Book 1 in the Captive Hearts series
Christian Severn, Duke of Mercia, is captured out of uniform by the French, and is thus subject to torture. Christian does not break, not once, and is released when Toulouse falls. Back in England, Christian has great difficulty taking up the reins of his life until Gillian, Countess of Windmere, a relation of his late wife, pointedly reminds him that he has a daughter who still needs him very much—a daughter who no longer speaks. Gilly pushes, pulls, and drags Christian back to life, and slowly, she and he admit an attraction to each other.
Christian offers Gilly marriage, but Gilly is a widow, and has fared badly at the hands of her first husband. Gillian will not pledge her heart to a man bent on violence, for Christian cannot give up his determination to extract revenge from his torturer. What will it take for them to give up their stubborn convictions and choose each other over the bonds of the past?
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Enjoy An Excerpt
In his personal hell, Christian Donatus Severn, eighth Duke of Mercia, considered the pedagogic days the worst of a horrific lot—also the most precious.The days when his captors used his suffering to teach the arcane art of interrogation might cost him his sanity, even his honor, but they also ensured he would some day, some night, some eternity if necessary, have that sweetest of satisfactions—revenge.
“You see before you the mortal form of a once great and powerful man, Corporal,” Girard said, pacing slowly between the table his prisoner had been lashed to and the damp stone wall where the corporal stood at attention.
Girard was a stranger to hurry, a necessary trait in a torturer. A big, dark, lean acolyte of the Corsican, Girard lived in Christian’s awareness the way consumption dwelled in the minds of those it afflicted.
“Our duke is still great, to my mind,” Girard went on, “because His Grace has not, as the English say, broken.”
Girard blathered on in his subtly accented French, and despite willing it to the contrary, Christian translated easily. As Girard’s ironic praise and patriotic devotion blended in a curiously mesmerizing patter, Girard’s superior, Henri Anduvoir—the actual intended student—lurked off in the shadows.
Bad luck in a man’s superiors was not the exclusive province of Wellington’s army. Girard made a science of extracting truth from those reluctant to part with it, and pain was only one tool at his disposal.
Anduvoir, a simpler and in some ways more evil soul, was plainly addicted to hurting others for his own entertainment.
Christian filled his mind with the lovely truth that someday, Anduvoir, too, would be made to suffer, and suffer, and suffer.
“Yet. Our duke has not broken yet,” Girard went on. “I challenge you, Corporal, to devise the torment or the prize that will break him, but be mindful that our challenge grows the longer His Grace is silent. When the good God above put Mercia into our hands all those months ago, we sought to know through which pass Wellington would move his troops. We know now, so what, I ask you, is the point of the exercise? Why not simply toss this living carcass to the wolves?”
Yes, please God, why not?
And then another thought intruded on Christian’s efforts to distance himself from the goings-on in that cell: Was Girard letting slip that Wellington, had, in fact, moved troops into France itself? Girard played a diabolical game of cat and mouse, hope and despair, in a role that blended tormenter and protector with a subtlety a better-fed man might find fascinating.
“We yet enjoy His Grace’s charming company because the duke serves another purpose,” Girard prosed on. “He did not break, so we must conclude he is sent here to teach us the breaking of a strong man. One might say, an inhumanly strong man. Now…”
The scent of rich Turkish tobacco wafted to Christian’s nose, cutting through the fragrance of lavender Girard favored and the perpetual damp of the chateau’s lower reaches. Christian’s meager breakfast threatened a reappearance, a helpful development in truth. He focused not on Girard’s lilting, philosophical French, but on holding the nausea at bay, for he had reason to know a man could choke on his own vomit.
A boot scraped, and by senses other than sight, Christian divined that Anduvoir had come out of his shadows, a reptile in search of his favorite variety of heat.
“Enough lecturing, Colonel Girard. Your pet has not told us of troop movements. In fact, the man no longer talks at all, do you, mon duc?” Anduvoir sucked a slow drag of his cigar, then gently placed the moist end of it against Christian’s lips. “I long for the sound of even one hearty English scream. Long for it desperately.”
Christian turned his head away in a response Girard, who was by no means a stupid man, would have predicted. Anduvoir was an infrequent visitor, though, and like any attentive host—or prudent subordinate—Girard trotted out the best entertainments for his guest.
Anduvoir moved into Christian’s line of sight, which, given the careful lack of expression on Girard’s face, was bad news all around. Anduvoir was short, dark, coarse featured, and behind his Gallic posturing, suffused with the glee of a bully whose victim could not elude torment.
“A quiet man, our duke.” Anduvoir expelled smoke through his nose. “Or perhaps, not so quiet.”
He laid the burning tip of the cigar against the soft skin inside Christian’s elbow with the same care he’d put it to his prisoner’s mouth, letting a small silence mark the moment when the scent of scorched flesh rose.
The blinding, searing pain howled from Christian’s arm to his mind, where it joined the memory of a thousand similar pains and coalesced into one roaring chant:
“Lord Greendale was a man of great influence,” Dr. Martin said, clearing his throat in a manner Silly was coming to loathe, the way she’d loathed the sight of Greendale lighting one of his foul cheroots in her private parlor.
“His lordship enjoyed very great influence,” Gilly replied, eyes down, as befit a woman facing the widowed state.
The bad news came exactly as expected: “You should prepare for an inquest, my lady.”
“An inquest?” Gilly gestured for her guest to take a seat, eight years of marriage to Greendale having taught her to produce an appearance of calm at will.“Theophilus, the man of great influence was universally disliked, approaching his threescore and ten, and the victim of an apoplexy in the midst of a formal dinner for twenty-eight of his most trusted toadies. What will an inquest serve?”
Since Greendale’s apoplexy, Gilly had dared to order that the fires in her parlor be kept burning through the day, and yet, the physician’s words chilled her more effectively than if a window had banged open.
“Lady Greendale…” Martin shifted a black satchel from right hand to left, making the contents rattle softly. Gilly was convinced the only items of interest in that bag were a selection of pocket flasks.
“Countess, you must not speak so freely, even to me. I will certainly be put under oath and questioned at length. I cannot imagine what the wrong words inthe hands of the lawyers will do to your reputation.”
His wrong words, over which he’d have no control, of course. A just God would afflict such a physician with a slow, painful death.
“Reputation matters little if one is to swing for murder.”
“It won’t come to that,” Martin said, but he remained poised by the door, bag in hand, as if lingering in Gilly’s presence might taint him not with her guilt—for she was innocent of wrongdoing toward her late spouse—but with her vulnerability to accusations. “I had Harrison consult on the case, and he confirmed my diagnosis by letter not two days after the apoplexy.”
Dr. Theophilus Martin had observed this precaution not because he was intent on safeguarding Greendale’s young widow, but because his late, unlamentedlordship had created an air of mistrust thick enough to pollute every corner of the house.
“What am I to be charged with?” Stupidity, certainly, for having married Greendale, but Gilly’s family had been adamant—“You’ll be a countess!”—and she’dbeen so young…
Dr. Martin smoothed a soft hand over snow-white hair. “You are not accused of anything.”
His lengthy, silent examination of the framed verses of Psalm 23 hanging over the sideboard confirmed that Gilly would, indeed, face suspicion. Her lifehad become a series of accusations grounded in nothing more than an old man’s febrile imagination, and he’d made those accusations where any servant mighthave overheard them.
“They will say I put a pillow over his face, won’t they?”
“They can’t. You had a nurse in the room at all times, didn’t you? Lovely stitch work, my lady.”
Gilly had been accompanied by two nurses, as often as possible, and the stitch work would go to the poorhouse as soon as the inquest was over.
“If I was with his lordship, a nurse was always present—or you, yourself. Will the nurses be suspect?”
She did not ask if Martin would come under suspicion, because quite honestly, she was too afraid to care. He’d been summoned to Greendale Hall on manyoccasions, and had socialized with Lord Greendale as often as he’d treated him. His solicitude of Gilly now likely had to do with seeing his substantialbill paid.
