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Sir Nigel Fields snapped the book shut and returned it to its shelf. What the devil was he doing here? This visit served no purpose. Oh, he'd claimed to be seeking investment advice from a wealthy friend, but that was pretense. He had nothing to invest, which half of Exeter must know by now.
He ground his teeth.
This visit had only increased his blue-devils. The library's opulence put his own crumbling manor to shame. Books packed the shelves, many of them rare, all of them richly bound with leather and gilt. Enormous globes flanked an elaborate marble fireplace. Italian stuccatori framed a pair of ceiling frescoes. Paintings by renowned artists dotted the walls.
In contrast, his own library was a converted bedroom with cracked paneling and unadorned ceiling. Half-empty shelves and dilapidated furniture completed a picture of genteel poverty.
It wasn't fair.
His honors dated from the reign of Henry VII, a proud ancestral line. His forebears had survived wars, reformation, and revolution with their land and fortune intact.
Their ghosts tormented his nights, chastising him for each new disaster, though they ought to know that none were his fault. Lady Luck had deserted him with a vengeance. Failed crops. Diseased flocks. Dishonest steward.
He cursed the man yet again. Forsythe had fled just ahead of the magistrate, taking his spoils with him. He'd planned his escape well. Not a whisper of his actual whereabouts had turned up in eight years, though rumor was rife. Some swore he'd taken a smuggler's boat to France. Others thought he'd disguised himself as a woman and escaped to America ... Italy ... Scotland ... Ireland.
In the end,it didn't matter. Forsythe was gone, and Sir Nigel was ruined. The death of his heir a year later had added the coup de grâce to his plight.
He'd tried to rebuild. The late war had offered opportunities for remaking fortunes. Yet Lady Luck never relented. The infallible canal venture had collapsed without a single ditch dug, its promoters doing a flit in the dark of night. They hadn't purchased a foot of their supposed right-of-way.
He'd made sure his next investment was legitimate. The company had a War Office contract to produce rifles with interchangeable parts--a system reportedly successful in America. But when several of the weapons blew up in use, the War Office returned to its trusty Brown Bess flintlocks. Sir Nigel's investment disappeared.
Then his surviving son had embarked on deep gaming, draining the family coffers at an alarming rate. Peter never passed up a game, and he rarely won. Now that he was the heir, he seemed bent on squandering his patrimony.
Had any man ever been so accursed?
Sir Nigel shook his head. Because of Peter, his estate was mortgaged, his accounts empty. If he didn't make a profit soon, he would lose everything--the curse of owning unentailed land. His ancestors must be turning in their graves.
His living relatives' displeasure was more immediate. They insulted him at every turn, calling him credulous, incompetent, and stubborn to a fault. His uncles cursed him for refusing to accept responsibility, when anyone of sense must know that his problems weren't his fault. His brother even blamed him for Forsythe's thievery, swearing that he would have detected the man's dishonesty immediately. Leo's demands that Sir Nigel hire a man of business to oversee his estate and investments--as if he'd trust another stranger after Forsythe--had forced Sir Nigel to send him away and forbid his return. Even his daughter had blamed him, her departure telling the world that she expected his imminent ruin.
Shoving his unproductive thoughts aside, he headed for the door. There was no reason to stay. Half an hour earlier an emergency had claimed his host's attention. It must be serious to have kept him this long without a word.
His own time would be better spent searching his attics. Maybe he'd missed something saleable--not that a single item, or even a dozen, could cover Peter's latest loss. Two hundred guineas. The boy had no sense.
Damn the bankers for refusing him a loan! And damn Peter for disobeying orders. How many times had he told the boy to stay away from the Golden Bull? It catered to smugglers, highwaymen, and cheats.
His coattails brushed his host's desk as he passed, knocking a paper to the floor. He bent to retrieve it.
Fool! The salutation leaped from the page. Have you no regard for our necks? How can you commit such admissions to paper?
Shocked, he skimmed the rest, then unfolded the letter to which it responded.
"Cad! Fiend!" The curses burst out before he could stop them. No wonder the man was so rich. He was a thief, a swindler, and possibly a traitor.
