Will woke in slow, comfortable degrees, blessedly free of his headache. The unfamiliar sounds of an unfamiliar household filtered into his awareness as surely as the strong mid-morning sunlight.
But not quite as quickly as the warmth of a large, decidedly male body curled protectively around him.
Will’s eyes widened to painful proportions and he wriggled with offended outrage, snared in layers of sheets and warm blankets, in the folds of his nightshirt and the tangle of limbs, somehow managing not to wake his sleeping husband.
“Hannibal!” he hissed, freeing one hand from the depths of the bed to shove at the heavy body half pinning him, the scent of Hannibal’s skin mingling with his own to create a perfume that made his body prickle with warmth. “Hannibal, wake up!”
Hannibal murmured something in his sleep and rolled just enough to ease the tension on the covers. Flushed and panting, Will wiggled to sit up and glower at his sleeping husband while he caught his breath. He pushed his hair out of his face and wiped at his sweat-glazed brow, amazed by the heat Hannibal was putting off.
“You really do sleep like the dead!” Will complained, giving him a sour shove.
A soft knock at the door sent Will diving back under the covers, cursing floridly under his breath when Hannibal’s arm snaked around him and he tucked Will close into the curve of his body.
“Come in, Mr. Berger!” Will called, his voice thin with embarrassment.
His embarrassment doubled when his imagination provided him with a detailed vision of what precisely was pressed to his round bottom, separated only by the layers of their nightclothes and underthings.
It was certainly enough to send him slithering from the side of the bed in a heap of outraged dignity to find his feet on the cold rug, hoping for the sake of his pride that Berger hadn’t seen him.
“Ah, Lord Clarges, you’re up!” Jimmy said, pattering into the room while Berger was in the dressing room. “And how are we this morning?”
“Hosting a breakfast, by the look of things,” Hannibal said, his voice raspy with the early hour. He lifted his head to glare towards the dressing room, then at Jimmy, and asked, “Why are you all in here?”
“Why are you in here?!” Will asked, picking up a pillow and whacking him with it, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment.
“This is our bedchamber,” Hannibal said, snagging the pillow and pulling it towards him, and Will along with it.
Will was forced to let it go or else be tucked under Hannibal’s chest as the pillow was.
It annoyed him to the tips of his toes that part of him wished he had been.
“Wait, our bedchamber?” he asked belatedly, looking to Jimmy for answers, but his smiling valet turned with abrupt haste and made himself busy in the washroom, leaving Will to level another glare at his husband’s back. “Our bedchamber?”
“Marsham Heath is a very small holding, Will,” Hannibal said, his voice muffled by the pillow he’d nuzzled into. “The staff weren’t expecting us. Our arrival was quite the surprise, despite Berger’s small warning.”
Will’s chin tipped up and he moved closer, asking, “But there are more bedchambers?”
Hannibal lifted his head again and rolled to look at Will, who didn’t give ground or even blush.
“I’m tempted to say there aren’t.”
Will’s nostrils flared with his sudden intake of breath and he said with admirable menace, “You are lucky there are witnesses.”
“Not as lucky as I am that you don’t snore,” Hannibal said, slumping back into the pillows and chuckling at Will’s soft snarl. “Welcome to Marsham Heath, Will.”
It gave Will a slight jolt of excitement despite the circumstances and he went to the nearest window to pull back the drapes, ignoring his husband’s admonishment when the blinding morning light poured in.
Trees blanketed everything almost as far as the eye could see, but in the distance lay a haze of thin gray clouds in the air and the barest impression of the Capital beneath it.
“We passed it in the night,” Will murmured, pressing his hand to the glass. “I’m sorry I missed it.”
“You didn’t miss much,” Hannibal said, rolling onto his back and sitting up, the open throat of his nightshirt revealing his chest and the light furring of hair over his heart. Will’s eyes focused on it despite himself and he turned back to the window so abruptly he almost smacked his nose into the glass. “It was so late no one was about except drunks staggering home. But the gas lamps are rather pretty. We’ll visit a time or two while we’re here, perhaps even stay over in the Townhouse so you can see them.”
Will looked at him with such ill-concealed excitement that Hannibal grinned. “We can remove to the Townhouse if you take a shine to the city. I think it will exhaust you with entertainment.”
“I hope so,” Will said, moving away from the window to reach another across the room, his toes spreading against the soft nap of the cold carpeting. “I do wish to put sight to the places I’ve read about.”
He tugged the dark, heavy drape wide open and gazed out at the world before him. The window faced the front of the house, which was situated on a hill just a short jaunt from a large town spread out all the way to the distance, as if stretching towards the road that connected it to the Capital just an hour away.
Will’s eyes swept the entire city, amazed by its size and grandeur.
“Why is it called Marsham Heath?” he asked, absorbed with drinking in the new sights before him.
“The heaths once spread where the town now sits,” Hannibal told him. “The forests quickly overtook everything.”
“I had noticed,” Will said, thumbing through the pages of his memory for the facts he’d accumulated on this estate.
“Impressive for a mining town, isn’t it?” Hannibal said, pausing in the act of rising from his bed just to admire the sight of Will standing at the window. The morning light cascaded through his nightshirt, outlining the firm sweep of his body beneath in a hazy silhouette. It caught the gleams of light brown in his dark curls and crowned him with gold. There was something touchingly innocent in the way he looked back at Hannibal, his blue eyes bright with excitement, something that brought Hannibal to the window next to him to see the world from his perspective.
