True to his word, Hannibal had one of the housemaids build up the fire, and when the porridge arrived, he had Berger set up a tray for Will where he sat curled up in Hannibal’s chair, snug beneath a lap blanket.
“Be sure you eat slowly,” Hannibal cautioned, shifting things around for him to easily reach. “And drink as much tea as you can hold, fluid will help with the ache. I’ll give you something stronger for the pain.”
“I can handle discomfort, Hannibal, in order to have my wits about me,” Will breathed.
“I insist on at least one dose for your head,” Hannibal said, busying himself preparing it, saying, “It will make you sleepy, but it will ease the pain and we will make sure you are well protected.”
He mixed the dose into a cup of tea and handed it to Will, watching him to ensure he drained the entire cup.
“Thank you,” Will said, feeling immediately better for it, well enough to become absurdly aware that he was in his husband’s suite wearing only Hannibal’s nightshirt, thick and bundled though it was. “You should have taken me to the Duchess suite.”
“I hadn’t realized,” Hannibal said, brows rising over his amber eyes. “I came here from habit. There is nothing improper in your being here, Will.”
He took the cup and poured another for Will and then some for himself. Berger bustled about unobtrusively, taking care of the damp sheet and going to tidy in the washroom. Hannibal could hear soft conversation as he spoke with Jimmy, both men exchanging information to make service run smoothly.
“Will, is there anything you can recall about your accidents that might help us discover who has done this?” Hannibal asked, sitting in the chair angled next to his, elbow on his knee and fervent eyes on his mate.
Will almost shook his head but caught himself, saying in a quiet murmur over the lip of his teacup, “Everything happened so quickly, I don’t have anything clear to grasp hold of. It was all… it was motion and light, more feeling than memory.”
Hannibal thought of Will sprawled at the foot of the stairs in his nightclothes, wounded and dazed. “A frightening experience,” he said, his voice a low purr of displeasure.
“I was too surprised to be frightened at first,” Will admitted.
“I would say you needn’t be frightened now,” Hannibal said, tucking the blanket up over Will’s hip just a little higher. “But I can tell you aren’t. Not anymore.”
“No, I’m not,” Will said, and huffed a soft laugh. “I am, however, incredibly annoyed.”
“Gods help us,” Hannibal murmured, and grinned when Will did.
The light from the fireplace picked up the seam of the wound on his cheek, still ruddy from irritation.
“I apologize for striking you, Hannibal,” Will said to him, studying the mark.
“Nonsense, you have nothing to apologize for,” Hannibal said. “Considering the circumstances, you were justified… Even without the circumstances, you were justified.”
Will gave Hannibal the steadiest stare he could manage in his state and said, “Justified, perhaps, but impulsive all the same. It must have pained you.”
“It certainly woke me to the situation quite nicely, Will,” Hannibal said, refusing to allow him to feel bad for it. “Speaking of which, I would greatly appreciate it if you could eat that porridge and tell me everything you can remember.”
They shared tea while Will ate and spoke of his fall, of what Matthew Brown had told him, of the letter that Francis had brought in to him and the details of his accident on the stairs. Hannibal asked questions that probed Will’s memory in ways that challenged him, pulling forward details his remarkable memory stored without his realizing it—scents, sounds, positions, environmental clues that might, when put together, form some piece of a larger puzzle.
“It is still a paltry sum,” Hannibal said after, filling Will’s teacup again, noting the way his lids drooped, the lines of pain easing around his firm, full mouth. “Yet I am better informed all the same. I will speak with Grandfather and tell him of everything that has happened so far. With the whole of Hartford House watching, it will be much more difficult for anyone to harm you.”
“Difficult,” Will said, wetting his lower lip as he put his teacup down, resenting the slight tremble of his hand. “But not impossible.”
“They shall have to get through me,” Hannibal warned. “And if that isn’t ruckus enough to put you on your guard, I’m not sure what would be.”
“It is troubling,” Will mused, frowning, and when he caught Hannibal’s raised eyebrow, he clarified, “My fall from the stairs, not your ruckus. They could not have known I would hear them or come out. It makes me wonder what their true purpose was.”
He subsided with a soft exhale, his blue eyes glassy as he fought the much-needed rest that threatened. Hannibal got to his feet, his smile soft as he tucked the blanket up higher around Will’s shoulders.
“We’ll pick it apart after you’ve had a chance to relax some. Meanwhile, I’ll go speak to Grandfather and make sure your sister is informed you’re recovering,” Hannibal murmured, pleased that Will smiled up at him, woozy and relaxed. “She’s probably wondering where you are by now.”
“I doubt that,” Will said, freeing one hand from the blanket to rub absently at the base of his skull where the pain had dwindled to a dull throb. “Mina has never risen before two, and always takes her first meal in bed.”
“I cannot imagine being in bed until such an hour,” Hannibal said, straightening.
“She is accustomed to late nights,” Will said, wiggling around in the chair to rest his head against the padded side. He closed his eyes and relaxed, yawning, only half aware of Hannibal reaching down to pet his hair. “I always imagined her at parties until dawn, dancing holes in her slippers and meeting exciting strangers.”
Hannibal smiled sadly, and asked, “Is that something you wished for, Will? Company? Dancing until dawn?”
“No, don’t be ridiculous,” Will said, perhaps a bit too quickly, a blush rising on his cheeks. He tossed his head, a slight resistance to the gentle touch that drifted to his nape, but went liquid beneath the firm squeeze that chased the last bit of ache from his skull. “That sort of life is… not for me.”
“I disagree,” Hannibal told him. “I think it would suit you.”
Will’s only response was a soft laugh, but he ducked his head to offer more of his nape, sighing when Hannibal obliged him.
“M’Lord, Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson are in the hall,” Berger said, pitching the words low so as not to disturb Will.
“Thank you, Berger. Did you tell Jimmy everything you heard here?” Hannibal asked, releasing Will’s nape with a final, lingering squeeze.
Berger nodded, mouth set in a fierce frown and looking impressively irate.
“Mark me, m’Lord, first one even dares raise a finger to him, Price and I will flatten him.”
“I trust that you will,” Hannibal told him, brows rising, reassured when he saw the soldier surface in his longtime valet. He cast a look back at Will as he headed towards the door, telling him, “I’ll be back shortly, Will. If anyone at all comes into this room, I want you to beat them senseless with that end table and ring every bell you can reach.”
Will roused himself from his half slumber, preparing to very sensibly argue that no killer was likely to risk being caught by coming into Hannibal’s suite after him, but when his eyes met Hannibal’s, the words somehow bottled up behind that tightness in his chest. Instead, he smiled despite himself and merely said, “I will, Hannibal.”
“Berger?” Hannibal called, and when his valet looked over at him, alert, he said, “You remain here until I return. No one comes in with the exception of myself and Mr. Price. Understood?”