Tucking both pages into his coat, he collected his hat and cane from the butler. "I can no longer wait. Please convey my sympathy for whatever misfortune has befallen." With what he hoped was dignity, he hurried away to find a magistrate.
The nerve of the man, flaunting a fortune he'd acquired by fraud. He deserved to be hanged. How could he hold up his head in the company of worthier men?
Like you? asked Temptation. He is worse than Forsythe, stealing from those who trust him. And how does he differ from the sharps who fleeced Peter? Or the swindlers behind that canal scheme?
"He doesn't," Sir Nigel growled. "He is a cad and a scoundrel."
So why not exact retribution before you turn him in? Recover some of your losses.
"Impossible." But his snort wasn't as firm as it should have been.
Was it truly impossible? He was at his wit's end. He'd sold the last painting for half its value to meet a mortgage payment. Peter's latest disaster would put him in the poorhouse. Perhaps Lady Luck had finally relented, offering him a chance to recoup.
He wouldn't let the culprits escape punishment, of course. But convicting them would require more than these letters. He could investigate--find other evidence, learn the extent of this conspiracy, prepare the proof for the court. No one would object to paying him for such effort--a small sum that would cover Peter's debts and buy shares in Weston Square. Building ventures were guaranteed winners; with so many men returning from war, housing was in short supply.
Smiling, he headed for his carriage, already composing the letter he would dispatch. He wasn't greedy. Six hundred guineas was a reasonable amount. Two hundred to replace Chloe's dowry--he would establish a trust this time so Peter couldn't touch it. Two hundred to redeem Peter's markers. Two hundred for Weston Square. Confining Peter to the estate until harvest would eliminate new trouble.
And by harvest, he could send the results of his investigation to the magistrate. Six hundred guineas was a reasonable fee for such work. But he must collect it anonymously lest the culprits learn of their peril and flee.
Chloe Fields closed the door behind the vicar's wife, then braced for Miss Laura Seabrook's inevitable tirade--her employer would be furious that Mrs. Tubbs had accosted her without warning.
Mrs. Tubbs had all the finesse of a battleship under full sail. Once she made up her mind, there was no stopping her. So she'd shoved her way into the hall, then refused to wait while Chloe discovered whether Laura was receiving. She hadn't even allowed Chloe to announce her.
"Stop dawdling!" snapped Laura.
Taking a deep breath, Chloe locked the front door. She'd known from the beginning that Laura would be a difficult employer--Laura had been willful since birth, her natural arrogance encouraged by an overindulgent father. The scandal that had sent her fleeing to Moorside Cottage had made her even worse.
Laura had spent the intervening years brooding because she was no longer the belle of Devonshire and the toast of London--though in truth, she had never been as perfect as she claimed. While she'd been blessed with golden hair, porcelain skin, sapphire eyes, and angelic features, she was a harridan who considered herself superior to everyone else. Men might have clustered around her, flirting and writing odes to her beauty, but few seriously considered wedding her.
Drawing in a deep breath, Chloe returned to the sitting room. It was elegantly furnished and would have been quite cheerful if Laura ever opened the velvet draperies. But she insisted on shutting out the world.
Laura's displeasure crackled through the gloom as Chloe picked up her needlework.
"How many times must I remind you that no one is to enter this house without my permission?" Laura demanded. As usual, she kept her face turned toward the fireplace so only her right profile showed. On those rare occasions when she accepted callers, she caked the left side of her face with cosmetics to further hide her scars. "If you cannot follow simple instructions, I will find a new companion. I cannot tolerate incompetence."
"I tried." Chloe forced her voice into subservience--two years of abuse made respect impossible. "I could hardly ignore the knocker; the fishmonger's boy is already an hour late. But you know Mrs. Tubbs as well as I do. She shoved me aside and refused to let me announce her. Why don't you contribute some paltry sum to her altar fund and be done with it?"
"Never. It would encourage her to call more often, demanding even more money. Besides, where would I find even a paltry sum? You've wasted so much on the housekeeping that I've nothing left. This gown is two years old!"
