Gabriel Lord of Regrets

By: Grace Burrowes

To the farmers and the artists, without whom, we would all surely starve

Chapter One

“It’s time I rose from the dead.”

The Dowager Marchioness of Warne eyed her guest placidly over her teacup, despite the impact of his words.

Oh, to be thirty years younger—even twenty. “Is that wise, Gabriel? You never did get to the bottom of all that mischief in Spain.”

Gabriel Wendover rose to his considerable height and paced to the window overlooking the back gardens. “Here’s my dilemma: my younger brother is one of few who can convincingly identify me. If I don’t emerge from my convalescence now, Aaron could well drink himself into oblivion, or engage in one too many duels, and then I’m an opportunistic poseur, trying to do battle with Prinny’s legal weasels.”

“Surely your former fiancée could identify you.” Lady Warne enjoyed the view of her guest from the back almost as much as she did from the front. He was all lean, elegant muscle now, though two years ago he’d been at death’s door.

“I’m not sure I’d trust Marjorie that far.” Gabriel turned away from his study of the flowers. “As Aaron’s wife, and the Marchioness of Hesketh, she now commands significant wealth and respect. If she’s simply the wife of a younger son, she gets a great deal less.”

“But an adequate portion to survive on?”

“Of course.” His features shuttered, and an idea popped into her ladyship’s mind.

“Does this sudden urge to come out of the shadows have to do with a woman, Gabriel?”

Not by the flicker of a dark eyelash did he betray any reaction to the question, and in his stillness, Lady Warne found a hint of confirmation that she’d guessed correctly.

“Why would you suggest that?”

She went to stand beside him, close enough that the afternoon sun revealed fatigue around his eyes and mouth. “Two years ago, you were done searching for justice, done trying to figure out who wished you dead. You took over stewarding Three Springs for me, and despite all odds to the contrary, you made it prosper. I thought you were content there and would finish out your days as plain Gabriel North, humble, if taciturn, land steward.”

“Taciturn?”

“Reserved.” And because he was less than half her age, she allowed herself a smidgen of fun at his expense. “Brooding.”

“I was recovering from a mortal wound. This does not incline a man to a sanguine demeanor.” He fell silent. He was too dear a man, and she was too old not to wait him out. “My decision doesn’t have to do with a woman, but rather, with the absence of a woman.”

He was lonely, and he’d been lonely when they’d met two years ago, though it appeared he was now becoming aware of this sorry state of affairs. And when Gabriel Wendover saw a problem, he must needs address it.

“Surely, with your looks, you don’t lack for female company?”

“And all my wit and charm?” He raised an eyebrow, and Lady Warne was put in mind of those ancient, rousing days when a man took by conquest and held by main strength. Gabriel would have prospered then, too—handily—and likely had his version of fun, bashing heads and bellowing war cries.

“You’re as charming as you need to be,” she observed, “though you don’t prevaricate any better than my grandsons do.”

His brilliant green eyes showed some emotion, humor perhaps, but so briefly that Lady Warne couldn’t be sure of what she’d seen.

“As long as I turn my back on my birthright,” he said, “I am unable to marry, unable to even dally, really, because I’m living a lie.”

Clearly, Gabriel had never moved about much in society. “Dallying men are supposed to lie. It’s part of the consideration due the ladies.”

“Then I’ve lost the knack of dallying, if I ever had it.” He crossed his arms over his chest, a gesture that to her ladyship looked more defensive than stubborn. “I can’t risk that a woman close to me could become a victim of the same kind of violence that befell me, or see her used somehow as leverage against me.”

“You’ve been brooding on this.”

“Considering,” he allowed. “I cannot resign myself to watching Aaron fritter away the family fortune, much less fritter away his life, so Prinny can snatch up the rewards when escheat befalls the title. If I’m going to be dead, I’d rather die battling my enemies than of mortification at my younger brother’s moral collapse.”

“He is young,” Lady Warne pointed out. Everybody was young to her these days. “Maybe he’ll come right if you give him a few more years.”

“The longer I wait, the less credible any story of protracted delirium or lost memory becomes.”

Gabriel was not merely lonely; he had fallen in love. The notion was startling and gratifying, and the only possible explanation for a radical departure from his well-laid, ridiculous plans of two years ago. “Maybe you were captured by gypsies and held as a prisoner until the gypsy princess fell in love with you and set you free.”

His answering scowl was ferocious.

“What have I said?”

