With the crew finally beginning work and so much to occupy them, life fell into a kind of rhythm. The happiness Will found began to grow, putting down roots that reached deep to take firm hold despite the unwholesome happenings at Marsham Heath. Taking the bitter with the sweet was simply life, he knew, and had tasted enough bitterness to savor what he had.
Abigail did not return to the House. Will’s concern in her direction was laid to rest by Magistrate Crawford, who called on the family personally at Hannibal’s insistence and due to his own worry for her safety. She was one of very few girls her age in Moseley who matched their killer’s preferences and the Magistrate was taking no chances. To all reports, she was abed with low spirits and Mrs. Hobbs was tending her, which had to suffice for them all.
Winston enjoyed Marsham Heath nearly as much as Will did, and Hannibal was delighted to see them both thriving under his watchful, cautious eye. His husband was in his glory with so much going on, his experience as land manager earning him the respect of Mr. Wells and the crew in short order. He knew what he was about, which was abundantly clear, and Hannibal couldn’t have been more proud of him. The only other thing to cloud their enjoyment was their correspondence, or lack thereof.
Though letters ran like water between the Capital and Marsham Heath, finding their way in from Hannibal’s work and for the position of land manager at Hartford, Hannibal’s letter to Grandfather regarding Melinda’s daughter was met with a protracted silence.
More tellingly, nothing came from Mina at all, though plenty of news about her husband had found its way into Hannibal’s hands.
“It does make me worry,” Will admitted, skating an exasperated look upstairs when the pounding began again, sending a fine shower of dust down onto their luncheon. “Mr. Buddish’s report was quite concerning regarding Timothy’s financial situation.”
“Yes, it was,” Hannibal agreed, one hand protectively over his teacup, though it was no use—with the construction it seemed dust was now a steady part of their diet and simply couldn’t be avoided. “It isn’t uncommon for a Lord to owe so much to so many, but the reports of just how deep his debt reaches, and how little return he is getting on the few holdings he still has… it quite boggles the mind.”
“I never dreamed he worked because he needed to,” Will murmured, emptying his dusty tea out into his saucer and pouring a fresh cup. He quirked an eyebrow at Hannibal when he slipped Winston a chunk of cold chicken beneath the table, thinking Will didn’t see him. “My father was delighted when he began to court Mina. He assumed she would be very well cared for. He could never have imagined that Timothy was set to inherit only a mountain of debt from his father along with his title.”
“Your father seems to be wrong quite a lot; we shall avoid his opinion at all costs,” Hannibal said, earning himself a wry cock of Will’s eyebrows. He grinned, unrepentant, and Will chuckled, done in by his humor.
“Still, it is troubling,” Will said, thinking of his sister. “Mina is the most angelic, pleasant person in the world provided she has everything she desires. With their fortunes in such a state, it is no wonder she is put out with her husband. Yet, I see no way we can help with this situation if she will not confide in me.”
“Well, there’s nothing we can do to compel her,” Hannibal said, wiping his hands on his napkin. He changed to a safer subject with, “Shall we see how the yard is faring?”
Will nodded, eager to take a look now that the pipe was laid and things had been put back to rights outside.
“Sorry to interrupt, m’Lords,” Mr. Berger said, arriving in a flushed and harried rush. “I thought you might want this straightaway. Mr. Buddish said it came late this morning.”
He handed a letter over from Hartford House and Hannibal took it with a jolt of sudden nerves, his eyes meeting Will’s.
“Thank you, Mr. Berger,” Will said, smiling at the rosy-cheeked valet. “Go downstairs and catch your breath, though I doubt you’ll find any peace in the house today.”
“Well, an early start makes an early finish, my Lord!” Mr. Berger said, restored to good cheer by a mission well executed. He beamed at them both and took himself off downstairs.
“Why don’t we take this,” Will said, plucking the letter from Hannibal’s fingers, “outside where it’s quieter and see what Grandfather has to say?”
“I think that is an excellent idea,” Hannibal agreed, his nerves betraying him in the twitch of his fingers around Will’s as they moved outside. “Now that I am faced with answers, I am not sure I am prepared for them.”
“You anticipate unpleasant truths?” Will asked, reclaiming his hand in an attempt not to scandalize the servants. Winston rushed off into the treeline after a squirrel, immune to his Masters’ cares, but keeping an eye on them.