"And still beautiful." The jacconet muslin walking dress had been created by London's finest modiste. "It is newer than Mrs. Tubbs's, better made than Lady Tyburn's, and admired by everyone who sees it. The embroidery is exquisite. But if you need a new gown, then order one. You can manage the cost by switching to tallow candles, eating barley bread at meals, and drinking coffee instead of expensive tea."
"Never!" Laura hurled her book across the room. "No one of my breeding can consider such vulgarities."
"Then spend your days in the garden instead of drawing the draperies and burning candles at high noon," snapped Chloe, glaring at the seven candles Laura had lit after breakfast. It was an extravagance she could ill afford.
Unfortunately, Laura would never risk being seen. The sitting room windows overlooked the lane, and the garden walls were only six feet high. Anyone on horseback could look over them.
The budget had been a sore point even before the price of flour had risen. Now Laura's purse truly pinched. And it could only get worse. The farmers expected a poor harvest this year, which would raise prices yet again. Laura's income would stretch no further, but she refused to economize. As the daughter of a baron, she demanded the finest bread and cake, abundant wax candles--except when she had guests--and both meat and fish every day. The next rise in costs would surpass her income.
Chloe dreaded the day she would have to confront Laura's guardian to request additional funds or ask permission to spend part of the trust's principal. At best, William would be furious. At worst, he would move Laura back to Seabrook Manor, which would cause no end of trouble.
It was William, Lord Seabrook, who had hired Chloe to be his sister's companion. Chloe knew him well, for they had been childhood playmates. Thus he trusted her to run the household. Laura had no head for figures and no concept of economy. Chloe hadn't realized until later that he also expected her to calm Laura's frequent megrims, teach her responsibility, and help her accept her changed fortune. So far, she'd managed only the first.
"Perhaps we should reduce your exorbitant salary," Laura said now, turning so both eyes glared at Chloe. The scar slashed white across a pitted cheek.
"I have a contract," Chloe reminded her, suppressing a sigh. Laura threatened to turn her off a dozen times a week. "And since I'm performing the duties of housekeeper and lady's maid, as well as companion, I am probably underpaid."
"Since William is the one who hired you, he should pay you." Laura glowered.
Chloe bit her tongue. This argument was an old one and served no purpose. Laura neither listened nor cared about truth. Today's petulance expressed her irritation that Mrs. Tubbs had seen her scars. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last--there wasn't a soul in the village who hadn't seen them, despite the heavy veils she wore in public--but Laura considered each incident a fresh insult. She could not forget her reign as a London diamond or her dreams of traveling the world so that people from all nations could admire her beauty and worship at her feet.
"Why don't you sit in the garden for an hour?" Chloe suggested. Since the lane ended at Moorside, it was rare for anyone to use it. Their nearest neighbor, Mr. Rose, was harvesting wheat this week so would not ride in this direction. "It's a beautiful day. The fish boy always walks, so you needn't see him. I'll bring you a tea tray."
Laura grumbled, but finally agreed to take the air.
Chloe heaved a sigh of relief as she snuffed the candles. Handling Laura was more enervating than teaching fractious children or placating grumpy old ladies.
Laura's fury over her accident remained hot, for retiring from the world gave her too much time to brood. She blamed her predicament on everyone but herself, railing at her sisters, cursing her brothers, and heaping vitriol on anyone who came near her. Even Chloe, who was paid to care for her, found it difficult to remain at her post.
After two years on the job, Chloe questioned her own sanity. Granted, she had welcomed William's offer, for she'd been desperate to escape Fields House. Without a dowry or powerful relations, and lacking the beauty that might have overcome those faults, marriage would be impossible, so she had to support herself. Fifty guineas a year had seemed a godsend, for she could save most of it. Eventually she would be free.
In truth, freedom was nearer than she'd originally planned. Laura's two brothers-in-law augmented her savings whenever they visited Devonshire. Both despised Laura. Both were grateful that Chloe kept her under control. Chloe had initially balked at accepting their gifts, but in the end, practicality won. Without the vails, her patience would expire long before she could quit, for Laura had proved to be far more exasperating than expected.
