“For God’s sake!” Gabriel exploded, momentarily mollified at seeing the quartet of wig-wearing fellows seated across from him jump. “Stop talking!”
“But Your Grace, this is all necess—”
Jabbing a finger at the one still making sounds, Gabriel stood, sending the ornate chair behind him over backward. “Stop talking,” he repeated. Once the man subsided, Gabriel turned to his one ally, seated in the far corner of the room. “Kelgrove, what do you make of all this claptrap?”
The sergeant cleared his throat. “It’s like walking through briars, but I make out that you’ve three estates, Major. Your Grace. The one in Devon, Langley Park, is being overseen by a Mr. Martin Graves, who’s a fine and honest fellow. The one in Cornwall, Hawthorne, is just as well taken care of, by a Mr. George Pointer, who’s also a fine and honest fellow.”
“And the third one, Sergeant?” Gabriel urged, grateful all over again for his aide-de-camp, who after eight years in his company practically knew his thoughts before he had them and who also stood ready to assist with thrashing foes as necessary. Today, Kelgrove was very close to deciding that events definitely called for some thrashing.
“That would be Lattimer Castle, Your Grace. Your seat, I believe they call it, being that you’re the Duke of Lattimer.”
Gabriel pinned the lead solicitor with his gaze. “You were the one charged with keeping my uncle’s affairs in order during his illness.” Never mind that referring to the late duke as his uncle still felt odd on his tongue, much less in his mind. These were his circumstances, and he would deal with them as they stood—doing anything else would be pointless, no matter what he preferred.
“I … Yes, I was, Your Grace. Lattimer, though, is—well, it’s in Scotland. In the Highlands.”
Evidently that one word explained everything, though Gabriel couldn’t see what difference it made. He knew Scottish soldiers, and they were damned fine warriors. “Yes, I saw it on the map, Mr. Blething. With the other estates you’ve told me the annual income, expenses, number of servants and livestock. You’ve said nothing about Lattimer, and have altered the subject every time I asked you about it. That makes me suspicious, and no amount of your prattling will make me forget it. The problem can’t merely be that it’s in the Highlands.”
The paper man exchanged a look with his fellows, and Gabriel mentally leaned forward. For the devil’s sake, he’d practically made a profession out of hearing all the words that went unsaid. Those carefully not-uttered words frequently ended up saving both his life and the lives of his men.
“I’m waiting,” he prompted after another moment of silence.
“Well, some of it is pure nonsense, of course.” Blething cleared his throat, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a bird trying to swallow a worm. “The Lattimer estate used to be known as MacKittrick Castle, up until about a hundred years ago. That was when King George—the first one—tired of the Earl of MacKittrick and his family’s very vocal Jacobite leanings. He had the patriarch hanged and handed the castle and property over to an ally he wished to promote. The first Duke of Lattimer.”
Gabriel waited for more, but that seemed to be the end of the story. “That’s well and good, but what makes it nonsense?”
Another of the paper men grimaced. “There’s a legend, or a rumor, that when MacKittrick stepped up onto the gallows, he cursed the newly minted Lattimer title and everything that went with it.”
“What’s the curse?” Gabriel asked, folding his arms over his chest. If it was something about contented soldiers being pulled away from their duties for no good reason other than to listen to scrawny men who refused to give straight answers about anything, it was time for a drink.
“It’s the nonsense of which I was speaking, Your Grace. The curse is merely an excuse for the steward to use every time something goes wrong.”
“Mr. Blething, the four of you have been throwing figures and papers at me for three days with the relentlessness of an invading army. In that time you have regaled me with every useless bit of inane information at your disposal.” Gabriel took a slow breath, trying to keep hold of his temper. “Tell me something useful.”
In all likelihood the Lattimer curse was a basketful of idiocy, but the reluctance of the solicitors to discuss it made it more interesting than anything else he’d heard since he’d left Spain, and far more intriguing than deciding whether to sell Ronald Leeds’s collection of rooster portraits or use them for target practice.
