Pennhyll Castle, Cumbria, January 3, 1812
Captain Sebastian Alexander, late of His Majesty's Royal Navy, glared at his valet's reflection with eyes reputed to have frozen boiling water on the spot. To no avail. McNaught continued mixing another noxious remedy guaranteed to taste like poison. Sebastian turned on his chair and found the motion did not pain him as much as he expected. He ignored McNaught and his potion. "I am not mad, James," he said to the man beside him. A hound the color of a thunderhead raised its muzzle and sniffed the air. He stroked the dog's head.
"You are an Alexander." James did not look away from his collection of essays by Montaigne. "You are too practical for madness. Besides, you aren't old enough to fear your mind in danger of infirmity."
"I saw a sailor go mad once, and he not yet twenty." At rest, Sebastian's face marked him as a young man, barely thirty, a handsome man with blue eyes and hair just shy of black. Certainly, unquestionably, his eyes were blue. As bitterly cold as ice at dawn. From across a room, his eyes pierced with a rapier's thrust to the heart.
James gave him a look. "I'll warrant his madness was not from age."
"The ocean broke his mind. We were becalmed seven weeks on water smooth as glass."
"Your mind is sound, of that I am convinced."
"I'm not to be back at sea for weeks yet. What am I to do with myself until then?" He shuddered. The hound at his side rose, and Sebastian rested a hand on its sleek shoulder. "If I don't get another ship right away, I might be here even longer."
"Stop complaining. Brave naval captains such as yourself are always at the head of the list for ships."
"Jesus." He rubbed his face with both hands, disliking the way his mind whirled all out of order. "I am ancient, James."
"In my soul. Weary to the very core and adrift. Becalmed. I lack purpose." He drew in a breath, felt pain blossom at the peak of inhalation, and then slowly exhaled. "I want occupation, and I am too exhausted to find one."
"You are in the very prime of life, Sebastian." Which James said in a very deliberate and annoyed manner because the idea of Sebastian Alexander succumbing to weakness was ludicrous.
Sebastian eased back against his chair. "Listen to me." He made a face of self-disgust. "Complaining like an old woman. A man makes of his life what he can. He doesn't sit about bemoaning his fate. I'll have my ship if I have to get down on my knees and beg for it."
James sat straighter. "You are Tiern-Cope. The world comes begging to you, not the other way round." He gestured, a wave that took in everything. "Forget the sea. Pennhyll is your purpose. Your position in life is now your occupation. You oughtn't go back at all. Your duty lies here."
Sebastian sighed. "I never wanted this."
"I daresay a gentleman doesn't want half the duties that fall to him, but that does not absolve him of responsibility."
"Of that, I am painfully aware."
"Sebastian, you are not old, and you are certainly not mad."
"Not mad." He laughed softly. "Last night, I saw--" He pressed his lips together, then continued because he feared silence would break his mind the way a glassy sea broke that young sailor. "I dreamed a man stood at the foot of my bed."
James closed his book on an index finger. "What an appalling lack of imagination."
"I thought it was Andrew."
Andrew and his countess both gone and their killer not brought to justice. By the time the black-bordered letter caught up with him, his brother was nine months dead, on the very heels, it seemed, of the death of their father. And then he'd been wounded and given leave to recuperate and put his affairs and estate in order. Six weeks of his leave passed in a fog of pain. Nothing had been the same since he came to Pennhyll. Nothing. "Andrew is dead."
"Well, yes, of course he is. But this is Pennhyll, after all."
Sebastian almost let the subject drop right there. Except he couldn't. The mood of his dream clung to him like the scent of smoke on a man who went too near a fire. "Andrew never had eyes like that." He remembered the impact of staring into those eyes as if it had really happened. Blue eyes. Alexander eyes. Instead of the affable gleam so typical of his brother, eyes of keen appraisal. "Like ice in the morning."
"Is that all he did? Stand at the foot of your bed?"
Sebastian stared at the blanket on his lap. He did not like feeling ridiculous, and he was uncomfortably aware of the absurdity of implying a dream was more than a dream. Jesus, he must be mad. "He spoke."
"As if my life depended upon what he said." The hound rested its head on his lap. With an absent fondness, his fingers stroked the grey dome of the dog's head. Even at rest, there was about him the promise of action, as if he might at any moment leap to his feet.