“Forestry was once the chief industry of Marsham Heath,” Will said, his skin prickling with the heat of Hannibal’s body next to his. “Now I see why.”
“Ah, yes, but the lure of riches was too great to resist, and mining has made this town quite prosperous in its own right,” Hannibal said, smiling down at the city he hadn’t properly seen since childhood.
“It truly shows,” Will said, and tapped the glass in the direction of a particularly beautiful home. “Who lives there? It’s such a grand house!”
“That would be the Crawfords,” Hannibal supplied, looking over his shoulder at their respective valets bickering quietly in the dressing room. “Jack and his wife, Phyllis, though everyone calls her Bella. He owns the remaining shares of Grandfather’s mines. He is also both the Mayor of the city as well as the Magistrate. I met him once when I was younger, rather imposing character at the time. I imagine we shall have an invitation to dine with them once word gets out.”
“Magistrate as well as Mayor,” Will mused, impressed. “He must have mediated some interesting cases.”
“That I rather doubt,” Hannibal said, chuckling. “The town is still quite rural, Will, for all its modern niceties. I cannot imagine much of interest ever happens here.”
“I certainly hope not,” Will said, sighing when he thought of the situation they had left behind at Hartford House. “I am looking forward to some peace and quiet.”
“I imagine so.” Hannibal reached out and smoothed Will’s hair back with a gentle smile, asking, “Does your head hurt much?”
“No, thank you,” Will said, allowing the inspection and lifting tentative fingers to feel the lump on his head. “It’s gone down, and I’m hardly sore at all.”
“That is good news,” Hannibal told him, relieved to see that the bump had settled and lost its livid coloring, though the purple-on-green bruise was still worrisome. He traced the arch of Will’s brow with his thumb, delighted by the spasm of irritation that furrowed his smooth forehead, his amusement replaced by warmth and affection as he gazed down at his spouse.
Will’s lush mouth parted just enough to bare the tips of his pearly teeth and his eyes flicked up as he whispered, “What is it?”
“I have tried twice to kiss you,” Hannibal murmured, gazing at him with his amber eyes half-lidded.
Will’s pink tongue darted out to wet his plump lower lip but his chin tipped up and he corrected, “Once, Lord Clarges. You have tried once. The first time was merely for show.”
Hannibal chuckled at that. “We keep getting interrupted. Perhaps—”
“Lord Clarges, beg your pardon, but the maids got you sorted,” Berger said, emerging from the dressing room with Hannibal’s travel valise and boots in hand. “This is the last of it. I’ll get your shaving water ready.”
“And your water is drawn, Lord Clarges,” Jimmy said to Will, pronouncing the title with particular relish.
Hannibal dropped his hand with an amused sigh, feeling a pang of disappointment.
“It looks as if there are more bedchambers after all,” he said, and felt compelled to add, “Much to my vast dissatisfaction.
Will stepped away from him with a small half smile on his full lips, saying, “If you’ll excuse me, Hannibal.”
Hannibal watched him make his way into the washroom, glancing back once over his shoulder, thoughtful and assessing, but with a hint of awareness that warmed Hannibal to see.
“One of these days we won’t be interrupted,” he mused, watching the door close. But he knew he had some issues to settle before he could take any real satisfaction or pleasure in wooing his spouse.
With his mind firmly settled on his plans, Hannibal left Will’s suite for his own newly-made-up bedchamber and told Berger, “Have horses prepared for us, Berger. You and I have some traveling to do today. Did you warn the Misses I would be arriving?”
“Didn’t think I should in case plans changed,” Berger said. “They was glad to get the warning and ain’t seen hide nor hair of him so far. Will you miss breakfast, m’Lord?”
“No,” Hannibal said, moving to the stand where his shaving water waited, steaming and hot. “After breakfast will do.”
The sooner he left, the sooner he would return, he knew, but he didn’t want to miss spending some time with Will this morning.
He’d missed quite enough time already, and he found himself greedy for more.
Will made short, efficient work of washing up, as he always did, with Jimmy bustling about settling things, as he’d had no chance to do so the night before.
“Is Francis nearby?”
“Outside of your doorway,” Jimmy said, his smile tight and false. “As always.”
“Jimmy, please try to like him for my sake,” Will said. “He is here to protect me.”
“I will try, Mr. Graham, but he unsettles me,” Jimmy said, concern pinching his round features as he set out Will’s clothing. “There is something about him… like a strange dog you’re never sure will bite you.”
“Francis doesn’t bite, Jimmy,” Will said, summoning a soft chuckle despite the concern it raised. He trusted Jimmy’s judgment and if his pleasant valet found fault in Francis, then it wasn’t without reason.
With Jimmy’s assistance, he was dressed and ready in record time and emerged onto the landing to find Francis just beyond his doorway. He caught Hannibal’s scent there, as well, the strong, warm-earth and comforting fragrance easily more detectable than the faint hot ashes and leather scent that swirled around Francis Dolarhyde.
“Good morning, Lord Clarges,” he said, casting his eyes down and dipping his head, as if every greeting required a show of abasement.
“Good morning, Mr. Dolarhyde,” Will said. “Please, you needn’t be so formal. I have no idea how you were treated in my sister’s house, but here you are more friend than servant, whatever role you may play.”
Francis’ blue eyes flicked up, uncertain and seeking. When Will smiled at him, he lifted his head and smiled in return.