The second paper man found an old, stained piece of vellum. “Evidently while frothing at the mouth in either madness or fury, Malcolm MacKittrick declared that in English hands the land would turn to ruin, that any who allied with the English usurper would perish, and that the Lattimer line would fail.”
“Considering it took you and the Crown better than six months to find an heir for Ronald Leeds,” Kelgrove noted, “it seems like part of that might’ve come true.”
“Nonsense,” Blething stated again. It seemed to be the solicitor’s favorite word. That and “income.” “The new Duke of Lattimer is here. The line hasn’t ended.”
“The line took a ball through the arm the day your letter reached him.”
“What about the rest of it?” Gabriel asked, figuring Kelgrove had won that argument. “The ruined land and the dead allies?”
“I’m certain no one’s perished because of a curse, Your Grace.”
“You’re certain, are you? And the ruin?”
“Your Grace, you must understand that—”
“I understand that I’m beginning to lose my sense of humor.”
The solicitor grimaced. “It is a complicated matter. I have, over the past eight or nine months, since the duke’s—the former duke’s—illness, sent correspondence to Mr. Kieran Blackstock, Lattimer’s steward. The first four letters went unanswered. The fifth letter, which I couched in sterner language because of His Grace’s death, was returned to me five months ago. Inside, over my writing, I found scrawled the words ‘Threaten me again and you’ll find a dirk through your gizzard, English.’” He cleared his throat.
Ah, battle. Gabriel didn’t bother hiding his amusement. “Let’s see it.”
“You said the letter was returned five months ago. Show it to me.”
These men thought him an idiot best suited to shooting and punching, he knew, but they still did what he ordered them to do. Not out of respect or a sense of duty, but because he now controlled that flimsy thing known as purse strings. These paper men clung to those like a babe to its mother’s teat.
As the solicitor on the far left nodded at his fellows and then bent down to dig through a file of papers, Gabriel clenched his jaw. He knew all about paper men. Paper men far away from war decided how many deaths were an “acceptable” loss and whether ten or a dozen lead balls would be sufficient per soldier to win a battle. They saw numbers and profit, not sweat and death. Generally he stayed as far away from accountants and solicitors as he could manage, and now here four of them were bowing to him and employed by him—four being, he assumed, the correct number required to tell him what he now owned.
Finally the missive appeared. He grabbed it out of the paper man’s soft hand before any of them could decide he was incapable of reading all the words himself. The solicitor’s letter was of course many-syllabic and fairly threatening, with words like “legal action,” “required by law,” and “easily replaceable” sprinkled throughout. Crossways over the neat lines of words, and written in a large, bold script, sprawled the gizzard threat in heavy black ink.
“Kieran Blackstock, you said?” he commented, handing the letter over his shoulder to Kelgrove. A large part of him wished he’d made that same response when they’d sent the letter naming him a duke.
“Yes, Your Grace. A Scotsman, who inherited the position from his father, I believe.” Blething’s tone implied that the fellow’s employment hadn’t been his doing.
Gabriel stood. “Then we have our orders, don’t we, Sergeant?”
“That we do, Major. Your Grace.”
The paper men all scrambled to their feet. “I assure you, Your Grace, we have been overseeing the Lattimer finances for decades. This Blackstock barbarian will be replaced, as soon as we receive your approval, by someone more reasonable and duty-minded. We will have a report on the financial status of the estate by … by the end of the month.”
“I … No?”
“No,” Gabriel repeated. “You go on putting your numbers in columns and rows. Iwill see to Lattimer Castle, Mr. Blackstock, and to finding a replacement steward who better knows his duty. And it won’t take me a damned month.” He settled his officer’s shako over his head. “Good day, gentlemen.”
“But we haven’t yet settled on your monthly allowance, or where you wish to set up residence, the hiring of new staff—a valet, for goodness’ sake—or—”
“I’ve given you three days already. If you fling another figure at me, I will suffer an apoplexy. And then you’ll lose Lattimer and your income from it to the Crown, after all. Send whatever else you think I require today to the Regimental Tavern in Knightsbridge. I’m leaving for the Highlands in the morning. You know that address, I assume.”
