The Shocking Secret of a Guest at the Wedding
The library of the Fifth Avenue home of Jackson Quincy Graham,President and Chairman of the board of Graham, Merryweather and Lockwood Banking and Trust, his daughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Channing and her son, Jackson Quincy Graham Channing. . .
New York City
Jackson Quincy Graham Channing isn’t the man he thought he was.
A scant five minutes ago, the youngest vice-president in the storied history of Graham, Merryweather and Lockwood Banking and Trust was not merely accepting of his lot in life but considered himself quite content. Oh certainly, when he was six years of age he had wanted to become Jack the intrepid pirate king and live a life of adventure on the high seas. A notion that vanished when he was seven and decided the adventurous life of Jack the heroic scout in the vast uncivilized recesses of the west would be much more exciting. When he turned eight, he had realized Jack the hunter of lost treasures and seeker of adventures in the jungles of the Amazon or the desert of Egypt, a hero of epic proportions, was much more to his liking. But by the time he was nine, Jackson Quincy Graham Channing understood the duty, the responsibility and the destiny of the great-grandson of one of the founders of Graham, Merryweather and Lockwood Banking and Trust was to follow in the not quite as adventurous footsteps of his grandfather and his great-grandfather before him. And so he did, exactly as planned.
In five years, Jackson Quincy Graham would turn over the presidency of Graham, Merryweather and Lockwood to his grandson who would soon be officially engaged to Lucinda Merryweather, also an offspring of one of the bank’s founders. They would marry in the spring, shortly after her twenty-fourth birthday, just as both families had planned from the day Lucy was born. They would have an appropriate number of children including at least one boy who would grow up to take his place as the head of Graham, Merryweather and Lockwood Banking and Trust.
Life was unfolding exactly as expected, precisely according to plan, with no unseemly excitement, little opportunity for adventure, save that to be found in the world of banking and finance, and few surprises.
That Jackson Quincy Graham Channing now found himself taken completely by surprise was most unsettling. He couldn’t recall ever having been at a loss for words before. Obviously his shock now was due directly to the fact that the importance of the moment was rivaled only by its absurdity. No doubt why he said the first thing that popped into his head.
“But you’re dead.”
His mother winced. The tall, distinguished, older British gentleman standing beside her in his grandfather’s wood paneled library in their grand house on Fifth Avenue, the man who was apparently his father, his dead father, smiled in a wry manner. “Actually, I’m very much alive.”
“So it would seem.” Jack studied the older man closely.
Colonel Basil Channing looked decidedly familiar although they had never met. But his eyes, his nose, everything about him was as familiar to Jack as . . . his stomach twisted. As if he was looking in a mirror.Granted that mirror was considerably older but there wasn’t a doubt in Jack’s mind that this man was who his mother said he was. Until a minute ago Jack was under the impression his father had died in an Indian uprising before Jack was born. It was a tragic story that his mother never wished to talk about. For more reasons than one obviously.
“Forgive me for being blunt but surely you understand why I am more than a little taken aback.” Jack’s gaze slid to his mother. “And extremely confused.”
“Yes, well, you might have a question or two,” his mother said under her breath, refusing to meet his eyes.
“I might?” His tone rang harder than expected but it seemed ire went hand in hand with shock. “Only one or two you think?”
“Or more.” His father’s eyes narrowed. “God knows I do.”
“Do you?” Jack’s brow rose. “How very interesting as most of my questions are for you. First and foremost where have you been for the last thirty years, Father?”
“You would do best to watch yourself, my boy.” The colonel’s casual tone belied the hard look in his eye. “Until you know all the facts. Wouldn’t you agree, Elizabeth?”
“One should always have all the facts before passing judgment.” Elizabeth Channing calmly crossed the library to where a decanter of brandy sat, as always, on a corner of his grandfather’s desk.
The ever present decanter marked this room as a gentleman’s domain every bit as much as did the commanding, century old mahogany desk, the floor to ceiling shelves filled with precisely arranged, finely bound volumes, the well-worn costly leather sofa and the imposing portrait of Jack’s great-grandfather over the fireplace. This was his grandfather’s sanctuary and would one day be Jack’s. Exactly as it should be.
