Lord Danbury walked out of the room, and Anna could hear him speaking in the hallway. He was answered by their footman, and another male voice she didn’t recognise. Probably the steward; Seb wasn’t going to get another chance to climb out a window, at least not until he got to whatever country house was the man’s destination.
Seb pouted under the shocked stares of his family. “What? You’re looking at me like this is my fault.”
Anna finally found her words; she didn’t need many. “It is.”
“I can’t be out in the hells and not gamble. It’s not my fault the cards always fall against me.”
And yet Lord Danbury had implied he’d tried to lose, that he didn’t want these winnings. Anna shook her head.
Mrs Greenleigh sighed. “And who would you like to blame? Me? You would probably be correct. I’ve always shielded you from the consequences of your actions. Looking back, it would seem that was a mistake. But now you will learn, and I daresay we will learn along with you.”
Seb scowled at that, he’d always hated even a hint of a scold. He spun on his heel and stomped from the room. Next thing Anna heard was his voice raised in protest, while getting fainter, she wondered if the steward was hauling him up the stairs to his room by his ear.
She looked at her mother. “Companion to his grandmother. You seem less concerned than I’d expect.”
Mrs Greenleigh fanned herself. “Essington House darling, I’m becoming the bosom bow of the Dowager Duchess of Bromley.”
Oh. Well, that explained everything. Lord Danbury had just handed her mother High Society on a platter every bit as shiny as the one on which he’d served up Kit’s future.
She smiled at her brother. “And such a hardship for you. Education and a choice of future path. I am so glad you’re not being punished for Seb’s idiocy.”
Kit raised a shoulder. “He’s disposed of the two of us very well indeed. You’re the one who’s bearing the brunt of this though, and it doesn’t sit right.”
Mrs Greenleigh snorted at that, both her children stared. The older woman darted a look towards the closed door, then replied to Kit in a lowered voice. “Lord Danbury is one of the biggest prizes on the Marriage Mart. And your sister has been making eyes at him since her debut. I think it will settle well.”
Anna’s cheeks heated. “Mother!”
Mrs Greenleigh crossed to where she stood and patter her cheek fondly. “Don’t worry darling, it’s only because I know you so well. No one else noticed.”
Kit looked between them, then, clearly consigning the mysteries of women to the box in his head labelled ‘too obscure’. He threw his arms around his mother. “Take care, Mama, and make sure you write to me of all the fancy doings in your new place.”
Then he turned to Anna and wrapped his arms around her. “Just in case we don’t have a chance later. I think he’s likely to pack me off as quick as snapping.”
Anna hugged him back, then embraced her mother. “Do be sure to write to me as well. Or write to one of us, and we’ll forward to the other.”
Kit put in. “Best be Anna first then; she’ll have a Lord to frank her mail after all.”
Seb’s voice began to make itself heard again. Anna raised her brows at the other two and they all moved into the hallway.
He thudded down the stairs, pouting like a thwarted toddler. The head of their family. Anna sighed internally and stepped forward to lay a hand on his arm. “You will write, won’t you? Even if we’re apart, we’re still family and I want to know how you are.”
He sneered. “And have to put up with letters from you and mother all full of your fancy parties and fashionable friends? I’d rather not.”
Anna jerked back, it wasn’t unexpected but it still stung. Lord Danbury appeared on the other side of her brother. “Rest assured, Mr Greenleigh, as soon as your sister is breeding, she will be sent to one of my quieter country estates. I don’t believe in women gallivanting about when they’re expecting.”
Seb threw him a startled glance, then flicked a gaze suddenly full of chagrin back to Anna. She returned it steadily, saying nothing.
His mouth worked for a moment, then he blurted. “I’m sorry Anna. And I’ll try to write when I have anything to write about.”
All she could find in response was a wobbly smile and even that fell away when she felt Kit’s arm come around her. He was only just to her chin but he bore more weight on his skinny shoulders than their big, brawny brother would ever know.
Seb’s gaze moved to Kit. “At least you’ll be alright. You like study well enough. Do something on the sports field though, no one likes a wimpy bookworm.”
Kit snorted. “You mean you don’t. I’ll deal with the bullies, Seb, just like I’ve had to deal with you. Don’t bother writing, I would rather not hear from someone who can’t take care of his own family.”
