The Virtuous Ward - By Karla Darcy Page 0,1

no change in expression. I asked her if she had any questions and she said no. She whirled around, knocked over a table and left the room."

"Did she show to better advantage the next time?" Dev asked.

"That was the only time I have seen Endurance Fraser," Max answered.

"Devil you say!"

"What was I to do? I was twenty-one and a bachelor. Hardly the proper household to bring a child into. There was no other family to take her. I was already guardian to my eleven-year-old brother and he was off at school. I did what I could for the girl. I provided a safe, secure environment for her. Educated her. Even sent her presents at Christmas time."

"What on earth did you send the child, knowing her so little?"

"Books," Max mumbled, ignoring the snort of derision from his companion.

"Self-improvement books, I have little doubt." The words apparently hit the mark for Max winced and Dev smiled his mouth tight.

"Believe me, Dev, I thought I was doing my best for the girl. I will admit I was ill prepared to take on the responsibility of the child. At the time of the funeral, I set everything in train with my business manager, including the sending of Christmas presents." Then in a burst of honesty, "I thought to arrange the chit's life so that I would not be bothered with further details. Since everything ran so well the first year, I let my business manager deal with it. Eventually I forgot all about her."

Silence filled the room except for the soft crackle of the fire. It was not an easy silence, condemnation hung between the two friends. Dev stared at Max whom he had known since they were boys in school together.

At thirty-two, Max appeared cynical, arrogant and uncaring. Beneath the elegant black velvet jacket his body was well muscled. He had the tall, lean appearance of his father and he moved with the grace and balance of an athlete. His mother had bestowed the wavy chestnut hair which was slicked away from his broad forehead. Dev missed the mischievous sparkle in Max's green eyes that used to lighten his somber childish face. The jaded stare through which he viewed the world now held little of the original glint. Max had seen too much to find the world amusing. His eyes were shaded, giving little evidence of his true feelings, but Dev knew him well and sensed vulnerability behind the icy gaze.

For a moment Dev wondered about the orphan, Endurance Fraser. He could not imagine how the child had turned out. She would be twenty-one now. A woman grown. For eleven years she had been kept in virtual seclusion on an isolated estate in the north of England with no one but the servants for companions. Annoyance at his friend's neglect, forced him to speak in a chill voice. "And by what miracle have you been reminded of the existence of the girl?"

Max's eyes flicked to Dev's face and he nodded once as though accepting the condemnation he saw there. "My business manager came to me yesterday and asked me what arrangements I had made for the girl's come out."


"Devil take it, Dev! No need to come that toffee-nosed tone with me. Your life has hardly been such a model of exemplary behavior."

Max leaned against the mantel, his back to his friend. In frustration he kicked out at the andirons. A shower of ashes covered the toe of his polished Hessians and he bent to restore order with the aid of a snowy white handkerchief. He buffed the boot until it shone with a mirrored patina. It was this familiar reminder of Max's fastidiousness which broke the spell of tension for Dev.

"You have the right of it, old man," he said, getting to his feet and placing a steady hand on his friend's shoulder. "We have both done some incredibly stupid things so it is of little advantage for either to act the judge. To make amends I promise to listen without comment."

"No need for such sacrifice," Max said, grinning in relief. "If I wanted a sycophant, I would call in my butler. No need to spare your sharp tongue. I have been berating myself all day and it will be a relief to hear another voice."

After pouring more brandy, they retired to their chairs in greater charity with each other. Max sipped the liquor, rolling it over his tongue and relishing the sharp bite. He was delighted that Dev was here to listen