Chapter Ten: A Sea Chest

"Are you sure that you're all right?"

Justin cast his wife another anxious look, eying the bruising on her wrists with dismay as he removed his jacket, dumping it down on the hall table. "Jetta, he could have really hurt you...are you sure he didn't?"

"He grabbed me, but he's an old man an' the time I let an old geezer like that get the better of me is the time that I 'ang up me Misfit boots for good." Jetta said acerbically, leaning up against the newel post as she met her husband's gaze. "Justin, I'm fine. I swear it. I've fought off psychotic relatives seems to be somethin' of a theme with me."

"Well, I still don't think you should go anywhere by yourself till we get back to America." Justin put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Just in case he's not so old and infirm as you think and he tries to get you alone again."

"The police are lookin' for him now." Jetta said with a shrug. "They were 'ere just before you got back from takin' photos of the area, an' they've got an alert out for 'im. They did say it was largely my word against 'is, especially regardin' the deaths of the Earl an' my birth father, but they said he was probably dangerous an' that if I see 'im again to call them immediately."

She rubbed her wrists. "I was sure I knocked 'im out cold. I 'ave no idea 'ow he managed to vanish from the cemetary so easily, but I'm bloody annoyed about it. He deserves to be rottin' in some police cell somewhere. You realise, Justin, that 'e's been puttin' pressure on Pa for God knows 'ow long to tell 'im where I was? An' Pa wouldn't tell. No matter what it cost 'im. I wondered why 'e never told me all of it before...when 'e told me that Jeremy an' I weren't 'is, he could 'ave told me everythin', but he didn't. I wondered I know. Bein' a Hawthorne is bleedin' dangerous an' he didn't want me to 'ave to face that."

She pursed her lips, glancing down at her hands.

"For the first time, perhaps ever, I'm lookin' at 'im in a different way." She admitted. "Justin, he was a gamblin', cheatin', no good layabout who couldn't keep a job an' never did things legal if 'e could do 'em on the cheap without an' get away with it. He wasn't a nice bloke an' he was never a good father to me. But..."

"He died protecting you." Justin said softly. "What father could do more for his child, Jetta? You faced Jeremy all those years ago willing to risk your life to rescue Nancy. When it came to it, Bertie did the same for you."

"That's it exactly." Jetta looked rueful. "I'm feelin' affection for the silly old git that I've never felt before, in truth. That social worker...Hannah Sutcliffe, she said 'e seemed fond of me, an' though 'e was confused, 'e seemed to think 'e was still lookin' after me somehow. But 'e wouldn't let 'er get in touch with me. This is why. He was still protectin' me. I don't know why...probably I'll never understand that completely. But 'e did it, anyway."

"Perhaps he loved you more than you knew."

"Or 'e 'ad more loyalty to 'is father an' 'is poor dead sister than I gave 'im credit for." Jetta pursed her lips. "He did keep the saxophone for me, because he knew Gramps wanted me to 'ave it - even though Ma wanted to sell it. Who knows? Maybe."

"Laura will be back from the store soon." Justin glanced up at the clock. "And Keith will be home from work. Are we telling them about today's adventure, or...?"

"No sense in frightening them." Jetta shook her head. "I don't think Trevor will try again, now I'm on my guard."

She bit her lip.

"But I did say something stupid to 'im, now I come to think of it."

"Such as?"

"I told 'im Jeremy 'ad a son...and a grand-daughter." Jetta raised her gaze to her husband's. "Do you think I've put Taylor an' Claudia at risk by lettin' that slip? I wanted 'im to see that there were people between Mason an' me in line for that wretched estate, if 'e cared about succession so much - but if he's that crazy..."

"He wouldn't know where to begin finding Taylor and Claudia." Justin shook his head. "Even if they were in England, Taylor's name is Conway. Not Hawthorne or Burns; it's never been anything else. And in any case, he, Vi and the baby are in America. Trevor is looking in England. From what you said, he thought you were here in Britain. He didn't realise that your love affair with the American music industry stretched beyond then...and he'd have a job getting out of the country now the police are on alert for him. No, Jetta, I don't think you've put Taylor at any risk at all."

"I 'ope not." Jetta frowned.

