Authors: Shirlee Busbee
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Paranormal, #Fantasy
o you think that he’s alive?” Charles asked, staring down at the leaping flames on the hearth.
At Charles’s question, his cousin Julian, Lord Wyndham, looked up sharply from the snifters of brandy he had been pouring for them. He knew immediately the identity of the ‘he.’ Raoul Weston, Charles’s younger half brother. The Monster. Dead now for nearly two and a half years.
Handing Charles one of the snifters, Julian said, “We both fired our pistols at him, and our aim was true. He took two bullets in the chest. We both saw them strike, and we both saw the blood as it gushed from him. I do not believe that he could have lived, as grievously wounded as he was.”
Charles flashed him a twisted smile. “But we found no body, did we?”
Julian made a face. “That’s true, and I’ll grant you that he may have lived for a short while—long enough to crawl away and hide from us, but I’m convinced that he’s dead.” He seated himself in a chair covered in fine Spanish leather not far from the fire. Quietly, he said, “Since that night, Nell has had no more nightmares of him, and that more than anything else convinces me that he is dead.”
Charles nodded more to himself than to Julian, his thoughts on that terrible spring night over two years ago. Much had happened since then, and little of it had been pleasant. Not only had he discovered that night that his brother hated him and had planned to kill him in order to inherit Stonegate, but also that Raoul was a vicious killer of innocent women. My own brother! A monster! He took a breath.
brother, he reminded himself painfully, remembering the way Raoul had flung those words at him. But Raoul’s had not been the only blood spilt that night, Charles thought wearily. No. Raoul’s mother, my stepmother, Sofia, had died, too. By my hand, Charles admitted, taking a long swallow of the brandy. I shot Sofia where she stood, and may God forgive me, in the same circumstances, I would do it again. For a moment, the ugly memories crowded close, and despite the warmth of the fire, he shivered.
Outside in the darkness of a November night, the wind whistled and shrieked around the stout walls of the house. The wind was brutal, knifing like a blade through any man or beast unlucky enough to be abroad at this hour, but inside the elegant library of Wyndham Manor, there was only warmth and welcome, and Charles was glad of it. Memories of that night would not let him rest, and they cut as fiercely through him as the wind outside sliced through any living creature. He tried to shrug the memories aside, gazing around the room, appreciative of the soft yellow light from dozens of candles that spilled through the handsome space, their bright glow driving away, for a brief moment, the darkness in his soul.
“Do you doubt that he is dead?” Julian asked with a lifted brow.
“I would have liked to find his body,” Charles replied, taking another swallow of brandy.
“I repeat, we both saw his wounds. He could not have lived.”
“Then why, when we looked in that cavern beneath the dungeon, did we not find his body?”
“Because he was bloody clever and found a crevice to hide in and die,” Julian snapped, not liking to be reminded of that horrifying night—a night that he had nearly lost his wife, Nell, and their unborn child. Tiredly, Julian ran his hand through his thick black hair. “I would have preferred to have found his corpse, I cannot deny it, but we did not, despite an extensive search by half the men in the area. There were any number of fissures and cracks where his body could have lodged. We did not find him, but that does not mean that he is not dead.”
Charles nodded. Logic told him that this was so, but like the pain of a wound, doubt ached within him. With an effort, he shook off his bleak mood. Flashing that particularly charming smile of his, he murmured, “We brushed through the whole affair rather well, didn’t we?”
Julian nodded. “Lord, yes. Nell was safe, the baby unharmed, and that story you concocted about a madman kidnapping her and Sofia was brilliant. I was, I’ll confess, left breathless by your idea of having our mythical villain kill both Raoul and his mother before slipping away down the sluice hole. Very clever of you. Raoul died a hero, supposedly helping us rescue Nell and Sofia, and it was a tragedy that Raoul and his mother died in the ensuing fight. The whole tale answered every question and allowed us to enlist the help of others to look for Raoul’s body and, ah, the madman.”
Charles took another swallow of his brandy. “And allowed me to inherit both my stepmother’s fortune and Raoul’s.” His voice was bitter and full of disgust.
Julian looked at him. “Does it bother you? To have gained through their deaths?”
