Will stalked down the lane with purpose, Winston and his guard at his heels. His mouth was set with grim determination, his blue eyes narrowed behind the shield of his glasses. He was as much worried for Abigail’s state of mind as he was for her safety, and felt his indignation rise that she would have been deceived so cruelly.
Someone somewhere along the line had brought Abigail to believe she was Hannibal’s daughter, either to reassure her or to mislead her—either way, he was going to get to the bottom of it before things could go any further. Telling stories to entertain was one thing, but deliberately misleading a child was something he could not bear, nor tolerate.
There was no sign of Abigail on the trail along the way. The smokehouse was pouring its acrid, unpleasant scent into the air as Will approached the Hobbs’ house. He idly noted it in passing, cataloguing the fact that Mr. Hobbs must have been successful in that aspect, at least.
He could hear shouting ahead, Abigail’s voice raised in hysterical denials, and quickened his pace in concern, his guard calling a nervous warning after him.
Before he could reach the cottage, the door opened and Mrs. Hobbs emerged, the beautiful little hat box in hand, her face pinched and drawn. She caught sight of Will and paled, if such a thing was possible given her current state.
“Mrs. Hobbs,” he called, thrusting Winston’s lead at the guard, who fumbled to take it, leaving Will to move ahead. “Louise! There is something I need to speak to you about.”
“Please, my Lord, just take it and go,” she said, wretched pleading in her voice as she hurried towards him. She sounded teary and disturbed, her blue eyes darting around in expectation of interruption. She held the box out at arm’s length, a vain attempt to keep him at bay. “She’s beside herself! She’s not thinking clearly!”
“Mrs. Hobbs, Abigail seems to believe something that is patently untrue,” Will said, and waved an impatient hand at the young officer to halt him in his tracks. He lowered his voice and moved closer to Mrs. Hobbs, saying, “Who told Abigail that she is Lord Clarges’ daughter?”
“Please, my Lord,” she said, trembling. “Please, let it lie!”
“Mrs. Hobbs,” Will said, unable to repress his Gift in the face of her distress. “Louise… I cannot help you if you will not tell me what has been said! Your daughter’s happiness is at stake. If you believe for one moment that I have any ill designs on Abigail—”
“Please, don’t!” she cried, and covered her mouth as if appalled at herself. When she spoke again, her voice was small and broken on tears as she said, “We only did as we had to, my Lord. Please, I don’t expect you to understand or forgive us, but what choice did we have?”
Will stared at her, incredulity filling his blue eyes. “What are you saying?” he breathed.
“We only wanted a baby,” she said, a sob overtaking her. “What were we to do? And there she was, perfect and pretty as you please. What were we to do?”
They were interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Hobbs in the cottage doorway, thunderous and scowling, the rancid scent of him like a slap to Will’s senses. He came towards them rapidly, anger etching every line of his tense body even down to his clenched fists.
“We took her,” Mrs. Hobbs whispered, her blue eyes filled with despair but the confession forced from her, as if some deep part of her soul longed for absolution she could only find in Will’s shocked stare. “He didn’t want her anyway, did he? Not then, sending her off from the House as he did! Miriam handed her to me, and gave back the other. We meant no harm, all I wanted was my daughter—”
“You have no business here!” Mr. Hobbs shouted, and the officer scurried to intercept him, alarmed by his shouting. But Mr. Hobbs only had eyes for Will, eyes filled with fear and contempt.
“Go,” Mrs. Hobbs said, pushing the hat box against his chest, forcing Will to clutch it to him lest it fall to the ground, “I beg you—I beg you—not to deal harshly with us! I only wanted to reassure her! He wouldn’t want her after all this time, would he? Not our Abigail!”
“You’ll not take her from me!” Mr. Hobbs roared, barely noticing Winston snarling and barking, nor taking heed of the officer’s warnings. He stared at Will, the darkness seeping out of him like the cloying scent of decay. “She’s mine, you hear? She’s my daughter! You’ve no right to come here, filling her head with fairy tales! Giving her gifts she doesn’t need!”
“Mr. Hobbs! I must insist you go inside!” the officer shouted, handing Winston’s lead back to Will in order to step into Mr. Hobbs’ path. Mrs. Hobbs, too, was trying to soothe him, casting sorrowful, anxious glances back at Will.
“You can’t have her!” Hobbs snarled, and Will flinched from the Alpha roar in his voice, from the madness that seemed to break against him like a wave on stones. “She’s mine!”
Will drew Winston’s lead through his hand, shortening it to keep the furious dog close to his side. With one final, unhappy look at the chaos before him, he took firm hold of the hat box, turned on his heel, and strode back towards Marsham Heath.
“I’ll report this, m’Lord—”
“Don’t do that,” Will said, cutting the officer off as he caught up, his worry subsiding to confusion. “This is a private family matter. Magistrate Crawford has no reason to involve himself.”
“But Miss Abbie was crying, my Lord,” the young man said, and Will paused to assess him, seeing the worry on his face and the way his eyes flicked back towards the cottage, stricken.
“Constable,” Will said, noting how he straightened his posture when his title was used. “I would prefer you didn’t get Magistrate Crawford involved. You are free to call on the Hobbs family and see for yourself how she fares, but I would appreciate it if you would tell me on your return.”
There was a moment of hesitance before the young officer said, “I’ll see you up to Marsham first, m’Lord, and report back.”
“Thank you,” Will said, grim as he made his way back up to Marsham Heath and wondering just what on earth he was going to tell his husband when Hannibal finally returned.
Happily oblivious of what happened back at Marsham Heath, Hannibal made it to the Capital in record time, appealing in person to the police force for detectives to assist Magistrate Crawford and finding Zeller’s report waiting for him with Mr. Buddish. Mr. Tier had arrived and was already on the hunt, and Zeller had returned to Hartford to assist with locating Matthew Brown. The letter that Francis had brought to Will on his arrival had been traced back to the livery, according to witnesses who recalled one of the little lads speaking with Mina’s intimidating Alpha servant, which pointed directly at Matthew. Much too obviously, in Hannibal’s opinion, but he would take up that issue when it rose.
There were no other leads, no rumbling in Hartford Town about newcomers or anyone suspicious. Mr. Hawkes and Mrs. Henderson had thoroughly questioned the staff, none of whom had any recollection of intruders or anyone carrying out clandestine affairs even between them, let alone with someone from outside the house itself. The strap from Will’s saddle was nowhere to be found, no doubt destroyed by Matthew the moment he finished planting doubt in Will’s mind.
The reason still escaped Hannibal and left him uneasy. In six years of knowing Will, Mr. Brown had been given every opportunity to speak out against Hannibal and stoke the fire of dislike between them. His sudden involvement seemed, as Will had suggested, more a diversion than the truth.
