Andrew Lord of Despair

By: Grace Burrowes

One





I will not run from the sight of my brother’s front door—I hope.

Andrew Alexander’s composure felt as tentative as if he were facing another Channel crossing under stormy skies, though he nonetheless rapped the lion’s head knocker stoutly three times against its brass fitting.

“Have you a card, sir?” The butler posed his question with that precise blend of hauteur and deference appropriate in the household of an English marquess.

“I’m afraid you have me at a loss,” Andrew replied. “My cards went missing somewhere between the Levant and Gibraltar.” He’d pitched them overboard at a point in his wanderings when he’d been so homesick that, despite all his misgivings, despite the sea voyages involved, and despite the prospect of renewed proximity to Astrid Worthington, he’d turned his sights for England.

Not Astrid Worthington. Astrid Allen, Viscountess Amery.

Andrew had something better than calling cards, however. He had a pair of dark eyebrows, which when lifted at a certain angle over eyes of a particularly brilliant blue, proclaimed him—to those possessed of a modicum of perspicacity—the younger sibling of the marquess.

The butler apparently numbered among such noticing souls. “My apologies, my lord. I will see if the family is receiv—Lord Andrew?”

Andrew assayed a smile, though he did not recognize this man.

“It’s Hodges, your lordship. I was the newly hired underbutler when you left on your travels four years ago. Welcome home! Welcome home, my lord!” The fellow—whom Andrew still did not recognize—was bowing so enthusiastically his wig nearly came down over his ginger brows.

“Thank you, Hodges. It’s good to be home.” Andrew had rehearsed that very line, and thought it came out rather well.

To be on dry land was always good. Always.

“Lord Heathgate has been on a tear ever since we got your letter, my lord,” Hodges declared as he divested Andrew of hat and gloves. “Her ladyship, too. Please do come along. The master is in his library.”

Hodges bustled down the hallway, while Andrew sustained a sensory blow that had to do with the scent of beeswax and lemon oil, the sight of red roses in a silver bowl on the side table, and the jingle of a passing carriage.

He was as much at home as he was ever going to be.

Hodges tapped three times on the library door, a small sound that guaranteed for a while, at least, Andrew would remain at home.

“We’ll surprise him, eh, your lordship? And I’ll let the marchioness know the happy news.” Hodges was fair to bursting out of his silver and blue livery to tell Heathgate’s lady that the prodigal was home, while Andrew felt a sense of frigid waves closing over his head and brine filling his belly.

Though beneath those reactions also dwelled a stubborn joy. Andrew seized the joy with both hands as Hodges announced, “a visitor,” then promptly dropped it when he found himself standing in his brother’s library.

“You’ll have him to yourself,” Hodges whispered with a cheeky wink.

Which was exactly what Andrew did not want.

Will he, nil he, the door clicked quietly shut. Andrew’s only surviving brother stood in quarter profile by a set of French doors that led out to the back gardens. Gareth looked the same, no gray in his sable hair, no age creeping into his face, no dimming of his icy blue eyes. If anything, the man looked… younger, and the sight of him hale and whole comforted unbearably.

Gareth shot across the room and enveloped Andrew in a silent embrace, as a queer feeling suffused Andrew’s chest, then his whole body, a kind of chill and heat that left him weak-kneed and resting his forehead against Gareth’s shoulder. He did not deserve this unseemly display, but he held fiercely to his brother a moment longer.

“Squeeze me any harder and you will make me cry,” he said, stepping back when Gareth’s hold eased. A boyhood taunt between brothers was nothing less than the God’s honest truth now. Andrew tried for a smile—and mostly failed.

“You have damned near made your brother cry,” Gareth growled. “God’s balls, you’re skinny. Between Felicity and Mother, you will soon be fat as a market hog.” He went to the sideboard and gestured with a decanter. “A celebratory tot?”

Andrew avoided strong drink as a matter of course, particularly whiskey, because it—along with sea voyages and introductions to any woman named Julia—seemed to fuel the nightmares.

“Of course,” Andrew said, still feeling strangely weak. “Brandy will do. I have missed your cellar.” He had missed his brother far more. He propped himself against Gareth’s huge desk in what he hoped was a nonchalant pose. “We can drink to the health of your lady. Your last letter said Felicity is once again blooming, to use your words, in anticipation of a happy event.”

Given her condition, Andrew would need the fortification of his drink before he saw his sister-in-law again.

“She does the blooming, I do the anticipating,” Gareth said, handing his brother a bumper of brandy and clinking his glass against it. “To homecomings.”

