Abigail Westcott's dreams for her future were lost when her father died and she discovered her parents were not legally married. But now, six years later, she enjoys the independence a life without expectation provides a wealthy single woman. Indeed, she's grown confident enough to scold the careless servant chopping wood outside without his shirt on in the proximity of ladies.
But the man is not a servant. He is Gilbert Bennington, the lieutenant colonel and superior officer who has escorted her wounded brother, Harry, home from the wars with Napoleon. Gil has come to help his friend and junior officer recover, and he doesn't take lightly to being condescended to--secretly because of his own humble beginnings.
If at first Gil and Abigail seem to embody what the other most despises, each will soon discover how wrong first impressions can be. For behind the appearances of the once-grand lady and the once-humble man are two people who share an understanding of what true honor means, and how only with it can one find love.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Mary Balogh
Home at last!
Well, back in England, at least. Twenty months had passed since his last brief, disastrous stay here, after the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Now he was back.
But as Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert Bennington, Gil to his friends and acquaintances, disembarked from the packet in Dover after making the night crossing from Calais, he felt only weariness, irritation, and a heavy foreboding that coming home was not going to bring happily-ever-after with it.
He grimaced at the sight of an elegant traveling carriage, ducal crests emblazoned upon its doors, standing on the dock, for it was obviously awaiting him. Or, more specifically, Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, one of his three traveling companions. Gil would have far preferred to hire a chaise for the journey ahead, but he might have guessed that nothing but opulent splendor would do for His Grace on his own native soil. And it had to be admitted, grudgingly, that this conveyance would be far better than a hired chaise for one of their other companions, Harry. Harry was looking gray with exhaustion.
Gil had not intended to have three companions for the journey. He had recently spent a year on the island of St. Helena as part of the garrison that guarded Napoleon Bonaparte during his second exile. When he had returned, on a ship bound for France rather than England for the simple reason that it was the first outward-bound vessel after his term of duty was over, he had gone to Paris. There he had discovered, quite by chance, that his old friend and comrade Major Harry Westcott, who he thought had died at Waterloo, was convalescing at a facility for military officers. Gil had last seen him after the battle, when his injuries had seemed mortal. But against all odds Harry had survived—barely. And after more than a year and a half he was itching to go home, though his physicians advised strongly against the strenuous journey. He was still not fully recovered.
Gil had offered to escort him, and Harry had jumped at the opportunity. He had invited Gil to stay with him for a while once they were back home, and Gil had accepted. He wanted to be in England. He needed to be there. But he was reluctant to go all the way to his own home. There were things that must be done first.
But then, at the last possible moment, two of Harry’s kinsmen had arrived in Paris with the purpose of conveying him home themselves. And although Harry himself was a mere illegitimate member of his family, his kinsmen were powerful men. Aristocrats. They were Avery Archer, who had once been Harry’s guardian—before the illegitimacy was discovered—and was now his brother-in-law; and Alexander Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, head of the family and holder of the title that had once been Harry’s—also before the discovery of the illegitimacy.
It was a bit of a complicated family, Gil understood. Harry had never spoken much about it.
They had traveled together, the four of them, though Gil had tried to bow out. He did not feel comfortable in aristocratic company. Despite his senior military rank, he was in reality a nobody from nowhere and as illegitimate as Harry. A gutter rat, if one chose to call a spade a spade. But Harry had begged him not to change his mind, so Gil had come. His friend would need him after his relatives had conveyed him home and returned to their own families.
“Ah,” the Duke of Netherby said now, looking at his carriage through the quizzing glass he raised to his eye. “A sight for sore eyes. How much did you wager, Harry, that my carriage would not be here?”
“Absolutely nothing, if you will recall,” Harry said. “It would be more than the life of your coachman is worth, or his livelihood anyway, to be late.”
“Quite so,” His Grace said with a sigh. “Let us go find a nearby inn and enjoy a good English breakfast. I daresay there will be a meaty bone somewhere on the premises too.”
The meaty bone would be for Gil’s dog, a great lump of a canine of indeterminate breed that had followed him from Waterloo to England to St. Helena, to France, and now back to England. She stood panting at Gil’s side, happy, he believed, to have her paws on firm soil again. Within moments she was inside the Duke of Netherby’s carriage with the rest of them, draped over Gil’s feet like a large sheepskin rug and half over Riverdale’s boots too.