"I could not hear him."
"Actually," James said, lowering his voice and leaning with one hand at the side of his mouth. "It's normal to have dreams. Lots of people have them. I had one myself last night. About a lusty widow who--"
"I saw him as clear and solid as I see you right now, and then he disappeared. I don't want that." Sebastian pushed away the glass proffered by his valet.
"Pennhyll, my dear Captain Alexander, is haunted--"
"Damn potions addle my brains."
McNaught's round cheeks drooped. "A new tonic, my Lord. Prepared--"
"Jesus! That smells like--" At his side, James's book snap closed. "Awful."
James shook his head. "I doubt you saw Andrew last night."
McNaught stared at the glass in his hands. "Wouldn't be proper medicine if it didn't, my Lord."
A smile flickered on James's face. "You saw not Andrew, but the fourth Lord Tiern-Cope."
"Sod off. Not you, McNaught."
"The Black Earl, dead these four hundred years and more, appears to the Lords Tiern-Cope to warn of impending doom."
"I mean it, James."
James's flint-grey eyes widened in mock horror. "It's plain why he appeared to you, Sebastian." He waved a hand and came perilously close to knocking aside McNaught's potion. "A fate worse than death itself awaits you."
"Not what I had in mind." James pretended to dodge a blow and McNaught, seeing his potion once more in danger of being dashed to the floor, clutched the glass to his chest. "My dear Captain," James said in a drawl that sent Sebastian to the very brink of irritation, "you are not mad. You saw the Black Earl last night--"
"--because your bride, the future countess of Tiern-Cope, is here. At Pennhyll. Or, more precisely, there." He pointed at the window before them.
"Where?" The glass-paned conservatory wall reflected his image, though faintly, as if this, too, had been depleted by injury. He saw a leaner man than he used to be, with a pale face below dark hair. Next to him, James's seated reflection held a book on his lap. A third figure showed in the glass, looming just behind. McNaught, of course, though for an instant his heart jumped unpleasantly. Some trick of optics made his servant appear quite tall. Nearly as tall as Sebastian himself. McNaught, however, stood no higher than Napoleon and a full foot short of his employer's height. Quite the trick of light for his rotund little servant to seem twice his height and half his weight.
Sebastian stared hard at the shadowed orbits of his eyes. Penetrating the reflected trio of invalid, friend and servant, he looked through himself. Outside himself. Thick hedge the height of a man's thighs marked the nearest garden limits and beyond that, lawns and more gardens. Instead of grey reflection, he saw filtered sunlight on a winter's palette. A freshly swept flagstone path led up-slope to a lawn twenty yards distant where, through the gap in the border, he could see people strolling or lounging on chairs. In the sizeable area of lawn cleared of snow, two women played tennis, watched by several men intent on the contestants.
James re-opened his book. "You were sleeping when they got here." He shot a glance behind them. "McNaught, bless him, as much as told me it'd be my life if I disturbed your rest. Besides, I'm certain I mentioned she'd be here any day."
"Fourteen. Sixteen counting the two of us."
"You said a few." He didn't even try to keep the peevishness from his voice. "Only a few guests." What he wanted was the comfort of a ship under his feet and failing that, one night without dreams that felt more real than the stones of Pennhyll Castle.
"Sixteen is a very good number for a country outing."
"It's a damn crowd."
"You oughtn't complain of me, Sebastian. I've got you four ripe country lasses to choose from, any one of whom would be thrilled out of her stockings to be the next chatelaine of Pennhyll."
"I do not want any guests at all." He had never been the most social of men. Now, he was realizing how much he'd come to enjoy solitude during his years at sea. As for Pennhyll and his title; he didn't want either.
"I don't want a wife."
"A problem, my dear Captain."
"I know I must." He snorted. "The earl must be married so he may start his nursery and ensure the succession."
"Special license at the ready, I trust."
He lifted a hand in a gesture of disinterest guaranteed to dash the hopes of feminine hearts. "All I need is a bride I don't want."
"What I want is to go back to sea. If I cannot have that, I want to be left alone. And if I cannot have that, then I want to be married without the bother of country outings, or parties or wooing or of pretending emotion I do not feel. And never will feel."