“And your wife’s continued good health,” Andrew countered, raising his glass. The taste of Gareth’s bribing stock was more proof of homecoming, the brandy smooth, fruity, and subtly complex. Andrew sipped once and set his glass aside. “You do serve the very best.”

“Only to my most honored guests,” Gareth shot back. “Do you know, Andrew, how badly I have missed you? Worse than that, Felicity missed you, and Mother missed you, perhaps more than all of us put together.”

Astrid had missed him too. She’d put that in writing a time or two, and Andrew still had those notes.

“And how fares our good dam?” Andrew rejoined. Yes, he’d missed them as well, and he’d been gone too long—and not nearly long enough. On that thought, he sank into the comfortable depths of Gareth’s sofa.

Gareth appropriated an armchair, looking very much the lord of the manor. “Mother is well, having had great fun shepherding Astrid through two seasons and a wedding. We’ve also had the sense to present her ladyship with perfect, brilliant, adorable, et cetera grandchildren whose precociousness flatters her endlessly. With another—at least—on the way, her cup runneth over. Seeing you, however, will make her truly happy, and not simply busy with other people’s happiness.”

Something in that litany—besides the casual mention of Astrid’s name—caught Andrew’s ear. “Is Felicity expecting twins, then?”

“I hope to God not,” Gareth said. “Astrid intimated to Felicity right before the funeral that she may be increasing as well. Felicity hasn’t wanted to question her about it in light of her bereavement, but we’re hopeful she will have that consolation at least.”

Andrew turned a hard stare on his brother, feeling internal upset lurch toward complete chaos. “Gareth, what are you talking about? What funeral, what bereavement?”

Gareth set down his glass on the stones of the raised hearth. “I sent a letter to intercept you at Gravesend and another to our office at the Pool, but I gather neither one reached you. Astrid’s husband was killed in a hunting accident two weeks ago. She stayed here for the first week, but was determined to return to her own household thereafter.”

“This is unhappy news,” Andrew managed. Damned rotten, unhappy news. “Sad for Astrid.” Tragic, if she’d loved her husband, and Andrew fervently hoped she had.

And not at all convenient for him. He battled the impulse to get off the couch, walk out the door, and up the gangplank of the nearest departing ship. Astrid—lovely, dauntless Astrid—was alone, grieving, and possibly expecting her late husband’s heir. Could there be a less felicitous set of circumstances?

“How does Astrid fare?” He couldn’t keep that question behind his teeth for all the calm Channel crossings in history.

“I don’t know, Andrew,” Gareth said, and those were not words the Marquess of Heathgate uttered frequently. “She’s young, and she’s sturdy in her own way. Her brother, David, is keeping a close eye on her, but I get the sense she’s not grieving well. Felicity claims her sister has yet to shed a tear on her late husband’s behalf.”

Andrew considered Gareth’s words rather than consider the unlocked French doors. David, Lord Fairly, was an astute man and a conscientious brother, and that was some consolation. “She loved her husband?”

He should not have asked; he should never have even wondered. Astrid’s domestic affairs were none of his business, and they never would be.

“I think that’s part of the problem.” Gareth rose and refilled his glass with a half measure. “She was fond of him, but Fairly and I, and Felicity too, were puzzled by her choice of him. Amery was a great puppy dog of a fellow, jovial, doting, and without intellectual pretensions. Astrid played him like a fiddle, if you ask me, but I couldn’t figure out why she’d chosen him in the first place. I don’t find boredom much of an aphrodisiac,” Gareth concluded, resuming his seat.

Andrew had forgotten how frank his brother could be—and how perceptive.

“Astrid’s father was a bounder, and her brother is an odd duck. That she’d want a steadier sort for the father of her children makes sense.” A steadier sort than he, of course. Andrew had told himself this through twelve countries and three sea voyages. He’d told himself this when he’d been unable to burn the notes she tucked into his brother’s letters, and told himself this again when her notes had stopped coming.

“You may have the right of it.” Gareth might have intended to say more, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door.

“Gareth? Andrew?” Felicity, Marchioness of Heathgate, came in sporting a fulsome smile and suspiciously bright eyes—also carrying a silver tea tray which she set on the table in front of the sofa. For a progression of moments, Andrew experienced a resurgence of joy mixed with unease as Felicity fussed, hugged him, dabbed at her eyes, and fussed some more.

And her ladyship was visibly gravid, which did nothing for Andrew’s nerves.

