John Seymour reined in his horse and searched amongst the trees for a glimpse of blond hair. Kitty was late.
A blanket of grey lay heavy across the afternoon sky, and a bolt of light flashed in the dark clouds. The heavenlies would soon burst with rain; where was she?
He nudged his horse closer to the towering oak tree and reached high into the hollow, dragging his gloved hand across rough bark. When he pulled his hand away empty, he frowned.
Nothing there. At least he could be certain she hadn’t arrived and left. He dropped the note he’d written her, imagining her delight upon finding it later.
A drop of rain fell through the heavy canopy of green summer leaves, and he brushed at his damp brow, again scanning the horizon for Kitty. If she didn’t arrive in the next five minutes, he would be forced to leave. His mother needed him.
The leaves rustled, dislodging more drops of water, and he turned.
Kitty rode toward him, a trim figure in soft pink with eyes that sparkled with merriment.
He watched for her groom to follow, but to no avail. Why was that not surprising?
He shook his head, trying to maintain a stern visage in the face of her high spirits. Her adoring smile made his heart soar. She was the one thing he could depend on. But he’d made a promise.
He dismounted then reached to lift her from the saddle. When she lighted on the ground, she wrapped her arms around his waist, and he smoothed the top of her head, which barely reached his chest. She smelled like lemon, and he liked the feel of her supple shape pressed against his. More than he should at her tender age.
“Did anyone see you come out?”
“I think Mother knows, but she understands how you need me right now.”
John groaned and stepped back from her. Five and ten, but still such a child, with a child’s simple outlook. “Kitty, if someone saw us together, you’d be ruined. Where is your groom?”
“That’s just silly. Everyone knows we’ll marry in a few months.” Her brows furrowed as she peered up at him. “Has your father’s condition improved today?”
“It’s worse. He sent for my uncle. I don’t know why. Perhaps he wished to say goodbye, though they’ve barely spoken in years.”
Thunder sounded, and he ducked out from under the canopy of leaves to scan the ominous dark clouds overhead. His mother had expected him over half an hour ago, and she’d fret if the storm hit before he reached Somerset. With his uncle due to arrive today, the last thing she needed was worry over John.
Apprehension clutched his stomach at the thought of his uncle. Why had his father sent for the man? His parents had never had anything good to say of him. It seemed an ill omen.
He walked back to Kitty. When she looked up at him, he rested his hand under her upturned chin. “I want you to return to Belfont now. I promised your father, and I waited far longer than I should. My mother…” His hand dropped away.
“What is it, John?”
“She has said all manner of strange things lately. I fear she will succumb with worry.” He frowned, staring into the dense woods, but seeing his mother’s troubled face.
“I am sure she will be better. I shall pray for you all.” Her hand reached up to cup his cheek.
“Thank you. Now you’d best ride back to the manor before you get caught in a downpour.”
He gave her a leg up on her horse then she leaned toward him with a mischievous grin. “Did you leave me a note?”
“Yes, you precocious chit. Now retrieve your missive and ride home.”
Kitty stretched to reach the hollow of the tree and pulled out the piece of folded paper. She waved it at him, and the sight of her worshipful eyes lightened the load in his heart.
“I shall see you tomorrow. I love you, John.”
At her youthful declaration, he shifted from one foot to the other. Why couldn’t she leave things as they were? He had no desire to hurt her, but she wasn’t going to leave until he responded. He could see the hope in her eyes. “I know, Kitty. I love you.”
It was enough. With a grateful smile that made him feel a miserly cuss, she rounded the immense oak. He watched the flash of pink until she disappeared through a forest of pine, then he mounted and rode for his own estate.
At least with his father ailing, there was no longer anyone to beat him for his tardiness. Yet neither could he leave his mother alone to receive his uncle. He dug his spurs into Renegade.