“I hired the nurses based on my personal experience of them, so no, I shouldn’t think they’ll come under suspicion,” Martin said.
Because the physician was eyeing the door, Gilly fired off the most important question, and to Hades with dignity.
“Who’s behind this, Theophilus? My husband is not yet put in the ground, and already you’re telling me of an inquest.”
Though thank a merciful Deity, Martin’s torpid humanitarian instincts had resulted in this warning, at least. Another smoothing of his leonine manefollowed, while the fingers of his left hand tightened on the black leather handle tellingly.
“I thought it the better part of kindness not to burden you with this news prematurely, but Lord Greendale himself apparently told his heir to see to theformalities.”
And to think Gilly had prayed for her husband’s recovery. “Easterbrook ordered this? He’s still in France or Spain or somewhere serving the Crown.”
“As heir to Lord Greendale’s title and fortune, Marcus Easterbrook would have left instructions with his solicitors, and they would in turn have been incommunication with King’s Counsel and the local magistrate.”
Men. Always so organized when bent on aggravation and aspersion. “Greendale was the magistrate. To whom does that dubious honor fall now?”
“Likely to Squire Gordon.”
Gordon was a hounds-and-horses fellow, and he’d never toadied to Greendale. A fraction of Gilly’s panic eased.
“Shall you have some tea, Theophilus? It’s good and hot.” Also strong for a change, Gilly’s second act of independence from the infernal economiesGreendale had imposed on her.
“Thank you, my lady, but no.” Martin turned toward the door, then hesitated, hand on the latch.
“You needn’t tarry, Theophilus. You’ve served the family loyally, and that has been far from easy.” He’d served the family discreetly, too. Verydiscreetly. “I suppose I’ll see you at the inquest.”
He nodded once and slipped away, confirming that he would not call in even a professional capacity before the legalities were resolved, not if he wanted tomaintain the appearance of impartiality. Not if he wanted to keep the Crown’s men from turning their sites on him as well.
Gilly added coal to the fire—rest in peace, Lord Greendale—and stared into the flames for long moments, weighing her very few options as best one couldweigh options when in a flat, terrified panic.
As her strong, hot tea grew tepid in the pot, she sat down with pen and ink, and begged an interview with Gervaise Stoneleigh, the coldest, most astute,most expensive barrister ever to turn down Greendale’s coin.
And that decision very likely saved her life.
“Girard gave me final orders concerning you.”
Christian turned his head slowly. He was still recovering from the last teaching day, a sorry effort on the corporal’s part, consisting of familiartortures enthusiastically applied the better to impress Anduvoir, while Girard had stood bristling with silent censure.
Girard did not approve of brute maneuvers that produced no results, and one had to respect Girard’s sense of efficiency.
“You don’t care that Girard might have given me orders to kill you, do you?”
The jailer sounded Irish, or on rare occasions when nobody else was about, Scottish, and Christian admitted—in the endless privacy of his thoughts—to beinggrateful to hear English in any accent other than French.
And typical of Girard’s cunning, the jailer was also a frequent source of small kindnesses intended to torment the prisoner with that most cruel weapon:hope.
“Girard said I’m not to allow you to suffer, on account of what’s gone before. Said you’d earned your battle honors, so to speak, though it would be amercy to allow you to join your duchess and your son. He said you’re a man who can trust no one, and the life that awaits you won’t be worth living forlong, assuming your enemies don’t ambush you from the hedges of Surrey.”
Ah. The old lie, for Christian had no enemies in Surrey, and his wife and son yet thrived at home in England. Severn was a veritable fortress, staffed byretainers whose loyalty went back generations. Girard was simply a petty evil allowed to flourish in the bowels of the Grand Armee’s outpost on the slopesof the Pyrenees, and this claim that Helene and Evan were dead was merely a blunt weapon in Girard’s arsenal.
Which Girard would pay for using.
Christian focused on ignoring the man speaking to him, a big blond fellow with watchful green eyes and a wary devotion to Girard. Girard referred to him as“Michel;” the other guards quietly referred to him in less affectionate terms.
The jailer held a gleaming, bone-handled knife, its presence a matter of complete indifference to Christian—almost. The knife had become something of afriend to Christian—for a time—until Anduvoir had found a use for it no man could contemplate sanely.
“Orthez fell in February,” the jailer said, still lingering near the open door of the cell—a taunt that, leaving the cell door unlatched when Christian waspowerless to escape. “That was weeks ago, not that you’d know, poor sod. Bordeaux was last month. Toulouse has been taken, and we’ve heard rumors Napoleonhas abdicated. Girard’s gone.”
None of it was true. These fairy tales were a variation on the stories the jailer told from time to time in an effort to raise hopes. Christian knewbetter: hopes that refused to rise couldn’t be dashed.
The jailer came no closer.
“I’ve seen what went on here, and I’m sorry for it,” he said, sounding Scottish indeed, and damnably sincere. “Girard is sorry for it, too. This was war,true enough, but when Anduvoir came around…”
But nothing. Christian was tied to the cot, a periodic nuisance he’d long since become inured to. Girard’s greatest cruelty had been to show his prisoneronly enough care to ensure Christian wouldn’t die. The mattress was thin but clean, and Christian probably had more blankets than the infantry quarteredelsewhere in the old chateau.
He was fed.
If he refused to eat, he was fed by force. If he refused to bathe, he was bathed by force as well. If he refused his occasional sortie into the chateau’scourtyard, where fresh air and sunshine assaulted his senses every bit as brutally as the guards assaulted his body, he was escorted there by force.
Eventually, the force had been unnecessary, for a man strong enough to escape was a man who preserved the hope of revenge, and Christian wanted to remainthat strong. He endured the fresh air and sunlight, he ate the food given him by his captors, nourishing not himself, but his dreams of revenge.
Girard had understood that too, and had understood how to manipulate even that last, best hope.
Christian was required to heal between sessions with Girard or the various corporals, and he was given medical care when the corporals—or more oftenAnduvoir— got out of hand. Now he’d earned a simple, relatively painless death.
He tried to muster gratitude, fear, relief, something.
Anything, besides a towering regret that revenge would be denied him.
“I’m sorry,” the jailer said again, “I’m so bloody sorry.”
Girard had said the same things, always softly, always sincerely, as he’d lowered Christian carefully to the cot where the mandatory healing wouldcommence.
Christian felt the knife slicing at the bindings around his wrists and ankles, felt the agony of blood surging into his hands, then his feet.
“I’m sorry,” the jailer said again.
And then Christian felt…nothing.
“Orders fly in all directions once the guns go silent.”
Devlin St. Just—Colonel St. Just, thank you very much—was complaining about peace, one of the career soldier’s dubious privileges. “During wartime, the paperwork was limited to one side of a line,” he went on. “Now we’re galloping the length and breadth of Europe because pigeons simply won’t do.”
“If you brought Baldy orders, they must be important,” Marcus Easterbrook observed—though he was finally Lord Greendale now. He would not bruit the title about until he’d received word of the final outcome of the inquest, bad form being an offense among Wellington’s officers tantamount to treason.
Easterbrook took a nip of brandy, then passed his fellow officer the bottle, because a victorious army was supposed to be a gracious, cheerful institution—also because, like many who rode dispatch, St. Just had the ears of the generals. Brandy, alas, constituted the sum total of the amenities available in Easterbrook’s tent, unless one counted the occasional camp whore.
Colonel St. Just was built like a dragoon, big, muscular, and capable of wielding rifle or sword with deadly intent. Easterbrook did not envy the larger man his dispatch rides, though. For the sake of the horse, the rider traveled light, and for the sake of the orders, he traveled hard, taking routes more direct than prudent.
“One shouldn’t swill decent brandy, Easterbrook.” St. Just tipped a finger’s worth into his glass. “Bad form.”
St. Just had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, but it had been a ducal blanket. Easterbrook poured himself three fingers into a chipped glass and moderated his reply accordingly.
“One develops a certain tolerance for lapses of form during war.”
