Chapter 40: The Bonds of Family
Ivy ignored the vibrant flowers as she raced past the hemlock hedges and followed the path towards the servants’ quarters. Her blurred vision focused on the humble, but brightly painted white building tucked out of sight behind a line of pine trees.
She almost tripped on the hem of her dress as she crashed through the front door. The polished wooden panels squeaked beneath her shoes as she spun around the corner and slammed into Percy’s chest.
“G-Gus!” she panted.
“Physician Hayes is with him now,” Percy answered firmly as he gently restrained her. “Let him do his work.”
“But—” Ivy fought for breath as she stared past him to where the servants carried out pans filled with black and red rags. “He—he’ll be alright?”
When Percy didn’t answer, Ivy looked up at the resigned expression on his face.
“Gus will be alright!” she repeated. Her voice faded as her legs wobbled beneath her.
Percy caught her against him with a surprised huff. With a resigned sigh, he lifted and carried her into the nearest empty room. Ivy sucked in a shaky breath as he set her down on the edge of a servant’s bed and knelt beside her.
“Hayes is the best physician I know, and the sla—Gus, seems like a fighter,” Percy said patiently. “Only time will tell, but—I think he’ll pull through as long as he has a reason to keep fighting.”
Ivy knew his words were meant to comfort her, but all she could feel was the familiar cold grip of terror laced in the scars upon her back.
‘I’ve just lost Maura. I can’t lose Gus!’
She wrapped her arms around her breaking heart and sobbed against her knees. Percy held her shoulder with quiet yet steady support as he allowed her to weep. When her tears slowed, he sat on the bed beside her and waited patiently.
“I’m—sorry,” Ivy cried as she wiped her cheeks.
“Here,” Percy said gruffly and held out a silk handkerchief. “No need to apologize.”
“T-thank you.” Ivy accepted the token and dried her face as best she could. Servants were not allowed to wear makeup, but for once, Ivy wished she could. Even if she suspected that Percy only had eyes for Maura, he was still very handsome and kind. “Thank you, Lord Percy, for saving him—for bringing him back.”
Percy shook his head and stood up. “Think nothing of it,” he said stiffly. He studied her for a moment as Ivy wiped away the tears that still slid free. “Would you do me a favor, Miss Ivy?”
“My Lord?” She looked up at him, surprised.
“Don’t tell Lady Maura just yet. She won’t be able to receive letters for another three days while she’s in the selection, and—by then, we’ll hopefully have better news.”
Ivy blinked and nodded. “I understand.”
He flashed her a smile of relief. “Thank you, Miss Ivy.”
His smile sent an unexpected painful jolt through her chest. Ivy laughed and lowered her gaze to the handkerchief. “I am grateful she still has you, Lord Percy.”
His brows furrowed as his winter-gray eyes regarded her curiously.
“Forgive me for saying so, my Lord. But I know you sincerely care for Lady Maura. You are perhaps the only person in her corner who does not want something from her. Unlike the Countess.”
“Mother and Lady Maura both want the same thing,” Percy answered slowly. “As for myself—yes, I have an interest in her safety and wellbeing.”
Ivy smiled and nodded as she twisted the handkerchief in her lap. “Of course, my Lord, I only meant—that I trust you to look after Lady Maura.”
Percy stared at her, bewildered, and offered a polite smile. Then with an awkward farewell, he left the room.
A strange sense of gratitude welled up inside Percy as he returned to the manor. While Ivy might be just a maid, she was also the closest person to Maura, close enough to be considered family.
He paused beside the garden path and ran a hand through his hair. The dark-brown locks tinged with red beneath the sun. Percy took in a breath as he tried to place the anxious, but pleasant feeling Ivy’s approval had given him.
‘I trust you to look after Lady Maura.’
Percy closed his eyes and immersed himself in the summer breeze, the fragrance of the garden flowers, and the warmth of the sun climbing high in the sky above him. He smiled, shook his head, and resumed his path to the house.
Russell greeted him inside with a warning look. “Master, the Countess would like a word with you.”
Percy drew in another deep breath and braced himself for the lecture he knew was coming. “Thank you, Russell. I’ll head upstairs. Is Mother in her room?”