"Did you mention Nancy and Aaron?"

"No..." Jetta shook her head. "It's surreal, talkin' like this, but I suppose, if there were claimants to the estate beyond Jeremy an' 'is son...there'd be me an' mine before Trevor became eligible...wouldn't there? God, what an awful thought."

"You wouldn't like to be a lady?"

"Not now I know what it entails." Jetta shook her head. "Murder, deception an' marryin' your own cousins? No thank you. I don't want any part of that."

"Then we should go home."

"No, not yet." Jetta bit her lip. "Pa took the secret of where I was to 'is grave, to try an' keep me out of all this. The least I can do for 'im is sort 'is bleedin' 'ouse out properly an' make sure everything is dealt with right. An' I 'ave to see about an 'eadstone, too. I've dallied, but I want to get that done and paid for before we leave. Whatever else 'e may 'ave done, 'e deserves that at least."

"Then I vote we leave Laura and Keith a note and head over there now." Justin suggested. "There's still daylight left and it's a while before fact, we can bring take out in with us and treat them both, since they've been so good about letting us use their home as base."

"Good idea." Jetta nodded her head. "I'll go write 'er a call a taxi?"

"Sure." Justin grinned. "I'll meet you back here in a few minutes!"

Within half an hour, Jetta was sliding the key into the rusting lock of the council house's front door, pushing it open and leading the way into the dimly lit corridor. She moved to push the curtain back, letting light stream in through the small window at the far end of the hallway.

"Where do we start?" Justin asked. Jetta glanced around her, then pushed open the door of the front room.

"Here." She said quietly. "We've done nothing with the furniture or most of 'is books...I don't want any of them myself, but if there's anythin' you want, Justin, take it. There are some childhood photo albums I'll keep - who knows, maybe the kids would like to see them, if nothing else. Has the electricity been shut off, by the way?"

Justin reached for the light switch, flicking it on and off. He nodded.

"Looks like it. Why?"

"Was goin' to make a cup of tea." Jetta shrugged. "But as it stands the water is probably dead too, so I guess we'll just get down to it and hope the dust doesn't get too much. It builds up, when there's noone here."

"I have evian in my bag." Justin indicated. "I never go anywhere without something...too many long photo shoots!"

"Well, at least one of us is practical." Jetta grinned. "All right. So, you start sortin' the books...pile up anythin' you don't want an' I'll get one of those empty boxes from the attic, dump 'em in there an' get the charity people to collect them. I'll sort out 'is trinkets an' the stuff by the window...God knows it looks like 'e's been plannin' a jumble sale with all these boxes an' cases."

"It is a strange way to store suitcases." Justin acknowledged. "Bertie wasn't planning on taking a trip, was he?"

"Not fit enough to travel, I wouldn't 'ave thought." Jetta shook her head. "But maybe it was in case of a hospital visit...that was possible, and you know, 'avin' them here would save anyone 'avin' to dig them out."

"Perhaps." Justin shrugged. Jetta settled herself on the floor, pulling the two big old battered suitcases onto the floor and unfastening them, glancing inside.

"Empty." She reported. "No nasty shocks in here, thank goodness...jus' dust an' a bad smell."

"Charity shop or keep?"

"I don't want them. They can go with the rest." Jetta pushed them away from her. "I...hey!"

"What now?" Justin dropped the books he had been examining onto the pile, raising an eyebrow. "I'm learning to dread that sound from you in this house, Jetta...what did you find this time? Your mother's long lost wedding dress?"

"Don't be like that." Jetta pulled a face at him. "No. Nothing like that. Just brought back memories, is all."

She grinned, patting the big old wooden chest that stood beneath the window. "This was behind the cases. When we were kids, Jeremy used to use it as a pirate boat all the time. That's why the paint is so chipped and peeled. He used to take me prisoner...I'd be about two or three, but I knew 'ow to bite all right an' I left me mark on 'im a few times."

"Interesting memory." Justin came to join her. "It's kinda big. Are we taking it back to LA with us?"

"I don't know." Jetta admitted. "Perhaps back to Laura's. It has a lot of memories attached. When I were eight or nine I'd use it to lean on to draw pictures or learn spellin's...the few times I needed to learn them. Grandpa used to give me a quid if I got ten out of ten on a test, so I'd always try an' make sure I did. A quid is a lot of money when you're eight."