“Does one bloody ever.” St. Just swirled his drink, held it under his not-exactly-delicate nose, then set it on the table untouched. “Tell me about this lost duke. He’s the talk of the entire camp, though we hadn’t heard of him up in Paris.”
A small mercy, that.
“The lost duke is a legend here in the South and around the passes,” Easterbrook said, wondering why, of all vices, St. Just had to be willing to gossip. “The eighth Duke of Mercia was attached to Wellington’s Peninsular Army, serving mostly on His Grace’s staff. He’d produced his heir and bought a commission in the family tradition.”
“One baby does not a ducal succession ensure.”
No, it did not, alas for the poor duke, though if memory served, St. Just had a proper litter of legitimate siblings.
“You’d have to have known Mercia,” Easterbrook said. “Had all the brass in the world. As arrogant as only a duke born and bred can be, and as his cousin, I can assure you, the succession was not in jeopardy. My father was younger brother to the ducal heir, though Papa took the surname of his bride as a condition of the marriage settlements. I am every inch a Severn.”
“You know His Grace?”
As if a duke would not associate with a mere cousin?
“He was my only living adult relation on my father’s side, his father having been my eldest uncle. In any case, Mercia bought his colors and served honorably, but simply disappeared one morning last summer. We found his uniform, shaving kit, and his horse near a stream running north of the camp, and concluded he’d drowned while bathing.”
Though as a boy, Christian had swum like an otter. Easterbrook had even said as much to the investigating officers, who’d viewed it as possible evidence of desertion.
Desertion, by a peer and an officer. The board of inquiry hadn’t been very fond of their ducal comrade. Pity, that.
St. Just was apparently not impressed with the brandy, for he ran his finger around the top of the glass rather than consume his portion. “A grown man drowned in a stream?”
“You served in Spain?”
“For years, clear back to Portugal,” St. Just said, that finger pausing in its circumnavigation of the rim. “Yes, I know: sudden floods, tinkers, locals sympathetic to the French, French deserters… His Grace would have been well blessed to die by drowning.”
“He might agree with you, were he still alive. Smoke?” Easterbrook certainly agreed with him.
“I don’t indulge.” He didn’t indulge, he rode like the wind, and he’d paused a moment, eyes closed, before consuming his midday peasant fare of black bread, butter, boiled potatoes, and beef cooked to mush. After the belching, farting company in the officer’s mess, such a paragon should have been a refreshing change, and yet, Easterbrook was not enjoying St. Just’s company.
Easterbrook clipped off the end of a cheroot, because he did indulge.
“A few weeks after Mercia disappeared, we heard rumors the French had captured a high-ranking English officer out of uniform.”
St. Just shifted his stool a foot closer to the tent flaps tied back to catch the prevailing breeze. “Poor sod.”
“I know men who wouldn’t bathe, lest they lose the protection afforded them by their officer’s uniform.” For the French considered any English officer captured out of uniform a spy, and indulged their interrogatory whims on such unfortunates without limit or mercy.
“I certainly kept my colors handy,” St. Just mused.
Easterbrook passed the cut end of the cheroot under his nose, and took a whiff of privilege and pleasure, however minor.
“I was seldom out of uniform myself. When the rumors died down, a letter was carried from parts unknown to one of Wellington’s aides, unsigned, but purporting to be from a French doctor. Said a titled English officer was being held under torture and should be quietly ransomed.”
St. Just paused, his glass halfway to his lips. “That’s unusual.”
Ransom was unusual and officially unavailable, both sides having decided to hold prisoners for the duration of the hostilities. At last count, some Englishmen had enjoyed the dubious hospitality of Verdun for more than ten years.
“Suspiciously unusual,” Easterbrook allowed, though Christian had been lucky from the cradle, and protocol regarding prisoners was often honored in the breach. “Word of the letter disappeared into diplomatic channels, but spies were sent out who apparently reported to Wellington that they found nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing.”
“And yet, you began to hope?”
“Hope for what? By that time it had been months. Mercia was raised with every privilege and wasn’t shy about indulging himself. Even in the officers’ internment up in Verdun, he would have fared badly. How would a man like that cope with torture? How would any man? And after that much time, one had to wonder if Mercia would even want rescuing.”
St. Just studied his drink, when most officers would have long since tossed it back and helped themselves to a refill.
“His Grace had a wife and son. Why wouldn’t he want rescuing?”
“Cleaning up after Soult, we’ve freed some prisoners of war, and they did not fare well in the hands of the French.”
“The French themselves did not fare well,” St. Just countered, peering at the label on the brandy bottle as if actually reading what was written there—in French, of course. “One doesn’t expect prisoners to enjoy full rations, regardless of whose care they’re in.”
“The deprivation is only part of it.” Easterbrook used the oil lantern on the table to light his cheroot, then poured himself more brandy and cast around for a change of topic. “Is there any pleasure more gratifying than decent libation, a lusty whore, and a good smoke?”
“A lasting and fair peace,” St. Just said, his gaze off to the northwest, in the direction of Merry Olde England, no less. “But you were telling me about your cousin.”
The colonel would rather discuss a missing duke than naughty women. War did strange things to some men.
“The lost duke, whom I believe to be with his Maker as we speak. When Toulouse fell a few weeks ago, some half-soused Paddy of questionable loyalties let slip that a titled English officer had been held in some crumbling chateau in the foothills of the mountains. Seems the place was built on the site of a medieval castle, complete with dungeons. He said the prisoner was freed when the castle was abandoned by the gallant French.”
“They’re the defeated French now.”
“So they are.” Easterbrook lifted his glass in salute, and took a drag of pungent tobacco.
And made another effort to change the damned topic. “You shipping out for Canada with everybody else?”
“I have family obligations, though I doubt I’ll sell out. You’ve concluded this Irishman was lying?”
This was the same tenacity that ensured orders entrusted to St. Just reached their destination, no matter what. Easterbrook was beginning to hate his guest nearly as much as he respected him.
“The Irishman was…” Easterbrook paused as the acrid smoke curled toward the tent’s ceiling. What to say? To crave a wealthy dukedom wasn’t a sin, was it? “The Irishman was none too sober, and his motives were questionable. What was he doing inside that chateau, hmm? And where is this lost duke now, when every soul knows the Emperor has abdicated.”
St. Just twitched the tent flap, as if to let in a bit more light, though Easterbrook took small satisfaction from the smoke bothering his guest.
“If Mercia was tortured at length, his mental faculties might not be at their sharpest,” St. Just said. “And what would he gain by marching even this far north, as opposed to making his way directly home from the coast?”
“How could he afford passage home? How could a man subjected to deprivation and torture for that long travel any distance on foot? Assuming he’s alive—which I have not for months—he’s a bloody hero. As for those impersonating Mercia and claiming to be the lost duke, we give them a hot meal and nominal courtesy, until I can assure the generals we’ve another charlatan on our hands. Then the mountebank is run off to make shift with some other scheme.”
And still the damned man merely sat back, folded his arms over a broad chest, and watched the smoke curling upward.
“For a French physician to put something in writing like that… He’d have been shot as a traitor to the Republique if the letter had fallen into the wrong hands.”
Tobacco was said to calm the nerves. Easterbrook inhaled deeply, until the tip of his cheroot flared bright red, then let the smoke ease out through his nose.
“Mercia might have been taken prisoner, but what are the chances the French would capture a man naked from his bath, deny him the chance to get into uniform, realize he’s a bloody duke, and continue to hold him for interrogation against all policy to the contrary? That would exceed bad form considerably.
“Besides,” Easterbrook rose as he went on, because it was time to run his guest off, “we suffered no lapses of intelligence that suggest this prisoner might have been Mercia. Mercia was in on all the meetings, consulted on strategy, had even scouted some of the passes. He’s a canny devil—was a canny devil, for all his arrogance—and the French would have been well served if they’d laid their hands on him.”
“If he broke.”
Easterbrook tipped the bottle to his lips, because it would somehow be empty when he returned to his tent, victory and graciousness notwithstanding.