Berger nodded, puffing up like a bullfrog in preparation to trounce anyone who threatened Will.
Satisfied that his mate was, for the moment, not directly in danger, Hannibal let himself out, pleased to find Mr. Hawkes in the hallway, as requested, with Mrs. Henderson in close attendance.
“Go lock Will’s suite for me, please,” he said, closing the door firmly behind him and waiting for the elderly housekeeper to do so. If anyone was going to come into his room after Will, they were going to do so through the door of his choosing, not go sneaking up behind him through their washroom.
“Is Grandfather still up?” Hannibal asked, knowing the elderly Duke took frequent naps due to his arthritis medications. He headed for the stairs with both Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson in close attendance, his agitation causing both of the longtime staff members to exchanged concerned, wary glances.
“Yes, my Lord, he is in his study,” Mr. Hawkes said. “His Grace is feeling rather better today.”
“Good,” Hannibal said, making short work of the stairs and striding down the hallway to his grandfather’s study. He rapped sharply on the door and, when Grandfather called entry, he said to them both, “Come with me.”
Uneasy and showing some slight alarm at the unusual request, Mr. Hawkes dutifully gestured Mrs. Henderson ahead of them and followed Hannibal within.
“Grandfather,” Hannibal said, his worry for Will channeling to impatient pacing. “I have no idea where to start and there is no way to soften this, so I will tell you all plainly—there have been two attempts to murder Will in the time since I’ve returned.”
“My Lord!” Mr. Hawkes said, aghast, and Mrs. Henderson gasped, her eyes widening with surprise.
Roland, old and wise in ways even Hannibal had no true knowledge of, paled to a frightening degree but absorbed the information, thoughts churning behind his amber eyes.
“Do you recall his accident?” Hannibal asked, pausing to face his grandfather, his hands on his hips and his shoulders tense.
“Of course I do,” Roland said, the softness of his voice no indication of his inner turmoil. “I was told the saddle had a defect.”
“Cut, grandfather,” Hannibal corrected him, including Mr. Hawkes in his uneasy gaze. “Someone tampered with his saddle, Will told me of it himself.”
“Why did he not tell us?” Roland asked. “Who on earth has done such a thing? Why would anyone do such a thing?”
“He did not tell us because he thought I was the one who cut it,” Hannibal said, ugly guilt filling him when he thought of how easy he had made it for Will to come to such a conclusion.
Roland stiffened in his chair, caught off guard and deeply disturbed, while Mrs. Henderson shook her head slowly with disbelief, struggling to make sense of it.
“Just as he thought I was the one who pushed him down the stairs,” Hannibal said.
“Pushed?” Mrs. Henderson gasped, utterly shocked. “He assured us he had fallen, my Lord!”
“He was attempting to protect himself, Mrs. Henderson,” Hannibal said, somber and grim. “He was, understandably, uncertain who he could trust. Knowing now that I was not the one to push him, he has confessed that he saw someone on the landing in the darkness and pursued them. That is when someone else came from behind him and shoved him down the stairs.”
“Why am I only hearing of this accident now?” Roland asked, concern sharpening his voice.
“It was only an accident as far as any of us knew, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, rubbing his hand over his face, frustrated with how powerless he felt. “I had no idea it was more until this morning. Will is concussed, Grandfather. When he went riding off to town this morning, it triggered his symptoms and he mistook my attempts to help him for another attempt on his life.”
Mr. Hawkes was at more of a loss than Hannibal had ever seen him in his life, and when he gestured for him to sit, Hawkes did so without argument, mutely accepting Mrs. Henderson’s hand on his shoulder.
“That is why he cut you with his crop,” Roland said, his hand trembling as he plucked his spectacles from his face.
“It pains me to see you so upset, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, calming somewhat as he ordered his thoughts. Just confessing to those he trusted most made him feel more in control of this ghastly situation. “But you, and the staff as well, need to know what danger he is in. Either instance could have resulted in great harm to him, if not killing him outright. I have no idea who has done this, or why, but I need your help solving this issue. That someone was able to gain access to this house unnoticed is concerning enough. Knowing they did so and harmed a member of this family is intolerable.”
“Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson will rally the staff,” Roland said, trembling hard. “If any one of them know anything at all, they will find it out, won’t you, Mr. Hawkes? I imagine the locks will be changed before nightfall?”
“You have my solemn promise, Your Grace,” Mr. Hawkes said.
“We will do everything in our power to protect the family, Your Grace,” Mrs. Henderson said, her trademark fortitude rising in the face of adversity.
Hannibal pinched the bridge of his nose, his cheek stinging where he’d stitched it. He was unable to shake the nervous tension that rose with every thought of the danger Will had faced alone, thinking he was friendless in the house that had been his home for over six years. The comfort he found in his mate’s company dissipated rapidly beneath the weight of his worries, leaving only a black hole of potential dangers.
“At least two people, Grandfather,” he breathed, dropping his hands to clench his fingers into fists. “At least two people were in this house!”
“Two people familiar enough with Hartford to find their way without lamplight, Your Grace,” Mr. Hawkes observed.
It was Mrs. Henderson who softly suggested, “Else one in where he shouldn’t be to see someone already here.”
Hannibal hadn’t had the heart to say such a thing in front of Will, but he, too, had considered it and knew it was only a matter of time before Will landed on that thought himself.
“Whoever they were, at least one of them recognized Will in the darkness and did not hesitate to push him,” Hannibal said, glowering. “He has theorized that their intention was not to murder him, Grandfather. It was an opportunity, but not the goal. Had that been their aim, they would have gone into his room after him.”
“Then what does he believe was their purpose here?” Roland asked, watching him.
Hannibal shook his head, feeling helpless and powerless and entirely frustrated. “We can only guess. But I will not play games with Will’s safety. The timing of this is altogether too convenient.”
“It would seem, my Lord, that there is an intention to discredit you,” Mrs. Henderson said, her eyes heavy with concern. “He was six years alone here, yet upon your return he has twice nearly died.”
“You make a tempting scapegoat for anyone who wishes to remove Will,” Roland said, gazing steadily at his grandson.
“But why would anyone wish to remove him is the question,” Hannibal said. “Unless he has instructions set aside elsewhere, his belongings would revert to me on his death. At the risk of sounding every bit the self-absorbed Alpha I am, I also cannot help but wonder if this is someone who merely wishes to paint me a murderer, with Will as my victim and his death incidental to their purpose.”
They all considered it in silence for a moment before Roland admitted, “The circumstances would be perfect for such. And Will is not a man who easily makes enemies. Even those rare few he offends with his honesty respect him enough to value his opinion.”
“And Mr. Verger is still in prison, Your Grace,” Mr. Hawkes said, looking anxiously from the Duke to Hannibal. “He is, to my knowledge, the only one who might hold a grudge against Mr. Graham.”