“I cannot find a way for the truth to be pleasant,” Hannibal admitted, hands clasped behind his back and head angled to the canopy of verdant leaves. “Grandfather said he placed her with landed gentry. If she is in residence with them, then I have no right or reason to intrude on her life.”
“And if Mrs. Hobbs is telling the truth? Do you have right or reason to intrude on her life?”
Will did not resist when Hannibal took his hand again, drawing him down to sit on a bench beneath an arbor. It was overrun with sweet-smelling honeysuckle and busy with bees droning about their work, a soothing combination that they both appreciated.
“I simply do not know,” Hannibal sighed. “But I am borrowing trouble to delay the inevitable.”
He gestured at the letter and Will broke the wax seal, unfolding it with efficient grace.
“Would you like to read it, or shall I?” He asked.
“I would like us to read it together,” Hannibal suggested, uneasy.
They did so, sitting there in the shade shoulder to shoulder and anxious at what they might be told.
I do regret it has taken me so long to respond to you, but I did not wish to rely on my own memory and required some consultation with those who assisted in the baby’s care.
In answer to your question, in the wake of Melinda’s unfortunate death, her child was taken to Hartford Town by Mrs. Henderson and given to Miriam Lass, the midwife. Miss Lass was instructed to arrange for a wet nurse to accompany the child to her new family. She kept Melinda’s daughter in her home until arrangements were made to send her to the Howes in Wyatt.
That is not to say she was abandoned, Hannibal. Please never imagine that. Mrs. Henderson herself checked in with the child each day, though sadly was not able to accompany the infant to her new home. The transfer was overseen by Miss Lass, whose discretion was absolute.
The sad truth of the matter, Hannibal, is that the baby died not long after she arrived at the Howes’. She seemed such a healthy little girl for what she’d suffered, but one can never know with infants just what is the cause. Mrs. Howe wrote to me a few days after the child’s arrival that she had gone in the night, peacefully so, and was laid to rest in their family plot.
I did not wish to add more guilt to that burden you bear, and so I resolved never to tell you, but I hope the knowledge will give you some peace on the matter. If you should like to arrange for a new stone or to visit the child’s grave, I can provide the location for you, but my advice to you now is what it has always been—let it lie. Let Melinda rest. That poor young lady has been gone now for as long as she was ever alive. She deserves to have some little peace in her eternal rest.
“Miriam Lass,” Will murmured, his eyes meeting Hannibal’s. The pain in his husband’s eyes cut him to the quick—one way or another, Melinda’s daughter was essentially lost to him. If Abigail was not that child, then the baby Hannibal had sacrificed so much to save was long since gone.
If Abigail was that child, he had no way to prove it, or claim her legally unless Miss Lass and Mrs. Hobbs could be compelled to speak the truth.
Will took a deep breath and slid his hand into Hannibal’s. After a reflective silence, he ventured, “If what Mrs. Hobbs said is the truth, Hannibal, if she has details that can be confirmed, then there is a happy outcome to be had after all.”
Hannibal’s amber eyes shuttered, thoughtful, but he remained silent and utterly still in Will’s grasp.
“Melinda’s daughter might yet be alive,” Will said, lifting Hannibal’s hand to kiss it, a soft press of his warm lips over his knuckles to comfort him. “And where there is life, there is always a way. This need not be the end of your chance to know her, should she wish.”
Hannibal turned his hand to Will’s cheek and cupped his face, a sad smile curling the corners of his mouth.
“If Abigail is hers, and Melinda’s daughter does not lie in the cold earth far from her mother, then what choices do I have before me? Should I tear her away from the family who loves her?” Hannibal whispered. “In doing what is right to honor Melinda, will I destroy other lives? I cut that little girl from her mother’s womb, Will. Should I be sentenced to cut her from her mother’s arms, in turn, considering they never should have had her?”
“I think the best course of action,” Will said, leaning into his hand, a solid presence for Hannibal to hold fast to, “is to simply talk with Mrs. Hobbs. If what she shares can chase the shadow of any doubt from our minds, then a decision can be made regarding what should be done. What is just is not always what is right, in so many cases.”
