Jimmy and Berger were directly on top of things and immediate, controlled chaos ensued.
Will soaked in a hot bath drawn by his husband, doors shut against the noise, the requisite pot of tea on a little table next to him at Hannibal’s insistence, and after the emotional drain of the morning, he didn’t put up a fuss over it.
Part of him wanted to. Part of him wanted to reject any comfort his husband offered, to drape himself in the cold steel of judgment that urged him to withhold his forgiveness, to rebuff Hannibal’s advances, to resist the temptation of acceptance because it would only lead him to future pain.
It was, he knew, his father’s instruction at play, that resentful kernel of mistrust and doubt.
The other part of him was still as deeply immersed in Hannibal’s words as his sore shoulders were in hot water.
‘I wish I could take it back…’
It pulled against his father’s teachings with relentless, shocking force, turning ‘what if‘ into potential rather than regret.
The future had always looked so bleak to Will, brief, unkind, and uncertain. He had lived for years on the cusp of leaving, never daring to put down roots in Hartford, never having more belongings than could be packed into his measly trunks and carted off for the inevitable day that Hannibal returned to oust him, no matter the ownership of Hartford House.
It didn’t seem so dismal a future to him now after the last few hours, not entirely. If Hannibal Lecter could admit to regret, could shed tears for Will’s sake, then perhaps even the dark clouds that hung overhead could be parted by a shaft of sunlight. It was enough to let Will draw a breath of hope untainted even by the threat of a would-be murderer still at large.
The future was still bleak and uncertain, but there was a possibility for something brighter, and that was more hope than he’d felt in a very long time.
Hannibal, dressed and chafing to leave, kept an eye on the proceedings, knowing his presence unnerved the lower staff but hoping to hurry things along. He felt a deep and driving need to take Will away from here, whatever the cost, to take him out of harm’s way and keep him safe.
“Make sure my medical bag is kept out with my travel case, Berger, in case Will has need of it,” Hannibal said.
“Of course, m’Lord,” Berger told him, and tapped a stack of correspondence he’d just brought in. “Post’s come, looks like some things from your office.”
“Thank you, Berger,” Hannibal said, shuffling through them and deeming most of them nonsense. Invitations for off-Season events, personal letters from patients needing one thing or another, the occasional balance sheet from various suppliers he used for his medical equipment.
The last one, however, made him set the others aside immediately and open it with hasty nervous anxiety.
My Dear Lord Clarges:
I am writing from the Continent in the hopes that this letter arrives in time to warn you—we lost track of Mr. Verger in the northern reaches of Netze on the third of this month and have been unable to locate his trail from that date to this. We will, naturally, continue to hunt for any sign of where he has gone, but it is our fear that he has moved further north to port and we are headed there in the hopes of intercepting him before he boards a vessel, or at least to discover if he has taken to sea. Please use this information to protect those in your care.
Ever your faithful servant,
Grim and unhappy, Hannibal said, “Verger has returned.”
“Mr. Tier has sent a letter, it has been over two months now since it was posted, thanks to it chasing me all over the Gods blessed country,” Hannibal swore, careful in his anger not to damage the letter he still held. “He could be anywhere.”
Berger blinked, clearly unnerved by the information.
“The moment we’re clear, Berger, I want you to ride straight for Galley Field,” Hannibal told him, stuffing the other letters and invitations into his valise for the ride. “He has no means of knowing where they are, but I would feel safer all the same if you gave the Misses some warning that his whereabouts are a mystery.”
“Of course, m’Lord!” Berger said, returning to packing with greater haste. “Gods above as if we don’t have worries and woes enough to suit us, that he’s got to come slithering back around, the snake!”
“It certainly gives me cause to reassess my thinking that he isn’t responsible for Will’s accidents,” Hannibal said, jotting a note on the top of the letter. “I’m sending this down to Grandfather. Retrieve it before we leave and take it on to Galley Field. And remind them again that they are to open any correspondence from Tier as it comes! I would feel very relieved on that count, as I am sure Mr. Tier has sent several letters to the estate to ensure this information reached me.”
“I will m’Lord, we’ll manage between us,” Berger promised. “You worry about his Lordship, I’ll worry about the Misses.”