“Walk with me, please,” Will said, deciding to take advantage of their momentary privacy for their conversation.
Francis fell into step lagging just a pace behind him, a trailing, hulking shadow at his back. He didn’t start or react in any way when Will said, “I want you to promise me that you will not attempt to hurt Hannibal.”
Will paused on the landing near the stairs, waiting to see if there would be a reply.
“Francis, you spoke to me of being my friend,” he said, turning to face the silent Alpha behind him. “You spoke of taking action against a threat towards me, when the understanding was that Hannibal embodied that very threat. I can assure you now that is not the case. I must adamantly insist that no action is to be taken against my husband.”
Francis stared at him, the dragon within him pushing against the man without, sharp claws and bloody snout and starving gullet. It sharpened the scent of him to sulfur, an acrid, unpleasant trace of sourness that prickled Will’s sinuses.
“If anyone tries to hurt you, Mr. Graham, I will stop them,” he said, the words harsh despite being whispered, knife-sharp and dangerous, his eyes blazing with fervor.
“Then that should settle it,” Will said, merely gazing at him, too inured to the threat of violence to be intimidated by such a show. “As Hannibal will never try to hurt me. He is a soldier, Francis, with nearly a decade of combat service in his experience. I cannot trust that he would show restraint were you to threaten him. I cannot guarantee that you would survive such rash action. I say this out of concern for the both of you—do not challenge my husband. You are an intelligent man, Francis. You can see how unwise it would be.”
Francis stared at him, unblinking.
“Hurting Hannibal would hurt me, Francis,” Will said, changing tactics. “And that would violate your oath to protect me, would it not?”
Francis clenched his teeth, hands curling into tight fists at his sides, but he dropped his head and murmured, “Yes, Mr. Graham. I understand.”
“Then I will hold you to your promise, Francis,” Will said, a note of warning in his firm voice. “And trust that you will keep it.”
Hannibal was already comfortably seated in the modest dining room when he heard footsteps heading towards him. Mr. Thatcher, the aged butler, promptly opened the door with perfect timing.
Will came in heralded only by the faint perfume of his sweet scent. Still lacking the rest of the clothing Hannibal had purchased for him, he was dressed in his usual sober wardrobe, which only served to highlight his pale skin and the shiny gloss of his curls, rendering that full mouth of his the somber pout of a tragic poet. It was little wonder people grew silent when he approached. Such beauty required a moment to admire it.
“Good morning,” Hannibal called, smiling when Will tipped his head, only making bare eye contact. “You look very lovely.”
Will laughed softly and looked over his shoulder, saying, “That is very kind of you, Lord Clarges, but I believe a word such as ‘handsome’ would suit Mr. Thatcher better than ‘lovely’.”
He seated himself at the table, genuinely amused as he unfolded his napkin.
“Yes, handsome would suit Mr. Thatcher rather better than lovely,” Hannibal agreed. “But I wasn’t speaking to him, Will. I was speaking to you.”
“Well,” Will said, faint pink flushing his cheeks. “Mr. Thatcher? Could you bring a fresh pot of tea? I believe there is something the matter with this one. It has had a strange effect on his Lordship.”
“Leave it, Thatch, thank you. And I am not suffering from spiked tea, Will,” Hannibal said, brows rising when Will’s own brows lowered, agitation coloring his features. “I am complimenting you.”
Will gave up all pretence of attempting to have his breakfast and stared at Hannibal. After a long moment, he asked, “What are you about, Hannibal?”
“I have lived with my appearance far longer than you’ve had the occasion to look upon it,” Will said, a soft smirk curving his lips. “I am more than aware of its paltry sum. Therefore, I can only surmise that you have some purpose to your flattery?”
Those flashing blue eyes met his, teasing, but brimming beneath with something else that in all honesty was hurt.
‘Do you think yourself handsome, Will? Pretty, perhaps? It must be upsetting to realize that you are not as pretty as you think you are. When I was told I had a wife waiting for me, I did not expect someone so particularly plain as you…’
“The purpose of my flattery, if you must call it that, is to repair the damage I have done,” Hannibal said. “I find you lovely, Will. In truth, I find you beautiful. And when I am enjoying the sight of you, I will tell you so.”
Will blinked. “Then I am content never to hear it from you again and we can put this strange encounter behind us as a badly-laid joke. Have you any plans for the morning?”
“I am in danger of becoming agitated, Lord Clarges,” Will warned him, giving him a stern look. “Please do not persist. I realize your humor is beyond perverse, and usually I would appreciate that, but it is early in an otherwise pleasant day and if you press me, you may find yourself in peril.”
“Well, then at great risk to my personal safety, I will inform you that I am resolved, Will. If you will not stand to hear me call you beautiful, then I will kiss you every time I think to say it,” Hannibal said with the satisfied air of a cat who got the cream. “I did win our little wager, after all.”
Will turned pink to the tips of his adorable ears and fumbled with his silverware in surprise.
“You dropped your book,” Hannibal reminded him, grinning when Will glared at him. “When you were scolding me about mistaking rooms again.”
“No,” Will said, blinking rapidly as he seized on that moment, recalling all too clearly how he had, indeed, dropped his book and been distracted. “Those were not the terms of our wager!”
“Were they not?” Hannibal queried, delighted.