“Yes,” Roland said. “There were other charges levied against him that will ensure he will not soon leave.”
“Mason is still absent from the country as far as my sources know,” Hannibal said, not elaborating further on why he kept close tabs on young Verger. He furiously tried to think of anyone else who might have a reason to hurt Will, anything to ease his mind from thinking that Will might’ve nearly died in an attempt to send Hannibal to the noose. “Who on earth else is left who might want to hurt him?”
“Whoever they are, I am determined to bring the full weight of the law against them,” Roland said, his face clouding with his own temper. “Aside from being your husband, he is the grandchild of my dearest, most beloved friend. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to him.”
“I would never forgive myself, either, Grandfather,” Hannibal murmured. “I will find these people and deal with them. If there is some grudge they have against Hartford, against either one of us, I will not allow Will to stand as collateral damage.”
“Where is he now?” Roland asked, groping for a small tin on his desk to fish out a tiny pill, which he promptly swallowed dry.
“He is in my room,” Hannibal said. “He will not be fit for some time, Grandfather. He took quite a fall and that blow to his head will not resolve overnight. I want to keep him as close as possible until we find out who has hurt him and to what end.”
“We will speak to the staff immediately!” Mr. Hawkes said, rising with indignant fury that anyone should harm any Lecter in his charge, only belatedly adding, “With your permission, of course.”
“Please do, Hawkes, especially Jimmy,” Hannibal said. “He is closest to Will. If there is anything about any of it that he can recall, any strange acquaintance, any new gossip in town regarding Will, have him come to one of us straight away.”
Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson both nodded firmly and left to do just that.
Once they were gone, Roland ventured, “Why would Will believe you wanted him dead, Hannibal?”
Hannibal dropped into a chair with a sigh and rested his face in his hands, wincing somewhat when his stitched cheek began to ache afresh.
“His memory is appalling, Grandfather,” he admitted. “Every single thing said to him, he recalls with uncanny accuracy… The night I chased him away from the table I said I would arrange an accident for him.”
Roland was silent for a long, somber moment. “That alone would not be enough, surely.”
“Someone wrote him a letter claiming I was the one who had rigged his saddle,” Hannibal said with a humorless laugh.
“The culprit himself, perhaps?”
“Who else?” Hannibal asked, and sighed again, slumping back in the chair and tipping his head back, eyes closed. “It doesn’t help that he went to Duxbury to see if the rumors of my previous wife were true and ran into Molly Foster.”
Roland started, and said with a tremble in his voice, “I did my best to keep any gossip of that nature from reaching him, Hannibal.”
“Perhaps you should have told him?” Hannibal asked, eyes slitting open.
“I didn’t wish to frighten him,” Roland said, guilt filling his eyes. “I wanted nothing unpleasant to touch him here. He has had unpleasantness enough in his life, and Melinda has always been your responsibility to explain. I still do not understand it!”
“I did explain. Badly, but I explained all the same,” Hannibal said, thinking of Will’s soft expression and how fragile he’d felt under his fingers. “All the bitter truth of her death and my guilt.”
“And what did he say?” Roland asked, watching Hannibal restlessly clench and unclench his hands.
“He asked about the baby,” Hannibal breathed, and smiled a sad, strained smile. “All of that, and his worry was for the child… “
“Will has a very large, good heart, Hannibal,” Roland said.
Hannibal frowned, then, and quietly asked, “What did happen to her, Grandfather? What happened to Melinda’s daughter? I know you could not place her with the Fosters—”
“No, they wouldn’t have her,” Roland said, grim. “They were distraught and barely able to accept Melinda’s loss. Her mother couldn’t even look at the baby. I arranged placement with a family of landed gentry, Hannibal, and assume she is doing well, as you should.”
“That is sad recollection of her fate, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, unsatisfied by the news he’d just received. “Were circumstances different, I would demand an accounting of her whereabouts, but I have larger worries on my mind, all things considered.”
“We will find who this person threatening Will is, Hannibal,” Roland said. “We will keep him safe.”
Hannibal stared at the ceiling, his thoughts jumbled and agitated.
“I believe it might be a good idea to take Will away from Hartford House,” Roland suggested.
“To the Capital?” Hannibal asked, thinking of the Seasons he’d spent in the ducal townhouse without his little mate.
“Perhaps,” Roland said. “Will has never traveled and it would do him good to be away from Hartford House. When he is well enough to travel, the two of you should take a trip. Go to the seaside, or to another estate, someplace unexpected.”
“Tell the servants to pack our trunks and simply go?” Hannibal mused. “Eluding whoever this person is?”
“While we do some investigating here at home,” Roland said. “It will take some time to hire detectives in to assist in the situation.”
“Unpredictable movements would stymie them, whoever they are,” Hannibal said, and sighed heavily. “I wish it were not under these circumstances, but you’re right, Grandfather. It isn’t safe for Will here and new surroundings would do him some good.”
“I will write to the Capital directly to inquire about an investigation,” Roland said. “We will take steps, Hannibal. Between all of us, he needn’t ever be alone and vulnerable to any unknown menace.”
After a long, weighty silence, Hannibal said, “He thought I wished him dead, Grandfather. He truly believed I had tried to murder him.”
“But he knows now you did not,” Roland pointed out, gentle with this child who had always been closer to a son than a grandson.
Hannibal didn’t acknowledge his statement. The guilt that had plagued him since his return had found good, fertile ground and its roots reached deep, all the way to the pit of his stomach.
“Have you any idea how he was treated in his father’s house?” he whispered, those terrible scars appearing behind his closed lids.
“Yes,” Roland quietly said. “Jimmy has been very discreet regarding what he has told me, but he felt it was necessary to inform me of what he has seen.”
“Some of those scars he has couldn’t be more than a few years old, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, disturbed and upset. “He was being beaten like an animal until the day he left that house for this one.”
Roland remained quiet, watching his grandson struggle with his newfound knowledge.
“The things I said to him,” Hannibal breathed, and cut himself off, unable to finish.
“You had no idea how he was mistreated.”
“That is not an excuse,” Hannibal said, sitting up and gaining his feet. “Even had he been treated as a prince in his father’s house, it would not excuse it!”
“It would not,” Roland agreed. “But Hannibal, I am not the one who needs to hear you say it.”
Hannibal was startled into looking at him, and realization dawned in his amber eyes.
“If you feel you have wronged Will,” Grandfather said, offering him a slight smile. “Then tell him so. Just… just tell him, so.”
Hannibal’s jaw clenched. Just tell him, as if it could ever be so easy as a few words. As if he could take six years of Will’s life from him and erase the pain of it with words.
As if words could ever strip away those scars laid over his skin or the moments that had put them there, brutal and harsh and unthinkably cruel.
Shaking with the force of repressing his emotions, Hannibal tightly said, “I want that Addendum destroyed.”
