Guardian of Midnight Manor by Maeve Greyson
Nothing is more powerful than love…
Arthur Preston, the next Earl of Blackborn, has always known his grandfather was eccentric, but this latest revelation from the man who raised him borders on the insane. If not for the solicitor verifying the terms of his parents’ will, he’d think it another of dear old granddad’s pranks. Arthur must seek the help of the Guardian of Midnight Manor in finding a wife, or he will never come into the full of his inheritance. But there’s a slight problem. The Guardian of Midnight Manor is a ghostly dog rumored to haunt the burned-out remains of the original family seat that is now turned into a farmstead.
Jennet Ross, her decrepit grandfather, and meddling auntie are seeking a fresh start as tenant farmers in England. They lost their tenancy in Scotland, evicted by the rude landowner when Jennet spurned the man’s unwanted advances by breaking his nose with a spade. They’re thankful Lord Blackborn agreed to lease to them, even if the place is rumored to be haunted. Besides, the only dog Jennet has seen since they moved in is the sweet stray she feeds each day.
According to legend, the Guardian of Midnight Manor finds true love for the heirs of the Blackborn line. Arthur thinks it a myth. Granddad knows better. Never underestimate the power of love—even when it comes from beyond the grave.
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“Is he…?” Arthur Preston, the next Earl of Blackborn, couldn’t bear to even utter the word.
Granddad Herschel, the current earl, was the only family he had. In fact, the only family he had ever had since his parents’ tragic deaths in a fire that only spared him because the nursery was in a separate wing of the former Blackborn seat at Midnight Manor.
“He is resting in his room, m’lord.” Flanders, Granddad’s only servant for as far back as Arthur could remember, gave a reserved tilt of his head toward the double staircase at the end of the wide entry hall. The man’s sagging jowls swayed with his every move, a great deal like the floppy ears of a hound. As Arthur headed for the stairs, Flanders cleared his throat with a loud harrumph.
“Yes?” Halting mid-step, Arthur braced himself. One never knew what the devoted butler would report. He counted on the servant to keep him apprised of his eccentric grandfather's escapades. Granddad might be getting on in years, but age had yet to dim the man’s imagination or his adventurous spirit. “What has he done now?”
Flanders cleared his throat again and spared a side-eyed glance toward the stairs. “I feel you should know that Mr. Burnley is with him.”
“Is he?” Arthur shifted in place on the same red carpeting that had always cushioned his landings when he slid down the bannisters as a child. Padded Granddad’s dismounts too. The old lion, as Granddad liked to be called, had been the one to teach Arthur proper form when it came to jumping off before reaching the carved lion’s head at the end that would rip off his ballocks if hit at full speed. “And why is Mr. Burnley here?”
Mr. Theodore Burnley was the family’s solicitor. Had been for years. Arthur peered up the staircase then turned back to the faithful Flanders who had always served as valet, butler, cook, gardener, and coachman with unbelievable ease. “What’s the old lion up to now?”
“I believe he has been apprised of your indiscretions, m’lord.” The elderly servant gave him a chiding look that Arthur knew all too well. “Something about inappropriate attentiveness to every young widow between here and London?”
Arthur laughed, wondering which lady had contacted Granddad in the hopes of either fattening her purse or placing a wedding noose around his neck. “That is quite the area, old man.”
“It is also quite a few women,” Flanders retorted in the same exasperated tone often adopted during Arthur’s rambunctious childhood.
“I am always discreet,” Arthur lied, knowing it futile. Somehow, Flanders and Granddad always knew the truth.
“Get up here, young man! Now, I say!” The bellow nearly shook the timbers of the sprawling manor house.
Even though he knew himself in trouble yet again, it pleased him to hear the old lion’s roar as loud as ever. He gave Flanders a hard look. “Your missive said he was at death’s door?”
“Perhaps, I worded that poorly, m’lord.” The butler cracked a rare smile. “It should have read that the young master will be at death’s door should he not change his ways and take his grandsire’s advice to heart.”
“I see.” It was too late to retreat, and he had never been a coward. Arthur rolled his shoulders, straightened his coat, then strode up the staircase curving to the right. Time to face the mighty beast in his lair. He tapped a knuckle on the door. “Grandfather?”
“In here, boy. Now.”
