Excerpt from Danerous Joy

Ireland, January, 1816
     Miles Cavanagh frowned up from the legal documents in his hand. "Your father must have taken leave of his senses, Colum. You were supposed to be the girl's guardian."
     His new stepfather put on a pious look. "When a man is about to take leave of these earthly shores, my boy, he can surely be excused if he abandons his senses first."
     "Abandons them enough to be cajoled, perhaps?"
     Colum Monahan, a middle-aged man still in traveling clothes, waggled a plump finger. "Don't you try to blame me now, Miles. Father was dead and the deed done hours before I arrived at Foy."
     Miles supposed that to be true, but it was typical of Colum that he had in some way dodged an onerous duty. He was a charming, indolent man who found humor in nearly everything, and always expected the best in life. Amazingly, life seemed to grant it to him, including Miles's pretty mother.
     And now the loss of a troublesome ward.
     The man must have made a pact with the leprechauns.
     "What the devil possessed him, then?" Miles demanded. "No one in his right mind would appoint a twenty-five-year-old man he hardly knew as guardian to a granddaughter."
     "I have no idea..."
     "His twenty-year-old granddaughter."
     "My dear boy, there is no point in snarling at me! And Father is beyond your reach."
     Miles ran a hand through his hair. "I'm sorry. But this is a damnable imposition."
     "Tush, tush. You'll have a seizure yourself if you allow your choleric disposition to rule you."
     "I do not have a choleric disposition."
     Colum poured two glasses of brandy and passed one to Miles. "Every red head is given to anger."
     "My hair is not red, and I am the most easy-going of fellows." Miles unclenched his teeth in order to sip from his glass. "I simply do not want to be responsible for a young woman, especially one I remember you describing as `that hellion Felicity.'"
     Colum settled into his favorite chair. "The dear child is calming as she gets older. Nothing could have been more suitable than her behavior during the obsequies." He looked at Miles with a mischievous twinkle that made him resemble a portly leprechaun himself. "Sure and she's turned into a fine looking girl, you know. Dark hair and eyes, and a very handsome figure."
     "Devil take it, if I have to have a ward, I'd rather she be plain. I know the way young men behave."
     "I'm sure you do, my boy. I'm sure you do. And just think," Colum added, smiling up at the fine plasterwork of the ceiling, "she's an heiress into the bargain."
     Miles stared at him. "An heiress? Surely your father didn't leave her that much."
     Colum lowered his bright eyes. "You forget her maternal grandfather, Miles."
     Dammit, so he had. After all, he'd never thought his step-father's niece's maternal relations were any affair of his.
     This past summer, when Miles's mother had married Colum, Miles had accompanied the happy couple on a visit to his stepfather's family home of Foy Hall. But at that time Felicity Monahan had been off in England to visit her mother's family and discuss an unexpected inheritance from her maternal grandfather.
     "You mean it amounted to something?"
     A rich chuckle rolled through Colum. "When I think of the dust Father kicked up about Patrick's match with `that miner's daughter from Cumberland....' And then the man develops mines of his own and makes a fortune!" He raised his glass in a toast. "Twenty thousand a year, my boy."
     "Twenty thousand!"
     "You might want to look at little Felicity with marriage in view."
     "Hellion," Miles reminded him, and downed a strengthening swig of brandy. Twenty thousand. That was more than his own income. Hell and damnation. Every fortune hunter in Europe would be after her!
     Miles couldn't help thinking that if his mother hadn't taken this unlikely notion of marrying again he'd never have known the Monahans, and would not be in this stew.
     "Now, now, my boy. A man who likes horses should appreciate a bit of spirit in a filly."
     "Devil take it, Colum, we're talking about a woman not a mare."
     "It's all the same in the end." His step-father emphasized the comment with merry wink.
     Miles re-filled his glass. He still wasn't comfortable with the idea of having a step-father at all, and one who clearly enjoyed his mother in a very earthy way was enough to try the patience of a saint.
     The two of them were always touching, and a man would have to be a nod-cock not to recognize the way they looked at each other at times. In the middle of the day, too. Then they'd make an excuse to go off alone.
     It wasn't decent.
     But since Miles's mother seemed happy, he was determined not to make an issue of it. He'd be glad, however, to be leaving soon for England. Hopefully, by the time he returned, Colum and his mother would have moved beyond newly-wed fervor and be acting their age.
     If he ever got to England, that was. He'd had the damnable luck to dislocate his shoulder in October, just as he was about to leave for the hunting season. And then the thing had not healed well. Resenting each missed day in the Shires, he'd given in to his mother's insistence that he stay home so she could be sure he wasn't risking his recovery by trying to manage one of his prime horses.
