Meredith heard a faint knock on her door and paused in unpacking the suitcase that she’d carefully laid on the damask-covered chaise longue in a bedroom she assumed was called “The Red Room.” It was located halfway down the paneled hallway in the mammoth north wing of Barton Hall, and not only was the chaise covered in red silk, but also the fourteen-foot draperies that pooled on the floor, the fabric on the massive four-poster canopy, and the coverlet and large, square pillows gracing the mattress. Burgundy and royal blue Persian carpets—a little threadbare given that they were probably a century-and-a-half old—covered the floor from under the tall, casement windows overlooking the enormous front lawn to the edge of the marble hearth and ornate fireplace.
“Come in,” Meredith called, and immediately the door opened revealing Blythe carrying a tray with two tea cups and a pot covered in a thick, quilted tea cozy. Meredith pointed to the rug beside her bed and ordered Holly to lie down. “Over there, girl. That’s right. Good girl!” She greeted Blythe with a grin. “Wow, what a pile of rocks you live in, Cousin mine! This place is spectacular!”
“The roof leaks in places, and the plumbing’s quite eccentric, but it’s pretty gorgeous, isn’t it?” Blythe agreed, advancing into the room.
Behind her hostess framed by her bedroom door, Meredith caught a glimpse of one of the many statues dotting the corridor outside her room, busts celebrating a number of obscure scientists and botanists that previous Bartons and Teagues admired in their pursuit of bringing exotic rhododendrons and camellias back from India and China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The gardens had flourished since their original plantings and currently provided a substantial income stream to the Hall’s owners when they opened the estate to show off the forty-foot-tall rhododendrons to paying visitors during the spring and summer months.
“Not crashed from jet lag, yet?” Blythe asked, gently kicking the door shut with her heel and putting the tea tray on a mahogany table near the chaise.
Meredith laughed. “I’m fighting it with all my strength, trying to stay awake at least until nine o’clock tonight.”
“That’s what I figured,” Blythe said, chuckling. “Maybe some good strong tea will get you over the finish line.”
“You are the best!” she exclaimed, then sobered. “Did Janet go to sleep?”
“Instantly. Almost finished unpacking?”
“Just about,” Meredith said, “and thank you for assigning me this stunning room. I hope you didn’t evict Richard or someone...”
“Oh, heavens no!” Blythe replied. “We’ve got a dozen more guest rooms where these came from. I’ve put Janet next door to Lucy, with Matthew’s room on the other side and ours next to that, mid-way down the hall. I thought it might be nice to give you a little breather,” she added, pouring steaming tea into two exquisite bone china cups. “Milk? Sugar?”
“Just milk, please,” Meredith said.
“See? You’re getting the hang of being British already. Milk, only, is what we all take here at Barton Hall,” Blythe teased. “Shall we sit over here in front of the fire? Can you believe we still need one to stay warm at night, given it’ll soon be June?”
Meredith sank into one of two red and cream striped slipper chairs positioned in front of the glowing hearth and felt as if a load of hay had just been taken off her shoulders.
“Oh, Lordy, it’s good to be here at last,” she murmured, taking her first sip of the bracing liquid. “You are some kind of saint, Lady Barton-Teague, do you know that?”
“Not at all,” Blythe demurred. “We’re just happy you’re here.”
Meredith almost laughed when she saw Blythe kick off her shoes and tuck her feet under her on the chair, just as her visitor had already done. She pointed at Blythe’s abandoned flats.
“Do you think this is a family trait?” she asked with a laugh.
Blythe laughed, too, and then a somber expression took the place of her smile. “I’ve been thinking ever since I got your call... what a shock it must have been to wake up one morning and discover a child you’d never met was about to land on your doorstep!”
“Shock doesn’t even begin to describe how Dad and I felt,” Meredith replied, taking another sip of tea. “Chris should have ignored Ellie’s will and made you a legal guardian instead of me. I mean, this is crazy! Dad and I had never even laid eyes on Janet, nor had we even met her father before Ellie died!’”
“I didn’t realize that...” Blythe murmured.
“And two days after your sister’s funeral, Chris flew into Jackson in his spanking new jet, left Janet with us, and off he went! I suppose it’s not surprising to say that this kid—born and raised in Beverly Hills—absolutely despised it at the Crooked C and has threatened to run away umpteen times already.”
“Actually, she was born in Africa when Chris filmed In Kenya,” Blythe corrected her about a movie on which Blythe had served as production designer in its earliest stages and won several awards after the couple had split up. “But yes, you’re right. I imagine Janet’s spending eleven years in La-La Land in the Stowe household hasn’t been particularly beneficial to her character.”
“To put it mildly,” Meredith responded. “That kid has been over-indulged and deprived simultaneously, which isn’t that easy to do,” she added. “Dad got so mad at her rudeness and bad behavior one day that he called her the ‘Beverly Hills Brat’ to her face. That’s the morning I called you, begging for advice.”
“Look, Meredith, with my two and all their little friends, there are so many youngsters running around our place, Janet’s bound to find her footing in Cornwall after a few weeks here.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” she countered, giving Blythe a more detailed description of the youngster’s difficult behavior that started the moment her father had dropped her off at the Jackson airport.
“But think what a terrible time the poor child’s been through!” Blythe insisted.
“So you knew that Ellie died in the private plane crash after a visit to Christopher’s film location near Mount Everest?” Meredith asked cautiously. “Frankly, I had no idea what information you had about the situation when I placed that call to you.”
Blythe fell silent for a few moments as she contemplated the rim of her teacup. Then she said quietly, “Oh, I knew, all right. The news was all over CNN.”
