Authors: Grace Burrowes
Copyright © 2013 by Grace Burrowes
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Cover design by The Killion Group
Cover photo by Richard Izui Photography
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Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Also by Grace Burrowes
The Duke’s Obsession Series
Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish
Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal
Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight
Lady Eve’s Indiscretion
The Duke and His Duchess
Mary Fran and Matthew
The Lonely Lords Series
Scottish-set Victorian Romance
The Bridegroom Wore Plaid
To those of us who’ve been prodigals. May we know when it’s time to come home, and recognize in what direction to travel.
“He insisted on seeing you off.”
Beckman Haddonfield heard his sister Nita clearly, though she’d whispered. The Earl of Bellefonte, glowering at his grown children from the foot of Belle Maison’s front steps likely heard her too.
“Your lordship.” Beck stepped away from his gelding and sketched a bow to his father. Even at this early hour, the earl was attired in morning dress that hung loosely on his stooped frame. His valet and the underbutler were flanking him, each holding a bony arm and trying to look as if they weren’t touching their employer.
“Leave us.” His lordship didn’t look at his servants as he gave that command. “You too, Nita. I won’t perish from the cold, though it might be a welcome relief all around if I did.”
Nita’s blue eyes turned mutinous, though she gathered her shawl more tightly around herself and ascended to the wide front porch.
The earl watched her go then turned to regard his son.
He stabbed his cane in the general direction of the mounting block where Beck’s horse waited. “Get me to the damned mounting block before I fall over.”
Beck took his father’s arm and assisted him to shuffle along until the earl was propped against the top step of the ladies’ mounting block.
His lordship rested both gnarled hands on the top of his cane. “No dignity left whatsoever. Soon I won’t be able to wipe my own arse.”
The truth of this brought a lump to Beck’s throat. “One shudders to consider the fuss you’ll make then. If you’re about to tell me how to find Three Springs, save your breath. I have directions.”
“I’m about to tell you I love you,” the earl groused. “Though such maudlin tripe hardly makes a difference.”
Beck went still, hearing a death knell in his father’s blessing. “One has suspected this is the case,” Beck said slowly. “One hopes the suspicions have been mutual.”
The earl’s slight grin appeared. “Couldn’t have danced around a tender sentiment better myself. You really should have been my heir.”
“Stop disrespecting my brother,” Beck retorted, but inside, oh, inside, he was feeling as decrepit and tired as the earl looked. His father loved him, something he had known without realizing it, but his father had also said the words aloud. More than the earl’s frail appearance, this indicated the man was indeed making his final arrangements.
“I’ve said my piece, now get you off to Three Springs and put the place to rights. I’ve every confidence the solicitors have let it go to wrack and ruin.” The earl made as if to rise, something Beck suspected he couldn’t accomplish on his own. Beck drew him up, but not just to his feet. With Nita trying not to cry on the porch, the underbutler blinking furiously, and the footman staring resolutely down the drive, Beck gently hugged his father.
“Papa.” He barely whispered his words past his father’s shoulder. “I don’t want to leave you.”
He had never wanted to be sent away, but each time, he’d known his banishments were earned. This time, try as he might, the only fault he could find with himself was that he loved his father.
The earl said nothing for a moment then patted his son’s back. “You’ll be fine, Beckman. I’ve always been proud of you, you know.”
“Proud of me?” Beck stepped back, depositing his father gently on the mounting block. “I’m nothing more than a frivolous younger son, and that is the plain truth.”
A flattering version of the plain truth, too.
“Bah. You should have gone to London with Nicholas and selected yourself another bride, though I suppose you’ve been trailing him long enough to be ready for a change in scenery.”
He’s sending me away,
Beck thought, his self-discipline barely equal to the task of maintaining his composure.
He’s sending me away, and we’re discussing my possible marriage to some twit hungering for Nick’s title.
“When Nick is in the room, the ladies do not see me.”
The earl thumped his cane weakly. “Balderdash! Nick is a good time. You are a good man.”
“Nick is a good man,” Beck said, a note of steel creeping into his voice.
“He’ll be a better man and a happier man for finding the right countess. It is the besetting sorrow of my dotage that my sons have not provided me with grandchildren to dandle upon my knee.”
His lordship loved a good scrap. Heart breaking, Beck obliged.
“You would not know how to dandle if the regent commanded it of you.”
