Lieutenant Colonel Phineas Bromley didn’t expect paradise. True, after ten years spent fighting the French in Spain anywhere seemed an improvement, but as he crossed the bridge over the river Ouse and onto Quence Park land, he felt more as though he was stepping into hell.
His friends, former soldiers now, had written him over the past two years and told him a little about the condition of his family’s ancestral property, so he knew the fences would be in need of repair and the granary roof would leak. The estate, set in the middle of East Sussex, was still pretty enough, but he scarcely noticed the green of the grass or the crisp freshness of the air. Ten years away. The absence seemed both far too long and far too short.
The uneasiness that had been tangling through him since well before he’d rented the only available transportation in Uckland grew into a hard-edged dread. It wasn’t that he minded appearing on Quence’s doorstep in a hay cart. The problem was what lay beyond the door.
Phineas reached into his uniform jacket and touched his sister’s letter again. He’d memorized the correspondence from Elizabeth in the four days since he’d received it and taken an emergency leave from the First Royal Dragoons, but he continued to reread it, anyway. According to his younger sister, their oldest sibling William, the Viscount Quence, was seriously ill. Haste was all important, she’d said, if he wanted to arrive home before it was too late.
And so he put aside the thought of what he must look like, a crimson-coated army officer sitting behind an ancient gray nag in an ancient hay cart, and he hurried. And he put aside the way his breathing sped and his heart pounded as he trotted up the main road toward what had once been home. Whatever he felt at the moment didn’t matter. He hadn’t returned for his own sake. He’d done it because Elizabeth had written and asked him to do so. And at this point the only thing worse than setting eyes on his brother again would be arriving too late to do so.
White, with tall, narrow windows and the typical asymmetrical sprawl of a house expanded over several generations, Quence sat on a slight rise overlooking a pond and a large, landscaped garden complete with faux ruins and a moldering marble statue of Apollo. It had been a beautiful, half-wild place rampant with deer and foxes and, he’d been certain as a boy, a faerie giant or two.
For a moment he closed his eyes. Before he’d left, before the scandal, there’d been a princess there, too. Dark-eyed Alyse Donnelly. He hadn’t heard a word about her in years, but if her plans had gone as intended she would have married a prince or a duke by now. For a spritely young lady of fifteen, she’d had a very clear idea of her future. Phineas smiled as he remembered her, then shook it off again. He had the present to worry about.
Other than looking as though it needed a coat of paint and some pruning done in the garden, Quence Park looked exactly the same as it had the last time he’d set eyes on it – which was strange, because he didn’t feel at all the same. Except for the nagging guilt, of course. That had been his companion for the past ten years, and he imagined he would carry it with him to the grave. Now it sat like an old, not-quite-comfortable coat, loose enough to let him breathe, but tight enough that he had to make a conscious effort to do so.
He sent the cart up the curving road to the front of the mansion. A groom he didn’t recognize trotted out from the stable at his approach, and Phineas climbed down from the seat. “This needs to go back to the hostelry at Uckfield,” he said as the grizzled fellow took the bridle in one hand.
“Yes, sir,” the groom returned, sending him a curious look before he escorted the cart, with his trunk on the back, around the side of the house to the stable.
Wide, shallow granite steps, a griffin perched on either side, marked the front entry. Keeping his pace steady, Phineas topped them to pause on the pillar-edged portico. The front door opened.
“Hello, Digby,” he said to the ancient butler looking at him from behind a nose the shape of a hawk’s beak. Digby had been old ten years ago. Now it looked as though all of the color had been leached out of him, part of his metamorphosis into a stern, efficient statue.
The butler blinked his pale eyes. “Master Phineas? Good heavens! Come in, sir!”
No black armband, no black crinoline draped anywhere – Phineas let out a slow breath. The worst of his fears hadn’t come to pass. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t be in for it, or that he didn’t deserve every bit of bile hurled in his direction, but at least no one had died. “Are William and Elizabeth to home?” he asked, still reluctant to step through the front door. He’d lost that privilege, if not in their eyes, then in his own.