Charles shrugged. “Sometimes. Often.” His jaw clenched, and he stared at the amber liquid in his snifter. “I loathed her…I dreamed often of the day that I would finally be free of her, and Stonegate would, not just in name, be well and truly mine and yet….”
“A case of ‘be careful what you wish for?’” Julian asked gently.
“Exactly! I got what I wanted, and more besides when you consider their fortunes, hers mainly, and yet I find that what I once longed for gives me little, if any, pleasure.”
“Not even Stonegate? It was yours, though she ruled it. Sofia may have lavished her money on it and imposed her will over the place, but after your brother’s death and that of his son, Stonegate was always your birthright.”
“So it was,” Charles muttered. “But by the manner of her death, Sofia has managed, even from the grave, to taint it for me. I can never quite forget that it was my bullet that killed her.”
“And thank God you did kill her—there’s no telling what she would have done if you had not fired. Never forget—she
what her cursed son did down there, and if she could have killed all three of us, she would have. Never,
forget that or that she knew of the innocents Raoul tortured and murdered down there for
and yet she kept silent.” Julian’s voice hardened. “She helped him kidnap Nell, and do not doubt for a moment that she would have helped him kill her…and my unborn child. Only your bullet saved us all.”
Walking over to the mahogany sideboard, Charles helped himself to another snifter of brandy. Glancing over his shoulder, he quirked an eyebrow at Julian. Julian shook his head.
His snifter refilled, Charles came back to stand by the fire, one arm resting carelessly along the marble mantle as he stared once more down at the fire.
Julian studied him, this cousin to whom once he had been so close before a nearly impassable chasm had opened between them. But that, thank God, Julian thought gratefully, had been mended at last.
Like Julian, Charles was tall and muscular with the same unruly black hair and green eyes so prevalent amongst the Weston family. Both men had the same harsh features, though Charles might have been considered the more handsome of the two. The resemblance between the two cousins was even more striking than usual—their fathers had been twins, and while physically, they could almost have been twins themselves, their personalities were very different. Charles had always been the more reckless of the two, and there was a coldness, a hardness within him that Julian lacked.
Of course, Julian admitted to himself, if he had been raised by a witch of a stepmother like Sofia Weston, who knew how he would have turned out. Nor had it helped that Charles’s father had nearly bankrupted the family with his gambling and wild ways. Only his marriage to Sofia and her great fortune had prevented Harlan Weston from bringing his family to utter ruin. And after Harlan had died, Sofia had never let Charles forget for even a moment that it was
money that kept Stonegate running so impeccably. There was no denying that Charles’s life under Sofia’s thumb had been grim, Julian conceded, or that the last few years had not been difficult for him.
Even with the careful version that they had fed the neighborhood and the members of the ton, there had still been a few whispers and raised eyebrows. Charles’s feelings about his stepmother had not been a secret, although he seldom said anything, and as was murmured by the most spiteful, her death and Raoul’s was so very
Before the silence between the two men became uncomfortable, Julian said briskly, “Enough of this wallowing in the past. It is over and done with, and we both have much to be grateful for. Tell me, have you given up traipsing from one end of the British Isles to the other for the time being? Will you be spending the winter at Stonegate?”
“Perhaps. Not to dwell on unpleasant memories, but Stonegate is full of ghosts for me, and I do not think that I would enjoy being locked inside those walls with the wraiths of Sofia and Raoul for company.”
“What you need,” Julian said with a smile in his eyes, “is a wife. And children. They would drive out any spirits unwise enough to linger in your hallways—believe me, I speak from experience.”
To give credence to his words, the door to the library opened, and a toddler with a mop of black hair and the Weston family features scampered inside the room. The child, a boy of perhaps two, was garbed for bed, and from his furtive manner, it was clear he had escaped from the watchful eye of his nursemaid. Spying Julian, he shrieked with joy and his white nightshirt flapping behind him, flung himself across the room in his direction.
“Papa! Papa!” cried the child. “I looked and looked for you!”
Julian had barely enough time to deposit his snifter on a nearby table before his lap was full of squirming child. “And you, my boy, have completely forgotten your manners. Come now, Adam, will you not say hello to your cousin?”
There was no real censure in Julian’s voice, in fact just the opposite, the love and pride he felt in his son obvious. It was obvious, too, that Julian’s household was absurdly informal for someone of his rank and stature. Charles could not think of another member of society who would allow even the heir such freedom. He grinned, liking the picture of the fashionable Earl of Wyndham as an indulgent father.