     Then it had been Christmas, and since he'd not spent the season at his home for years, he'd decided to stay. Now he was ready to depart and this landed in his lap.
     "It's a shame you're not married, my boy," Colum said. "If you had a wife, she'd look after the girl for you."
     "But I don't have a wife, or any immediate intention of seeking one. I'm not ready to settle down."
     Colum tut-tutted. "You are heir to Kilgoran and have your responsibilities."
     Miles twitched his shoulders as if under a burden, though this was one he'd borne all his life, for his father had been cousin and heir to the Earl of Kilgoran. It was just that his father's death, and the increasing frailty of the old earl, meant the ax could fall at any time, putting an end to an almost idyllic life.
     "If my revered uncle had accepted his responsibilities and taken a wife himself, I'd be in no need of marriage at all."
     "True enough, but it makes the necessity of your marrying the more urgent. You're the last of the line, Miles. It would be sad indeed to see a revered old Irish title fall into abeyance."
     "I have a brother."
     "A naval officer. Now there's a nice safe profession!"
     Miles shot a thoughtful look at his step-father. "It's not like you to be preaching the path of duty, Colum."
     Colum's exaggerated expression of innocence confirmed Miles's suspicion that he was up to something. "Your mother would like you to take a wife, and whatever pleases Aideen pleases me."
     "Good, because I doubt my mother wants me to be this girl's guardian. I'll have Leonard declared of unsound mind in his last hours. With the codicil over-ruled, you'll have charge of the girl."
     Colum shook his head. "Alas, Miles, I doubt it would work. The codicil was witnessed by the doctor and Leonard's valet, and both are firm that he was of clear mind and determined on it."
     "Damnation. There must be a way out of this."
     "Not quickly." Colum looked, for once, completely serious. "I've had dealings with the Dublin courts, Miles, and my advice to any man would be to avoid them at all cost. In little over six weeks Felicity will be of age. A court case could easily grind on that long, and in the end all you'd have achieved would be to shovel money into the pockets of the legal vultures. No. It will be easier to just take up your yoke and bear it."
     Miles took a restless turn around the cozy room. "I smell a conspiracy here, Colum. If you're so set on avoiding this task, there must be a catch to it."
     "Not at all..."
     "I've already missed two months of the hunting season, and this business will delay me even more!"
     "Now, it wasn't my doing that you ripped your arm from its socket, Miles, and you can't claim it was! In fact, I told you to turn that horse into dog-meat months ago."
     "Banshee has qualities I don't want to waste. But my horses are in Melton, and I'm stuck here. If I accept this duty, I'll have to at least go and meet the girl."
     "Yes, I think you will. But it need be no more than that. She seems content to live at Foy, and my sister Annie is a suitable companion for her. Felicity has a Dublin lawyer and two other men as trustees for her fortune..."
     Just then, Miles's mother, Lady Aideen Monahan, entered in her usual aura of crackling energy, eyes bright, smile wide.
     Despite having been born into the august family of the Fitzgeralds, she had little use for pomp and elevation. She had, however, kept up the use of her title. After all, she said, there was something very hausfrauish about the designation "Mrs."
     Plumply pretty in a blue wool gown, her sandy curls tucked into a lacy confection that hardly deserved the name `cap', she welcomed her husband home with a hearty kiss.
     "Who has a fortune that needs managing?" she asked with interest. It was Aideen's willingness to manage Clonnagh that allowed Miles his unshackled way of life.
     "Colum's niece, Felicity," Miles said.
     "Oh yes! She inherited it from her maternal grandfather. Is there a problem?" If Aideen had the right kind of ears, they would have pricked. "Now I remember. You are her guardian, Colum."
     "No," Miles said. "I am. Old Leonard Monahan changed his will on his death-bed."
     She swung back, blue eyes sparkling. "How intriguing! Why?"
     "Devil alone knows."
     "As to reasons," Colum said slowly, "there was some talk of Felicity being in danger..."
     "Danger?" Miles asked. "Of what kind?"
     "He didn't say. Or wasn't understood. His speech was affected, I gather. Doubtless he worried about fortune hunters."
     "Doubtless he did, but to talk of danger is proof his mind was affected."
     Aideen looked at Miles carefully. "Are you very put out, my dear?"
     "You can probably tell from the way my hair is standing on end." But he grinned.
     She reached up to smooth it. "It should not be an onerous burden and Colum and I will keep an eye on matters while you are away. A dying man's wishes must be respected, Miles."
     From his mother, that was as good as an order. Miles sighed. "Very well. I'll ride over tomorrow to introduce myself to the girl. I'll even stay a few days. But then I'm going to Melton."
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