It kept him pensive through his scheduled appointments and the process of referrals. Regardless of what Will decided, Hannibal knew he could never return to the life he’d lived here in the Capital. Now that he had lived with Will and tasted what life with him truly meant, there would never be any going back. His life had developed a distinctive border—before Will, and after him. Having crossed it, what he had left behind could never compare.
He felt the pull of family, the need to spend more time with those he loved and who loved him in return, starting with Will. He would either return to practice as Hartford’s physician or not at all, and did as much as he could to put his affairs in order for now until Will spoke of their future.
That was not his only mission, however, and the more pleasant reason for his trip was the one he took far more delight in.
The tailors were more than happy to see him again, even moreso when he informed them that he was not here on his own behalf, but to gain a copy of Will’s measurements and order more clothing for him.
Being at the height of their trade, they of course showed him through to the Omegan section of their store once he was finished on the men’s side. Hannibal’s presence was welcomed by three gorgeously-dressed Omegas who were delighted to advise him, along with a thronging shop full of curious customers who were very quickly shown the door for his convenience.
He was shown styles of coats, colors and fabrics, different types of habits and waistcoats, breeches and stockings—all manner of things a man could ask for on behalf of his spouse. Making it a point to be a one-stop journey, they carried undergarments, garters, even some styles of shoes they could order out for.
Hannibal realized at some point that Will was going to flatten him with something heavy for this, but he rather hoped it would be his delightfully solid body instead of another marquetry table. He ordered the latest fashions, all manner of jackets and long waistcoats, ruffled blouses, plain blouses, the long dress-like outfits with the short breeches, every manner of stockings they had and every type of garter and corset. Nightclothes, day dress, formal wear, riding wear, hats, gloves, handkerchiefs—if they had it, he ordered it to be made to Will’s measurements.
“On the matter of underthings, my Lord,” they broached, a unified front of determination as they urged him into the back room behind closed curtains.
Hannibal saw the mannequin on display in the little alcove and was rendered speechless for a moment by the delicate configuration of watered silk and fine lace it wore. His mind very forcefully provided him with an image of Will wearing it and he cleared his throat, managing, “No, my dears, I fear for my safety if my husband should wear anything such.”
There was a soft murmur of laughter and an exchange of amused glances.
“It is the most recent addition to the lingerie line from the Continent,” he was told, and one of them—Nichola, he thought, though the three were so identical in appearance he had difficulty telling them apart—moved to slip their fingers beneath the stretch of fabric at the mannequin’s hip. The pink of their skin was visible through the nearly-transparent silk and had the desired effect of firing his imagination all over again. “Most of our clients prefer this beneath instead of drawers, and it supports down below as well as up here.”
One lacquered finger lifted to the chest area, where another panel of silk waited, edged in soft lace and becomingly ribboned.
“He is already a menace to my rational thought,” Hannibal told them, finding it was suddenly very hot in their shop. “I’m afraid I might expire.”
“Then should we move on to more conventional things?”
They did, and he ordered the usual small, fine underclothes that he knew Will was used to, though his thoughts kept drifting back to that silk and lace bodysuit.
He was settling his order, including a traditionally-female riding habit and accompanying hat, when Nichola said, “Then I suppose this will be all for you, my Lord? Unless, of course, you’ve changed your mind about the undergarments?”
Hannibal blinked, momentarily unavailable as his mind erected a palace to Will and added that dangerous item of clothing to it.
“How many colors does it come in?”
“Five so far, my Lord,” Nichola informed him, a slight smile on their lips.
“Give me two of each,” Hannibal said, resigning himself to certain death. “And a standing order for the others as they become available, should he want them.”
“Your spouse is very lucky to have you, my Lord,” Nichola said, adding the request to his order.
“On the contrary,” Hannibal said, thinking of Will in all his surly glory and delighted smiles and sharp wit, “I am beyond lucky to have him.”
The ordering of such vast wardrobe necessitated a practical action to make room for it, and he had Mr. Buddish send off a letter of request to the Carpenters’ Guild in Hartford as well as to Grandfather, warning that the Lady’s Maid’s room in the Duchess suite was about to find itself transformed. He ordered a new bathtub while he was at it, a large and graceful thing twice the size of the one in their washroom presently, and saw it on its way to be installed before he moved along the Row to acquire other gifts for his spouse, including placing his orders at Gideon’s and Garnets. He had missed enough birthdays and wedding anniversaries that he could excuse any amount of excess, and could have spent the rest of his day happily ordering everything under the sun in the hopes that Will would take pleasure in it.
But he ached to set eyes on his little mate and found himself riding back to Marsham in all haste before tea time, eager to be reunited with his husband.
The yard was a mess of digging and deep trenches, and there seemed to be some consternation that the gas line from Moseley was not where the city plans claimed it was, if he heard correctly as he rode up. Hannibal caught sight of Will in the middle of it all, his jacket and neckerchief discarded, his spectacles sliding down the tip of his snub nose as he pointed at the plans. There was a florid suck mark on his delicate throat, bared by his loosened collar. When Hannibal saw it, a pleased, possessive purr escaped him, a noise he never dreamed he’d make in his life, but it felt right, and natural, and he didn’t begrudge himself.
What he did not see, however, was the Magistrate’s man. A quick glance showed him that the guard was nowhere in sight, much to his consternation.
Winston dashed up to Hannibal’s side, jumping and barking despite the horse’s warning neigh. He dismounted and roughed the dog’s jowls, saying, “There’s a good boy. Have you taken good care of Will for me? At least I can rely on you.”
Will spied him there and abruptly walked away from Mr. Wells and the workers, an expression of such bleak foreboding on his face that Hannibal’s smile faltered.
“Will?” he asked, searching him for any sign that he was hurt, any clue to what had happened to put that look on his face. “What is it? What’s happened? Where is your guard?”
Winston dashed about between them, excited to have his two people in close proximity once again, unaffected by the rising tension.
“There’s something we need to talk about, Hannibal,” Will said, so somber and grim that Hannibal had the sickening, dizzying realization that it had nothing to do with the missing guard, but with himself. In the split second between heartbeats all he could think was that this was it.
Will was going to tell him he’d decided.
Will was going to ask him to leave after all.
“Hannibal?” Will said, brows drawing together in concern when his husband suddenly went entirely still, a bronzed statue with his godlike face drawn in tight planes of pain.
Will reached out impulsively when his bond lurched, the sinking feeling in his stomach testament to Hannibal’s wrenching distress. He took Hannibal’s hand in his, even dirty as he was, squeezing his fingers through the fine leather of his riding gloves.
“Hannibal?” he said again, finding a glimmer of response in those distant amber eyes. He nearly fell prey to the urge to wrap his arms around Hannibal, and could not deceive himself into believing it was his Omegan instincts or his improper bond, though he was not ready to consider the truth of what it actually was.