“I’d break,” Easterbrook said, quietly. Perhaps he’d had too much brandy, or perhaps he’d spent too much time in the company of Colonel Paragon St. Just. “I’d try to hold out, but one hears stories, and I’m sorry St. Just, one officer to another, I’d break.”
“You don’t know that.” St. Just rose too easily for man who’d ridden the distance from Paris. “My thanks for the hospitality, for the meal, the drink, and your company. I’m off to check on my horse.”
Bless the beast. “Your horse?”
“I ride my own mounts. I’m safer that way, and as much ground as we’ve covered the past few days, I need to take him out and stretch his legs, keep him from stiffening up. You’re welcome to join me.”
“Excuse me, Colonel Easterbrook, Colonel St. Just?” A subaltern who might soon be of an age to shave came puffing to a stop right outside the tent, then saluted with the exaggerated enthusiasm of the young and never injured.
“Anders.” Easterbrook took one last drag on his smoke, tossed the stub to the ground, and rubbed it out with the toe of his boot. “Are you on an errand for Baldy?”
“General Baldridge has another lost duke for you, sir. We put him in the officer’s mess.”
“Famous.” Easterbrook chugged the dregs from the brandy bottle and tossed it aside. “Does this one at least speak English?”
“He doesn’t say much at all, sir, though his eyes are a frightful blue.”
“Well, the poor devil got that much right. Fetch my horse, Anders. St. Just and I will hack out when we’ve dispensed with His Latest Grace. Come along, St. Just. Lost dukes only show up once a week or so in these parts. They’re our entertainment, now that the Frogs no longer oblige.”
Christian stood outside the tent, the spring breeze nigh making his sore teeth chatter—though it hadn’t obscured a word of the exchange that had taken place inside.
“He’s another lost duke.” The subaltern had kept his tone expressionless as he passed along the message to some general. “Third one this month, but we’ve sent for Colonel Easterbrook, sir.”
“Poor Easterbrook.” The senior officer blew out a gusty breath, and Christian heard what sounded like a pen being tossed onto a table, then a chair creak. “I suppose this one has a tale as well?”
“Not that I’ve heard, sir. He looks… Well…”
“Permission to speak freely, Blevins.”
“If I were claiming to have wandered the heights for months, living on nothing, perhaps crazed from a blow to the head or captured by Frogs, it would help if I looked like him, sir.”
“He’s skinny as a wraith, and his eyes look like he had a front-row seat in hell. He isn’t babbling and carrying on like the last two did.”
“The last four, you mean. I suppose Easterbrook will be forced to denounce this one too, but a bit of Christian charity won’t go amiss. Take the man to the mess tent, observe the proprieties, and get him a decent meal. One never knows, and it doesn’t do to offend a duke, particularly not a mad one.”
Interesting point, suggesting this commanding officer had a grasp of strategy.
Blevins stepped out of the tent, conscientiously retying the flap, though it continued to luff noisily in the breeze.
Sounds were something Christian was getting used to again. Sounds other than iron bars clanging open and shut, rats scurrying, Girard’s philosophizing, his jailer’s doleful brogue-and-burr mutterings…
“You’re to be fed while we await further orders,” the blond, ruddy-faced Blevins said. From the crisp look of his uniform, Blevins either came from means, was particularly vain of his appearance—thinning hair could do that a young fellow—or he’d only recently bought his colors.
Christian mustered two words. “Your Grace.”
“Beg pardon?” English manners had Blevins bending nearer, for the fifth lost duke spoke only quietly.
When he spoke at all.
“You’re to be fed, Your Grace,” Christian said slowly, each word the product of a mental gymnastic, like tossing separate pebbles into the exact center of a quiet pond.
“Oh, right you are, sir, er, Your Grace.” The man’s ears turned red and he marched smartly away, only to have to slow his step when Christian didn’t quicken his own. Blevins’s embarrassment was not the product of a lapse in manners, but rather, pity for one who had parted from both his reason and his shaving kit some time ago.
“Afraid the fare is humble, Your, er, Grace. Well-cooked beef, boiled potatoes with salt and butter, the inevitable coarse bread, but it sustains us. Things are better since old Wellie put Soult in his place. The locals are happy to feed us, you see, because we pay them for their bread, unlike their own army.”
The words, English words, flowed past Christian’s awareness like so much birdsong at the beginning of a summer day. Easterbrook was coming, and Easterbrook could see Christian to England, back to the arms of his devoted if not quite loving duchess, and their children. Evan would be walking and talking by now, losing his baby curls, perhaps even ready to be taken up before his papa for a quiet hack.
Christian had enjoyed many discussions with his infant son while enduring Girard’s hospitality. He’d chosen the boy’s first pony—a fat, shaggy piebald—read him his favorite bedtime stories, and picked out a puppy or two.
In his mind, he’d gently explained to the child that papa had a few Frenchmen to kill, but would be home soon thereafter.
The scent of roasted beef interrupted Christian’s musings like a physical slap. He categorized his perceptions to keep his mind from overflowing with sensory noise. Scents were English, or rural, or French. Cooked beef was definitely English. The pervasive mud smelled merely rural. The damned orange cat with the matted fur stropping itself against Christian’s boots was French.
He bent carefully and tossed the cat—he did not pitch it hard, as he wished to, or wring its neck—several feet away. Cats were definitely French.
“Shall I fetch you some tea, Your Grace?” Blevins’s adoption of proper address had become enthusiastic, if not quite ironic. “The wives are good about keeping us supplied with tea even when the quartermasters can’t.”
“Hot water will suffice. My thanks.” For even the thought of tea sent Christian’s digestion into a panic.
This time, Blevins succeeded in keeping a straight face to go with his, “Very good, Your Grace.”
Did dukes no longer thank their servants? Blevins’s expression cleared, and he hustled away. Perhaps the man thought Christian would finally be shaving.
Soon enough, Easterbrook would come, and then on to England, where Christian could begin to plot a just fate for Anduvoir and Girard, and all would at last be well again.
“Not hoping must be hard,” St. Just said as he and Easterbrook made their way toward the officers’ mess. The tent lay on high ground, and gave off the same beguiling, smoky aroma as every mess St. Just had had the pleasure of approaching from downwind. “Mercia is your cousin, after all.”
He kept his observation casual, because something about Easterbrook’s reaction was off. If any of St. Just’s family had turned up missing, and then been reported found, he’d be dancing on the nearest fountain and bellowing the good news to the hills.
While Easterbrook’s mannerisms suggested dread.
“Mercia is a young man,” Easterbrook replied. “If it is him, and he still has his reason, and his health is not entirely broken, he could get back to his life, or a semblance of it.”
Anybody held by the French for months would have reserves of resilience St. Just could only envy, though the creature they found in the mess tent was pitiful indeed.
He sat alone at the end of one table, taking small bites of boiled potato, setting his fork down, chewing carefully, then taking another bite. His beef was untouched, his appearance unkempt, his bearded features sharp, like a saint newly returned from a spate of praying and wrestling demons in the wilderness.
“A real duke has pretty manners,” Easterbrook said, approaching the table, “but he’d be tearing into that beef if he’d been kept away from a good steak for months. I’m Easterbrook.”
He sat across from the skinny, quiet fellow with the brilliant blue eyes, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“My teeth are loose, Colonel,” the man said. “I cannot manage the beef, because the French became too parsimonious to feed me the occasional orange. Or perhaps, they ran out of oranges themselves.”
“Ah, but of course—shame upon those niggardly French.” Easterbrook shot a longsuffering glance toward the several officers malingering two tables over. “Perhaps we should take this discussion outside.”
St. Just would have preferred to shoo their audience away, because the cool mountain air would cut right through the wraith at the table.
“We should take the discussion outside, Your Grace, Marcus,” said the wraith—softly. Ducally, in St. Just’s informed opinion.
“My apologies,” Easterbrook replied, “Your Grace, indeed.” His tone was so punctiliously civil as to be mocking.
The man rose slowly—perhaps he could not abide leaving his potatoes unconsumed—and nobody moved to help him. St. Just discarded the notion given the determination in those blue eyes.