“You would be wise to remember that as well, Basil.” Mother poured herself a glass and only a slight tremble in her hand indicated she was anything other than completely composed. Interesting as Jack had never seen his mother anything less than completely composed.
His father was right, of course. Besides, Jack never allowed emotion to overcome logic and logic dictated he wait to have the facts of the matter before reaching any conclusions. It was the sensible, rational way to proceed even if there was nothing sensible and rational about any of this.
“Yes, of course.” Jack drew a deep breath. “Then perhaps you would be so good as to explain.”
“Quite honestly, there’s little I can explain. As I said, I have as many questions as you. Until a week ago, I had no idea I had a son.” The older man’s gaze shifted to Jack’s mother. “Nor was I aware that I still had a wife.”
Jack’s gaze turned to his mother who was doing her best to look anywhere but at him. Or his father.
“Well?” both men said in unison then exchanged startled glances.
“We’re waiting, Mother,” Jack said.
“Out with it, Elizabeth,” his father said at the same time.
“I have no intention of being interrogated like a common criminal,” his mother said in a lofty manner and tossed back a good portion of her brandy. That too was interesting. She did not normally indulge in quite so reckless a manner.
“Why didn’t I know that I had a father?” Jack said.
“Everyone has a father, dear,” Mother said coolly. “It’s rather odd that you thought you didn’t.”
“You’re right. My apologies. Allow me to restate my question.” Jack’s voice hardened. “Why didn’t I know my father was alive?”
“I have no idea.” She raised a shoulder in an offhand manner. “I never told you he was dead.”
“Not in so many words, I suppose. But you led me to believe he was dead. That he was killed in an Indian uprising before I was born.”
“That might have been your grandfather’s doing,” Mother said under her breath.
“I was in India in ’57,” his father said. “Sepoy rebellion.”
Jack stared. “Not that kind of Indian.”
“Nonetheless, as you can see, I was not killed.” He turned toward his wife. “You let him think I was dead.”
“How was I to know you weren’t? You could have been.” She sniffed. “It’s not as if you kept in contact with me.”
“I wrote to you. At least in the beginning.” Indignation sounded in the older man’s voice. “Admittedly, it took me a week or so to realize your admonition that it would be best if we did not contact one another was ridiculous. I wrote you once a month for the next, oh, eight months if I recall.”
“Yes, well the ninth month was when I might well have responded,” she snapped.
“At that point it seemed hopeless.” His father’s tone matched his mother’s. “As far as I knew, you had returned to America to have our marriage annulled and never wanted to see me again.”
“That was the original plan.” Mother’s eyes narrowed. “However an annulment is difficult when one is going to have a child.”
“The two of you were actually married then?” Jack interrupted.
“Of course we were married.” She huffed. “I certainly would never have had a child if I had been unmarried. I can’t believe you would ask such a question.”
“Do forgive me, Mother.”
“Sarcasm is not the way to handle an awkward situation, Jackson.”
Jack’s jaw clenched. “Again, my apologies.”
“It’s been thirty years, Elizabeth.” The colonel’s gaze met his wife’s. “I would think that at some point during that time, you would have seen your way clear to inform me of the birth of my son.”
“You needn’t look at me that way. I didn’t deliberately not tell you. Indeed, I can’t count the number of times I put pen to paper to write to you. Why, I probably wrote a good two dozen letters or more through the years.”
“And yet I never received even one.”
“Yes, well, I didn’t say I actually mailed them.” She shrugged. “I really didn’t know where to send them. I didn’t know if you were still in the army or wandering the world. Regardless, I had no idea where to find you.” She studied her husband. “You were an adventurous sort, remember? Always talking about what you wished to see and do, the places you wanted to go.”
“If I recall, you wished to see those places with me.”
She sipped her brandy. “I was very young and extremely foolish.”
The colonel’s eyes narrowed. “Weren’t we all.”
“And therein lies the problem,” she snapped.
“One of many,” he said sharply then drew a deep breath. “You could have sent your letters to Millworth Manor. I would have received them eventually.”