The carriage conveyed them the short distance to what Gil did not doubt was the best inn in Dover, where three of them ate a hearty breakfast and Harry nibbled without enthusiasm upon a piece of toast. His Grace then called for pen, ink, and paper and wrote a brief note to inform his duchess of their safe return to England and of the change in their planned destination. His relatives had intended to take Harry to London, where other relatives awaited him, including his mother, the Marchioness of Dorchester, and one of his sisters. But Harry had insisted upon going to Hinsford Manor in Hampshire, where he had grown up. He wanted the quiet of the countryside, he had explained to Gil. More to the point, he wanted to avoid being fussed over, and fussed over he would be if he went to London.
Having arranged for the note to be sent, His Grace joined the other three in his carriage and it proceeded northward without further delay. It was certainly a comfortable carriage, Gil conceded. It also attracted the gawking attention of everyone it passed.
Harry, on the seat opposite, next to Riverdale, was even paler than usual, if that was possible, and thin almost to the point of emaciation. His good looks and ever-cheerful, energetic charm had deserted him. He was twenty-six years old, eight years younger than Gil. Apparently for the six months following Waterloo the army physicians had been in daily expectation of his dying. He had been conveyed to Paris after the first month—why not back to England none of the military authorities seemed to know. Even after the six months he was being assailed by one infection and fever after another, only to have to face a painful, life-threatening surgery five months ago to remove an embedded bullet, which his surgeons judged had shifted closer to his heart. Having it removed would very possibly kill him, they had warned. Not doing so certainly would. He had survived the excruciatingly painful ordeal, but the renewed infections and fevers had almost killed him anyway.
Gil hoped the ordeal of their trip would not accomplish what all the fevers and infections had been unable to do. He hoped Harry would survive the journey, which Gil had encouraged and arranged.
“You must be happy to be back in England, Harry,” Riverdale said. “Though it is unfortunate you are being treated to a typical English welcome.” He gestured toward the window. Heavy clouds hung low over a landscape that was being buffeted by a west wind and assaulted by a slanting rain.
“It is indeed a good feeling,” Harry said, gazing out upon the scene. “But I have been thinking and wondering. I suppose it is altogether possible I will be descended upon not just by rain in the next week or so. Do you think there is any chance the family will come visiting since I am not going to London to visit them?”
“I would certainly not wager against it,” Alexander said. “They have all been eagerly awaiting your arrival in London. I doubt your choosing to go to Hinsford instead will deter them. It is not terribly far from London, after all.”
“The devil!” Harry muttered, closing his eyes and setting his head back against the plush cushions.
“I suppose,” Riverdale added, “you have chosen to go straight to Hinsford at least partly in order to avoid the commotion awaiting you in town.”
“Yes, at least partly,” Harry admitted—and then laughed unexpectedly without opening his eyes. “I ought to have known better. And if I had known better, I would have felt obliged to warn you, Gil. There is possibly no other family on earth that rallies around its members as the Westcotts do—and that includes those who are married to Archers and Cunninghams and Handriches and Lamarrs and . . . Did I miss anyone? Once a Westcott, always a Westcott, it seems. Even if one is a bastard.”
“You know that is a word we never use within the family, Harry,” Riverdale said. “Think of your sisters when you use it, if you please, even if not of yourself.”
Gil, without showing any outer sign, was wishing like hell that Harry had thought to warn him that his fond family was likely to descend upon him en masse even though Hinsford was some distance from London. Most of them would be gathered in London now for the spring session of parliament and the social whirl of the Season. He might have guessed, of course, when these two men turned up unexpectedly in Paris as emissaries of the family. But it had not occurred to him even then that the rest of them would actually journey into the country to see Harry when he arrived home.
After all, no family had ever rallied around him, either on his mother’s side—they had turned her out, never to relent, after she conceived him—or on his father’s. The most his father had ever done for him was purchase his ensign’s commission in a foot regiment after word had reached him of the death of Gil’s mother. Gil had been at that time a sergeant with a British regiment in India. Later he had purchased a lieutenancy for his son too, but Gil had written to him on that occasion, and not to thank him—why should he thank a father who had ignored his very existence for more than twenty years, only to swoop down seemingly from nowhere with a gift his son had neither wanted nor asked for? Gil had written to inform the man that he need supply no further patronage and that it would be refused if it was offered. By that time Gil had been wishing heartily that he was still a sergeant. He had been happier with his own kind.