“I’m sorry,” Hannibal said, realizing he had inadvertently alarmed his young mate, whose gentle touch was a soothing balm like no other. “You were so serious when you called out to me, and looked so deeply unhappy, I feared for a moment that my absence had decided you.”
“Decided m—no, Hannibal,” Will said, squeezing him again in sympathy, the tight grip of his fingers betraying his own horror at such a suggestion. “Even should it have, I would never give you my answer in such a way. I apologize for worrying you.”
Hannibal’s relief was so vast that Will was overcome for a moment, the sudden change bringing with it the realization of how profoundly his decision affected his husband. He could no more kiss him in that moment than he could embrace him, out in the middle of the day as they were with a yard full of curious workers, but he wished he could. He had to content himself with squeezing his fingers firmly around his husband’s and offering him a small smile, which Hannibal returned to him.
“If I seem very uneasy,” he said, marveling that the tense irritation that had plagued him through the day could vanish so quickly with Hannibal’s return, “it is only because I have once more met Mr. Hobbs, and been told some very troubling things I cannot make sense of.”
“Has he threatened you?” Hannibal asked, protective ire rising at the mention of the Alpha he had yet to set eyes on. “I should never have gone without you! Must I tie you to my side to keep you safe?”
“That wouldn’t go well for you,” Will warned, a tired smirk curving the corner of his mouth and one disapproving eyebrow hiking over his blue eye at the suggestion.
“Well though I know it,” Hannibal sighed, though he wished he could tie Will to his side if it would guarantee of his safety. “But where is your guard?”
“I asked him to check in on the Hobbs family for me again,” Will admitted. “I know he was to stay with me, but I’ve been worried about Abigail all day.”
“Will, I readily admit that your intentions are admirable, but it is your life I care about,” Hannibal said, his disapproval evident in the set of his mouth. “Perhaps I really should paddle you! And you have been threatened—”
“My guard was with me then, Hannibal, and I was not threatened,” Will said, still deeply disturbed when he thought back on what had happened. “Warned would be a better word for it, and you have better things to do with my backside than paddle it.”
It bought him a moment of surprised silence and worked to jostle Hannibal out of his irritation, though he was no more happy with the situation.
“What do you mean by warned?” Hannibal asked, firmly putting Will’s bottom out of his mind, paddling included.
“Have you, by any chance, spoken to your grandfather of Melinda’s daughter?” Will asked.
Hannibal searched his face, confusion evident in his own features at the sudden change of subject, but answered all the same, “Some, right after your fall. He said he had arranged for her to live with landed gentry and assumed she was doing well, with the suggestion that I should assume the same.”
Will’s blue eyes shuttered, a familiar expression of absorbed consideration falling over his face.
“Will?” Hannibal asked, tugging him a step closer by his hand, his voice lowering to a whisper. “Why would you ask me such? What did he say to you?”
“Grandfather never mentioned how he sent her away?” Will asked, frowning. “Did you know a woman named Miriam, Hannibal?”
“Not that I recall,” Hannibal said, thoroughly confused. “Will—”
The shout startled all of them and Winston began to bark, agitated.
They both turned, their discussion derailed by the sight of Magistrate Crawford riding up from Moseley as fast as his harassed-looking horse could carry him.
“I am very glad you’re here, Lord Clarges. There’s something you need to see,” Jack called, dismounting. One of the house boys scampered out to take the reins of both horses, pulling the snorting animals away from the nervous dog and even more anxious people.
“You’ve found one of the children, haven’t you?” Will guessed, bending to quiet Winston and rub his thick ears, as much to comfort himself as the dog, though Hannibal’s fingers laced around his other hand were calming all on their own.
“Please,” Jack said, spine straight and shoulders squared, his gaze direct but serious, “you’d best see for yourself.”
Troubled, Hannibal released Will’s hand with a final squeeze and moved along with him when Jack stalked away. “You needn’t come, Will, if you’d rather.”
“No, everything is in hand here,” Will said, and patted Winston, who responded to such a plethora of commands that Will suspected he had once been a treasured companion. He took the dog’s furry head in his hands and firmly told him, “Stay here, Winston. No running off or it’s the bath for you again.”
The dog watched them go, ears perked and eyes anxious, but he obeyed in the end. One evening on his own in the forest had worked a miracle on the intelligent dog, Will had found. He stayed put even as they vanished into the woods at the edge of town.
“I was just explaining things to the detectives you sent, Lord Clarges,” Jack said, taking a trail that led back towards Marsham Heath, but deeper into the woods, “when I was called out for an emergency.”
“I cannot imagine what sort of emergency could occur way out here,” Hannibal said, uneasy to see how close they were to Marsham, even if it was in the woods.
“This sort,” Jack said. He gestured before him in offering and Hannibal peered ahead, for a blessed moment unable to make sense of what he was seeing.
The emergency that Magistrate Crawford had been called away to witness was the discovery of a body, a weathered head atop a stack of hands and feet placed precisely in a configuration that defied understanding.
“Good gods,” Hannibal breathed, fishing out his handkerchief to cover his nose, Will following his lead. The wind turned and the scent of decay became overpowering, a ripe and rotten stench that almost made Will gag. It seemed to linger in his throat, strong enough to taste. He closed his eyes for a long moment, only to snap them open with affront when Jack bluntly asked Hannibal, “Are you sure he should be here, Lord Clarges?”
“Of course he can be here,” Will said, deliberately misunderstanding him. “Hannibal was a doctor during his time away at war; a sight such as this will hardly rattle him.”
Hannibal dropped his handkerchief and opened his mouth to speak, only to wisely close it again. He contented himself to nod in agreement, his somber expression firmly fixed in place to conceal his impressed awe with Will’s sass.
Jack frowned but took Will’s response in stride, not in the least bit perturbed by it.
“Do you recognize this person?” Will asked, the stench forgotten as his Gift began to engage in the details. Even decaying and left at the mercy of the elements, the face was clearly feminine, or Omegan, one. There was no hair to be seen, either shorn before the head had been placed or else lost to the wind and small nesting creatures. “This is one of the missing girls, isn’t it?”
“We can’t be positive, but yes, it might be Daphne Woodward. There was an amulet with the body; it was one she always wore. Her mother gave it to her for protection,” Jack said, and boomed at his men as they arrived, “Don’t step on anything.”
Hannibal winced at his volume but Will hardly noticed it. Instead, he said, “I need to have a closer look, Hannibal.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t see the body up close, my Lord,” Magistrate Crawford said, unease wrinkling the corners of his mouth.
“Nonsense,” Hannibal said, bristling. “If he says he needs to see it, then allow him to look.”
