Chapter 30: The Game of Nobility
Percy’s knuckles were bloody when he returned to Hawthorne Manor. Russell offered no comment as he assisted the earl from his jacket and took his hat.
“Is Mother still awake?” Percy asked as he tightened the soiled bandages around his right hand.
“I believe the Countess has already gone to bed, Master,” Russell answered as he opened the coat closet.
“And Mother’s guests?” Percy asked as he headed for the stairs.
“Lady Maura and Miss Ivy are in the garden.”
Percy hesitated on the first step. “This late?”
“I believe Lady Maura wished to spend some time alone with Miss Ivy.”
Percy gripped the stairwell post firmly, then removed his foot from the step. “If the countess asks, I went straight to bed when I got home.”
“Of course, Master,” Russel replied with the hint of a smile as he shut the closet. “These old eyes clearly saw you go up the steps after you arrived home.”
“Good man,” Percy commented with a wry grin. He patted the butler’s shoulder as he walked past the servant down the hallway towards the garden.
The Hawthorne garden was practically formed in a diamond shape with a path for walking that circled around the privacy hedges and split through the middle where it connected at the lily fountain.
Percy followed the path as he loosened his scarf and allowed the evening breeze to cool the sweat along his neck. He heard them before he reached the opening in the hedge wall. The wind carried their voices over the hemlock barrier as he quieted his footsteps upon the gravel and peered around the hedge with a soft smile.
Both ladies were seated beside the water lily fountain. Both dressed far better than when they had left Turnbell Manor. A smile he had not seen before rested on Maura’s unguarded face as she leaned over and plucked a lily from the water.
“There you are,” Maura said as she placed the flower in Ivy’s hands.
“And this has medicinal uses?” Ivy asked curiously.
“Yes, the flower and root can be boiled into a tea,” Maura replied confidently. “It can also be made into a paste or ointment that can treat burns, cuts, and helps prevent scarring.”
“Really?” Ivy asked as she lifted the lily and inhaled. “You know so much about flowers, Miss.”
“I get injured easily, as you know, so learning a bit of medicine was only practical. But you will have to stop calling me Miss now,” Maura said softly. “I’m no longer your Mistress.”
“Then—” Ivy hesitated, “Lady Maura.”
Maura cringed and wrinkled her nose in a way Percy found particularly charming. Then her smile tightened as her eyes shifted past Ivy to hedge behind which Percy was hiding.
‘Ah, well, this was awkward.’
Percy cleared his throat and stepped into view. Ivy turned and hastily scrambled up to greet him. “Lord Percy!”
“Lord Percy,” Maura echoed politely as she curtsied beside her maid. He studied her composed yet guarded face with a flicker of irritation as her ice-blue eyes avoided his gaze with practiced ease.
“Apologies for intruding,” Percy murmured. He casually tucked his injured fists behind his back as he approached. “I was just taking an evening stroll. I trust you’ve both been made comfortable in your rooms?”
“We have, thank you, my Lord,” Maura answered as she rose and quickly pulled Ivy up beside her. “You’re right. It has gotten quite late. We should head indoors, Ivy.”
Percy sighed. ‘Would you stop running away from me at every opportunity.’
“Miss?” Ivy said with a worried glance between them.
Percy watched as Maura’s expression softened, and she took the maid’s arm gently. He marveled at the apparent closeness between them—one that was inappropriate for a mistress and her servant—but reminded himself that Ivy had been one of Maura’s few allies within Turnbell Manor.
“Please,” Percy held up his hands as he took a step back, “Don’t let me spoil your last evening together.”
Ivy’s eyes widened as she turned to Maura, “Miss, you are leaving?”
Maura’s brows furrowed as her gaze shifted from Percy’s bandaged hands to Ivy. “I have to enter the palace tomorrow for the selection,” she explained patiently.
“The selection itself will only take a few days, and when it’s over, I will be a lady-in-waiting to Crown Princess Eleanora, who is soon to be Queen of Lafeara.”
Ivy’s jade-green eyes grew larger still as they swept between Maura and Percy. “Oh, but—”
“Don’t worry, you won’t be left alone,” Maura promised as she brushed Ivy’s hair behind her ear. “The countess will be purchasing Gus any day now, and you will have your freedom in six months along with a place of employment.”
“But, my Lady.” Ivy’s lips quivered. “Will I ever see you again?”
Maura fell silent as a tear fell down the maid’s cheek. Then she stepped forward and embraced the older girl tightly.
Percy, keenly aware that he had blundered into a private moment, turned awkwardly to leave.
“I will visit you at every opportunity,” Maura promised tenderly. “But you must make use of your time here. Write me letters. Learn whatever the countess and her servants have to teach you. Teach Gus to read and write, as well.”
“But who will look after you, Miss?” Ivy asked brokenly.
“I will,” Percy replied without hesitation. He cringed at the absurdity of his claim echoed in his ears, composed himself, and turned around to where both ladies now stared back at him. Maura with a hint of irritation while Ivy all but radiated hope and joy. Percy coughed and quickly added, “The countess and I will be keeping an eye on both of you.”