"I guess so." Justin ran his hand along the top of the chest. "Well, I don't know as we'd get it home this flight, but maybe Laura and Keith could look after it and we could work out some kind of courier service to ship it over? It feels like it's oak - old and heavy."

"Would have to be, to survive Jeremy an' me growin' up." Jetta grinned.

"It needs restoring, too." Justin's fingers paused at the edge of a hole. "Jeremy's pirate sword, maybe?"

"No." Jetta shook her head. "That was always there, long as I remember. It wasn't in great shape when I was small, to be honest. I don't know where it came from. Probably it fell off the back of a lorry or somethin', an because it was damaged, Pa got it. It wouldn't be the first time."

Justin's expression became thoughtful.

"Or not." He murmured.

"I beg your pardon?" Jetta looked startled.

"Well, maybe I'm the one reaching for straws now." Justin shrugged his shoulders, reaching his fingers along the edge for the catch and carefully working it loose. "It isn't locked, just roughly latched. Good. Because it occured to me, Jetta...didn't Grace say something about an old chest going missing? From your real father's stuff?"

"What?" Jetta stared. "You think this is it?"

"Possible, ain't it?"

"I guess so." Jetta pursed her lips. "Not exactly what I'd call glamorous, mind you. Not very blue blooded."

"It wouldn't be. It was a naval chest...something he took to sea." Justin finally managed to work the catch loose, undoing it and lifting the lid carefully, sending clouds of dust everywhere. "All that stuff you found upstairs had to be kept in something...I'm guessing that when you came to live with your Mom and Dad, everything else was put in here and handed over too, to keep the secret safe."

"I suppose it's a possibility." Jetta owned. "And then Dad put it somewhere more secure when we were small, an' used the chest for everythin' else...includin' a plaything for us because they were too cheap to buy us proper toys."

"Well?" Justin shrugged. "It's an idea, anyway."

"Is there anything in it now?"

"Just an old blanket and an ice cream tub, taped down." Justin peered inside, reaching in to retrieve the contents. "A very old blanket, in fact...this has holes in it. Recognise it at all?"

"Yes." Jetta's cheeks pinkened. "That's mine."


"When I was about two or three, I wouldn't go anywhere without it." Jetta reddened even further, reaching out to take the blanket. She ran her fingers over it. "I don't know where it came from, but I always had it. I'd drive Ma mad, dragging it round the house and getting dust and dirt all over it and all over me, too. Some kids have teddy bears. I had...this."

"Aww." Justin laughed. "That's too cute. All right. Blanket is coming back with us for sure. That's too sweet a picture for it to be junked."

"Repeat it to anyone and you die. Even Laura doesn't know about that." Jetta threatened. Justin held up his hands in mock surrender.

"All right!" He exclaimed. "I can keep a secret!"

"Well, this is one you should guard with your life." Jetta folded the blanket absently in her hands. "Funny that it should be in here. I thought Ma threw it out."

"Your Dad kept a lot of things without your Mom knowing, didn't he?" Justin observed. Jetta nodded.

"He did." She agreed. "What's in the ice cream tub?"

"Something heavy." Justin peeled back the lid. "From what I can see, it looks like metal and ribbon. Maybe your real Dad's missing medals? Would it make sense for them to be here, among the stuff you already found?"

"Well, if the chest is here, then I suppose it would." Jetta nodded. "Though they don't belong to me, so we should take those back to Laura with me while I work out the best way to anonymously return them to Wissex."

"You wouldn't want to keep any of them?"

"Why, Justin?" Jetta looked quizzical. "So I can pretend that man was my father? He wasn't. He may 'ave conceived me, but he's a stranger to me. Nothing. Whereas these things...they mean somethin' to that wretched family up at the hall. They belong there, with people who know far more about him than I ever will. I'm about ready to break all ties with that name an' let it all alone anyway. Having these would just drag me back...I don't want them."

"All right." Justin shrugged, putting them on one side. "And the chest?"

"I have memories of the chest." Jetta responded. "Burns memories. Like the blanket. That's different."