"Sebastian, Sebastian, Sebastian."
"I want a wife happy to leave me my solitude, who makes no demands for love or affection. Will one of those young ladies do that?" He pointed, then stared out the window. Imagining him in command of a ship, cool in crisis, took no effort whatever. "There are six young ladies, James. You said there were four."
"One of them is my sister. And though Diana is young, she's hardly a country lass."
"Which one is she?"
James looked out the window. "The one with the largest dowry."
Sebastian tried not to laugh but not hard enough to succeed. God save him, James did make him laugh, even when he didn't want to. The smile warmed his features and threatened to put life in his eyes.
"She's playing tennis. The brunette."
"Of the gentlemen, I've made sure you've no competition there. None are as rich as you are now, they haven't titles, and they're quite dull. I don't think even one of them has been to London in a decade or so the least. Good squires and yeomen all, I'm sure. And, aside from me, of course, none are as handsome as you, either. You ought to thank me."
"Why did you say there were four to choose from when there are six?"
"If you were a sailor, I'd have you keelhauled for your insolence." His father echoed in his voice, a fullness of confidence and arrogance. He'd never once thought he'd be the last of the Alexander men. Instead, the youngest of three sons, he'd embraced a career at sea and found that, like his father, he was born to command. He wanted that again, to return to the sea and to command, because then his life would be his own once more. Ever since he knew he would not die of his wound, if he reached for the man he used to be, he found nothing he recognized. The certainty of his life and his place in it had forever sunk beneath the waves, washed away in a tide of pain. He wanted his old self, his real self, back.
James's eyebrows arched. "The gentlemen have more polish than you. You're a bit rough about the edges, Sebastian. But--" James sounded altogether too cheerful "--that can't be helped."
Sebastian stared out the window. James's sister hit the ball smartly. Her opponent, patently a novice at the game, did not. A good many of the exchanges involved her picking up the ball and attempting to lob it over the net. She didn't make two in five shots, though with practice she no doubt would soon make a better account of herself. She moved with a vigor out of proportion to her ability. Her bonnet, a useless cap so far as he could see, flew off her head. Red hair. Not auburn or Titian or strawberry blonde, but hair of a deep and excessively blatant red.
Images from another of the wretched dreams that plagued him flashed into his head. A woman swooning or perhaps falling. Red hair, red as a copper kettle on fire. Sounds, too, he recalled with unpleasant clarity. A deafening, roar. Fear. A shrill cry. Pain. A woman's inconsolable sobs. Though quickly banished, the memories left an imprint, an echo of color and emotion that once come to mind, like the contents of Pandora's box once opened, could never again be locked safely away.
Another volley cannoned over the net. The red-haired woman ran backward, arm extended. A difficult shot under any circumstance, and one she nearly made. The ball caromed off the edge of her racquet like a grouse startled from a bush and winged down the snow-covered slope.
To his astonishment, the redhead threw back her head and laughed. Though he could hear nothing, her body moved with laughter; without restraint, full of exuberance and joy. James's sister, Diana, laughed, too. Hands on her hips, she watched the redhead start after the ball. Several of the watching gentlemen closed in on Diana. No one followed the redhead even though she was, to his mind, the more appealing of the two.
Sebastian shifted on the chair, but nothing eased his discomfort. His ribs hurt like the devil. And yet he wanted desperately to be up and about. Inactivity suited him in neither body nor temperament. Outside, the light turned, and he could once again see through the window. The redhead walked toward the hedges, sliding now and then on the snow-covered slope. Though not yet near enough to make out her features, for a small woman, which she was, her figure struck him as lively.
"Your sister's grown quite tall." He'd met James's sister-- half-sister, since they had only their mother in common --five years ago when he'd visited the Fitzalan estate in Middlesex. He'd been a third Lieutenant then, newly promoted. Andrew was there, too. The last time ever he saw his brother.
James glanced at the window. "Yes."
Sebastian remembered fetching her a glass of lemonade. Strange how he remembered that detail but hardly any about her appearance. Youth. Blushes. A plump figure. Blue eyes, he thought and, even at her age, an air of sophistication. He'd left the following morning for Falmouth and the Indian Ocean. If she was willing, why not? Marrying Diana would be an excellent solution to the problem of ending his single state.
