Authors: Allison Lane
“You lie!” Laura broke into noisy sobs, interspersed with a long list of slights suffered and insults endured. In her mind, everyone was so jealous of her beauty that they schemed against her. And now that her beauty was marred, they schemed even harder.
Chloe let her rant. Laura had always defined herself by her beauty, setting herself so high that she ignored the rules that governed lesser beings, demanding adulation and expecting instant fulfillment of her wishes. Since accident and scandal had cut her off from society, she didn’t know how to live. One of William’s fears was that Laura would fall prey to a scoundrel, for she was susceptible to anyone pretending adoration, and she had no male protection at Moorside.
Fortunately, callers were rare. Aside from Mr. Rose and the vicar, Laura’s only male visitor in two years had been a solicitor representing Mr. Turner, the man who had shot her. After taking a position as secretary to a government official, Turner had pledged half his income for ten years to a trust he had established for Laura.
Chloe thought his action surprisingly honorable, though Laura disagreed. The moment the solicitor had left, she’d exploded in rage. How could anyone expect a few paltry guineas to atone for destroying her life? She had been the toast of London, the Season’s diamond, the most courted lady in history. Dukes, marquesses, and even princes had flocked to demand her hand in marriage. Now she was a pariah, shunned by friends and family alike.
Chloe resumed her needlework. Laura’s rant demonstrated her three worst problems – she had never been content with what she had, never saw the world as it was, and always blamed her problems on others.
The invitation to Seabrook had ignited a war with herself. Leaving Moorside removed her control of the lighting and angles that could hide or reveal her scars. She also despised any gathering in which she was not the center of attention.
Yet she was bored. She had demanded her own establishment, expecting freedom to be a grand adventure. It wasn’t. So she passed the long days looking for scapegoats.
“Lord Seabrook will send his carriage on Wednesday,” Chloe said when Laura’s tirade began to wane. She hadn’t yet fallen into the hysteria that would tire her. “His footmen will see that we come. We have no choice. He owns this cottage, so can turn you off at any time. Your income isn’t large enough to afford another.”
“How dare you pry into my finances?” snapped Laura.
“Since you expect me to pay the bills, I know to the last farthing how much you have and where it comes from,” Chloe reminded her. “The only way to escape Lord Seabrook’s authority is to save enough to buy your own house. That would require rigid economy.”
She succeeded in provoking a new outburst, but the knocker again interrupted.
“Don’t answer it,” snapped Laura.
“That would be unpardonably rude.” Chloe stalked to the hall and opened the door. “Andrew! I mean, C-Captain Seabrook,” she stammered as eleven years whirled away in an instant. She was fifteen again, standing in the orchard as her closest friend dismounted beside her.
She stifled the painful memory.
She’d known he was home, of course. William’s monthly letter always contained family news. So Chloe knew that Andrew had been wounded at Waterloo and was recovering at Seabrook. She hadn’t expected him to call, though. He’d not sent her a word – not even a friendly greeting – on either of his previous trips home to recuperate.
It was no surprise. When he’d arrived in the orchard that day, she’d been so upset over his imminent departure that she’d tried to seduce him into staying. It had been a despicable act every bit as dishonorable as Laura at her worst. Thus she’d destroyed the most important bond in her life. In the eleven years since, she’d heard from him exactly once – a brief letter of condolence after Kevin died. And for seven long years she had feared that Kevin had learned about the day in the orchard, blamed Andrew, and tried to avenge her. Was his blood on her hands?
Only now could she admit that her excitement over William’s invitation arose from the chance to see Andrew again. Even knowing that he hated her, she had longed for a glimpse of him.
Forcing her attention back to the man on the doorstep, she gestured him inside. He didn’t look ill, or even injured. Nor did he look much like the boy she’d loved. It was a wonder she’d recognized him.
Maturity had broadened his shoulders and deepened his chest. It had also added at least five inches, putting him over six feet. Soldiering had weathered his face and lightened his hair to a golden brown, making his green eyes seem even clearer. Fine lines clustered around their corners. But beyond the physical changes, war had hardened him, banishing the laughing boy who had raced across the hills and wrestled on the moors.