“We’ll both worry about all of them, Berger, let’s don’t kid ourselves, and I want you to come straight from Galley Field to our destination after,” Hannibal said. “You’ll probably be there waiting for us; I have no intentions of pushing things in the state Will’s in.”
“Let his Lordship enjoy the journey, m’Lord,” Berger said, smiling at him. “Price says he’s never left the area since he’s come here. He’s due a pleasant day or two, ain’t he?”
“All of them, if I have any say in it,” Hannibal said, and gestured towards the washroom door, adding, “Don’t let anyone in that room.”
“On my life, m’Lord!”
“Mrs. Henderson,” Hannibal said, striding out into the hallway where the dainty housekeeper was helping Mr. Hawkes to orchestrate their sudden move.
“Take this down to Grandfather, please, it’s urgent,” Hannibal said, and she immediately did so, clutching the letter as if someone might take it from her.
Hannibal turned to Mr. Hawkes and said to him, “Send word down to have Will’s fishing gear packed, along with anything he usually takes with him when he goes.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Hawkes said, beaming at him and giving quick, whispered instructions to one of the departing footmen.
Hannibal saw several maids go trotting past to help Jimmy, and he followed them into Will’s suite to check on the progress there.
“Will we be ready, say, within the hour?” Hannibal asked.
“I most certainly will be,” Jimmy said, deftly instructing the girls filling Will’s two aged, worn trunks with his meager funeral clothing. “He has so little, even still. I’ll be very relieved to get the rest of his wardrobe in, but he will need more trunks, my Lord.”
“You have my permission to purchase them on his behalf, if he has no interest in doing so,” Hannibal said, watching one of the girls move to Will’s vanity to pack his various items. He moved closer, spying vials with medical labels. Concerned, he asked, “Jimmy, what are those? Are they prescribed for him?”
“Uhm, no, my Lord, those are Omegan things,” Jimmy said, his tone repressive enough to keep Hannibal from asking further, though he was curious all the same. “Mr. Graham has the constitution of an ox. He’s never had need of a doctor since he’s come here.”
“And this?” Hannibal asked, touching a plain brown box pushed against the mirror.
Jimmy came and opened it for him to show him the contents and Hannibal froze.
The teacup Will had shattered lay inside on a bed of paper, the tiniest shards of it placed within the larger pieces, rescued carefully from the scene of its demise.
“He was so fond of that tea set,” Jimmy sighed. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him there was no reason to keep it. Something broken this badly… well, there’s just no making it right again.”
“What of the rest of the set to which it belongs?” Hannibal asked, ignoring the flurry of activity around them, while in his mind’s eye Will flung it to the floor over and over, trembling and hurt and deeply, justly offended.
“Oh, there’s only another cup and the teapot left, Lord Clarges. All the other pieces have been broken and such. It was quite old and should have been gotten rid of a long time ago,” Jimmy said, shooing the maid away to pack Will’s Omegan things himself. “Mr. Graham saved it from the rubbish pile when he first arrived. It was just for his private use.”
“He saved it,” Hannibal whispered, struck by something he could not name, but it pulsed and pounded within him like a heartbeat.
“He’s had so little,” Jimmy said, carefully ensuring each glass vial was upright and well-padded, not nearly as oblivious to Hannibal’s reaction as he seemed to be. “He’s very sentimental, my Lord.”
Two delicate, aged teacups with their teapot. One cup for Will, and the other for a guest who never arrived to share time with him.
‘Tell it to gather itself up. Go on. Tell it to do its duty now, Hannibal, in the state it is in.’
Hannibal closed the box back up and carried it with him out into the hall, Will’s voice echoing in his memory.
“Mr. Hawkes,” he said, catching the old butler before he went downstairs to hurry the footmen. He held the box out to him, noting that Hawkes immediately recognized it. “I want you to have this repacked securely and sent to the Capital.”
“Of course, my Lord,” Hawkes said, taking the box with great dignity. “To Gideon and Garnets, my Lord?”
“The very place,” Hannibal said, unable to resist adding, “Be very careful with it.”