“It might shock him—”
“He has no deficit of hearing or mind, Magistrate, that you cannot reason with him directly,” Hannibal informed him, growing aggravated on Will’s behalf. “Though I wish you the best of luck!”
Will’s fingers briefly brushed his forearm and the tension evaporated. Hannibal took a deep breath and held his tongue, knowing well enough that Will was more than capable of defending himself.
“Magistrate Crawford, if I see the body it may help me understand what happened to her,” Will said, grim but determined. “Please, it is not morbid curiosity that compels me, and I have a hearty constitution.”
Jack was not happy nor settled, but grudgingly moved aside, allowing Will closer inspection of Miss Daphne Woodward.
Rather, what was left of her.
Will crouched and adjusted his spectacles, taking a moment to compose himself as he did so. It was difficult, but he made himself look. As terrible as it was to see a human reduced to such horror, he looked for her sake in the hopes that the pieces would come together for him in this as they did for him in so many other ways. She deserved to have her last moments understood. She deserved to have justice, this child ripped from her family’s arms and left in the woods like a pile of refuse.
‘Parts that can’t be used…’ The thought coalesced and Will frowned, his mind skipping to what purpose a human might be put to.
It was, unfortunately, varied and unwholesome to an extreme.
“…wild animals, of course…”
Will hardly heard Jack Crawford’s explanation of what he saw. He stared down at her body and could feel the dark, twining presence of something unspeakable taking shape, a rabid beast crouching over this unfortunate child with ill intent.
“I am given to understand that large predators are unheard of in these woods,” Will said, straightening and stepping away, half of him still turned inward to inspect what he had seen. “How has the hunting been?”
Jack looked at Hannibal, who cocked his head in clear warning not to seek his approval.
“Lean,” Jack said. “The farmers are slaughtering twice what they usually do. The take was poor this year from the fields and it’s been difficult to supplement with small game. Even the poachers are coming up empty-handed. Hunters are ranging farther afield, probably how they ended up here.”
“That was how the body was discovered?” Will asked, shuttering his observation to the back of his mind. “Someone hunting on the grounds?”
“I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell,” Magistrate Crawford said. “Considering what was found, we have bigger problems on our hands. Why do you ask?”
“I’m… not certain enough to say,” Will said, swallowing hard, disliking the flavor of the thoughts he was entertaining. He was unsure of what he had gleaned and needed to let the details take shape. “This person… he’s… What he’s doing to them, he’s showing you all that this girl—these girls, if this is indeed a pattern—are his. They belong to him and it’s important that everyone knows it.”
“You think we’ll find all of them this way?” Jack asked, quietly furious. “You think every missing girl was left in the woods somewhere?”
“She is one of the many taken who matches the description,” Hannibal reminded him, watching Will with a wary eye as he’d suddenly gone quite pale. “It stands to reason that they are out here, somewhere, all of them. And once one is placed, he would be compelled to find another to fill the void she left.”
“If they’re his, then why abandon their heads, hands, and feet?” Magistrate Crawford mused, referencing the sad remnants of what had been a young lady, her potential reduced to nothing at the desire of a mad, mad man.
“I suppose that depends on his purpose,” Hannibal murmured. “And where else he might be finding these children.”
“He won’t have hunted outside of the village,” Will said, his voice strengthening, a familiar expression of impatience on his lovely face as his brow furrowed in a frown.
“You think he has a specific grudge against the girls of this village?” Jack asked.
“Some of them, yes, clearly,” Will said, his response short and abrupt and indicative of deep thought. To his credit, Jack didn’t so much as bat an eyelash at Will’s curt way of speaking. Indeed, he seemed relieved by it. “Perhaps one of them gave him offence or rebuffed his advances? Whoever he is, he is familiar enough with Moseley and these children to get them alone, either through coaxing or timing. I just… There’s something I’m missing about this.”
Jack looked askance at Hannibal, his expression turning guarded and stony. Cautiously, he said, “We’re all missing something, here. The real reason he’s taking these children.”
“These girls aren’t the one he wants,” Will said, looking at the body again, detached this time, trying to separate himself from the voracious need that had swallowed her nearly whole. “What would you do, Magistrate Crawford, with something you treasured and wanted to keep?”
“Protect it,” was the unhesitating response.
“You certainly wouldn’t discard it in a pile in the middle of the woods,” Hannibal said, watching Will’s growing agitation. “Having taken what you wanted from it.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” Will said, a tremor overtaking him. He wet his lips, the gesture nervous but all he could do when faced with what his thoughts were offering him.
“If you can help us, my Lords, then whatever you think, no matter how outlandish, you have to speak it. Daphne Woodward was only sixteen when she was taken,” Jack said, the word dropping from his lips, rounded with disapproval. “I find it difficult to imagine what kind of monster could hurt a child.”
“It isn’t as difficult to imagine as one could wish,” Will murmured, brows drawing together. He entirely missed Jack’s sideways glance at him.
“My spouse has a gifted imagination,” Hannibal said, feeling the need to say something before Jack made his own assumptions. “His perception is, at times, uncanny.”
“The gift of imagination,” Jack mused, cocking his head as he looked at Will. “If only I could borrow your imagination, Lord Clarges.”
“Count yourself lucky that you cannot, Magistrate Crawford,” Will said, somber and quiet as he looked back down at the remains. “It is a more a burden than a gift, in the end.”
“I would carry it in a heartbeat, Lord Clarges, if it would save even one of these girls,” Jack said, fixing Will with a steady stare filled with such insistence that Hannibal stepped between them, breaking his line of sight.
“I think we’ve done all we can here, Jack,” Hannibal said, reaching back to brush Will’s arm and urge him to move. “Please, keep us informed. And if you find more bodies, you will let us know?”
“I certainly will,” Jack said, his frown ferocious. “And I’m afraid you’ll be seeing more of me quite soon, Lord Clarges.”
Will was silent and pensive on their way back to Marsham, enough so that Hannibal broached the subject by saying, “I know I have remarked on it before, Will, but I do find your perception truly uncanny.”
“Not uncanny enough to be of any assistance,” he said, frustrated. He pushed his spectacles up on his snub nose, huffing out a frustrated breath. “It’s as if there is a shadow before me, fluttering like a cobweb at twilight, barely seen but felt.”
Hannibal frowned, considering Will’s words. “You are aware you have more pieces of this puzzle than you think, and it frustrates you.”
Will chuckled, an unhappy rasp of sound as out of place on such a beautiful day as the horror they’d left behind them. “Having pieces of any particular puzzle has never been a problem for me, Hannibal. Ever since I was a child, I have always known more than I should, felt more than I should, as if every person I laid eyes on was someone I had known a lifetime.”
Hannibal angled a curious look his way, wondering at his meaning. “That must have been very troubling for you, especially as a child.”
