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“Who is coming to dinner?” asked Beth curiously.

“The new owner of Combe Magnor” replied Brandon. “It seems the previous owner has left the county for good”

“Oh” replied Beth. “And is this new man like Willoughby?”

“Not at all it seems” added Marianne.

“I would not go that far” replied Brandon. “We do not know his character yet”

“All seemed well,” said Marianne.

“And I thought so to about a certain young man” he replied. “I would not wish such an influence to regain my favour”

“May I meet him?” asked Beth. “I’ll be proper, I vow it”

“Not to dinner,” said Brandon. “You shall retire back to Sir John’s”

“But surely-“ whined Beth. “I only want to say hello to him”

“And you will” assured Brandon. “Once I decipher his character”

-

Marianne did her best to not appear excited at Mr Morton’s visit.

It had a long time since she had enjoyed company close to her own age, she hoped to make a friend of him. She did keep her thoughts to herself as Beth was visibly deflated about being sent away.

Brandon was determined to find out more about this new young man, he ventured into town to visit his friend, Henry Keats, in the hope that he had knowledge from different sources.

“Thomas Morton,” said Keats. “Yes I’ve met the man”

“And what of him?” asked Brandon. “My Marianne seems quite taken with him”

“He is a good man” replied Keats. “It’s his unfortunate connection that makes him disagreeable”

“Connection?”

“I doubt his charming eyes and countenance have passed your notice!” remarked Keats.

“I am quite ignorant to your point?” replied Brandon.

“He is a distant cousin to our dear rogue Willoughby. Since the scandal he has done his best to hide it” said Keats.

Brandon sighed. “That does explain how he came to own Combe Magnor so easily”

“I would avoid him Brandon” urged Keats. “He still sees Willoughby, that could be used to influence Beth and Marianne”

“I wish I knew that before I invited him to dinner,” said Brandon.

“Why would you do that?” asked Keats.

“As it was the gentlemanly thing to do” replied Brandon. “He made talk of a ball being held and I suggested dinner first”

Keats shook his head. “I’d withdraw your invite”

“On the day the dinner was scheduled?” said Brandon. “Hardly”

“Claim an illness or urgent business” suggested Keats. “Don’t let that man get close to you”

“It would thoroughly displease my wife” replied Brandon. “I will have to deal with her sadness, not yourself”

“She’s attached to him?”

“No of course not,” said Brandon. “Nothing of the sort. I think she sees a companion of sorts, not a romantic connection”

“I’d hope she would not think so,” remarked Keats. “Nor you to allow it. She is your wife, not just the lonely girl whom you gave your affections to. She is a wonderful girl Brandon, you must work to keep her”

“I would not tame her nature. She is curious and inquisitive. I would not love her if she were any different” replied Brandon.

“I do not mean change her, change yourself,” said Keats. “You must look for potential danger, just because she is your wife does not mean that men will not try and lure her away”

“I will not declare a threat to every man I encounter who gazes at my wife” replied Brandon. “Marianne is a beautiful woman, I can’t hide her away”

Keats sighed. “My friend you misunderstand me. Keep Morton away from her, it’s best”

“I will question him about his past,” said Brandon. “I shall see how he reacts”

-

“I shall tell you everything” assured Marianne, as Beth and little John were escorted to the carriage.

Beth sighed and nodded. “I think I shall never be allowed to have fun again”

“Nonsense” hushed Marianne. “If he is reasonable I will make sure you meet him”

“It will be a long time before the Colonel lets me see anyone” concluded Beth. “I’m sure I’ll meet him myself”

“Now” warned Marianne. “Please do not sneak about. Sir John will not tolerate it”

“I wasn’t planning to” replied Beth. “I promise”

“I will believe you,” said Marianne. “As long as you don’t prove me wrong”

-

Brandon watched Morton climb off his horse, happily approaching the entrance to his home.

This attachment to Willoughby was a true concern, a true danger to Marianne and Beth that had yet to be understood.

Marianne had heard nothing about Morton’s past, Brandon wanted her reaction to be genuine.

Marianne waited politely at the door for him, glancing behind as Brandon joined her.

Morton thanked the doorman and removed his hat. “I apologise I believe I am slightly late”

“Not at all” replied Marianne. “It is our pleasure to have you”

“Join us in the library” called Brandon.

“I’d be delighted,” said Morton. “I’ve heard fine tales about your collection of books Sir”

“Do come” urged Marianne, already at the door.

Brandon politely swung his arm in that direction and tailed him closely.