Some things remained the same, though. His nearness still stole her breath. Her heart tumbled into a gallop, making her head spin.
“Chloe.” He grasped her hand between his own. “More beautiful than ever.”
“Hardly.” She forced control over her voice and body. He might ignore her dishonor long enough to call on his sister, but that didn’t mean he had forgotten. So she must banish any lingering dreams. Never again would she leave herself vulnerable. “You are recovered, it seems. Have you come to bid farewell to Laura?”
He shook his head. “I came to see you.” His eyes darkened. “I’ve bad news, Chloe. Your father died last night.”
The blood drained from her head. When she reached for the doorjamb, he pulled her against his side. She hardly noticed as she fought free of the shock. “How?”
“He fell down the stairs. It was very quick.”
A quick death was more than he deserved. Anger rushed in, stiffening her knees so she could stand without support. “So he’s gone. It’s just as well.”
“I’ll not pretend we were close. He never forgave my failure to attach a fortune or my refusal to lie about our circumstances. When I tried to earn enough to escape his roof, he locked me in my room and forbade all callers. The only reason he let me accept this post was that Moorside is isolated, so he could pretend I was visiting relatives. But if anyone but William had offered, he would have refused this, too.” She clamped her jaw shut to choke off the bitterness. Her father had made her life hell with his false façades and accusations, though living with him made it easier to understand Laura. They had much in common, starting with their stubborn refusal to accept facts.
Andrew still knew her too well, for understanding blossomed in his eyes. “Are you all right?”
“Of course. It is a shock – even estrangement cannot change that he was my father. But I’ve not heard from him since Mother’s funeral, so his passing will make no difference.”
Not quite true, she realized as a weight slid from her shoulders. Seeing her in service had dented his pride. If he’d discovered her plans to buy a cottage, his ranting would have burned her ears to ashes. And he might have stopped her. Now that unpleasantness was averted. She was free to live on her own terms.
Andrew produced a note from Peter. “The funeral is tomorrow morning. I can drive you to Fields House. I’ll wait here while you pack.”
She opened her mouth to refuse.
“Absolutely not!” screamed Laura, bursting into the hall. “You already took this month’s half day. You cannot leave again. I won’t have it.”
“Laura!” Andrew’s tone struck Laura dumb. The army had turned him formidable. “How can you be so insensitive? Sir Nigel lies dead. William claims you were inconsolable after our father died.”
“That was different. We were very close. Besides, servants have no feelings.”
Despite two years of service, Chloe felt the blow. Maybe attending the funeral was a good idea after all. A full day without Laura would be sheer bliss, even if it meant pretending grief.
Andrew dragged Laura into the sitting room. “Pack,” he ordered over his shoulder. “I will settle matters with my sister.” The door slammed behind him.
Chloe hurried upstairs, grateful for a few moments alone – packing would not take long. She would wear her one black gown, dyed for her mother’s funeral last year. Aside from that, she needed only her night things.
Silence stretched until she reached her bedroom. Only then did Andrew address Laura. Accustomed to the thick walls of Seabrook, he obviously didn’t realize that his voice reached every corner of the cottage. Ignoring it was impossible.
“I know this is a shock, and you have never enjoyed upheaval, but that doesn’t mean you can speak without thought. Have you forgotten that Chloe’s breeding is every bit as good as yours? Better, really. Mother was a baronet’s daughter who married a baron. But Lady Fields’s father was a viscount. By rights it should be you looking after her.”
“Nonsense. She hasn’t a penny to her name. But that isn’t the point. I cannot do without her. Who will oversee that wretched cook and fetch my threads from the village? And if I’m to go to Seabrook, she must mend my best gown.”
“Feeling peevish, I see. You’d best set that aside before the house party. William is in no mood for confrontation. In the meantime, I am sure you can manage without Miss Fields.”
“You understand nothing!” Laura’s voice grew shrill. “Who will dress me and arrange my hair? Who will bring my morning chocolate and make up my bed? Mrs. Monroe is worthless outside the kitchen. And she delights in parading people through my drawing room so they can admire the freak.”
