Gavin’s grin disappeared, replaced by firm lips set in a determined line. His next words came out in a manner that brooked no rebuttal. “Once again, I’m fine, Alex. Thank you for your offer, but I assure you that there’s no need for it. Now, if you don’t mind…I have an important meeting for which I really shouldn’t be late.”
With a short bow he was gone, leaving Alex with the distinct impression that she’d been summarily dismissed. And Alexandra Stafford did not like being dismissed.
He took a long drink of scotch and leaned back in his chair, staring into the distance. To an unsuspecting onlooker, the paper held carelessly in his hand would appear forgotten and unimportant. The exact opposite was true.
Scrawled across the parchment were two lines of text.
Young Blackmoor is out of mourning.
Find out what he knows.
His mind was swirling with possibilities, turning over the various next steps that lay before him. While the young earl had been prepared for his new station since birth, it was guaranteed that he hadn’t expected to assume it so abruptly or so early in life. The odds that he’d been apprised of any information by his father were slim, but even slim odds left too much of a possibility for discovery. He could not risk discovery.
As it was, the death of the elder earl had set his French associates on edge. They had been very angry about his actions, and he’d had to work tirelessly to prove that he was a worthwhile partner. It continued to cost him dearly as he struggled to regain their trust.
He swore harshly under his breath. His first thought was to do away with the new earl altogether, but he recognized that this would bring investigation and suspicion down upon them all, especially if there was information hidden somewhere in Blackmoor House. The dead earl had been loathsome but never stupid. Whatever he had known, he would have documented. If that documentation were found, they would all be in danger.
To date, he had told his partners that he did not believe them in danger of discovery, but they were beginning to doubt him. He could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. He had to tread lightly. The only way to ensure his safety was to do as they commanded.
He must discover exactly how much the earl’s brat knew about his father’s life—and his father’s death.
“Bloody fantastic that you’ve got this entire house to yourself, Blackmoor.” Christopher Stafford leaned on his billiard cue and looked across the table. “Who needs a men’s club when your closest friend has a place like this right next door?”
The new Earl of Blackmoor glanced around the room, taking in the rich oak paneling, the deep green of the billiard table, and the weathered leather chairs that established this room squarely in the domain of men. He’d inherited the room and the London townhouse along with his title but found little pleasure in the knowledge that he was the master of it. Before he could reply, a crack from the table signaled a successful shot. Nicholas, the middle Stafford son, straightened from sinking a ball in the side pocket and addressed his younger, less tactful brother. “Christ, Kit. It’s not as though he won it in a game of chance. Have some care.”
Kit’s face flushed as he turned a chagrined expression on Blackmoor. “Sorry, old chap. I didn’t mean to suggest…”
Blackmoor saved his friend from having to finish his apology, with a dry interruption. “No harm done, Kit—you’ve never been the most tactful in the family. I expect such from you periodically.”
William chuckled at his brother’s expense. “I’m just happy that he’s skilled with numbers—gives him something to do besides talk himself into a corner. Do you have any port in this house?” The future Duke of Worthington redirected the conversation artfully, the way he had been trained to do since birth, easing the situation for both his friend and his brother.
Blackmoor gave a last glance at the billiard table, recognizing that Will was poised to win as usual, and turned toward a section of bookshelf. “Port is a capital idea. Right this way, gentlemen.” Throwing a hidden switch, the Earl swung a section of wall back, revealing the room that had been the seat of the male Blackmoor line for generations. The study was enormous, occupying a rear corner of the townhouse, boasting two full walls of floor-to-ceiling windows that framed luxurious views of the property’s perfectly manicured side and rear gardens.
As Nick and Kit burst into the room, Will and Gavin stopped just inside the door to the study. Turning a knowing look on his old friend, Will said quietly, “It just doesn’t feel right, does it?”
Blackmoor’s expression shuttered. “No. Although I haven’t much choice but to adjust to it.” He followed the younger Staffords into the study, his gaze falling on the enormous mahogany desk and the man seated behind it—who immediately stood and began organizing the papers he was reading.
“Uncle Lucian.” Blackmoor looked in his direction and waved an arm indicating the others in the room. “I don’t believe you have formally met my friends. May I introduce William Stafford, Marquess of Weston; Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Farrow; and Christopher Stafford, Baron Baxter? Gentlemen, my uncle, Captain Lucian Sewell.”
In turn, the young men stepped forward to shake hands with the captain, who, seemingly eager to escape them, greeted them each with a quick “my lord,” and addressed his nephew curtly. “I will leave the four of you in peace, Blackmoor. Shall we speak tomorrow about my discoveries relating to the estate?”
“Certainly, Uncle. Tomorrow it is.” Blackmoor offered his uncle a warm smile. “Good evening. And thank you.”
“Of course. Until tomorrow.” And with a short bow to the Stafford boys, the older man took his leave.
Kit took a seat in a soft leather chair. “So that was Uncle Lucian? He seems rather solemn.”
Blackmoor moved toward the sideboard to pour several glasses of port. “He’s a quiet sort. My father always said he was proof that still waters run deep. Apparently, they were never very close while they were boys, but Lucian rushed to be with us as soon as he received word of…what happened.”
Will nodded solemnly. “No matter the differences between them, brothers are brothers. I would have expected nothing less.”
Blackmoor crossed the room and handed his friend a glass. “That sentiment was never more true than three months ago. It was a remarkable show of familial loyalty. At the time, I was quite surprised. I hadn’t seen Lucian more than a handful of times since I was a child. As a captain in the Navy, he’s been at sea and at war on the Continent during much of the past decade. I never would have expected him to drop everything and join us so quickly.”