“No, as you well know it!” Will said, and added in a scandalized, hushed whisper, “It was whether you could distract me from my book while we were… otherwise engaged.”
Hannibal cocked one eyebrow up and chuckled, admiring that he didn’t back down in the least. “I never said that. I distracted you from your book, so I won. Or will you go back on your word?”
“I would never do so, Hannibal!” Will told him, his voice sharp and clipped.
Hannibal quirked one brow and reached for him, smug when Will skated a skittish glance at him, uncertain and nervous. The glance grew into rounded, wide eyes that quickly narrowed, priming for a fight as his husband’s hand drew near.
Hannibal, though, merely took his hand and planted a soft, tea-sweet kiss on Will’s knuckles. He got a split second of compliance, instinctive reaction to the affection Will had gone so long without, and then Will pulled away with a dark glare, leaving Hannibal smiling at him.
“You are beyond incorrigible!” Will informed him, buttering his scone with a gentle grace that belied his dark tone.
“And you are delightful when you are agitated,” Hannibal said. Unable to resist, he added, “provided you have nothing to fling at my person.”
That earned him another dark glare, but amusement sparkled in Will’s blue eyes along with some measure of pleased delight that his methods did not go unnoticed.
Hannibal grinned, the tips of his sharp Alpha teeth bared as he said, “Prepare yourself to be kissed quite often, Will, unless you would prefer for me to say it?”
“No, I would not, and you’re being absurd,” Will said, rallying despite his embarrassment. He took a cautious nibble of his scone and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “I am not now and have never been beautiful, Lord Clarges. There are some things that insistence simply cannot change. Sow’s ears do not become silk purses and wallflowers do not become beauties just because you demand it. There is a limit even to your power.”
“Is there?” Hannibal asked, enjoying the mute, fiery spark in his blue eyes. “I have never noticed that to be the case.”
“Of course you haven’t!” Will scoffed, taking a sip of his tea before saying, “Your ego would never allow for the possibility!”
Hannibal chuckled but said nothing, merely continued his breakfast, delighting in the comfortable ease of being with his mate. He had never imagined they would deal well with one another in any respect, but the more time they spent together, the more Hannibal realized that they were incredibly well suited.
Now he only had to convince Will of that.
“You inquired about my plans, so I will tell you that I’ve made arrangements with Magistrate Crawford’s men and our staff to make you comfortable today,” Hannibal said, sipping his tea. “I would very much appreciate it if you would limit yourself to the House and the garden for now, Will. You’re still very close to your injury and shouldn’t push yourself with too much exercise.”
Will looked over at him, questions in his blue eyes. “Are you leaving, Hannibal?”
“I have some business to take care of at Galley Field,” Hannibal said, refilling Will’s tea and putting another scone on his plate. “I won’t be long, but I wanted to get it taken care of before anyone properly knows we are here, in order to reduce the risk to you. When I return this evening, there is a great deal I should like to tell you. But I must get everything settled before I attempt to do so.”
Will absorbed that, recalling that Galley Field was less than two hours’ distance from Marsham Heath, opposite the Capital. The estates were nearly neighbors in the grand scheme of things, he knew, and he scolded himself for not recalling before now.
Not even twenty-four hours into their flight from Hartford, and his husband was winging off away to see his proper family. Little wonder, then, that he had attempted such useless flattery. As if Will could ever be diverted by flowery words of praise without substance.
“There is no hurry to return to your present company. I have done well enough on my own for six years, Lord Clarges,” Will reminded him, his husband’s announcement tipping the scales of what had occurred between them in the past few days, confirmation of him being entirely as typical and predictable as a man—especially an Alpha—could be. It gave him a certain cruel pleasure to say to Hannibal, “And Francis will be with me.”
“Francis is to accompany staff to go collect your wardrobe directly from Avery’s sister store; I am hopeful the whole of it is finished,” Hannibal told him, trying to coax a smile from him, aware of the way Will shuttered himself back up of a sudden and knowing well enough the cause. “Though I must admit, you make a fine Chaplain.”
“Francis will stay with me,” Will said, in no mood now to be cajoled with teasing. He met Hannibal’s gaze directly, brooking no argument, and said, “Jimmy may go, but Francis is entirely at my disposal.”
“Will, Francis is dangerous—”
“We are all of us dangerous, Hannibal,” Will said, blotting his mouth with his napkin and laying it aside. “Myself included. We will be fine in your absence. I have a great many things to tend to now that I am here and you would only be underfoot.”
“Will,” Hannibal said, not wishing to speak of the particulars until things were settled but poised to do just that. “Francis is not the man you imagine him to be—”
“Fortunately for us all, I am used to being continuously disappointed in my estimation of the men around me,” Will said, settling his teacup into its saucer with care. “Have a safe journey, Lord Clarges.”
“Will—” He got to his feet as Will did, but his little mate vanished through the door with his shoulders squared and his back ramrod straight, a slender soldier victorious from the battlefield.
Hannibal slumped back into his chair with a tired sigh, annoyed that he had not had a chance to explain himself to Will, or tell him what he planned to do. In the future, he knew, he would put the cart before the horse if necessary, so long as Will had the answers he needed to be content.
With little other recourse and with both Magistrate Crawford’s men and the entirety of the remaining staff set to keep a close eye on his mate, Hannibal pushed to his feet and went to inform Berger that they were leaving.
What lay ahead of him was uncertain enough and he was already anxious to get back and explain things to Will with a clear conscience.