Grandfather went still, but his amber eyes glittered with growing moisture.
“I want it destroyed,” Hannibal said again, moving to the window, looking out at a landscape that he never even saw. “Hartford House is to remain in Will’s name. I want him to have it, no matter what happens between us. This is his home and there are other places I can go if he does not want me here.”
“He will want you here,” Roland said, almost frightened to say anything lest Hannibal change his mind. “There is a goodness in him, Hannibal, that nothing in his life has ever managed to extinguish; he will want you to remain here at Hartford.”
“What needs to be done to get rid of it?” Hannibal asked, turning to pace before his grandfather again, restless energy returning at even the thought of someone lying in wait to hurt Will.
“I will write to my solicitor requesting all copies of the document be returned to me,” Roland said. “And then we will ensure they are destroyed.”
“How many copies are there?” Hannibal asked, realizing there was much more he needed to take care of before he could even dream of making his home here at Hartford.
“The original, which the two of us signed,” Roland said, “And the clerks always make a copy to send back to me, which has not yet arrived.”
“I need to take a short trip to Galley Field,” Hannibal decided. “I will stop in the Capital on my way and ensure that they receive your correspondence and send them back to you.”
Roland was silent for a long, thoughtful moment before he said, “You are not being thoughtless, Hannibal, are you?”
“No,” Hannibal said, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “No, I’m making a decision, Grandfather, not swanning off for an assignation with my mistress while Will is here facing an unknown threat! I will leave tomorrow morning and be back sometime in the night.”
“That is a long distance to cross in so short a time,” Grandfather reminded him. “You might spend—”
“I will not give him reasons to doubt me,” Hannibal said, grim.
“Then you will stay here at Hartford and be a man worthy of calling Will his spouse?” Roland asked, watching the affect those words had on his grandson.
Hannibal’s gaze snapped up to his, the fire in his eyes fading slightly when he said, “I will stay as long as he will have me, Grandfather, but I doubt I can ever be worthy of him. If life was truly fair and there was any justice in the world, then he would never have to see me again in his life, or any member of his family.”
“Excuse me, Grandfather, I need to speak to Peter,” he said, subdued, and left his grandfather’s suite still struggling to reconcile what his little mate awoke in him with what he knew had yet to be done.
Hannibal headed directly out to the stables once he left his grandfather’s suite, intent on getting some answers or at least satisfying his urge to do something.
Peter was out in the paddock, attempting to shoo a peacock that had managed to gain entry to the grassy area and was strutting about without a care in the world. He straightened when Hannibal called out to him, his pleasant expression clouding with worry.
“Mr. Graham asked me, Lord Clarges,” he stammered, gamely accompanying Hannibal into the stable to survey the situation for himself in the wake of close questioning. “My memory i-isn’t so good sometimes.”
“I know that, Peter, and I do not ask to trouble you,” Hannibal said, judging the security of the tackroom to be entirely too lax, considering. “I admit I am not surprised to find that Will was already asking, I only hoped to find out something more.”
“You worry for him,” Peter said, and smiled shyly. “He needs people t-to worry for him. He won’t worry for himself.”
“No, he certainly won’t,” Hannibal agreed, somewhat surprised by the sheer amount of gear they had even after six years of not entertaining. Hartford House was ready to accommodate a hunt at any given moment and kept both horseflesh and gear enough to do so without trouble. “Will’s saddle is not particularly more worn than the others, is it, Peter?”
“No, Lord Clarges,” Peter said, his diffident manner of speaking not tangling him up as much as his nerves began to settle.
“It would require familiarity to pick it out,” Hannibal mused, mouth pursing. “Besides yourself and your stable hands, Peter, I would say there are very few who deal much with the tack of our House.”
“Not directly, Lord Clarges,” Peter confirmed. “Of course, Mr. Graham i-is… he’s riding a lot and people… people see him, so…”
Hannibal nodded, realizing at once that Peter was right. Will’s saddle was remarkable simply for its lack of embellishment. A working man’s saddle, always near the front of the tack room, seen often by everyone in the surrounding area who had daily dealings with him.
The culprit could be literally anyone.
Aggravated that he was no closer now than he had been before, Hannibal said, “Be sure you keep the tack room locked up, Peter, and the keys on your person. I know it’s inconvenient for the staff, but we will all manage for Will’s sake.”
Peter nodded, blinking owlishly, his brow furrowed as if he was troubled.
“Peter?” Hannibal prompted, noticing it. “Have you remembered something?”
He shook his head. It seemed a little hasty and emphatic, but realization dawned when Peter said, “H-how long before he’s okay again?”
“There is no way to tell,” Hannibal said, deflating a little when he realized he wasn’t about to get any further information on Will’s saddle. “It could be days, or weeks.”
“He’ll miss it,” Peter breathed, more to himself than to Hannibal, who only looked at him with raised eyebrows, waiting clarification which Peter gave, nervous again. “Mr. Graham wanted to be told when A-Athena starts to whelp.”
“Athena?” Hannibal asked, drawing a blank, though the wording told him she was a dog. “Will has an interest in puppies?”
“Mr. Graham loves dogs. He takes Athena with him on his rounds sometimes,” Peter said, smiling. “He said he’ll help me find homes for the pups. M-Mr. Verger always… got rid of them.”
“Mr. Verger was a menace and a monster,” Hannibal said, glowering with dislike at even the mention of his name. “But, unfortunately, Will is much to ill to come all the way down here just now and I wouldn’t risk his scolding to carry him. By the time they are big enough for new homes, I am sure he will be right as rain.”
Peter’s brow wrinkled up just shade, and his voice was soft and hesitant when he asked, “S-so you don’t mind?”
“This is Will’s home, Peter, and if he’s told you that you may keep the lot of them, then I suppose we’ll have ten new dogs, though the hunting hounds will no doubt object,” Hannibal said. “Whatever makes him happy is perfectly fine by me.”
Peter seemed vastly relieved on that count, tension visibly sliding from his lanky frame.
“As Mr. Graham asked, Peter, please come to us if you remember anything at all that might help,” Hannibal said, preparing to go back and check once more on Will.
“I-I will, Lord Clarges,” Peter said, twisting his fingers into his loose pants, a habit that was familiar to Hannibal from his earliest memories of Hartford House, even before Peter’s accident. “I p-promise you both. I just… my memory.”
“I know, Peter, it’s no fault of yours,” Hannibal assured him, and clasped his bony shoulder once, warmly, in a gesture he rarely used. “Will’s safety is my highest priority now and I need everyone’s help.”
Peter nodded and quickly ducked his head, leaving without another word to return to the paddock and the bawling peacock.
He watched Peter for a moment, musing on the fact that Will apparently liked dogs, but the thought quickly lost out to the urge to check on his mate.