Hannibal heaved a sigh and dropped his hand, saying, “Yes, of course. One crisis at a time, was it?”
“Preferably,” Will agreed, stroking Winston’s head when he pushed his muzzle between them, his anxious brown eyes trained on Hannibal. “I will send someone down for Mrs. Hobbs and ask her to meet us. A discussion amidst all this noise is not ideal, as you mentioned, but we have precious little options.”
“We’ll send the crew home for the day,” Hannibal suggested, and when Will’s eyebrows rose, he added, “They will be glad of the rest and I, for one, shall be glad of the silence. We can have our discussion with Mrs. Hobbs in peace, and she will have privacy for any confessions she might wish to make.”
“And the crew can return in the morning, fresh from their reprieve, and finish the job to everyone’s relief,” Will said, nodding as he stroked Winston’s soft ears. “I believe we have a plan, Lord Clarges.”
Hannibal said nothing, falling back into his worries regarding what was to come.
“Hannibal?” Will softly said, untangling his fingers from Hannibal’s to loop his hand through his husband’s arm. “We’ll get this sorted.”
“We will,” Hannibal said, the uncertain tone of his voice belying the confident nod he gave. “Whatever the outcome, we will know the truth. And no matter how painful, the truth will always out.”
Will averted his gaze, both of them suddenly reminded—and forcefully so—that they had not been wholly truthful with one another, but neither was able to address it with so many other cares to distract them.
Quiet descended on Marsham Heath once more. The staff got the parlor cleaned up with efficent haste as one of the houseboys ran down to escort Mrs. Hobbs up. Neither of the Lords Clarges expected her to refuse—an invitation from a Marquess was virtually unheard of, and her prior behavior showed how heavily her conscience weighed on her. She would come.
Her good sense would demand it.
Hannibal paced the carpet between the settees, hands clasped behind his back. Winston’s head turned to and fro watching him, Hannibal’s restless energy putting even Will on edge.
“My Lords,” Mr. Thatcher said, drawing Hannibal’s immediate attention. “Mrs. Hobbs has arrived.”
“Bring her, please, Thatch,” Hannibal said, composing himself. He smoothed his jacket and tugged his cuffs, taking comfort in familiar habits. Will watched him, wishing there was something more he could do to comfort his husband, but knowing he could only do so much.
Louise Hobbs was admitted to the parlor with quiet reserve, her hands clutched before her. She was wearing a very lovely dress, much removed from the simple skirts and blouses Will had seen her in to date. It touched him, thinking of her choosing what she would wear, nervous and facing the potential loss of her daughter but hoping to make a good impression, trying to appear at her very best. A good woman. A good mother.
Will knew what it felt like to walk into a room of people he imagined were his betters, to feel small in their presence, unimportant in the grand scheme of things. It moved him to rise and grasp her hands with warmth, saying, “Louise. It is so good of you to come on such short notice. And how lovely you look.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” she said, blushing like a maiden, flustered by her reception. “I wish I had something nicer.”
“Never think so, Mrs. Hobbs,” Hannibal said, his manners kicking in and overtaking his nerves. “You look quite well, and it is very good to meet you at last. Please, have a seat.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice small. She did as she was bidden, glancing around despite herself, her movements hesitant as if she feared to disturb something.
“Mrs. Hobbs,” Hannibal said, settling across from her and reaching for Will’s hand to pull him down at his side. “I think perhaps you know why we have asked you here.”
Her mouth bowed down in an unhappy frown. She would not lift her eyes to meet his, nor Will’s, just twisted her fingers in her lap. Winston, sensing her distress, moved to nose her knee and she jumped.
“He’s very gentle, Mrs. Hobbs,” Will said, leaning across to rub Winston’s head. He smiled when she relaxed and followed his lead, glad that the friendly dog could help comfort her.
Mrs. Hobbs stroked Winston’s head for a long, silent moment, gathering her thoughts, and finally said on a tremulous whisper, “I always knew this day would come.”
Hannibal leaned forward, closing the distance between them, doing his best to remain unassuming and without threat. There was a soft Alpha purr in his deep voice when he asked, “You knew we Lecters would call for you?”
She nodded, tearful.
“Mrs. Hobbs,” Will said, patting Hannibal’s thigh to keep him from looming closer, knowing his husband had very little awareness of how intimidating he could seem when he was so intensely focused. “Louise, I think the time has come for you to tell us about Abigail.”