He and Harry had fought together in the Peninsula and at Toulouse and Waterloo. They had been friends from the start, perhaps because they had one thing in common apart from their regiment and military experiences: They were both bastards—yes, it was always as well to call a spade a spade—in a gentleman’s army. In the officer ranks of the army, that was. Hard work and prowess, talent and dedication to one’s men and mission, counted for far less in the officers’ tents and messes than did birth and fortune. Oh, Gil and Harry had never been ostracized outright, it was true, but they had always been made to feel in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways that they were outsiders. That they did not quite belong. That they were a bit of an embarrassment. Occasionally more than a bit.
He gazed out the window on his side of the carriage at the gloomy countryside, though it was only the heavy clouds and rain that caused the gloom. It was England, and he felt a rush of affection for his native land even if there were not very many happy memories associated with it.
He had a home of his own here, Rose Cottage in Gloucestershire, purchased during the Indian years when he had acquired what had seemed to him—it still seemed—a fabulous fortune in prizes. He had invested what remained of it after the purchase, engaging the services of an agent in London he had been persuaded to trust, happily as it had turned out. He could have lived like a gentleman from that moment on if he had chosen to leave the army. He had not done so, however. Nor had he done so anytime since. The army was all he had known since he left home at the age of fourteen in a recruiting sergeant’s untender care, and on the whole it had been good to him. The life had suited him.
He had gone home after the Battle of Toulouse in 1814, though, taking his pregnant wife with him. He had taken her to Rose Cottage—a great deal larger actually than a cottage despite its name. And all his own. His anchor to this world. The place where he would send down roots. The place where he would raise his family. Home. The dream of happiness had become even more of a reality when Katy was born—Katherine Mary Bennington. Ah, that achingly happy day following hours of pain for Caroline and anxiety for him. That dark-haired baby. That warm little bundle of squawking humanity.
It was a brief interval in his life almost too painful to look back upon. Therefore, he rarely did. But some memories went deeper than conscious thought. They were there always, like a leaden weight, or like an open wound that would not quite kill him but would never heal either.
Happily ever after had begun to slip away when Caroline, her confinement over, had become more restless than usual and peevish about the inferior size of the house and the dullness of the village on the edge of which it stood, and the insipid nature of their social life there. It had slipped further a little more than three months after Katy’s birth when Gil had been recalled to his regiment following Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from his first exile on the island of Elba and his return to France to gather another vast army about him.
Caroline had wanted to go too, leaving the baby with her mother. He had refused. Following the drum was no life for a lady, though Caroline had done it for a few months before he married her when her mother brought her to the Peninsula after she had finished her lady’s schooling. And a baby needed her mother and a home and her father’s financial support and the promise of his return as soon as he was able. A baby actually needed both parents, but life could not always be ideal. He had tried to make it as secure and comfortable as was possible under the circumstances.
By the time he had hurried home after Waterloo, alarmed by increasingly mutinous letters from his unhappy wife, she was gone. So was their daughter. And her nurse. But no one—not their servants, not any of their neighbors—knew just where they had gone or when they were likely to return. He had not seen either one of them since, though he did know that Katy was in Essex, living with her grandparents, General Sir Edward and Lady Pascoe, to whom, unbeknown to him, she had been taken before Waterloo, soon after his own departure for Belgium. Lady Pascoe had refused to let him see her, however, when he had gone to her home, frantic for news. Caroline, he had discovered later, had gone off to a house party at the invitation of old friends and from there to another party and another. Gil could neither pursue his quest to retrieve his daughter nor go in search of his errant wife before he was abruptly and unexpectedly posted to St. Helena. Doubtless thanks to General Pascoe.
Katy was still with her grandparents. Caroline was dead. Word of her demise had reached him on St. Helena.
Now, more than a year later, the situation had become more fraught. General Pascoe was back at home, and he and his wife were determined to keep custody of Katy. They had acquired a lawyer who intended to see that the whole matter was wrapped up right and tight—and legally—in their favor. They had two angry, threatening letters he had written from St. Helena to use against him in addition to Lady Pascoe’s account of the frantic, demanding visits he had made to the general’s home and the lies Caroline had told when she took their daughter to her mother. He would be made to appear to be a violent, uncontrolled man and an unfit father.
Gil’s first instinct upon leaving St. Helena had been to return as soon as he could to England, where he would rage at his in-laws until they relinquished his daughter into his care and he could take her back home where she belonged. A cooler wisdom had prevailed, however, and he had hired a lawyer of his own, a man recommended by his agent as the best of his kind in London. And Grimes—of the law firm Grimes, Hanson, and Digby—had insisted in the lawyerly letter he had written his client after the contract was signed, that Lieutenant Colonel Bennington leave the matter of the custody of his daughter entirely in his hands and do absolutely nothing himself.