“Look here,” Easterbrook said when they’d drawn a few steps away from the mess tent. “If you were Christian Severn, Duke of Mercia, you’d bloody well not be sporting that beard. You look like you haven’t shaved in weeks, your hands are dirty, and without putting too fine a point on it, I wouldn’t want to stand downwind of you on a hot day.”
None of which, in St. Just’s opinion, had any bearing on the present situation.
“My hands shake too badly to wield a razor, Cousin, though less so now.” His Grace—why the hell not refer to him as such?—held out a right hand that did, indeed, suffer a minute tremor. “The French would not shave me, because I might succeed in slicing open my throat against the razor, regardless of the barber’s skill. They clipped my beard occasionally instead.”
This was more logic, but Easterbrook waved an impatient—and also slightly unsteady—hand.
“The Duke of Mercia was a man in his prime, for God’s sake. You’re skin and bones and you have no uniform, no signet ring.”
Which, of course, the French would have taken possession of immediately upon capturing the fellow. Inside the mess tent, shuffling and murmuring suggested the audience had shifted close enough to hear the exchange.
“I was fed enough to keep me alive, not enough to keep me strong. You insult your cousin, Easterbrook.” The man spoke softly, as if he refused to entertain a lot of bored officers who at midday were not yet drunk.
“Half the camp knows I was cousin to Mercia,” Easterbrook spat as Anders led his horse up. “Having me identify the imposters has become a standing joke. My cousin was left-handed, you ate with only your right hand. Explain that.”
The explanation had St. Just itching to hop back in the saddle and ride anywhere—Paris, Moscow, Rome—provided it was far, far away. His Grace held up his left arm, on the end of which was an appendage bearing five fingers; the last two of them bore old scars and curious angles at the joints.
“As a gift to the commanding officer, the guards decided in his absence that I was to write out a confession to present their superior upon his return from Toulouse. My captors neglected to realize I was left-handed.” The lost duke spoke slowly, each word chosen to convey the most information with the fewest syllables.
“The guards limited their attentions to the hand they thought I could not write with,” he went on. “I did not write out the confession in any case. When Colonel Girard was done having his guards beaten for their cheek, he was effusively apologetic.” That last phrase was flourished with subtle irony and such a perfect enunciation of the final consonants, that St. Just paced off a few feet, the better to curse quietly.
“Anybody who reads The Times would know the story of the lost duke,” Easterbrook said, a bit desperately, to St. Just’s ears. “My cousin was a robust man, handsome, fastidious, vain about his person. His family connections would be listed in Debrett’s, and known to anybody who moved in good Society. You’re skinny, dirty, disgracefully turned out…”
He ranted on, for he was ranting, his voice rising, likely for the benefit of the officers inside the tent, but St. Just had heard enough.
“Easterbrook, mind your horse.”
Anders held the reins of a grand chestnut beast, solid, but with a hint of Iberian grace and refinement. The horse was pawing and curling its upper lip while craning its neck forward.
Toward the lost duke.
“Aragon?” Easterbrook was apparently not that canny a fellow. Beside Aragon, St. Just’s mount was standing perfectly calm.
“Not Aragon,” the lost duke said, walking toward the horse. “Chesterton. You took my horse, Cousin, and changed his name. I suppose I am to thank you for looking after him when God knows what might have befallen him had he remained in French hands.”
The beast pawed repeatedly, and wuffled, a low, whickering sound of greeting.
And the love of a mute beast was, to St. Just, better evidence than any interrogation would ever yield.
“You’ve found your duke,” St. Just said. “Either the horse has read Debrett’s and colluded with an imposter, or that’s his master, plain as day.” A half-dozen officers had shuffled out of the mess tent, their uniforms declaring them cavalry, and not a one argued with St. Just’s conclusion.
Easterbrook scowled as the horse nuzzled at the lost duke’s pockets, each in turn. The duke scratched at the animal’s shoulders. Had the bloody horse been able to, it would have purred and hugged its owner.
“By God…” Easterbrook took a step toward a man whose death would have been convenient, if tragic. But the duke held up a hand—his good hand.
“Do not, I pray you, embarrass us both with an excessive display of sentiment comparable to that of this lowly beast. If you would show your welcome, fetch writing utensils that I might communicate with my duchess posthaste. A change of clothes would be appreciated as well, as would a bucket, cloth, and soap.”
The horse gave up nuzzling empty pockets, but was either too well-bred or too canny to nudge more strongly at a master who would likely topple at such attention.
For the first time, Easterbrook’s expression conveyed consternation and…shock. “You don’t know, then. God help you, nobody told you about Helene.”
“Your Grace, you have a caller.”
Christian had been at his London town house for three days and nights, and still his entire household, from butler to boot boy, seemed helpless not to beam at him.
He’d been tortured, repeatedly, for months, and they were grinning like dolts. To see them happy, to feel the weight of the entire household smiling at him around every turn made him furious, and that—his unabating, irrational reaction—made him anxious.
Even Carlton House had sent an invitation, for God’s sake, and Christian’s court attire would hang on him like some ridiculous shroud.
The butler cleared his throat.
Right. A caller. “This late?”
“She says her business is urgent.”
By the standards of London in springtime, nine in the evening was one of the more pleasant hours, but by no means did one receive calls at such an hour.
“Who is she?”
Meems crossed the study, a silver tray in his hand bearing a single card on cream vellum.
“I do not recall a Lady Greendale.” Though a Greendale estate lay several hours ride from Severn. Lord Greendale was a pompous old curmudgeon forever going on in the Lords about proper respect and decent society. An embossed black band crossed one corner of the card, indicating the woman was a widow, perhaps still in mourning.
“I’m seeing no callers, Meems. You know that.”
“Yes, quite, Your Grace, as you’re recovering. Quite. She says she’s family.” Behind the smile Meems barely contained lurked a worse offense yet: hope. The old fellow hoped His Grace might admit somebody past the threshold of Mercia House besides a man of business or running footman.
Christian ran his fingertip over the crisp edge of the card. Gillian, Countess of Greendale, begged the favor of a call. Some elderly cousin of his departed parents, perhaps. His memory was not to be relied upon in any case.
Duty came in strange doses. Like the need to sign dozens of papers simply so the coin earned by the duchy could be used to pay the expenses incurred by the duchy. Learning to sign his name with his right hand had been a frustrating exercise in duty. Christian had limited himself to balling up papers and tossing them into the grate rather than pitching the ink pot.
“Show her into the family parlor.”
“There will be no need for that.” A small blond woman brushed past Meems and marched up to Christian’s desk. “Good evening, Your Grace. Gillian, Lady Greendale.”
She bobbed a miniscule curtsy suggesting a miniscule grasp of the deference due his rank, much less of Meems’s responsibility for announcing guests. “We have family business to discuss.”
No, Christian silently amended, she had no grasp whatsoever, and based on her widow’s weeds, no husband to correct the lack.
And yet, this lady was in mourning, and around her mouth were brackets of fatigue. She was not in any sense smiling, and looked as if she might have forgotten how.
A welcome divergence from the servants’ expressions.
“Meems, a tray, and please close the door as you leave.”
Christian rose from his desk, intent on shifting to stand near the fire, but the lady twitched a jacket from her shoulders and handed it to him. Her garment was a gorgeous black silk business, embroidered with aubergine thread along its hems. The feel of the material was sumptuous in Christian’s hands, soft, sleek, luxurious, and warm from her body heat. He wanted to hold it—simply to hold it—and to bring it to his nose, for it bore the soft floral scent of not a woman, but a lady.
The reminders he suffered of his recent deprivations increased rather than decreased with time.
“Now, then,” she said, sweeping the room with her gaze.
He was curious enough at her presumption that he folded her jacket, draped it over a chair, and let a silence build for several slow ticks of the mantel clock.
“Now, then,” he said, more quietly than she, “if you’d care to have a seat, Lady Greendale?”
She had to be a May-December confection gobbled up in Lord Greendale’s dotage. The woman wasn’t thirty years old, and she had a curvy little figure that caught a man’s eye. Or it would catch a man’s eye, had he not been more preoccupied with how he’d deal with tea-tray inanities when he couldn’t stomach tea.