He gazed into his glass, watching the amber liquid swirl inside the heavy crystal. Shaking himself out of his contemplation, he continued, “But he has been a remarkable boon, considering. Whatever I might think about his personality—for, in all honesty, he’s not the most engaging of characters—he has helped me a thousandfold in the past few months. As you know, I was less than ready to assume the duties of the earldom—it’s nice to have someone around who knows the trappings of the estate so well.”
Nick broke in. “Lucky, too. Considering he’s been at war. What happened that brought him home? Was he injured?”
Blackmoor shook his head. “To my knowledge, no. I was at Oxford when he returned, so I was not privy to the circumstances of his leaving his post. I know that he was a hero at the Battle of Lyngor. Will would know more about it than I would, I suspect.”
Nick asked, “Lyngor…wasn’t that in Denmark?”
Will nodded at his younger brother. “Well remembered. I’m afraid I don’t know much about your uncle at all, Blackmoor. I began my tenure at the War Office several months after that battle. What I do know is that Lyngor was particularly bloody and one-sided. The Danes were roundly defeated there and lost more than their fair share of men that day. They pulled out of the war immediately, leaving Napoleon with one less ally on the sea.”
“Unfortunately, that hasn’t seemed to stop Bonaparte from pressing on. It doesn’t seem like this war is ever going to end.” Kit spoke this time, referencing the French general’s recent escape from forced exile and the rekindling of the two-decade-long war. He shot a pointed look at his eldest brother.
“You know I’m prohibited from speaking about it, Kit. All I can say is that British troops are the best trained and British intelligence is top-notch. We have set Napoleon back once…we will do so again.”
“One might argue that Napoleon has bested us before, and he might do so again,” the ever-logical Kit pointed out—deliberately provoking his brother’s ire. “He’s already escaped from exile and overthrown King Louis, all while picking up troops and supporters from every corner of France. It seems we’re not doing an excellent job of ‘setting him back.’”
“If I didn’t know better…” William began, warning in his tone, but was interrupted by Nick, who, recognizing the beginning of a political argument that he’d heard hundreds of times before, quickly brought the conversation back to safe ground.
“Well, it appears that London society isn’t nearly as concerned with Napoleon or impending war as they should be. This season is shaping up to be more elaborate than any in recent memory. Judging by the number of invitations I have already received, the mothers are out in full force…husband hunting before the season even begins.” Leaning back in his chair, he looked up at the ceiling. “I, for one, am running out of excuses to avoid the odious events.”
Kit, following his brother’s deft change of conversation, said, “Mmmm. It doesn’t help that Alex is coming out this year. I’ve already given up the idea that I’ll be able to avoid Mother’s nagging.” His tone shifted from resigned to inspired. “I’ve got it! Let’s get Alex married off as quickly as possible. That will make it easier for all of us!”
Nick spoke with dry humor, “I’m not sure it would make it easier for Alex.”
Kit feigned disappointment. “Nor her husband, I suspect.”
“I don’t expect many men will be too thrilled at the prospect of courting Alex, to be honest, what with having us to contend with,” Will said, then added, “I confess, the only thing I am looking forward to is terrifying her potential suitors.”
Kit chuckled. “It’s an additional benefit that, in terrifying them, we shall infuriate her.”
The three laughed, each in turn realizing that Blackmoor was silent, lost in thought and removed from the conversation. One hand propped on the window sash, his view into the dark garden obscured by the candlelight reflected in the glass, the young earl was miles away from his friends, distanced from their world and their conversation.
As the laughter died away, the three brothers looked at each other, and William leaned forward in his chair, propping his elbows on his knees as he called his old friend’s name. “Blackmoor?” A quiet question, no response. “Blackmoor.” Firmer this time, still no response. “Gavin.” The given name sliced through the room and hit its target.
Blackmoor spun toward his friends, expression clouded and dark, with a curt “What is it?”
In the silence that followed, Nick rose and headed over to the sideboard to pour another glass of port. “You were worlds away from us.” He moved to the young earl, offering the glass. When Blackmoor took the drink, Nick folded his arms and leaned against the window sash, leveling his friend with a look. “‘What is it’ seems like something we should be asking, chap.”
Blackmoor swore silently under his breath and turned back toward the window. “Apologies. I seem to find myself with a great deal on my mind this evening. It makes me rather a rotten host, I’m afraid.”
“I was going to point that out myself, what with the remarkable billiard room and the exceptional port,” Kit spoke wryly from his seat across the room. “You’ll have to improve upon that if you’re going to have any success as an earl.”
In forced appreciation for his friend’s teasing, one side of Blackmoor’s mouth kicked up. “Well, that’s part of the problem, you see…I wasn’t supposed to become the earl just yet.”
Will leaned back in his chair and let out a long exhale. “No, you weren’t. It was insensitive of us not to recognize how difficult it must be for you to come to terms with all that has happened. We should apologize. Not you.”
The new earl looked at his friends and said, “No. You couldn’t have known that I received word this morning…” He paused, then plunged ahead. “The constable in Essex, along with several high-ranking members of the War Office, has concluded that my father’s death was accidental.” He stalked across the room to the desk, lifted a piece of paper from where it lay, and read aloud quickly and without emotion. “The earl was thrown by his horse, which, in the findings of this commission, most likely lost its footing in the rain. There is no indication of any foul play, and the commission finds that the death of Richard Sewell, sixth Earl of Blackmoor, was a tragic mistake borne sadly of inopportune time and location. The investigative team sends its sincere condolences to the late earl’s family, particularly the Dowager Countess and Earl of Blackmoor.”
Blackmoor’s movements were tightly controlled as he returned the letter to the desk. “That last Earl of Blackmoor, one assumes, is I.” He exhaled with what, in other circumstances, might have been described as the beginning of a laugh. “So that’s that, I gather.”