“Sara Hunt was known as the Gypsy Princess when she toured the Continent.”

“She’s Sara Haddonfield now.” May God and a handsome grandson be thanked. “Married to my dear Beckman, and no longer a traveling musician playing for coin, or the lowly housekeeper raising her daughter at Three Springs. Beckman is arse over teakettle for his lady wife.”

Gabriel flashed her a rare, precious smile. “My virgin ears. Such language.”

“Your ears are no more virgin than your… the rest of you. What can I do to help?” Because she would help, will he, nil he.

“Ask your spies what they know about the goings-on at Hesketh,” Gabriel said. “I know of three duels Aaron’s been involved in over the past twelve months. I hear of particularly wicked house parties with his army cronies when his wife is up to Town, and Marjorie’s bills would finance a cavalry unit and their mounts. This makes no sense to me. Aaron was fun loving, not reckless, and he was raised as the spare. He should know how to go on better than this now that he’s Hesketh.”

“Your papa’s death was unexpected, as was your so-called demise,” Lady Warne reminded him. “Men can misbehave badly when a title befalls them on short notice.”

“So one hears.”

“I’ll listen to the gossip, but you’re going to need allies if you intend to march off smartly to Hesketh and declare yourself alive and well.”

“I can’t ask others to put their lives in jeopardy merely because I’m feeling possessive of my title.”

“Not possessive, protective.”

“Both. I have one other favor to ask of you.”

“Anything.”

He looked momentarily nonplussed by the immediacy of her answer, and that gave her satisfaction. The man had been alone too long, probably since before his injury in Spain.

“I need a place to stay, somewhere nobody will think to look for me over the next week or so.” He was gazing out over the asters and chrysanthemums again, his expression distant. “I must dress the part if I’m to make a grand reentrance at Hesketh, and I want to do some loitering in low places before I go home.”

“You want to make the rounds.” She looked him over, seeing the dusty boots, the threadbare morning coat, the cravat that sported not a hint of lace. “Gather intelligence. You are more than welcome to stay here, young man, but you’ll tell me what news you come across, and I’ll do likewise.”

“My thanks, and my lady?”

“Hmm?”

“Be careful. Beckman, Nicholas, and the rest of your tribe of grandchildren would flay me where I stood did I bring harm to you.”

“Having a little project is more likely to keep a woman of my age out of trouble, I’ll have you know. Now, if you want to restore your wardrobe, you will take my advice, for the tailors gossip as freely as the modistes.”

“I’m listening.”

Having made his request of her, he visibly relaxed, lounging back against the windowsill as they plotted and planned.

Oh, to be thirty years younger. Even twenty.

***

“You’ve eight commissions.”

“Eight!?”

How it gratified Tremaine to see the incredulity on Polonaise Hunt’s lovely face. “I accepted only eight, but I could have come away with twice that number.”

The smile trying to break across Polly’s face dimmed. “Do they know the artist is female?”

“They don’t care.” Which was the God’s honest truth, not that Tremaine would attempt to dissemble. “They don’t care that you may take three years to execute their various portraits; they don’t care that you’re going to bankrupt them for the privilege of waiting for you. All they care about is being able to crow that P. Hunt is under contract to them.”

“Eight commissions.” Polly sank down on a red velvet settee and wrapped her arms around her trim middle. “Heavens.”

“And, my dear”—though she wasn’t his dear; she was his late brother Reynard’s sister-by-marriage, nothing more—“your show sold out.” He appropriated the spot beside her on the sofa, contenting himself with physical proximity.

“Sold…” Polly stared hard at the carpet, as if a pattern woven in red, gold, and cream wool required study. “People bought my paintings, just like that?”

“They tried to bid on them. Next time, we’re having an auction.”

“Next time.” Polly hunched forward, the look on her face suggesting she’d forgotten Tremaine and her eight commissions, and was instead seeing paintings and arranging her subjects.

He touched her hand. “Does this call for a drink?”

“Just a tot. Years in service at Three Springs leaves a woman with little head for spirits.”

“I had a letter from Beckman today.” Tremaine brought her a balloon glass with the merest slosh of amber liquid in the bowl. Polly Hunt said what she meant and meant what she said. If she’d wanted a larger portion, she would have told him.

“How fares my sister’s present spouse?” Polly took the drink and brought the glass to her nose, a facial feature that might be said to have character. Tremaine liked that nose, and liked her, more’s the pity. He’d liked her the first time he’d encountered her nearly six years ago, wearing a paint-spattered smock and an impatient expression.