Doing nothing was the hardest thing Gil had ever had to do in his life. For a lawyer, even this one—the best of his kind in London—might not be enough. The general had considerable power and influence. So did Lady Pascoe. She was the sister of a baron who held a prominent position in the government. Both had been vehemently opposed to their daughter’s marrying the bastard son of a blacksmith’s daughter, even if he was an officer of high rank. They would undoubtedly have withheld their consent had Caroline not already been increasing. That fact had drawn their tight-lipped consent, but it had done nothing to endear him to them. It was also a fact that had deeply shamed him. After becoming a commissioned officer, he had tried hard to behave like a gentleman even if he could never be one.
Gil’s offer to accompany Harry home and his agreement to remain with him for a while had been made at least partly for selfish reasons, then. It would take him back to England, not far distant from London, where he would be able to consult his agent more easily and the lawyer who did not really want to be consulted or pressed. Being back in England would give him a sense of purpose, of not simply doing nothing. But the offer had also been made out of genuine friendship and concern, for his friend could not travel alone or be alone despite what he might think. Yet he would not go to London, where his mother was living during the spring months.
The arrival of Netherby and Riverdale in Paris had seemed like a relatively minor annoyance at the time. Both had treated Gil with quiet respect, but he had assumed that they would return to their families and parliamentary duties in London as soon as they possibly could after conveying Harry home. Now it appeared he had assumed wrongly. It seemed very likely indeed that the whole of the Westcott family would descend upon Hinsford within days of their arrival and stay for who knew how long. How many of them were there, for God’s sake?
It was a daunting prospect and one that might well force him into a change of plans. Indeed, he would surely have changed them at Dover if this conversation had been held over breakfast. But now he was stuck, at least temporarily. He did not have a carriage of his own or even a horse with which to leave Hinsford.
“He is asleep,” the Earl of Riverdale said from the seat opposite, his voice little more than a murmur. “He is far weaker than I expected him to be after almost two years.”
“He will recover,” Netherby said, equally quietly. “If he has been too stubborn to die thus far, he is not going to do it now.”
“What is your opinion, Lieutenant Colonel?” Riverdale asked.
“It is my belief,” Gil said, gazing at his friend, whose chin had sunk to his chest, “that if Bonaparte were to escape again today and gather another army to lead against the allies, Major Harry Westcott would be volunteering to lead the first charge.”
“Not you?” the Duke of Netherby asked. “It has been whispered, Bennington, that you once led a forlorn hope and were promoted from captain to major as a result.”
Gil frowned. He never felt comfortable discussing his war exploits. There were thousands of men, many of them dead, just as brave as he. “I had men at my back who would not have allowed me to retreat even if I had wished to do so,” he said. “It was not the accomplishment of a single individual, but one of a large group. Most military actions are that way even if only one man is singled out afterward for commendations and honors. Harry was one of the best. If there was ever danger for his men to face, he was there to lead them into it. He looks weak now, but he has a ferocious spirit. It may be lying dormant, but it is not dead, I assure you. He will survive. And recover fully.”
“Or die in the attempt,” the duke said.
Gil looked across into his eyes, keen beneath the sleepy lids, and was surprised by the flash of humor from a man who was an apparently bored aristocrat from his blond, expertly styled hair to his fashionable and immaculately tailored clothes, from his well-manicured, beringed hands to the tips of his supple, highly polished boots. A bit of a dangerous man too, Gil suspected.
Anna, Duchess of Netherby, received her husband Avery’s note on the same day it was sent from Dover. She went immediately with Jessica, Avery’s half sister, to share the news with Harry’s immediate family. One of them was Viola, Harry’s mother, whose marriage to his father, the late Earl of Riverdale, had been declared invalid when it had been discovered after his death that he had had a secret first wife still living when he married her. Viola was now married to the Marquess of Dorchester. Her younger daughter, Abigail, Harry’s sister, lived with them. Like Harry, Abigail was now officially illegitimate. Anna was able to inform both ladies that the travelers were back in England but on their way to Hinsford instead of London. She was delighted to be able to assure them also that Harry was bearing up well under the ordeal.
Jessica danced Abigail in a full circle, observing as she did so that it was probably way beneath her twenty-three-year-old dignity to react thus to the news that Harry was home—and it was a good thing her mother was not there to see her. Or Avery with his quizzing glass, she added with a theatrical shudder and a laugh. Anna and Jessica left half an hour later to take the news to Wren, Countess of Riverdale, Alexander’s wife.