By now, the redhead had come near enough that he could see she was older than he first thought, into her twenties, but with skin much suited to the winter skies of Cumbria. He'd been so long sailing the ocean-- twelve years in all and the last five without port in England --the change in feminine fashions astonished him. Yet, even he could see the redhead's clothes were not in style. No embroidered hems. No pelisse with puffy sleeves, no Brussel's lace. Just white muslin and an encircling ribbon several inches above her natural waist. And the insistent red of her hair, bright against the snow. She crouched, angling toward the window as she searched for the ball in the dense foliage of a low hedge. Her mouth moved in a triumphant shout. She rose, ball clutched in one hand. A breeze riffled her hair, blowing copper curls across her cheek.
To his surprise, his heart did an awkward turn in his chest at about the same time his body registered significant interest to the south. She was pretty. Very pretty. With a smile that made him want another. He watched the sway of her bottom as she dashed uphill to James's sister. Significant interest.
"Who is the redhead?"
"One of your guests, of course." James coughed into his hand. "Though," he said carefully, "not quite a country lass."
"The sixth," Sebastian said. "The one I am not to choose." The hound pushed its head forward beneath his fingers. Its eyes closed when Sebastian rubbed behind one ear.
"My Lord," said McNaught.
His valet's glass hovered inches from his face, floating like some ghostly apparition. He kicked the blanket off his lap in the hope McNaught would be distracted from his deuced potion. Pain licked up his side, a searing reminder that he was far from healed. Oh, he could hobble about well enough but anything truly energetic, blanket-kicking or pointless games of tennis, or, for that matter, embracing one's wife-to-be, remained out of the question. But he'd begun to think it possible to one day walk in his newly acquired garden instead of admiring the prospect from an invalid's chair.
James waved one lace-cuffed wrist. "Diana was London's reigning debutante this season past. Absolutely without mercy. Broke at least a dozen hearts. Probably more."
"Why isn't she married?" He meant the redhead, but the moment the question left his mouth, he knew James would misunderstand, and so he did.
"Saving herself for you."
Sebastian glanced at his friend, taking in the golden hair and angelically male features of James, viscount Fitzalan. "Now, why should she do that?"
"All the young ladies want to be your wife. Including Diana. God's truth, Sebastian, old man. You've no notion how celebrated you are in Society. Hero of the Indian Ocean. Pirates. Battles. Prize money. And that's without the title. With it, well. . . ."
He rolled his eyes. "You exaggerate. As usual."
"No. I don't. Diana, like every other young lady of society, spends hours imagining herself married to you. And probably dreams of you at night."
The truth was his recollection of Diana was faded and incomplete. Brown hair, light eyes and very little more. He remembered she was pretty. She must be if she'd broken the hearts of a dozen of London's most elite bachelors. Except, he needed a wife. Not a debutante. A sensible, capable woman. Not an orchid in need of fretting care. No, his wife must be content to live simply. If it came right down to it, he wanted a woman who wouldn't mind life on a ship and, at minimum, a woman who wouldn't resent long stretches alone while her husband sailed the seas. The familiar excitement for the waves and salt air failed to materialize. "I'm cold," he complained, staring at the blanket forlorn on the marble tiles.
"You can marry anyone, Sebastian. No one is out of your reach. But I'd be pleased," James said, "if you married Diana."
"Arrange it, then." His indifference ought to worry him, but it didn't. How had such a pretty woman as the redhead stayed unmarried at her age? Some abiding fault perhaps. A distemper of manner, or a horsey laugh. Or perhaps no sense of humor at all. Remembering her laughter, that seemed unlikely. Perhaps she was vain or haughty. He sighed. In fact, he would be quite satisfied if he were to wake up one morning and find a wife at his side, a ready-made helpmeet braced for a life in the country. He had no intention of living in London. Ever. "Get her to agree, and I'll marry her tomorrow."
"I've done what I can. She's at least amenable to the notion, for it seems that in addition to your reputation, you made quite an impression when you met her before. At the least, she already loves your naval record. Shouldn't be hard to convince her to marry you. Nothing could be easier, I expect."