“I suppose I could have but I didn’t.” She waved off his comment. “It’s really a moot point now. You know everything and—”
“I don’t know anything at all.” His father’s brow furrowed. “Aside from the basic facts that I have a wife and a son, I don’t—”
“Oh, come now, Basil, you needn’t be so indignant.” She rolled her gaze toward the ceiling. “I’ll have you know it’s remarkably difficult to inform a man he’s a father who is not even aware he’s still married. And while admittedly I should have, oh, made a greater effort perhaps, this is really not my fault.”
“Not your fault?” Father and son said in unison.
Mother’s annoyed gaze slid from one man to the other. “We’re never going to get anywhere if the two of you keep doing that. I find it most disconcerting.”
“We certainly wouldn’t want you to feel ill at ease, Mother,” Jack said.
“Thank you, Jackson,” she said in a lofty manner.
The men traded glances. Jack drew a deep breath.
“Nonetheless, I must agree with . . .” He looked at his father. What was he supposed to call this man he had just met? “Him. We both have questions and an explanation as to your actions for the past thirty years is certainly in order and long overdue.”
“Possibly I suppose. But it really is a long story and we do have guests.” She glanced at her husband. “Only Mr. Lockwood, my father of course, and the Merryweathers and their daughter Lucinda. Jackson and Lucinda will more than likely marry within the year.”
The older man glanced at his son. “My heartiest congratulations.”
“Nothing is settled yet,” Jack said without thinking, ignoring the voice in the back of his head that wondered why it was that nothing was settled. And why it didn’t seem to bother him. Or Lucy.
“You’ve come in the middle of a small dinner party, Basil. Nothing elaborate but as you were neither expected nor invited, it was most inconsiderate of you.”
“Do forgive me,” the colonel said wryly. “I would hate to be an inconvenience.”
“Furthermore, I have said all I intend to say at the moment.” Mother started toward the door. “We can clear up all this confusion later.”
Jack stepped to block her way. “Absolutely not.”
“This is far too important a matter to blithely put off.” His father glared.
“Nonsense.” She scoffed. “Admittedly, it might seem urgent to the two of you but it’s not. This, oh, revelation for want of a better word, is thirty years in the making. It can certainly wait until after dinner.”
Jack stared at her. “I’m not the least bit hungry.”
“I could use a bite, myself,” his father murmured.
“You were not invited,” Mother said firmly.
“And yet here I am.” His father grinned. It was a surprisingly infectious grin and Jack found himself biting back a smile of his own. “Surely you can see your way clear to allow me to join you for dinner, Betty.”
Her jaw tightened. “Don’t call me Betty. Betty is not my name nor has it ever been my name.”
Amusement shone in the colonel’s eyes. “As I remember you used to like it when I called you Betty.”
“There are any number of things that I liked in my youth.” Her eyes narrowed. “That I have grown out of.”
“Have you now?” The colonel moved closer to her, plucked the half filled glass of brandy from her hand and took a sip. “Does that include me?”
She ignored the question and cast a pointed glance at her glass. “I’d be happy to get you a brandy of your own.”
“I’m fine with this, thank you.” His father chuckled. “And you didn’t answer my question.”
She heaved a resigned sigh. “Goodness, Basil, we were married for less than a week—”
“Plus thirty years,” Jack murmured.
“There was no need to grow out of you. I simply had to come to my senses.”
“And did you?” The older man swirled the brandy in the glass.
“Of course I did,” she said sharply.
“Then tell me this, Elizabeth.” He leaned closer, his gaze boring into hers. “Why did you never seek to obtain a divorce?”
She lifted her chin. “No one has ever had a divorce in this family and I have no intention of being the first.”
“I see.” The colonel nodded thoughtfully. “And I thought it might be because then you would have to confess all. That we were still married. And that I had a son.”
She paused. “Well, I suppose that might have been a factor—”
“And that you still harbored some affection for me.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “I certainly haven’t been pining away for you if that’s what you think.”
“I don’t know what to think. This has all been something of a shock.”
“For all of us,” Jack added.