Jessica’s mother, meanwhile—Louise, Dowager Duchess of Netherby, a former Westcott, sister of Humphrey, the late earl—took the news first to her mother, Eugenia, and elder sister, Matilda, and then to her younger, married sister, Mildred, and her husband, Thomas.
Abigail wrote to her sister, Camille Cunningham, who lived with her husband and children in Bath, and Alexander’s wife, Wren, wrote to her mother-in-law, Althea, and her sister-in-law Elizabeth. They were both in the country at Roxingley Park, where Elizabeth, Lady Hodges, was recovering from a recent confinement with her second child, a daughter this time.
Before evening drew on, everyone in the family knew, or was about to know, the glad tidings that Harry was home in England at long last.
Now, just twenty-four hours later, Abigail was seated in the Marquess of Dorchester’s traveling carriage beside her stepsister, Estelle. Her mother had married the marquess, Marcel Lamarr, nearly four years ago, and his children, the twins Estelle and Bertrand, had quickly become Abigail’s friends. Marcel—she called her mother’s husband by his given name, at his request—was now seated beside her mother and opposite Abigail herself in the carriage. Bertrand was riding a little ways ahead. Conversation was not brisk inside the carriage. Yesterday’s glad relief had given way inevitably to today’s anxiety. Had Harry been strong enough for the journey despite what Avery had written in his note to Anna? Why was he still so weak even after all this time? Would their coming to see him help or hinder his recovery? But how could they stay away? And how could Avery and Alexander be expected to leave him all alone, with just servants to care for him?
Abigail was aware that Marcel was squeezing her mother’s hand reassuringly from time to time. Estelle seemed to sense that chatter would not be welcome and quietly watched the scenery pass by through the window. Abigail, grateful for her stepsister’s tact, did likewise. At least Harry was home and safe from ever again having to face the dangers of war.
It was almost two years since Waterloo. Two years. But he was still alive, even after that ghastly surgery. And back home. It was concerning that he had chosen to return to Hinsford Manor rather than London, where he would have had access to any number of physicians. But Abigail could understand why he was going to Hinsford. It was home. It was where they had grown up. They had been happy there—no clouds in their sky, no looming storms on their horizon. No premonition of the life-changing catastrophe that lay ahead for all of them—the discovery that they were illegitimate because their father had already been married to someone else when he wed their mother.
It was still home, even in these post-catastrophe years. And Harry had chosen to go there. Probably, Abigail thought, grimacing slightly, because he wanted peace and quiet while every part of him healed—body, mind, and spirit. Poor Harry. He probably did not suspect what was about to descend upon him. Or perhaps he did. For the Westcotts did nothing as well as they rallied. If there was a whisper of trouble for any one of them or any anticipation of something to be celebrated, the family gathered to support and plan.
If Harry had forgotten that fact—though how could he?—then he was in for a severe shock. For of course the family had arrived in force last evening at Marcel’s London home. But it had not been enough simply to rejoice over Harry’s return and the imminent arrival back in London of Avery and Alexander. Oh no, indeed. Harry must be seen in person and welcomed home and fussed over and worried about and planned for.
The aunts had spent all of half an hour with their heads together, trying to think of a suitable nurse to hire, preferably male, or perhaps one male and one female, but in any case someone who would be prepared to live for an indefinite time at Hinsford, worrying Harry back to full, robust health. They had not used the word worrying, of course.
If there had been an ounce of sense among the lot of them, Abigail thought now, it would surely have occurred to someone that the best way they could welcome Harry home and ensure that he recovered fully was to write him letters and stay far away from him, at least until he indicated that he was ready for visitors. His mother and Abigail and Camille were perhaps exceptions, though maybe not even them. Perhaps Harry wanted to be entirely alone.
“Not much farther now,” her mother said from the seat opposite, smiling at her. “Sometimes a journey seems endless, does it not? I hope Mrs. Sullivan has hired extra help, as I instructed her to do.”
Mrs. Sullivan had been the housekeeper at Hinsford for as far back as Abigail could remember.
“I am sure she has, Viola,” Marcel said, squeezing her hand again. “I daresay she is as eager to welcome Harry home and smother him with loving care as you are.”