"There's a piece of it caught in the hinge." Justin noticed. "A tiny scrap, Jetta...wound into the metal. Hang on, let me see if I can get it out."

"Why bother? The blanket is beyond fixing an' the chest never did close properly - it's probably been there years." Jetta said carelessly. "Why worry about it now?"

"There." Justin carefully teased the scrap of fabric out of the metal coil, holding it out in his hand. "Now it will close properly. No wonder it wasn't locked...the latch was forced down as it was. This was probably stopping it."

"Like I said, it was always like that." Jetta replied. "Pa always said that, before Jeremy an' I were old enough to want to play in it, Ma used to use it as a table. But if she put 'er drink on at the wrong angle it'd fall right over into the rubber plant. That's why there are coffee stains all across the lid."

Justin's eyes narrowed.

"But why would your blanket be there then?" He asked softly. "If you were too young to play in it, Jetta, how would it get caught in the hinges?"

"The blanket must have come from the Hawthornes too then." Jetta shrugged. "I guess."

She frowned, running a finger along the grain of the wood. "Or...Justin, are you suggesting something else happened? Something else involving me and the blanket?"

"Well..." Justin tilted his head on one side, considering. "If the blanket came with you, and you and it both came from Mayfair, there's only one way I can think of that the blanket got stuck in the hinge of the chest."

Jetta swallowed hard.

"I left Mayfair inside of it." She whispered. Justin nodded.

"It would make sense." He agreed. "If your Grandfather somehow knew you were both in danger...maybe your mother said something to him before she died, who knows? - he'd have had to have snuck you both out. Without drawing attention to you. A small boy of three or four? No problem. Take him to fly a kite or float a boat or catch butterflies. Plenty of things you could say to not attract attention. But a baby of not quite a year...a baby girl...without any kind of nanny or nurse present to deal with her...your grandfather would have attracted a lot of attention had he tried to take you out that way. They would have thought it odd that he would want to take baby Sheila Rose out too...surely?"

"Oh Christ." Jetta touched the chest. "So they hid me in this...?"

"I think it's possible." Justin shrugged. "Drilled the hole in the top, so you had air. Packed it into his car...under the excuse of taking something else...and prayed you wouldn't cry and be heard. Lord knows what it must've been like for you in there...but then, your world was probably already strange enough by that time. Your mother was no longer there. Your father neither. Everything was in'd have picked up on that, if nothing else. From that picture, it looks like your Grandfather was very involved with life at Wissex and with Patricia, right up till when she died. He'd have been a face you knew and would have trusted...who knows? Maybe you felt safer inside the box."

"Or maybe it's why I'm so damn scared of bein' shut in, even now." Jetta muttered. "How can you do somethin' like that to a baby?"

"If it's the only way to ensure her safety, then I guess he felt it was his only option." Justin shrugged. "It's all speculation, might not have happened that way. But I'm telling you, if I was him and it was Nancy or Aaron's baby in jeopardy, I'd not think twice about doing the same thing to protect my grandchild...whatever it meant doing."

"Maybe I should burn it, then." Jetta pushed the lid of the chest shut with a clatter. "I'm not quite so fond of it now."

"No, I think we should keep it." Justin hugged her tightly. "Because it may just have been the reason you're alive and here today to clear Bertie's house...just think about that."

"I suppose so." Jetta acknowledged. "Oh well. If it is what happened, Justin, I swear I'll never look at it the same way again. But then, I've not been looking at a lot of things the same recently...I guess one more won't matter."

"That's the spirit." Justin got to his feet, pulling Jetta up with him. "Come on. Leave it and come help me sort books. We can deal with the chest and it's secrets later."

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"This is somewhat surreal."

Clay cast a glance around him, taking in his surroundings with a wry, rueful grimace. "I never thought I'd see the day when I'd sit in the front dining room at Wissex Hall, having lunch with my birth father as if it were the most normal thing on the planet. I keep expecting to wake up any it's all some weird kind of dream."

"We have been rather pushed together." Mason set down his fork, offering his son a hesitant smile. "Circumstances and all that. But I hope you don't think quite as badly of me as you did, Clayton. You have to understand, I have no experience of being a father - certainly not to a boy who's more than grown. That isn't my intention."