“They are in the dining room. I shall have a plate set for you, sir.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I...may not be staying.”
”You might go and tell them I’m here. Give them a moment before I barge in.” The butler nodded, but before he could do more than turn around, Phineas grabbed his arm. “Wait. On second thought, I’d best barge in.” Otherwise he might not have the chance to see them at all.
“As you wish, Master Phineas.”
Squaring his shoulders, Phineas strode through the front door. It felt more momentous than it undoubtedly looked, but his insides were rattling about so loudly that he wouldn’t have been able to hear anyone else’s opinion.
He still remembered precisely where the dining room lay down the long hallway, and he stopped outside the half open door. Inside low conversation touched his ears, enough that he could hear the voices but not the words being spoken. His younger sister and his older brother. The only family he had.
Just get it over with, he ordered himself. For God’s sake, he’d faced down cannon fire with less trepidation. Death, though, was likely easier than this. All that entailed was giving up. With a last shallow breath Phineas pushed open the door.
As he took in the five figures seated at the table and the three standing about serving dinner, he realized two things: One, William didn’t look even close to being on his deathbed, which meant Elizabeth had lied to him; and two, once he’d heard that they were sitting down to dinner he should have asked whether or not Lord Quence might be entertaining. Bad form for a soldier, and even worse for a prodigal son.
Considering the amount of time he’d had to compose a cunning, dry, witty, or cynical greeting upon his return, Phineas thought he probably could have done better. But seeing the man seated at the head of the table with a fork in his hand and color in his cheeks simply...stunned him. He felt thankful to have squeezed out that one coherent word.
The slender, ginger-haired young lady seated closest to him shot to her feet. “Phin!” she screamed. Almost before he could move she flung herself on him.
“Elizabeth,” he muttered, recognizing her only because of her resemblance to their late mother.
“I knew you’d come!”
“You asked me to.”
“Did she now?” The figure at the head of the table said quietly.
Phineas extracted himself from his younger sister’s embrace. “William. I–“
”I wrote and asked him to visit,” Elizabeth broke in, refusing to relinquish his hand. His younger sister had the strength of a Titan. “I didn’t tell you, because–“
”It’s no matter,” the viscount stated. His face had paled since Phin’s entrance, but no one could blame him for that. “Lord Donnelly, Mrs. Donnelly, Miss Donnelly, will you please excuse us for a moment?”
The light-haired man at the opposite end of the table nodded. “Of course, William. I believe we can entertain ourselves for a few moments.”
Another jolt went through Phineas. Miss Donnelly? Alyse? Before he could do more than glance in the direction of wide brown eyes and swept-back dark hair, the servant standing behind William pulled backward on the viscount’s chair, and the wheeled seat rolled away from the table. Abruptly his brother had every ounce of his attention again.
“The morning room, Andrews,” William said in the same cool voice he’d used a moment earlier.
Elizabeth practically dragged Phineas with her as she followed William and his wheeled chair. He looked at her again. Good God. Ginger curls, laughing hazel eyes – an attractive young woman no matter how he assessed her. And the last time he’d seen her, she’d been seven years old.
Andrews wheeled William close by the fireplace, then without being told left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him. For a moment Phineas considered fleeing behind the servant, but then he would never discover what the devil was afoot.
William gazed at him in the ensuing silence, then abruptly turned his attention to their sister. “Why did you ask him to visit?”
“Because it’s been ten years,” she replied, her chin high.
“She told me you were on your deathbed,” Phineas supplied.
“You wouldn’t have come home, otherwise.” She scowled, abruptly looking more like the child he remembered. “And don’t the two of you yell at me just to avoid talking to one another.”
Phineas narrowed his eyes. “If this is meant to be some sort of ill-conceived family reunion, I have duties elsewhere.”