Hannibal heard a commotion before he saw one, and hit the landing to find a small gathering in the hallway, where Jimmy Price was blocking the doorway to Hannibal’s suite with the tenacity of a bulldog, refusing to allow either Lady Rathmore or her Alpha accompaniment, Francis Dolarhyde, access.
“And I am telling you that I couldn’t give two figs who you are, Mr. Graham is not to be disturbed and no one will disturb him!” Jimmy said, and with admirable ferocity, no matter the outrage he incited.
“Now you listen to me—”
“Lady Rathmore, the populace of the neighboring county is listening to you right now, willingly or not,” Hannibal said, wading into the fray with a dark look at Francis, who bristled like a fighting dog and just barely fell back, the brimstone tang of his scent heavy and revolting to Hannibal.
“What have you done to him?” Mina demanded, looking suspiciously well put together for still being in her dressing gown, which she clutched dramatically at her throat. “Did I not tell you, Francis? He has killed him!”
“Lady Rathmore, I have never murdered anyone on this country’s soil,” Hannibal informed her. “Pray don’t make me regret it.”
She drew up, affronted, and hissed, “And now you will threaten me?! How dare you!”
“Your brother is suffering a concussion from that nasty fall he took,” Hannibal said, rapidly out of patience with her. “What that means, my dear, is that noise and light and movement all provoke nausea and pain. Currently, you are manufacturing a good deal of noise, so if you value your brother even a pinch of what you seem, you will be quiet.”
“My brother is precious to me, Lord Clarges,” she said, but did lower her voice to a harsh whisper. “I fear for his safety every second he is in your care!”
“And did you fear so much for him in your father’s care?” Hannibal asked, satisfied to see a vivid blush fill her face, which was altogether too like Will’s for his comfort. It was a wonder to him that two people could share such identical faces and yet be so vastly different.
Jimmy only removed himself from the doorway when Hannibal stirred to go in, and even then he did so reluctantly, clearly suspicious of both Will’s sister as well as Francis.
“I cannot believe you would treat a gentlewoman with such disrespect!” she said, retreating a few steps. “I am a lady, Lord Clarges!”
“I can only take your word for it,” Hannibal said, but the anger that flashed across her face made him regret being so sharp with her. She was Will’s sister, his twin, and regardless of her father’s sins, she cared enough for him to challenge Hannibal in his own house.
With as little hostility as he could muster, he said, “Please forgive me, Lady Rathmore. Your brother’s accident has me at less than my best in my worry for him. You are his sister, and by extension you are my sister. Please accept my apology.”
She tipped her chin, a subtle version of Will’s mulish expression on her face, but very gamely she said, “I accept your apology, Lord Clarges. As you can imagine, I am very concerned for my dear brother! I wish to be informed the moment he wakes!”
“Of course,” Hannibal said, watching her flounce back the way she had come just to make sure she did, in fact, return to her suite.
Francis, however, lingered on the landing, not quite managing to look at anyone, but not quite managing to be less menacing.
“Mr. Dolarhyde,” Hannibal said, leveling a flat look at him. “You are dismissed.”
“I’ve been tasked to look after him,” Francis said, the deference in his soft voice at complete odds with his looming presence. “My Lord.”
Hannibal had little difficulty seeing why Jimmy disliked him.
“You have no cause to fear for Will’s safety in this house,” Hannibal said. His full mouth pursed with thought, then, and he added, “Unless you know more than you’re telling.”
Francis met his gaze, a brief, hard glance that skirted the edge of a challenge and raised Hannibal’s hackles in a way he thoroughly hated.
“He’s spent all his life with Alphas like you,” Francis said, and ducked his head again, a show of contrition that did not quite carry over to sincerity. “I only wish to keep him safe.”
Hannibal blinked, doing his best to remember that Mina and her servants had been invited to stay at his mate’s request, no matter their behavior.
“I understand your sentiment, I even share it,” Hannibal said, getting another furtive flick of those dangerous blue eyes. “But I am Master in this house, and you will obey me. Go make yourself useful downstairs, Francis. Will is my mate, and I will ensure his safety.”
Reluctant and nearly defiant, Francis backed towards the servants’ stairs and only settled there to glare at them, hands crossed before him. Hannibal darkly considered thrashing him for his disobedience, but in all honesty it wasn’t his place and if the watchful, menacing Alpha would even marginally help keep Will safe, then he would strive to tolerate him.
“Well that peeled a good ten years off me, I’ll tell you,” Jimmy quietly breathed, fanning his nose as if he had caught that sulfuric scent himself, though Hannibal imagined it was more a visceral reaction than a scent-based one.
“Thank you for holding the door, Jimmy,” Hannibal told him. “Will is sleeping?”
“Was, by now, my Lord,” Jimmy said, back to brisk business. “I imagine the clamor woke him. If he’s hurting half as bad as I imagine he is, he’ll be grateful rather than angry you sent her off, my Lord.”
“I certainly hope so,” Hannibal said, feeling as if he might have an ally in Jimmy, if only because of their common ground regarding Will and his safety. He angled a meaningful glance at the servants’ passage and the hulking, glowering Alpha stationed there, “Keep an eye on him, if you would. I don’t trust him.”
“I know precisely what you mean, my Lord,” Jimmy said, straightening his jacket. “If Mr. Graham needs anything at all, please allow me to take care of it. He gets very uncomfortable around strangers and that valet of yours is all elbows and feet.”
Hannibal chuckled softly at that, duly warned, and sent Jimmy on his way.
Berger was on high alert just inside the doorway when he made his way inside, Hannibal was pleased to see. He closed the heavy wooden panel quietly behind him and asked, “Any problems?”
“None, m’Lord, though his Lordship’s sleep ain’t what I’d call peaceful,” Berger whispered, nodding in Will’s direction.
Will was fast asleep in the chair Hannibal had left him in. He made his way over to his sleeping mate, smiling at the way he slumped to one side with one arm dangling, the muscle of his forearm firm and solid to the graceful curve of his wrist. He looked picturesque but not the least bit comfortable.
Hannibal dismissed Berger back to his duties and the valet closed the door silently behind him.
“Let’s get you settled,” Hannibal murmured, delving beneath the blanket to find his tucked-up legs, managing to hook him behind his knees and heft him up, blanket and all.
Will murmured something in his sleep and curled against him, nuzzling against Hannibal’s chest and subsiding with a soft sigh that brought a smile to Hannibal’s mouth.
Silently, he carried Will to his bed and eased him down where Berger had turned down the covers, laying him onto his side with care not to pain him. It was impulse more than intention that prompted Hannibal to sit there next to him, absently combing his fingers through Will’s silky hair, thoughtful and pensive.
“Grandfather is right,” he murmured, careful not to wake him, though he very much doubted anything more than an ecstatic parade band could if Lady Rathmore’s screeching had not. “You are the one who needs to hear it.”