When he sighted the stone border to Somerset Park, he craned his neck toward Belfont and Kitty. His thoughts accompanied her as he and Renegade sailed over the fence. He envisioned her riding through the orchards, past the gardener’s cottage, and on to the stable. Likely, after dismounting, she’d throw the stable-master a saucy smile before running with her note across the courtyard into the house.
Fifteen minutes later, the drizzle turned into a deluge. When a rivulet of water ran down the back of his neck, he pulled his cape tighter. At least, Kitty had missed the hard rain. Their meeting place being a short ride from the Belfont manor. She probably sat curled before a crackling fire now, reading his missive.
The sight of warm, flickering lights in his bedroom window made him feel all the more soaked. He looked down and shivered. His cravat was a sodden mess dripping down his chest, and his shirt clung to his skin. He led Renegade to some dry hay in the stable and left him to the groom.
The old man bobbed his head. “Her Grace has been askin’ after you, lad. Best hurry to.”
“Is something the matter?”
“Yer uncle’s here. And he brought baggage to stay.”
So much for the hot bath. He’d have to change his clothes and go directly to the drawing room.
John nodded and hurried toward the side entrance of the house through puddles that sloshed mud on his Hessians. Grayson would have fits when he saw them.
Unwilling to track mud over the foyer, he ran up the servants’ stairs, tugging at his cravat. The limp linen tore in his hands, and he grimaced. Poor Grayson. His valet didn’t have an easy time keeping John properly attired.
The heat of the fire beckoned as John strode into the drawing room, running his hands through the damp strands of his hair.
“John! Where have you been?” His mother left the rose-colored settee, her elegant blue silk skirts pooling at her feet. “Your father’s brother is here.”
John bowed, scanning the room as he rose. Already a feeling of anxiety pervaded the atmosphere, leaving a chill, despite the fire that blazed in the corner. “Where is my uncle?”
He looked to his mother. She stood staring out the room, a picture of frail misery. Her pale, still features tugged at his heart. Perhaps he could shield her from the worst.
“With your father.” She glanced at the ceiling, as though able to see into his father’s bedchambers. “Probably plotting all sorts of misery for us. They have been shut up together the last two hours.”
“But I am here now, Teresa.”
The harsh male voice startled John, and he whirled to face the older man- a paler, shorter version of his father. But there was something more. Some weakness in the features.
“And who might this striking young man be? Surely not my nephew. You cannot have grown so.”
His oily tone made the hairs stand on John’s neck, but he made a sweeping bow. “Uncle, I am delighted to make your acquaintance.”
John studied Bartholomew. The lighter hair color made his uncle appear delicate, or was it his expression or the condition of his skin? He attempted to hide his disdain as he continued his observation. Everything about his uncle was limp and sagging. Dissipation had taken its hold. Though his father was older and desperately ill, he looked stronger than this man.
He extended his hand, wincing as the flaccid flesh of his uncle engulfed his own, entrapping him. Murky eyes considered him at length. “Nephew, you have grown into manhood. What bright blue eyes you have.”
The words dripped like icicles on John’s ears, and he shivered, wondering at their malevolence.
The duchess moved between them. “Lord Bartholomew, may I present my son, Baron John Seymour. It is good to have you here, Bartholomew. How long can you stay?”
His eyes narrowed. He smiled and seated himself without waiting for the duchess to sit or give him leave. “That is exactly what my dear brother and I discussed. He seems to think he will not last much longer.”
At his mother’s sharp gasp, John scowled at his uncle. “I think you have scarcely been here long enough to ascertain that. I ask you desist from mentioning it in front of my mother.”
Bartholomew rose and walked to the liquor cabinet, glowering as he poured himself a hefty glass of sherry. “Have you no whiskey…brandy?”
“We rarely drink hard liquor.”
“Well, your stores will have to be improved upon.” He gulped the contents of his glass and refilled it. “Now, as I was saying. Somerset feels he is not long for this world.” He held up a hand when John stepped forward. “Not my words, but his. He asked me to act as guardian of the estate until such time as young Seymour is capable or until he reaches his majority.”
