under Ashmita’s spell immediately. I could not believe she agreed to come with me, but she did. We were together less than a year. Ashmita died bringing Sonali into the world. My daughter was so vulnerable, and I could not keep my child safe and maintain the military connections, so I left my mercenary ways behind and brought my daughter first to Brittany and now here.”
Eleanor appeared stunned. “Your wife was not British. She had no connections.” The statements came out as questions.
Before he answered, Bran motioned the servants from the room. His incredulity rang through his words. “Ours was a love match.”
Eleanor stammered an apology; yet, the situation obviously bothered her. “You are the son of a duke,” her voice barely audible. “I never expected you or any of us to marry for love.”
“I quit being a duke’s son the day our mother died. I became Brantley Fowler, a man without a title.”
His determination left his sister no response at first, but then Eleanor seized the opportunity to push her plight. “Bran, you may choose not to accept your title, but what of your child? Do you have no wish for her to be accepted in society?”
“It was Ashmita’s dearest wish for Sonali to make a valued match. My wife begged me to bring Sonali to England where she might find a place of prominence.”
“I assume your wife meant real society, not this unveracious one you have manufactured in Cornwall. As Mr. Fowler, no matter how much wealth you acquire, the best for which you can hope is Sonali will marry a wealthy merchant and live on the fringes. However, if you come home and assume your title, Sonali is a duke’s daughter–one of the land’s highest positions–her nationality will no longer be an issue. Compound that with your independent wealth and Thornhill’s reputation as a seat of the aristocracy, and your child will be able to name her match. Is that not what your wife really wanted for her daughter?”
The truth of her words ricocheted through Bran’s body; he fought to keep his composure. “Your argument is a sound one, Ella, but I do not know whether I can return to Thorn Hall. There are too many shadows–too many memories of the depravity–too many images of what our father did to all of us.”
“The key words in that sentence are ‘to all of us.’ I want Thornhill to survive despite our father. Return, Bran. Do it for me–do it for Sonali–do it for you–do it for our mother. She would want it so. She suffered much to keep her children safe. Our mother wanted the title for you. Are you willing to throw that away?”
“How many people know I am here?” It was a question he had wanted to ask from the moment he laid eyes on Eleanor outside The Blue Bull.
“I told no one. Those at Thorn Hall believe I took a holiday–took private time to grieve for our father.”
Bran chuckled lightly with her words’ irony–as if anyone would grieve for his infamous father’s passing. “If I refuse to go back with you,” he said at last, “will you tell the others you found me? Will you force me to take Sonali and flee to the Continent or to India?”
She shook her head in the negative. “No, . . . no, I will tell no one. You may continue to exist as Mr. Fowler, investor. Cousin Horton will become the Duke of Thornhill.”
“Thank you, Ella,” Bran said at last. “You have given me much of which to consider. If you will excuse me, I have business to address in my study.” He rose to offer her a bow; instead, he crossed to where she sat. Bending low he kissed her cheek. Softly, he whispered in her ear. “You have grown into quite a beauty, Ella. You remind me so much of our mother; you have her eyes and her hair. I am honored you believe my presence at Thorn Hall could make a difference.”
Last Edit: February 11, 2011, 06:31:52 PM by Regina Jeffers
The Writer's Block
Touring the Continent
A Touch of Velvet - Book 2 in the "Realm" Series
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