"The cheek of the fellow! How dare he come into my wife's parlor demanding money?"
Robert leaned back against the door and regarded the rector steadily.
"Perhaps he needs to feed his family?"
"I meant to pay him! It's a paltry sum, and it just slipped my mind. He could've waited until the next bill was due and written me a letter, but no, he had to turn up here and insult me."
"He was hardly insulting, sir," Robert said quietly. "In truth, he was mortally embarrassed to have to raise the matter with you at all."
"Well, so he should be," the rector sniffed. "As I will no longer be a customer of his, I can tell you that."
"But, Father, you have always told me that he is the best miller around," Lucy interjected, her worried gaze going between Robert, Rose, and her father. "And—"
"I did not ask for your opinion on this matter, Daughter." Lucy's father cut across her. "May I suggest you concentrate on managing your own household and leave mine alone?"
He stormed out of the parlor, slamming the door behind him.
Lucy's mouth snapped shut, and Robert instinctively moved toward her.
"Perhaps it is time for us to leave as well, Lucy."
Rose put her hand on his arm. "There is no need for that, my dears. When Ambrose calms down he will realize that no one is holding him at fault here. We all realize that he has many obligations both pastoral and spiritual to occupy his time and can be forgiven for forgetting a tradesman's bill." She paused to resume her seat. "Maybe I should have made sure that the bill was paid on time."
Lucy sniffed, her chin held high. "It is good of you to take the blame for my father, ma'am, but as I know all too well, he has always insisted on controlling the family finances himself."
"I'm sure your father and Rose will sort this matter out in their own way, my love." Robert took hold of Lucy's elbow and gently squeezed. "Perhaps we should be on our way."
He smiled at his aunt. "Thank you for the tea."
Keeping a firm grip on his wife's arm, he headed for the door, only to stop again when it was flung open and another unexpected visitor marched into the parlor.
"There you are, Mama!"
Lucy's fingernails dug into the nap of his coat as Henrietta, Lady Northam, Rose's eldest daughter from her first marriage, swept into the room and gave them all a haughty stare. She was a handsome woman whose expression was often marred by a scowl. She wore a bonnet with such tall feathers that she looked six feet tall, and an elaborate embroidered pelisse that was most unsuitable for the countryside.
"What on earth are you doing here?" Rose asked.
"Am I not welcome?" Henrietta's smile turned glacial. "In my own mother's house?"
"Of course you are," Rose hastened to say. "But one usually writes a letter to let one's mother know of one's intention to visit."
"I did write. Did you not receive it?" Henrietta asked, which was such an obvious falsehood that even Robert noticed. "Perhaps the letter went astray?"
"If you had written to me, I would've told you that this is not a good time to visit." Rose raised her voice slightly. She was generally an even-tempered woman but not one to be bullied in her own home. "We are having a christening for Robert and Lucy's newest child, and the house is full to bursting."
"And you didn't think to invite me?" Henrietta pressed a hand to her bosom. "I am quite distraught, Mama."
Lucy cleared her throat. "I did send you an invitation, Henrietta, but as I received no reply, I assumed you had a prior engagement."
Henrietta turned her attention toward Lucy. "I didn't receive an invitation, and to be perfectly honest, I doubt you considered sending me one."
As Lucy bristled, it was Robert's turn to speak up. "I can assure you that one was sent, Henrietta. My wife is extremely efficient in such matters. One has to wonder whether your own secretary is half as competent?"