His mother collapsed against a chair, and John rushed to take her hand. To his dismay, Bartholomew ignored the duchess’ speechless face and returned to his seat. Her vacant eyes stared into John’s face. “I cannot believe it. Why? Why would your father do such a thing?”
“I believe I have already explained that. By the way, Seymour, how old are you?”
“I am eight and ten. Mother and I have been running the estate alone for the six months past. We require no assistance.”
Bartholomew’s lips tilted at the edges. “You may have done famously in the past, but now that the entire inheritance will be available, you cannot expect your father to leave you in charge. Some unscrupulous person might seek to take advantage of your inexperience. Besides, it is unheard of to allow a boy of your tender years to take over an estate such as this.” He shook his head. “No, my boy. I have arrived just in time.”
John gripped his mother’s hand. Were they to be freed of one tyrant only to fall under the domination of another?
He studied his uncle further. Although his clothes resembled a Bond Street Beau’s, his wrinkled coat, mud-splattered breeches, and scuffed Hessians told a different story. His uncle had no proper man-servant to look after him. The garish ensemble, from the chartreuse and gold brocade waistcoat to the mustard-colored breeches, even mustard-colored boots, left a great deal to be desired for any man of distinction.
John schooled his features to hide his disapproval, perhaps without success.
Bartholomew glared down his nose before taking another drink then straightened to his full height. “If I am to believe your father, Seymour, you have caught a fair damsel as your betrothed.”
“The betrothal has been fixed since birth. Lady Katherine is a mere girl, still in the classroom. It will be some years before we wed.”
“A young girl, you say? I just adore children. We must have your darling for a visit. I am anxious to meet her.”
At his uncle’s suggestive leer, John started forward, heedless of his mother’s grasping fingers. If the man laid so much as one finger on his Kitty…
Before he could reach his uncle’s side, his mother’s voice caught him. “John! I do not think your uncle has considered the fact that Lady Katherine and her parents would find it most odd for us to entertain while your father lies in such dire straits. We will not even contemplate such a thing. Now, gentlemen, if you will excuse me.”
The duchess rose, a vision of grace and fortitude, her face calm, her bearing regal. She took John’s hand as she passed him. “Your father wished to see you before you retire.” She inclined her head to Bartholomew. “Lord Bartholomew, I believe the servants have provided everything you require. If there is anything further, do not hesitate to ring for it. Until tomorrow.”
He bowed. “Until tomorrow, Teresa.”
John followed his mother to the stairs that would take them to his father’s suite. “Mother, what–”
“Shhh, the servants. We will discuss this later. Right now, I want to see your father.”
His mother opened the door to the sickroom, and over her slight frame, John sighted the sleeping duke.
His nurse rose at the sight of them then bowed. “Your Grace…milord.”
The duchess rushed to the side of the bed and glanced down at her husband. “Has he been asleep long?”
“He seemed unsettled after his brother left and asked for a draught of laudanum. He is resting comfortably now.”
John joined his mother beside the bed. “We will have to wait until the morrow, Mother.”
He watched tears fill her eyes as she drew the coverlet closer to the duke’s shoulders. Her hand clinched, and John pulled at her arm.
“Yes, I am coming. Go take a hot bath, John. I am aware of your foray in the rain,” she said with a pointed look at his mud-stained boots. “Is Kitty well?”
“Yes, she sends her good wishes and prayers for you, Mother.”
“We need her prayers. She is a good girl.” She stared across the room a moment. “Now, go and attend your needs. I cannot have you sick as well.”
He bent to kiss her cheek. “All will be well.”
John reached his room without encountering his uncle or any of the servants. He tugged at the bellpull and collapsed in a chair, rubbing his eyes.
His uncle was far more odious than either of his parents had articulated. Why did the man appear to dislike him so? He couldn’t believe his father would consider allowing such a personage to stay.
The door opened, and Grayson stepped inside. “M’lord, are you ready for your bath water?”