But it wasn’t just for Will, he knew.
All of his life he’d treated every Omega who crossed his path as nothing more than an inconvenient annoyance, an effigy of the woman who had ruined his father, not as human beings with feelings that could be hurt and fears that could be realized.
Or pains that could be borne, all privately and silently and very bravely, from the battlefields across the sea to the violence done in the one place a child should be safe—their parents’ keeping.
Hannibal knew too well the effects an unstable household could have on one’s person. He never dreamed that he would share such unhappy common ground with his little mate.
Will flinched in his sleep, rolling onto his side towards Hannibal, balled fists tucked beneath his chin. A ferocious furrow wrinkled his brow, his dreams, perhaps, not as pleasant a respite as they should be.
“I have very soundly wronged you,” Hannibal whispered, sliding his fingers to Will’s damp and heated nape, rubbing the base of his skull until Will sighed, the furrow smoothing. “I would very much like to get to know you, Will Graham.”
He could only hope, after everything, that Will would wish to know him in return.
Will could hear the ocean again, an angry roar like flames, consuming everything flung into its greedy maw. The wind plucked and tugged at his hair painfully, but it wasn’t nearly as painful as the tightness in his chest.
‘Give him what he wants,’ his father said, shoving him towards the edge.
Will caught himself there, toes curling on the sharp rock, the black ocean and frothy caps roiling against the jagged stones below.
‘Father, please don’t!’ he cried, his balanced threatened by the hand pushing him from behind. He turned, and was a child again, looking up at the man who seemed to fill the world with his presence.
‘You’ve been in your sister’s things again!’
‘I haven’t, father!’ Will cried, denying it, terrified because he hadn’t. He hadn’t. But when he looked down, he was wearing Mina’s favorite day dress, the dress he’d been married to Hannibal in.
He looked up to explain himself, but it was Hannibal there before him, the sheer disgust on his face making Will’s tight chest ache.
‘You are vile to me, disgusting. Get out. Out of my sight. Out of my house. Out.’
His hands shot out and shoved Will, sent him tumbling backwards off of the cliff where that tightness in his chest burst open, an unwanted rupture that Will’s frantic hands could not contain.
‘I’m sorry!’ he said, gathering up the pieces of the teacup he’d shattered. Blood dripped on them from his chest and he trembled, sobbing, ‘I can’t make them fit. They won’t fit. I’m sorry, I can’t fix it…’
They wouldn’t go back together, no matter how he tried…
He woke, realizing that someone was calling his name. For a moment he did not recognize the room he was in and he sat up too fast, wincing slightly at the protest in his spine that seemed substantially better for his rest.
“You were having a nightmare,” Hannibal said, drawing Will’s attention to the fireplace where his husband sat with a book open in his lap. It was so like the night that he had routed Will from the House that he flinched, dropping his gaze from Hannibal’s inquiring one.
Hannibal closed his book and put it aside before rising.
“How do you feel?” he asked, crossing the short distance to the bed where his uneasy mate was sitting, twisting and untwisting the sheets in his long, pale fingers, still half lost in his dreams. “You woke once and I gave you some painkiller. Has it helped?”
“Yes,” Will said, cautious not to nod in case it should wake the slumbering ache in his neck. “It seems to have. Thank you. What time is it?”
Hannibal checked his pocket watch, turning the face towards the firelight before saying, “Nearly four. Grandfather and your sister will be taking tea in the garden, if you feel well enough to join them. The fresh air would do you good and there is plenty of shade, as you know.”
Will hesitated, then asked, “Will you be joining us?”
“I wouldn’t intrude if you’d rather I didn’t,” Hannibal said, seating himself at the foot of the bed, one hand idly dropping to rest on Will’s ankle, his warmth discernible even through the layers of sheets and blankets. “I’ve been tending to some estate business while you were resting. There is plenty more to do there.”
“There is always plenty more to do,” Will breathed, smiling ruefully.
“I could have Berger bring it in to tea,” Hannibal suggested, heartened when Will did not immediately accept his absence. “You could tell me what should be done.”
Will’s brows rose. Surprised, he asked, “Instruction from an Omega, Hannibal? However will you survive it?”
“You know a great deal more about it than I do,” Hannibal said, his grin baring his sharp Alpha teeth. “I’ll ring for Jimmy.”
“Thank you,” Will said, watching him pass through their shared washroom to pull the call bell. He worked his feet out from beneath the heavy nest of blankets and gingerly stood, much relieved when the world held still for him and the movement did not pain him.
The bright afternoon sun spilling in from the Duchess suite dimmed as he made his way through the washroom, toes curled against the cold tiles. He found Hannibal drawing the drapes just enough to make the light less invasive.
“I’ve instructed Jimmy in regards to pain medicine,” Hannibal said, tugging the last drape into place. The room was still fairly bright, but he noted that Will was not flinching from it, which was a good sign in his book. “You need to let one of us know when you start hurting. Don’t wait until it’s too much to bear, or it won’t be as effective.”
“It’s already much improved,” Will said, and when Hannibal began to glower, he added, “But I will do so, Hannibal, thank you. I have no desire to indulge my aching head. I cannot bear to be incapacitated. Idleness is intolerable to me.”
“It doesn’t much suit me, either,” Hannibal, lingering there next to the window as if reluctant to leave. After a long silence, he finally said, “Will, there is something I need to tell you—”
A knock on the door interrupted them, at once an inconvenience and a relief to them both, as Hannibal did not relish confessing to Will the things he knew he needed to.
But he knew it was necessary. There were a great many things he needed to tell Will, not the least of which was that Hartford House would always be his home, no matter what, that nothing and no one would ever take that away from him.
Hannibal moved to unlock the door and Jimmy came in. The pleasant, smiling valet immediately froze, asking, “Is it a bad time?”
“No, Jimmy, please come in,” Will said, bewildered by what had just happened and wondering what on earth Hannibal might need to tell him that caused such concern to cross his handsome face. He sent an inquiring glance Hannibal’s way, brow furrowing, and his husband briskly moved past him, saying, “I will wait and escort you down to tea.”
Will turned a little, frowning as the washroom door quietly closed behind Hannibal, wondering what on earth his husband had been about to say and why he felt so strangely reluctant to hear it.
Roland did not particularly like Lady Rathmore.
To be honest, he hadn’t tried that hard. He’d seen people like Mina come and go in his long lifetime and had little patience for the wide-eyed innocence she attempted to offer, a veneer of gentility cracking over the scaly green-eyed dragon of jealousy which lay beneath.
She glanced at him from beneath her lashes and took another dainty sip of her tea.
“It is very good of you to come keep your brother company, Mina,” he said, and added with a smile, “I do hope you don’t mind me using your given name? After all, we are family through your darling brother, whom I have come to love as much as my own dear grandchildren.”