“We will be, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes assured him. “Shall I send instructions?”
“Yes, ask on my behalf if there is anything to be done for it,” Hannibal said. “And say that I will be in to discuss it with Mr. Gideon as soon as my schedule allows.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, and immediately moved to make it happen.
Hannibal watched the box start its journey, bearing that shattered cup within.
No, he could not tell it to be whole again, he knew that now.
He could, however, do everything in his power to repair the damage that had been done, just as he’d promised to his spouse. It wasn’t his right to mend it; he’d forfeited that right nearly seven years ago, but he would mend it all the same. It was his responsibility and his deepest desire to do so.
He would see that cup made whole again, and settled safely back in Will’s keeping where it belonged.
Two coaches were ready and waiting by the time the trunks were brought downstairs to be loaded under Mr. Hawkes’ watchful gaze. There was clamour enough to wake the dead, but Will’s sister seemed determined to sleep through it.
Francis, however, watched everything with glowering, close attendance, as if he might discern their destination from the method used to load their luggage. Hannibal caught him twice sharply questioning the coachmen only to be turned away unhappy—no one knew of their intended retreat, even the men who would take them there, not until the moment the horses began to move and Hannibal would give the order.
Hannibal lingered at the front door a moment longer to watch Francis skulk away. When he heard the soft thump of doors and footsteps on the runners, he turned to look at the stairwell with anticipation. Will came into view at the top of the landing with Jimmy clucking like a mother hen, anxiously admonishing him to use the railing and be careful.
Hannibal moved to the foot of the stairs, smiling to himself at the sight of his spouse coming towards him with his usual pensive frown and stern expression, so incongruous on his smooth face. It struck him again how young Will was, and how much he’d lived through to this point, so much of which could have been prevented or avoided. He was strong, just as Hannibal had said, but underneath Will’s reserve was a man in the prime of his youth who deserved to enjoy himself, and Hannibal was determined that he would.
Will glanced up as he neared the last few risers and asked with a quizzical half-smile, “What are you staring at, Lord Clarges?”
“Nothing,” Hannibal said, holding out his hand in case Will needed it. “I was merely enjoying the sight of you.”
Will snorted, feeling well enough to summon a scoffing laugh.
“No, honestly, I was,” Hannibal said, chuckling when Will batted his hand away. “You look—and you certainly act—as if you’re feeling much better.”
“I am, thank you,” Will said, waiting for embarrassment to rise over his tears, yet it never came. He felt unshackled ever so slightly, a prisoner given a draft of fresh, clean air. It was as if even so small a release of pressure, so small a show of the depth of pain Hannibal had caused him had eased things within him. He’d given Hannibal a ripe opportunity to insult him, to belittle him, to be the very monster his father had always been and he always expected to get.
But he hadn’t.
Instead, he’d gotten an apology, a genuine expression of regret and a chance to give or refuse his forgiveness with no pressure to respond in haste. Hannibal had reached out, overcoming his natural repulsion towards Omegas. He’d reached out and accepted Will’s pain, shared it, even, if Will could trust the truth of his bond to his husband and the tears he had shed. It cast a new light on Hannibal that showed a side of him Will had seen too little of to easily recognize, but he felt himself wanting to see more.
“We must go see Grandfather before we depart,” Will insisted, flinching from the growing daylight coming in through the open door.
“I was about to suggest the same thing, but it seems he’s come to check on us,” Hannibal said, turning Will to face the opposite direction with him. “Good morning, Grandfather.”
“Good morning to you both,” the Duke said, looking rather fragile for a restless night’s sleep. “I wanted to be sure to tell you, Hannibal, that Zeller will be checking into that issue you apprised me of, and I’ve given the notice back to your man.”
“Issue?” Will asked, curious and feeling just a glimmer of dread.
“I received information from my man overseas that Mason Verger has slipped his watch,” Hannibal said, causing Will to frown with confusion.
“Why on earth do you keep tabs on Mason Verger?” he asked.
“It’s rather complicated,” Hannibal admitted. “I’ll be happy to tell you, but there are certain issues I need to settle before you hear the whole of it.”