Dear Reynard had stashed both his wife and her younger sister in a rented flat in Vienna. The air had been frigid, the scent of boiled cabbage gaggingly thick, but all Tremaine had noticed was the dab of blue paint on Polly’s nose and the ferocious concentration she’d turned on her canvas within two minutes of meeting him.

He resumed his place beside her. “Your sister is thriving in Beck’s care, the harvest was excellent, that peculiar wheat of Beck’s is coming along, and they’ve a crop of fall lambs from the Dorset rams.”

“Lambs? Sara married a country squire, it seems.”

“Who will tell anyone he meets that his wife’s sister is the renowned—and wealthy—portrait artist Polonaise Hunt.”

“Wealthy.” Polly smiled softly, and Tremaine took a fortifying swallow of his drink. “How wealthy, Tremaine?”

He named a figure that had Polly’s jaw dropping, then snapping shut.

“I’ll need a solicitor,” she said, “and I want to set up a trust, for Allie.”

He had not anticipated this, but he should have. “Sara and Beck provide for her very well, and the first person you should be looking after is yourself.”

“I am Allie’s only aunt, the person with whom she shares artistic talent. The wealthy, famous, and all-that-other-nonsense-you-said P. Hunt can dote on her niece.” Polly wasn’t a tall woman, but when she rose, she had an imposing presence. Whereas her sister, Sara, was tall with flame-red hair and lithe curves, Polly was a smaller package, her hair a dark auburn and her curves—like her nose—more pronounced.

“Allie is part of the reason I’ve scheduled your first commission down by Portsmouth,” Tremaine said, dodging the issue. Polly was Allemande’s aunt, and Tremaine was her uncle—he knew well the urge to spoil the girl.

Polly leveled a stare at him that did not bode well for prevaricating males of any species. “A solicitor, Tremaine. The most shrewd, accomplished, expensive one you can find me.”

He poured himself more brandy. Since he’d undertaken to act as agent for Polly’s art, Tremaine’s consumption of spirits had risen while his quotient of restful sleep had diminished. “Worth Kettering is your man, if he’ll have you.”

She ceased her pacing near a small framed portrait of a dark-haired, dark-eyed young mother with a laughing infant on her lap. “Why wouldn’t he have me?”

“He’s selective about his clients, and his firm is much in demand. I use him, but I have for years, and it suited him at the time to have an errant French comte wandering his offices.”

“Half-French, half-Scottish,” Polly muttered. “This truly is a delightful painting, Tremaine. The brushwork is lovingly rendered, and the light wonderfully delicate. Will Mr. Kettering not take me on because I’m female, or because I’m an artist? Or will it be because I lack a title?”

“I’ll write him. I think he will take you on.”

She adjusted the angle of the frame minutely. “Why?”

“Because you need him.” And Kettering had not a chivalrous streak, but a chivalrous quirk, such that Polly’s circumstances would appeal to him.

“Because I’m wealthy,” she concluded, stepping away from the portrait. “I need him because I’m wealthy. Tell me about my first commission.”

Safer ground, and he hadn’t even had to maneuver her onto it. “It’s at Hesketh, which is only about a day’s ride from Three Springs, and thus close to Allie.”

Polly turned velvety brown eyes on him, and Tremaine couldn’t help reaching out to tuck a lock of hair behind her ear. “For letting me start out near Allie, Sara, and Beck, thank you.”

“I put Hesketh at the front of the line for another reason.” Besides the need to put some distance between himself and his talented client. “Aaron Wendover is a damned good-looking devil. You won’t have to flatter or artistically interpret his features to create something of significant aesthetic appeal.”

Polly resumed studying the picture of mother and child. “And his lady?”

“Also lovely, to the eye.”

She shot him a peevish look. “Tell me the rest. An artist must capture more than a pretty face and a pretty gown.”

Tremaine wished, not for the first time, that he had artistic talent himself, though it wasn’t some titled ninnyhammer he’d try to render on canvas.

“You’re a scandalmonger, Polly Hunt. As bad as Beck’s grandmother, who sent all her wealthy friends to your showing, by the way.”

“Then we must call on her when you take me up to Town to meet that solicitor,” Polly said. “I’ll write her a note as soon as I’ve choked down the miserable fare your cook inflicts on you. I swear, Tremaine, how you keep meat on those enormous bones of yours defies science.”