She lifted her blue eyes, shimmering tears spilling over and down her cheeks. “I never meant any harm, my Lords. I never dreamed that you would want her back.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, Mrs. Hobbs,” Hannibal said, fishing out his handkerchief and handing it to her. She took it with a hand that trembled and patted at her tears. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning, with Miriam.”
“Please, Mrs. Hobbs,” Will said when she hesitated. “It is very important. There is a strong possibility that you are mistaken—”
“No, my Lord, I’m not,” she said, drawing a fortifying breath. She buried her hand in Winston’s fur again, an excuse not to meet their curious gazes. “I was there, you see, when the housekeeper came. The one from Hartford House?”
“Mrs. Henderson,” Hannibal supplied, and she nodded.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hobbs said, managing to meet his amber gaze. “I’d come to see my cousin, Miriam. We were to adopt a little girl, you see, given my husband’s—given that we never could have a child of our own.”
“It is such a gift to be able to bring a child into your home,” Will prodded, hoping to keep her momentum going. “It was very kind of you to expand your family with someone who needed your love.”
It seemed to bolster her and she stopped trembling, more saddened now than nervous.
“All we ever wanted was a child of our own,” she admitted, her ache echoing in Will’s chest. He found his fingers tightening on Hannibal’s leg, a clutch for balance when her anguish threatened to overcome him. “Miriam was a midwife there, and saw her fair share of babies without mothers. There was a woman in Hartford, too many mouths to feed and her husband unable to work. She was older, old enough that the baby was a surprise she couldn’t afford to enjoy. Miriam wrote to me to come when she neared her time, but when we arrived, the little girl was sickly.”
She looked from Hannibal to Will and back again, as if willing them to understand and see how reasonable her actions seemed at the time.
“Miriam wanted to keep her for a bit, see if she could get her to rally,” Mrs. Hobbs said, tears overflowing anew. “But she was so weak. And then one evening your Mrs. Henderson came down from the House.”
“You saw her?” Hannibal asked, surprised that the housekeeper would not have mentioned there being someone else present, or would have dared risk revealing family business in front of a stranger.
“No, my Lord,” Mrs. Hobbs said, shaking her head. “No, Miriam left me sitting with the baby in her bedroom and went to answer the door, but I could hear them speaking. She said that the child was to go to a genteel family. She gave Miriam a goodly sum of money for her care and asked her to tend to the baby until further arrangements could be made.”
“Then you had no idea she was from Hartford House?” Will clarified, brow furrowing when Louise shook her head.
“Not until Miriam said so,” Mrs. Hobbs confessed. “Our little one took a turn for the worse that week, you see. Miriam knew… I could tell that she knew my little girl wouldn’t survive. There was something wrong, she said, wrong inside of her. I didn’t know what to do. What were we to do?”
“Mrs. Hobbs,” Hannibal coaxed. “What did you do?”
“We took your daughter,” she said, the words a harsh whisper, said with her eyes wide with horror, as if speaking it out loud made her realize the enormity of what they had done. “She was so perfect and lovely, with the bluest eyes… Miriam knew how much we needed her. She took that poor little infant from me, struggling with every breath, and she laid little Abigail in my lap. She said no one would realize, that she would keep the sickly baby in her arms when the housekeeper visited and we could take our Abigail with no one the wiser… but someone must have known.”
“Mrs. Hobbs,” Hannibal said, frightfully still at Will’s side, the details of her story fitting too well to mistake, yet he needed undeniable confirmation. “Did Abigail have anything unusual about her? Anything that stood out to you?”
Mrs. Hobbs nodded without hesitation, a dedicated mother’s knowledge of her child.
“Yes, my Lord,” she answered, fumbling in her modest, worn reticule to withdraw a faded ribbon. “She had this red ribbon binding her cord and a cloverleaf birthmark on her heel.”
Hannibal’s eyes widened and Will felt a rush of confusion from him, relief and outrage vying in equal part as he plucked that ribbon from her fingers. He inspected it, taken forcefully back to the moment when he had bound the baby’s round little belly with it, wretched with grief while she cried for a mother who would never hear her voice.
