Chapter 28

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"Mr William Percy is not in his rooms, my lord. A footman reported that he has left the estate," The butler pronounced after being summoned and questioned about the gentleman's whereabouts by the lady of the house in the drawing room.

"That's strange; I did not give him leave. Neither did he inform me of his sudden urgency," Frank Templemore spoke, his brows furrowing as he glanced at Lord Buxton and Lord Algernon, both of whom wore slight puzzled expressions reflecting his own.

"I can't say I'm disappointed," The Countess sighed before putting a bright smile on her face, "A wine businessman did make for an awkward weekend party."

Lord Buxton let out an amused smile as he lowered his gaze to peer into the glass of wine he held in his hands, shaking the glass nonchalantly and exchanging glances with Lord Algernon.

"Still, mother," Frank pointed, "He should've at least informed me. Mr Percy was invited here, and with invitation was he only to leave."

"Surely you aren't offended by the machinations of a wine maker, Frank," His mother laughed, before composing herself and sighing, "Men like that are hardly inoffensive."

The remaining party sat in the west drawing room of the Brockenhurst estate that Sunday evening, the extravagant room alit with candles, casting a deep orange sheen on everything below and around them. The floral tapestries adorning the walls and the crystal decors on mantels and intricate tables around the room, with a glasses in hands, made it seem as though the party sat for a painting; the easel and the painter nowhere in sight.

"Mrs Fleming, did you happen to see Diana, perchance? I haven't seen her since she went out for her ride," The Countess probed as she turned to look at the lady seated across to her on the sofas, cradling her third baby on her lap, "Is she indisposed?"

"I can't say, Lady Templemore," Mrs Fleming lilted, her expression going into a thoughtful one, "I haven't seen Alicia since too, the girls do inform me if they retire to their rooms."

"That's strange," The Countess cast her son a glance and he shrugged in response, then turning to face the butler again, she spoke, "Send a maid upstairs to fetch my niece and Lady Kirkpatrick to the drawing room. They need plenty of fresh conversation and company to occupy them if they are to fully recover."

The butler nodded and with a bow, spun on his heels and exited the drawing room efficiently.

"Lady Templemore," Arthur Fleming's voice followed soon after the butler's exit as he cleared his throat to get the attention of the party, "I can't thank you enough for this weekend. It has done much good for my Frederica's health to be in such company as that of yourself and your son, and my boys are overjoyed."

"Ah, nonsense," The Countess mused as she shrugged playfully, "I had more fun than either of them, I dare say. I rarely ever use the word, Mr Fleming, for it far too vulgar for a lady of my disposition, but all in all, I couldn't have asked for a better company. Your family is welcome to Brockenhurst anytime in the future. I understand that our acquaintance was brought together because of my niece, but now that we are friends, I would love to see more of the Fleming family in the future when I'm in Portsmouth again."

"For sure," Arthur Fleming rejoiced, humbled. He always had little words to say when he was humbled, his only hope was that the person in front of him was an expert in reading minds and acknowledge what he was trying to say without him going through the trouble of self expression.

"I am also delighted that this weekend has brought you on closer grounds with your employers as well," The Countess continued, nodding towards Lord Buxton in particular, "Which wasn't exactly what I had planned, but plans seem to have a way of shocking one entirely, don't they?" she finished, chuckling.

Arthur Fleming laughed, and so did Lord Buxton and Lord Algernon. It really had been a weekend like no other, Edward Buxton thought as his gaze swept across the party in the room. He'd come here wanting one thing, he'd accepted an invitation with only one thing on his mind; and now it seemed that there was more that he wanted, more that he needed, and more that he wished for. A sudden feeling washed over him as his thoughts lead him to her, to Lady Diana Beaumont. The tingly gush in the pit of his stomach made him straighten himself as a shiver traced his back. How could he have still kept falling for her after all that happened? It seemed impossible that every angry word she had thrust at him only made him want her more without him even realizing it.

"How was your weekend here, my lords?" Lady Templemore spoke again, a beaming smile on her face as she looked towards Lord Buxton and Lord Algernon in inquiry, "I do so hope we were tolerable company for such businessmen as yourselves."