“I am sated on the beauty of my female relations.”

Polly smiled at that twaddle, clearly not at all impressed with supercilious flattery, and no doubt telling herself Tremaine was, after all, half-French.

***

“It’s as if God took Reynard St. Michael,” Polly mused to her sister, “and formed his brother, Tremaine, into his opposite.”

“Half brother.” Sara went about the Three Springs kitchen, collecting the detritus of one of Polly Hunt’s baking sprees. “And being Reynard’s opposite isn’t entirely a bad thing. I know Reynard was Allie’s papa, and we must always be grateful for her, but what, exactly, were my late husband’s good qualities?”

Polly paused while stirring a bowl of chocolate icing. “He was canny as hell,” she decided, “and Tremaine does share that feature.”

“Which makes him a good manager for your painting, provided he’s honest.”

“He’s honest, and too quick by half.”

“Too quick?”

“He proposed to me, Sara.” Polly recommenced whipping the daylights out of her frosting. “We had just come from the solicitor’s office. Tremaine put it in the most polite, bored, business terms—to allow me to sport a ring, to fend off the wandering hands of clients and their younger sons, to quiet talk about our business association—but he allowed me to understand, should it suit me at some point, we might discuss actually marrying.”

“You were tempted.” Sara paused, her hands full of dirty crockery. “Oh, Polly.”

Polly went at the frosting with a vengeance. “Yes, oh, Polly. He can see I’m pining for a man, and he’s thinking to take advantage.”

“Maybe he can see you’re pretty, talented, lonely, and in need of some roots,” Sara said. “I wish you’d stay here, Polly. You can paint anywhere. You don’t need to become a gypsy for your art.”

“One gypsy princess in the family was plenty?”

“Shame on you,” Sara chided, but without heat. “Allie misses you.”

“And I miss her, which is a good thing, Sara. If we hadn’t struck out on separate paths, I might never have realized I do miss her.”

“How could you not?”

“I miss North almost as much,” Polly said, her frosting fork going still again.

“Beck thought maybe that’s why you needed a change of scene.” Sara set the dirty dishes in the sink. “You have a lot of memories of Gabriel here at Three Springs.”

“Right.” Polly used a butter knife to dab frosting on a pale yellow cake. “Memories of Gabriel getting up while I mixed the bread dough, Gabriel heading out without a proper breakfast unless I forced it on him, and Gabriel coming in exhausted right as dinner was put on the table. Memories of Gabriel avoiding me.”

“I thought you two had reached some sort of accord before he left here.” Sara turned her attention to wiping down the counters, which were spotless. “For the last few months, that is, but then, I was preoccupied with Lady Warne’s handsome grandson and Tremaine’s looming presence.”

“We reached…” Polly dabbed the pattern of a flower into the frosting: a rose. “We reached an agreement to disagree. I think he left in part because he couldn’t stand to see my disappointment.”

“Or because,” Sara said gently, “he couldn’t trust himself not to take advantage. Gabriel is a gentleman.”

“Titled.” Polly surveyed her work, then smoothed the flower away. “He told me that much, but he also told me his family, or somebody, did not want him to survive to perpetuate the line, and Gabriel could not endanger a lady closely associated with him. Not for anything.”

“He wouldn’t let Hildegard suffer a sniffle on his behalf, could he avoid it. Allie considers him honorary godparent to all of Hildy’s piglets.” Sara scrubbed the counter with particular force. “So he’s gone.”

“To parts unknown.” Polly glowered at her cake. “Dratted man.”

Sara glanced at the door as if expecting menfolk to appear now that the cleaning up was done. “Beck had a note from Gabriel today, and it seems he’s a guest of Lady Warne for the present, but he made no mention of his next destination.”

“He said he wouldn’t.” Polly drew the confectionery rose into the frosting again and added a few thorns. “And he made no mention of me, either, did he?”

Sara crossed the few steps to hug her sister. “You’re not going to accept Tremaine’s silly proposal, are you? He means well, but guilt and a broken heart are no way to start a marriage.”

***

“You said you’d be decent to our guest,” Marjorie accused. “You’re not even going to be here to greet her.”

“I’ll see her at dinner,” Aaron replied, his patience fraying the longer he stood in the foyer and argued with his wife before the servants. “George says we’ve a problem with one of the hay barns, and it won’t keep. Unless you want all your pretty carriage horses to live on good intentions this winter, you’ll make my excuses to this artist.”

