MAY 1913, ESSEX
“Being the last surviving member of one’s family does have its advantages,” said Eric Woodley, the twelfth Earl of Blackstone, to his friend Trevor Bailey as the men slowed their horses on the final approach to Clareford Manor. “There’s the succession to worry about—supposedly—but there’s nobody around to harangue one over the matter, either.”
The earl narrowed his eyes as he hopped off his bay gelding and surveyed the deep green expanse of lawn surrounding the ancestral home. The graceful house, built atop and around an ancient abbey, wore its centuries of accretion with aplomb, as if it had always perched atop this gentle slope. In the slanting late afternoon sun, the fading red-brick walls glowed.
“My God, I hate the country,” he said.
Bailey laughed. ‘It’s a beautiful house. A beautiful estate.”
“Yes, well, to each his own. The more pertinent question is will it do?”
“Judging by the number of creeks and estuaries we rode over, I’d say it’s perfect. He won’t be able to resist.”
Blackstone turned toward the stables. “Since we weren’t expected until tomorrow, there isn’t anyone here to meet us. I imagine we can scare up a groom, though.”
“You keep a groom even though you’re never here?”
“Good point. I don’t know if I keep a groom. But regardless, shouldn’t there at least be one retained for the party?”
Bailey shrugged. “It’s your party.”
“I’m fully capable of seeing to my horse myself. And yours, too, if need be. It’s something we aristocrats learn, even the devoted city-dwellers among us.”
Bailey rose to the bait. “I’ll have to take you up on that offer, then, won’t I? We commoners can’t be expected to know anything about the care of such fine specimens as these.” He slapped the withers of the black hunter he’d hired in Chelmsford, where they’d last changed horses. “Especially those of us in”—he paused for effect—“trade.”
Blackstone smirked and threw open a heavy oak door to reveal an empty but immaculate stable. “Hmm. I’m a little concerned the place is looking too well. You could eat a meal off this floor. And did you see the house back there? All pink and aglow like a chit on the marriage mart?”
“You’re overthinking this, Blackstone.”
“I’m supposed to be the impoverished peer. Drowning in debt, encumbered by all this bloody beautiful entailed land. It won’t do to look too rich.”
“Thankfully, you have me around to sully your reputation.”
Yes, he did have Bailey. The one person in the world he trusted. His friend had been busy overseeing his expanding empire, buying up mines, planning to open London’s most modern and luxurious hotel. But no matter how engaged Bailey was making money, he always made time when duty called. Ever loyal to the cause—and to the captain—he understood what was at stake.
“And,” Bailey added, “you look a fright.”
“Thank you very much, indeed.”
“Your hair is too long, and you appear not to have shaved in days.” Bailey’s gaze swept down to Blackstone’s dusty buckskin breeches. “In fact, I’d say you look exactly like a peer in need of a cash infusion.”
“Do I look like I’d be willing to commit treason to get it?”
Before Bailey could answer, a boy came running up. “My lord!” He bowed to Bailey, who shot Blackstone a triumphant grin. “You’re a day early.” The boy reached for the reins Bailey held. He threw Blackstone a passing glance. “I can take your horse, too, sir.”
Blackstone scanned his friend’s neat appearance. With his close-cropped ginger hair, a deep burgundy coat, and perfectly starched cravat, Bailey showed no signs of having endured a hard half-day ride. Clearing his throat, Blackstone said, “I am master of this house.”
The boy reddened and began to stammer an apology, but Blackstone cut him off. “Before you see to the horses, take my friend Mr. Bailey to the house and make his presence known to…” It seemed he had blocked out everything about this place. “What is the housekeeper’s name?”
“Mrs. Sheldon, my lord.”
“Yes.” He conjured the image of a reedy, unsmiling woman who’d seemed old, even when he was a boy. “I’m going to take a walk around the grounds.”
“Would you like company?” Bailey asked.
“No.” The single syllable came out sharper than intended. Blackstone knew the younger man worried about him, just as he always had on the peninsula. He closed his eyes and forced a softer, “Thank you, no.”
As always, he preferred to face his demons alone. Tossing aside topcoat and cravat—he would not meet anyone on this excursion—he strode across the manicured lawns. When they met the rougher expanse of meadowland that lay between the house and the farms, he didn’t bother looking for an already trodden path. Though it had been three years since he’d walked this land, the terrain was as familiar as his own skin, so often did it appear in his fragmented, late-night imaginings. Those unwelcome memories that shaded into dreams, wearing a groove in his soul—sometimes he wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t. Who’s to say they weren’t back to haunt him, to accuse him under cover of night? It was no less than he deserved.
Concentrating on the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, he strove to focus on something besides the roar of blood in his ears. He looked at the sky, having learned that anchoring himself in the physical sensations of the present was often the only way to move forward, to force himself to do what needed doing. An unbroken expanse of cloudless blue stretched as far as he could see, decorated only by the same sun that had painted the house in such a lovely light. Once he reached the crest of this last little hill, that unforgiving sun would glint off the lake, illuminating it utterly.
A few more steps, and he reached the apex. He had to squint to allow his eyes to adjust to the brilliant expanse of water. The bucolic scene was just as he’d expected. A small lake was bordered on the far side by a stand of birch trees and dotted in the shallows with lily pads. Birds sang, and a gentle breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle.
This is how demons work. Sometimes the hells they inhabited were dark and stormy, something out of a Gothic novel. Other times, hell was deceptively beautiful, aromatic, and bathed in sunlight.
The sound of something breaking the water’s surface drew his attention. A head emerged. Instinct kicked in, and he hit the ground. The open meadow abutting this side of the lake offered nowhere to hide. The head moved toward the dock. Could it be? No, that was lunacy.
Don’t be a fool. Alec is dead.
As if to illustrate the absurdity of his thoughts, the figure hoisted itself up the ladder in one sleek, fluid motion. The swimmer was tall, lithe—and female.
Unexpectedly, but most decidedly, female.
She wore only a chemise that clung to her slight curves like a second skin. A pale, elegant ankle drew his attention as she shook her leg, trying to dislodge a leaf that had stuck to her skin, bold emerald in stark relief against alabaster.
As she reached up to squeeze water out of hair that fell past her shoulders, the sodden linen of her chemise strained against her small breasts. She looked like she belonged in a painting, as if an Old Master had conjured her out of oil paints, but she, too vivacious to remain contained in two dimensions, had swum off the canvas and, inexplicably, into his lake.
Ogling a local servant or the daughter of one of his tenants was unseemly. But it was good to be reminded that he was a man. He had sublimated much, sacrificed everything. The cause was his mistress. It was gratifying, if bittersweet, to remember that this was what men did. They admired the local ladies. Maybe they even wooed them. How would that happen, exactly? Picnics, he imagined. Country dances. A kiss stolen beside a lake very like this one.
It was not a life he could have, but it was nice to pretend for a moment. He wrenched his gaze from the woman and forced himself to remember where he was. The lake.
Yes, hell could be disguised as a sun-drenched paradise.
And, it seemed, hell could even come complete with a golden angel.
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