She took a seat on the sofa facing the fire, which was fortunate, because it allowed Christian his desired proximity to the heat. He propped an elbow on the mantel and wished, once again, that he’d tarried at Severn.
“My lady, you have me at a loss. You claim a family connection, and yet memory doesn’t reveal it to me.”
“That’s certainly to the point.” By the firelight, her hair looked like antique gold, not merely blond. Her tidy bun held coppery highlights, and her eyebrows looked even more reddish. Still, her appearance did not tickle a memory, and he preferred willowy blonds in any case.
Had preferred them.
“I thought we’d chitchat until the help is done eavesdropping, perhaps exchange condolences. You have mine, by the way. Very sincerely.”
Her piquant features softened with her words, her sympathy clear in her blue eyes, though it took Christian a moment to puzzle out for what.
Ah. The loss of his wife and son. That.
She pattered on, like shallow water rippling over smooth stones, sparing him the need to make any reply. Christian eventually figured out that this torrent of speech was a sign of nerves.
Had Girard blathered like this, philosophizing, sermonizing, and threatening as a function of nerves? Christian rejected the very notion rather than attribute to Girard even a single human quality.
“Helene was my cousin,” the lady said, recapturing Christian’s attention, because nobody had referred to the late duchess by name in his presence. “The family was planning to offer you me, but then Greendale started sniffing around me, and Helene was by far the prettier, so she went for a duchess while I am merely a countess. Shouldn’t the tea be here by now?”
Now he did remember, the way the first few lines of a poem will reveal the entire stanza. He’d met this Lady Greendale. She had a prosaic, solidly English name he could not recall—perhaps she’d just told him what it was, perhaps he’d seen it somewhere—but she’d been an attendant at his wedding, his and Helene’s. Greendale’s gaze had followed his young wife with a kind of porcine possessiveness, and the wife had scurried about like a whipped dog.
Christian had pitied her at the time. He didn’t pity her now.
But then, he didn’t feel much of anything when his day was going well.
“Here’s the thing…” She was mercifully interrupted by the arrival of the tea tray. Except it wasn’t simply a tray, as Christian had ordered. The trolley bore a silver tea service, a plate of cakes, a plate of finger sandwiches, and a bowl of oranges, because his smiling, hopeful, attentive staff was determined to put flesh on him.
His digestion was determined to make it a slow process.
“Shall I pour?” She had her gloves off and was rearranging the tray before Christian could respond. “One wonders what ladies do in countries not obsessed with their tea. Do they make such a ritual out of coffee? And you take yours plain, I believe. Helene told me that.”
What odd conversations women must have, comparing how their husbands took tea. “I no longer drink tea. I drink…nursery tea.”
A man whose every bodily function had been observed for months should not be embarrassed to admit such a thing, and Christian wasn’t. He was, rather, humiliated and enraged out of all proportion to the moment.
“Hence the hot water,” she said, peering at the silver pot that held same. “Do you intend to loom over me up there, or will you come down here beside me for some tea?”
He did not want to move a single inch.
She chattered, and her hands fluttered over the tea service like mating songbirds, making visual noise to go with her blathering. She cut up his peace, such as it was, and he already knew she would put demands on him he didn’t care to meet.
And yet, she hadn’t smiled, hadn’t pretended grown dukes drank nursery tea every night. Whatever else was true about the lady, she had an honesty about her Christian approved of.
He sat on the sofa, several feet away from her.
She made no remark on his choice of seat.
“I suppose you’ve heard about that dreadful business involving Greendale. Had Mr. Stoneleigh not thought to produce the bottle of belladonna drops for the magistrate—the full, unopened bottle, still in its seal—you might have been spared my presence permanently. I can’t help but think old Greendale did it apurpose, gave me the drops just to put poison in my hands. Easterbrook probably sent them from the Continent all unsuspecting. Greendale wanted me buried with him, like some old pharaoh’s wife. Your tea.”
She’d made him a cup of hot water, sugar, and cream—nursery tea, served to small children to spare them tea’s stimulant effects.
“I’ll fix you a plate too, shall I?” A sandwich, then two, as well as two cakes were piled onto a plate by her busy, noisy hands.
“An orange will do.”
She looked at the full plate as if surprised to find all that food there, shrugged, and set it aside. “I’ll peel it for you, then. A lady has fingernails suited for the purpose.”
She set about stripping the peel from the hapless orange as effectively as she was stripping Christian’s nerves, though in truth, she wasn’t gawking, she wasn’t simpering, she wasn’t smiling. The lady had business to transact, and she’d dispatch it as efficiently as she dispatched the peel from the orange.
And those busy hands were graceful. Christian wanted to watch them work, wanted to watch them be feminine, competent, and pretty, because this too—the simple pleasure of a lady’s hands—had been denied him.
He took a sip of his nursery tea, finding it hot, sweet, soothing, and somehow unsatisfying. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to state the reason for your call, Lady Greendale?”
“We’re not to chat over tea, even? One forgets you’ve spent the last few years among soldiers, Your Grace, but then the officers on leave are usually such gallant fellows.” She focused on the orange, which was half-naked on the plate in her lap. “This is just perfectly ripe, and the scent is divine.”
The scent was…good. Not a scent with any negative associations, not overpowering, not French.
“You are welcome to share it with me,” he said, sipping his little-boy tea and envying her the speed with which she’d denuded the orange of its peel.
Peeling an orange was a two-handed undertaking, something he’d had occasion to recall in the past three days. This constant bumping up against his limitations wearied him, as Girard’s philosophizing never had. Yes, he was free from Girard’s torture, but everywhere, he was greeted with loss, duress, and decisions.
“Your orange?” She held out three quarters of a peeled orange to him, no smile, no faintly bemused expression to suggest he’d been woolgathering—again.
“You know, it really wasn’t very well done of you, Your Grace.” She popped a section of orange into her mouth and chewed busily before going on. “When one has been traveling, one ought to go home first, don’t you think? But you came straight up to Town, and your staff at Severn was concerned for you.”
Concerned for him. Of what use had this concern been when Girard’s thugs were mutilating his hand? Though to be fair, Girard had been outraged to find his pet prisoner disfigured, and ah, what a pleasure to see Girard dealing with insubordination.
Though indignation and outrage were also human traits, and thus should have been beyond Girard’s ken.
“You’re not eating your orange, Your Grace. It’s very good.” She held up a section in her hand, her busy, graceful little lady’s hand. He leaned forward and nipped the orange section from her fingers with his teeth.
She sat back, for once quiet. She was attractive when she was quiet, her features classic, though her nose missed perfection by a shade of boldness, and her eyebrows were a touch on the dramatic side. A man would notice this woman before he’d notice a merely pretty woman, and—absent torture by the French—he would recall her when the pretty ones had slipped from his memory.
“Now then, madam. We’ve eaten, we’ve sipped our tea. The weather is delightful. What is your business?”
“It isn’t my business, really,” she said, regarding not him, not the food, but the fire kept burning in the grate at all hours. “It’s your business, if you can call it business.”
Something about the way she clasped her hands together in her lap gave her away. She was no more comfortable calling as darkness fell than he was receiving her. She’d barely tasted her orange, and all of her blather had been nerves.
Lady Greendale was afraid of him.
Perhaps she’d heard the rumors about the lost duke’s madness; perhaps she hadn’t recalled he’d be a good foot taller than she; perhaps she hadn’t expected the staff to leave them so very much alone.
In any case, he didn’t like it. Next to hope, fear was the tormentor’s most effective weapon.
“Lady Greendale, plain speech would be appreciated.” He spoke not only quietly, but gently, the way he might speak to a child or the elderly. “I’m sure you’d rather be home at such an hour, and I would not detain you unnecessarily.”
Unfortunate word choice. An English civilian caught in France when war broke out was a détenu.
“You should have gone home to Severn first, Your Grace, and then it would not fall to me to remind you of your duty, but here we are.”