“But as we told you three days ago, you have an estate here in London. Leeds H—”
“Leeds House. Yes, you did mention that. Several times. I’ll be at the Regimental.” Stuffing Blething’s letter and its response into his glove, he made for the door. Now that a path had revealed itself, not a damned thing was going to keep him in this tastefully appointed room for another bloody minute. He had a destination, a task, and from the numbers being flung at him by the paper men, the monetary means with which to accomplish it.
Kelgrove pulled open the door as he reached it, then followed him down the short hallway and out to the noisy, dirty streets of London. Gabriel collected Union Jack, then headed southwest toward Knightsbridge where he’d taken a room above the Regimental Tavern. Whatever title they’d thrown at him, he felt far more comfortable seeing it as words—endless words—on paper. If he walked into Leeds House in Mayfair, all this insanity became real. Aside from that, moving his two trunks there for one night would be pointless. That, at least, sounded completely plausible and not at all like he was worried he’d piss himself if he thought hard enough about what had been laid before his scuffed boots.
“So you have a grand home in Mayfair and you don’t even want to gaze upon it before you leave London?” the sergeant asked, interrupting his mental calisthenics.
With a sigh, Gabriel slowed Jack to a walk. “I’m hoping it’ll go away. Along with all the solicitors, the estates, and the ache in my skull.”
“No disrespect, but I imagine there are multitudes all around us at this moment who would give a limb for what you’ve had thrown at you, Your Grace.”
And they could have it. Unfortunately, it remained his cross to bear. “So I sound ungrateful,” he said, guiding his bay around a hay cart.
“Some would say so. Not me, of course.”
“I’m fairly certain you’re meant to be more respectful.”
The sergeant snorted. “You do recall when they assigned me to your service? You ordered me to always give you an honest opinion, because firstly doing otherwise could get one of us killed, and secondly any flattery was wasted because you had no rich relations who could reward my bootlicking. You are the rich relation now, Your Grace, but I’m assuming your previous orders still stand.”
After the sycophants of this morning, that seemed refreshing. “For God’s sake, yes. And ‘Major’ will do. I don’t intend to be ‘Your Graced’ enough to become accustomed to it.”
“I know you said you meant to return to duty after you have this mess straightened out, but…” Kelgrove said, then let the sentence trail off. “You should do as you wish, of course.”
“I’ve put a lifetime of sweat and blood into the army, Adam. I’m good at it. I’m too old and too stubborn to take on something this grand, and too plainspoken to want anything this frivolous. As you said, it was thrown at me. I should have ducked.”
“I’ll second that. As I am four-and-thirty and four years your senior, however, I’m willing to go a few rounds arguing that you’re old.”
Despite the quick change of subject, Gabriel heard the hesitation in his aide’s voice, and he damned well knew from whence it came. A duke in combat would be nearly unprecedented, at least in this century. But he would find a way. He couldn’t imagine any other alternative. “Damnation,” he muttered aloud. Every damned man who had a duke for a father should be obligated to marry and procreate well before he inherited, just to be certain the title had an heir. Otherwise, dirt-beneath-their-nails men like him found their own lives ruined for no damned bloody reason but that wealth needed an owner.
“Scotland, eh?” Kelgrove went on. “I’ve never been to Scotland. Been to India, Portugal, Spain, and bits of France, but not to Scotland.”
“I’ve never been, either,” Gabriel replied, lifting his gaze but unable to see the horizon for all the buildings. “A few weeks there, and I’ll have Lattimer Castle set right and a new steward put in place to oversee it.”
And then back to the Continent, the sooner the better. He’d asked for—and been given, with an absurd amount of ceremony—six weeks’ leave, which at least indicated that the army did want him back. Whatever plotting and planning his military superiors might be up to with regard to his new title, the thought of returning to Spain and the war was the only thing keeping him from pummeling everyone in his path and fleeing to the Colonies. At least they didn’t have dukes in America.