She ensconced herself next to Andrew, right next to him, in the friendliness Andrew associated with both Worthington sisters.

“Are you interrogating my brother-in-law, sir?” she asked her husband. “I won’t have it. That prerogative is reserved for females, among whom you do not number. Who would like tea?”

Gareth returned her smile, his saturnine features acquiring a softness when he beheld his wife. “None for me, sweetheart, I’m drinking the good stuff.”

“None for me either, sweetheart,” Andrew said. “I’m drinking Heathgate’s good stuff, which I have sorely missed.” He had not missed the little lies Polite Society required in the name of manners, but he could hardly say he’d missed his brother to a point approaching lunacy.

“Leaving the entire pot for me,” the marchioness said. “While the tea is steeping, would anyone like a sandwich?”

Andrew considered the question and realized that with the anticipation of this homecoming behind him, he was starving. He accepted a heaping plate—two sandwiches of sliced beef and cheddar on white bread with a pale French mustard—and caught the look Felicity exchanged with Gareth. Their brief glance was domestic, a bit of wifely smugness at having guessed correctly at Andrew’s appetite.

“Eat all that,” Gareth remarked, “and we will have to change your title to Earl of Shoat. I wouldn’t mind a sandwich myself, Wife, if there are any left, that is.”

“Now, children,” Andrew chided between bites of simple English food. “I will eat as much of this delicious fare as I may, and would appreciate it if we did not apply any titles to me, even in jest.”

Another look passed between Gareth and Felicity, but it wasn’t domestic or smug. Felicity was puzzled, and Gareth was… uneasy.

“What?” Andrew asked, pausing with a sandwich halfway to his mouth. Astrid was now widowed, possibly an expecting widow. What development could be more disconcerting than that?

Gareth appeared to find his sandwich fascinating. “You do have a title, or two, actually.”

Foreboding settled into Andrew’s stomach, swirling about in a queasy mess with his brandy, his half-eaten sandwich, and the upheaval of Gareth’s various disclosures.

“What do you mean, I have a title, or two—actually?”

“You will recall our maternal grandfather was a baron,” Gareth began. “But you may not recall he had a second cousin who was Earl of Greymoor. The earl died without surviving issue, and after some roundaboutation, that title devolved to grandfather the year before his death. He made nothing of it, and I wasn’t even aware it had happened until I was tidying up his estate and cousin Gwen informed me. By then, Privileges was looking about for someone to foist the barony and the earldom onto. Because I am already overburdened with titles, they saw to a special remainder, or a re-issuance of the letters patent, something of that sort—it was one of those titles that could be preserved through the female line—and settled the honor on you.”

Andrew shot out of his chair and whirled on his brother, who was very likely the something of that sort responsible for this fiasco.

“How could you let that happen, Gareth? I trusted you to watch my back while I was gone, and I come back to this? I want no titles, do you understand? Privileges will have to look about for someone else to honor, but it won’t be me.”

The damned man remained seated, regarding his wife, then his glass of spirits, when what Andrew wanted was the sort of set-to they’d indulged in as adolescents, before the accident had made them so blessed careful with each other.

“I knew you’d resent this,” Gareth said. “If you don’t want to administer the estates, we can hire a steward or two. The titles need not burden you, Andrew.”

Felicity’s expression was worried, so Andrew forced himself to sit back down beside her.

“You will pardon my lack of manners, Felicity,” he said. “I do not mind the burden of the estates, Gareth.” Not much. Not yet, though he would and soon. “The burden of the succession is the untenable obligation.” He managed a sip of brandy and tried to batten down his anger—his panic, to apply the more honest term.

Felicity put two frosted tea cakes, one pink and one blue, on his already full plate. “You needn’t worry about the succession, Andrew. Your nephews can inherit if all else fails. Would you like to meet them?”

Nephews. Never did a word bring a greater sense of relief. God bless all nephews, the more the better. “I would like very much to meet them, and I’m warning you both now, I will spoil them rotten every chance I get.”

And guard their lives with his own.

***

The clock ticked in the otherwise silent house.

And ticked.

And ticked.

And ticked.

Sitting in her front parlor, a cup of tea growing cold in her hands, Astrid Worthington Allen, newly widowed Viscountess Amery, considered getting up, crossing the room, and pitching the clock through the window.

She contemplated this maneuver with the small, detached part of her mind still capable of ratiocination. The clock was safe, of course. Smashing it would take action, and action took willpower, and Astrid had used up the available quotient of that precious commodity dressing and getting down to this sitting room. Most of her, however, was still upstairs in bed, unwilling to face another day.