The House at Marsham Heath was, indeed, an old and rustic structure, but staffed with lovely and kind people who stayed year-round despite the lack of the family’s presence. Will, true to his nature, immediately applied himself to the land agent’s office attached to the near-empty stables and made the acquaintance of one Mr. Wells, who was gruff but quickly warmed up when Will expressed an interest in the estate details, starting with the house proper.
“What can I do to improve the lives of those here at Marsham Heath, Mr. Wells?” Will asked, watching him gather the requested documentation into a packet that he was to later deliver to the house proper. “This place has sat accruing value for years—at least six—and there must be some measure of margin that can be applied to renovations, if only for the sake of those who live here.”
“Plumbing, Lord Clarges,” Mr. Wells said, a worn smile baring his teeth. “Proper piping. The rest of the town has it, but Marsham has never been updated. It’s been near twenty years since a Lecter stepped foot here, to be sure.”
“Have you anyone you can recommend?” Will asked, determined to do precisely what he’d intended to do when he first suggested coming here—fix things.
It helped that it had the secondary purpose of distracting him from his husband’s hasty, near-immediate flight from his presence into the arms of his mistress.
Mr. Wells had several good recommendations, and Will spent a goodly portion of the day with him in his office laying plans, looking at the technical drawings of Marsham Heath drawn up some years back and plotting how best to plumb the House without disturbing the integrity of the structure.
Satisfied to have made some headway in feeling useful after his accident, Will collected Francis from his restless pacing outside the door and headed back up to the House for luncheon.
A young maid was laying out a small table in the back garden for him at Will’s request, the wind catching and teasing strands of dark hair loose from the bun at her nape. She paused when she spied Will, and a pink flush rose on her freckled cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Lord Clarges, I meant to be done before you arrived.”
“No, that’s fine…”
“Abigail,” she said, smoothing her apron and offering a little bob curtsey that was more a nervous gesture than a sign of respect. “Abigail Hobbs.”
“It’s fine, Miss Hobbs,” Will said, smiling to assure her and taking his seat. “Mr. Dolarhyde? Could you bring another chair, please? I have no wish to lunch alone.”
“The staff are coming, Mr. Graham,” Francis said, eyeing the girl as if she offered an unknown threat. “I’ll wait until you are not alone.”
Will was beginning to sympathize more with his sister’s summation of Francis being rather impassioned in his discharge of duty.
He glanced back at Abigail to find her staring at him, a strange yearning in her blue eyes and a slight smile on her lips.
“Excuse me,” she said, shaken free of her odd fascination. “I… I beg your pardon, my Lord, you just… you look different than I imagined you would.”
Will’s brows rose at that and she hastened to say, “I mean, for being at war ten years and—”
Will couldn’t restrain his soft laugh and her look of horrified embarrassment was so abject that he hastily said, “No, Abigail, please, don’t be offended! I apologize, but I am the other Lord Clarges. My husband is the doctor who served in the war. He left quite early. You must have missed him.”
She uttered a soft laugh of relief, her smile wide and beautiful, and said, “I am so sorry, Lord Clarges! I didn’t realize! You were here already when I came up this morning and I thought you were… the other Lord Clarges.”
“Never worry, it is a confusing business,” Will assured her, still chuckling. “You live in the town, then, Miss Hobbs?”
“Yes, with my parents, but—”
“Miss Hobbs, run along, please,” Mr. Thatcher instructed, arriving with a footman bearing Will’s luncheon.
“No, Mr. Thatcher, it’s quite alright,” Will said, waiting for the tray to be settled and unloaded. “If I might request two chairs? Mr. Dolarhyde and Miss Hobbs will be joining me. Please prepare another tray, if it isn’t too much bother.”
“My Lord, Miss Hobbs has duties—”
“I will not keep her overly long,” Will said, insisting. “She is a native to this estate and I am a stranger. I should like to get her perspective.”
Entirely taken aback by the oddity of the request, Mr. Thatcher nonetheless gamely said, “Of course, my Lord. Of course.”
The thick forests of Marsham Heath gave way to the rolling fields that surrounded Galley Field and Hannibal smiled softly, anticipating seeing his little family again despite what he’d tasked himself to do.
Galley Field, much like Hartford House, was an imposing stone structure occupying a large, well-tended park at the end of a tree-shaded gravel lane. It was not quite so large or grand as Hartford, but very fashionable all the same and Hannibal urged his horse into a canter, eager to reach it.
The door opened before he could even dismount and Alana emerged, her belly softly rounded beneath the folds of her gown, her dark hair spilling around her pale face. Close behind her and just as eager came Margot bearing Marissa on her hip, and the little girl immediately squirmed to get down.
Hannibal grinned and dismounted with haste, relieved, as always, to see them healthy and happy.
“Hannibal! Berger, you should have said he was arriving! Shame on you!” Alana said, quick despite the bulk of the baby and tugging Hannibal into an embrace without minding the travel dust.
“It was unexpected. We are temporarily at Marsham Heath,” Hannibal told her, sighing with happiness when her arms were joined by Margot’s and Marissa’s little hands found painful purchase in his hair. “Ah, you little devil! Are you driving the household mad?”
“Always,” Margot said, dislodging Marissa’s grasping fingers and stepping back to offer her to him.
Hannibal scooped her up easily and tickled her tummy, delighted by her shrieking laughter.