Will cocked a look at him that Hannibal had the eerie understanding would soon compel him to do a great many things he never imagined he would do as an adult, starting with instantly spill his secrets to his Omegan husband. But he shored up, and Will transferred that gaze to Grandfather when the old Alpha said, “Now, now, children, that will all come out in the wash! And pray don’t look at me that way, my dear! I couldn’t tell you, myself, as my grandson is determined to be a mystery to me!”
“Grandfather!” Hannibal said, but was overridden by the Duke saying, “I am in no mood for excuses, Hannibal! I merely wished to check on you before you leave and make sure you’ve told no one of your destination.”
“Destination? Will?” Mina called, coming lightly down the stairs with her skirts expertly drawn up in one hand and the other skimming the bannister, barely making contact. She moved with the same fluidity as her brother, though lacked the decisiveness that gave Will his signature grace. She held out her hand in expectation of assistance and Hannibal moved to take it from habit, guiding her down the last few steps and escorting her to her brother’s side where she looked from one face to the next, utterly, innocently bewildered. “What is going on? Why are there coaches out? Has someone arrived? Are we to have a party?”
“No, young lady, Hannibal is taking Will on a short trip,” the Duke said, giving her little room to argue.
“I apologize, Mina,” Will said, shifting slightly when Hannibal released her hand and moved to his side, a somber and protective presence. “This is very short notice, but I received a threat in the form of a note this morning and we all feel it would be best if I leave Hartford House.”
“Leave?” she asked, as though the meaning of the word escaped her. She groped her hand out and Francis appeared, summoned as if from thin air. He emerged from the chaos of packing to take the hand she offered, silent and watchful—a fighting dog leashed, but barely.
“Yes, Lady Rathmore,” Hannibal said, wrinkling his nose against Dolarhyde’s Alpha scent. “Just until matters are sorted.”
“But what shall I do?” she asked, faint accusation in her voice. “I have come to visit you, Will.”
“I know, Mina, I—”
“All the way out here in the country,” she said, emphasizing her point.
“Yes, Mina, and—”
“When I could be in the Capital,” she added, blinking rapidly, wounded to the core.
“I am so sorry, Mina,” Will said, taking a deep breath, not missing the Duke’s disapproving look at his sister. “I realize I invited you here and greatly inconvenienced you, and I am grateful you came. Considering the circumstances—”
“You will, of course, remain here at your brother’s invitation and play hostess for Grandfather in our absence, Lady Rathmore,” Hannibal cut in, smiling at her consternation. “Please say you will.”
Doubt clouded her face, quickly replaced by a pleased, cat-like smile.
“Of course, Hannibal dear,” she said, smiling expansively at him, then at Will, and finally turning it on the Duke himself. “I would love nothing more than to take Will’s place!”
“In his absence, of course,” Hannibal clarified, feeling Will stiffen slightly next to him.
Mina’s smile never changed, but she said, “Of course. And where will the two of you be off to, hm?”
“I am afraid we are playing a bit of intrigue with that, Mina,” the Duke said, curtailing any attempts to find out. “You will help me with that, my dear, won’t you? When people come calling?”
“Yes, Your Grace!” Mina said, wrenching her hand free of Dolarhyde’s to press it to her heart, a faint flush on her cheeks. “Goodness! That you think you must ask! I am entirely at your disposal, Your Grace!”
Will frowned softly, disturbed by how agitated she seemed. Francis, too, seemed disturbed, and stirred as if he would touch her, then abruptly changed his mind.
“Francis, you must take excellent care of my brother,” she said, rounding on the Alpha next to her to level a stern look at him.
“We would not wish to separate you from your loyal servant,” Hannibal said, moving closer to Will when Dolarhyde’s eyes fastened on his oblivious mate.
“Will,” Mina said, gazing at her twin as if he’d betrayed her. “You will be taking Francis, surely? He insisted he must come to be with you during these troubling times, and I have made arrangements to spare him.”
“Mina, I would never wish to refuse—”
“You cannot refuse,” she insisted, smiling and satisfied that she had her way. “Lord Clarges, you, of course, wish only for the safety and happiness of my dear brother, do you not? Why, then, how could you possibly neglect to bring along someone as stalwart and dedicated as our own dear Francis?”