The veneer cracked a little more at that.
Roland smiled and sipped his tea.
“How dreadfully dull you must find the country, Your Grace,” she said, politely skirting the issue of her name. “Cooped up at Hartford for six years. Your grandson has been having such fun in the Capital in your stead.”
“I am very happy here at Hartford, young lady, so long as I have Will’s company,” Roland said, finding that for all their similarities, the two of them were no more twins than they were friends. “I wouldn’t wish to put my grandson to shame by joining him in the Capital. He should have some time in the spotlight without me outdoing him, hm?”
She absorbed that, thoughts flicking rapidly across her face in minute plays of expression. Roland took another sip, just waiting to see what she would use to fill the silence.
“Your Grace, I would never wish to betray my brother’s confidence, but I fear things are not at all well with him and I worry so terribly much about his state of mind,” she said, settling her teacup into its saucer and summoning a woeful look that Roland paid prompt, polite attention to. “You see… I am afraid Will believes your grandson is trying to harm him.”
Roland’s brow rose. He, too, put his cup down and steepled his fingers, wondering how much rope she would need to finish herself.
“I would never wish to alarm you, but I worry that he might… react badly,” she breathed, looking the very picture of frail dismay. “Will has always been so unpredictable. If he feels threatened—”
“I expect he will beat me with a poker,” Hannibal said, emerging from the shadow of the conservatory doors and moving towards them with a swift, sure stride, his wry and amused gaze fixed on Mina. “Seeking counsel with my grandfather, Lady Rathmore?”
She had the good grace to blush and hastily picked up her teacup again.
“I do not fancy myself a gardener, as I lack Will’s talent for multitasking,” Hannibal said, settling at the grand table the servants had set up in the shade for their tea. “But for the sake of nipping buds, Will and I have already spoken at length about his various accidents which I have, in turn, conveyed both to Grandfather as well as the staff.”
She cleared her throat and said with a soft smile, “I was merely expressing my worry for Will. You did mention he was violent with you.”
“I never said it was unprovoked,” Hannibal said, waiting for his cup to be filled.
“Is Will joining us?” Roland asked, amused to see Will’s sister stymied in her scheming, though he couldn’t imagine what she’d hoped to gain with it.
“Yes, I had hoped to go over some estate business but I don’t think he should be pushed,” Hannibal said, settling to his tea. “He got a little dizzy while dressing. He insisted Jimmy would bring him down momentarily.”
“Perhaps he should stay abed?” Roland asked.
“Only if you’re the one to tell him so,” Hannibal said, smirking. He gestured at his stitches and added, “I have no wish to match my other cheek.”
“I meant to inquire earlier, Lord Clarges, what on earth happened to your face?” Mina asked, turning her attention to Hannibal.
“Ah! Here he is now,” Hannibal said, excusing himself to meet Will on the path.
Roland silently watched the consternation fill Mina’s face, her personality so vastly different from the twin whose features she shared.
“You seem bewildered, Mina,” he said, cocking his head to smile at her.
“Yes, Your Grace,” she admitted, her delicate brows drawing down. She realized he was watching her and summoned a soft smile in return, admitting with a becoming blush, “I was so frightened for him all these years, Your Grace, considering my father sent you the wrong child.”
“Oh, allow me to set your mind at ease on that count,” Roland said, dropping a wink at her. “He sent me precisely the child I wished for.”
She flushed to her hairline so floridly that Will, upon his arrival, asked her if she was ill.
“I am afraid the doings at Hartford House are something of a surprise for your dear sister,” Roland said, delighted to see Hannibal escorting Will with appropriate attentiveness, taking pains not to overwhelm him. It gave him painful, deep hope that all would yet be well between them, though he would never dare give voice to such.
“If you will excuse me,” Mina said, surging to her feet. “I do not feel at all well.”
Will stared after her, puzzled by her abrupt retreat. Hannibal barely noticed her departure, and certainly missed the look she cast back over her shoulder, a slight glimpse to see if her exit had been marked.
No, Roland most decidedly did not like Lady Rathmore.
But he never had been much for dragons.
The warm breeze in the shade and the soft twittering of birds in Hartford’s overhanging trees proved to be more refreshing than Will could have hoped. He settled himself at Grandfather’s right, surprised when Hannibal moved to push in his chair, but not minding it. He wondered if it was the knock on his head working on him, but he honestly wasn’t sure. There was something… compelling about Hannibal’s concern, and it certainly made a pleasant change from their usual battles.
“My dear, you are a sight for sore eyes!” Roland said, lightly kissing Will’s knuckles as he often liked to do.
Hannibal seated himself across from Will and motioned for service, trying to unobtrusively keep an eye on Will for signs of strain.
“I am glad I could join you, Grandfather,” Will said, smiling at the gesture and murmuring thanks to the servant who filled his cup. “I wish I felt well enough to pour for you.”
“Nonsense! The staff can handle it!” Roland assured him.
Will’s brow furrowed when he looked at Mina’s conspicuously empty seat. Concerned, he asked, “Did my sister make mention of anything that might be troubling her?”
Hannibal’s mouth pursed and he, too, looked at her empty seat, saying, “Ah! I hadn’t realized she’d gone; I thought she was being unusually quiet.”
“Hannibal,” Will said, disapproving.
“Nothing you could sort for her, Will, I’m afraid,” Roland said, tucking into his favorite little sandwiches. “I dare say she will get over what is ailing her.”
“I hope it is nothing serious,” Will said, not sure if he was up for the dramatics that usually accompanied Mina’s illnesses.
“I believe dying of envy is a manner of speech, rather than an actual demise one may meet,” Roland said, amused by the spasm of confusion that marred Will’s brow. “Your sister is fine, Will. Her understanding of the world has developed contours she doesn’t understand. She most definitely will live, as we all do with such realizations. Now, I’ve been informed your accidents have a more sinister purpose than I was first led to believe. Shall we discuss that? I do feel it is more important, in the grand scheme of things, than the lovely Lady Rathmore.”
“All of you go inside, please,” Hannibal said to the staff, pushing Will’s teacup a bit closer and adding a few little sandwiches to his empty plate.
“In the matter of my spill down the stairs,” Will said, putting out a protective hand to prevent Hannibal from adding a third. “I did mention to Hannibal my thoughts that whoever pushed me down the stairs took advantage of an opportunity. They had no way of knowing I would wake and confront them. I cannot venture a guess as to their purpose, but it was not my death.”
“We were discussing just the same thing,” Hannibal mused, plucking a few sandwiches for his own lovely plate. “The question is, what were they doing on the family floor that would align with potentially killing you? No tryst is worth murdering witnesses over, and no servant would dare come down to our rooms for such a thing.”
“I have a difficult time imagining any member of Hartford’s staff would wish me harm,” Will said, blanching to think of it. He took a shallow sip of his tea but it didn’t settle well.