At Julian’s words, Adam rested his head confidingly on his father’s chest and glanced over at Charles. “Hullo,” he said with a smile.
“Hello, brat,” Charles returned equitably, smiling. “You’ve grown since the last time I saw you.”
“Mama says I shall be taller than papa,” Adam replied with simple pride.
“If you live that long,” said a laughing female voice from the doorway. Tall and slender, her tawny hair caught up in a chignon at the back of her neck and her high-waisted gown of dark green bombazine flaring gently about her ankles as she moved forward, the Countess of Wyndham walked into the room. Smiling at Charles, she came up to him and kissed him on the cheek. “It is good to see you,” she said, her sea green eyes full of affection. “Will you remain for dinner?”
Charles shook his head. “No, I only wanted to call to let you know that I was at Stonegate…at least for a week or two.”
Nell’s smile faltered. She searched his face. “Stonegate is your home. Do not let the ghosts drive you away.”
“Ghosts!” squealed Adam with big eyes. “Can I see one?”
“And what do you know of ghosts?” asked his mother sternly. “Who has been telling you tales?”
Adam shot Julian a guilty glance and then dropped his head. “N-n-no one.”
Julian’s face wore the exact same guilty expression, and Nell burst out laughing. Shaking her head, she sent them both a look in which exasperation and love were mixed. “I see that I shall have to remind someone of proper stories for tender minds.”
Julian cleared his throat and asked hastily, “The twins? Are they waiting for me?” He glanced at Charles. “Wouldn’t you like to see my lovely daughters before they go to bed?”
Viewing six-month-old twin infants had never occurred to Charles as something that he would have
to do, but the appeal in Julian’s look was plain. Rising to the occasion, he put down his snifter and murmured, “I knew there was some urgent reason that I came to call at just this hour. Lead on.”
Not the least fooled, Nell shook her head and said, “That won’t be necessary—they’re already asleep, and Nanny will scold if you wake them.” Holding out a commanding hand for Adam, she added, “Come. Bed for you. And Nanny is going to be very unhappy with you for slipping away like that.”
Taking Adam’s hand, she smiled at Charles and said, “We’ve missed you. Will you come to dine on Wednesday next?” Her eyes danced. “Since it is your ardent desire, you may view the twins then.”
Charles’s lips twitched, but he bowed and murmured, “It will be my pleasure.”
Once Nell and Adam had left, aware of the passing time…and the icy ride home, Charles said, “I must be going. I did not mean to linger so long.”
“Are you sure that you will not stay for dinner? It would please Nell.”
Charles shook his head. “No, I am invited for Wednesday next, remember? I shall see you then.”
The ride to Stonegate was every bit as cold and miserable as Charles had imagined, and when the flickering lights of the torches burning on either side of the massive double doors of the imposing mansion came into view, he breathed a sigh of relief. It might be full of ghosts, but at least it offered shelter.
Entering the house, the home of the first Earls of Wyndham before Wyndham Manor had been built several decades later, he was met by his butler, Garthwaite. Shrugging out of his dripping, many-caped greatcoat, Charles waved away the offer of a meal in the dining room—the same dining room, he thought sourly, where Julian had killed Lord Tynedale in a duel that still caused tongues to wag. What a night
had been! Asking only that some bread and cheese be sent up to his rooms, he crossed the grand hallway and mounted the stairs. Upstairs, in the suite of rooms that had once belonged to his father and his stepmother, Charles allowed his valet, Bledsoe, to remove his jacket and boots before dismissing him.
One of the first things Charles had done after Sofia’s death had been to obliterate all signs of her hand in these rooms. He had left untouched her décor in the rest of the house…well, except for that ridiculous silver epergne in the dining room, but he could not bear the idea of sleeping amidst the cold white and silver scheme she had favored for the rooms she had once shared with his father. As Master of Stonegate, it had been only right that Charles inhabit these rooms, and he’d sworn that he would not sleep a night in them until they had been completely renovated. Now, with walls of dark amber silk, velvet draperies and bed hangings in a bronze and gold stripe, and a carpet in shades of hunter green, russet, and gold, the rooms were rich and warm and distinctly male.