She was stalling rather than scolding, suggesting the lady was quite unnerved. He waited her out. He was a master at waiting, and at silence. Girard’s ill-treatment had bequeathed a legacy of patience, in addition to scars.
And she apparently, had some passing familiarity with silence as well. All her fluttering and shifting about ceased. A few beats of quiet went by, and Christian abruptly missed her blathering.
“It’s your daughter.” She turned limpid blue eyes on him, a world of worry shining out of them, but the worry, for once, wasn’t for him, and that was a curious relief. “I am very concerned about your daughter.”
Gilly had gathered up the last of her courage to get her to this elegant, toasty London parlor, for what she recalled most clearly about Mercia was that he was tall. Her husband had been tall.
Tall men had self-possession and reach. Neither was a good thing.
Thin as he was, Mercia looked even taller now than he had when he’d danced with Gilly upon the occasion of his wedding to Helene. His eyes, the famous Severn blue eyes, were sunken, and his blond hair was pulled back into a loose, old-fashioned queue. Helene had been uncomfortable with what she called her husband’s cool intensity. She’d said he was too serious by half, and much taken with himself.
Coming from Helene, who’d been taken with herself indeed, the comment had lodged in Gilly’s memory. Greendale had been nothing, if not taken with himself.
“Tell me about my daughter.”
His tone was encouraging, and he’d asked the right question—or given the right command—but Gilly had the sense he couldn’t recall the name of his only surviving child. Or maybe he could, and saying that name pained him too much.
“Lucille will be eight this summer,” Gilly said. “She’s very bright, she reads well, shows some talent at the piano, and is much loved by her governess and nursery maid.”
Also by her mother’s cousin, or Gilly would not be bearding this gaunt, quiet lion in his den.
Though how many lions drank nursery tea and folded a lady’s wrap as if it held precious memories?
“And yet,” His Grace said quietly, “the girl suffers some problem, else you wouldn’t be calling upon me at such an unusual hour.”
He made a simple deduction, rather than delivered a scold, so Gilly gave him an honest answer. “I was told you sleep during the day, Your Grace, and you’re refusing all callers.”
Which admission would alert the duke to the fact that his staff was more concerned about him than about discretion. Gilly felt a spike of protectiveness toward her host, in part because everybody needed privacy, and in part because he was so quiet. He spoke quietly, his movements were quiet, and his eyes were the most quiet of all.
Greendale had seldom been silent for long, and all his tirades had had the same focus.
“And now,” His Grace said, putting down his empty teacup, “you will have the more daring among my peers calling upon me at night.”
Was he making a jest? “Not if you come down to Severn with me.”
And again, silence fell between them, filled only with the soft roar of the fire. The lack of conversation should have unnerved Gilly, but the quiet moments allowed her to truly study him.
The Times had heralded Mercia’s return with front-page articles, but all they’d really said was he’d been held by the French and denied the privileges of an officer. That was likely male code for something more dire than a scrabbling, parole liberty in the town of the Republique’s choosing, but Gilly was without men to translate for her.
“I intend to remove to Severn,” he said, “but not until the bankers see that I live, have possession of the relevant faculties, and have returned my duchy to good financial health.”
They’d likely said that to his face, too, the rotters, and held his own money clutched away from him as they said it.
“Bother the duchy’s financial health. You are clearly competent to administer your own affairs.” Gilly reined in her temper by fixing him another cup of his nursery tea. She would not have minded a cup herself, insomnia being a widow’s frequent burden. “Your daughter’s health is precarious, and that should take precedence over all.”
“If she is ill, I will certainly retain physicians to examine her.”
“I already have.” She passed him his tea and then had nothing to do with her hands.
“Perhaps you’d peel me another orange?”
Excellent notion. He’d eaten his already, steadily ingested one section after another, and yet, his hands weren’t sticky.
Taking a small plate, Gilly peeled the fruit and tore it into sections, wiped her fingers using the fingerbowl and a serviette, then passed him his orange. The whole process took several minutes, which allowed Gilly to organize her thoughts.
“You are capable of silence,” he said, taking the plate of orange sections. “I had wondered.” He might have been mocking her, in that soft, musing voice. Or he might have been trying to communicate something else entirely.
“One doesn’t usually make a call to sit without speaking like a pair of Quakers at meeting.”
He saluted with his teacup. “You were telling me about my daughter.”
“Lucille, yes. She grew quite withdrawn when her brother died, and we feared she might fall ill as he did.”
“He was ill, then?” A quiet question, the inflection coming across as almost…French?
“He was colicky, then started running a fever. Not typhoid or lung fever, that we could tell. Influenza, most likely.”
He rose and went to the window, keeping his back to her, which struck Gilly as rude, until it occurred to her nobody would have discussed his son’s death with him, and Helene’s letters had—if she’d written any, if he’d received any—been no doubt worse than useless.
Gilly was in the presence not only of a duke—a tall, quiet duke, with silent eyes and clothing that fit him far too loosely—but also a grieving father and husband. She nearly envied him that grief, which suggested her grasp of reason had become tenuous.
“Evan did not linger, Your Grace. He was ill seven days and nights.”
“You were with him?”
Still the duke kept his back to her, and his voice was the same. Soft, aristocratic, no emotion whatsoever, as if somebody gravely ill slept elsewhere in the house.
“I stayed for the duration, and for a few days afterward. Even Greendale understood my place was with my cousin at such a time.”
“And this was hard on the sister?”
The sister? Lucille, his daughter, but Evan’s sister.
“Very. Helene did not cope well. Greendale would not let me linger at Severn indefinitely.”
“Coping was not Helene’s greatest strength.”
Diplomatically put, but what did the man find so fascinating beyond the darkened window?
“With her mother’s passing, Lucy became even more withdrawn. Losing her mother and brother was difficult, and she hasn’t known what to make of your situation.”
No small child could have made sense of a father imprisoned, far away, and unlikely to return.
“I was hard put to make sense of my situation myself.” This observation bore the quality of an admission, not a joke. By no means a joke.
Gilly let the silence stretch, not knowing what to say. She studied the lines of his jacket, and his clothing hung on him like so much damp, oversized laundry. Perhaps his situation still made no sense to him?
“What are Lucy’s symptoms?”
“She speaks very little, and she does not leave the schoolroom unless bid to do so by me or her nurse. Her appetite is poor.”
He turned, his expression for the first time yielding to an emotion—consternation. “She has gone into a decline. I did not know children could.”
Gilly’s opinion exactly, but the doctors had scoffed. “She has lost weight. She no longer plays, but rather, dresses and undresses her dolls by the hour, sits and stares, or draws.”
“What do the physicians say?”
“That she is being stubborn and willful and attempting to dictate to the adults around her.” Stubborn and willful were apparently the most frequent complaints men made against females of any age, and yet, where would Gilly have been without a full complement of stubbornness to see her through her marriage?
“What do you say, Lady Greendale?”
Gilly was so used to keeping her opinions to herself, every one of her opinions, regardless of the topic, that His Grace’s question caught her off guard.
His expression suggested he truly wanted her view of the matter. Mercia was tall, and he was male, but if his question was any indication, his resemblance to Greendale ended there.
“Lucy has lost her family, Your Grace. She needs family, and until recently, I could not oblige.” And Greendale had enjoyed ensuring it was so.
Mercia ran his hand over her jacket, which he’d folded across the back of a chair. “Your bereavement is recent?”
Whatever else Mercia was doing, he wasn’t catching up on gossip. “More than a month past. Lord Greendale succumbed to an apoplexy, according to the official inquest.”
He twisted the gold signet ring about the middle finger of his right hand, an unusual location for such a piece. “My condolences. Perhaps you’d like more tea?”
His Grace had not yet addressed the problem Gilly had brought to him, and the hour grew later. “Bother the tea.”
He was not offended by her lapse in manners. Maybe after wintering with the French, little offended him, and yet, Gillian was a guest in his home, at a peculiar hour, and clearly, His Grace was not faring well.
She extended an olive branch, for the child’s sake. “We’re family, Your Grace. You are welcome to call me Gillian. To Lucy, I am Cousin Gilly.”