Arthur entered. Two steps in, he found himself on his back. “Kip! Enough!” he laughed, shoving at the immovable monstrosity sitting on his chest. The hairy black dog, big as a pony but sweet-tempered as a lamb, held him down and washed his face with a most thorough licking.
“Kip! Let him up. You can have him later if there’s anything left of him once I’ve finished.”
The exuberant animal gave one last swipe of its massive tongue, then jumped on the bed and stretched out beside its master.
“You might as well stop right there.” The balding man, his fringe of white hair matching the snowiness of his ample mustache, sat propped among satin pillows with a glass of brandy in one hand. “You only call me Grandfather when you fear yourself in trouble.” He sipped the drink, then aimed it at Arthur. “Do not mistake me for an old fool, boy.”
A small, bespectacled man, dressed entirely in black as was his wont, perched on the edge of a leather wingback chair beside the bed. He bowed his head in a poor attempt at hiding a smile.
“And how are you today, Mr. Burnley?” The solicitor irritated Arthur to no end. He had an annoying habit of turning up at the most inconvenient of times and always without warning.
“I am quite well, m’lord.” The man resettled his wire-rimmed glasses higher on his nose, then nodded. “Thank you for the inquiry.”
“Get to the meat of it, Burnley, or shall I?” Granddad slid his glass to the table.
The ruby liquid sparkled in the light given off by the single candle protected by a glass hurricane shade. It stoked Arthur’s courage. Might as well ask for a refreshment of his own. “May I have a last drink before my trial and sentencing?”
“Would you mind, Burnley?” The old earl patted the plush coverlet across him. “I just got comfortable, you see.”
“Think nothing of it, m’lord.” Burnley set aside a sheaf of papers, went to the sideboard, and poured two drinks. He drew Arthur’s attention back to the earl’s brandy on the nightstand. The glass was now empty. “Would you like to serve your grandsire, m’lord?”
“Of course.” Arthur fetched the glass and quickly replaced it with the fresh drink. Upon procuring his own, he sat on the edge of the bed. “Out with it, old lion. What is it now? Flanders led me to believe you were dying.”
The earl chuckled, then drained the second glass and plopped it on the table. All humor left him, replaced with stern disapproval. “It is high time you married before one of those light skirts traps you.”
“Which one contacted you?” Might as well face the attack head on. Granddad expected no less.
“Not a one.” The old man grew quiet as he stroked the dog lying next to him. His fingers sank into the beast’s thick black fur. “As I said, it is high time you settled down. Married. Filled this hall with great-grandchildren for me to teach about sliding down banisters and all manner of other important things.”
“I have plenty of time to—”
“Well, I do not!” the earl roared in a voice like thunder. “Do you never think of anyone other than yourself?”
Granddad’s displeasure pained him. Arthur loved and respected his grandsire more than the man would ever know. But he wasn’t ready to marry. Surely, he could find another way to appease the old lion.
“Forgive me, Granddad.” He rubbed his thumb along the smooth rim of his glass. “I fear I am finding it hard to understand why you suddenly find this matter so upsetting.”
The solicitor leaned forward with a subtle clearing of his throat.
His expression gave Arthur pause. “Has something happened that I have not been made aware of?”
“Perhaps, I could assist in shedding some light on the matter, m’lord?” Mr. Burnley perked like a cat ready for its cream. “With your permission?”
Granddad Herschel agreed with an irritated flip of his hand.
“You are now in your thirties, m’lord,” Mr. Burnley began. “And yet still have not received the entirety of your inheritance.” His face puckered with a frown, sliding his glasses to the tip of his nose. “Are you not interested in how you might satisfy the will and fully receive what is rightfully yours?”
“My yearly stipend is quite generous.” Arthur shrugged, more confused than before. He had never been the greedy sort, because he had always had whatever he wanted. Was money the issue here? Had something gone awry with some of their investments? He had not been informed of such.
“I have a comfortable home here in Manchester. Travel wherever and whenever I wish. Enjoy the company of friends—and others.” He allowed himself a smug grin. “What more could I want?” Before Granddad or the solicitor could comment, he continued, “I am not prone to gaming, wild partying, or excessive expenditures. Compared to some, I might even be considered a bore. Have there been losses? What have I not been told?”
“I assure you, m’lord, your accounts, as well as your grandfather’s, are quite solid.” Mr. Burnley picked up the papers. “But, as I said, you are in your thirties now. You should know that the will stipulates your stipend ends this year.”