“Good, that is good,” Ivy exclaimed as she embraced Maura again.
But her mistress’ gaze remained fixed upon Percy, and the message in those ice-blue eyes stung more than he cared to admit. He bowed to her silently and then turned to leave the garden, where he was clearly not welcomed.
Russell greeted him once more at the side door bearing a tray prepared with bandages, ointment, and a bottle of dark wine.
“Thank you, Russell,” Percy muttered as he grabbed the bottle, yanked the cork free with his teeth, and headed for the stairs. “I’m off to bed.”
“Yes, Master,” the butler answered and bowed after him.
Percy kicked his bedroom door shut, then winced as he recalled the countess’s room further down the hall. With an aggravated sigh, he set the bottle down, yanked his scarf free, then unbuttoned both shirt and vest, ignoring the blood he got on them in the process.
He tossed the garments onto the floor then took another drink as he wandered over to the sofa by the window. The sun had yielded its reign to the stars that now gathered across the horizon. Percy observed their twinkling light, distracted as he raised his bandaged hand and untied the knot with his teeth. The scraped knuckles had mostly scabbed over. He flexed his hand gingerly as he recalled the brief encounter with Lord Lennox just an hour ago.
‘To think that strutting pansy thought he could buy Maura as a bride?’
Percy sank into the sofa, kicked off his boots, and lay back with his head against the armrest, ignoring the wine that spilled down his chin as he took another drink.
Percy had gotten more than satisfaction out of old Lennox this afternoon. He had also learned why Lord Josiah had been so motivated to sell Maura without a dowry. The Turnbell Trading Company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Lennox had promised Josiah enough cash to keep him afloat a few more months in return for a quick and quiet marriage to Maura.
‘3,000 crescents, that’s all she had been worth to them?’
Percy took another long drink then set the bottle down on the floor as he studied the crown molding ceiling.
He’d buy out Josiah’s debt first thing in the morning and squeeze more than 3,000 crescents from the Turnbell family before he kicked them into the gutter where they belonged.
A knock on the door disturbed his pleasant plotting, and Percy sat up with a grunt. “Yes?”
“Percy?” Constance’s voice replied gently.
“It’s unlocked,” he answered with a sigh as he slumped back against the armrest.
He glanced over as she entered with the tray of bandages and knew the butler had given him away.
Well, to be fair, he hadn’t asked Russell to keep his injuries a secret. The old man was good at playing both sides of the fence when it came to his Master and Mistress.
“I’m fine, Mother,” Percy said as she nudged his hips.
“The blood on your hands says otherwise,” Constance retorted firmly. “Now, move over.”
With a grumble, he obeyed and cringed as she set the cold ointment bottle on his chest.
“Well,” Constance said as she placed the tray by his feet and wrung out a damp cloth. “Are you going to tell me what this fight was about?”
“It was nothing, Mother.” Percy’s jaw clenched as she took his right hand and dabbed the torn, bloodied skin. “Just blowing off some steam.”
“I thought you’d given up boxing,” Constance murmured as she rinsed the cloth and picked up his left hand. “You know this sort of thing doesn’t look good when you’re competing for a seat in the House of Lords.”
Percy snorted. “As if you haven’t gotten that all laid out for me.”
“Please don’t make light of this opportunity. That seat is vital if we are to maintain our power and support Eleanora’s path as Queen.”
“I know mother, and I love my cousin, but I will fight my private battles when and where I need to.” He hissed faintly as she smeared the cold ointment onto the reopened scrapes.
“You are so much like your father,” Constance murmured.
Percy’s expression darkened, but only for a moment. “Don’t worry, Mother. I inherited your intelligence,” he replied with a cocky smile.
“That’s what worries me.”
Percy raised his eyebrows questioningly, but Constance focused on gently wrapping his treated injuries with gauze. Once finished, she gathered the bloody rags, placed them on the tray, and stood.
“You should know that one of your visitors disturbed Lady Maura while she was alone in the bathhouse,” Constance informed him as she headed to the door.
Percy rose swiftly to follow her. “What happened?”
“Nothing serious,” Constance replied as she opened the door. “Maura was startled, that’s all. But I do wish you would listen to me and steer clear of that coven, Percy. They are dangerous and unpredictable.”
“I will be careful, Mother,” Percy replied. “And I’ll ask them not to intrude on the estate or your visitors while I’m away.”
Percy smiled and kissed her cheek. “Goodnight, Mother.”
“You and Eleanora are all I have left in this world,” Constance said as she touched his cheek tenderly. “And I know you will both do great things for Lafeara.”
She stepped closer as she slid her hand around Percy’s neck and pulled his gaze level to hers. “But remember, my darling, pawns exist to serve and die for their masters. Maura is my pawn. The sooner you accept this and untangle those emotions you think I haven’t noticed, the better. This isn’t a game, Percy, this is the future of our family. If you let a single pawn distract you—we could lose everything.”