“Have you thought about what you’ll tell your sister?” Kelgrove asked, pitching a shilling to an orange girl and catching one of the fruits in return.
Devil take it. Gabriel drew Jack to an abrupt halt. He’d been sending half his salary to his sister since he’d joined the army at age seventeen. Nine years his junior, Marjorie had always seemed so … young, and far too delicate for a rough-hewn man like him to be raising. He’d seen her sent to the best boarding schools he could afford, because that had seemed far more helpful than his presence. That, though, was no excuse for not even thinking about her now. Neither was the unexpected timing of his trip to London. If his circumstances had altered, so had hers. And someone needed to tell her that.
According to the papers he’d spent the past three days signing, she’d just become the sister of a duke. At the least she needed to know that her monthly income would be increasing by a number he couldn’t even fathom.
“You wouldn’t happen to have her address to hand, would you?” he asked, wheeling to face his aide and refusing to admit that he had no idea where in London she resided.
“I would, Major. She’s in South Kensington.”
“Well, aren’t you efficient?” Gabriel returned dryly, trying to decide if that was censure he heard in Adam’s voice. If it was, he deserved it.
“I thought you might wish to send her a note and then call on her this evening. You haven’t seen her for some time.”
“No, I haven’t,” he agreed. “But we’re heading north in the morning. I’ll see her now, or I’ll have to send one of those paper men to talk to her until her ears bleed. I wouldn’t wish that on Bonaparte.” He blew out his breath. “I had Wellington tellme. I have a signet ring the size of a cannonball. Perhaps she’ll appreciate it more than I do.”
As they headed south toward the bank of the Thames the crowds of carts and pedestrians seemed endless, and his shoulders stiffened. Chaos and noise and bustle were nothing new, but in the army it carried with it an overall purpose and direction. On the main thoroughfares of London, with hundreds of people each concerned only with their own needs, chaos became a completely inadequate word.
Kelgrove indicated a small, narrow town house on the right, sharing common walls with the dwellings on either side. A rose trellis crawled up the left side of the door and up around the window, while a low hedge of some kind of pink flowers ran along the bottom of the walls on either side of the front trio of steps. “It looks … quaint,” he said, swinging down from Union Jack and somewhat surprised she could afford the rental of such a house with what he sent her, but she evidently spent wisely.
“It does,” the sergeant agreed. “Shall I wait for you?”
“Come with me. You’re more pleasant than I am.” Taking a deep breath, he swung the brass boar’s-head knocker against the dark green door. The French cavalry didn’t unsettle him. Talking to a young lady with whom he had nothing in common but a set of parents—that was something else entirely.
A moment later the door opened, and he found himself looking at an older, round woman with her hair tucked into a maid’s cap. “May I help you?” she asked, looking his red and white uniform up and down. “Sir?”
Marjorie had a maid? Gabriel cleared his throat. He needed to remember to be polite and civilized. This wasn’t a battlefield. “Is Miss Forrester in?”
The maid held out her hand, palm up. “Your card, sir, and I shall inquire.”
His card? “I don’t have a card.” If he did, he would only have to reprint it after today, anyway. “I’m Major Gabriel Forrester. Her brother.”
Her small eyes narrowed a little. “Wait here, then. I shall inquire, Major.” The door closed on his face.
“Rude woman,” Kelgrove commented from behind him. “She would have been falling all over herself if you’d told her you were the Duke of Lattimer.”
“But then Marjorie wouldn’t know who the devil was calling on her.” He didn’t give a damn what some maid thought of him in the meantime.
The door opened again. “This way, Major Forrester. Miss Forrester will be down in a moment.” Without waiting for a response the maid motioned him into the room directly off the foyer. Two chairs, a couch, and an end table sat in the center of the small, spare room, with a writing desk shoved against the near wall, a few shelves above it, and nearly every available space covered with bouquets of large, yellow daisies. Even with the fresh flowers, though, the room smelled musty, the closed-in sensation somehow made worse by the pervading scent of lemon verbena.