“Miss Polonaise Hunt,” Marjorie said tightly. “Go then, but if George can’t solve the problems with the estate farms, then why are you paying him to serve as steward?”

“Good day, Marjorie.” Aaron gave her a curt bow. “I’ll see you at dinner, along with Miss Hunt.”

He stalked down the front steps, glad for any excuse to leave the house, but he had to concede that Marjorie, as usual, had a valid point. George Wendover had been the steward for years, for pity’s sake, and with his fat salary and cozy house came the job of running the tens of thousands of acres held both through the Hesketh title and privately by the Wendover family.

But everything, everything, seemed to require Aaron’s personal attention, because dear Cousin George never wanted to overstep or make a controversial decision. He was loyal, was George, but something of a ditherer in Aaron’s opinion. George was also a distant cousin, though, and Aaron’s father had trusted the man, as had Gabriel, so Aaron gave him his due.

“It’s the last of the hay put up,” George explained. He stood in the hay barn, an enormous structure set into the side of a hill, with room for beasts below, and three high mows in the upper part of the building. “Mold got to it, but we’re only finding it now, as we’re beginning to feed some of the fodder on the colder nights.”

“Mold?” The hay barn was well ventilated, of that Aaron was certain. “We had good haying weather this year. I know we did. None of that hay should have been put up wet.”

George was intent on studying the barn’s roof beams, though they’d likely occupied their present positions for more than a century. “Must have been wetter than we thought, or it got wet, but the roof is tight, so that makes no sense.”

“How much is ruined?”

George nodded at the nearest third of the barn. “That mow seems to have got the worst of it, but you’re right. Haying was good this year, so there should be hay to purchase.”

“Buy what we need, and sell some of the straw. This lot can be used as bedding hay, at least the parts not completely rotted.”

“Bedding hay.”

George had a way of repeating what had been said that made Aaron want to throttle him. “Lousy hay, not fit for eating, isn’t that what you call it?”

“Mostly, we call it kindling.”

“If it’s not moldy, it has some value,” Aaron argued, “so use it as bedding. If there’s decent fodder to be had, the animals won’t eat the sorrier alternative.”

“If you say so.” George’s features remained impassive as he resumed his study of the beams, and curses learned in the cavalry flitted through Aaron’s head. George never disagreed with Aaron, but he never quite agreed with him either.

“George,” Aaron kept his tone patient, “what would my father have done?”

“He’d not have put up wet hay.”

Do not curse at a man who’s trying his best, and is a relation as well.

“Not on purpose, but say a tree fell on the barn roof and a rainstorm got to some of his hay, what would he have done with it?”

“He wouldn’t have allowed trees of such a size near his barn.”

Aaron gave up on parables. “Sell some of the barley and oat straw, and get us more hay. Was there anything else you wanted to discuss?”

He knew better, knew better, than to leave George such an opening, because there was always, always, something else. This cow had a bad foot, that mare hadn’t caught, and the chickens weren’t laying as well as they had last fall.

None of which, in Aaron’s opinion, merited the attention of the Marquess of Hesketh. Such trivialities took all afternoon, meaning correspondence would have to be dealt with far into the night, and damn and blast if he hadn’t promised Marjorie he’d appear in proper attire at dinner.

Damn Marjorie for her insistence on having portraits done.

Damn the hay for turning moldy.

And most of all, damn Gabriel for dying.

***

Gabriel had spent months envisioning this day, months plotting exactly what dramatic, pithy, unforgettable line he would recite when his brother beheld him risen from his supposed grave. In hindsight, he saw his months of rehearsal were merely the mental posturing of one victimized by violence, seeking reassurance from his imagination when it wasn’t available elsewhere.

So he handed his horse off to a groom he didn’t recognize and took himself into the stables to use the mirror hanging in the saddle room, a vanity their grandfather had insisted on fifty years ago.

As Gabriel was inspecting his tired, dusty, and frankly unappealing reflection, Aaron came into the saddle room, muttering about it being impossible to find a damned jumping bat when a man needed one and owned at least ten, and where in the hell—

In the mirror, Gabriel saw the moment his brother spied him, the moment recognition tried to force its way past disbelief.

“Gabriel?” Incredulity, but also hope, relief, and genuine, unmistakable joy colored that one word. Gabriel turned, the same emotions crowding into his throat and chest as his brother hurtled into his arms.