“Ends?” He turned and stared at Granddad, who had a disturbing twinkle in his eyes. “Then rewrite the bloody will.”
“I cannot, my boy.” With a sly smirk, the old earl tipped his head toward the sheaf of documents. “That is your parents’ will. Not mine.”
“I need another drink.” Arthur hurried to the sideboard and helped himself to a generous refill. After a hefty sip, he set the glass down and faced the man holding his future in his hands. This entire visit had suddenly become most disturbing. “So, what must I do to satisfy these final requirements and receive the entirety of my inheritance? Marry some prominent heiress in her first season with hips so broad I am guaranteed the successful breeding of progeny?”
“M’lord!” The solicitor looked suitably shocked.
Granddad chuckled and took another sip of brandy. “Get on with it, Burnley. Before the boy pops his buttons.”
“Yes, m’lord.” The little man cleared his throat, adjusted his spectacles, then folded back one of the pages. “The will states you must seek an audience with the Guardian of Midnight Manor.” He cringed as though expecting another unpleasant outburst. “Then you must follow the advice received.”
Arthur didn’t know whether to laugh or throw something at his grinning grandfather. The Guardian of Midnight Manor was a Blackborn family myth about a ghost dog that haunted the crumbling estate currently leased to tenant farmers. Supposedly, the canine specter always introduced the Blackborn males to the woman guaranteed to give them love and contentment all the rest of their days. This had to be one of Granddad’s infamous pranks. He glared at the old lion. “This is your trickery. Isn’t it? Poorly played, old man. Poorly played, indeed.”
The cunning old earl motioned to the solicitor. “Show him the will. The signatures. The dates. Everything.” The curling tips of his mustache lifted in a self-satisfied smile. “If you do not believe Burnley or myself, feel quite free to take the document and have it reviewed by a man of your choosing.”
Arthur snatched the papers and stared at them.
The solicitor rose and hesitantly tapped the bottom portion of the front page. “Just here, m’lord. The part in question.”
It was all there in black and white, albeit a bit faded with the years. He flipped through and stared at his father’s signature, unable to remember a single thing about the man. The only reason he knew what his parents looked like was because of their portraits in the library. “Why would they include such a ridiculous codicil?”
“They wanted to ensure your happiness,” Granddad said. “The Guardian led them to each other. Introduced me to your grandmother. United my own parents. True love is a rare and wondrous thing, my boy. Why would you not wish to embrace it?”
Arthur stared at the silly old codger who had obviously taken leave of his senses. “Most in your position would describe marriage as a means of improving one’s position in Polite Society. Do you not wish me to marry a young lady of wealth and impeccable social standing to improve the Blackborn pedigree even more?”
“You are not a prize pig I wish to show at the fair.” His grandfather lifted his empty glass and waved it toward the decanters. “Another brandy, boy. And find yourself some good sense to go along with it, eh?” He smiled down at his dog and scratched the great beast behind the ears. “You do remember how to go about finding the Guardian, do you not? As a boy, you loved the legend. It was your favorite bedtime story.”
“Well, of course it was.” Arthur refreshed Granddad’s brandy as well as his own. “What child doesn’t love tales about spooky ruins and ghostly dogs with glowing red eyes? But as I recall, in the stories you told, the dog wasn’t a matchmaker. He ran off scoundrels and sometimes even ate them.”
“Bah!” Granddad waved away Arthur’s words then winked at Mr. Burnley.
The solicitor took the cue, hopped up, and gave a polite nod. “Good day to you both, m’lords.” He nodded again at Arthur. “And best of luck in your endeavors, m’lord. I feel most certain all will be well.”
“Not bloody likely,” Arthur growled under his breath as the man skittered out of the room.
Granddad snorted with laughter. Ancient the man might be, his hearing was still impeccable. “Tomorrow night is the full moon,” he said, pausing for another sip, then smiling as the heady drink went down. “I say, that is good.” He smacked his lips, then continued. “Where was I? Oh yes! As I was saying, tomorrow night is the full moon. Go to the tower ruins at Midnight Manor when the moon reaches its zenith. Behind them, actually. I do believe there at the back is where I met your grandmother.”
“And what then?” Arthur blew out a frustrated breath. This bordered on the ridiculous.
Granddad shrugged. “Wait.”
The old man gave him a look that set the back of his neck to tingling. “Yes, dear boy. Wait.”