“Yes, Master. I was just about to bring up some tea. Should I delay—?”
“Give us a few minutes before coming to the rescue,” Percy said with a wry smile.
“I shall remain vigilant outside,” Russell replied with a shake of his head as he headed towards the kitchen.
Percy climbed the steps and headed down the hall towards his mother’s room. He paused outside the door to smooth out his jacket and noticed a smudge of blood on his cuff. He tucked the stained fabric out of sight and then knocked twice.
Percy cringed at the sharpness of her words. She appeared angrier than he had anticipated. He opened the door and stepped inside, determined to stand his ground.
“Mother, you wished to speak to me.”
Constance rose from her desk with a familiar dossier in hand. She held the stack of papers towards him and then gestured to the chair that faced her desk. “Close the door and sit down.”
Percy’s jaw clenched, annoyed that she or the servants at her command had clearly rifled through his room, but he obeyed her commands without protest.
“So,” Constance almost sang as she reclaimed her seat. “You bought Lord Josiah’s debt and stripped him of his title.”
Percy glanced at the dossier she still held and knew this was not a question. “Yes, I did.”
For a moment, she gave no response, but the frustration and anger that battled beneath her calm composure were beyond his comprehension.
“Did I do something wrong?” Percy asked sharply.
“Wrong?” Constance’s eyebrows shot up to match the pitch of her voice. “Oh, no, my Lord!”
He cringed under the sarcasm that dripped from her scornful lips.
“My son, Earl of Hawthorne, heir to our family’s immense wealth, power, and status. How could such an intelligent, promising, and obedient boy possibly do something wrong?”
Percy looked up as she paused to catch her breath. “Mother, I—”
The dossier of papers shattered against his chest as Constance rose from her desk to tower over him.
“You will return the deed of the Turnbell manor to Lord Josiah immediately. Furthermore, you will return the slaves you took from his household—”
“No!” Percy stood up sharply. “I will not give them back a single crescent!”
“You mean to defy me? Why? Because of your pride?” She snorted. “Don’t think for a second that I don’t understand your true motivation.”
Percy clenched his hands into fists and exhaled slowly before answering. “I simply don’t understand why you’re upset, Mother?”
“Why?” Constance hissed. “You stripped Lord Josiah of his title, which means you stripped his family of their title. Which also means—” She stared at him, waiting for him to make the connection.
“Maura no longer has a title,” he realized aloud and groaned into his hand.
“Now you understand,” Constance observed sourly. “She barely had a title because of her half-blood status. If the palace found out her family had been stripped of their lands and titles, they wouldn’t hesitate to kick her out immediately.”
Percy sighed as he sat back in his seat. “Would that really be so bad?”
He regretted the words as soon as they left his mouth.
“I have warned you,” Constance said with venomous calm. “Not to meddle with Maura’s past or future. You know as well as I do how hard she worked to get to this point. If crushing her family was the only goal she had in mind, trust me, she could manage that without your flimsy attempts to impress her.”
Percy bit his cheek and kept silent.
“But Maura is a woman, which means she possesses something you do not. Something that will enable her to fulfill both her goals and mine.” Constance closed the distance between them, grabbed Percy’s chin firmly, and forced him to look up at her.
“Patience,” Constance said with a pitying smile. She patted Percy’s head, as if he were a child or a dog, and returned to her seat with a weary sigh. “Now go, return the manor and slaves to Lord Josiah with your apology.”
“My what?” Percy snapped.
“I may not be able to teach you patience, but I will teach you to face your mistakes head-on,” Constance replied coldly. “Consider this a demonstration of mercy as the Earl of Hawthorne. The last thing we need is for the House of Lords to think your head has been turned by a half-blood with no title.”
Percy clenched his trembling fists together behind his back as he turned to face her squarely. “I will give them the deed to their manor but not the slaves.”
Constance stared up at him. Her eyes narrowed with silent rage. “Fine,” she relented and waved him away. “But keep your distance from the Turnbell family and Maura once you’ve finished.”
“As you wish, Mother.”
Percy turned and stormed away just as Russell appeared with his tray of tea. Judging by the butler’s unsettled expression, he had probably heard most of their conversation. Percy brushed past him and exited the room.
He refrained from slamming the door—just barely.