“Janet was in Beverly Hills with their housekeeper,” Meredith elaborated. “Apparently, Christopher was behind on his shooting schedule, so Ellie left without him after visiting him in Nepal. Sheer fate, I guess, that Janet wasn’t completely orphaned in that crash. The cinematographer’s wife was also onboard... and the pilots, of course. Everybody died.”
Blythe nodded gravely. “I immediately called Christopher, and left a message with his secretary to offer Lucas’s and my condolences and ask what we could do to help, but I never heard back.”
“Dad and I did the same thing,” Meredith said, “never dreaming, obviously, I had been named in Ellie’s will as a legal co-guardian. When the lawyer called me later with the news, I nearly keeled over.” The younger woman heaved a sigh. “Oh, Lord, Blythe. What an unholy mess.”
“It’s pretty gothic, all right,” Blythe agreed, “but we’ll figure this out together. And I want you to know how much I appreciated your letting me learn what had befallen my niece,” she added, her voice tight. “I’ve wondered about her for years. And besides, I love the idea that I also get to spend time with you, my little cousin from Wyoming! What are you now, twenty-eight or something?”
“Thirty-three.” Meredith laughed. “But thank you for shaving off a few years!” Then, her smile faded. “Oh, Blythe, I feel just terrible that we’ve landed on your doorstep when you’ve got so much else on your plate right now, but I was completely baffled about how to handle all this, given Janet’s unrelentingly atrocious behavior. I do appreciate how awful it’s been for her... but I’m also totally aware of the stress that’s going on in your life... the strain of keeping Barton Hall going in this lousy economy. The problems with the Quillers, and—”
“What really matters is that I am so glad you’re here,” Blythe interrupted. “I adore Lucas and I love my life with him. I’m so blessed to have had Matthew and Lucy, but I’ve missed not having any Wyoming family part of it. Trust me, having you in Cornwall this summer will be a joy, to say nothing of being a huge help. Somehow, we’ll sort out the problems with Janet.”
“Just the way we all dealt with Ellie all those years?” Meredith replied, shaking her head doubtfully. “I swear... there’s some scalawag Barton gene that keeps punching through the family DNA.”
Blythe laughed. “Well, Janet’s only eleven, so that gives us a head start.”
Meredith shook her head and then asked suddenly, “May I be so bold as to inquire: why are you willing to take this on?”
Before Blythe replied, she got up and poured them each another cup of tea. Settling back in the chair, she stared at the orange glow of the low-burning wood logs framed by the ornate marble fireplace.
“Because I feel so terribly sympathetic toward a little girl who lost her mother like that. Especially a mother like Ellie whose innate selfishness, I’m willing to bet, provided little warmth for an innocent child growing up.”
“Believe me, Blythe, Janet’s no innocent now.”
“From what I’ve seen and heard in the short time she’s been here, I can understand why you’d say that.” Worry lines radiated softly from the corners of Blythe’s eyes, as her features grew even more contemplative. “I held Janet in my arms when she was barely three months old. She was adorable, and totally innocent that day. I can’t bear to think about all the things that must have happened to her in the meantime to make her so unhappy now.”
Meredith felt a pang of guilt. “Losing a mother is awful,” she agreed. “Both you and I know exactly what that’s like. But I’m telling you Blythe, if you can figure out how to reach this kid, I’ll bow down before you, believe me.”
Blythe looked across the carpeted space separating the two cousins, grinned in a very unladylike fashion, and announced, “Oh no you don’t! Not just me, white woman. We’re going to do the rehab of Janet Barton Stowe together, cousin mine.”
“You sounded so Wyoming, just now.”
“Well, you can’t completely take the Rockies outta a gal, now can you?” Blythe joked, affecting a deliberate western twang. Still with a mischievous glint in her eye she asked suddenly, “What did you think of our handsome friend from the local search and rescue team?” Before Meredith could summon a properly disinterested reply, Blythe added slyly, “I saw him watching your every move as you headed for the front entrance this afternoon.” She pursed her lips to keep from smiling. “I really must invite the chap to a proper tea.”
Blythe soon bid Meredith goodnight, removing the tea tray as she left.
“Try to stay up one more half hour and maybe you’ll make it through the night,” she urged. “Sleep well, Cuz.”
Meredith brushed her teeth in the enormous, marble-tiled bathroom and padded over to the bed, using the small, needlepointed step stool that was probably a hundred years old to practically vault onto the mattress. The linen on the bed was shiny with age, but starched and pressed, and felt luxurious when she slipped between the sheets and laid her head on the down-filled pillow. She switched off the bedside lamp and saw with surprise how light it still was at nearly nine o’clock.
A different latitude... a completely different world...
Her thoughts were a whirl with the sights and sounds of the last twenty-four hours. With the window cracked, she could hear the low clucking of waterfowl nestled among the reeds skirting the pond below the sloping lawn. Closing her eyes, she felt mildly disoriented by the castle’s grand surroundings, and yet excited to be a part of a family she’d only known from the yawning distance of four thousand miles and a universe away. She heard Holly shift her weight on the rug beside her bed and suddenly thought of the black and white Border Collie that had wished to “befriend” her dog that afternoon—and almost burst out laughing. A vision rose beneath her closed lids of a dark-haired man with somber brown eyes whose gaze had followed her from the gravel drive, all the way through the front entrance to Barton Hall. So different from Shep O’Brien’s blond mane, bleached by years riding bulls in the hot sun on the rodeo circuit.
“Hmmmm,” she murmured, snuggling deeper beneath the feather duvet.
She wondered as she drifted off to sleep what the summer would bring?
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