"No, your intention is to find an heir for this place." Clay said frankly. "Though I think you're crazy. I told you that this isn't my world. You've seen neither hide nor hair of Trevor since he came out of jail - you told us that yourself the other night. Why all the panic?"

"If you had met my uncle, you would understand." Mason said soberly. "Hawthorne concerns have never been your problem before, I realise this. But what I've said remains true nonetheless. This estate needs a sane Earl - a man who can keep things running on an even keel and put the needs of those around him first."

"Like you did my mother's?" There was no edge to Clay's tone this time, but Mason frowned. He took a sip of wine, setting down his glass.

"Is that always going to be a bone of contention between us?" He asked gravely. "I'm not asking you to forsake your mother, or anything of the sort. I'm just asking you to recognise what your birthright is, that's all."

"I'm your bastard." Clay shook his head. "That's the part of it I don't understand. I thought...well..."

"There were rules about those things?" Mason pursed his lips. "Well, that depends on whose account you listen to - and whose will you read, my boy. Yes, in generations past, there have been times when an illegitimate child has been debarred from inheriting Wissex...but there is no such stipulation in my father's will. He merely stated that any born child of his would inherit the estate and then pass it on to any surviving offspring of theirs."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"That being the case, I did speak with my father's lawyers on the matter, and made sure." He added. "The will is sound. In essence, you are my heir...but in order to be properly so, you need to acknowledge your Hawthorne blood and accept that duty."

"And why not rewrite the will? Your father was Earl. He wrote what he wanted. Why not will this place to a cousin or another descendant somewhere else?" Clay demanded. "I mean, Grace said she was a Hawthorne too. There must be other sides to this family, surely?"

"Not really." Mason shook his head. "Not with blood close enough to inherit the title. Trevor did a thorough job, ridding the area of suitable candidates. I always think that my father knew what he was doing, when he wrote that will. That he felt Trevor may become a threat, so he did his best to limit the damage by carefully laying it all out in legal terms. He made it so that the terms and rules would be impossible to change by someone usurping an estate that was not case Trevor did ever come to hold Wissex and claim it for his own. My father's words are not particularly restrictive - or they would not be, if only Grace and I had had children. But, as you well know...we have not."

Clay was silent for a moment.

"It all rests on me." He said quietly. "That's basically what you're telling me, isn't it?"

"I don't expect to die any time soon." Mason spread his hands. "I'm in good health, and I'm not that old. But Trevor should never be taken for granted...I want my affairs settled, just in case."

"What's to stop him murdering his way to the title again, then?" Clay demanded bluntly. Mason shrugged.

"Nothing on God's earth." He admitted grimly. "But it's the only plan that we have."

"What about my life, though?" Clay toyed idly with a napkin, sending his father a quizzical look. "I'm twenty six. I've been my own man for all of that time...I've damn well made my own name as a musician and a songwriter, and worked hard to get to where I am now. I love my work. Does that not matter, that I'd have to give up my music and the touring and everything else in order to become your lackey here?"

"It is a big responsibility." Mason sighed heavily. "I won't deny that that kind of decision is difficult. I tried so hard to keep my music going, and continue being Mason of the Blue Bloods but Clay, I couldn't. After my encounters with your mother, I knew it more clearly than ever. People will take advantage, and it's impossible to do your job properly when you're flitting all over the place playing music. Girls will flock to you, but you won't know whether it's your music or your title that's attracting them to your side. It's unsettling, and in the end, ultimately impossible to live two lives. Your family needs you and I do know, my boy, what it is I ask you to do. But I have nobody else to turn to. If my uncle Jeremy had lived...if his children had survived...well, things would be different. But there is only me. And you. And the future of more than Hawthorne dignity rests on your decisions."

Clay's expression became unreadable.

"Not all women are as fickle as you believe my mother was." He said quietly. "Some may prefer Clayton Blake to the Earl of Wissex in waiting...did that occur to you?"

"I have found happiness with Grace because she was a woman who understood." Mason smiled. "I have no doubt it would be the same way for you. There may not be Hawthornes, Clay, but there are other families who would realise what a big responsibility and honour this task is...and who would be glad to marry into our family and take up those responsibilities."