"What about the redhead?" The sight of that flame-colored hair unsettled him, but he recalled with interest the nature of his response to his first sight of her. Significant interest, and that was encouraging for the improving state of his health. He'd been coddling his injury too long and as a result, let his resolve to action grow soft. For years he'd solved his own damn problems, and here he was letting James take over his life. Was she as passionate as that hair of hers? "Is she a Scot?"
James turned his head to look at him, his smile gone. "That's her, Sebastian." He lifted his palms in a defensive gesture. "From everything I've heard, it's a miracle she didn't die with your brother and his wife."
Sebastian absorbed James's revelation with typical self-possession. "I'm surprised she came."
His grin reappeared. "You are the leading citizen of Far Caister, Sebastian, in need of a spare for your dinner table. When Diana arrived without her companion, her most bosom friend whose name escapes me just now, I took it upon myself to importune the vicar for help. By merest chance, her name came up, and she was soon convinced to remedy our predicament of numbers. She could not refuse. Your patronage might do her a world of good. Besides, by reputation at least, she is a lady of breeding, I assure you. Impoverished. But a lady."
"Not what I expected."
"No family to speak of. Next thing to an orphan. Mother's an invalid, so I'm told." James waved a hand. "The proprieties are satisfied, the numbers once again even. Our spare is tolerably attractive, more than tolerably intelligent and quite enough on the shelf not to upset the other young ladies. Her reputation is nearly unassailable." His white-toothed grin reappeared. "And you are free to question her to your heart's content. For all the good it may do you."
Through the windowpane, Sebastian scowled. "The spare."
"Like you, in a manner of speaking."
"God-awful hair." But he saw himself with his hands buried in curls free from pins and cascading over her shoulders.
"There," James said, "you are much mistaken." His half-lidded glance swept the window. "Wonderful exuberance." Sebastian shot him a glance because he heard something in his friend's tone. "Wonderful." James's voice dropped a notch and turned into a whisper, a sound of endearments exchanged in a darkened room. "I do fancy her."
McNaught cleared his throat. "My Lord." The potion inched downward.
He could now see McNaught's fingertips, ending the illusion the glass had been floating in the air. "Oh, all right." He grasped the tumbler and tossed down the contents. Took it like a man, he did. Peppermint, he thought. Licorice. And a sharp aftertaste of some sort of patent remedy not quite strong enough to mask whatever ingredient gave off the faint smell of rotten eggs. Sulfur? Shuddering, he held out the empty glass. It vanished from sight. "The spare."
"Yes. The spare."
"Twenty-four years old." In all the times Sebastian had thought or read about his brother's death, the lone survivor of the tragedy had never been more than an abstraction to him. A name in the official records, without face or character, no existence outside her having been at Pennhyll. Now that he saw her, the reality jolted him. "Never married. Daughter of Sir Roger Willow, deceased." Miss Olivia Willow, formerly a governess for Admiral Bunker, found near death at Pennhyll Castle with the bodies of Andrew, earl of Tiern-Cope, and his wife Guenevere. The earl and countess each dead of a bullet wound. In the coroner's opinion, they had died quickly. A crack shot, their murderer. Miss Willow, too, had been shot, but in her case, the bullet went a hair to the right and spared her the fate of his brother and his wife. Unfortunately, she remembered nothing of the night in question. The conclusion of the inquiry was that Miss Willow had surprised the culprit during the commission of his crime and as a result sustained near fatal injury. Only the alarum raised by household staff saved her from death. No one doubted she would otherwise have been killed. The man responsible escaped into the night.
James glanced at McNaught. "A spinster, Sebastian, of advancing age with no male relatives looking out for her welfare and no dragon-eyed mama guarding her virtue. In short, a woman who will keep me entertained while we are here in the midst of all this frozen. . . vegetation. What is it? You look like someone's kicked your favorite hound." His face fell. "Don't tell me you fancy her, too. I saw her first, damn it all."
Sebastian stared at the windowed wall through which he could see the wild splash of red hair coming free of its pins. He didn't care how pretty she was or how lovely her smile. She was his best hope, likely his only hope, of discovering who killed his brother. He meant to have what was in her head, no matter the cost to him or to her. "As long as I get what I want from her, she's all yours, James."