“Smother,” she said with a frown. “I hope none of us will do that. Though it will be hard not to, I suppose. At least he is not quite alone. Avery told Anna in his letter that he and Alexander would remain at Hinsford until Harry is properly settled in. And I cannot quite imagine either of them smothering anyone with love.”
The whole family—with the exception of Elizabeth and her husband, Colin, and Elizabeth’s mother, Althea—was on its way to Hinsford or preparing to be, and Mama had sent off an urgent letter to warn Mrs. Sullivan.
But Abigail longed to see him. And she longed . . . Oh, she too longed to be back home. At Hinsford. She and her mother had lived there for a while after Camille’s marriage and before Mama married Marcel and the two of them had moved to Redcliffe. Abigail had not been unhappy during the past three-and-a-half years at Redcliffe. But . . . Well, it had never felt quite like home, for which she was entirely to blame. She had certainly been made to feel welcome there.
And then suddenly she was home. The carriage was turning onto the driveway leading to Hinsford Manor.
“Here we are,” her mother said, leaning forward in her seat and gazing eagerly through the window, as though she expected to see Harry bounding down the driveway to meet them. “Oh, I hope the journey all the way from Paris was not too much for him. I ought to have gone there myself. I ought not to have listened to everyone. He ought to have had his mother with him during such an ordeal.”
“He would have hated it,” Marcel said firmly. “It would have been humiliating for him to have his mama hovering over him every yard of the journey.”
She looked at him in exasperation. “Sometimes, Marcel,” she said sharply, “I hate you. Especially when you are right and I am wrong.”
He grinned at her.
Abigail, traveling with her back to the horses, turned to look behind her toward the house. They had been spotted. She could see Alexander and Avery out on the terrace, and a tall, thin, frail-looking man at the top of the steps just outside the front door, his hand on the rail.
“Oh dear God,” her mother said. “Harry.”
And then there was all the flurry of their arrival and descent from the carriage. There were hugs and handshakes and inquiries and the barking of a dog from the direction of the stables and the sound of an axe chopping wood—and Harry remaining at the top of the steps, looking down at them, neither smiling nor frowning. Abigail wondered foolishly whether she would have recognized him if she had passed him on a crowded street in London.
She was the first up the steps to touch his arm—she was afraid to hug him—and gaze earnestly into his face.
“Harry,” she said. “Welcome home.”
“Abby,” he said, a smile hovering on his lips before she gave way to their mother, who showed none of Abigail’s hesitation to gather him into her arms and burst into tears.
Suddenly Abigail found that she could not stay to watch. Neither could she step past her brother to go inside the house, where they would all follow within minutes, the turmoil and bright cheer of their arrival continuing. She needed some air before she fainted. She made her way back down to the terrace, waved away Marcel, who was looking at her in some concern, and turned in the direction of the stables.
She just needed to walk for a minute or two to clear her head, she told herself as she hurried along, and give herself the courage to look at Harry again without dissolving into tears as her mother had just done, or—worse—fainting. The carriage had pulled away to the carriage house at the far side of the stables. The dog she had heard earlier was over there somewhere too, objecting loudly to its arrival or perhaps welcoming it. The sound of the axe grew louder.
And then she saw the man—groom or gardener—who was using it. He was beside the stable block, tackling a large pile of logs, which he was reducing to wedges of firewood on a chopping block. There was a sizable pile of wood, neatly stacked, beside him. But it was not the wood that caught her shocked attention and stopped her in her tracks.
It was the man.
He was naked above the waist. Below his breeches, more like a second skin than a garment, were narrow hips and long, powerfully muscled legs. Leather boots, old and scuffed, looked as though they must have been molded to his calves. Muscles rippled in his arms and shoulders and along his back as he wielded the axe. His dark hair curled damply at the nape of his neck.
Abigail swallowed and would have moved on, unseen yet horribly embarrassed, if a huge shaggy monster of a creature, which she did not immediately identify as a dog, had not suddenly erupted from behind the stables and come dashing straight for her, barking ferociously. She did not scream. But she did remain anchored to the spot as she raised her arms protectively before her face and whimpered or wailed or pleaded for mercy—truth to tell, when she looked back later, she could not recall exactly what sounds she had made, if any. Something humiliatingly abject, no doubt. But just as she expected the animal to leap for her throat, a deep voice issued a command.
Beauty sat so abruptly that Abigail dropped her arms in surprise. She could see now that the creature was indeed a dog, a huge lump of a creature with a shaggy grayish white coat that hung even over its eyes and mouth, almost obscuring them. Its front legs were long, its rump wide and somewhat lopsided. It sat with mostly erect ears, one of which flopped over at the tip; a lolling, panting pink tongue; and a tail that thumped the ground. Abigail dared not move, lest the order to sit be forgotten in the dog’s eagerness to attack.