“Considering he is your Francis, Lady Rathmore,” Hannibal said, increasingly less pleased with the situation. “I would never dream of removing him from your care.”
“Nonsense, I insist!” Mina said, beaming at Hannibal. “And we are all settled! Honestly, all this secrecy! Very cloak and dagger, isn’t it, Francis? Hm?”
“I am very glad you’ve decided to accept Mr. Dolarhyde’s assistance, Hannibal,” Will said, and to Francis he added, “I hope you know how grateful I am for your presence and for your dedication in protecting me. I will take all the help that is offered, and gladly, with every confidence that you will act in our best interests.”
Francis ducked his head, blushing from the praise and as meek as Hannibal had ever seen him. It made his lip curl with dislike but he tried to hide it for Will’s sake.
“I will do anything you need me to, Mr. Graham,” Francis whispered, and Mina uttered one of her trilling, false laughs that put the entirety of the Hartford House glassware at risk of shattering.
“Silly! Francis does as he’s told, don’t you, Francis?” she asked, patting his bowed head as if he was some great, dangerous hound at her side. “Run along, now, and stop skulking, you horrid thing.”
“Mina, that is uncalled for!” Will said, the sharpest rebuke he could manage against his twin. “Francis, please go pack your things and assist the staff with the luggage. Jimmy will instruct you on how best you may be of service to me.”
“Well done,” Hannibal said, leaning close to murmur it in Will’s ear. Much to his relief, Francis went downstairs and took that brimstone tang of scent with him.
“I am surprised you’re allowing him to come along,” Will said, unsettled and flinching at the dull threat of pain that began to creep from the base of his skull.
“It is for the best, my dear,” Roland said, exchanging a telling look with Hannibal. “The two of you must be on your way! Daylight is wasting as we speak!”
“Ah! Yes, indeed! Allow me a moment to say goodbye to my brother, Your Grace,” Mina said, reaching to take Will’s hand and pull him to one side.
Will took her arm and walked her a short distance away, unsurprised when she leaned in close and hissed, “Tell me where you are going right this minute, Will.”
“Mina, no one knows where we are going,” Will said, adding, “Myself included!”
“So,” she said, taking a long pause to assess him, cold judgment in her eyes. “You will just… vanish to an unknown place in the presence of a man who likely wants to murder you? Hm? How smart is that, dearest?”
“Mina, I am not vanishing anyplace, and Francis will be with me at your insistence! Though I will have to speak to him firmly about his doubts concerning Hannibal. As for you, I will say this only once more,” Will said, wincing as his headache worsened. “Hannibal did not try to kill me! There is someone, it is true, and we are leaving in all haste to avoid them, but it was not Hannibal!”
She stared at him, her fury showing only in her flashing blue eyes.
“You keep telling yourself that, darling,” she said, and patted his cheek with her cold hand. “Right up until he has you alone. Right up until he puts his hands on you as if to hold you…” she trailed her fingers down his jaw and wrapped them around his throat with slight, telling pressure, “and squeezes the life from you…”
Will stepped back from her, shaken and angry.
“You’re lucky Francis is vigilant for your sake. Your husband is a dangerous man, Will,” she said, satisfied that she had his attention. “A wolf in a gentleman’s clothing. You would be wise to flee, but only in whichever direction Lord Clarges is not currently headed.”
She smiled then, a soft and enchanting smile that did nothing to warm him from the coldness of her words.
“If you find yourself frightened, Will, trust to Francis, darling, hm?” she urged, and patted his face again. “He cannot bear to see you suffer.”
Trembling slightly and almost nauseous, Will turned his back on her, softly saying as he did so, “Goodbye, Mina.”
With an efficiency that was the hallmark of a well-organized household, the Lords Clarges were set on the road in the ducal coach with their luggage and servants in a second one just behind, forced to follow closely as only the head coachman knew where they were going.
Mr. Berger set out alone on horseback ahead of them, which Will found incredibly odd and too curious about to hold his tongue.
“I am surprised to see Mr. Berger leaving on his own,” Will said, venturing only enough to invite Hannibal’s confidence in him and hoping his husband would sate his curiosity.