His broad shoulders bowed and he shuddered. Dropping his head into his hand to hide the sheen of tears in his amber eyes, he thrust the ribbon back at Mrs. Hobbs, an accusation she accepted.
“Hannibal,” Will murmured, leaning close to him, tasting his distress, feeling it twice over through his bond. “Hannibal?”
“She is Melinda’s daughter,” Hannibal breathed, hot tears trailing from his sheltering hand. “Gods, Will, she’s alive. She is Melinda’s daughter.”
“I am sorry if we caused you grief, my Lord,” Mrs. Hobbs said, breaking into fresh tears when she saw that he was crying. “We aren’t bad people! We thought… we were told that the child was unwanted, that she was to be sent as far from Hartford as possible. Why shouldn’t we have her, if you didn’t want her?”
“Mrs. Hobbs, it is rather more complicated than that,” Will began, but cut off when Hannibal suddenly lifted his head, his eyes rimmed in red and blazing.
“Mrs. Hobbs, please excuse me, but I think it is time for you to go.”
“Hannibal!” Will said, his surprise at his husband’s abrupt statement fading to grim understanding. Hannibal was beside himself, caught off balance by what he had learned, no matter how prepared he’d thought himself. He was struggling to contain an impulsive reaction and Will acted accordingly. He cast a sympathetic look at Mrs. Hobbs and said, “I’ll see you out, Louise. I think my husband needs some time to compose himself.”
He stroked Hannibal’s nape as he stood, not envying Hannibal the decisions he must make but knowing he would support them.
“I’ll return in a moment,” Will told him, and gestured Winston to stay by Hannibal’s side. The lovable dog promptly inserted his snout under Hannibal’s hand and whined, trying to comfort him.
Louise, swollen-eyed and sniffling, said nothing until Will walked her to the drive, and then asked in a tremulous whisper, “Will he take her from us?”
“I honestly cannot predict what he will do,” Will said, frowning. “He would be within his rights, Louise, I will not deceive you on that count. But my husband has known great loss in his life, and he would not cause your family any pain that could be avoided. From there, we shall simply have to hope.”
“I should never have told her,” she wept, so upset that Will was half a mind to send the houseboy back down with her, just to see that she was safe. “I didn’t want to lie to her! She should know where she came from, shouldn’t she?”
“You followed your heart, Mrs. Hobbs,” Will said, squeezing her trembling hand. “That is all any of us can do.”
“Garrett is going to be so heartbroken,” she said, her voice cracking on a sob.
“I am so sorry, Louise,” Will said, and genuinely meant it. “I truly hope things turn out for the best for us all. Can I have someone accompany you home?”
“No, my Lord, I… I wish to be alone,” she said, and pressed the handkerchief back into his hand. “Beg him to deal gently with us, as we have with his daughter. We have loved her with everything in us and always will. Tell him that?”
“I will, Louise,” Will promised, watching until she vanished beneath the crest of the hill.
He lingered a little while longer, giving Hannibal time to gather his thoughts, and then he went back inside where Mr. Thatcher was standing vigil at the parlor door.
“Mr. Thatcher, if you could bring some brandy in?” Will asked, pausing in the doorway to do so. “His Lordship is in need of some fortification.”
“I will do so, my Lord,” Mr. Thatcher said, and tottered off towards the kitchen.
Will admitted himself back into the parlor, finding Hannibal much as he had left him—troubled, torn, and hurting, but with one hand stroking Winston’s head. Silent, Will settled next to him and took Hannibal’s free hand in his, rubbing his palm with both thumbs, working the fine bones of his wrist beneath his cuff, up the length of his graceful fingers and down again.
“They stole her, Will,” Hannibal whispered, warm and tense against him but relaxing in increments at Will’s touch. “I will have to get guardianship and correct this.”
Will said nothing, neither approving nor disapproving, merely soothing him.
“She could have been living with the Howes all this time,” Hannibal said, sitting back in the seat to look at his husband’s serene face. “She could have been in the best school, with good prospects. She could have been so much more.”
“There is nothing less about what Abigail is, or her life here,” Will said, a gentle reminder to Hannibal that his status was clouding his judgment. “She has had a happy childhood with parents who love her with everything in them.”
“One of whom has twice scared the life out of you,” Hannibal countered. “What if he mistreats her?”
