Early spring, 1812
They are gone …
The first fiery rays of daybreak blazed behind the marble guarding the graves. Despair contorted ’s face, threatening to defeat his last fragile threads of control. He gulped in the morning mist, fists balled, arms shaking. Ragged gasps tore from his chest; he opened his eyes and blinked the burning moisture away.
Backlit against the dawn, two filled his sight. The one on the right listed slightly, its inscriptions half-covered by a creeping vine that, come summer, would erupt in delicate white flowers. The other gravestone still stood solidly upright. The neat soil mounding before it bore no new growth, though the barest signs of green were there, if one looked closely.
John Bradley contemplated the familiar vigil from a window of the nearby stone church. He shrugged on his coat, fingers pausing over the threadbare patch at the elbow, and reached for his wide-brimmed hat. Cane in hand, he shuffled toward the heavy door. The chill wind buffeted him when he stepped into the morning.
They stood together silently, taking in the sunrise.
“Someday I must take my place here beside them.” Shadows masked the inscriptions: George Darcy … departed this life anno domini 1811 … Lady Anne Da— vines obscured the rest.
“I would prefer a situation in the shade. Over there, I think.” Bradley pointed to a grassy spot near the church wall. “I held you in my arms to baptize you into the church, and I will keep watch over you even from there. You cannot rid yourself of me, you know.”
Darcy chuckled, but his shoulders slumped, and he stared into his empty palms. “I miss him, Mr. Bradley. Father always knew what to do. Everyone trusted him.” He rubbed the back of his neck, sighing out the emptiness that churned within. “I trusted him.”
A cold gust blew through the graveyard. The iron gate clanged, the sound echoing against the stones.
“How can I take his place as master?” His guts twisted, the words burning his throat.
“Your father doubted himself, too.”
“Many evenings, over tea, we talked of his misgivings.” The corners of Bradley’s mouth lifted and his eyes twinkled. “He had an excessive fondness for my cook’s shortbread.”
“He went to you to find wisdom. Father valued your advice and insight above all others.”
Bradley dipped his head, blinking.
“I am not like him.” Darcy grimaced and swallowed hard against the rising bile. “I lack his wisdom, his discernment.”
“But you were given good principles, the ones your father stood on.”
The wind whipped his coattails and scoured his face. “Are they enough?”
“He found them so.” Bradley clapped his shoulder.
They locked in a penetrating gaze. Finally, Darcy released a deep breath; a slow smile spread but did not quite reach his eyes. “Join me for breakfast this morning? I must mediate a tenant quarrel today and need my father’s wisdom.”
“I would be honored.”
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