“That prancing idiot.” The earl snorted. “I am glad I will be dead before the full extent of his silly imitation of a monarch can damage the country further than it has.”
“It’s too cold to be discussing politics in the drive,” Beck said, ready to have this most painful parting over. “Particularly when you’ve had nothing different to say since the man had his father’s kingdom imposed on him several years ago.”
“You’re right. It’s been the same damned nonsense all along. Pavilions and parks, while the working man can’t afford his bread, and the yeoman’s pasture is fenced away from him at the whim and pleasure of the local baron. Pathetic. Absolutely damned pathetic.”
Utterly. “Good-bye, Papa.”
The earl leaned forward again, signaling Beck to get him on his feet. “You will be fine, Beckman. Keep an eye on Nick for me, as you always have, and think again of remarrying. Good wives have their endearing qualities.”
“Yes, Papa.” Beck mustered a smile, hugged his father again, and waved the underbutler and the footmen down the stairs. “God keep you, sir.” He resisted the urge to cling to his father, knowing he’d embarrass them both if he stayed one moment longer.
“I wish to hell the Lord would see fit to take me rather than keep me,” the earl muttered. “Perhaps patience is the last lesson He has reserved for me. Safe journeys, Beckman. You are a son to make a father proud.”
“My thanks.” Beck swung up, nodded to his sister where she stood clutching her handkerchief at the top of the stairs. He touched his crop to his hat brim then nudged his horse into a rocking canter.
He did not look back. It was all he could do to see the road for the chill wind making his eyes water.
Sara Hunt took a final swallow of weak, unsweetened, tepid tea, looked out at the miserable day, and decided before the last of the light faded, she’d poke through the contents of Mr. Haddonfield’s enormous wagon.
Lady Warne had written instructing the household to make her grandson welcome as he came to “take Three Springs in hand,” but she hadn’t said exactly when he’d arrive. If Sara was to make a proper inventory of the goods sent ahead of their guest, she’d best do it before the mincing Honorable was underfoot making a nuisance of himself.
She grabbed her heavy wool cloak, traded her house mules for a pair of wooden sabots, took up a lantern, and slipped out the back door. On the stoop she paused, listening to the peculiar sibilance of sleet changing to snow as darkness fell. If the sun came out in the morning, they’d have a fairy-tale landscape of sparkling ice and snow, the last of the season if they were lucky.
The barn bore the comforting scent of horses and hay on a raw day. The four great beasts that had pulled the loaded wagon into the yard the previous day contentedly inhaled great piles of fodder, while the wagon stood in the barn’s high, arching center aisle.
Sara had just hung up the lantern when she realized something wasn’t right. A shuffling sound came from the far side of the wagon where little light penetrated. The sound was too big to be Heifer investigating under the tarps, not big enough to be a horse shifting in its stall.
She shrank into the shadows. Damn and blast if a vagrant hadn’t spotted the laden wagon and decided to follow it to its destination in hopes of some lucrative larceny. The country roads were not heavily traveled, and such a load would be easily remarked. Silently, Sara directed her footsteps to the saddle room, sending up a prayer for Polly and Allie—may her sister and daughter remain in the house, or anywhere but this barn.
She chose a long-handled training whip from the saddle room wall, then retraced her steps and heard muttering from the far side of the wagon.
“And what in blazes is this doing here?” a man asked no one in particular. “As if one needs to fiddle while rusticating. Spices, too, so we might not want for fashionable cuisine in the hinterlands.”
A daft vagrant, then. Sara paused in her slow, silent progress around the wagon. Maybe he was harmless, and simply brandishing the whip would suffice to chase him off, but in this weather… She considered putting the whip down.
A man could catch his death in this miserable wet and cold. Times were hard and getting harder, and there were so many veterans of the Corsican’s foolishness still wandering the land, many of them ailing in both body and spirit. Shouldn’t she offer the man a little Christian charity before she attacked him for merely being curious?
An arm clamped around her neck; another snaked around her waist.
“One move,” said a voice directly behind her, “and you will be the first thing planted this spring.”
Without seeing him, Sara knew many things about whoever owned the rumbling baritone voice at her ear.
First, he was broad, strong, and quite, quite tall. The angle of the arm at her throat told her so, as did the heat radiating from the muscular chest to which she’d been snugly anchored.