Laura knew nothing about this extra income. She hated both Grayson1 and Rockhurst2 and was so incensed with her sister, Lady Grayson, that she refused to utter her name. Thus none of them had visited Moorside. Chloe met them in the market town of Ashburton twice a year to report on Laura's condition. Laura never accompanied her. She had traveled beyond the nearest village only once in two years--a trip to Seabrook Manor that had not been a success.
Thanks to Lords Rockhurst and Grayson, Chloe now had a hundred and fifty guineas invested in Consols--enough to rent rooms if her situation grew desperate. But she wanted a cottage with a garden. Caring for Laura's garden was the only part of this job she enjoyed. And a kitchen garden would reduce her expenses.
Chloe set the tea tray at Laura's side, then snipped faded flowers from the perennial border.
Laura was netting a reticule, following the instructions in a year-old copy of Ackermann's Repository, but the project wasn't going well. She was too furious to concentrate--and not just over Mrs. Tubbs. She had been cursing the fish boy since his last delivery--he'd been singing a ditty about the two-faced witch of Moorside Cottage when he reached the door. Chloe had heard it several times in the village, but that had been Laura's first exposure.
Laura's sensitivity made taunting her a popular sport, especially among the children, but Laura refused to admit that it was her manner that drew comments, not her appearance. No one cared that the blacksmith was missing two fingers or that the baker's forehead bore scars from setting fire to his hair. But Laura lost her temper at the first hint of ridicule, and sometimes even earlier. Her imagination could find mockery in the most innocuous statements.
Chloe dropped the last faded bloom into her basket, stirring delicious scents that promised a lovely potpourri for her room.
"Damn! Damn! Damn!" Laura snarled. "These instructions are worthless." She threw the reticule on the ground, dashing the teapot after it.
"Whoever wrote this article is an idiot."
"Let's see." Chloe retrieved the reticule, scanned the instructions, then untwisted the last two rows. Her deft fingers quickly restored the proper design. "Instructions are often confusing," she said placatingly. "But I think they intend you to continue for another four rows before changing the pattern."
Laura batted the reticule away. "What is the point? I won't use it anyway. We never go anywhere."
"We will be at Seabrook Manor next week." Chloe scooped up the shattered teapot, irritated at the waste. That made three porcelain teapots since she'd come to Moorside. This time she would replace it with pottery, no matter what Laura said.
"I'm not going." Laura turned away, again offering her beautiful profile.
"Lord Seabrook will send his carriage on Wednesday," Chloe continued as if Laura hadn't spoken. "He wants the entire family at his betrothal ball."
"No." Surging to her feet, Laura stomped into the house.
Chloe sighed. Pandering to Laura's conceit usually kept the girl under control, but this time it wasn't possible. If Laura balked, William would send several sturdy footmen to drag her home. The Seabrooks were all stubborn to a fault, and William was no exception. Having decided to invite Laura, he would ignore her tantrums. Nothing deterred him from his chosen course.
So she had to elicit Laura's cooperation. Unfortunately, the usual enticements wouldn't work. Laura despised her family, and while Chloe might look forward to seeing friends and neighbors again, Laura would not. So what might convince her?
Revealing her own excitement would only make matters worse, for Laura might dig in her heels simply to punish her companion. And Chloe had no reason to anticipate the gathering, she reminded herself. She wasn't attending as a guest and could no longer expect deference as a baronet's daughter. Companions remained on the fringes.
But anything was better than weeks and months of Laura's megrims.
Sir Nigel bolted upright in bed, staring in horror at the figure cloaked in black. Light from a single candle glinted from a pistol.
"Return the letters. Now!" snapped the man, teeth flashing white in the gloom.
"What? Who are you?" But he knew. Sir Nigel's heart lurched into a full gallop. How had they identified him?
His third request for a small payment had been a mistake. In the two months since finding the letters, he had amassed enough evidence to convict these men several times over. He should have been content. But he had forgotten the third mortgage when making his original calculations. Then Peter had again--
"Now!" His caller cocked the pistol.