Seb’s face turned red and he grabbed at Kit, forestalled by Lord Danbury’s large form inserting itself between them. “While this is all terribly entertaining, we are not on stage and you, Mr Greenleigh, have a long trip ahead of you. I suggest you get on with it.”
The large, ruddy man standing just behind Seb nodded. “Just so, Your Lordship. We’ll be off directly.”
He clamped a beefy hand onto Seb’s shoulder and propelled him out of the front door, followed by the maid and the footman, lugging Seb’s travelling chest between them.
Anna watched them, then asked Lord Danbury. “What is to become of our staff?”
He followed her gaze. “Your country servants will remain in place unless they prove incapable. My chief steward has written to appraise them of the change in ownership and will follow his letter shortly, to investigate the estate’s management and condition.”
She persisted. “And our town staff?”
“How many servants do you have here?”
Kit replied. “The bare minimum to maintain appearances. Seb only likes to spend on himself. We have a housekeeper who’s also the cook, a maid, a footman and a groom.”
Lord Danbury nodded thoughtfully. “And your stables?”
Kit said. “Two horses. Seb’s and one Anna and I trade between. We hire a carriage when necessary.”
His Lordship’s eyebrows drew together, Anna glanced at her mother, waving to Seb from the front doorway, then said quietly. “The groom is, um, family of sorts. He insisted on coming with us.”
Kit was more forthright. “James is our father’s base-born son, more’s the pity. He’s a year older than Seb and a better man in all respects.”
Lord Danbury’s only reaction was a slightly lifted eyebrow. He replied to Kit as the servants returned and the front door was closed.
“Have him sent for, then take this time to pack your essential belongings. You have until I have finished interviewing your staff. We will then relocate to my home.”
He addressed Mrs Greenleigh. “You may choose to spend the night here, Ma’am, directing the packing of personal effects and suchlike, or accompany your children and leave the decisions on your goods to someone else.”
Mrs Greenleigh looked torn and Anna hurried to reassure her. “Do what you need to do here, Mama, it’s not like we’re parting forever and you’re the only one who knows what needs to be where.”
The older woman bustled over to them and wrapped both her children in her embrace. “I’m so sorry, my darlings, maybe this will finally mean Seb starts to understand consequences.”
She stood back and straightened her back. “Now, we must make a start. Upstairs with both of you and start going through your things.”
With that, she led the way up the stairs, Kit at her heels, having sent the footman for James.
When Anna would have followed, Lord Danbury stayed her with a hand at her waist. Her shocked gaze flew to his and he quirked that irritating eyebrow again.
“We are to be married in a matter of days, Miss Greenleigh, it would behove you to grow accustomed to my touch.”
Anna felt her cheeks flame. “Did you have a question, Sir?”
“Your advice on the dispersal of your staff. While I will make my own decision, the observations of someone who knows them rather better would be valuable.”
Doing her best to ignore the heat of his hand through her dress, and the thrill at this display of respect, she thought about each of the people in their household. “We’ve been very lucky in all of them. Mrs White, the cook, has been with my mother in various capacities since before her marriage. The maid is a London girl with an ambition to be a lady’s maid. I’d like her with me if it’s at all possible.”
She sighed and moved to the other two. “Peter’s ambitions are similar, he dreams of becoming a valet and did well with Seb after Richards left. He needs training, as does Sarah. I would most like to see either him or James sent with Kit.”
“And this groom of yours?”
Anna shook her head. “Kit was rude, but he’s right. James loves Greenleigh, and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. I wish it was him, rather than Seb, you were training in estate management.”
Her hip felt cold in the sudden absence of his hand. He nodded a dismissal and turned to address Peter, as he emerged from the basement.
Anna made her way up the stairs, deflated and despondent. Was this to be the sum of her future life? Made to feel special for a moment, then dismissed like an over-familiar chamber maid the next?
Her mother was already in her room when she entered, pondering the small selection of dresses hanging in the wardrobe.
She turned as Anna entered. “Oh there you are, darling. I shan’t ask what your betrothed wished to speak with you about.”
Anna managed a thin smile in response. “Nothing of import. He merely wished a little more information on the servants.”
Mrs Greenleigh looked a little disappointed, then returned her attention to the clothes in front of her. “Of course you’ll need an entirely new wardrobe as Lady Danbury. Do make sure you only go to Madame Bouchon. Without me to advise you, you will need to rely on her taste to ensure you’re properly outfitted.”