“The news that Mason Verger has returned is of vital interest to those in my acquaintance,” Hannibal said, wincing as the coach hit a rut and jostled them both. “I dispatched him to ensure that no one is caught unprepared.”
“I don’t suppose now is the time to tell me,” Will guessed, annoyed to have more questions now and no answers to satisfy him. “Does Mr. Berger know where to find us?”
“Yes, he does,” Hannibal told him. “He is one of the few I trust without question. My life has, quite literally, been in his hands on numerous occasions overseas and he has proven his mettle.”
“I didn’t realize he was with you on the front,” Will said, finding it difficult to imagine Hannibal’s good-natured, weathered valet in such a dangerous situation.
“He was, indeed,” Hannibal said. “His family used to lease land on Hartford but Berger couldn’t manage alone. Grandfather was worried for my state of mind when I left in the wake of Melinda’s death. He sent Berger to keep an eye on me and he’s stuck like a burr ever since. I had to take him on as my valet to allow for his accompanying me into the military.”
“He didn’t protest?” Will asked, curious.
“No, he takes his duty very seriously. I believe if there is anyone on this earth a match for you in tenacity, Will, it might be old Berger,” Hannibal said, laughing when Will smiled. “Whether its polishing boots or firing a weapon, he has never once balked over anything I’ve gotten him into. It’s been so long, he’s nearly a proper valet by now, and gods know I would’ve died in my sleep several times over if not for his waking me.”
“I never would have guessed, though Jimmy has mentioned that he wasn’t a typical valet,” Will said, a little breathless with the rocking of the coach, even well-sprung as it was. They hit a particularly deep rut, wringing a pained groan out of him, and he peevishly said, “You would think Their Majesties could afford the upkeep on their roads with the taxes they receive! It is shameful that our little country lanes outdo theirs in both maintenance and convenience!”
Hannibal quirked a brow at him, surprised by his statement, the shadow of a smile playing about his lips when Will grudgingly admitted, “I regret my hasty decision to leave this morning. I had no idea it would be this particularly torturous.”
The coach hit another rut, jostling Will on the padded bench, and he braced, tensing.
Hannibal shifted in his seat across from Will and reached over to start taking the pillows Jimmy had stuffed into the coach for this very purpose.
“Will,” he said, mounding them in the seat next to him to form a little nest of cushions. “Come here, please.”
Will wearily eyed the offering, weighing his options.
“You refused the painkiller,” Hannibal reminded him. “We are once again faced with limited options.”
He saw Will frown slightly, and added, “If you move next to me, I can put my feet up.”
It was enough of an excuse for Will. He cautiously slid out of his seat and Hannibal grasped his hands, pulling him down next to him before another rut could send his head against the coach roof.
“Thank you,” Will said, dropping into the seat with a shaky sigh.
“Better?” Hannibal asked, feeling his forehead and noting the heat of his skin, the light sheen of sweat there beneath his palm, damp and hot.
“I feel like the last candy in Mrs. Pimm’s jar,” Will said, closing his eyes at the pressure of Hannibal’s cool hand against his heated forehead, “when Zeller starts rattling it about.”
“You’re very pale,” Hannibal said, and loosened Will’s neckerchief for him despite his faint protests. “Mrs. Pimms has packed us a hamper and an extra jug of tea, cold, I am sorry to say, but certainly wet. If we need to stop—”
“No, this is better,” Will said, swallowing hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his exposed throat. “I just… I need to close my eyes.”
“When we do stop, I’m insisting you take the painkiller, however much it dulls your senses,” Hannibal said, concerned for him.
“I felt I needed my wits about me,” Will said, sighing heavily. “One must never be unprepared when dealing with my sister, Lord Clarges. Especially when one must lie.”
“You didn’t lie,” Hannibal reminded him, annoyed. “You obfuscated.”
Will’s brow quirked up but he didn’t open his eyes.
“Be as sour as you please about it, as if I could sway you one way or the other, you stubborn mule,” Hannibal said, chuckling. “The fact of the matter is, no one should know where we are headed.”