“This is very … cozy,” Kelgrove muttered under his breath. “Smells like a funeral, though.”
Gabriel nodded. The flowers, the scattering of books and baubles about the room, fit his nightmare of domesticity. None of it, though, felt like his memories of Marjorie. Had she changed that much? Or had he known her that little?
“Gabriel? Oh, good heavens, it is you!”
He faced the doorway. Marjorie was taller and slimmer at one-and-twenty than she’d been at seventeen, but that wasn’t what struck him first. Rather, it was the careful bun in her dark hair, the simple, modest gown of green muslin beneath a green and yellow pelisse, the straight shoulders and level, blue-eyed gaze—somewhere over the past four years since he’d last seen her she’d grown into a pretty, clear-eyed woman.
“You look very well, Ree,” he said, smiling as he walked forward to take both her hands in his. “And you’ve done nicely for yourself.” Gabriel kissed her on the cheek.
She freed her fingers, stepping into the small room and shutting the door behind her. “I’m glad to see you, but what are you doing here? I thought you were in Spain.”
“I was, until just under a fortnight ago.” He gestured at Kelgrove, standing before the window like a stout, red-coated paperweight. “Ree, my aide-de-camp, Sergeant Adam Kelgrove. Adam, my sister, Marjorie.”
“Ma’am,” Kelgrove responded, bowing.
“You brought your sergeant? Is this something official, then?” she asked, frowning.
“Yes, and no.” He scowled. Fighting was so much easier than polite conversation. “Kelgrove said I should have sent word first. I apologize for not doing so. The past handful of days have been … interesting.”
Marjorie put a hand on his forearm. “You never need to apologize for visiting me, Gabriel.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Perhaps for doing it so rarely, but not for the act itself.”
He inclined his head. She’d learned polish, and that was good. Manners and refinement were better weapons than a pistol in London Society. “To it, then. It seems we had a great-great-uncle. Ronald Leeds. The Duke of Lattimer.”
A small furrow appeared between her delicate brows and then vanished again. “I heard about him. He passed away, didn’t he? Five or six months ago. It was in the newspapers. They couldn’t find any heirs, and speculation was that the Crown would end up with the property.” She tilted her head. “Did you inherit something? Because you already send me more than you should, Gabriel. I don’t expect any more.”
“I did inherit something.” He pulled the signet ring from his pocket and handed it to her. “Actually, I inherited everything.”
Her fair cheeks paled as she stared at the absurdly large ruby in its heavy, ornate gold setting. “What? You— If this is a jest, it isn’t the least bit amusing.”
“It isn’t a jest. I had no idea, either. I’ve taken a leave from the army and just this morning finished three days of signing papers and answering questions about Mother and her family, to see if they matched answers they already had. It was ridiculous, but at the end they handed me that ring and a great deal more paperwork—and in essence the deeds to three estates, a large house here in London, and another one in Inverness. I need to go to Scotland to have a look at the Lattimer property, but I wanted to tell you that you won’t have to rely on my salary any longer, as…” Gabriel trailed off as his sister let out a sob and sank onto the couch, the ring clutched to her chest.
“It’s true?” she quavered, wiping at the stream of tears running down her cheeks. “Truly true?”
Gabriel frowned. Tears? For the devil’s sake, he didn’t know how to deal with tears. “It’s true. But what’s wrong? You’ve managed all this on your own,” he said, gesturing at the small house around them. “An increased income will only make keeping it up that much easier. And you’ll be able to have—”
“Keeping it up?” she repeated, glancing toward the door and lowering her voice. “Do you … Why would I want to keep up this moldy, outdated rabbit hole?”
“But Kelgrove said this was your address. Your house.”
The sergeant shifted. “I never said—”
“This isn’t my house. Haven’t you read any of my letters?”
“I haven’t received any letters from you in months. What are you talking about?”