“What brings you here, Hannibal?” Alana asked, tucking her hair behind her ear in an absent gesture, her smile turning quizzical. Margot fit next to her like a puzzle piece, arm looped around her back, both of them showing concern at his sudden appearance. “Mr. Berger informed us of your terrible news, so I certainly hope it wasn’t my letter. It was meant to keep you where you were, not encourage your return.”
“No, Alana… shall we go in?” he asked, nodding for Berger to take the horses away. He hitched Marissa up higher in his arms, unmindful of her tugging on his hair again, and escorted his little household back inside.
“How did you find Hartford House on your return?” Margot asked, ringing for service in the drawing room while Alana and Hannibal got settled.
“Absent of your father,” Hannibal remarked, letting Marissa down when she struggled and fondly watching her begin to make busy chaos with enviable speed. His gaze transferred to Margot when she took a seat, graceful and studied in the same cautious ways as a doe. He waited until she was settled before he asked her, “Did you know he was serving a sentence?”
“No, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Margot said, tension suffusing her at even the mention of her father.
“Honestly, should it surprise any of us?” Alana asked, folding Margot’s hand in hers and giving it a warm squeeze. “What were the charges?”
“Fraud,” Hannibal said, stretching his arms along the back of the settee with a sigh, relaxing in the place he’d called home for the past six years, even before Alana and Margot had joined him. “He’d been mismanaging Hartford for years, fleecing quite a substantial sum, by the looks of it. Will immediately realized what was happening and had him arrested, though no funds were ever recovered. I imagine it all went to pay Mason’s debts.”
“Some,” Margot said with a wry, slight smile. “I’m sure it couldn’t touch what he’s managed. Please tell me you’ve had word of where he is.”
“No, I haven’t. I sent Berger to tell you the news the moment I was able. I’m nervous that his whereabouts are a mystery and I worry for your safety,” Hannibal sighed, rubbing at his forehead. “Ladies, I cannot stress to you how important it is that you open any and all letters from Mr. Tier! Your lives might very well depend on it! I don’t imagine he would think to look for you here, but be vigilant nonetheless.”
“Trust me, he wouldn’t make it past the gate,” Alana said, her usual sweetness hardening for a moment into pure menace. “I’d set the dogs on him.”
“I certainly hope so,” Hannibal said, smiling when Marissa clambered back into his lap, her dress seam torn and her hair untidy, but her smile entirely delighted. He stroked the warm dome of her skull and silky hair, sighing softly. After a contemplative moment, he looked at the two women seated across from him and said, “Ladies, I’m afraid I’m here to announce a change in our arrangement.”
They exchanged a look, but it was Alana who spoke first, saying, “We haven’t had a chance to keep our promise to you, Hannibal—”
“You are released from your promise to me, both of you,” he said, idly allowing Marissa to tug on his arm and toy with his cuff. “You have offered a great deal of respite from an otherwise wearying world these past years, and that is payment enough for the escape I offered you.”
Alana’s mouth pursed. Margot looked cautious and almost angry, prompting Hannibal to say, “You will, naturally, still move to the campus once the School is completed. The arrangements for your house on the grounds will not be changed. For now, I think it would be best to move you to the seaside near the garrison. I have friends among the soldiers who will check in on you.”
“I would hate to leave Galley Field so close to delivering the child, but I suppose it is for the best,” Alana said, pensive and troubled. “If Mason is unaccounted for, we are far too rural for comfort.”
“I will continue to support your household, of course, until you can drawn income from the school,” Hannibal said. “And the stipend for Marissa and the child will remain, no matter the circumstances.”
“That’s too generous,” Margot said, her voice husky but taut. “Hannibal—”
“Margot, I know that your experiences with your father and brother have made you understandably hesitant to feel indebted to anyone at all,” Hannibal said, the very seriousness of his tone making both women relax slightly, “but we rescued one another. You are a gifted student, Margot, and will make a fine doctor.” He turned his piercing gaze to Alana, then, saying, “and you are one of the very rare few I can trust to manage the School properly, Alana. You are pregnant, in part, because of your promise to me, and this child will not suffer for a change in our plans.”
“This child will not suffer at all,” Alana firmly said, one hand on the rise of her belly. “He has a home, whether you are with us or not.”
Hannibal swallowed hard, touched.
“That is what you’re saying, Hannibal, is it not?” Alana pressed. “That not just our arrangement, but our circumstances have changed?”
“It is,” he admitted. “My return to Hartford House offered many surprises, not the least of which is my spouse.”
Alana and Margot smiled as if on cue, one smug, the other quietly happy.
“Nothing, it will only put you in a snit,” Alana said, grinning. “It certainly wasn’t a bet between us.”
“Wagering, ladies? Such scandalous conduct,” Hannibal said, surprised into soft laughter. He scooped Marissa back into his lap when she lurched for open air and cradled her there, where she squirmed only a little before settling, happy to play with his pocket watch.
“Well, we have set a new standard for scandal,” Margot said, lifting her trapped hand to press a kiss to Alana’s knuckles. “Both of us living here with you in sinful debauchery as we do.”
“We have all benefited from that perception, but I will be sure that your notoriety does not follow you to the School,” Hannibal said, rocking the little one in his lap. “You have a new future ahead of you, ladies, as do I. But I will never forsake you, I can promise you that, nor will I forsake this little darling right here.”
He gently tapped Marissa’s nose for emphasis and smiled down at her.