“She came to visit me, Hannibal,” Will said. “I invited her to stay. The least we could have done was to include her.”
“Will, I know that putting my foot down in your presence risks my losing it—”
“My presence or your foot?” Will asked, one eye opening to fix him with a pointed, amused look.
“Either,” Hannibal said, thoroughly delighted with his quip. “Potentially both. That said, we cannot swan about with your sister tagging along. It is bad enough to be dragging that surly brute of hers. We are only just getting to know one another. If we must flee from your murderer, I would prefer to do it without her influence.”
“You prefer me to be under your influence alone?” Will asked, blinking against the strengthening sun.
“Not at all, merely in my company,” Hannibal said. “It would be difficult with a third party involved.”
Will nodded, a faint gesture accompanying a frown.
“And Grandfather will be very glad to have her in our absence,” Hannibal said. “With Aunt Margaret, Aunt Grace, and Uncle Robert installed at Fernhill, and with the entertainment of the Garden Party behind us, she may accept callers on our behalf and make our excuses. I could almost thank her.”
“Why do you dislike her so?” Will asked, and chuckled at the cagey look he got in response. “You are a difficult man in many respects, Hannibal, but in that you are transparent. What is it about her that you took such immediate affront to her?”
“I resent that she wears your face and smiles with your mouth and is the very definition of the things I truly despise about spoiled, vapid, selfish creatures,” Hannibal said without hesitation.
“Had things gone differently, she would have been your wife,” Will gently said, watching him to gauge his reaction.
“I would have left the country immediately,” Hannibal snorted, wrinkling his nose. “War would be preferable, and I speak from experience.”
“Shame on you, Lord Clarges! You hardly know anything of her,” Will said, head lolling a little on the cushions, a wince stealing his smile when they hit another bad patch of road leaving the county. “Yet you speak so ill of my sister.”
“I would prefer not to speak of her at all,” Hannibal informed him, winning a tired, soft laugh from Will. He looked at his spouse, at his closed lids and the delicate webbing of blue veins crossing his pale skin, and just considered him. “Your father was going to send Mina?”
“No, he most certainly was not going to send Mina,” Will corrected him, shifting down into the pillows with a little noise of pain. “That was the crux of the matter. I believe the rumors around your former wife affected his decision.”
Hannibal’s eyes narrowed and he considered that, his body tense as the coach rocked and swayed.
“He hoped to spare her and send you in her stead?”
“It seemed the most pleasing option,” Will said, stifling a tired yawn. “Caring for her as he does and caring so little for me. Sending me settled the issue to everyone’s satisfaction.”
“Except yours,” Hannibal said, angry on his behalf.
“My satisfaction has always been incidental,” Will said, and managed to do so without even a hint of disapproval. “Mina hoped I would find happiness with you… rather, more happiness with you than I found with our father.”
“She bamboozled you,” Hannibal flatly said, finding yet another reason to dislike Will’s sister. “She prefered you go in her place in case I should take it to mind to murder another wife?”
The comment got his mate to open his eyes again, assessing him. “She is not so cold as that, Hannibal. She was spoken for and feared my fate should I remain in our father’s house once she married. She hoped to see me happily settled. The circumstances in which we found ourselves cannot be mistaken as her fault.”
Hannibal subsided, chastened by Will’s graceful way of seeing the best in those around him.
“That happiness you hoped to find with me, Will,” Hannibal said, holding his melancholy blue gaze. “I hope I can return it to you in excess of your expectations.”
“Are you asking that I have expectations of you, Hannibal?” Will murmured, his lids dropping to half-hood his eyes, which glittered like jewels behind his enviable black lashes.
“I am hopeful,” Hannibal said, and his slight smile teased an answering one from his mate.
“Then trying to be friendly with my sister might be a good place to start,” Will said, closing his eyes again.
“She is your sister,” Hannibal admitted, taking a deep breath eloquent of being put upon. “Whatever my feelings, she shares your blood and that can excuse a multitude of sins. Considering I am stuck with her for the rest of her life, I suppose we must get along. Heavens knows how her husband has managed. It is little wonder she has taken up residence at Hartford House.”