“It’s not been particularly easy for me either,” his mother said under her breath.
“Good God, Elizabeth.” His father glared. “For all you knew, I could have remarried.”
“Nonsense.” She sniffed. “You were not the marrying type.”
“I married you, didn’t I?”
“That scarcely counts.” She glared back at him. “Besides, you agreed that it was a mistake.”
“Only because I couldn’t fight your parents who were determined that our marriage be annulled. And you were completely under their thumbs.”
“I was not!” She hesitated. “Well, perhaps I was but I was a mere girl of eighteen and it did seem that we had been impulsive and—”
“And as much as I hate to interrupt and suggest that the two of you work out your marital entanglementsanother time there are other issues to settle at the moment.” Jack turned his gaze to his mother. “While I can probably make allowances for your failure to tell him he had a son, I don’t understand why you never told me I had a father. A living father.”
“I intended to. It just never seemed quite the right time, that’s all.” She shrugged as if it didn’t matter but the evasive look in her eyes and the set of her shoulders said more than words that she knew how very much it did. “First you were too young to understand. And even as you grew older it was difficult to find the right words. And then you were, well, an adult with your own life and it didn’t really seem to be of significance one way or the other. After a while, I suppose you could say that it simply slipped my mind.”
“It slipped your mind?” Jack stared at her. “Didn’t I have a right to know?”
“Didn’t I have a right to know?” his father added.
“And what about me?” She fisted her hands on her hips. “I am your mother and your—”she closed her eyes as if praying for strength—”wife. Don’t I have any rights?”
“Mother, don’t be absurd. You’re a woman.” The words were out of his mouth an instant before he realized what a mistake they were.
His father choked.
Mother’s glare shifted from one man to the other. “Well, you certainly are his son. I’m surprised I haven’t noticed it before. Now then, I am going to return to the dining room.” She directed an annoyed look at her husband. “Basil, do honor us with your presence for dinner.”
His father’s eyes twinkled with triumph. “I would be delighted.”
“On one condition,” she said firmly. “There is to be no mention, from either of you, that he is my husband.”
“You think they won’t notice the similarities in name?” Jack said.
“I could be the cousin of your late husband,” father said in a helpful manner that should have earned him credit but elicited a scathing look from Mother nonetheless.
“I am not trying to orchestrate a theatrical production.” She heaved a resigned sigh. “But yes, I think that might work, however—”
A knock sounded at the door and it opened almost at once.
“I do beg your pardon but is anything wrong?” Lucinda Merryweather stepped into the room and glanced around. “You’ve been gone so long we were wondering if there was a problem.” Lucy smiled her familiar, bright smile.
Jack had known Lucy for all of her life. She was unfailingly cheerful, possessed a fine mind and was really quite lovely with her fair hair and slightly turned up nose. Marrying Lucy would not be a hardship. Their families had planned their marriage since the day she was born and they were well suited to one another. In very many ways she had long been his dearest friend. And he did love her of course. Who wouldn’t?
They had never kept anything from each other and Jack saw no reason why he should start keeping anything from her now. Especially a matter of this magnitude. She was to be his wife one day after all.
“Come in, Lucy, and please close the door behind you.” Jack cast an affectionate smile at the young woman he was almost, nearly, practically engaged to.
“Do you think that’s wise?” Annoyance sounded in his mother’s voice.
“Lucy and I have no secrets, Mother,” Jack said firmly. “She deserves to know what is going on.”
“Secrets?” Lucy’s blue eyes widened with delight. “Oh, I simply adore a good secret.” She turned her attention to the colonel. “And I suspect that has to do with you, doesn’t it?”
His father chuckled. “I’m afraid so.”
Mother sighed and moved back toward the brandy decanter.
Lucy stepped toward the older man and extended her hand. “We haven’t met but you are obviously related to Jackson.”
Her father took her hand, a pleased note in his voice. “Do you think so?”
“Oh my yes. The resemblance is unmistakable. You share the same coloring and in spite of the gray, it’s obvious your hair was once as dark as his. And the blue of your eyes is very nearly the exact same shade as his.” Lucy directed her words to Jack even as her gaze stayed on his father’s face. “Goodness, Jackson, do you realize this is exactly how you will look in twenty or thirty years.” A flirtatious twinkle shone in Lucy’s eye. “I must say, I am going to like it.”