“I admit, I would hate for you to leave her,” Margot said, gazing at Marissa with such vast love in her eyes that all else paled in comparison. “She would miss you terribly, and you have always treated her as your own.”
“She is my own,” Hannibal said, stroking Marissa’s dark ringlets as she yawned, quite content to fall asleep in his lap. “I delivered her.”
“You know what she means, Hannibal,” Alana said, tenderly repressive. “Don’t tease Margot or I’ll be forced to become cross.”
She settled back in her seat and drew her legs up next to her, curving towards Margot, who shifted to cradle her.
“And then I will become cross,” Margot warned him, an admirable glint in her eyes.
“What a small chance I have always stood against that,” Hannibal said. “I will always treat Marissa as my own; neither she, nor either of you, nor the baby, will ever lack for anything. That was part of my promise to you, after all.”
“Love is an innocent sin we should not suffer for,” Alana softly said, her gaze growing distant, even as Margot’s face tightened with remembered pain. “You have kept your promise, Hannibal. We’re safe. We live untroubled and happy lives. Mason made us both so miserable… I’m proud that Marissa would think of a man like you as her father, instead.”
“Trust me, as a child whose father is a monster,” Margot said, her gaze steady but sheened in pain, “it’s better not to know where you truly came from. But will your husband feel the same?”
“I haven’t discussed any of this with him as yet,” Hannibal admitted. “I wanted to settle our situation to your satisfaction and see what you were comfortable with. While I may not be able to bring you all to live at Hartford under my protection, I am sure Will would not begrudge Marissa spending time enough with us to benefit from our position. He has an incredibly keen understanding of the people around him and would never be needlessly cruel. I will tell him everything, with your permission.”
Alana looked at Margot and softly said, “It’s your decision, Margot.”
Margot took a deep breath and said, “If you trust him with it, Hannibal, then it’s as much your story as ours. We spun the world a fairy tale to keep their tongues busy and their minds as far from the truth as we could manage. Alana and I… you know we never hoped we could have a family such as this. Your promise has given us a family.”
“Which makes me doubly responsible for the child you carry now,” Hannibal said. “Which makes him just as much mine as he is yours.”
“Ours,” Margot put in, the word quiet but firm.
“Ours,” Hannibal conceded.
“All this time, Hannibal, you’ve never once asked,” Alana said, watching him. “Don’t you ever wonder who his father is?”
“No,” Hannibal said, the answer immediate and firm. “Unless it was Thomas Marlow, in which case I am turning you all out immediately.”
Alana burst into laughter, horrified, and Margot said, “Please give us credit for taste, Hannibal. We were choosy with purpose and Thomas Marlow simply doesn’t measure up.”
“But he is such a dear, loving man!” Alana sighed, her laughter tapering. “One could never ask for a more staunch supporter than Mr. Marlow; however, I’m afraid we could never consider him a suitable father.”
“Would you like for us to tell you, Hannibal?” Margot asked.
Hannibal shook his head in the negative, thinking of Will and his vast capacity to trust when his entire life had taught him how deadly it could be. “It doesn’t matter to me. I will assume he is someone of importance to one or both of you and, frankly, it isn’t my business.”
“You were going to present this child as your heir, Hannibal,” Alana said, scolding him in that gentle way she had. “Though I maintain my stance that your grandfather would never have fallen for it.”
“Family isn’t determined by blood, as both of you know all too well,” Hannibal said, gazing with affection at both of them. “We have been a family here, have we not?”
“And now you will have another,” Alana said, adding with a sigh and an exaggerated swoon against Margot, “The romance.”
“The passion,” Margot said, brows rising over her expressive eyes.
“You read far too many novels,” Hannibal said, chuckling at their playful teasing. Under their fond gazes, he quietly admitted, “He is… indescribably wondrous.”
“Well,” Alana said, her smile widening. “I guess you’ll just really have to try.”
“Indeed,” Margot said with relish. “We need every detail of the Omega who has managed to garner your good opinion in so short an amount of time.”
“I doubt I can do him justice,” Hannibal said, thinking of his feisty little mate. “But I shall certainly do my best.”
After a delightful luncheon with both Abigail and Francis, who relaxed enough to finally begin smiling at Abigail instead of scowling, Will decided he would take a walk and see more of the woods that pushed so close to the house proper.
“But Mr. Graham, we’ve been instructed to keep you near—”
“If you are with me, Francis, then I am near,” Will pointed out, tipping his face to the slight breeze and taking a deep breath. “My head is trying to ache again and I find myself restless.”
Francis cast an anxious look at the sun, prompting Will to tell him, “We won’t go far, or be gone for long. I have no desire to cause problems, Francis, I just… I feel unsettled and in need of fresh air.”
Francis cracked the barest smile and said with gruff reluctance, “Then we will have a walk, Mr. Graham.”
Will smiled at him, relieved on that count, and headed across the lawn to reach the treeline.
It was peaceful within but not still. Nestled into the fronds of the evergreens and scattered throughout the soaring canopies of the towering wood were squirrels and birds at their noisome business against a backdrop of rhythmic tree frog song. Will stepped into the refreshing, cooler air beneath the towering branches and spotted a thin deer trail cutting through the abundant undergrowth. He made his way over to it with Francis on his heels, taking deep, relaxing breaths and just absorbing the calm.