“It was,” Will said, his nerves still making his speech abrupt. “I had no understanding of it and only knew what my father taught me, which was that my habit, as he called it, was disturbing to those around me and made me even more unusual than I already was.”
Hannibal’s sharp Alpha fangs flashed in a sudden, soundless snarl at that. “Your father had no right or reason to coerce you into believing you are anything other than what you are.”
“And what is that?” Will asked, turning to look at him. His composure was paper thin to Hannibal’s trained eye, so thin that he wondered how it had ever fooled him. Beneath the surface of this grim, abrupt young man was someone who had just looked at the pitiful remnants of a human life and drawn conclusions which even Hannibal was surprised by.
Will cocked his head at Hannibal’s long assessment of him, and asked, “How do you see me, Hannibal?”
Hannibal didn’t speak at first, but when he did, the respect and pride was evident in his resonant Alpha voice as he said, “I see you as you are, Will, brilliant, beautiful, intriguing… and dangerous.”
Will was taken aback by that summation, the ordering not lost on him.
“You’re the Wolf amidst the sheep, Will,” Hannibal purred, bringing a flush of color to Will’s cheeks. “Unpredictable and entirely Uncommon.”
Hannibal’s comparison pleased him enough to bring a genuine smile to his full lips. He looped his arm through his husband’s and said, “That is a great improvement from last time, Hannibal.”
“And far fewer teacups destroyed because of it,” Hannibal said, covering Will’s dirty hand with his own. “Whatever it is, Will, whatever this gift of yours is trying to tell you, you’ll find it.”
“Your faith in me is unjustified, I fear.”
“Not in the least,” Hannibal said, grinning. “If there is one thing above all others you excel at, Will Lecter-Graham, it’s surprising people.”
He looked over at his beautiful mate, whose eyes deigned to be a vivid blue this afternoon, bright but heavy with thoughts behind the shield of his spectacles.
“And I, for one, am always delighted by a surprise.”
“Then I have another for you,” Will said, fiddling with his glasses in a rare show of nerves. He drew a deep breath and released it, saying, “Abigail Hobbs confronted me moments after you left this morning. She begged me to request a moment of your time for her. She was quite determined, Hannibal. She seems to be under the impression that you’re her father and she wanted to tell you so.”
Hannibal’s brows drew down in confusion and he shook his head. After a long moment of baffled silence, he managed, “I can honestly say that did surprise me.”
“I could find no graceful way to warn you,” Will lamented. “I am sorry, Hannibal. It was quite shocking for me to hear. It must be doubly so for you.”
“Why on earth should she think such a thing?” Hannibal asked, mystified. “And why would she approach you?”
“She thought you had purchased the hat,” Will admitted, wishing there was some other way to confess what had happened, to soften it somehow. “She assumed or hoped or wished that it was a gift from a father to his daughter. Someone has made her believe that she is your child, Hannibal. And I believe that person to be Louise Hobbs herself.”
“That makes no sense,” Hannibal said, his voice taking on an Alpha growl that spoke of his unease. “Where would anyone get the idea that I have a child loose in the world?”
“That is why I went back to their cottage, so I could ask that very same thing,” Will said, the two of them stopping on the trail just before the mess of the yard. Winston caught sight of them and approached slowly, uncertain if he was allowed, his tail waving like mad when Will gestured at him to come. “Mrs. Hobbs stopped me before I reached their home. She gave me back the hat and begged me not to deal harshly with them. She said, ‘he didn’t want her anyway, not sending her off from the House as he did.’ She also said a person named Miriam handed Abigail to her and put another baby back in Abigail’s place.”
Hannibal’s amber eyes were cast down to one side, his thoughts running riot. They rose to meet Will’s with the shadow of a flinch. “Is that why you were asking about Melinda’s daughter?”
“It was all I could think of,” Will said, frustrated by how little he knew. “I thought perhaps it had something to do with her. I would never have pried otherwise, but you have no children and the only one that could be mistaken for yours would be Melinda’s daughter.”
“No one knew about Melinda’s pregnancy,” Hannibal said, deeply troubled. “She kept to her room the entirety of her stay at Hartford House and there was no labor to betray her state.”
“I should like to speak with Louise in person with you present,” Will said, leaning over to pet Winston in an absent gesture of affection. “Perhaps we might summon her to Marsham Heath?”
“In the middle of all this ruckus?” Hannibal asked, touching his tongue to his lower lip, his Alpha fangs briefly visible. “It might be better to speak with her in her home.”
“I would prefer to do so in a place where her husband is not present,” Will said. “He grew violently upset when he saw me, Hannibal, and it was not solely my being Omegan that upset him. He was terrified I had come to steal Abigail away. Whatever they have done, however they came to be Abigail’s parents, they did so in a way that has them both very frightened that we intend to take her.”
“Frightened people are dangerous,” Hannibal murmured. He shifted to grasp Will’s dirty hand in his and kiss his knuckles, tasting the sweetness of his skin beneath the loamy earth of Marsham Heath. “I am very glad you had someone with you, Will. And Hobbs should be very glad that he did not harm you, lest he face the consequences. I will ask Grandfather for the details of those involved with taking Melinda’s daughter to her new family so that we may rest our minds on that count.”
“And what if he makes mention of a woman named Miriam?” Will softly inquired, giving him a sympathetic squeeze. “Hannibal, if by some chance Abigail is truly Melinda’s daughter…”
“If Grandfather mentions a Miriam, then we have some warning that Mrs. Hobbs is telling the truth as she sees it and we can forge ahead accordingly,” Hannibal said. “Honestly, I cannot even bear the idea of her being here, Will, under the threat of a murderer lurking in the woods. It goads me to rash actions that would not be fair, not to Abigail or you or myself, should we find out that there is no possibility that she is Melinda’s daughter.”
Will nodded, his own impulses mirroring Hannibal’s. “No, that would only cause more hard feelings all around. Abigail is safe with her mother and father and we should not disrupt them for no reason. That is why I had the Constable checking in on them. They were so very distraught, including Abigail.”
Hannibal heaved a deep sigh, drawing on Will’s calm, and said, “We might settle this all very easily if we have Grandfather’s written proof that Melinda’s daughter is elsewhere, if they truly believe that Abigail is that child. But it is very likely that this is nothing more than a misunderstanding, Will. More than one young mother has named a Peer their child’s sire out of desperation or dreams. It may simply be a case of mistaken identity. I cannot tell if that reassures me… or disappoints me.”
“You need to know for certain, Hannibal,” Will said, his voice falling to a coaxing purr. “I think we should find out what happened to Melinda’s daughter and put your mind at ease. Perhaps it will help lay Melinda’s memory to rest if you know that her daughter is safe and happy and well.”