Marianne watched Morton’s eyes widen as he entered the library. “My God, what a collection, and such a room to place it in”

“It’s beautiful no?” smiled Marianne. “I spend more time here than anywhere else”

“I can understand why” cried Morton. “Colonel, how have you come by such an expanse of books?”

“My father was an avid collector” replied Brandon. “I indulge in music instead of books”

“The collection at Combe Magnor is severely out of order” confessed Morton. “I must say I am envious”

“A good librarian is hard to find” replied Brandon. “You may have to complete the task yourself”

“Do you have a favourite author Mr Morton?” asked Marianne.

“I do not read as much as I should” replied Morton. “I do have a love for Shakespeare”

“Then you are in good company,” remarked Brandon. “You won’t find a more avid lover of his works than my wife”

“I do adore him” agreed Marianne.

“Who do you wish to be Madam?” asked Morton. “Juliet? Desdemona? Helena?”

Marianne laughed. “None of them anymore. I’ve quite grown out of calling for my love from a rose-covered balcony”

“I think I shall plant some roses” muttered Brandon, just within her hearing. “I should quite like to see that”

Morton laughed politely, “I must say, your ease with each other is enviable. I hope to find such countenance with a wife of my own”

“I had to wait twenty years” smiled Brandon. “Patience is key”

“I’m afraid I don’t possess a great deal of it” replied Morton.

Brandon chose his words mindfully. “A family trait perhaps?”

Morton seemed to understand but Marianne was puzzled. “Why do you say so?”

Morton was silent so Brandon changed the subject. “I think dinner should be served by now, shall we go through?”

-

Marianne kept trying to shake the comment that Brandon had made about Mr Morton. Was he making a joke? Or was the little familiarity that she saw in his eyes something to worry about.

Morton seemed to sense it too, his conversation was constant and engaging but you could feel he was on edge about something.

Brandon watched him closely, he knew his remark had startled the young man and was waiting for him to reveal himself or keep his mount shut, either of which would reveal to him his true character.

As Morton met eyes with Brandon again and as the room came to a quiet he spoke up. “Sir I believe your comment to me earlier was prompting a confession of sorts”

“Perhaps,” said Brandon.

“What confession?” asked Marianne. “I knew something was being spoken of”

“I imagine my character has been thrown into question once again” sighed Morton. “I had some hope that it would slip by everyone”

“Not here” replied Brandon.

“Please, Mr Morton” urged Marianne. “I can’t abide all this secrecy, I’ve had my fill of it. What were you hoping we would all ignore?”

Morton sighed. “My unfortunate relation to John Willoughby”

“Willoughby?” cried Marianne. “I don’t understand!”

“He is a distant relation on my mother’s side, he’s my second cousin” explained Morton. “I do my best to keep our names far away from each other”

“But why take up residence in his old home?” remarked Brandon. “Why move to the very county he is hated?”

“Foolishness and hope” replied Morton. “Our family is tarnished by his behaviour, my wish is to show this fine county that not all the men in my family are abysmal”

“But why keep it from us?” asked Marianne. “You are aware of his crimes?”

“Yes but I’ve never met the two ladies not heard much about them. My thought was perhaps they lived in seclusion, though I heard one married well” replied Morton. “They would have to after such disgrace, unfortunately, falling prey to my cousin's seduction, but I can’t imagine without small encouragement”

“I am one of those encouraging ladies” replied Marianne. “And you are correct I married very well”

As his face coloured deeply, she rose from the table, “Good evening Mr Morton” she added throwing down her napkin.

“Miss Marianne” he cried, rising abruptly. “Please I mean no offence”

“But you’ve caused it” she replied, swiftly leaving the room.

Morton stood for several moments, his gaze moving between the table and the door, utterly silent.

Brandon coughed to break the silence. “I think it might be time you left us, Morton”

“Please Colonel I meant no disrespect to your wife, my mouth can be too liberal. it’s one of my faults” urged Morton.

“I will try my best to soothe her, I fear your comments will sit with her for a while” replied Brandon. “I commend you for revealing your past and your opinions. Now that you have I would ask that you stay away from Marianne”

“Sir I so enjoy your company, both of you!” cried Morton.

“We once enjoyed the company of Willoughby and he caused nothing but sadness” replied Brandon. “He could use your position here to get to Marianne, I expect that's why you’ve been placed here”

“I am no spy!” exclaimed Morton. “I despise the man, why would I seek to help him?”

“But you move into his home? Befriend his previous victims?” remarked Brandon. “Can you not see why I’d be suspicious of you?”

“I can Sir” replied Morton. “But I have not seen him in almost three years, I could not possibly be a pawn for him”

“Nevertheless” sighed Brandon, rising from his chair. “Stay well away from Marianne”