The road stretched on like a line of corrupting filth in the pristine snow. Lord Ian Blake clutched the folds of his thick wool great coat against his frigid frame as he stared at it.
If he chose, he could simply keep on.
The coach had already left him at the edge of Carridan Hall a quarter of an hour past, but if he took to the mud and ice filled road, he would be in the village by dark and on the first mail back to London. Back to India.
Back to anywhere but here.
For perhaps the tenth time, he faced the untouched, wide drive that led up to the great house. Snow lay fluffed and cold, crystal pure upon the ground. It dragged the limbs of the finger-like branches towards the blanketed earth.
He drew in a long, icy breath and trudged forward, his booted feet crunching as he went.
Eva hated him.
Hated him enough to not return his letters. Not even the letter begging her forgiveness at her husband’s death. But then again, he had failed her. He had promised her that he wouldn’t let Hamilton’s death occur in India. But he had and worse. He’d been a part of it.
Now, he would go before his friend’s widow, the woman he had held in his heart and been too foolish to realize it. To make amends for his failures he would do whatever she might command. His soul ached for the ease she might give him. For even though he walked up the drive following the curve to the spot where the trees suddenly stopped and the towering four storied Palladian mansion loomed, he didn’t walk alone.
The unrelenting memory of Hamilton’s brutal death was with him.
He paused before the intimidating limestone edifice that had been built by Hamilton’s grandfather. The windows, even under the gray, pregnant sky, heavy with unshed snow, glistened like diamonds, beckoning him to his boyhood home.
The very thought of standing before her filled him with dread, but he kept his pace swift and steady. Each step merely a continuation on the long journey he’d set upon months ago.
Even though the cold bit through his thick garments and whipped against his dark hair, sweat slipped down his back.
Winter silence pounded in his ears, blending with his boot steps as he mounted the brushed steps before the house.
As he raised his hand to knock, the door swung open and Charles, his black suit pressed to perfection, stood in the frame.
That now greatly wrinkled face slackened with shock. “Master Ian.” He paused. “Pardon. Of course, I mean my lord.”
Ian felt his gut twist. It had been years since he had seen the man who had castigated him, Hamilton, and Eva time and again for tracking mud from the lake upon the vast marble floors of the house. “Hello, Charles.”
The butler continued to linger in the doorway, his soft brown eyes wide, his usually unreadable face perfectly astonished.
Ian smiled tightly. “Might I be allowed entrance?”
Charles jerked to attention and instantly backed away from the door. “I am so sorry, my lord. Do forgive me. It has been--”
Ian nodded and stepped into the massive foyer, shaking the wisps of snow from his person. He had left over five years ago for India and Hamilton had followed him there three years later. This time, Hamilton would not join him. “I should have informed you of my return.”
As the door closed behind them, it seemed to close in on his heart, filling his chest with a leaden weight. Not even the beauty of the soft blue and gold leafed walls of his childhood home could alleviate it.
Charles reached out for his coat and took the wet mass into his white gloved hands. “It is so good to see you, my lord.”
The words hung between them. The words that said it would have been preferable if he had not returned alone.
He pulled off his top hat and passed it to the butler. “I should like to speak to Lady Carin.”
Charles’s mouth opened slightly as he maneuvered the coat into one hand and stretched out the other to take the last item. “But. . .”
Ian glanced about as if she might suddenly appear out of one of the maze like hallways. “Is she not in residence?”
Charles’s gaze darted to the broad and ornately carved stairs and then back. “Perhaps you should speak to his lordship.”
Ian shook his head, a laugh upon his lips, but something stopped him. “His lordship? Adam is but three. Does he rule the house?”
A sheen cooled Charles’s eyes. “Master Adam has passed, my lord,” he said, his voice barely audible in the vast room of silk walls and marble floor.
“Passed?” Ian echoed, his own voice bouncing off the walls, chilling him.
“Was not Lord Thomas’s letter delivered to you in India?”