“Louise wouldn’t allow for it,” Will murmured, drawing Hannibal’s other hand across his lap to give it the same treatment.
“What do you think I should do?”
There was a world of consequence in that question and Will stilled for a moment before resuming his massage.
“This isn’t my decision to make, Hannibal,” he said, finally tipping his face up to look at his husband.
“It’s our decision,” Hannibal said, sitting up to capture Will’s hands in his, anxious and urgent. “Will… I will not force another outcome on you that you have no say in! Whatever conclusion we make in regards to Miss Hobbs, we must make together.”
He dropped Will’s hands and cupped his face instead, rubbing his nose to Will’s, breathing in his welcoming scent until all of the agitation, frustration, and upset died down to mere shadows of themselves. Will’s warm breath ghosted over his lips and his slender hands rose to grasp Hannibal’s wrists, a gentle, caressing pressure.
“So much of your life has happened to you, Will,” Hannibal breathed, staring into his fathomless blue eyes. “I want this to be something you choose.”
Will’s lids fluttered closed and a smile teased his full mouth, though it was sad and somewhat lost.
“It will always be yours to choose,” Hannibal reminded him, and pressed a soft kiss to his mouth, seeking reassurance and finding it in the warm welcome he received.
He felt stronger for that kiss, more certain that he could do what was right for everyone, not just for himself or the memory of Melinda. He smiled against Will’s mouth and whispered the only joy he could find in what had happened, “She’s alive.”
“She is,” Will agreed, a soft, delighted laugh lilting in the words. “And she’s a beautiful young lady.”
They drew apart just a small space, and Hannibal sighed, “She is nearly grown, isn’t she?”
“Very nearly,” Will said, adding, “Not far from being ready to venture off into the world. If she chooses.”
Hannibal smiled as Will’s subtle point hit home, unraveling the tangled knot inside him with a deft, expert touch. It needn’t be one extreme or another. It needn’t be immediate and irreversible, destructive action. There was young lady nearly an adult at the heart of this matter and, as his mate had reminded him, she was the one whose decisions carried weight in the end.
“Ah, I do rely on you,” Hannibal said, pulling Will half into his lap to embrace him and delving into his curls, even as Will huffed with good-hearted indignation. “One moment the world is ugly chaos and the next it is neat and orderly, all because of you.”
“Because of me?” Will asked, wriggling to straighten but subsiding, content enough that he had put up token resistance. “I haven’t done anything, here, Hannibal.”
“Nonsense,” Hannibal said, squeezing him and relaxing. “All I could think was that I would destroy a family if I tried to know Miss Hobbs, offend her parents or imprison them, one. I saw tragedy behind every option, but now I can imagine resolving this to everyone’s benefit. Because of you, and the way you always remind me that the choices don’t always belong to us.”
“She knows her own mind, Hannibal,” Will confirmed, nuzzling his jaw, drawn by the earthy scent of his skin. “A young woman striking out in the world can only benefit from powerful friends. The important thing is that Abigail is happy. That would be the best homage to Melinda you could ever give.”
Hannibal nodded, tucking Will closer to him on the settee. “We will speak with Miss Hobbs and her parents all together and see what we can do to assist her situation and keep her safe. Our involvement in her affairs, and hers in ours, can grow from there.”
“That is an incredibly reasonable solution, Lord Clarges,” Will praised. “Very impressive coming from an Alpha.”
Hannibal chuckled, and subsided, once more grateful for his mate and the calm reason he could impose on the worst of issues. After a comfortable silence of holding Will in his arms, he was inspired to admit, “I’ve missed you.”
Will laughed, surprised to hear him say such a thing, and reminded him, “I’ve spent very little time absent from you, Hannibal.”
“No, I mean I’ve missed you,” Hannibal said, the emphasis getting Will’s attention. He tipped his head up to find his husband’s amber eyes on him and felt his belly tighten in response. Hannibal touched his jaw, fingers sliding beneath the curve of bone to brush his scent glands, gathering traces of Will’s distinctive sweet perfume on his fingertips.
“Hannibal,” Will said, the mild scold of his tone lost in the gentle way he said it. He pressed his hand to Hannibal’s chest, the pumping of his heart thumping a steady rhythm against his palm, and pushed himself up just a hair to meet his husband’s eyes.
