On a visit to the Belmonts, Valentine has just deduced that a horse St. Just was having trouble with is in fact going blind in one eye, and he’s offered to take the beast off his brother’s hands. Ellen, watching from a distance, cannot contain her upset at the foolish things men get up to…
Ellen and Abby watched in silence from the terrace as St. Just schooled a large, unruly red horse in the arena beside the stables. The longer they watched the more difficult the horse became.
“Why on earth would he be getting on that horse?” Ellen murmured as Valentine climbed aboard the misbehaving gelding. Anxiety clutched at her bowels and seized up her breathing as the animal pulled every dirty trick in the equine book, including periodic spates of deceptively good behavior.
“I cannot abide this.” Ellen rose, setting her tea cup down with a hard clatter. “You will excuse me, please.”
It wasn’t a question, and Abby could only look on in consternation as Ellen set off toward the stables just as Val dismounted without incident and handed the horse off to a groom. The men conferred for a few minutes before the horse was led away, then Val turned up the path toward the house as Ellen advanced like a thundercloud toward the stables.
“You,” Ellen bit out as she brushed past Val, “I will deal with later.” She stormed up to St. Just and planted her hands on her hips. “Do you have so many brothers left, my lord,” she began in low, bitter tones, “that you can risk their necks on half-wild animals? Did you find it amusing to put your brother’s wellbeing in jeopardy before an audience? What kind of brother are you, that you’d do such a thing and put Valentine’s life and limb in the balance?
She wheeled on Axel. “And you! Is this why Day and Phillip are always trying to outdo each other, because their father thinks fraternal competition is amusing? What is wrong with you men? Valentine could even now be lying dead, or worse, maimed for life.”
“Ellen.” Val’s voice was measured. “You’ve misjudged the situation.”
“Your lordly brother the cavalry hero can answer for himself,” Ellen retorted.
“He can,” St. Just said, “but he won’t do it here, nor before others. Mrs. FitzEngle, it was not my intention to risk my brother’s wellbeing but you will walk with me in the garden now.”
Val cocked his head at his brother. “She’s simply mistaken.”
St. Just winged his elbow at Ellen. “She is, about several things. Mrs. FitzEngle?”
She put her hand on his sleeve, but so lightly she hoped it was an insult to the fiction that his escort would be of any assistance.
“If you will excuse us.” St. Just nodded at Axel, who was frowning generally at the whole business. “We will not be long and I believe your wife might be in need of your company, Belmont.”
“Of course.” Axel snagged Val’s arm with his and hauled him off toward the manor house.
Across the garden, Ellen gritted her teeth to stop herself from being the one to break the silence Lord Maybe-I’ll-Kill-My-Brother-Today Rosecroft had let stretch between them. God in heaven, men were such idiots, and when she’d endured this session with the overbearing oaf, she’d find Valentine Windham and tear a strip off his handsome hide he’d never forget.
And then she’d apologize to the Belmonts and walk back to Little Weldon if she had to. In the heat, dragging her satchel, possibly leaving Val to wonder if she’d finally lost her mind.
God above, what had she done?
“Shall we sit?” The man’s tone was all Colonel Lord Rosecroft, not the affable brother, nor the welcome houseguest. He was perfectly civil and nothing in his demeanor suggested he was in the company of a woman who had convicted him of fratricide by equine.
“If you insist.” Ellen swept her skirts under her and took a seat on the shady bench her escort indicated. It would be the same one where she and Valentine…
“It’s such a pretty day,” St. Just observed pleasantly. “But as far as I’m concerned the middle of June will always be the ugliest time of year. I am more relieved to have it behind me than I can say.”
“And of what moment is this to me?” Ellen mustered a prim, indifferent tone just as she made the connection: Waterloo. For more than twenty-thousand loyal servants to the Crown and its allies, it would have meant the last June they enjoyed life or whole health. And then there were the ones like St. Just who came home in apparent good health but carried the memories.
He was watching her, so he no doubt saw the wind leave her sails as she comprehended his allusion. But she held her peace and kept her gaze out over the garden.
“Imagine, if you can,” he went on, “twenty thousand dead on our side alone, that many horses dead, and the summer heat beating down on the scene. I went mad, Mrs. FtizEngle. Spain didn’t do it, losing Bart didn’t do it, the Hundred Days didn’t do it, but the June rains, the heat, and then worst of all, the sunshine—I lost my reason.”
“You regained it,” Ellen conceded, wondering where this homily was going and how soon she could get it over with, because as sure as God made little apples, St. Just was working up to a stinging rebuke.
Worse—she feared it would be a well deserved, stinging rebuke.