“Damn you, damn you,” Aaron whispered fervently. “Just damn you to hell, damn you to goddamned, bloody, benighted, stinking, perishing hell. You’re alive.” He fell silent, hugging Gabriel in a crushing embrace, until he stepped back, balled up a fist, and flashed a lightning quick right to his older brother’s chin.

Then wrapped him in another suffocating hug.

Gabriel had anticipated the blow, but it still stung, leaving a reassurance as the pain dulled to a throb, but reassurance of what, Gabriel didn’t know. That he was loved, maybe? That his brother wouldn’t have connived at the title to the point of having Gabriel murdered—maybe?

Aaron held him at arm’s length, looking Gabriel over with a scowl reminiscent of their late father.

“I am happier to see you than you can possible know, but, Brother, you are in a bloody lot of trouble.”

“One suspected this would be the case. You look like hell yourself.”

“Married life does not agree with me,” Aaron shot back. “Nor does wearing your idiot title, nor does sitting on my arse in the library hour after hour and bickering in writing with doddering lords trying to cadge my vote on every worthless bit of self-enrichment they can legislate.”

Aaron had always had a temper, a quick tongue, and an equally generous and forgiving heart. In the two years since Gabriel had last seen him, though, Aaron had laid claim to the essential darkness of demeanor previously reserved for every other male member of the Wendover clan.

In short, Aaron had grown up, and this left Gabriel feeling both sad and guilty. They were five years apart in age, though sometimes, it had felt closer to fifteen.

No more.

“Let’s get you up to the house,” Aaron said. “Will you have luggage coming along soon?”

“I have only what my horse could carry, though there will be more coming down from London eventually.”

“Is that where you’ve been hiding?” Aaron’s tone held a hint of that hard blow to the chin.

“Walk with me.” Gabriel took charge of their progress toward the house, and led his brother around to the side gardens, where plane maples provided shade, beauty, and more importantly, privacy.

Aaron had also apparently learned some patience, or some strategy, because he kept his peace until Gabriel found them a bench under the trees, out of sight of the house or stables.

“We never did get to the bottom of my mishap in Spain.” Gabriel sat slowly, the damned English roads having wreaked havoc with his back for the last ten miles. Aaron tossed himself onto the bench with casual grace.

“Mishap?” He snorted. “You were set upon by brigands, as often happens to men traveling alone in war zones after dark.”

“It wasn’t a war zone, Aaron. We were well behind the lines, and I was traveling between the church and the infirmary where you were recuperating. I traversed the middle of the village under a full moon.”

“I was dying,” Aaron said tiredly. He crossed his legs at the ankles and leaned back to turn his face up to the sun. “You were set upon while I lay helpless, and if you’d stayed in England, you’d still be… well, you are, alive… Christ.”

“You weren’t dying.” Though in the bright sunlight, Aaron now looked to be at least exhausted. “You’d given up, and because the army knows nothing of medicine save cutting, burning, stitching, and praying, you needed better care. You were too stubborn to trade on the family name, so you weren’t getting that care, hence the necessity of my travel.”

And hence, indirectly, two years of backbreaking labor and heart-wrenching uncertainty as well, for them both—and for Marjorie?

Aaron swung at a bed of yellow pansies with his riding crop, missing—fortunately. “What’s your point?”

“I had no money on me,” Gabriel said. “I was on a humble borrowed army mount, and yet, I am larger and meaner and fitter than most—or I was. I do not think brigands set upon me.”

“The men and I asked around everywhere, Gabriel,” Aaron countered. “Nobody had heard the least rumor that you were ambushed as anything other than a casual crime.”

“You asked around in English. Even if I allow that the first attack was pure bad luck, what about the second and the third?”

Aaron hunched forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and sending Gabriel a puzzled glance over his shoulder. “The second being whoever tried holding a pillow to your ugly face when I was finally recovered enough to leave you to the sisters. I know nothing of a third.”

“The fire,” Gabriel said. “The one that supposedly took my life. I was given laudanum for the pain in my back, but I’d mostly weaned myself rather than let it become a dependency. I wasn’t fast asleep as intended when somebody torched the infirmary—I wasn’t even in my bed.”

“You were off trysting?”

Had Aaron developed a penchant for trysting despite being married to Marjorie? Was that what all her shopping and his dueling were about?

“I was taking a damned piss,” Gabriel shot back. “And there but for the grace of God, I’d be sporting that halo.”

“So you went into hiding,” Aaron surmised.