The world spun with more force than his ship had done rounding the Cape of Good Hope. “No. No, it was never delivered.”
He had never met the boy. Nor had Hamilton. They had both only heard tales of him from Eva’s detailed and delightful letters. In his mind, Ian had always imagined the child to be an exact replica of Eva. Only. . . he was gone. He shifted on his booted feet, trying to fathom this new information. “What happened? I don’t understand.”
Charles drew in a long breath and stared at Ian for a drawn out moment then quickly jerked his gaze away. “I shall leave it to Lord Thomas to inform you.”
What the devil was going on? Charles had never avoided his eyes in all the years he’d known him and now. . . ‘Twas as if the old man was ashamed or fearful. “Then take me to him at once.”
Charles nodded, his head bobbing up and down with renewed humbleness. “Of course.”
They spoke no more as they turned to the winding staircase that twisted and split into two wings like a double-headed serpent.
They followed the wide set of stairs that led to the East wing. Their footsteps thudded against the red and blue woven runner. Ian blinked when they reached the hallway. Hideous red velvet wallpaper covered the walls and massive portraits and mirrors seemed to hang upon every surface.
It looked little like the house he had left. Gone were the cool colors, beautiful wallpapers of silk and gold or silver laced framed with stuccoed accents. Once, this house had been the height of beauty with airy hallways and bright colors. Now, dark, rich tones wrapped the house in moroseness. The elegant, honeyed oak had been ripped out and replaced by mahogany to match the red velvet wallpaper. This was the height of the day’s fashion. Or so it had seemed upon his return to England.
At last, they paused before the old lord’s office.
Charles knocked. Quickly, he opened the door, edged into the room, then shut the door behind himself. The panel was thick enough that the voices were muffled. But Ian didn’t miss the sharp silence that followed the announcement of his name.
The door opened and Charles announced, “Lord Blake, my lord.”
Ian strode into the space. As he entered, Charles made a swift retreat, shutting the door with a sharp thud.
Tension crackled in the room. It was so thick Ian was sure he could reach out and grab it if he chose.
Thomas sat behind a solid desk of walnut. His brown blond hair thinned out over his pale scalp and a light brushing of hair curled at his upper lip. His sunken green eyes watered as he stood. ‘Twas hard to believe the man was not even five and twenty.
Slowly, Thomas reached out his hand in offering, the crest of the Carin family on the gold ring displayed prominently on his finger.
Thomas was lord at last.
How Thomas must have longed for it these years in the shadows of the house, separate from everyone and everything, watching for any chance to betray his brother’s, Ian’s and Eva’s adventures to his father. Desperate for any sort of attention from the old lord.
But that was hardly charitable of Ian. Perhaps in the years since he had left, Thomas had improved. Perhaps he was no longer the jealous and often cruel boy he had been.
Ian doubted it.
Though every instinct told him to push away Thomas’s peace offering, a man never made an enemy out of a source of information. And right now, Thomas held all the information Ian needed. Such power was no doubt heady to someone like Thomas who had always been far behind in the competition for the old lord’s affections between himself, Hamilton, and his brother.
He forced himself to take Thomas’s hand. It was cold and limp. Thomas had not cared for sports or outdoor activities. But nor had he cared for studies. Even now, Ian was uncertain what it was that Thomas had ever enjoyed. Unless it had been the sickening fawning he had finally laid upon Hamilton and Ian at school in his attempts to mask his general disappointments in life.
“Ian, I am so glad you are returned.”
‘Twas a voice he hadn’t heard in years and the reedy, affected sound struck Ian as distinctly strange for such a man not yet of middle years. Had it always been so thoroughly unpleasant? Or had it slowly become thus?
“Thank you.” Ian pulled his hand back, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his coat. “I regret that I was unable to bring your brother.”
Thomas lowered his head, half-nodding, unable to quite hide the satisfaction that he had at last superseded his brother in something from his visage. “A true tragedy.”