More consternation shown in his remarkable blue eyes, as if to whom and when familiarities might be granted had been misplaced on some French mountainside, along with the roles of husband and father.
And the ability to appreciate a strong cup of tea.
And the ability to sleep through the night.
His Grace resumed a place beside Gilly on the sofa, settling carefully, like an old fellow who had not enough padding on his bones to tolerate even a short tenure on a hard chair.
Or perhaps the duke was too exhausted to stand for more than few minutes?
“I am inclined to take your suggestion that I remove to Severn sooner rather than later. The curious and inconsiderate have been leaving their cards by the dozen, and I am summoned to Carlton House several days hence for a private audience with the Regent. My health is not much better than precarious, and I am loathe to subject myself to the remaining weeks of the Season. At your prompting, I will repair to Severn at week’s end.”
“Thank you.” She nearly told him he should observe mourning for Helene—Evan had been too young—because mourning kept the curious and the inconsiderate away for a few months.
“I have a condition.”
With men, every concession came at a price, and yet, Gilly did not anticipate an onerous request from the weary, soft-spoken duke. “Name it.”
“You will accompany me, and until I go, you will act as the lady of this house. You will deal with the invitations, you will deal with the squabbling, smiling housemaids. You will see to the closing up of the household, and you will assert your presence during daylight hours so I needn’t bother with housewifery all throughout my nights. If you are disinclined to meet this request, I will take that much longer to make the journey south.”
Again, he’d surprised Gilly.
His condition called to the long denied part of her that delighted in the role of caretaker, a part of her that had shrunk to a husk under Greendale’s criticisms, that had wished even if Greendale were the father, Gilly might have had children to raise and love.
And yet, what came out of her fool mouth? “What of a chaperone, Your Grace?”
He did not smile. Gilly’s sense of his amusement was unsupported by anything save the way he turned that signet ring, played with it almost, the band loose around his finger.
“First, my lady, we are family, as you’ve noted yourself. You are Helene’s cousin, and widowed. If your own family could not provide for you, I would naturally expect you to apply to me in their stead. Second, you have apparently been a frequent visitor at Severn in my absence. As a kinswoman, you would be the logical choice for my hostess, were I to entertain. In any case, you are beyond chaperones now, are you not? Third, you are the logical choice of female to take a continuing interest in Lucy’s development, because you are the only one who might sponsor her come out ten years hence.”
Quite a speech from him. Gilly sorted through his words and concluded he was offering her a home at Severn, however temporarily. Absenting herself from Greendale represented the closest thing Gilly had to a goal, besides seeing to Lucy’s welfare.
Mercia had some ulterior motive, of that Gilly was certain, but no matter. She’d been dealing with men and their motives for years, and Lucy had no other champion.
Gilly rose, which meant the duke had to come to his feet as well, and gracious, he was tall. “I’ll collect my things and remove here in the morning, Your Grace.”
Some flicker of emotion in the vicinity of his thin mouth suggested he was pleased, or possibly relieved, but apparently he’d left the ability to smile on that French mountainside, too.
“Send for your things. I’m sure a guest room is kept in readiness, and the hour grows late.”
Gillian, Lady Greendale, was fretful, busy, and only distant family, but if she kept mostly to daylight hours, cajoled the child out of her megrims, and spared Christian mountains of painstaking social correspondence, then he’d consider the bargain well met.
That she could peel oranges and didn’t regard him as a freak because he eschewed tea was to her credit as well.
Lady Greendale regarded him, her head cocked at an angle like a biddy hen sizing up the new egg girl. “You want to me stay here tonight?”
He did, and not because a craving for more oranges might beset him. “Shall you sit?”
She went back to the sofa, resuming her place before the tea trays.
“You’re sure you wouldn’t like some sustenance?” he asked. Except for a few bites of orange, her ladyship hadn’t eaten a thing, and offering food was as close to charming as he could be.
“Am I delaying your dinner, Your Grace?”
“You are not.” He wasn’t capable of eating a dinner. She’d find that out soon enough if she joined his household.
“Well, then yes, I could do with a sandwich. Will you join me?”
“No, thank you.”
Her spine stiffened.
“Well, perhaps…” He surveyed the offerings, and knew he ought to be hungry. More to the point, the lady would take it amiss if he didn’t eat. “A buttered scone.”
She beamed at him with every bit as much guileless goodwill as his staff showed, and Christian had to look away. He resumed his slouch against the mantel, where the fire’s warmth could work its magic on the permanent ache he’d absorbed from the cold, damp stones of the chateau’s lower reaches.
“You mentioned an inquest, my lady.” He’d already forgotten her name again, though it would come to him when he was trying to recall where he’d put his pocket watch.
She dabbed butter on his scone and considered the effect, much the way some women held their embroidery up, the better to admire it, then added a bit more butter.
“I was told an inquest was a formality, Lord Greendale being a peer. Nonetheless, it was unpleasant in the extreme, Your Grace, and were it not for the assistance of my barrister, I shudder to consider the consequences. Jam?”
He’d missed most of what she said, because his attention was fixed on the fourth finger of her left hand, which sported a slightly odd bend to the second joint.
“You’re not wearing a ring.” Perhaps her rings no longer fit. His certainly didn’t.
“I’m no longer married.”
Neither was he. The thought still caught him by surprise and unsettled him, which would have pleased Helene. “I gather your union wasn’t happy?”
“No, it was not, hence the unpleasantness at the inquest. Your scone.” She brought him the plate with its pastry, the closest she’d come to him, close enough for two things to register in his awareness.
She was physically small. He’d gathered that in some casual way when she’d stormed his desk and swept past Meems, who boasted a certain dignified height. How small she was surprised him.
She seemed larger when she was in motion, her hands moving, her voice crisp and demanding. Maybe that was part of what kept her twitching about, making noise—the need to cast a larger shadow than the Creator had given her.
The second fact to register as she held up his scone to him was that it took resolve on her part even to approach him. Her hands were steady, and her eyes held no particular emotion, none at all.
How often had Christian labored to the limit of his soul for a taste of indifference?
And yet, Lady Greendale carried a wonderfully feminine scent, the sort of scent that would get her noticed in close quarters rather than ignored. Her fragrance was sweet and floral, though neither cloying nor faint, but also held a hint of the exotic, if not the daring.
No one and nothing had smelled good at the chateau, excepting possibly, in the opinion of the cats, Girard’s damned lavender.
Christian took the scone from her. “My thanks.”
“You weren’t always so ducal,” she said, stepping back.
“Ducal, am I?” He was exhausted and unable to sleep; he no longer registered things like hunger or thirst, and he could barely write his own name legibly. Pity the peerage if those attributes were now ducal.
“All the silences, the hauteur, the brooding glances. You do them very convincingly. I hope you don’t plan to approach your daughter like this.”
She was casting that big shadow again, instructing him from the superior height of her familiarity with a child Christian did not know as well as he should. “I will deal with Lucy as I see fit, and so will you.”
He half sought an argument with his small invader, but she merely resumed her seat on the sofa and tore off a bit of orange peel.
Then munched on it—on the orange peel—as casually as if she were a prisoner bent on avoiding scurvy.
“You call your daughter Lucy. Her mother wouldn’t allow nicknames. She was Lady Lucille to all and sundry, even me.”
“She liked to be called Lucy when she was younger.” He had no idea from whence that assurance came, but he trusted it. The girl was his firstborn, after all. For the early years of Lucy’s life her parents had had no heir to distract them from their only baby.
“Then I shall call her Lucy too.” She smiled at him, not the fatuous, beaming-idiot smile he saw so often, but something softer and more personal, more inward.
A door slammed down the hall, and Christian nearly dropped his damned scone right on the carpet and vaulted behind the sofa.
“Oh, do come sit.” She rose, took him by his left wrist, and tugged him to the sofa, dropping his hand as quickly as she’d seized it. The riot of reactions that caused had him setting his plate down with an audible racket.
God in heaven, what had he got himself into?