The Present Page 2

But she knew that her continued refusals to marry him, or even let him tell the rest of his family about their love, had been frustrating him as well for a very long time. Which was why she was afraid he was hoping the matter would come to light inadvertently. Not that he was being blatant in looks he was giving her, nothing the servants might take note of, at any rate. Yet his family was different. They knew him too well. And they would all be here soon . . .

More arrived even as Molly had the thought. Jason's niece Reggie and her husband, Nicholas, along with their young son, appeared in the dining room before lunch was finished. Anthony perked up immediately. Reggie might have been his favorite niece, but that didn't save her husband. Nicholas was his favorite verbal punching bag, so to speak, and without the presence of his brother James, whom he would just as soon trade barbs with, he'd been sorely missing a convenient target for his satirical wit.

Molly just managed to refrain from rolling her eyes. She knew Jason's family as well as he did, since he shared everything with her, including all the family secrets, foibles, and scandals.

So she wasn't the least bit surprised to hear Anthony say to Nicholas as he took the seat across from him, "Good of you to show up, dear boy. My teeth were getting a tad dull."

"Old age starting to set in, is it?" Nick shot back with a smirk.

Molly noticed the nudge Anthony's wife gave him before she said, "Remember it's Christmas and be nice for a change."

Up went Anthony's black brow. "For a change? I'm always nice. There's just nice, and then there's—nice. The latter gets reserved for bounders like Eden, is all."

Molly sighed. As fond as she was of all of Jason's family, she had a soft spot for Nicholas Eden, because he had befriended her son in their school days, when Derek had had to deal with his public illegitimacy. He and Derek had been close friends ever since. And typically, Derek jumped in now to take Anthony's attention off of Nick.

"Reggie, you remember that grave we found in the east clearing all those years ago?" Derek said to his cousin. “As I recall, you were going to ask one of the gardeners about it. Did you ever get around to doing that?"

Reggie gave him an owlish look. "Goodness, what made you think of that old grave? It's been so long since we found it, I'd forgotten all about it."

"Amy came across it last night and mentioned it. M'father don't even know who it belongs to."

Reggie peered at her cousin Amy. "What were you doing in that clearing last night?"

"Don't ask," Amy mumbled.

And Warren, obviously finding their catastrophes of the day before rather amusing now, after the fact, said, "A little coach trouble."

"A little!" Amy snorted indelicately. "That coach is cursed, I tell you. Who did you say you bought it from Warren? Because you were definitely swindled."

He chuckled and patted her hand. "Don't worry about it, sweetheart. I'm sure the crew I sent over to dismantle it this morning will make good use of the kindling."

Amy nodded, then turned back to her cousin. "We ended up having to cross that clearing on foot last night.

“It just surprised me, to find a grave there, so far from the family plots, yet still on the property."

"Now that you mention it, it surprised Derek and me, too, when we found it all those years ago," Reggie replied thoughtfully. "But no, Derek, I don't believe I did ever get around to asking the gardeners. It's too far from the gardens, after all. Figured whoever was tending it probably didn't live at Haverston, so it wouldn't do much good to ask around."

"Unless one of the gardeners was specifically asked to tend it," Anthony pointed out. "Old John Markus was ancient when I still lived here, and he'd worked at Haverston for as long as anyone could remember. If anyone might know about that grave, it would be him. Don't suppose he'd still be around, would he, Jason?"

Like everyone else, Molly glanced toward Jason to hear his answer, and caught his tender expression on her. Her checks went up in flames. He'd done it! She couldn't believe he'd done it! And with half his family here to see it. But she was panicking for nothing. The look he'd given her had been brief, and no one was turning about to see who he'd been looking at, too interested in his answer, which he gave now.

"Here at Haverston, no," Jason replied. "He retired about fifteen years ago. But he's still alive, last I heard. Living with a daughter over in Havers Town."

"Think I'll ride over and pay my respects to Mr. Markus this afternoon," Derek said.

"I'll go with you," Reggie offered. "I've a few Christmas presents I still have to buy, so I was going to stop by Havers anyway."

Warren shook his head in bemusement. "I don't understand all this morbid curiosity about an old grave. It's obviously not someone in the family, or the grave would be in the family crypt."

"I suppose you'd think nothing of it if someone got buried in your backyard, and no one bothered to tell you who it was or why they picked your backyard?" Anthony asked. "Perfectly normal occurrence in America, is it, Yank, having unmarked graves show up on your properties?"

"I would imagine someone was asked and did know at the time," Warren replied. "Or the grave would probably have been removed to a more proper location—at the time. And it seems pretty obvious that the grave is older than any of you, since none of you know when it got there or who's in it."

"Well, that's what I object to," Reggie put in. "It's just too sad, really, that whoever it was has been so completely forgotten. At the very least, her name should he added to that stone marker that merely says 'SHE RESTS.' "

"Think I'll join you as well for that jaunt to Havers," Amy said. "I was going to help Molly fetch the real of the Christmas decorations from the attic this afternoon, but that can wait until tonight."

Molly was sure she'd learn later, whatever they found out in Havers Town, but right now she really couldn't care less. With her cheeks still heated, she slipped out of the room unnoticed. And it was already going through her mind, what she was going to say to Jason when she got him alone tonight.

That had been too close by half. If his relatives hadn't all been so interested in the subject at hand, at least one of them would have noticed the way he had looked at her. And that would be the end of their secret.

But what good would it do? It still wouldn't change her mind about marrying him, though that was something she wished she could do, with all her heart. But one of them had to remain sensible about this. Even if he did marry her, she'd never be accepted by the ton. She'd be nothing but another Malory scandal.

As it happened, the trip to Havers Town turned out to be utterly unsatisfactory. John Markus was indeed still living at the advanced age of ninety-six. He was bed ridden, yet his mind was quite lively for his age, and he did indeed recall the grave.