The door opened and shut again, but he had only moments to wait before the valet returned and knelt on the floor to remove John’s boots then take his jacket and waistcoat. These he brushed before hanging. He stared at John’s Hessians with an air of disdain. “Tsk tsk. You’ve been wearing these boots riding again, milord.”
John looked up at him, distracted. Not that he owed the man an excuse, but Grayson had cared for him since he was a boy, had held John’s slender shoulders in comfort after his father’s abuses, and had even taken many of John’s punishments.
“What? Oh, yes. Sorry. I was in a hurry to get back for the meeting with my uncle and forgot to change before I met Lady Katherine.”
Grayson polished the boots, passing the small brush back and forth almost faster then John could see. “Now there’s a strange lord. He’s a bit high in the instep, but did you take a gander at the gentleman’s attire? If he’s got a valet, he’s a very slipshod fellow.”
Before John could reply, the hot water arrived, and Grayson busied himself with setting up John’s bath. He arranged the screen, set out a drying cloth, and left the sponge and soap in arm’s reach. “‘Tis ready, mi’lord.”
A half hour later, John glanced at his tall four-poster, so weary he resented the three small steps he had to mount to reach the bed. He stepped into the bed, thankful that Grayson had already pulled the heavy counterpane back and fluffed the pillows.
When he heard a great crash from the corridor, he jumped up and rushed out the door, heart racing. At the bottom of the staircase, his uncle lay sprawled with several servants attempting to lift him.
Grayson glanced up the stairs at John, shook his head in disgust then put an arm around Bartholomew’s neck and half-pulled the swaying man up the steps. They had to pause several times when Bartholomew’s unsteadiness almost pulled Grayson over the rails.
As they passed John’s door, the smell of rancid, liquored breath nearly overwhelmed him. He took a quick look at his uncle. It was a wonder the man survived such a fall without a mark on him.
John shut his door and retreated again to his bed. How he wished this day had never come.
The next morning, John barely noticed when the maid scraped ashes from the fireplace to start a fresh blaze. He ignored the sound, knowing there was some reason he didn’t wish to wake. He bundled further under the reassuring weight of the counterpane, but awareness refused to remain at bay.
He sat up and grimaced at the memory of his uncle spread-eagled at the foot of the stairs. How could such a man be related to him? To his father?
The door opened, and Grayson wandered through with a breakfast tray. John eyed the covered dish. He hadn’t called for breakfast.
“I’m sorry, your lordship. Your mother requests your presence in your father’s sickroom.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Nay, sir. His Grace has sent for his solicitor. I believe the duchess…”
John rose from the bed with alacrity, getting one foot caught in the counterpane and nearly tripping. “I understand. Remove the tray. I will dress now.” He paused. “My uncle?”
“Foxed, sir. Out like a dead man, he is.”
John slipped into his father’s bedchamber. The heavily curtained room sweltered with the heat of a fire, and the smell of sickness permeated the air. His usually vivacious father looked wan and shrunken in the huge four-poster.
Richard Seymour, Duke of Somerset, would never again raise the rod to John, but John felt no comfort in that. He had no wish for his father’s death, rather that his father might show that he cared for him or that he was at all proud of him.
His mother’s soft, plaintive voice struck him with concern. “Richard, I do realize you are not feeling well, but I wish you would listen to my reservations. From the impression I received of your brother…he hasn’t changed at all.”
His father took a labored breath then tried to speak. “Teresa, that is quite…”
John stepped forward and bowed. Even ill, the duke did not like to be crossed and would think of some just punishment for his mother if John didn’t divert his attention. “Mother…Father, how are you this morning?”
His mother reached for his hand. “Oh, John. Father is much the same, but…”
His father raised himself then suffered a fit of coughing. He held up his hand as if to command John to stay. When he gained control of his breathing, he patted the side of his bed. “Seymour, I’ve sent for Mr. Shaw.”
“Your solicitor? Might I inquire why?”