Anna suppressed yet another sigh. “Yes Mama. I believe I’ll still take these with me, however. It’s going to take a little while for a new wardrobe to be made up.”
“Ahh, yes, that’s true. Very well. Now what of your knick-knacks? What will you take with you? Although none of them are terribly grand.”
Anna closed her eyes for a moment. “Mama, please do not concern yourself. I will take what I believe I will need. I’m sure everything will be taken care of.”
She guided her mother into her room. “Now what of your packing. For you have much further to go, and need to consider the contents of the entire house.”
Her mother paled. “Oh dear.”
Anna patted her hand. “Although it seems Lord Danbury has very efficient servants. I’m sure anything you cannot address in the time before you leave for Essington House will be well taken care of.”
“Oh yes, very good. Could you fetch Mrs White for me, once Lord Danbury is finished speaking with her? We simply must make arrangements.”
Anna went back down the stairs, just in time to encounter James crossing the front hall.
He bounded towards her. “Annie-girl. What’s going on? Are you alright?”
Lord Danbury appeared at the door of the sitting room and Anna guided James towards him. “James, this is Lord Danbury. Seb lost the estate, this house, and my dowry to him last night.”
James drew himself up, jaw clenched and stepped between Anna and this threat to his sister.
Lord Danbury gave him a slight bow. “And finally, I see a man with proper family feeling. It seems your youngest brother is indeed correct.”
Anna laid a hand on James’s shoulder. “All will be well. Please, just speak with him.”
James turned to her, taking both her hands in his, his eyes searching her face, she wasn’t sure what for. Whatever was there seemed to reassure him, and he released her hands with a final, comforting squeeze.
“I’ll listen. But I won’t agree to anything that harms you or Kit.”
Anna smiled up at him. “I know. Go on then.”
James turned and walked past Lord Danbury, into the sitting room. She was rewarded with another of the man’s nods before he closed the door.
Anna shook herself and made her way to the kitchens, calling out. “Mrs White? Have you spoken with His Lordship yet? Mama would like your help in packing.”
Their housekeeper barrelled across the kitchen, catching Anna in a warm hug. “Oh my poppet, and here you are to be Lady Danbury, and me off with your Mama to consort with Duchesses. We’ve been blessed indeed.”
Well, at least someone was unreservedly happy. Anna hugged her back, then chivvied her upstairs to gossip with her mother.
She returned to the kitchen, where Sarah and Peter were conferring, and asked. “What has he said to you?”
Sarah smiled. “Oh miss, he’s given us such choices. We can either find new positions, with a full month’s pay ahead and a good recommendation or take new roles he’s offered.”
Anna looked between them. “And?”
Peter grinned. “I’ve been appointed valet to Master Kit and Sary here is to be your personal maid.”
Anna felt her chest ease. “That’s wonderful, I’m so glad you’re both staying with us. Peter, in light of your new role, could you please go and help Kit with his packing? You know he’ll be loading up his books and leave no room for clothes otherwise.”
She turned to Sarah. “And you should probably come and do the same for me. I’m at a complete standstill over what I should be taking.”
The pair grinned and made for the stairs, skirting around James as he came down them.
Anna raised her brows. “Well, what fate have you been assigned?”
James frowned. “He’s got a hard reputation but I’m starting to think it’s exaggerated. Both you and Kit are well-provided for. Kit’s getting the schooling he dreamed of, and he’s promised me your dowry will be held in trust for the benefit of you and your children.”
Anna dismissed that astounding revelation until she could have time to be properly shocked. “Yes, yes, but what of you?”
James’s smile was like the sun rising. “I’m to accompany his chief steward to Greenleigh with the view to eventually becoming the manager of the Manor estate.”
Anna beamed. “That’s wonderful James, and I can’t think of anyone better suited to properly care for the place.”
James sobered. “And what do you think of Seb’s assignment?”
She glanced at her feet. “I think there’s nothing that will suit him, and he’s going to hate the restrictions such a role will place on him. It will either be the making of him, or he’ll be the ruin of us all.”
James looked thoughtful then said. “You know what? He’s already been the ruin of us all. He can’t do any worse than he has done and I wash my hands of him. So long as you and Kit are well, he can go to hell.”
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