Hannibal smiled, a small and sad shadow of his usual easy grin. “You’re right, of course. I should have asked after her long before now. My guilt has stayed me so many times, and created more guilt in doing so. It is desperately difficult to break free of such a circle.”
“I will help you,” Will said, and when Hannibal lifted his amber gaze, Will added with a wry smile, “I am attracted to things which need my help, after all, am I not?”
“Yes,” Hannibal said, to have the matter in hand and options available. “It would seem you are, Will.”
It was not the last surprise of Hannibal’s day, and the next was one he was not delighted by, all things considered. It came in the form of Aunt Margaret arriving via the Earl of Bredon’s coach mere moments after he and Will had gone inside to clean up for tea.
Luckily, Hannibal thought, despairing as she alighted in the trenched and thoroughly dismantled yard of Marsham Heath, the Earl of Bredon himself had not accompanied them.
“What were you saying about surprises again, Hannibal?” Will inquired, grinning when his husband gave him a woeful look. “And no Aunt Grace or Uncle Robert? How shall we get on?”
“My family is best taken in small doses,” Hannibal, casting another glance at the window. Winston yipped, what Will was coming to consider his conversational tone, and Will bent to stroke his ears as Hannibal said, “And I am sure Aunt Margaret will relay everything in details that no one will hear since they are all deaf as posts.”
“I’m going upstairs to get presentable,” Will said, chuckling softly at his husband’s summation and straightening to move towards the stairs, Winston at his heels. “When I come down, we’ll handle this together. Your grandfather did say Aunt Margaret would call.”
“Yes, he did, but I expected it would be at Hartford,” Hannibal admitted, heaving a sigh as his aunt loitered on the drive to snoop at what the workers were doing. He turned to call over his shoulder, “We’ll write to Grandfather this evening! Don’t think I’ve forgotten it.”
“Each crisis as it comes, thank you,” Will said, bounding up the stairs, but not before warning, “Don’t try to climb out any windows without me.”
Hannibal smirked, wryly wishing that he could do just that, but Mr. Thatcher finally reached the door and admitted his great-aunt in a cloud of sweet perfume and the floral fragrance unique to the female Alphas of his family line.
It was a scent that put him at ease despite his annoyance, bringing to mind a childhood of comforting hugs and indulgence even as prickly and resistant as he’d been, his Alpha tendencies worsened by the handling he’d received at home. But his family had never ceased to love him, not for a single moment, nor he them.
“Goodness gracious, my dear! What on earth is happening?” Aunt Margaret asked, handing off her hat and shawl to Mr. Thatcher, leaning on her cane. “Are we at war with pixies?”
“Moles, Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal said, taking up her plump hand.
She angled A Look at him but allowed him to escort her into Marsham Heath’s modest little parlor where the open curtains admitted the strong late afternoon sun.
“You have always been such a vexing boy with that peculiar humor of yours!” she huffed. “You take after my brother in that respect!”
“I take after Grandfather quite a lot, I’ve been told,” Hannibal chuckled, helping her to get settled. “And how is he? He’d written that you dined together.”
“Yes, yes, it was all very lovely,” Aunt Margaret informed him, tapping her cane to emphasize her point and looking suitably dignified. “Roland was in fairly good humor, though I ended up joining him for brandy in order to speak of anything of consequence, as the Lady Rathmore is astonishingly persistent in her attentiveness.”
“He did mention that you were rather pleased she had not been married into the family,” Hannibal remarked, seating himself across from her.
Aunt Margaret craned a look around before saying, “My dear, you could not offer me any amount of money that would entice me to think well of that child! It entirely escapes me how two such dissimilar children can look so frightfully alike!”
“She can be a bit overwhelming,” Hannibal said, amused by his Aunt’s impression.
“Hannibal, the Colosseum at the height of the Season is overwhelming,” Aunt Margaret said, her mouth pinched in a sour frown. “When it comes to one’s patience, Lady Rathmore is a revelation. I can say with complete certainty that you got the better end of that bargain, Hannibal. Will is lovely, just lovely, and so very darling. But where is he?”
“Upstairs making himself presentable,” Hannibal said, and before he could add to that, Aunt Margaret loudly scolded, “Well, I certainly hope you haven’t been tumbling him about on carpets again, Hannibal! It isn’t his fault, you know, that the press made such gossip of him!”
“The Society columns will always blow everything out of proportion,” Aunt Margaret said, tapping her cane to make her point, her rings winking on her plump fingers as she gestured with her other hand. “And Will is certainly not the type to carry on an affair, even with a Prince! No matter that you have treated him with dreadful disregard and he is due a pinch of excitement in his life!”
“But that is no reason at all to be sequestering him out in this awful place!” Aunt Margaret said, determined to have her say. “Musty, dusty, moldy old horror that it is!”
“Aunt Margaret, if you are quite finished?” Hannibal inquired, waiting until he got a sideways sniff. “Will is upstairs cleaning up because he’s been heading the troops in the yard and he is nothing if not hands-on. I can assure you, there have been no incidents involving carpets.”
Aunt Margaret’s brows rose at his choice in words. He wondered if she could scent Will on him, and did his best not to fidget beneath her assessing gaze.
“But more to the point,” Hannibal said, confident that Mr. Thatcher might have reached the kitchen by now to order tea, “I am very surprised to see you all the way out here.”
“No one is more surprised than me,” Aunt Margaret said. “But you were not at Chelsea House where my dear brother assured me you were in residence! I came to the Capital for the weekend and Mr. Black told me you had whisked your husband off to the countryside!”
“Well, Mr. Black never lets an opportunity pass when it comes to annoying me. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” Hannibal asked, genuinely curious. “Grandfather did warn me that you wanted to speak with me.”
“To you both,” she insisted. “I shall wait until Will joins us and Mr. Thatcher manages some tea. You simply must allow that poor man to retire, Hannibal!”
“I will make arrangements for that very shortly, Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal said. “A cottage in Moseley should suit him quite nicely, don’t you think?”
“Not as nicely as Hartford should suit you,” Aunt Margaret said. “Though I understand why you left so hastily.”
“Grandfather informed you?”
“Yes, Hannibal, he did,” she confirmed. “And it is all very troubling. I have told no one, naturally, as it is not my place to do so, but you are more than welcome to return to the nest, so to speak. Grace and Robert have always had more than ample room for you at Fernhill, my dear, and for your little family as well, should you ever manage one.”
Hannibal cleared his throat and refused to rise to the bait, grateful for the arrival of the footman with the tea service quickly followed by the arrival of his mate, pink from his scrubbing and wearing a smile. His warm, sugary scent teased Hannibal’s nose, stronger now, he was certain of it, and wondered at the cause.
“Aunt Margaret, how good it is to see you,” Will said, moving to clasp her hand in his before settling at Hannibal’s side, Winston nosing Aunt Margaret until she patted him. “I hope you had a comfortable trip.”
