Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

Sara took a straight-backed chair. “Drew Primrose,” she said coolly, “is a very fine advocate, Simon, and deserves your respect.”.

“He’s an old woman! Oh, I know he’s not much older than you, but really, Sara, he’s as sanctimonious as an old maid. I cannot believe he was ever young. Some people are like that. They don’t know how to enjoy themselves. I think he was born old.”

Something in her expression made Simon lapse into silence.

“You could both learn a great deal from Drew,” she said, “if you would only set aside your prejudice. He’s honest, responsible, and has done well for himself given his lack of fortune and connections.” She stopped when Simon smothered a yawn behind his hand. Inhaling a calming breath, she went on, “Do you think Drew enjoys acting as your trustee? He does it to oblige me, because your guardian, the man your own father appointed to handle your affairs, has washed his hands of you. Drew is under no obligation to you, and legally, neither am I. What we do, we do for your own good.”

She didn’t add, as she was tempted to, that their mother had given up her responsibility as well. It was guile with Constance, of course. As Samuel Carstairs’s widow, she had the money to cover her sons’ debts. But Sara was the heiress, and Constance could play the game of bluff much better than Sara could.

Martin spoke up, and voiced some of the thoughts that had frequently occurred to Sara. “It isn’t fair that Father left everything to you to dispose of as you see fit. Actually, it’s mortifying. He should have set up a trust fund for us so that we didn’t have to come to you, begging for every penny. We’re only the stepsons, of course, and you were always the favorite, but it does seem a shabby trick. After all, he was the only father we ever knew.”

Martin worried her almost as much as Simon did. Like his brother, he was tall, loose-limbed, and darkly handsome, but he had none of his older brother’s charm. When Martin was thwarted, he became as petulant as a child.

It would do no good to point out that her father had set aside money for their very expensive education, and that on Constance’s death, they would inherit a substantial amount. They wanted their money now so that they could live like little lords.

But Martin had a point: the bulk of her father’s estate had been left in trust to her until she turned twenty-five, when it became hers outright. Where Martin was wrong was in thinking that she’d been the favorite. She had been singled out because she was the only one her father trusted to do what was right.

Sometimes, she hated her father for putting her in this position. She’d been twenty when he’d died from the stroke that had felled him the year before, only twenty years old when control of the family purse-strings had virtually passed to her. Not only was it a terrible burden, but it had also made her into a tyrant in her family’s eyes.

She wanted to be shot of the lot of them; she wanted to break the trust and give them their heart’s desire, just to be rid of them. They were a passel of whiners and hangers-on. She couldn’t stand it any longer: Constance’s endless bleating in her letters about a Season in London now that Lucy had turned sixteen; her stepbrothers’ assumption that they were fated to take their places among the idle rich and never do an honest day’s work in their lives; and last but not least, Anne’s dreamy references to the new vicar at Stoneleigh, and how kind and understanding he was.

She couldn’t fault her father for worrying about his motley crew of dependents. She, herself, worried endlessly about them. But why had he thought she was strong enough and wise enough to manage their affairs when she couldn’t manage her own? Of course, her father could not have foreseen the devastation William Neville would wreak on their family … when he was no longer there to protect them.

Simon had risen and was at the sideboard, pouring out a glass of sherry for each of them. “What you have to understand, Sis,” he said reasonably, “is that it’s devilishly expensive to keep up with the other undergraduates. And you wouldn’t want us to be the odd men out, would you? Everyone at Oxford is under the hatches.”

A confusion of thoughts was circling in her brain, and she automatically accepted the glass of sherry he offered her.

“As for being rusticated,” Simon shrugged casually, “it was a matter of honor, a … a lady’s honor. You know what I mean.”

She looked at him sharply. “We’re not talking about duels, I hope?”

“No, no! Fisticuffs is all I meant.”

Martin interjected gleefully, “A brawl is what I’d call it, a regular melee. It was just bad luck that Simon’s fist landed on the master’s nose, else no one would have made a fuss, and we would not be rusticated. Tell her, Simon.”

“I didn’t know it was old Lewis behind me.” Simon grinned at the recollection. “I felt this hand on my shoulder and swung at him before …” His voice trailed to a halt when Sara rose to her feet.

She eyed her brothers coldly. “You became involved in a brawl over an insult to a … a common strumpet? Is this what they teach you at Oxford?”