“She will not harm you,” the man said, reading her thoughts or perhaps the stiffness of her body. “She looks upon every stranger as a potential new friend.”
Abigail switched her attention from the dog to the man without moving her head. He had straightened and turned to face her, revealing himself as tall and powerfully built, the muscles of his chest and abdomen, which she could see almost to his navel, well defined. His eyes were as dark as his hair, one lock of which hung over his forehead. His features were angular and harsh, his expression forbidding. Both his face and his body were badly scarred. Indeed, a facial scar slashed across one cheek, down over his chin, and along part of his neck before proceeding across the whole width of his shoulder. He bore himself in a very upright manner. His large hands were clasped about the handle of the axe, which he held at an agle across his body. His body was glistening with sweat.
He looked like a fearfully dangerous man. Primitive. Magnificent. He was all raw masculinity. Abigail felt herself shudder inwardly.
He looked boldly back at her, his eyes moving over her quite frankly, as she supposed hers had moved over him. And terror gave place to embarrassment—had she really wailed or whimpered and thrown up her arms to protect her face? And had he noticed? But how could he not have? Was he laughing inwardly at her? Or worse, feeling a sneering contempt at her terror of an apparently friendly dog? Embarrassment turned to indignation—at his near nakedness and at his boldness.
“Were you given permission to remove your coat and shirt?” she asked him. Too late she heard the primness in her voice.
He cocked one eyebrow.
“You are in full view of anyone who walks even a few steps from the house,” she said. “It is quite unseemly. Perhaps you have not been informed that Major Westcott has visitors and is expecting more. Including ladies. I shall report you to him and see to it that he has a word with your supervisor.”
Belatedly it occurred to her that she ought to have had that word with Harry without actually scolding the man himself. She did not usually take it upon herself to berate servants. But she was feeling ruffled and hot cheeked, and he was still standing there looking steadily at her.
“Beauty,” he said, “heel.”
The dog, without having moved from the spot where it had sat when commanded to do so, had nevertheless being trying, without success, to stretch its neck far enough to lick her hand. It rose immediately, loped with ungainly gait toward the man, its tail wagging, its ears flopping, and stood close beside him, rubbing itself against the side of his leg. He removed one hand from the axe handle in order to fondle its head and scratch it behind one ear while the dog gazed up at him with a silly look of worshipful bliss on its face. All the while the man did not remove his eyes from Abigail.
Insolent man, she thought, and just stopped herself from saying so aloud. He must be a new addition to the staff. He had not been employed there when she left with her mother. Perhaps he was a soldier discharged from his duties after the wars came to an end two years ago. His scars would certainly bear out that theory. And he looked savage. She could almost imagine him hacking and carving his way through enemy lines with that axe, the bloodlust high in him. It was a thought she did not wish to pursue.
“Beauty?” she said, looking down at the dog.
“Irony,” the man said.
She was surprised he even knew the meaning of the word. But an uglier, less suitably named dog she had never beheld.
She turned without another word and made her way back to the house. At least the incident had taken her mind off the shock she had felt at first seeing Harry. For a brief moment in the carriage she had wondered who that frail old man at the top of the steps was.
From the direction of the stables the sound of the axe being wielded resumed.
Gil had always found chopping wood to be an enjoyable form of exercise. He had never considered it a chore. It was also a productive way to work off frustrations and irritations and downright anger. The stack of chopped wood and the pile of kindling grew in direct proportion to the shrinking of the pile of logs. The axe felt nicely balanced in his hands, and it had a good, fine edge on it—one he had put there himself earlier over the horrified protests of Harry’s head groom. The man had been even more flustered when he had realized that Lieutenant Colonel Bennington intended to chop the wood piled at one side of the stable block.
So Harry’s prediction that his family would descend upon him here had proved to be accurate. Gil had both heard and seen the elegant traveling carriage that had arrived ten minutes or so ago. He assumed that woman was a family member. He also assumed she had not come alone. And she had said that more relatives were on the way. It was not a comfortable prospect. It had been bad enough to discover yesterday that Hinsford Manor was a grander place than he had expected. It had been worse to realize this morning that Netherby and Riverdale were in no hurry to rush back to their own families in London. But now this.