“Yes, my dear, thank you,” she said, a pleased smile on her lips as she looked at Will. “You are always so very polite. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate that in a young person these days.”
“Perhaps you might compare his behavior to someone else’s?” Hannibal suggested, smirking around his hastily-lifted teacup when Aunt Margaret glared his way.
“I said that I cannot tell you, Hannibal dear, do try to keep up,” she urged, taking up her own cup as Will did. She waited until the footman had gone before saying, “Now that I have the two of you together, I hardly know where to begin.”
“Given that you have come all the way out here, Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal said, “one might suppose you had ample time to consider your plan of attack before descending on us without notice?”
“The day I wish to be lectured on how to appropriately conduct myself, Hannibal,” Aunt Margaret said, fixing him with a firm look that worked as well on him now as it had when he was in short pants, “I will ask someone respectable, and that someone is not you.”
“Yes, Aunt Margaret,” he said, properly chastened, though Will noted his slight smile.
“What I wish to speak to you about—to both of you about,” she said, serious, “is our troubling family history, which seems to be troubling us still!”
“I wasn’t aware that we had a troubling family history,” Hannibal said, settling his cup in his saucer and shifting closer to Will, content to feel the press of his husband’s thigh against his own.
“That is precisely the problem,” Aunt Margaret said, offended. “It came to my attention during my discussion with Roland that neither one of you is aware of what brought our families together.”
“You mean the relationship between our grandfathers?” Will inquired, his tone soft and respectful. “Grandfather does not seem to want to share his history, Aunt Margaret.”
“It isn’t just his to share!” she said. “There is a great deal you don’t know about my brother, and a great deal that might inform you! Did your father ever speak of your grandfather, Will?”
“No, Aunt Margaret,” Will said, putting his teacup down and relaxing at Hannibal’s side, not realizing when his fingers moved to twine with his husband’s on his thigh, his other hand falling to Winston’s head when the dog moved closer to lay his muzzle against Will’s knee. “He never spoke of his father, nor of his mother.”
“Charles was his name, your grandfather,” she said, the severity of her resolve softening in a smile as she recalled him. “He was very handsome, very stately. You look so much like him, Will, that my brother must surely delight in being near you.”
Will flushed, pleased but embarrassed, and told her, “He has never mentioned that I resemble my grandfather.”
“No, of course he wouldn’t, the old fool,” she sighed, abandoning her teacup to sit with one hand lax in her lap and the other clenched on her cane. “My brother has always been very tempestuous. You take after him in so many respects, Hannibal, you always have. When he had just come of age, he met Charles at an art exhibition in the Capital. You must forgive me, children, if I cannot spare your sensibilities, but I must speak plainly.”
“Please do,” Will encouraged her, his curiosity well and truly piqued.
“We would never ask otherwise, Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal added, eager to hear of his grandfather’s past.
“Then I can be honest when I say that they were drawn together with an immediacy all around them could feel,” she said, lowering her gaze in thought. “It did not matter to them that they both were Alpha males or that such an attachment could only lead to disappointment.”
Will glanced at Hannibal, finding the same astonishment on his husband’s face that he knew must be on his own. The first impulse to consider it outlandish was lost to the understanding that their elders had once been young and passionate, filled to the brim with life and impulses, not all of which brought them the results they hoped for. Yet, even though his imagination had touched on the idea that there might have been something more between their grandfathers than friendship, Will had shied away from the possibility that Aunt Margaret now stated as fact.
“They saw only one another from the moment their eyes met,” Aunt Margaret told them, “and that, as far as my brother was concerned, was the end of it, even though it caused an ungodly scandal. Charles was a tutor at the time, you see, and a good deal older than Roland, but he was so pleasant, so kind, and so pleasing in every respect that all of the best families had welcomed him.”
“I am sure being the heir to an earldom didn’t hurt his prospects,” Hannibal remarked, thumb rubbing Will’s hand as his thoughts churned, not quite as surprised by the revelation as his spouse was.
“He was not the heir,” Aunt Margaret said, looking from one to the other. “Charles was nearly fifty when his second cousin’s unfortunate death resulted in his becoming the Earl of Reddig, and by that time Roland was already spending entire summers as his guest. He and Charles were inseparable by then. Entirely too close for our father’s comfort. A dalliance was acceptable in those days, but there was fear that the attachment would keep them both from their duties. Charles, being much older and much wiser, married in due course and went about the business of producing the expected heir. He encouraged Roland to accept our father’s choice for him and settle into his duties to the family.”
Hannibal frowned at the tone of her voice and ventured, “I take it he did not.”
“Naturally, he did not,” Aunt Margaret said, thoroughly disapproving. “He told our father he would rather die a happy pauper than a miserable Duke and did his best to convince Charles to run away with him, the impulsive brat!”
Will flinched, his brows drawing together in concern at what he was hearing. “He did nothing of the sort, did he?”
“Charles always had the temperament of an angel,” Aunt Margaret sighed. “He begged Roland to calm, tried everything he could to caution my brother to restraint, but that only upset Roland all the more. He left us just after his twenty-fifth birthday.”
Somber distance filled her voice as much as it filled her amber eyes, memories from her younger years rising with force enough to render her quiet with their strength.
“He was gone over three years,” she said, turning her rings on her finger absently. “Our father died during that time, and none of us knew if Roland was alive or dead. Charles was a great comfort to the family then, and somehow he got word to my brother. He’d been traveling the world and went to ground at some point in the far east, Nippon, I believe, I never was clear just where. But he came back most altered.”
“Altered in what way?” Hannibal asked, concerned by how dismayed she seemed, even all these years later.
“It was as if a light had gone out inside of him,” she said, holding Hannibal’s gaze. “He returned not to us, but to Charles, and whatever passed between them they never spoke of. Your father was born by then, Will, a round and healthy little lad with such a terrible temper. He took after his mother, you know. Oh, it is always such a tragedy when even a woman’s fortune cannot tempt a man to overlook her disposition. It made her quite unpleasant by the time Charles married her, the poor girl. Of course, her husband’s preference for that which he could not have as he wished to have it did nothing to improve the state of their marriage.”
“That is such a terrible result, Aunt Margaret,” Will whispered, re-examining every interaction he’d had with Grandfather, finding clues in his fondness for love long lost. “It is so unfair that they were forced apart when it sounds as if they were very much invested in one another.”
“They were not forced apart, my dear,” Aunt Margaret assured him. “It is only that two people with such a strong draw cannot do anything by halves. It was more painful to them to have a partial union than it was to be entirely parted from one another. The Lecter line is still direct, and we have your grandfather to thank for it. Had he not been such an influence on my brother, there is no telling if Roland would ever have settled. He was quite wild ever since I can remember, and ever so frightened of life becoming routine. He raged against it with everything in him. If Roland has ever wanted something, he wanted every bit of it. My brother has always been greedy.”
