Authors: Allison Lane
Nothing fazed Peter. Not debt. Not threats. Not even a beating he’d taken after reneging on a payment to a moneylender. No matter how badly he lost, he still believed that he would win the next time – and win big. Then he could escape their father’s heavy hand.
Well, he had managed that last. But she knew as sure as the sun rose in the east that he would squander his entire inheritance within the year. She did not want to be nearby when he found his back against the wall.
“Are you all right?” asked Andrew, covering her hand with his own.
“Fine.” She blushed as his heat burned through her gloves. “Father’s death was unexpected, for he was neither old nor sick. But years of antagonism destroyed any family feeling.”
“My condolences anyway. He was your father, and I recall your family as close. I still remember the picnics he arranged for all of us.”
“Things change.” She sighed. They had started changing even before Andrew had bought his commission, though she had said nothing lest she cast a pall over their summers. Now she felt an overwhelming urge to share. “You rarely saw Father after you started school. Even Kevin did not recognize the truth for several years. His nose was always in a book.”
“After Grandfather died, Father set out to prove that he was a cannier investor. But he wasn’t. At first Mother was able to soothe him when he lost, but her influence soon waned. By the time Kevin started at Oxford, Father’s temper was so chancy that we avoided him.”
His hand squeezed hers, offering comfort.
“Then the steward absconded with several years of estate profits, Kevin died, and everything fell apart. Mother took to her bed, Father’s schemes grew wilder, and Peter started gaming heavily. I went into service, which exposed his empty coffers to the world. We spoke only once after that – a biting exchange over Mother’s coffin.” She shrugged, already berating herself for revealing so much. He couldn’t care about any of it. His life had moved to a larger arena, making the events of this corner of Devonshire insignificant.
She had to remember that he was no longer an honorary brother. She could not even count him a friend.
Had Kevin heard about that day in the orchard? They’d been in the open where anyone might have seen. Had he challenged Andrew? Had Andrew killed him?
* * * *
Andrew drove in silence for several minutes. Chloe would already regret confiding in him, though it was clear that she’d needed to talk. But he was no longer her playmate. It was amazing that she’d spoken to him at all after his cruelty.
He was still reeling from the reaction that had slammed through his gut the moment she’d opened the door. Awareness. Desire. Need. His heart had jerked from relaxed to racing in an instant, knocking him so far off balance that he’d overreacted to Laura’s pique.
Why did he never feel this kick for other women? Not that he’d remained celibate, especially after a battle, when he would try anything that might shove the horror aside. But even the headiest experiences paled beside the rush of excitement Chloe could raise. And always had.
She was a lifelong friend, he reminded himself. And part of his reaction was due to the changes since he’d last seen her. The curves that had blossomed at age fifteen had matured into a woman’s softness. Time had turned her coltish awkwardness to grace. Her sable hair gleamed in the sunlight, and her mossy eyes seemed almost mystic today. She was more sober than he remembered, but that was hardly a surprise: Her father lay dead.
Both the Fields and Seabrook households had been odd, though he’d not realized how odd until he started school. Lady Fields had decided to run the nursery herself, so Chloe had had no governess and Kevin no tutor until his tenth year. But Lady Fields had demanded only sporadic study, often leaving her children to their own devices.
The Seabrook household hadn’t been much better. After Lady Seabrook’s death when Andrew was nine, his oldest sister Catherine had taken charge of the household. But money was tight, and the tutor lazy. So William and Andrew often slipped away to meet Kevin and Chloe. They’d formed bonds even closer than blood ties.
Not that they always stayed together. Stodgy William and bookish Kevin often pursued sedate activities, leaving Andrew and Chloe to climb trees, track animals, and ride neck-or-nothing across the hills. Even as a child, she’d been independent, intelligent, and just as curious about the world as he. Which had led to that disastrous last meeting.
How she must hate him for that cruel parting – as shown by the cold
she had uttered the moment her shock had faded at Moorside.
Pain sliced his chest. There was no doubt his attraction remained, stronger than ever. But this time he would keep it well buried. Never again would he tread where he could not stay. Tomorrow he would be gone, back to the kill-or-be-killed reality of battle.
