Sixteen – Coming Closer
Struggling for balance, Beth gripped the edge of the desk and prayed her legs would not buckle beneath her. All the blood seemed to drain from her face and the air from her lungs. It should be declared a crime to be so overwhelmingly handsome as Stephen was looking just now, she thought. His proud bearings, his powerful body, his beloved face, eyes as blue as ice on a sunny winter day, eyes scorching hers.
No, she was wrong. Eyes softening suddenly as if … no, that could not be!
Before her incredulous gaze, he bowed deeply to her, taking off his hat, and spoke in a very respectful tone.
“Miss Williams, ma’am. Forgive me for intruding on your privacy unannounced but there was no one about and the outer door stood ajar.”
Somehow she managed to curtsy and allow some sound to escape from her frozen lips.
“My Lord Brixton …”
Her voice broke suddenly when speaking his name, and all air seemed to be lacking in the entire room. His eyes grew darker with concern and he took a step toward her, taking her arm to offer her some support.
“I daresay you need to sit down, ma’am. Here, let me guide you to …”
“No!” In sudden panic, Beth tore herself loose and leaned back against the desk. She could not bear the softness of his tone nor the concern in his voice. It could not be genuine, surely? No, she would not delude herself in thinking he somehow might care for her.
“What are you doing here, my lord?” she said, her voice wavering. “Why have you come? If it is your intention to take away the children, it will only be over my dead body!”
Fenton’s face grew grim, and his mouth became a thin line of disapproval, but he did not move.
“Miss Williams,” he said, his voice rigid with suppressed emotion. “I have no such intention, I assure you. I have no right to take Lily and Oliver away from their legal guardian and I am extremely sorry to have done just that, a few months ago. I will apologize to Mrs Bradley if she will grant me to visit her.”
Beth watched him as he closed his eyes and she heard the distress in his voice when he went on.
“The truth of the matter is, Miss Williams, that I miss them. I have come to love them over the past few months and so has my mother, the dowager baroness. I beg you to listen to what I have come to ask you. Please, hear me out.”
Her heart made a sudden somersault when his gaze bore into hers with burning intensity, all unexpectedly! All Beth could do, was to make a small hand gesture, permitting him to continue.
“My proposition is that you and Mrs Bradley and the children all come to celebrate Christmas at Brixton Abbey – as our guests, that is. My mother has a habit of hosting a small dinner party on Christmas Day for our neighbours and for a few of our estate employees, such as Mr Robinson, my steward and his wife, Mr Tremayne and his wife who run the Home Farm and Mr Darton, my game keeper. After Boxing Day, you will be free to do whatever you like, Miss Williams. So are the children. If they choose to go and live with their grandmother, I will not be opposed to it. If – on the other hand – they prefer to stay at Brixton Abbey, I will ask Mrs Bradley permission to have them be declared my offspring. I fervently wish to give them my name and be their father, Miss Williams.”
She must have heard wrongly, Beth thought. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton, was humbly asking them to come and spend Christmas at the Abbey. He was prepared to give his name to his bastard children and make them legally his. He was even prepared to let their grandmother have the final word.
“My lord,” she croaked, all confusion, “if that is your wish, then I suggest I take you up to see Mrs Bradley. As for myself, I must decline your kind invitation. I cannot, in all honesty, be a guest at Brixton Abbey since I was your employee and left your employment without giving notice. People would talk, and I do not want that. It would be very bad for the children.”
“You did not leave my employment, Miss Williams. On the contrary, it was I who drove you away through my outrageous behaviour, all for which I humbly beg your forgiveness. You too are free to act as you wish, Miss Williams. You can either come back as their governess, should Mrs Bradley deem it suitable that Lily and Oliver were to stay at the Abbey, or you can stay with us during the Christmas festivities as my esteemed guest and friend. After the holy days, you can do as you please. If you wish to find some other employment, I would gladly and wholeheartedly give you the best of references. However, Miss Williams, I would hate to see you disappear from my life forever.”
Beth stared at him, her mind reeling under what she had just heard.
“I … I do not understand you, my lord,” she stammered. “Your … guest? Your … friend? How can that be since I was a mere governess in your house?”
He smiled so sweetly that her heart once again did that strange flip-flop inside her chest.
“Miss Williams, I do not wish to explain anything. I do not want to influence you in any way. Think about my proposition and act accordingly to your conscience.”
He bowed again and left the room, leaving Beth in utter confusion and turmoil.
Stephen watched from his library window as his carriage rolled over the Abbey’s driveway towards the front of the house. While it performed a perfect half circle to round up before the main entrance and came to a standstill exactly on the right spot, he felt a thrill of something stir his heart. His footman opened the door and lowered the steps while extending a hand which was taken by a slender black-gloved hand. And there she was, Beth, his wayward governess, looking up to the windows behind which he was standing. Stephen raised a hand and smiled. She did not respond to either gesture, he noticed. Instead, she followed Raleigh inside. Lily and Oliver jumped from the carriage, all laughter and merriment. They saw him and their voices rang with joy as they waved and shouted.
“Papa! Papa! Oh, Papa, how we missed you!”
That did it. Stephen was suddenly running down the stairs toward the hall where the twins jumped into his arms, and he clasped them close and kissed them! His heart almost burst with joy and happiness. He had missed them so badly … oh, how he had missed them …
“Oh, my dear darlings!” he said in a choked voice, swallowing at the lump in his throat.
Beth had not wanted to come back to the Abbey. It had been Mrs Bradley who convinced her it was best for the children that she did, and Beth knew she had been perfectly right, of course. Lord Brixton’s protection was vital to Lily and Oliver. Nevertheless, Beth had been frightfully worried when she witnessed Mrs Bradley signing the agreement with the baron, in which he granted the children recognition and gave them his name. It was such a final step. Lily and Oliver were not solely family to Mrs Bradley anymore.
However, it was a solid agreement in which Lily and Oliver were established as the baron’s heirs and officially proclaimed his offspring. Fenton had not even demanded that the children live at the Abbey yet expressed the fervent wish that would be allowed to do so by Mrs Bradley if they wanted it. He even offered that Mrs Bradley come and live at the Abbey, should the children wish it. But the old lady had refused, and secretly, Beth felt very relieved. There still would be a place of refuge in case she needed one.
Now, Beth was horribly shaken by what she had just witnessed. Lily and Oliver seemed very fond of Fenton and he of them. She certainly had not been prepared for this and she did not know how to deal with it. Yet, she had another surprise coming when the dowager hurried into the hall and embraced the children with equal fondness and what seemed to be happiness!
While his mother took the children upstairs, Fenton bowed and extended a hand to Beth.
“Miss Williams, allow me to express my joy on seeing you here with my twins. I am so glad you have accepted my invitation. How is Mrs Bradley? Is she settled in her cottage again?”
“Indeed, my lord, she is but she is not well. She caught a nasty cold, a few days ago, and I will need to go and see her. Ruby Merton offered to take care of her but I feel it is my duty to be at Mrs Bradley’s side, just now.”
Fenton nodded, an earnest expression on his face.
“Allow me to escort you there, Miss Williams. We will call on Dr Forrester, who is my personal physician. I insist that he examine Mrs Bradley so that she may receive the best of treatments.”
Beth had never seen him so concerned nor so generous and she hesitated, not sure how to deal with this new attitude of his.
“Please, Miss Williams, give me some credit. Do not look as if I were to have mischief on my mind. Mrs Bradley is not that young anymore and colds can be serious at her age.”
Beth bowed her head in acquiescence and they both left for the village.
When they arrived at Mrs Bradley’s cottage, Ruby Merton could only offer them sad news.