“Hurry up, Ruth. Uncle Charles has brought the car around. “ Jane shouted up the stairs. “If you're not down before I'm out there, I'll take the passenger seat even if it is your turn.”
“I'm coming. I'm coming.” Ruth rushed down the stairs hastily doing some last minute primping. “Nell, can we stop for tea before coming back from Westover?”
Eleanor Ashby looked over her sisters. As usual Ruth had over fussed. Was that scent? Nell rather thought it was. Jane, contrary wise, had only begrudgingly exchanged her jodhpurs for a skirt and tights. When her Aunt Bee had reigned at Latchetts both girls would have been sent back upstairs to fix their appearance.
But Uncle Charles would not care. And the children's counselor he had insisted the twins see, and was taking them to a session with, after their brother's death last year actually encouraged these displays of 'independence'. Sighing Nell allowed. “Yes, you may. But don't keep Uncle Charles too late. He has a whist game tonight.”
“We won't. We promise.” Ruth tied her scarf neatly as her sister roughly pulled on hat and mittens.
As they clattered down he hallway, they chorused, “Hello, Mrs Peck.”
Jane shouted, “Nell, Mrs Peck is here.”
“I've come for the eggs.” Nancy Peck called out.
“Come through to the dining room and join me for coffee.” Nell called back.
“Oh, excellent.” Nancy commented as she settled in at the table. “Coffee is just the thing. I've spent the morning dealing with the Mothers Union and I badly need the pick me up.”
After a few initial sips in silence, Nancy inquired. “When will Bee and Brat be arriving?”
“Either sometime tomorrow or the next day depending on the ferry and how well the stud takes the voyage.” Nell told her. “We're allowing a couple of weeks to let him settle in before the mares will be ready for him.”
Nancy, who had little interest in horse breeding, and considerable interest in her young friend's well being, asked, “How do you feel about having Brat back here? You've been not uncharacteristically silent about him since he went to Ireland with Bee.”
“I couldn't be happier at the prospect of having Brat, and Bee, home for awhile.” Nell responded tentatively.
Delighted to finally get Nell to talk about things, Nancy immediately prompted, “But?”
“Having them back means actually confronting what happened, Nancy.” Nell looked distressed. “I'm afraid I don't really feel the way I should. Shouldn't I feel worse about losing a brother? And about losing my other brother and having him turn into a cousin?”
“That depends.” Nancy kept her voice pragmatic. “Why don't you feel worse about Simon's death?”
“Because, on the whole, I can't help but believe Simon's dying made everything much simpler.” Nell told her honestly. “We don't have to deal with the prospect of having a murderer in the family. This way Simon's crimes were buried with Simon. I don't even have to tell the twins that the brother they loved killed the brother they don't remember. We left it that Brat was trying to find Patrick's body and that Simon was killed when the the quarry's edge collapsed.
“They accepted it as a tragic accident, but one from which they are recovering. Ten is a resilient age it seemed.”
“But how do you feel about it all?” Nancy insisted.
“Appalled but unsurprised.” Nell sighed.
“I grew up with Simon. I even loved him.” Nell told her. “But under that selfish charm he exuded to everyone there was an element of pure selfishness. Other people were of importance only to the extent they could promote Simon's comfort. The doctor the twins are seeing told me that these days they regard people like Simon as mentally ill. Which is a much nicer way to think about him than simply evil. But any way you look at it the world, and particularly Latchetts, is a better place not having Simon in it.
“Which makes me selfish too, I suppose.”
“No, Nell.” Nancy was firm. “You're thinking in terms of what is best for your family. That is not selfishness. Were you selfish you wouldn't have cared about protecting the twins and Bee from the publicity that would have erupted if it had become known that Simon had killed Patrick.”
“I'm not sure protecting the Ashby name doesn't count as selfish.” Nell pointed out. “I'm an Ashby after all.”
“If there had been a finding that Simon had killed Patrick, under the slayer statute he would not have inherited Latchetts.” Nancy told her. “It would have passed to you on Patrick's death rather than Simon and you would not now be paying a second death duty. Being willing to pay out most of your mother's fortune to protect your family from social stigma absolves you from any charge of selfishness.”
“Yes, Mr. Sandal, our lawyer, pointed that out to me.” Nell responded. “But I couldn't do that to Bee. She worked far too hard to keep Latchetts and the Ashbys in old fashioned respectability to create the kind of uproar that would have occurred had we applied to get the death duty waived. That reporter from the Westover Times spent far too much time sniffing about as it was.”