“I am willing to be convinced that my death was not planned, but who among the Spanish, English, Portuguese, or French would torch a convent’s infirmary? Too many wounded and ill depended on the kindness of the sisters, and they took in their patients regardless of nationality.”

Aaron swatted at nothing with his crop, while Gabriel felt his brother putting together puzzle pieces. “By the time you were well enough to come home, I’d had you declared dead, and you suspected I was behind all the attempts.”

Gabriel rose carefully—now was no time for his damned back to seize up—and paced off a few feet. They were surrounded by pansies and chrysanthemums, though a few precocious maples were parting with their leaves. The garden in all its autumn glory was easier to look upon than Aaron’s face.

“I didn’t want to think you guilty, Aaron. You were the only one with anything to gain, and then too, I lay in that damned bed for months, thinking myself into a stew, and your guilt was the logical conclusion.”

“Is it still?”

And there, in a nutshell, was why Gabriel loved, and despaired of, his brother. Aaron was brave, unflinchingly courageous. He’d toss out a question like that, knowing it opened an unbearably painful wound for them both. And he’d do it without batting an eye. Such a man might easily believe himself to be—and might be—the better choice to hold the title.

“No, it is not the logical conclusion,” Gabriel said, turning in time to see his brother’s shoulders drop, the only sign Aaron had given a damn about the answer, one way or another. “It’s no longer the only possible conclusion.”

“Oh, famous.” This time, Aaron decapitated a few pansies with his crop, and the steward in Gabriel winced. “A Scottish verdict? Insufficient evidence?”

“No evidence,” Gabriel said, eyeing the pansy parts scattered on the ground. “My own fevered reasoning, but no evidence and plenty of reasonable doubts.”

“Such as?”

“You didn’t know I was coming to fetch you home.” Gabriel resumed his seat beside Aaron, though the hard bench was murder on an aching back. “It’s easy enough to have a man killed if you’ve coin and cunning. If you’d wanted me dead, it would have made more sense for you to see the thing done while you were in Spain and I was in England.”

Aaron left the bench, reminding Gabriel that his brother had never enjoyed inactivity. “If I’d wanted you dead, I would have managed it myself on a field of honor, regardless of country.”

“May I assume that isn’t a challenge?”

Aaron scrubbed a hand over his face. “Don’t be ridiculous, but if I were you, I wouldn’t turn my back on Marjorie anytime soon.” The smile accompanying this advice was complicated: humorous, rueful, self-mocking. Boys did not smile like that, though married men did.

“I assume Marjorie is well?” Gabriel shifted on the infernal bench and missed the padding Polly had kept on his chair at the Three Springs kitchen table.

Missed Polly too, though that was hardly news.

“Marjorie’s not breeding, if that’s what you’re asking. She’s utterly miserable married to me, and lest there be any doubt, long lost brother, I am miserable married to her. It’s the English way. She’s hired a portrait artist to memorialize our misery.”

Perhaps Aaron wanted to call him out after all? “You didn’t have to marry her.”

“Yes, Gabriel, I did. Her dear mama was crying breach of promise and damages if I hadn’t, and your Mr. Kettering was very reluctant to hand over the details of the agreement to a mere wastrel younger brother when you were yet alive.”

Damn Worth Kettering and his lawyerly scruples. “You had me declared dead just to get a look at the contract?”

“No.” Aaron slapped his crop against his boot, and a leaf went twirling by, as if the crop were a magic wand that might bring the heavens crashing down with the right incantation. “I had you declared dead so that, having no other plan in hand, I could try getting on with your life.”

***

Gabriel wandered every wing and corridor of his former home—his home—saving the portrait gallery for last, because to him it was the heart of the Wendover family seat. Of the barons, three in number, there were no paintings, not even sketches, but when a grateful crown had created the Earldom of Northbridge, that good fellow’s countess had taken matters in hand and set the Wendovers on the tradition of portraiture.

Gabriel studied the portrait of him and Aaron for a long time, seeing the hubris of a wealthy heir in his younger self. God in heaven, he’d had a lot to learn.

Something made him turn, to watch the afternoon light cascading through the spotless windows. Polly had loved the fall light, calling it frisky.

He put that thought aside. A man was not entitled to dwell on a woman he’d loved and lost, much less one he’d disappointed in the process, and this gave the ache of missing her a particular resonance. He thought to bide a few minutes among the ancestors and guiltily savor his memories of his few intimate moments with Polly Hunt when movement caught his eye.