"I tended that grave for nigh on sixty-eight years," John proudly told the group gathered about his bed.

"Goodness!" Reggie exclaimed. "That's long before even you were born, Uncle Jason."

"Aye." John nodded. "Since I was a lad of thirteen myself. Turned the task over to my nephew when I retired fifteen years ago. Wouldn't trust anyone else to do it proper. He ain't been slacking, has he?"

"No, John, of course not," Jason assured him, though he hadn't a clue, since he hadn't been out to see that grave in over thirty years himself. But he didn't want the old man worrying about it, so he added, "He's been doing an excellent job, indeed he has."

"We're delighted to have found someone who knows about that grave, Mr. Markus," Reggie told him, getting to the matter that had brought them there in mass. "It's been a point of curiosity for all of us, to know who is buried there."

The old man frowned. "Who is? Well now, I don't rightly know that."

The surprised silence that followed that answer was full of disappointment. It was Derek who finally asked, "Then why did you keep care of it all those years?"

"Because she asked me to."

"She?" Jason inquired.

"Why, your grandma, Lord Jason. Wasn't anything I wouldn't have done for that kind lady. Everyone at Haverston felt that way. She was well loved, your grandma was—not like your grandpa. Or at least not as he was regarded when he was young."

Up went a half dozen brows, but it was Jason who said indignantly, "I beg your pardon?"

The old man chuckled, too old to be intimidated by Jason Malory's ire. "No disrespect intended, m'lord, but the first marquis, he was a stiff one, though no different from other aristocrats of his day. He was given Haverston by the crown, but he had little care for it or its people. He preferred London, and came only once a year for an accounting by his estate agent, who was an arrogant coxcomb that ruled Haverston like a tyrant when the marquis isn't there."

"A rather harsh testament against a man who can't defend himself," Jason said stiffly.

John shrugged thin shoulders before saying, "Merely the truth as I saw it, but that was before the marquis met and married Lady Anna. She changed him, she did, taught him to appreciate the little things in life, softened his edges. Haverston went from being a dismal, bleak place to work, to being a place her people took pride in calling home. A real shame about the rumors, though ..."

"Rumors?" Reggie frowned. "Oh, you mean about her being a Gypsy?"

"Aye, that one. Just because she looked and sounded foreign, and there happened to have been Gypsies in the area just before her appearance, some folks got that silly notion. But the marquis, he put a stop to that rumor when he married her. After all, a lord like him would never marry so far beneath him, now would he?"

Jason intercepted his son's grin just before Derek remarked, "Depends on the lord."

Jason gave him a quelling look. The rest of the family didn't need to know—yet—that he, too, hoped to put his heart first.

John shook his head. "Back then it just wasn't done, Lord Derek. Today, maybe, but eighty-some years ago, a scandal like that would ruin a man."

"Well, rumor was all it ever was," Jason pointed out, "since it's never been proven, one way or the other. The rumor wasn't completely put to rest, though, or it wouldn't still be known. But as you say, it hardly matters in this day and age, whether Anna Malory was Gypsy or of Spanish descent, as most assumed. Only she could answer that, but my grandparents died before I was born. I'm sorry I never knew them."

"I've always wished to know the truth about her myself," Amy said. "I can remember being fascinated by the possibility when I was a child, and before you ask why again, recall that I take after her, or so I've been told. I wanted to think she really was a Gypsy—I still wish it was so. That would at least explain where I got such unusually perceptive instincts from, that are never wrong. And it must have been true love."

"Hell, if it's true love, I'm glad our ancestor realized it," Derek put in. "For some men, it takes years . . . and years . . . and—"

Jason didn't miss the subtle prodding directed his way, but before anyone else noticed, he said pointedly, "Didn't you say you had a bit of shopping to do while we were in town, Derek?" To which his son just grinned again, unrepentantly.

Jason sighed inwardly. He knew Derek was just teasing him. Actually, Derek was the only one in the family who ever dared tease him. And no one else, being aware of who Molly really was, would guess that he was teasing his father. But then Derek knew that Jason had been after Molly for a long time now to say yes to marrying him.

"Hmmm, wonder why I never thought to do that with Anna Malory," Amy remarked to herself, drawing everyone's attention again.

"Do what?" more than one Malory asked in unison.

"Make a bet that we'd learn the truth about her. Anyone care to take up the wager?"

But Jason interrupted with, "I'd prefer this speculation ended here."

Amy frowned. "You really don't want to know the truth, Uncle Jason?"

"I didn't say that, m'dear. I just don't want to see you break your perfect win record on something that can't possibly come to light. You would be devastated if that happened, now wouldn't you?"

Her sigh answered him, but didn't quite reassure him. After all, he was well aware that horrible odds had never stopped her from following her instincts in the past.

The family was spread out in the large country mansion that evening after dinner. Molly had carefully unpacked most of the Christmas paraphernalia from the attic earlier in the week, and it was Molly, just reaching the bottom of the stairs, who heard the horse come to a galloping halt out front and went to see who was visiting this late in the evening. Just as she reached to open the door, it was opened from without and Jason's brother James nearly knocked her over as he stomped in out of the cold.

Nonetheless, she was delighted to see he had arrived at last, even at that late hour, and offered a cheery, "Merry Christmas, Ja—"

To which he immediately cut her off with a very testy, "Bloody hell it is." Though he did halt his progress to offer her a brief smile, adding, "Good to see you, Molly," then in the same breath, "Where's that worthless brother of mine?"

She was surprised enough to ask, "Ah, which brother would that be?" when she knew very well he would never refer to Edward or Jason, whom the two younger brothers termed the elders, in that way. But then, Jason shared everything with her about his family, so she knew them as well as he did.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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