Clay flinched at this, his eyes opening wide with surprise.

"Are you telling me that you'd bloody arrange my marriage as well, if I agreed to this?" He demanded. "I thought that went out with the middle ages! Don't tell me you friggin' rich folks still betroth babies to one another's children!"

"My mother did choose Grace to be my partner, yes." Mason acknowledged. "But only with my own consent - after I had tried for myself and realised that there would be few - if any - women outside of this world who would not marry me for money or for titles. I tried it my way and failed...your mother's experiences should tell you that. Grace was only fourteen when I first met her and I railed against the idea for a long time. But in the long run, my mother was right. Grace is everything that I ever wanted in a wife...and I have no regrets. I promise you, Clayton, nothing would be done behind your back. But..."

"But there are certain expectations that Lady Wissex must meet." There was an edge in Clay's tone. "And what if I found a woman who I genuinely loved, Mason? What then? Would you make me put her aside...or expect me to treat her like you treated my mother, just because she wasn't born blue-blooded?"


"No, I'm not signing over my whole independance to you and Grace and letting you make decisions for the whole of my life for me." Clay shook his head. "Duty is one thing, but I won't be married off like some pawn in the hope of spawning more miserable children to inherit this place. I'm not the kind of man who can ever learn to live with someone I have no time for. So get that into your head right now...there will be no arranged marriages for this estranged son. If I even think about your terms, then you can think about mine, too. I have no intention of giving up my life just so you can use me as bait against your mad uncle!"

"We're not using you as bait." Mason rested his hand on Clay's arm. "Really, that's not the intention. We don't want to bring Trevor to Wissex. I just want to settle my succession while it's in my mind to do it, and while you're here to speak to, as well. I realise how you feel right now about it all. It's as big a shock to you as it was to me when my mother first sat me down and told me my father was the Earl of Wissex and that everything in my world would change when I turned twenty one. But it's in your blood, Clayton. You can't turn your back on your responsibilities - not even if you didn't ask for them."

Clay met his father's gaze, his eyes like pieces of cold flint.

"I will choose what I do, without you telling me what I should or shouldn't decide." He said softly. "And I won't be told how to live or who to marry by a father who's shown no interest in me till now. I take your points about Wissex, and that is the only reason I've even given this any of my time. But I am my own man - a fact that, when you've known me longer, you'll be left in no doubt about. I don't follow anyone else's orders."

He got to his feet.

"Lunch is over." He added unecessarily. "I'll be in touch...if I feel it necessary...when I've had time to work things out for myself."

"Please, Clayton..."

"Noone ever calls me Clayton." Clay interrupted. "They call me Clay, because I hate my full name. You'd best start doing it too, else you might find I don't answer any more."

He offered a cold smile.

"Goodbye, Mason." He said softly. "No doubt you'll find another reason for us to meet before my stay in England is over."

Before his father could say anything, he had left the room, banging the door purposefully behind him as he stalked out onto the front forecourt to the car that had brought him to the big estate. Clambering in the back, he told the driver to take him back to the hotel in firm tones, sitting back against the seat as he ran over the conversation in his head.

His mind whirled.

"He wants me to get rid of Mari and choose a suitable blue-blooded wife." He muttered. "Be a puppet heir, make him feel better about his stupid, dysfunctional family and his lack of ability to get his own wife knocked up. He doesn't want a son - just someone to throw everything on top of so that it looks like he has a proper heir. And I'll be damned if I'm going to give up being Clayton Blake for a man I never met before this tour began."

He glanced out of the window at the landscape, taking in the fields and valleys and a small village at the crest of a hill. He pursed his lips.

"He has me in a bind." He acknowledged unwillingly. "Because he knows it's not just about him and his stupid house. It's about more than that. It's what I said to Luca...the expectations and the needs of the people he lives around. The ones who rely on his position for their livelihoods. I thought that went out with the peasants' revolt, but obviously I don't know as much about it as I thought. Whatever Mason's other motives, he hit a nerve with that one. But dammit, does he really think I can turn my back on the band and hell, on Marissa? Let him choose me a docile rich wife and stick me away in an empty wing of the house till it's time to use me? That's not my life. It's never been my life."