She was all soft, delicate feminine beauty and vaporish terror before an ungainly softie of a dog like Beauty. No creature of the canine world had ever been further from ferocity than the one now stretched out beside him a safe distance from the flashing blade, napping because for the moment there was no play afoot and no chance of a good fur-ruffling or ear-scratching.
She—the woman, that was—had been terror personified for a few moments, cringing and whining and begging for mercy. And then she had looked at him as though she had never seen a half-naked man before—as perhaps she had not—and had become all stiff, aristocratic hauteur. She had mistaken him for a servant. She had asked if he had been given permission to remove his shirt and had warned him that she would report him to Harry. But if she had thought he was a servant, what the devil had she been doing giving him a good looking over before informing him that it was unseemly for him to appear thus before her?
She would probably have fainted dead away if he had taken so much as one step toward her.
Which member of Harry’s family was she? He did not know much about them, except that Harry had briefly been the Earl of Riverdale, head of the Westcott family, and that they had all stuck by him and his mother and sisters after the discovery was made that the old earl’s marriage to the mother was bigamous. The story had made Gil quite happy that he had never had any family at all.
Was the haughty, wilting beauty one of the sisters? Gil felt nothing but irritation and contempt for her, whoever she was. Though he was perhaps being a bit unfair. Actually, there was no perhaps about it. She had had no way of knowing what a softie Beauty was, after all, and the dog’s size could be intimidating to strangers. And perhaps she really had not seen a man without his shirt before. Many ladies, as he knew from experience, were brought up in near seclusion, with very little exposure to the realities of the world. He could not for the life of him understand the reasoning behind it, but there it was.
He should perhaps have disabused the woman of her assumption that he was a servant. At the very least he ought to have laid down the axe and pulled on his shirt and made himself look marginally decent. Was it sheer perversity that he had done neither?
He did not like women.
The fact of which did not excuse him from boorishness.
It also made him seem peevish.
What he would like to do right now, Gil thought, lowering the axe and leaning on the handle, was borrow one of the horses from the stables and ride off somewhere, never to return. But he could not do that, could he? Where would he go? Anyway, he had just sent a letter to his lawyer to inform him where he could be found for the next while. Besides, Harry needed him here. His family presumably would not stay long, and he had been quite firm in his resolve not to go to his mother in London, where he would soon find himself smothered by love—Harry’s own words—and in the care of yet more physicians.
Gil put the blame for his friend’s deplorable condition squarely upon his physicians and surgeons in Paris. Their idea of treating a man who had lain in a near coma for six months, horribly wounded, and who had needed surgery not long after that was to feed him soft, tasteless foods forever after and keep him in bed or confined to a deep chair in an airless room with curtains drawn tight across the windows. Their idea to fight the fevers he still suffered was to bleed him. And their plan to rebuild his strength was to limit his exercise to the daily walk to the dining room to eat his jellies and watery mashed potatoes and soups so thin they might as well have been dishwater. Their theory appeared to be that any exertion on his part would use energy that needed to be stored until he was full enough of it again to resume normal life. Most of them spoke of that day in the way they might have spoken of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As something that would never happen, in other words.
The doctors were idiots, the pack of them. Gil resumed his self-appointed task and chopped through one particularly hard, thick log as though it were butter. He turned one portion of it on edge to reduce it to smaller pieces. He had rescued Harry from all that when he had agreed to bring his friend home. Home here to Hinsford, not to London. Now, having done so, Gil must stay, overseeing his friend’s recovery until Harry did not need him any longer. He could wait out the visiting family. After a few days, or a week at the longest, they would surely grow bored with cooing and clucking over their invalid and return to their balls and routs in London before the Season was over.
And that woman would go with them. It could not be soon enough for him.
His axe made short work of the segment of log and he lifted another to take its place on the block.
Several minutes later he straightened in order to stretch his back and roll his shoulders. He wondered if Harry would insist upon introducing him to his newly arrived family members and expect him to dine with them. But of course he would. Gil was, after all, Lieutenant Colonel Bennington, a gentleman’s title even if he was not a gentleman.
It was time, he decided, to go indoors, preferably through a side door, and wash up. He cleaned the axe and hung it in its usual place in the tackle room before gathering up his shirt and coat while Beauty wagged her tail and looked hopeful.
Beauty had her way.
Before Gil had taken one step in the direction of the house, his ears picked up the sound of another carriage approaching along the driveway. He cursed aloud, pulled on his shirt and coat in a manner that would have given any self-respecting valet a fit of the vapors, and took his dog for a walk.