Could she ever forgive him? Granted, she had willingly climbed into a curricle beside him, then shared her family problems. But that meant nothing. He’d seen the refusal hovering on her lips. Only fierce will had held it back – without his escort, she would miss her father’s funeral. And sharing was a habit. Neither denoted friendship. He had no right to her regard anyway. Not after he’d killed Kev—
He cut off the thought. Nothing could change the past. Instead, he must look to the present. Recalling Kevin revived other memories – like his dying plea:
Take care of Chloe.
Yet you did nothing, his conscience growled. You made no effort to discover her circumstances. You let her go into service without a word. You—
He finally broke the silence.
“It pains me to see you in service, Chloe. Especially with Laura.” Realizing that he was clutching her hand, he released it. “How can you stand living with her after the way she abused Kevin?”
“What had Laura to do with Kevin?”
Pulling the team to a halt, he stared. “He never told you?”
“Told me what?”
He cursed. “Damn my loose tongue! I was sure you knew. Kev was never one to hide grievances.”
“What grievance?” When he remained silent, she grasped his arm. “You can’t stop now, Andrew. What did Laura do to Kevin? I’ve tried for years to understand why he bought colors. It can’t have been to emulate you.”
“Did he—” Her voice broke, but she tried again. “Did he challenge you?”
“Whatever for?” he gasped in shock.
“When he left so suddenly, I feared that he had discovered how I threw myself at you that day, trying to seduce you away from duty. Kevin turned rather sanctimonious that last year, often grumbling about forward girls who expected men to throw over their plans on a whim. It fit so perfectly that I was sure he meant me. I tried to distract him with riding and fishing, the way you always did when he sank too deeply into study, but it didn’t work. So when he left, I feared that he’d decided it was your fault rather than mine and meant to punish you.” She kept her eyes averted during her recital.
Andrew finally found his voice. “Dear God. I was crueler than I thought.” He let out a shuddering breath, then drew in another. “You did nothing wrong that day, Chloe. I lost my head and all but raped you, then turned my temper against you using the most cutting words I could devise. The memory haunted me for years. I was sure you hated me.”
His heart leaped at the word, but he ignored it. “Thank you. Set your fears at rest. Kevin said nothing. Not at the time. Not in letters. Not when he joined the regiment.”
“Then why did he buy colors? He hated fighting.”
The memory of Kevin bouncing into regimental headquarters in London made Andrew shudder.
I’m your new ensign, Drew
. His eyes had burned with fury, fear, and hatred. “He never should have done it. Anything would have been preferable. God knows I tried to keep him safe,” he murmured. “But Kev was no soldier.” His voice broke.
“I know that, Andrew. And if anyone could have saved him, it was you. But why was he there?”
He bit his lip.
“I’m no longer a child, Andrew. Don’t treat me like one. And if this concerns Laura, I have a right to know.”
He berated himself for starting this, but she was right. If nothing else, he could save her from Laura. After this morning, he had to wonder if William was wrong. Laura didn’t act like a mature, settled lady. She seemed more arrogant than ever.
He set the team in motion so he needn’t watch Chloe. It was bad enough that he’d seduced her without honorable intent. Now he had to bare even more failings.
“You know what Laura was like that last year I was home – flirting with every man she met, expecting them all to fall at her feet. And she was only thirteen.”
“Even then she drew men’s eyes. They found her combination of beauty and sweetness mesmerizing.”
“The sweetness didn’t last, or so Kevin claimed. He said that by seventeen she’d become arrogant and greedy, always wanting more than anyone could provide. She cared little for those who fawned on her, yet expected anyone who ignored her to hold the key to paradise.”
“You can’t mean—”
“Kevin despised Laura. He knew her better than anyone, for he often called on William. Thus he’d seen her throw herself at grooms and footmen and stalk disinterested gentlemen – which doubtless spawned his grumbling. He was always careful to avoid her, but she ambushed him one day, cornering him in the stable. When he spurned her, she vowed to tell Father that he’d forced her. Father believed every word she said. Rather than face a scandal, Kevin fled. Sir Nigel agreed to buy his commission.”
“No wonder Father let me accept this post. It was another way to punish me. My God, how can I face her again?”