They pulled up in front of the hotel and, after tipping the driver and sending him on his way, Clay made his way inside.

"Clay!" Before he could reach the lift shaft, a voice called his name and he swung around, seeing Marissa eying him quizzically. At the sight of her he hurried towards her, taking her up in his arms and kissing her gently.

"I love you." He said softly. "You know that, right?"

"Of course I do." Marissa looked confused. "Clay, what's the matter? You look shaken."

"I need to talk to you." Glancing at her, Clay made up his mind in an instant. He slipped his hand into hers. "Will you come with me? Out into the gardens? I need to talk to you somewhere we can be...alone."

"Sure." Marissa shrugged her shoulders. "But what happened? Did Mason say something...bad? Has Trevor made contact with the estate...or...?"

"No. Nothing like that." Clay led her through the rear sitting room to the big french doors, pushing them open and guiding her out into the hotel grounds. As he'd hoped, they were deserted, and he picked his way across the grass to an old oaken bench, pulling her down beside him. "Nothing like that at all."

"Then what?"

"I don't know what he expects of me." Clay sighed heavily. "Or rather, I do...but I don't know how he has the nerve to ask it. Luca thought that it might just be a token thing - in name only, that I could easily push off onto someone else when the time came. But..."

He shook his head.

"I don't think Mason thinks that way."

"So what does he want you to do, then?" Marissa asked gently. "What has he asked of you?"

"He made it quite clear that there's no future in the music world for the heir of the Earldom of Wissex." Clay said bitterly. "And that any women I met along the way would likely want my title or money and not care about me."

"That's nonsense." Marissa snorted. "I don't want you for a title or any money. I want you as Clayton Blake. Mason's mad."

"No, he just thinks everyone's life follows the path of his own." Clay shrugged. "Mari, he wants me to leave Diablo. He didn't say it in as many words, but he made it plain that's what he meant. And that I should settle myself to marrying someone he chose, to be Lady Wissex - someone who 'understood' what being a Lady of the Manor was all about. Someone who wouldn't stalk me for titles or inheritance, because she'd already have it in abundance. A token wife. A fake life."

"But..." Marissa's eyes became big with horror and her grip on his hand tightened. "Oh no, Clay, you can't! What about...what about me? Us? Please...tell me you're not even considering it. Please, Clay...what would I do without you? And Diablo...Diablo needs you! It's your family - our family. Are you seriously thinking about doing as he says?"

Clay eyed his girlfriend for a moment, seeing the tears in the soft blue eyes. He shook his head.

"I'll be damned before I let anything come between you and I." He said quietly. "And I damn well told Mason that I wasn't going to be used as a tool in his plans for the Hawthorne future. Not that way. If I consider this on any terms, it will be on mine. I'm not losing you, Mari. I couldn't."

"Oh." Relief flooded Marissa's expression and she leant up against him, closing her eyes. "Oh good. For a moment then, I was afraid..."

Clay kissed her softly on the forehead.

"Well, you should have more faith in me." He said gruffly. "It took me bloody long enough to hook up with you really think I'd lose you now?"

"I'd hope not." Marissa's eyes snapped open. "But Mason...? What did he say to that?"

"I didn't give him much chance to say anything." Clay shrugged. "I left. But I dunno, Mari. I should never have spoken to him at Wissex. It's complicated, now. I know there's more at stake than my father's ego...and in a sense, even if I don't want it to be, that is partly my responsibility too. If I walk away...I mean, I don't choose to be Mason Hawthorne's son, but then again, if there is noone else but a madman to take his place..."

He trailed off, shaking his head. "In the end, I'm not sure whether I could walk away from that and let everything fall into chaos. I'd be a part of that accessory to the destruction of people's lives. I don't know if I could live with that."

"So...what?" Marissa asked anxiously. "You are considering leaving the band?"

"Not if I can help it." Clay shook his head. "Mason may have had difficulties, but I'm not my father...and I know what's important to me, Mari. You. Music. The band. Years of hard graft and dedication to a common cause."

He bit his lip.

"But one thing did occur to me." He whispered. "Mason seems set on the idea of marrying me off to some rich bitch who would probably snort down her nose at the idea of being matched to his bastard son anyhow. I can't have that. Won't have it."