“I'm not sure he was simply sniffing about for a story,” Nancy told her. “Had you given him the least encouragement you could have had quite a conquest there.”
“He was definitely after a story.” Nell shook her head. “That fact that he got the chance to flirt with me as part of it was merely an added benefit.”
“You didn't flirt back I noticed.”
“No.” Nell shook her head. “Which is part of the reason I couldn't unleash an uproar about Simon's death. I intend to marry Brat and I'm afraid that will be as much of a shock to Bee's system as she will be able to bear. She may have adopted Brat in all but law, but a bastard foundling, even an Ashby bastard, does not meet the standard of what she expects for the heiress of Latchetts.”
“I didn't realize the wind lay in that direction.” Nancy looked surprised.
“Yes. I've liked Brat right from the start. Far too much for a brother in fact. It came as a great relief to find out he wasn't.” Nell said. “I really feel that I should feel bad at the prospect of taking my happiness at the cost of Simon's life, but really had our situations been reversed I suspect Simon would have had no qualms whatsoever about pushing me over that ledge, not just benefiting from the accident.”
“My advice, and you need pay it no heed whatsoever,” Nancy told her. “Is to marry where you will and don't worry at all about what any one else thinks. When I was a débutante I saw far too many of the other girls choose position over desire and live to regret it. Which is why I took up with George. Marriage is far too serious a business to be governed by anything but your own heart. Take the man you want and ignore the talk.”
“Well, I want Brat.” Nell declared. “I just hope he has the courage to take the plunge with me.”
The ferry was three hours out of Belfast, when Bee Ashby went searching for her cousin. She found Brat settled in the horse trailer side by side with the stud. On the whole the horse looked less concerned about his current circumstances than did her cousin. “Worried, Brat?”
The young man looked up at her from his perch next to the horse. “A bit,” He admitted.
This was more than Bee had expected from him. The doctors had all said that it would be well to get Brat to talk about his feelings about the family. But Bee had never felt that it would be wise to try and push him. Brat was far too self contained to appreciate being pushed.
Sitting down next to him, she waited to see if he would say more.
The stud, an arrogant beast used to being the center of attention, assumed that they were there for him and nudged Bee.
“Oh, go on, you silly thing. You're not getting a treat,” She told him.
“Already has.” Brat admitted. “I gave him my apple.”
“Well, he doesn't seem to mind the passage. Still you should have eaten it yourself.” Brat was still thin as a lathe from his long stint in hospital. Between his therapy and the work with the horses, she had not gotten very far with getting him fattened up.
They sat in silence for a long while. Finally Brat broke the silence. “Will it be alright? My going back to Latchetts?”
“Yes.” Bee was certain. “You've read Nell's letters. She and the twins are looking forward to seeing you. I'm afraid we will have to put up with more than a bit of talk, but Nancy and George have probably headed off the worst of it, by treating your original appearance as Patrick as a misunderstanding. And that reporter already wrote it up not long after the inquest. The scandal mongers have moved on to fresher meat.”
“I don't really care about other people. Just Nell, Jane and Ruth.” Brat ran his hand down the horses leg. “What must they think of me?”
“Ruth thinks it was a clever lark.” Nell had sighed over the letter that had brought that information. “Jane seems prepared to forgive you without having to understand why. And Nell..”
Bee had long since decided that what, if anything, was going to happen between Nell and Brat was their affair and none of her own. She left it at, “Nell is happy that you're recovering and coming home to Latchetts for awhile.”
After a long silence, Brat told her softly. “That was why I did it you know.”
“Agreed to pretend to be Patrick.” He explained. “It wasn't the money. Although I have to confess the prospect of the horses did play into it. It was the belonging. I told myself it wasn't just an accident. If I looked that much like Patrick I had to be somehow related to the Ashbys. I've never had any place that I belonged to before. How can I ask Nell to forgive what I did when she can't possibly understand how if you've never had a place to belong, you'd go to much greater length than a con to get it.”
Bee considered. “She, and the rest of us, may not be able to understand completely, Brat, but we care enough for you that we are more than willing to forgive.
The horse took the ferry passage so well that they were able to continue straight on to the Latchetts with out pausing to rest him. As they pulled up the drive all three sisters emerged to greet them.
The twins swarmed Bee, hugging her and talking over each other in the effort to bring her up to date on everything that had happened since her move to Ireland.
Which left Nell to greet Brat.
“Brat.” Nell took his hand. Looking into his eyes she smiled. Then leaned forward and kissed him. A quick gentle kiss. “Welcome home, my dear.”
“Yes.” Brat squeezed her hand in return. “Home.”