In the privacy of one’s thoughts, one could be brutally honest: she was all but unable to face another day.

That bluff, genial Amery had died in his thirtieth year was unfair. Not fair to Amery, and most assuredly not fair to Astrid. She had loved her husband, truly she had. He had been—oh, how the pluperfect tense oppressed!—he’d been a pleasant, harmless young man. Not strikingly handsome, not particularly quick, not flashy in any sense. But she’d chosen him for that very solid, undramatic, pleasant quality… and now this.

Every corner of the house held memories of Herbert, every space had a deserted quality, where he should still be sitting, standing, laughing, lounging with a drink, or tracking mud. Herbert had tracked a deal of mud, never caring for the carpets when he’d come in from a hard ride or a morning’s shooting.

Astrid had hoped they could become friends, in time. But they weren’t to have time. No more time at all.

Out in the hallway, voices sounded. Astrid recognized not the words but the smooth, quiet cadence of Douglas Allen’s greeting and instructions to the footman. As the present Viscount Amery, Douglas could do that—order Astrid’s staff about, visit any time he chose, and generally intrude on her grief with the best of stated intentions.

Between one tick of the infernal clock and the next, energy suffused Astrid in mind and body.

Douglas could interrogate the staff all he wanted, but Astrid could not bear the prospect of him oozing cool sympathy while his chilly blue eyes gave away no grief of his own.

Not today.

Before Douglas could finish his interrogation—for Astrid had no doubt he was again questioning the staff about her daily habits—she slipped out the parlor’s side door and kept walking, toward the back of the domicile in which she’d been entombed.

She grabbed a black cloak and a heavily veiled black bonnet from the hooks in the back hallway, finding them appropriate, not to her grief, but to her anger.

Amery should not have died as he did.

He should not have left Astrid alone to bring a child into the world, not after last year’s miscarriage.

And he most assuredly should not have left Douglas with the authority and assets of the viscountcy.

Astrid fairly charged out into the mews and called for her coach while she tried to think of where she might go to be alone with her anger and with the endless, painful lump in her throat that would not turn into tears.

***

When she let herself into the kitchen of her girlhood home, Astrid saw that the Crabbles were taking very good care of the place, indeed. Not one corner sported a cobweb, not one surface a speck of dust, not one carpet was in need of a thorough beating. The whole house, in fact, lacked the hollow, empty feeling Astrid had expected as she made her way up to the attics.

The state of the house, the dearness of it, cheered her considerably.

Astrid found the appropriate trunk immediately. The latch was sticky, and when she opened the lid, camphor and lavender assailed her nose. Taking off her bonnet and gloves, she knelt before the trunk.

A lace-attired doll she remembered from her earliest childhood was the first thing she encountered, followed by very small dresses. Toward the bottom of the trunk, she found even smaller clothes, as well as a soft wool receiving blanket with mock orange boughs beautifully embroidered on the borders. The sight of it, something her own mother had made while carrying her, brought tears to Astrid’s eyes.

Mock orange symbolized memory, and of her late mother, she had none.

Finally tears, for a mother she’d never met, who had loved her before she’d even been born. The thought caused an upwelling of sorrow, a flood of misery that had Astrid crying noisily into the blanket. She didn’t know how long she remained kneeling on the floor, crying like a motherless child, but eventually she became aware she wasn’t alone.

Hands settled gently on her shoulders.

“Astrid.” The voice was masculine and dear to her, but what Astrid responded to was the wealth of caring she heard, even in just her name. “Astrid, hush.” A pair of strong arms turned her and scooped her up, then settled her against a broad masculine chest.

Andrew. Andrew was home, he was here, and why that should be she could not fathom, though she knew without reservation, she was glad of it.

“I want my mother,” she confessed miserably, clinging to the comforting embrace. She heard no reply, though her admission had intensified her sense of loss and expanded it to include the child she’d conceived and then lost the previous year. If she’d had to choose, she would have said she was crying more for her mother and baby than for her departed husband.

Comforting hands caressed her back; gentle fingers stroked her hair; soft lips pressed to her temple. The great knot of pain inside her gradually eased under the onslaught of tenderness, and she was able to take the first deep breath she’d inhaled in weeks. Without looking up, she traced her fingers along the strong jaw of the man who held her.

He’d have the same dark hair, the same blue, blue eyes, the same charming, even tender smile.

“Andrew… Oh, Andrew. My dear, dear friend,” she murmured against his chest. “I have been so worried for you.”