“Lucy.” Jack drew a deep breath. “This is my—”
“Oh, I know who he is,” she said, studying his father curiously. “This is Colonel Basil Channing. I read an article about him.” She glanced at Jack. “The similarity in name, you know, caught my eye although I must say his photographs don’t do him justice. I didn’t notice any sort of resemblance at all until now.” She nodded. “He’s quite famous.”
“I wouldn’t say famous,” his father said in a modest manner. “Well known perhaps, in certain circles.”
“He’s an, oh, what’s the word? Adventurer I suppose.” She shivered with delight. “How very exciting.”
“What on earth have you been reading?” Mother said under her breath and poured a new glass of brandy.
“And better yet, you’re part of the family.” Lucy beamed. “Just how are the two of you related?’
“He’s Jackson’s father’s brother,” Mother said quickly. “Or his cousin, something like that. Now, we should return to the others.”
“No, he’s not.” Jack braced himself. “He’s my father.”
“Really?” Lucy’s eyes widened. “How delightful. And that does explain the resemblance.” She leaned toward the colonel in a confidential manner. “But aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“Rumor.” His father shrugged. “Nothing more than that.”
Lucy nodded solemnly. “Rumors can be dreadfully hard to stop once they take hold. And in your case, one might say they were positively . . .” Her eyes twinkled with laughter. “Fatal?”
The colonel chuckled. “One could say that.” His father glanced at Jack. “I like her.”
“Everyone likes Lucinda, Basil.” Mother took a fast swig of her drink.
“Of course they do,” Lucy said. “I am unfailingly pleasant, cordial to a fault and I am rather more intelligent than is seemly in a woman but I am clever enough to keep that to myself.” She smiled in an overly sweet manner. “For example, right this very moment, I am well aware that there is more to this meeting than any of you have revealed thus far. Admittedly, it doesn’t take a great deal of intelligence to ascertain that. After all, it isn’t everyday that a man’s dead father and a woman’s late husband appears just in time for dinner. Add to that the fact that Mrs. Channing is drinking brandy before dinner, which I have never seen her do before, and Jackson has the oddest sort of stunned look in his eyes, well, as I said there is more to this story.” She settled on the sofa and looked at the gathering expectedly. “A story I would very much like to hear.”
“Yes, well it’s not a story I wish to tell at the moment.” Mother inched toward the door. “And there is dinner—”
“Dinner can wait, as I would like to hear this story as well.” Jack glanced at Lucy. “She’s been remarkably reticent to reveal anything at all thus far.”
“Imagine my surprise,” Lucy murmured.
“Go on, Mother,” Jack said in his best banking and trust vice-presidential voice. “Tell us your story.”
“I really don’t think now . . .” Mother glanced around the room then sighed. “Oh, very well.” She downed the rest of her brandy and drew a deep breath. “Thirty years ago, my father served as a financial advisor to an American company that had interests in India. The position required him to travel to that part of the world. Mother and I accompanied him as neither of us had traveled extensively. It was quite exciting as I recall.” She glanced at her son. “Travel is extremely broadening you know.”
“I am well aware of that, Mother.” Jack had always thought he would have a grand tour when he finished his studies. But he had started at the bank and one thing had led to another and he had never quite had the time a grand tour would require. He had responsibilities after all.
“I have always wanted to travel,” Lucy said under her breath.
“While in India, I met a young, dashing, handsome British officer. He was quite, well, irresistible.”
Father tried and failed to hide a satisfied grin.
“We knew each other for only a few weeks but I fancied myself madly in love, the way only someone young and inexperienced can be. It was all terribly romantic.” She shrugged. “In a moment of mad, starry-eyed impulse we eloped.”
“Scarcely a moment,” his father said. “As I recall it took quite a bit of secrecy and several days of machinations to arrange. It was not at all easy.” He smiled at his wife. “But well worth it.”
