The Virtuous Ward - By Karla Darcy

Chapter One

"You mean you've kept the girl a prisoner for eleven years?" Devereaux Cathcart's raised voice indicated his astonishment as he stared across the room at his host. "Really, Max. Even for you that is a tawdry admission."

Lord Maxwell Kampford picked an invisible speck of lint from his black velvet sleeve. His dark head was bent as though he were engrossed in the task but the tension in his body belied that charade. Max brushed the nap of the sleeve then nodded as if satisfied and lifted his green eyes to his friend. "I have not held the girl prisoner, Dev. I am her guardian and I have done my best to keep Miss Fraser safe from the corrupting influences of society."

"Cut line, old son." Dev raised his snifter of brandy and waved it in Max's direction. "Perhaps you'd care to pull my other leg."

Max glowered at Devereaux. The man was sprawled in a high back chair, one leg dangling over the arm and swinging back and forth as though wafted by some gentle breeze. The shock of white hair above dark eyebrows was always surprising in a man in his early thirties. At twenty Dev's hair had begun to show signs of premature aging much to the amusement of his friends who referred to him thereafter as the Grey Fox.

Max had been pleased when Dev had arrived at Edgeworth and they had spent a long evening reminiscing about their salad days, but as his oldest friend, Dev was far too perceptive by half. Max's frown began to crumble and a sheepish expression crossed his face.

"Perhaps you're right. I was trying to put a good face on my behavior." Max pulled at his earlobe as he threw himself into the companion chair across from Dev.

"I had forgotten you even had a ward," Dev mentioned in some chagrin.

"To be blunt, so had I," Max muttered, his voice barely audible at such a bald admission.

Max shifted under the condemning glare of his friend. If he had been hoping for some sympathy he was well out. And in truth he could find little to excuse in his own behavior.

"Her parents died eleven years ago. I was a youth and little used to children," Max said, aware of the defensive note that crept into his voice. "The Frasers had been friends of my parents for years. I myself had never met them. Both Frasers were killed in a carriage accident just after my own parents died. My father had been named as guardian to their daughter and as his heir the guardianship had devolved to me. At the tender age of twenty-one I was appalled to discover I was responsible for the social, physical and financial welfare of a ten year old girl."

"What was she like?"

"When I saw Miss Fraser at the time of her parents' funeral, she was a gawky thing. A thoroughly unprepossessing child."

"Most girls are at ten. No bosom and little bottom," Dev commented.

"The child was blessed with few charms and an impossible name. I cannot believe anyone would name a child Endurance. Endurance Fraser."

For the first time since Max began telling him about his ward, Dev's face lightened at the look of consternation on his friend's face. "Can I trust she was nothing like her name?"

"Little hope of that, old chap. Nervous sort of child, ever darting about like a hound that's lost the scent. Had a tendency to knock things over every time she moved. The day of the funeral she tripped on the hem of her dress and broke a vase when she waved her hand. Seemed all arms and legs, a white face and an unruly wealth of bright red hair."

"Sounds charming, Max. No wonder you took her to your heart."

The biting sarcasm had little effect on Max whose eyes were fixed on a spot above the Adam's fireplace. In his mind he could see the girl clearly and when he spoke his voice was soft with remembrance.

"The child had enormous eyes which stared at me without blinking. They were the clearest blue. Dark, like a Scottish lake. Endurance stood in front of the desk as I told her what provisions had been made for her. No tears. No emotion. Just stared at me. An unnatural attitude to be sure." Max stood up and reached for the snifter of brandy on the mantel. He took a sip, staring down into the amber liquor. "I told her I was sorry about her parents and she nodded but otherwise showed