“How have you spent your time since last you saw me, Francis?” Will asked, hoping to distract himself from thoughts of Hannibal and the strange ache in his chest that he had so desperately hoped not to feel.
“I went into the Navy, Mr. Graham,” Francis said, his husky voice sounding closer than Will expected, and he picked up his pace some, not nearly as settled with Francis as he had tried to convince Hannibal he was. It felt strange somehow to be with an Alpha who was not family and not his husband, uncomfortable as a fine hair blown into the eye, nagging and impossible to ease.
“Did you see a great many places?” Will asked, spying an outcrop of stone up ahead, the beginnings of the rocks which led onto the greater areas of the mines.
“Enough places, Mr. Graham, that I was glad to come home to our shores,” Francis said. “I—”
He cut off suddenly and stopped with the same abruptness, snagging Will by the tail of his jacket with force enough to tug him back a step.
“Francis, what on earth?” Will asked, surprised that he would touch him, but the scolding died when he saw how Francis stared ahead like a bird dog pointing at prey, nostrils flaring and eyes wide. A twinge of unease gripped him, then, and he whispered, “What is it?”
“Blood,” Francis said, whispering in return. “It stinks of blood.”
Will turned with grim determination to hurry back up the trail, and when Francis moved to stop him, he said, “Someone must be hurt! We might be the only ones to help them!”
Will went around the rock outcrop and only just kept himself from slamming into someone coming from a cross trail.
“Mr. Graham!” Francis was at his side in an instant, drawing him back and away, his usual deference abandoned to bristling and genuine threat as he moved towards the stranger.
Will caught the coppery scent of blood and the stench of rancid lard, a combination that greatly tested the strength of his stomach, even as he stared at the man—the Alpha—staring at them, in turn.
He was dressed as a woodsman, skins and leather despite the heat, and glared at Will with his eyes showing white all around, as if as stunned to see an Omega in such as place as Will was to see a strange Alpha.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his shock echoing in his words.
“This is Lord Clarges, and you trespass on his lands,” Francis said, and the power he hid so well behind his diffidence showed itself, the lash of his Alpha voice making Will start. “What is your business here?”
“I’m Hobbs,” he said, looking from Francis to Will. “The groundskeeper.”
“Marsham Heath has no groundskeeper,” Will said, regaining his senses enough to notice the fresh blood on Hobbs’ hands and clothing, flecks of droplets freckling his skin. “Hobbs? Are you a relation of Abigail’s?”
“Abigail?” Hobbs echoed, his gaze turning icy. “And what do you know of my little girl, Lord Clarges?”
“That she is nothing like her father,” Will said, his sense that something was fundamentally flawed with this man making him shorter in his temper than he wished. The scent of decay made Will’s stomach churn, and only seemed to agitate Francis, who trembled next to him with the force of his restraint. “Why is there blood on your hands?”
“I was hunting,” Hobbs snapped.
“I see no weapons,” Will said, shoulders squaring when Hobbs’ glare gained intensity. “And where is your prey?”
“That’s not your business, your Lordship.”
For a moment Will was sure Francis would flatten him for his pert reply, but instead the angry Alpha said, “You are poaching on his lands! You’re a thief, and you’ll answer him, else the Magistrate will hear of this!”
Hobbs sneered at him, and turned that sneer on Will.
“Bonded to one and another on a leash, eh?” he asked, his tone nasty. “Do I sicken you, little Lordling? You’re sick, aren’t you? Just the scent of me turns your gut.”
“You’ll mind your tongue—”
“Francis,” Will sharply said, relieved when he backed down, though he was tense as a bowstring. “Mr. Hobbs, as I find your daughter a delight, I will excuse your comments and assume that this rude behavior of yours is the result of troubles I have no knowledge of. I hope the next time we meet, you are in a far better frame of mind and far less confrontational, for your own good. For now, please leave these woods and allow us to go on our way.”
Hobbs stared at him, his blue eyes wild with something primal, as if some part of his nature had twisted in on itself and left a suppurating wound that permeated his scent with corruption.
“You’re as unnatural as I am,” Hobbs said, and laughed, though it was a forced, unhappy sound that tugged at Will’s nerves like a hook caught in a trout’s mouth. “How did you manage it? Bonding to someone without them—”
“The next insult will be the last I will tolerate,” Will said, stiffening with offence. “Be on your way, Mr. Hobbs. Now.”
Francis loomed towards him, which sent him on his way, though he craned to look back at them as long as he could.
“Well,” Will said, drawing a deep breath to clear his lungs of that unwholesome odor, though it seemed to linger in his nose in a way even Francis’ hot-metal scent couldn’t cover. “That was decidedly unpleasant.”
Francis stood with stiff readiness in the middle of the trail, staring in the direction Hobbs had gone, shoulders tense as if he expected the other Alpha to return and risk his ire.
“We should go back, Mr. Graham,” Francis said, easing down by slow degrees. His blue eyes flicked over Will’s face as he turned, but he kept his thoughts to himself. “It’s dangerous to be in an unfamiliar place so far from others.”
Will frowned, unhappy with the idea of returning so soon, but he erred on the side of sense and admitted, “Yes, Francis. I think that would be for the best after all. My head is aching quite a lot, now, and I think I might need to lie down.”
He turned back the way they’d come, retracing their steps to the house once more, but his thoughts stayed there in the woods, dwelling on an Alpha who stank of blood and rot and wondering how on earth he’d seen the truth about Will’s twisted, ugly bond.