"More, madam," Isaac Algernon smiled as he announced, glancing at Edward with a confirming look on his face.

"Yes, more. We are grateful to you, and to Mr Templemore, for hosting us. Our time here has been diverting and pleasant," Edward acknowledged, nodding, "I would also like to apologize for my behavior that night," he paused, that night seemed like the only way to recall that day. "It was disrespectful and I beg your pardon for any offense I may have generated with such an action."

"Lord Edward Buxton, your offense was forgiven and forgotten the second you and Lord Algernon saved my drowning niece and her companion," The Countess imparted, her expression changing to a genuine and stern one, "You have done me a huge service, and although I cannot possibly thank you in words without my mind torturing me to dwell on what would've happened were you two absent, I intend to offer you my regards in whichever way I can." With that, the lady of the house exchanged an assured smile with her son, who beamed back.

"I have judged my son's capability to judge incorrectly. He has chosen fine candidates for his first business investment, except for Mr Percy might I add, and I can't help but feel proud. Thus, I have given him my opinion and blessing to go forth with this endeavor with Portsmouth Mills & Co, and I'm sure Diana would agree as well since hers is the second opinion Frank is after," The Countess finished with a smile and Frank Templemore nodded, glancing towards Lord Buxton and Lord Algernon, offering them an assured nod.

Suddenly, the drawing room door burst open, and the party all turned their heads to look towards it in shock. The butler of the house rushed in, his tailcoat flying about and his forehead glistening with sweat under the light of the room. He held a maid by her arm as he dragged her in, her expression was worried while his was more frantic.

"What is the meaning of this?" The Countess bellowed her eyes going wide in anger.

"I'm sorry to barge in, my lady, but something terrible has occurred," The butler let out, his words rushed and jumbled, with the party barely making them out.

"What happened?" Frank Templemore stepped forward, his eyes observing the maid held by her elbow. If this vulgar interruption was all about the inconsistency of a maid, then he had half a mind to lessen the household staff by sending the butler on his way first with his tail coat between his legs.

"Lady Diana Beaumont and Lady Alicia Kirkpatrick are not in their rooms," The butler swallowed, his eyes jumping from the lady of the house to Frank Templemore and then back to her again.

"Then where are they?" Mrs Fleming's voice came, a worried expression on her face as she stood up from the sofas, her baby in her arms.

"I d-don't know but I asked the servant in the stables who saddled Lady Beaumont's house, and he said that she was riding with Mr Percy when an hour later his assistant brought back both their horses, claiming that they had resorted to walking," the butler stammered, rushing to get all that he knew out, "The servant said that he didn't see either of them after that, b-but I don't understand since the footmen already informed me that Mr Percy and his assistant already left the premises. I then asked all the house staff if they knew anything else about the whereabouts of the ladies and this maid claimed she was with Lady Kirkpatrick when she was called outside so I-I brought her straight here."

He pushed the maid forward and she stumbled before regaining herself and rubbing her arm anxiously where she had been so roughly grabbed. She was grabbed again, this time by Frank Templemore as he roughly shook her, his hands on her shoulders, "Where are they?" he demanded, his eyes bearing into the maid's as she looked back in fear.

"I-I don't know Mr Templemore. I was only following Lady Kirkpatrick outside when she asked me to. A footman had come, telling her that Lady Beaumont required her assistance outside, so she had gotten up to leave. Mr Percy's assistant was with her and he offered to come along too-"

"What assistant?" Edward Buxton demanded as he came forward, a thunder in his voice. Having heard the mention a second time in the ongoing story, Edward felt his insides still until every sound inside him dimmed except the pounding of his heart. There was no assistant of William Percy's at Brockenhurst, it was only him. That scoundrel had staged something in Lord Buxton's absence, and so Edward steeled his nerves waiting for the impact.

"I d-don't k-know," the maid stammered more, shaking with fear upon being cornered by two men, the new addition being more intimidating and terrifying than she had ever been faced with before, "Lady Kirkpatrick asked me to stay midway so she can go to see what the matter was and before I knew it, the assistant cornered me. He gave me a letter and asked me to shut up and go inside if I wanted Lady Kirkpatrick and Lady Beaumont to survive. He asked me to give it to Lord Buxton."

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