“I think, when it comes to love, we should all be greedy,” Hannibal said, thinking of his grandfather saying, ‘There are things in the world we love that are too precious, too dear to us to parse down into words, Hannibal…’
“I wish he had been as greedy for his wife as he had been for Charles,” Margaret said, fanning herself, too hardened in life to feel embarrassed to speak of such intimate matters to family, but needing a distraction all the same. “Perhaps she would not have succumbed to her low spirits as she did… but that is neither here nor there! The truth is, their mutual regard lasted throughout their lives, consummated or not! That is why the contract was drawn up. That is why Roland has been so insistent the two of you provide him with a child of united bloodlines. It is selfish and cruel, but it is the ugly truth and here we find ourselves.”
“Why did he not marry my father to one of Lord Reddig’s daughters?” Hannibal inquired, finding it strange that they had waited so long to seek the unification of their separate bloodlines.
“Your father had no more interest in obedience than Roland ever did,” Aunt Margaret said, banging her cane on the floor. “And Roland was twice as strict with him as he ever was with Grace. They were never easy with one another, your father and grandfather. Two Alphas cut from identical cloth makes for a very unhappy household. But even Roland could see how much your father loved Saule. He put his plans in abeyance with the full understanding that their eldest son would have a Graham to wife, thus the contract.”
There was a long silence in which all parties digested what had been said. Will poured a second cup of tea for everyone and they drank. Only then did Hannibal venture, “You seemed very anxious to reach us and tell us this story, Aunt Margaret.”
“I am anxious because I never dreamed you were ignorant of how your situation has come about, either one of you,” Margaret said, her hand trembling as she put her cup down “I am anxious because yet again the Lecter line faces defaulting to a side branch because force is being used instead of persuasion… and you, you rascal, have spent nearly seven years sliding out of every ball and escaping every dinner party where we might chance to speak!”
Hannibal had the good grace to flush, and lowered his head in contrition.
“I am anxious,” Aunt Margaret said, transferring her attention to Will, who held her gaze with an ache in his heart for the effort she had undertaken for their sake, her love like a small but sturdy anchor pulling them back from the bleak future she feared for them, “because I see before me my brother and the man he loved all over again, only this time parted by ignorance and stubborn pride! I will not see it squandered yet again. I will not sit myself by and watch so much beautiful potential be pruned to the roots and burned from the ground! Not while I can help it!”
Hannibal’s hand clenched in Will’s and he squeezed back, feeling a rush of affection through his bond, the draw of family, the security of those who cared.
How strange it felt to him, like clothing that seemed never to fit quite right until one day it fit perfectly, and you realized it always had. He warmed to the feeling, the vastness of familial bonds something he could grasp in practice now, not only in logic. Should he accept Hannibal, he would also accept the odd and very well-meaning, if somewhat deaf relations, any one of whom would not hesitate to blaze a trail to his doorstep with every intention to help, compelled by such great and limitless love. And yet his own blood relatives, comfortable in their separate lives, speaking neither to him nor to one another, would find such actions appalling, excessive, shameful.
“Hannibal, your father was very harsh with you,” Margaret said, her voice falling into low disapproval that drew Will from his thoughts. “His resentment of you was a great burden and his conduct was shocking. I have no desire to watch you spiral down into the same black well of unhappiness that hounded my poor nephew to his grave. So I appeal to your good sense in the matter of your marriage. Do not continue to allow the grief and bitterness of your father to dictate your life and prevent you from the happiness you both deserve! Many marriages are made between strangers, children. If friendship can be managed, surely love can grow!”
Hannibal, his hand firmly held in both of Will’s own, somberly told her, “We shall take your words to heart, Aunt Margaret.”
“See that you do!” she warned, entirely unaware of the way they sat. “I would hate to think I have come all this way for my good sense and honest concern to be wasted!”
“It will not be wasted, Aunt Margaret,” Will said, pulling Hannibal’s hand into his lap to hold it with both of his own. “Hannibal and I will do our very best to make do with our lot.”
“Of course you will, my dear,” Aunt Margaret said, beaming at Will. “You are such a pleasant, darling child! Your quietude reminds me so much of Charles! You are every bit as even in spirit as he ever was and I pray that your gentle calm can settle my great-nephew.”
“It seems a monumental task, but I will apply myself with vigor,” Will promised, squeezing Hannibal’s hand hard when his husband’s amusement threatened to emerge. “And thank you for going to such effort on our behalf. I admit that I was curious about the connection between our families. It is both a relief and a great sadness to me to learn more. I wish it could have been otherwise for them, but then neither Hannibal nor I would be here, and I am gladly selfish on that count.”
“Oh, my dearest, sweet child!” Margaret said, pressing her free hand to her heart. “Never imagine for a moment that either one of them regretted the results of their necessary actions! They spent a great deal of time together shortly after Hannibal’s birth, settling the arrangements and reflecting on their lives. My brother seemed very heartened upon his return, and took the news of Charles’ passing with peace. Love tends to deal as many wounds as it does wonders, but in the end every sacrifice is worth it, hm?”
“Indeed,” Hannibal said, “but one sacrifice that will never be required is the loss of supper—say you will stay, Aunt Margaret?”
“Heavens no! I have never liked Marsham Heath, my dear!” Aunt Margaret said, uttering a little chuckle. “Goodness, but we were dragged here as children every Season to waste away in this little wooden tomb while our parents cavorted in the Capital!”
“Please, do stay,” Will said. “I would love to hear of Marsham in your youth, Aunt Margaret, and to tell you of the renovations we’re doing.”
“Oh, I do hope your renovations involve a razing of the likes not seen since Alexandria?” she inquired, thoroughly interested in such a process.
“Alas, no, and with far less loss of priceless history, Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal said, chuckling at how crestfallen she looked.
“Another time, perhaps, then, my darling children! I have already accepted an invitation to dine in the Capital and my week is quite full!” Aunt Margaret said. “But there is time to tell me all about the war happening in the yard and about the ball. Remind me to tell you of the time I waltzed with the Czar on the Promenade! It was a masquerade, too, you know! It was quite exciting! Oh, such a fuss his wife made! But I have never been one to refuse a dance, have I?”
She happily chattered on, satisfied that she had affected a reunion between them.
Will and Hannibal, hand in hand with Winston snoozing at their feet, were happy enough to allow her to claim the triumph. They sat there together enjoying the comforting feeling of family and all the love, tears, frustrations, and amusement it brought along with it.
Yet beneath their smiles lay thoughts of seven missing young girls, of bodies in the woods, of weeping mothers with secrets that refused to be kept, lurking like a shadow on the landing just waiting to push them all into stifling darkness.