“Your father has decided that although we have managed the estates for the past six months quite admirably, we will be unable to do so if something were to happen to him.”
John started at his mother’s boldness and glanced at his father.
The duke shook his head, frowning. “I wouldn’t say admirably. And you have profited from my advice. While I am yet here, no one is bold enough to attempt fleecing you, but if anything happened to me…” He took a ragged breath. “I feel that having my brother here would prevent an unscrupulous trickster from moving in on you.”
“And who gave you the idea that we would be so put upon?”
John’s father pursed his lips and gestured for a glass of water. “I admit that I had not considered this prior to my brother’s visit…” He took a drink from the glass John handed him then let it rest against the bed. “But I feel his concern has merit. What say you, Seymour?”
“If I am to be perfectly frank, I must say I am thankful our acquaintance with Uncle Bartholomew has been curtailed. He became so disguised last night that he fell down the stairs and had to be carried to his bed.” His voice lowered as he thought of his uncle’s untoward comments about Kitty. “And he was…vile…in his concern for Kitty.”
The duke shot a swift glance at his wife, and John watched the water in the glass slosh dangerously close to the rim. “Lady Katherine was present at your introduction?”
The duchess shook her head, but John didn’t allow her to comment.
“No, Father, she wasn’t here, but Uncle made some very…suggestive remarks concerning her person.”
“Bartholomew is my brother. Although I do not approve of the life he has chosen, he has never done anything that would negatively affect the family concerns. Besides, I see no reason for Kitty to be in his presence without the protection of her parents. She is not likely to call without them.” He let out a harsh breath. “My mind is settled. Bartholomew will remain, if for nothing else, he is window dressing. There is a man in the house. My family will not be at risk.”
John opened his mouth to interrupt, but the duke held up his hand, shoving the glass of water at his wife. “Nothing else will change. You will still learn to manage the estates with the help of our steward, and when you turn one and twenty and reach your majority…you may ask your uncle to leave. After all, you will marry then.”
He could see his mother’s distress. The glass trembled at her side, and her mouth looked pinched, but she had never argued with his father. She rose, and John stood with her. “Your father is tired, John. You may see him later.”
The duke did appear to have little strength left. A white line encircled his lips, and his breathing sounded ragged, but his lips jerked in the semblance of a smile. “Yes, later.”
John bowed to his parents and turned for the door. He had to leave. He needed compassion. He needed Kitty, child that she was. She always lifted his spirits.
He strode to his room and rang for Grayson. While he waited, he changed into his riding clothes. He wanted no delays.
His valet entered the room and frowned. “Your lordship, what are you doing? I would have done that, sir.”
John was well aware that Grayson felt it was his right to see to John’s attire, but sometimes he felt it ridiculous for a grown man to wait for someone else to dress him. “Just help me with my riding boots, or I shall be forced to go out in my Hessians after you have brought them to such a shine.”
“Heaven forbid, sir. Will you be taking a bit of breakfast before you go out? Cook was overly put out that your tray came back untouched.”
“I feel if I put one morsel of food in my mouth, I will cast up my accounts and make a fool of myself.”
“I’ll just have Cook make up a little something for your ride.”
“Do not bother. I haven’t the time to wait. Lady Katherine will be expecting me. I shall take tea when I return.”
John spurred his horse until he neared the Belfont border. There was no sense in attracting the curiosity of the earl’s tenants. He slowed his pace and managed to smooth the lines on his face before he reached the meeting place.
Kitty was indeed waiting for him. With a gay wave, she pushed away from the tree where she leaned.
John felt a tight clutch in his midriff. She was still such a pretty, untouched girl. If something ugly happened to her…
“Good morning, Lady Katherine. And how are we today? That is a bonnie riding habit you are wearing.”
She preened under his admiration, turning first one way, then another in a pastel blue habit. “Do you like it? Mama said it brought out the blue of my eyes.”
He liked that she was too innocent for sly flirting and still spoke her mind in earnest. He put a finger to his chin to consider. “Let me see. Are your eyes blue?”