He hastily delved into his travel bag in order to avoid being scolded and made a low exclamation of relief, saying, “Bless that Berger, he packed a paper for us.”
He settled back and stretched one booted foot out onto the seat Will had vacated in order to justify his earlier statement and opened the paper, immediately redirecting the conversation with, “The Museum of Science and Industry is having a new exhibit in, the marvels of modern science.”
“Rather difficult to be taken seriously as an institution in support of science with an entire wing of religious disclaimers clogging up the place,” Will breathed, eyes still closed so that he missed his husband’s delighted glance at him.
“It is counterintuitive, yes,” Hannibal agreed. “How did you know it was such?”
“Jimmy took a holiday in the Capital last year,” Will said, wriggling into the cushions. “He told me all about it.”
Hannibal absorbed that one, and said, “I never thought to ask if you’re a religious man, Will.”
“Not that you’re asking now, but I’m not,” Will said, slitting one eye cautiously. “Rather, my perception of religion has no relation to acceptable notions.”
“You believe in the Gods?”
“I believe in reason,” Will said, smiling a bit. “And… something bigger than us all. I’m not sure I would call it a god, unless men are gods.”
“Of course we are,” Hannibal said, settling back to relish the intriguing conversations his husband seemed to inspire. “We create life, and take it. We see a river and we dam it. We find an ocean and we cross it. What is that if not a god?”
“A nuisance,” Will said, chuckling. “At least to those we find along the way in our quest to expand our tottering Empire.”
Hannibal laughed at that, well pleased, and amused the both of them by reading the paper aloud, even to the smallest print, often stopping to debate some point or another with Will.
They stopped for a late hamper lunch at a posting house at midday, the two of them enjoying their meal in the shade while the coachmen changed horses and the others went within to refresh themselves.
Francis drank a handful of water from the pump and settled into the shade just out of earshot, though with a clear view of them.
“I do hope you appreciate your Mr. Dolarhyde’s dedication,” Hannibal said, shooting a dark look at Francis. “It’s as if he expects me to suddenly murder you the moment he looks away!”
Will heaved a sigh, unable to get very comfortable even beneath the spreading oak branches that shaded them. “At least with such continuous attention, I will not find myself taken by surprise.”
“I pity anyone who so foolishly risks your retribution for doing so,” Hannibal remarked, preparing a painkilling draught and pressing it into Will’s hand, brooking no argument. “You are pale as a sheet and sweating again, Will. Please, take the medication.”
Will did so, the ache strong enough to compel him.
“Thank you,” Hannibal said, relieved. “I know it makes you tired, but you are recovering quickly and this can only help.”
They set back on the road with Will in his mound of pillows, but instead of falling asleep, he perked up considerably after the worst of his ache was chased away. They both knew it was only a matter of time before the medicine rendered him too sleepy to resist the lure of the pillows, but Will’s growing excitement as they headed towards the Capital kept him from going down easily.
Hannibal had secretly dreaded the endless hours and countless stops at posting houses, but Will, as always, made everything entirely unpredictable. His wonder alone at venturing past the boundaries of Hartford estate was enough entertainment all on its own, but his questions—sharp and intelligent, the answers seized with an endless appetite for information—kept up an exchange of the likes Hannibal had not had the pleasure of since University.
There was no subject on which Will had complete knowledge, but no subject on which he had none at all, and they compared, bantered, and argued away the hours. It was truly another side to his mate that Hannibal was profoundly charmed by, especially as the more intense his words became, the more bright-eyed and unselfconscious Will was. He made his points with passionate, earnest eagerness and ready laughter, his usual reserve somewhat loosened by the pain killer and his growing comfort with Hannibal.
Eventually, however, their vigorous discussions and the painkiller sapped his energy and Will’s lids drooped. He slumped into sound slumber, lolling bonelessly against the cushions and unresisting when Hannibal gently eased him around and cradled him to keep him in place.
It was very late when they arrived, but Berger was there waiting for them, having roused the staff into action. Will never woke from his easy, much-needed slumber, not even when his husband carried him up to their suite and tucked him securely into his bed, whispering into the curve of his ear, “Welcome to Marsham Heath, Lord Clarges.”