"Well, nor will I." Marissa said firmly. "If I have to go over there and tell him myself!"

"It occured to me." Clay said slowly. "That there is one way he would never be able to do that. Never be able to split us up and interfere in our relationship - no matter how much he disapproved."

"I'm listening." Marissa squeezed his hand again. "What way?"

Clay stood, pulling her to her feet and meeting her gaze with his. He put his hands on her shoulders.

"I love you more than I have ever loved anyone." He said soberly. "I've never been happier than I have since you and I hooked up, Mari...and even though most of the time I don't think I deserve to have you, I'm damn glad that I do. You know that, right?"

"Of course I know it." Marissa looked surprised. "I feel the same way."

"Good." Clay swallowed hard. "Because I was thinking on my way back here, and I know better than I've ever done what I really want. I've always been good at procrastinating, and avoiding how I really feel. But Mason brought me into sharp focus today, when he outlined his vision for my future. I realised, on the drive back to the hotel, that there is one thing I want more than anything else. And that's you. Always."

Marissa did not speak, and he gently touched her cheek.

"I want you to marry me." He said softly. "Here. Now. As soon as possible. I want to make you Mrs Blake...and have you for the rest of time, no matter what anyone else says or thinks."

He bit his lip, raising his gaze to hers and seeing that her blue eyes sparkled with tears.

"It may be a lot to ask." He continued. "And sudden, and you may call me crazy and tell me to get a grip. But I've never been more sure of anything, Mari. Not ever. I just...I need to know if you feel the same way. If you could...if you feel that you...if you would be my wife."

Marissa swallowed hard, moistening her lips as the tears began to fall.

"Oh Clay." She murmured. "That's the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me."

"I bloody hope so." Despite himself, Clay looked rueful. "In case you didn't notice, I just frigging proposed...I might not be St Valentine, but I'd hate to think that anyone else had it beat."

"Oh, you idiot." Marissa laughed, flinging her arms around him. "You're hopeless, you know that?"

"Probably." Clay agreed. "But I meant it, Mari. Everything. All of it."

"I know you did." Marissa nodded her head. "And that's why it means so much to me."

She kissed him gently.

"I love you." She murmured. "And of course I will marry you. I...I suppose I kinda hoped one day you'd ask me, but...I didn't expect it to be quite like this."

Clay hugged her tightly.

"Sometimes I guess I need something to happen to prod me in the right direction." He said sheepishly. "But Mason opened my eyes today. Losing Diablo...I would hate it. But losing you...I couldn't live like that. I know that."

He held her at arm's length.

"And if I did become Earl of Wissex? You could live with that?"

"Whatever you decide, Clay, I'll be there and support you." Marissa told him firmly. "Though I think you make a better drummer than you would an Earl - if that's your destiny, then well, it's mine too. Till death us do part...I'm all yours."

"Good." Clay's eyes lit up with a mixture of hope and excitement. "Because I know exactly where to go...if we leave now, we could be back before tomorrow's photoshoots and interviews."

"Now?" Marissa stared. "You meant that? Now? Without telling Stef or Luca or anyone? Or having any family or anything else there? You really truly want us to elope, Clay...? Now?"

"Now." Clay said solemnly. "If you want it, we can have another ceremony back in Los Angeles, with everyone there. But for now, I just want it to be legal. And binding. And proof positive that Mason can't split us up, no matter what he thinks."

Marissa was silent for a moment, as if debating, and Clay bit his lip, watching her expression anxiously. At length, however, she held out her hand to him.

"Then let's go." She said softly. "Because all that matters is that I love you, and no Earl of Wissex is going to interfere in that."

Prologue: London, England
Chapter One: England's Rose
Chapter Two: Delving
Chapter Three: Wissex
Chapter Four: Grace
Chapter Five: Revelations
Chapter Six: Facing Shadows
Chapter Seven: A Change In Plans
Chapter Eight: County Show
Chapter Nine: Trevor Hawthorne
Chapter Ten: A Sea Chest
Chapter Eleven: Binding
Chapter Twelve: Homecoming
Chapter Thirteen: Hawthorne Blood
Chapter Fourteen: Mayfair

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