“Indeed.” If you could reduce a man’s passing, his guts ruptured by a blade, to a mere word. Tragedy really just didn’t seem to express the horror of it.
Thomas eased himself into his leather wing backed chair.
Ian remained standing, taking in the crowded room, willing himself to accept this strange reality unfolding before him but he could not.
This room had once been Hamilton’s father’s. It had been simple, its green silk walls slightly reflective of the skittish English sun, encouraging study. Once, the room had been uncluttered allowing Hamilton, Ian, and Eva to play out mock battles with toy soldiers on the simply woven rugs from the East as the old man had read over the estate reports.
Now, every space was littered with round and square tables, lace and fringe covering them. Bric-a-brac filled their surfaces. It was a veritable explosion of trinkets. The chamber was choking him, and he suddenly knew what a tree surrounded by encroaching ivy must feel. He swung his gaze back to his cousin. “This family has known a great deal of tragedy, it would seem.”
Thomas’s fingers rested on the edge of his elaborately carved desk. “It has been a very bad few years for the Carins.”
A bad few years?
Ian arched a brow and glanced to the glaring windows. Snow fell slowly in heavy flakes. And even though a fire blazed in the hearth not ten feet away, the cold wouldn’t leave his bones. He wished he hadn’t given up his coat. But even he knew the cold he felt had little to do with the ice feathering over the glass panes. “Where is Lady Carin? I wish to speak with her.”
Thomas cleared his throat and shifted in his chair, the creak of leather piercing the silence.
Ian returned his gaze to Thomas. The man’s face creased into a series of lines. Still, Thomas said nothing. Ian waited, unrelenting as he gazed upon his cousin.
Thomas swallowed, fidgeting slightly, then waved a hand at the empty cushioned chairs just behind Ian. “Forgive me. Do sit.” Thomas stood and slowly made his way to a table standing near the fire. “Very rude of me. The shock of seeing you, you know.”
“I prefer to stand.”
“Certainly. A drink then?” Crystal decanters reflected the bare and dull light. Thomas’s shadow fell over the tray of libations and he quickly pulled the crystal stopper free of the brandy bottle and poured out two drinks.
Thomas cradled the two snifters then crossed over to Ian. His dark blue suit seemed to drink in the darkness of the late afternoon, making it appear black. “Here.”
Ian took the glass, fighting the desire to reach out and tug it away. “Thank you.” He tossed the contents of the drink back in one quick swallow, the taste of expensive brandy barely registering on his tongue. “Now, tell me the whereabouts of Lady Carin. I wish to see her.”
Thomas turned his back to him, facing the fire. “Seeing Lady Carin isn’t a possibility.”
“Bullocks,” the coarse word gritted past his teeth before he could stop himself.
Thomas’s shoulders tensed, his pale hair twitching against his perfectly starched collar. “No. It’s not.”
The bastard didn’t even have the guts to face him.
Ian gripped the glass in his hand, the intricate design cut into the crystal pressing deep into his skin. “Where the hell is she Thomas?”
Thomas whipped back to him, that damned ring winking in the winter’s gloom. “She’s not here. She’s--”
Ian tensed, hating the words he was about to utter. Hating that he had to even inquire. He had lost Eva once, to do so again would be beyond what he could bear. “Did she die?”
Thomas shook his head. “No, though it would have been better if she had.”
Ian slammed his glass down on Thomas’ desk. The crystal cracked, a nearly invisible line snaking the length of the snifter. “That is a damn despicable thing to say.”
Jumping, Thomas edged away. “You say that now, but if you had seen. . .”
Ian locked eyes with his cousin. “I haven’t traveled half way around the world to play this out with you.”
Thomas took a sip of his brandy then his mouth worked as if the words in his throat tasted of poison. “Eva is in a madhouse.” He took another quick sip of brandy, his shoulders hunching. “Or rather, an asylum.”