His gaze fell on a maid, catnapping, but when he crossed the room to rouse the slacker, he stopped cold, the hairs on the back of his neck and his arms prickling with anticipation.

Her lashes fluttered up just as he knelt to assure himself his eyes were not deceiving him, and then the lady did the most extraordinary thing. She rested a hand on his shoulder, leaned up on her elbow, and gently kissed his cheek.

“Polonaise Hunt, what in God’s name are you doing here?”

He hadn’t meant the question to sound so… panicked, so angry, but she couldn’t be here, could not.

“Hullo to you too, Mr. North,” Polly muttered, her smile fading to a frown. “I fell asleep. Did Beck tell you I was here?”

Gabriel rose lest she kiss him again and scatter his wits from Land’s End to Nova Scotia. “He most assuredly did not, and if he knew this was your destination, I’m going to make him regret his reticence. You must leave.”

“The room?”

“The property.”

She tucked a lock of auburn hair behind her ear, the gesture conveying a significant lack of concern. “I’m hungry.”

“Then take something from the kitchen when you go.”

She treated him to a mulish glance, and Gabriel swiveled to sit beside her before his knees gave out.

“I’m not going.” She rolled her shoulders and yawned delicately. “I have portraits to paint.”

“Go paint them somewhere else.” He was not going to tell her his own house wasn’t a safe place, especially for her, the first woman he could honestly say he’d cared for. More than cared for.

Polly eyed him curiously. “Hesketh has contracted for my services. Who are you to be countermanding a peer of the realm?”

Her hair was tousled, and she had a crease across her cheek from the pillow seam. He crossed his arms to thwart the compulsion to touch her. “I’m Hesketh’s older brother.”

The words were out, blunt, unpretty, and honest, and the effect on Polly was devastating. She didn’t move, she didn’t speak, but she silently withdrew to a faraway, untouchable place, where men could lie to the women they kissed and the women were too smart and tough to let it matter.

“Are you a bastard?” A trickle of hope escaped into her careful tone, and he winced to hear it, because this possibility would explain much and let her forgive nearly as much.

“Not in the manner you mean.”

“I see.”

Silence grew, and Gabriel had the sense Polly was drifting away on an unstoppable tide of hurt feelings and female ire. He wanted to explain, to excuse, to argue on his own behalf in mitigation, but more words would only give her more reasons not to go.

“You really do have to leave, Polonaise.” He said it as gently as he could. “I’m not asking.”

She studied him as she might peruse an anatomical drawing exercise. “Because you are the Marquess of Hesketh, and I am a lowly hired artisan. Your word here is law, and I am banished.”

She rose, not waiting for his reply, and when Gabriel came to his feet, he was reminded how wonderfully her body measured against his. If he took her in his arms, her crown would fit right under his chin. Her expression said he’d never again have that privilege, and though it cut deeply, that was for the best.

“As Marquess of Hesketh, you are bound by the contract that brought me here,” she said, stepping back and gazing across the room at a portrait of two handsome, dark-haired, green-eyed youths. “It is my first commission on English soil, my lord, and it will set the tone for the rest of my career. Aaron and Marjorie Wendover were chosen with care, for their pulchritude and for their social prominence. I will not step back from this assignment, not for any amount of damages, and certainly not because you’ve waved a lordly hand and willed it so. I’ll see you at dinner.”

She turned to go but stopped when he shot out a hand to encircle her wrist.

“At dinner,” he said, “we will be strangers.”

“Will we?”

“It has to be, Polonaise. For the well-being of all involved, we cannot have met prior to today.”

“Your family might not appreciate your larking away a couple of years in their backyard before assuming the title? Or did you already hold the title when you presented yourself to us at Three Springs as a poor land steward?”

“It’s… complicated, and delicate,” he said, not wanting to give her even that much.

“And you can explain these complications?” Her tone was imperious, but he saw the veiled plea in her brown eyes.

“I cannot. Not now.”

She glanced down at where he still held her wrist. “You can let me go, Gabriel. I’ll not betray your secrets over the fish course. Nor will I leave.”

He did let her go, appreciating the view of her retreat, even as he knew he’d just been poleaxed, blackmailed, and kicked into a ditch in the space of five minutes. This was what he deserved, in the peculiar coincidence of circumstances he found himself.

But then a rare smile lit his features, for he recalled that in those same five minutes he’d also, however fleetingly, been kissed.