“Some days, I’ve regained it.” He lounged back and reached a long arm along the top of the bench. “But at the time, I sincerely did want to die, Mrs. FtizEngle. I’d been given a choice, you see, between a court martial for attempted murder of a civilian and conduct unbecoming, or I could muster out. I was afraid to muster out, because that would mean going home, and there were things, people… My brother Victor, the most lighthearted, handsome, charming person God ever created, was dying, miserably, of consumption. I could not cope with that. Could not.”
He went on, his tone almost conversational, while Ellen’s insides began to slowly curdle with dread. “I could not face a court martial, either, for that would disgrace my command and the men who served under me and my family. So I created another option. I would simply drink and brawl and dissipate myself to death. Bart managed to get himself killed in a tavern, after all, surely I could follow in the family tradition if I simply drank enough? Even a bastard firstborn could accomplish that much.”
He paused and peered over at her.
“I see you are unconvinced,” he said, “and maybe you are right, because weeks of this behavior did not achieve my goal. I was destined to failure as it turns out because my baby brother—a silly, vapid, mincing, musical sort of excuse for a man—showed up in Belgium and beat the living hell out of me. When I finally could not get up to take another swing at him—and I am the family war hero, mind you—he carried me bodily onto the next packet and didn’t let me out of his sight until I was safe in the hands of my family.”
For the first time, Ellen turned to look at St. Just’s face. “Are you still angry with him for this?”
He shook his head, smiling slightly. “No. I wasn’t angry then either, I was just…scared. A veteran of more sieges, charges, campaigns and skirmishes than I can name and I was scared.”
He shrugged. “Of living. Of dying, of feeling, of never feeling again. It doesn’t particularly matter. What matters is that my brother saved my life and though I’ve terrified more Frenchmen and new recruits than probably any other single officer under Wellington’ command, my little brother was not for a moment afraid of me. When I was literally stinking drunk, insensate with violence and barely recognizable as human, he was afraid for me.”
Ellen’s brow knit in puzzlement. “You think he was afraid for you because of that horse?”
“I do not, or I did not. Perhaps, but it appears I am being too abstruse so I will spell my point out for you: I would never, under any circumstances, for any inducement, put my brother’s life at risk. He asked to ride that horse, I did not suggest it. Had I not every confidence in his ability—greater than I do in my own—I would have stopped him. I owe Valentine more than I can say. He didn’t just travel to the underworld to haul me back to the land of the living, he trailed me to York to ensure I came to no harm there. There are things he’s borne from me, with me, and for me I could not have asked him to—he did not let me ask. He just… He is my brother. You were mistaken if you thought I could ever wish him harm.”
Oh, and now she wanted to weep, for this rebuke had been so much worse than she could have imagined. She’d accused him of not properly valuing his brother and she could not have been more wrong.
“I am sorry,” she managed, tears threatening, but for whom, or why, she could not say. “I am very, very sorry. I was mistaken. My husband died after a bad fall.”
He gave her a minute to compose herself—several minutes, in truth—then rose and extended a hand.
“I’ve a mind to see Axel’s rose gardens, for he’s quite vain about them.” He drew her to feet. “You must accompany me. I understand you’re something of a botanist yourself.”
She understood. She’d been taken to the woodshed, given her scolding, and now her penance was to soldier on, eyes smarting, pride in tatters, heart breaking for reasons she could not name.
But in the half hour of their wandering in the rose garden, her fate escaped her. St. Just resumed his charming banter, easing her back from the brittle, unhappy place she’d dragged them both—dragged the whole household, in fact—and Ellen could almost forget she’d so thoroughly and shamefully lost her composure.
“I think you are sufficiently self-possessed I might return you to your host, if you’re willing?” He eyed her up and down as he spoke.
“I am willing. You have been patient and kind and I will take my medicine.”
“You’re just that type, aren’t you? You put away your toys, take your medicine, and go to bed when nurse says.”
“How else was I to have time to sneak down to the library for a little extra reading?” Ellen asked, but then her smile faded. “I said awful things, not just to you but to Mr. Belmont. Valentine will be wroth with me and he should be.”
“He’ll be concerned but you needn’t worry, Mrs. FitzEngle, because Valentine is no fool and neither is Axel.”
“What has that to say to it?” Her ability to follow this man’s logic was wanting.
“They will soon figure out if they haven’t already that you would not have dressed me down so thoroughly did you not care profoundly for Valentine’s wellbeing, hmm?”
He plucked a single, perfect white rosebud just on the verge of opening, bopped her with it gently on the nose, and held it out to her.