She frowned at him.
“Why, so they are,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“I don’t believe you. For you have told me many a time they are the color of a summer sky.”
“Right now, it would be more like a thundering sky.” When she raised her brow once again in annoyance, he relented. “I was only teasing, little one.”
They moved their horses out from under the trees and cantered to the meadow. John noted the groom trailing along behind. He was relieved to see she’d kept her promise.
When he’d reached his sixteenth year, the earl had decided that Kitty’s outings with John must be accompanied. A groom was his concession to the proprieties. Under the earl’s stern eye, John promised never to attempt to lose the chaperone.
Kitty had been harder to convince. She still thought it a great lark to go tearing across the countryside, her groom a distant memory. But John prevailed. No groom, no morning rides.
He took a sideways glance at Kitty. Someday, she would be a beautiful woman. He had to protect her. He smiled, unsure how to begin the conversation, but she provided the prime opportunity.
“Well…did your uncle visit? What do you think of him?”
He attempted to hide his face from her, glancing at the tall holly hedge on his left. She always perceived too much in his moods. “He arrived, yes. He is nothing like my father in appearance nor in appetite, I’m afraid.”
“In everything. But Father is pleased to see him. It probably would not be a good idea for you to come ’round for awhile. At least…not without your mother.”
“I believe we are soon to experience…changes.”
Kitty brought her mount to a standstill, and her eyes filled with tears. “Your father?”
“Father has asked for his solicitor to attend him. He thinks the end is near.”
“I am so sorry. My prayers for you will increase.”
“Thank you, Kitty.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief then dabbed at her face.
“It is selfish of me to expect you to come out every morning and attend me. I will ride alone with my groom.”
“No, Kitty, do not say so.” John frowned down at her, stuffing the damp bit of linen back in his pocket. Was there some underlying reason for her words? “You are a bright spot in my day. Besides, it clears my head to ride each morning. And if I were to go alone, I fear my thoughts would not be the best. You encourage me.”
“I’m glad.” She grinned at him with a challenging glint in her eye. “Then let us ride.”
She took off at a gallop, and he rode after her. As they raced along the wooded paths, John marveled at the maturity in her. In appearance, she resembled any girl of five and ten years, but in thought and speech, she always seemed able to converse with John as an adult.
No doubt, a result of her secluded upbringing. She was surrounded by adults, and saw very few young ladies. Which was a relief. The few times John had traveled to London and mixed with the ton, he had been appalled at the simpering young women and their calculating mamas.
At the end of their ride, they lingered at their meeting place. The massive oak tree was shelter from wind, rain, or sun, and the abundant foliage lent a shimmering green luminescence to their private world.
She tilted her head and offered him a coquettish glance.
He blinked several times then stared hard at her. That was a new look for his little Kitty.
“John, do you have a note for me?”
He hung his head, chagrined. With all the upset of his uncle’s arrival and his father’s unsettling news, he had forgotten. “Alas, Mistress Kitty, I fear I was overset with family cares. I have failed you sadly. Please, accept my apologies.”
“Very nicely done; you are forgiven. But there is some way you could make it up to me.”
“And pray, what is that, fair maiden?”
She tipped her head up, but let her lashes hide her eyes a moment longer, then she fluttered them open, gazing at John with undisguised longing. “You have never yet written me a love note. Do you not think I am old enough to receive a token of your affection?”
John’s mouth fell open. What was happening to his child-bride? Was she developing those alarming tendencies to flirt? She had no need of that with him. His affections and their betrothal were fixed. “I am what I am, Kitty. Just a simple landowner with nary a romantic thought.”
She pouted up at him, and he relented. There was power in that small female’s glances.
“But I will do my utmost to attend you, you winsome chit.”
“Such praise will go to my head. I must needs retreat to my room and contemplate your pledge.”
He shook his head, laughing then reached up to tweak her nose. “Until tomorrow. I shall not disappoint you.”