Mind racing, Sir Nigel slid from the bed. Producing the letters would cost him his life. So would refusing. Thus he must stall and pray for escape. The first step was to dress. He would feel less vulnerable when properly clad. Removing his nightshirt, he headed for his dressing room.
He'd hidden the letters where no one would ever find them and kept the other evidence in the priest's hole so he could study it in private. If he failed to escape, Peter would find it. Pray God the boy would turn it over to the authorities.
Don't think about that. Stepping into breeches, he pulled on a shirt, then reached for a fresh cravat.
"We aren't making morning calls," snapped his visitor. "Stop dawdling and return the letters."
"They are in the library." His voice shook so badly that he clamped his jaw shut. The library offered his best hope. It was a logical hiding place and contained at least one weapon.
Heart in his throat, he paced the length of the hall, exuding a confidence he did not feel.
In the library, he moved to the fireplace and tugged on the loose brick he'd noticed last week. It stuck. Cursing, he wiggled it until his fingers were raw, then used the poker to pry at it. Curiosity lured his visitor a step closer.
Sir Nigel whirled to strike.
Captain Andrew Seabrook grimaced at the voices emanating from the billiard room. His brothers were arguing again. With Oxford's fall term due to start, it was becoming a daily ritual.
"Absolutely not!" swore William, slamming balls together hard enough to be heard through the heavy door. "You will return to school and forget about the navy. Only a madman wants to be flogged every day of his life."
"You would. You are too stubborn to follow orders and too rigid to accept advice."
"I'm not!" insisted eighteen-year-old Thomas. "Just because you enjoy herding sheep and grubbing about in fields doesn't mean everyone does. I love the sea. I need to travel. I can't tolerate another quarter of Greek and idiotic tutors."
"You are too old," snapped William. "The navy starts their officers as midshipmen--fourteen at most."
"Not always." Thomas's voice grew eager. "I spoke with Captain Marshal in Exeter last week. Piracy has grown so bold in every sea that they need more ships than ever. He would welcome me as--"
"No." William remained implacable. "It's bad enough that Andrew nearly died serving the Crown. I won't put another Seabrook in jeo--"
Andrew ducked into the library, closed the door against the noise, and poured himself a drink. Why did William keep dragging his name into the fight? This wasn't his battle.
William was right to insist that Thomas finish school, for the boy needed a career that would support him. He couldn't rely on the navy. One injury could disable him forever. Few could survive long on half-pay.
Yet William's edicts were heavy-handed at best and might prod Thomas down a path he would regret. William was a simple man with a limited sense of humor, puritanical views, and no imagination. His goals were to build Seabrook Manor into a prosperous estate and produce an heir who would care as deeply for the land as he did. He wanted Thomas to complete a gentleman's education, then come home to help with the estate.
What William refused to acknowledge was that Thomas hated farming. He wanted to travel and seek adventure. Yet Thomas's dreams could never be achieved in the navy. Shipboard life was hard and battle painful. Death was easy. Survival wasn't--especially if one lost a limb or an eye. Even emerging physically whole left inner scars that Andrew would wish on no one, especially a brother. And once Thomas joined the navy, he would never escape.
Like him. Eleven years of war dragged at his spirits. Deep inside, he wanted nothing more than to sell his army commission, but that was impossible. His only skill was fighting. His only income was his military pay. Without it, he would starve to death.
He wouldn't be the first to face that fate. For years London had been littered with soldiers who could no longer fight. Their condition deteriorated steadily. Now it was worse, for Napoleon's defeat meant that the military no longer needed as many men. Thousands were being released. Few could find jobs. Many had no families. Competition for employment was keen, so those without skills could only beg--or worse. The newspapers already decried an increase in thievery.
He shuddered, forcing despair back into its hole. Succumbing to fear would make the next battle harder and could cost him his life--assuming his regiment took him back. It would leave for India soon. If his leg was not recovered, he would lose his commission. Only the fit would survive the regimental purge.
Draining his glass, he poured another.