“You shouldn’t think such things,” Roland said, patting his hand. “There is no member of this household that would wish to hurt you, Will. To that end, Hannibal and I have concocted a plan.”
“A plan?” Will echoed, lifting his weary blue gaze.
“With your permission, of course,” Hannibal said, hastening to assure Will he would not pluck him up and cart him off.
Will’s head turned slightly to include him in a stare that was rapidly growing glassy with exhaustion.
“When you are well enough to travel, I think it would be wise to remove to another estate,” Hannibal said.
“Steal away in the dark unnoticed?” Will asked, arching a disapproving brow.
“Something of that sort,” Roland said, dabbing at his lips with his napkin. “I propose that on the morning Hannibal deems you fit enough to travel without aggravating your condition, the two of you simply instruct your respective valets to pack your trunks and leave as soon as possible, telling no one your intended destination.”
Will sighed softly, disliking the necessity of such a thing.
“And how will that solve the issue of who is behind it?”
“I will be looking into that matter,” Roland said. “Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson are thoroughly interviewing the servants as we speak for anything they might have seen or heard.”
“I should be the one sorting this,” Will said, frustrated.
“As your husband, I should be the one,” Hannibal interjected. “But since we cannot put our heads together here and do so without keeping you at risk, our leaving is the only viable option.”
“It feels dishonest,” Will said, nibbling at a sandwich. It was delicious enough to goad him to do it justice in a few small bites.
“There is nothing dishonest in strategy, Will, as you well know,” Hannibal said, adding another sandwich to his place, which earned him a glower but no protests. “Grandfather is sending to the Capital for detectives to assist his efforts in our absence. They will be running down leads and investigating these accidents to find out how they connect.”
“I will need the letter you received,” Roland said. “It might yield something useful.”
“I will see that you get it,” Will told him, absently rubbing at his head, a fine sheen of sweat rising on his skin. He put the remnants of his second sandwich down and took a few swallows of his tea, hoping it would all settle. “I have no idea if he can offer any additional insight, but Matthew Brown is the one who informed me my saddle had been tampered with.”
“I will be sure they are told of it,” Roland said, and urged them, “Come, now, children, do this fine service justice! Mrs. Pimms will be beside herself if her efforts go to waste!”
“You may mark this date for posterity, Will, because I agree with Grandfather,” Hannibal said. “You need to eat, and to drink as much tea as you can.”
“I would like to do so but my head is disagreeing,” Will said, taking a shaky breath. He resisted the urge to rub his aching neck, but knew his stiff posture was betraying him to Hannibal’s practiced gaze. “Mrs. Pimms’ porridge was very satisfying.”
“Then I will ask—”
“No, thank you,” Will said, uncertain if he was up to the task. “I can wait for supper, Hannibal… But my head is beginning to bother me again.”
It was such a small thing, his quiet offering of that information, but Hannibal couldn’t help but feel glad that Will had done so.
“Grandfather,” he said, wiping his mouth and rising. “If you’ll excuse us, please?”
“Please don’t miss your tea for my sake—”
“Yes, yes, both of you do whatever you need to do take care of that headache, and I will pray for a speedy recovery for you, Will,” Roland said, delighted when Hannibal moved to Will’s side, ready to steady him should he grow dizzy. “I will put a dent in these little darlings and Mrs. Pimms will never know the difference. If you would ring Zeller for me, please?”
“I will, Grandfather,” Will said, his relief to be going inside almost palpable. “It’s the least I can do for disrupting your tea.”
“You’ve done nothing of the sort, just get some rest and feel better,” Roland said, watching them as the made their way back inside, his memories transforming them for an aching moment into himself and Charles. He was so lost in his musings he actually didn’t realize that Zeller had arrived until he plopped down at the table and started serving himself.
“Brat,” Roland sighed, taking a few more sandwiches for himself. “Be useful and pour my tea.”
Zeller poured for them both, grinning at the chastisement.
“Have you been looking into matters, as I asked?”
“Don’t I do everything you ask?” Zeller shot back, poking a small sandwich into his mouth. He swallowed it virtually whole, and chased it with a swig of his tea. When he looked back at Roland, it was with the steady, no-nonsense gaze the Duke knew meant he was finally being serious. “I still don’t get how you knew he was coming here.”
“Zeller, I am an old man who once had many enemies,” Roland said. “Once. It took very little effort to realize that if Lady Rathmore was asking Anthony about Will after six years of silence, she was up to no good. It is always wise to be in possession of the facts.”
Zeller’s brows shot up and he smirked. “You never cease to amaze me.”
“I am not doing it for your benefit,” Roland reminded him, and rapped the table with his fingers. “Out with it.”
“Francis Dolarhyde got chased out of the mills up north,” Zeller said. “Not sure why yet but I got somebody working on it. Guess where he was before.”
Roland picked his cup up and fixed Zeller with a repressive look. “You know very well I don’t like guessing games and I despise not knowing things. It’s why you’re allowed to get away with murder, you scamp. You’re just a hair more useful to me than you are a thorn in my side!”
Zeller grinned and ate another little sandwich, but in actual bites this time.
“He was a stablehand at the Graham place. Lived with his grandmother until he was in his teens; she was the family nanny, a real battle ax.”
Another sandwich, another sip of tea. Roland waited patiently, knowing how Zeller enjoyed testing the patience of everyone around him.
“There was some kind of accident there, no one would give the girl I sent any specifics,” Zeller finally said. “Mr. Graham got hurt and Francis left, did a stint in the Navy overseas. Never made it back for granny’s funeral.”
Roland frowned. “I thought he might have been a military man. I wish it laid my fears to rest.”
“Well, it shouldn’t,” Zeller said. “He earned a dishonorable discharge and a prison sentence. Somebody at port didn’t like the way he looked, Dolarhyde rearranged his face for him.”
“That certainly settled it,” Roland said, feeling even more uneasy now than he had been, and his initial unease had been bad enough.
“I’d say so; he rearranged it all the way off, nearly killed him,” Zeller said, beating the Duke to the last sandwich. “He tried the mills after his release but didn’t last there, either. Lady Rathmore tracked him down after and he’s been her constant companion ever since.”
“No proof,” Zeller said, and added with a grin, “yet. But I’m working on it.”
“I know, you’re a good boy, Zeller, appearances notwithstanding,” Roland said, earning a guffaw from his valet.
“Oh, another thing—you’re going to love this—he got himself a big tattoo on his back while he was in service,” Zeller said, and waggled his brows with a grin. “It’s your favorite.”
“A dragon?” Roland asked, annoyed by Zeller’s delighted nod. “Of course it would be. Tell me, my boy, what do you make of him?”
Zeller shrugged. “He’s big and he’s dangerous and I don’t like him.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Roland said, frowning. “But then I never have cared much for dragons.”