Second, he was no indigent. The wool around her neck was soft, expensive, and clean, for all it had gotten a soaking. And beneath the stable smells and the aroma of damp wool, sleet, and cold, there was an unmistakable bergamot fragrance to this man. He bore the kind of scent blended from cologne, French soaps, and assiduous personal hygiene no vagrant veteran practiced.
Third, if Sara didn’t diffuse the situation immediately, she could well end up dead. For herself, she had no great objection to that outcome, being in reasonably good standing with her Maker and profoundly weary of life.
But Sara’s death would leave Allie an orphan and Polly without a sister, and to that, Sara had great objection indeed.
“Unhand me, sir. I pose no threat to you.” Her voice quavered only a little. She raised her chin so the hood of her cloak dropped back, revealing her cap and, apparently, her gender.
“My apologies.” The man dropped his arms and stepped back. “I’ll put aside my knife if you’ll drop that horsewhip. Beckman Haddonfield, at your service.”
Sara took a deep breath and held her ground, not at all looking forward to being disappointed. No man’s looks could make good on the promise of that voice. As a musician—a former musician—she was sensitive to beautiful sounds, and this man’s voice was… too much. Too rich, too deep, too smooth, too lovely in the ear. His words sneaked along Sara’s nerves and sank into her bones like a sweet, lilting adagio played on a fine violoncello. That voice had to belong to some low-browed brute, a backhanded gift from a Creator with an occasionally ironic sense of humor.
When she didn’t turn, large hands settled on her shoulders and gently brought her around.
“And you are?” the intruder asked softly as he pried the whip from her fingers.
Sara looked up, and up some more, to gaze upon a face that more than suited the voice. Oh, damn, Polly would want to paint him. The thick blond hair, sculpted lips, and well-proportioned nose would have testified to aristocratic breeding if the height and stature had not. That nose bordered on arrogant but stayed just this side of noble. The chin was firm too, coming close to stubborn but stopping at determined instead.
“Ma’am?” In the dim light, a slight smile revealed perfect white teeth—of course it did—two rows of them, that disappeared with a sardonic lift of one blond eyebrow. And heaven help her, she let her gaze stray to his eyes.
Those eyes were a surprise, not what Sara would expect of a lordling off on a lark. They spoke of the weary humor exhibited by those inured to suffering. They had passed from sad to bleak to endlessly patient.
“Sara Hunt.” She bobbed a semblance of a curtsy and wanted to draw her hood back up. “I gather you are Lady Warne’s grandson?”
“Step-grandson, to be precise,” the man replied, giving Sara the sense he was always
. “I see my belongings have arrived safely, as have my father’s horses.”
“The wagon arrived yesterday.” God help them, Lady Warne’s
grandson bore no resemblance whatsoever to a Town fribble. “Your rooms are ready, and I will inform our cook you’ll need some sustenance.”
A great deal of sustenance, from the size of him. Polly would be thrilled.
“I trust you are not the stable boy?”
Sara took a moment to realize he was teasing her. She had no idea how to tease him back, though his smile said he wouldn’t mind such insubordination.
“Mr. North manages the livestock, but he’s in the village today,” Sara said, her words clipped. Big, gorgeous, and possessed of a voice that could promise a lady ruin at fifty paces, he had no business teasing the help.
Mr. Haddonfield glanced around, his smile fading. “Mr. North would be the steward?”
The barn was snug, tidy, and as clean as such a space could be, and while Sara drew breath, nobody would cast aspersion on North’s efforts to keep it so. “Mr. Gabriel North is the land steward, stable master, house steward, arborist, harness maker, horse doctor, plowboy, blacksmith, whitesmith, drover, and much more. Your grandmother has not taken a direct interest in this estate for some years, sir, and you will find much evidence thereof.”
Mr. Haddonfield’s expression underwent a subtle transformation. The last hint of banter left his eyes, and by the shadowed lantern light, his features took on an air of resignation.
Not even one night on the property, and Three Springs was already taking its toll on the man.
Rather than gawp at his bleak countenance, Sara took the lantern down from its peg. “Come, sir. You have to be tired, and standing about in wet clothing is not well advised. Your rooms are ready, and a hot meal will soon await you.”
“Then I have arrived to heaven.” He hefted some soft leather version of a portmanteau, rummaged under the tarp, and emerged carrying an oilskin bag and—of all the unexpected things—a violin case.