She sank down on the arm of one of the chairs. “When I left boarding school, I found myself … I wanted to live in London, Gabriel. I’m an unmarried woman with … very limited resources, and so I had a choice. I could either work in a shop, or become a governess or a lady’s companion.” She took a short, unsteady breath. “Eight months ago I accepted a position here, as the companion to Lady Sarah Jeffers. It gives me a roof, and food, and a gentry address, but she smells like wet wool and cats, and I … I thought I would be here forever, and then move on to sit with the next old woman who needed to purchase a friend she could order to fluff pillows against her backside.”
For a long moment Gabriel looked at his sister. For the first time it occurred to him that if for some reason he’d decided to leave the army, how limited his own choices would have been. He wasn’t fit for the priesthood, for damned certain, nor could he be a law clerk or—heaven forfend—a solicitior. For a young lady with good schooling and very limited income, the choices were even fewer. Why the devil had that never occurred to him before this moment? “I’m sorry,” he said aloud. “I didn’t—”
“I don’t blame you, Gabriel, for goodness’ sake,” she interrupted, wiping her eyes and standing again. “And I’m not complaining.”
Gabriel tilted his head. “You have every right to do so. Or rather, you did. Kelgrove, find some paper.”
The sergeant began digging through his pockets, until Marjorie directed him to the writing table. “Over there. Take what you want. If what you say is true, I can repay her for the pages, now.”
“I’m not lying to you, Ree. Not even I’m that cruel. Sergeant, write out the address of Leeds House in Mayfair, and then another note to Mr. Blething ordering him to give Marjorie whatever she requires.” He returned his attention to his sister. “I haven’t seen Leeds House, but I’ve been told it’s quite grand. It’s yours. Blething is the solicitor who’s been overseeing the Lattimer properties. He’ll see that you have a monthly income requisite with your … new status. Hire yourself a staff, or keep whoever’s there. No more cat dander or lemon verbena. Whatever else happens, I promise you that.”
This time she choked back a laugh, still mingled with tears. “Thank you, brother.”
When she flung her arms around his neck he patted her back, then extricated himself as quickly as he could. “I’ve done nothing. I am glad that one of us, at least, can benefit. As I said, I’m leaving for Scotland in the morning, but I will make an attempt to correspond with you more frequently from now on. And I will call on you before I return to the Continent.”
Before another torrent of tears or hugging could begin, he headed for the door. Battles were easy. Family was much more difficult.
“You’re much better suited for life in Mayfair than I am, Ree. Or rather, Lady Marjorie, now. Make good use of it.”
Before he could put his hand on the door handle she seized his fingers again. “You did the best you could by me, Gabriel. You don’t owe me anything. Least of all an apology.”
He squeezed her hand and then pulled free of her grip. Being grabbed, hung onto, constricted his movement, and even in a musty house it left him uneasy. “Yes, I think I do,” he returned, and cleared his throat. “If you like, I’ll leave Kelgrove here to help you remove your things from this mildewed house.” It should be him, he knew, but for the devil’s sake, he needed some air before he choked on the injustice of it all. Because he hadn’t put this right for her. That credit went entirely to luck, to a simple stroke of fate. And however little he needed it, however much he’d complained about it over the past days, to his sister this dukedom and what it represented made all the difference in the world. Damn him for not realizing that sooner.
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I shall relish doing this on my own.” She sketched a shallow curtsy. “Or perhaps I shall hire someone to assist me.” Unexpectedly she rose up onto her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek. “I hold you to your word, Gabriel. You will come see me before you return to your wars. And you will be careful in the meantime. Your Grace.” She chuckled. “My goodness. You’re a duke!”
With Kelgrove on his heels, Gabriel left the room, stepped around the nosy maid, and headed back out to the street. Yes, he had a title. And it was just as well that Marjorie could benefit from it, because he didn’t know how to do so. Not without losing who he was. A soldier who believed for a moment that he was entitled to something—safety, luxury, privilege—was a dead soldier.
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