“It is only for one day,” Andrew said soothingly. “You will manage just fine.”
“You are hateful!” she cried, bursting into tears.
“Control yourself. This is not a Cheltenham tragedy, and I am not one of your beaux. Tears do not move me. Now enough of this. Miss Fields will attend Sir Nigel’s funeral. You will learn how to fend for yourself. It’s a useful skill, for fate often throws out unexpected challenges. You will also review your manners. William won’t tolerate megrims, so pull yourself together and remember that you are a lady. I will ignore today’s tantrum, but if it happens again, I must report it to William.”
Laura fell silent.
Chloe closed her bandbox.
Andrew had grown masterful, though she should not be surprised. An officer who couldn’t command would not have survived eleven years of war.
Perhaps Laura needed a firmer hand. Chloe had used a combination of placation and argument to control her, but that had increased Laura’s arrogance. And the lack of social concourse meant that Laura had no incentive to maintain her manners. They had grown quite lax.
Chloe exhaled in relief as Andrew’s curricle pulled away from Moorside. Laura had thrown another fit as they left. Even Andrew had been unable to quiet her.
Perhaps it was time to resign. Her savings wouldn’t buy a cottage, but escaping Laura might be worth putting herself at the mercy of a landlord. And there was always her emergency fu—
The curricle bounced across a rut, brushing Andrew’s leg against her own. Heat speared her from head to toe. Eleven years had not banished that childish infatuation.
Her fault, of course, she admitted, suppressing her reaction through force of will. She’d escaped into fantasies of Andrew whenever life became a burden – the day her father had lost her already-inadequate dowry, her unsuccessful attempt to escape Fields House, the abuse she endured from Laura….
Reliving childhood escapades and imagining what life might have been like if he’d stayed in Devonshire had kept her rational.
Don’t, she admonished herself. This is no time for fantasy.
And he was no fantasy knight. Already she saw differences between the real and imaginary Andrews that proved she knew little of the man he had become.
His looks still demanded attention, and he exuded a blatant masculinity she’d never encountered before, even from him. But war and hardship had encased him in armor. His once expressive face had frozen into a harsh mask. His eyes had gone flat and haunted, offering only an occasional glimpse of a soul tormented by ghosts, pain, and horror. The teasing twinkle she’d loved so much was gone.
His eyes had formerly revealed his every thought, though she’d sometimes missed the message. Like the day he’d informed her, quite solemnly, that Kevin had found a new playmate and no longer welcomed their company. In truth, Kevin had acquired a tutor who kept him in the schoolroom instead of letting him run wild from dawn to dusk. Andrew’s teasing had been prescient, though. Kevin had fallen in love with books, becoming so enamored of study that the tutor had to force him outside. In the end, it had been Chloe and Andrew who kept his life balanced.
She stifled the reminder of her dead brother. This was no time to visit old griefs. The purpose of this journey was to relax for a few hours.
The lane finally curved, blocking Laura’s fury. It had been burning into her back since Andrew had set the team in motion. But she would face that problem tomorrow. For now she must prepare for her family.
Which meant only Peter. An immediate funeral guaranteed that no other relatives could attend. They would probably have refused anyway. The uncles and cousins had avoided Sir Nigel for years, condemning him for his profligacy and his stubborn refusal to hire a competent man of business. In response, he’d refused to acknowledge their existence, even barring Uncle Leo from the estate.
, she thought, swallowing tears. He had never accepted responsibility for his losses. So when the family descended with their criticism and advice, he had dug in his heels and clung to his ways. If they had left him alone, he might have learned from his mistakes – and the family fortune might have survived.
The uncles had also tried to groom Peter for a life of fiscal responsibility. But Peter shared their father’s determination to build his own fortune, though his methods were no more effective. While Sir Nigel gambled on investments, Peter had just gambled. What had started as an attempt to supplement an inadequate allowance had quickly become an obsession.
Better men than Peter had lost fortunes at the tables, but Peter’s temper worsened with each new loss, making him argumentative. The year before Chloe had left Fields House, the two men had fought often over money – which was another reason she’d welcomed this post.