“Don’t try to be flirtatious with me, Basil.” Mother huffed. “I am long past the time when that sort of thing will work on me. Especially coming from you.”
“My apologies, Elizabeth.” His father struggled to keep a smile off his face. “You can’t blame me for trying.”
“I most certainly can.” Mother paused. “Now where was I? Oh yes, we were married. My parents were not at all pleased. In fact, Father was livid. He thought I had surely lost my mind. I had never been an impulsive sort. They pointed out Basil and I had nothing in common. He was English after all and I was American.”
“That doesn’t seem like a great deal to overcome,” Jack said.
“That wasn’t all. They said we were being reckless and irresponsible. That marriage was forever and we hadn’t given it due consideration. They said our marrying was nothing more then the foolish actions of youth. There was more, of course, but I don’t remember all of it now. Suffice it to say, they convinced me—”she looked at her husband—”or rather they convinced us we had made a dreadful mistake.” She shook her head. “You must understand I did not have nearly the strength of character then that I do now.”
“The biggest mistake I made was allowing them to convince me,” his father said.
“Stop it, Basil.” Mother glared at him and continued. “My parents said the best way to resolve the situation was to return to America and have the marriage annulled. And so your father and I parted. By the time I returned home I realized I was, well, you were going to arrive which made an annulment impossible.” She raised a shoulder in a casual shrug. “And that’s all there is to it really.”
Jack stared at his mother. “Although I believe you have left out the part where you never mentioned to my father that he had a son. Or the part where you failed to tell me I had a father who was very much alive.”
She waved off Jack’s comments. “You already know that part. I didn’t think it necessary to repeat it. So.” She cast them her brightest smile. “Shall we go in to dinner?”
“No.” Jack shook his head. “You really have given no good reason as to why you didn’t tell me about my father. What you’ve said thus far is not a satisfactory explanation. I think I—I think we—deserve better.”
“Nonetheless that’s all I have.” Mother’s jaw tightened. “Would you prefer that I say I was afraid? Afraid that your father would snatch you away from me? Afraid that you would hate me if you learned what I’d kept from you? Is that what you want to hear?”
“Only if it’s the truth,” Jack said slowly.
“Very well then I suppose that was part of it.” She shook her head. “I had no desire to lose my only child.”
“Did you really think I would do that?” his father said quietly.
“How did I know what you would do? I barely knew you after all.” She paused and her voice softened. “I truly did try to write to you, Basil, but I couldn’t find the words. And the longer I put it off, the harder it was. Surely you understand?”
Lucy nodded. “It’s like running into someone you’ve met over and over again, but you can’t remember their name. And the longer that you go on without asking what their name is the harder it is to ask.” She shook her head. “That can be most embarrassing.
“Exactly.” Mother thought for a moment. “Well not exactly but you do understand my dilemma.” Her gaze shifted from Lucy to Jack to her husband. “Do you? Understand that is?”
“Not really,” Jack muttered. “Especially since this is far more important than not being able to remember someone’s name.”
“But surely you can forgive me?” A hopeful note sounded in mother’s voice. “It is all water under the bridge now, isn’t it?”
“There’s really no need to hold a grudge.” His father studied his mother carefully. “It’s not as if we can go back thirty years and undo what was done.”
Mother stared at him. “You’re much more forgiving than I expected.”
“And probably more than you deserve,” Lucy said helpfully.
“I for one am not sure I’m ready to forgive you.” Jack blew a long breath. “However, my . . . Father is right. What’s done is done. It can’t be changed. No sense in looking backwards.”
“Good.” Mother breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s that then. Perhaps now we can go to dinner.”
“I don’t think we’re quite done yet, Elizabeth.” His father chose his words with care. “There’s a great deal yet to discuss and a great many more questions that still remain.”
“I really can’t imagine what those might be.” Mother set her glass on the desk and moved toward the door. “And we do have guests waiting. So perhaps—”
“Perhaps we need to discuss the future and what happens now.” His father absently tapped his finger against his glass and studied her for a moment. “You were right about one thing though.”
Mother’s brow arched upward. “Oh?”
He smiled slowly. “I do intend to take your son.”
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