“You needn’t. I can find her a new companion.”
“No. I’ve nowhere else to go. Returning to Fields House would be worse than serving Laura.”
A glance convinced him she was serious. “How can you prefer someone who treats you like a slave?”
“She’s not a person I can like – especially now – but I can handle her. Peter is another matter. I would never have a moment of peace at Fields House.”
“Why?” He held the team to a walk, for they’d already covered twenty miles today. “His gaming?”
She nodded. “Fields House is unentailed. At least at Moorside I have a roof over my head. But you needn’t worry about Laura. I will be leaving next year.”
“To do what?”
“Teach. By then I will have saved enough to buy a cottage. I can live with her that long. It will take William time to find a good replacement anyway, for the job involves more than providing companionship.”
“Surely Peter would welcome you for a year.”
“You are not thinking. Without the post, I’ve no way to increase my savings. Peter will never part with a farthing on my account. He needs it for his next game.”
“Is that why you never visit home?”
“Not entirely. I’ve no transport. And when I returned for Mother’s funeral, the welcome was so chilly, I removed my few remaining possessions and vowed never to set foot in the place again. I wouldn’t be here today if Laura hadn’t cut up stiff,” she admitted, blushing. “Perhaps a day alone will settle her.”
Andrew shook his head. “I wish I’d known. Kevin would have hated to see you in such straits.”
“It is the one reason I’m glad he is gone.” She brushed a piece of lint from her sleeve, then inhaled deeply. “How did he die?”
“I know what you wrote at the time, Andrew. Your letter meant more to me than you’ll ever know. But once the initial grief passed, I realized that it actually said very little. You skirted the truth by a wide margin, which is why I feared he had died in a duel. There comes a time when one needs details.”
“There isn’t much I can add.” He pursed his lips, cursing that she knew him so well. He’d written many letters to families over the years, but only Chloe recognized the platitudes. If she thought he’d shot Kevin in a duel, it was a wonder she hadn’t castrated him on the doorstep.
“I blocked that day from my mind for years.” He’d tried to, anyway. But one of fate’s cruelest jokes was that the things he most wanted to forget remained the clearest in his mind – Chloe’s tears, Kevin’s death, the bloodiest battles…. “I should have protected him.”
“Protecting Kevin was not your job.”
“But it was. As his lieutenant, his safety was my responsibility. I knew he was as green as they came and hadn’t had time to learn even basic duties. Men of his sensitivity do not belong on a battlefield.”
“Hush, Andrew.” Her hand soothed his arm. “Guilt is pointless. You had nothing to do with Laura. You weren’t even here.”
“That doesn’t matter. Why the devil didn’t he go back to Oxford? Why buy colors?”
“Andrew!” Her tone could have called a company of raw recruits to attention. “If Laura threatened to cry rape, he had no choice. I know her well after two years in her employ. Even if your father had questioned her story, she would have written the school. They would have sent him down.”
“Damn her!” His fists clenched around the ribbons. Why the hell hadn’t Turner’s bullet landed a foot lower? Death would have been a fitting retribution for her crimes against Kevin.
And if that thought didn’t condemn him to hell, nothing would.
“Enough. Tell me about Kevin. Everything. Good and bad. And no more of this dying gloriously for king and country. A noble death wouldn’t wrack you with guilt.”
He’d forgotten that her backbone was as strong as his. “Very well. We sailed for Portugal only two days after he joined us. Two damned days. If only he’d been a week later.”
“Stop it,” she ordered. “Stick to facts.”
A breath restored his composure. “Kevin was a scholar, not a soldier, too willing to consider alternatives, listen to objections, and question orders. I worked with him every day we were at sea, reminding him that his life and the lives of his men depended on instant obedience, but I failed to instill the right instincts. When the French attacked, I positioned his unit in the back of the square and told him to follow my lead. He had good sergeants under him. They knew what to do.” He swallowed. “But as the first wave attacked, Kevin broke from the square. We never figured out why. Maybe he spotted a problem in the next square. Or maybe his nerve collapsed. It doesn’t matter. I ordered him back, but he was down before he could respond. I should have expected it, should have remembered how disorienting the first battle can be, should have watched him more closely.”