All he knew was warfare. Estate management held no interest. Farmers seemed as alien as those black Africans he'd seen or the Chinese he'd heard about. Nor did he know anything about sheep. He'd known since birth that his life lay with the army--duty demanded that second sons serve the king--so he'd paid little attention to alternatives. Buying colors at sixteen meant he lacked the schooling to serve the church. Eleven years of following orders and castigating subordinates had destroyed any potential diplomatic skills. And he doubted anyone would hire a cynical warrior as a secretary.
So he had to recover from these damnable wounds. The military was the only life he knew.
He stared at the empty fireplace wishing for heat to loosen his thigh, but no one built fires in August--September now, he corrected himself. The coal scuttle was empty, and the servants long abed.
That was where he ought to be, but he couldn't sleep. The worst part of recuperation was the restlessness caused by inactivity.
In the two weeks since he'd removed the splints, he'd worked the leg as much as possible. The limp was fading, but he couldn't walk above a mile, and riding was worse. He'd barely managed an hour in the saddle that morning.
The pain was so bad he feared he would never be whole again. Fear raised anxiety for the future. Anxiety kept him awake. Sleeplessness left too many hours in which to fall into despair. The resulting lack of energy made the next day's exercise even more painful. It was a never-ending cycle that might cost him his commission.
"Stop complaining," he muttered, reaching for the decanter. "At least the damned thing is still there. And it's healing. Harvey will have to eat his words."
Only his vehement protests, backed by Major Barnfield's pleas, had saved the leg from amputation. Harvey had sworn that even if Andrew survived the inevitable infection, he would never walk again. Andrew had remained adamant. And Harvey had been wrong. The wound had not turned putrid, and the bone had healed. But unless he recovered his strength, it would do no good.
Stop thinking about it!
He shoved the decanter aside. Wine made him maudlin, and he was already blue-deviled enough. It was better to think about Harvey's misjudgment.
To be fair, Harvey had worked for thirty hours without rest before reaching Andrew. Amputation was faster than the lengthy process of removing debris deeply embedded in flesh. With the battlefield's perpetual lack of remedies and shortage of surgeons, damaged limbs usually developed gangrene anyway, so removing them saved lives. But Andrew could still feel the shock of that initial pronouncement. It had blocked his pain, muffled the screams of his fellow victims, and banished lingering images of the battlefield.
Don't think about that day!
But how could he not? Waterloo had been the worst battle he'd fought in eleven years with the 95th. Worse than Albuera. Worse than Badajoz. Worse than the bloody defeat at New Orleans. Mud. Smoke. Screams as the French cavalry drove again and again against his ever-diminishing square. Piles of dead and wounded. Rivers of blood.
Think about the future, not the past.
Right. The future. His leg was improving. Though it remained stiff, with a tendency to buckle without warning, time and exercise would restore its vigor. The flesh wasn't pretty, but appearance didn't matter. He would be in India soon.
You don't want--
Of course he wanted to see India. It was full of strange animals and new customs. Lester, one of the army engineers, had served there for several years and described exotic buildings with amazingly intricate towers and carved spires. Wellington had also served there, as had others he knew. Many men had amassed fortunes.
India was also hot--far worse than Spain. And it harbored bad air, causing fatal fevers in many visitors. Strife was common, and he wasn't sure he could stomach another war, especially under a brainless general instead of Wellington. Returning could lead to a court-martial for insubordination.
Which was why he couldn't sleep. Desire was gaining ground on duty. The cynicism that had lurked since the Buenos Aires campaign had burst into bloom in North America. Now it rose up to proclaim loud and clear that he was sick of war, sick of deprivation, horror, pain, and death. He wanted to build, to heal, to live in peace to a ripe old age.
Impossible, of course. Without skills or funds, he was helpless. So duty must carry the day. Maybe Lady Luck would see him through another campaign. But if she was to help him, he needed to set his unproductive maunderings aside and strengthen his leg.
His fingers dug into the muscle, kneading and smoothing to release the tension. It was too late to change course. All he could do was persevere.
"Still up?" asked William, poking his head into the library.
Andrew shrugged. "Couldn't sleep."
"Then come with me. I can use your sharp eyes. You see details I don't even notice."
"What happened?" It was nearly three.
"A fatal accident at Fields House. Or so their groom claims. His tale sounds odd."