“Ah,” his brother said, “you’re disappointed that I haven’t shuffled off the mortal coil, then.”
“No.” Phin scowled, then buried the expression again. “I was worried.”
“Don’t be. You’ll inherit eventually. I haven’t cut you off.”
That actually surprised him. Phineas took a breath. Approaching a battle from a position of weakness was something to which he wasn’t accustomed, and after a decade as a soldier that realization left him even more nettled than he would have been otherwise. “Shall I stay, then? Or do I go?”
“You stay,” Elizabeth stated, clutching his arm again.
He sent her another look, softening his gaze only when he saw her tense expression. She wasn’t the source of this trouble, however much he wished to blame her for bringing him back home now. “Why the devil would you write me that William was dying?” he grumbled. “I don’t appreciate being made to look like a fool.”
William raised a brow at that, but was wise enough not to comment. Elizabeth, though, dug her fingers hard into his sleeve. “I did it because you need to be here,” she stated.
Phineas searched her gaze, looking for any clue. He knew how to assess a man’s character in the briefest of moments, and it didn’t even take that long to see that she was worried. And not just about whether he would stay the night or not. “Care to elaborate?”
“I don’t think Beth and I are the ones who need to be answering questions, Phin.”
Phineas blew out his breath. Anger was easier, but as Elizabeth had said, it had been ten bloody years. “Look, William, I’ve been traveling for nearly a week. I’m tired. We can fence tomorrow, if you’d like, or I’ll leave tonight if you wish it. I was asked to come, and I came. That’s all I know.”
“I have a bit of skepticism regarding you doing as you’re asked,” his brother said in his low, quiet voice.
Abruptly Phineas felt as though he were seventeen again, facing a dressing-down from his then twenty-four-year-old brother. He pushed back against the sensation. He wasn’t that stupid boy any longer – though convincing his family would obviously take some doing.
Stating that he’d been through things his family couldn’t imagine wouldn’t serve; not when William sat in that chair. “All I can do to demonstrate that I’m not here out of any ill will is to leave again,” he said slowly. “As I said, I was worried. That is the sum total of my motivation.”
William faced him, hazel gaze to hazel gaze. “I don’t want the neighbors thinking we’ve turned away family,” he finally said. “I’ll have Digby set a plate for you, and you’ll sit down to dinner.”
Dinner. That stirred another thought – one that thankfully had nothing to do with guilt or suspicion. Of all the things he’d been prepared to face on his return to Quence, he hadn’t expected her. He nodded. “You said your guests were the Donnellys,” he ventured in an even voice. “Kin of the viscount?”
“His heir. The fellow, anyway. Richard, Viscount Donnelly. The older woman is his mother, Ernesta. You know the young lady, Alyse. She’s keeping Ernesta company.”
“Alyse,” he mused. “I haven’t seen her...in years.” He fumbled over the last bit, cursing himself. Distraction was a poor idea, but Alyse Donnelly had been his closest friend. Not that he would have called his affection for her brotherly.
“Yes, I would imagine she’s thinking the same thing about you,” his brother returned, clearly lacking the ability to read minds. “Beth, fetch Andrews for me, will you?” Phillip continued. “And tell Digby–“
”I shall.” Sending Phineas a glance that he couldn’t read, she hurried out of the room. Wisely she left the door open behind her.
“She’s nothing like I remember,” Phineas said.
“Be kind to her,” William commented as Andrews returned to the room. “She worships you. Don’t make her regret it.”
Phin remained where he was as his brother, propelled by Andrews, returned to the dining room. That had gone swimmingly. For the devil’s sake, the ball he’d taken in the arm had been less painful.
For as long as William indicated he should stay, though, he would. He owed his brother no less. The unkempt lands were sign enough that he’d let his guilt keep him away for far too long. But it was more than that. Elizabeth’s letter, the looks she’d kept sending him, the small tidbits of information he’d intentionally overlooked in her previous correspondence – he needed to be here. And he needed to figure out why.
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