“You,” Hannibal said, looking at Will with unabashed awe and something that Will dared not try to name, “have the most curious effect on me, Will. When I feel lost, I find myself reaching for you. When something troubles me, I bring it to you.”
He stroked Will’s cheek, tracing his fingertip over his chin to rub his full lower lip.
“When I am happy, I reach for you,” Hannibal murmured. “I have never had anyone to share my joys and sorrows with; I have always been alone until now. I find I am greedy for you.”
“Then you are your grandfather’s progeny,” Will whispered, touching his tongue to the tip of Hannibal’s finger and tasting the sweetness of his own skin.
“I am,” Hannibal said, fascinated by the way Will gazed up at him, vivid blue eyes behind thick lashes and his lips barely curled around his fingertip. “I miss you each time you sit across from me. I miss you each time you leave the room. I miss you each time you touch my hand or smile at me, because close can never be close enough, it seems.”
Will’s cheeks pinked but he smiled, pleased, and Hannibal slid his fingers back to stroke Will’s curls again.
“I am greedy for you, Will,” Hannibal said again, his lips curving in a cat-like smile.
“Are you propositioning me, Lord Clarges?” Will asked with a small smirk. “Because I shall have to lock the door in case Mr. Thatcher returns some day with our brandy.”
“Is that an invitation to ogle?” Hannibal countered, his spirits rising.
“No,” Will laughed, levering himself up a bit closer, careful of his weight on his husband, who refused to see him as anything other than incredibly dainty. “But perhaps it’s an invitation of a sort.”
Hannibal smiled, brows shooting up in surprise.
“Now who is doing the propositioning?” he teased, cupping the back of Will’s skull through his fragrant curls.
“I am,” Will admitted. “I can’t have my husband incapacitated from missing me. Perhaps it would be for the best if I check on you this evening.”
“I do have nightmares,” Hannibal said. “I would very much appreciate your help in chasing them away. A watch is only so much comfort, after all.”
“You are my husband,” Will said, echoing Hannibal’s words back to him, “and I will protect you.”
Hannibal grinned and tipped his head, sharing a slow, lingering kiss that was rudely interrupted by the parlor door being flung open.
Winston barked in response and the two of them leapt apart, but Berger had no care for that. Urgently, the pink-faced valet said, “Beg your pardon, my Lords, but you’re needed!”
“Needed? What on earth?” Hannibal said, surging to his feet and pulling Will with him, Winston adding his own opinion to the chaos as they all headed out into the yard.
One of Magistrate Crawford’s men was waiting for them, looking ill and unhappy. His spine snapped straight when he saw the Lords Clarges coming his way and he said without preamble, “There’s been another body found, m’Lords! Fresh, so to speak. Magistrate’s sent me to fetch you.”
“Berger, keep Winston with you, please,” Will said, even as Hannibal said, “Lead the way.”
The body was quite a distance from where they had found the other, but it was fresh, as the officer had said. Fresh enough that the man who had stumbled upon her had known who she was and set the town on its ear with the news.
Jack greeted them with nothing more than a cursory, flat stare, taut and unhappy as his men and the detectives scoured the area. They were shown to the body in silence with the glowering Magistrate in attendance.
It was the same sort of pile, feet covered by hands, topped with the head shorn of hair, barely touched by decay.
“My gods,” Hannibal breathed, crouching to examine her, his amber eyes skating up to Jack’s grim face. “Is this the girl who just vanished?”
Jack nodded, unable to speak for a moment. Will crouched next to Hannibal, his narrowed eyes finding the unusual patterning where the neck had been parted from the trunk.
“These are bite marks,” Hannibal murmured to him, pointing without touching.
Will heard Jack launch into a theory of assault, but he knew it was not that. The same shadowy, unwholesome presence that had lingered over the other remains returned. It resolved itself into a beast, skeletal and charred, taking shape in coils of temper and strings of despair, withered and starving and never satisfied, no matter what it devoured.
Overwhelming greed that had driven him to destroy.
The beast bent down, jagged fangs sinking deep into that child’s flesh. It tore a chunk free and swallowed it.
“He’s eating them,” Will whispered, swallowing hard against bile that threatened to rise.
Jack gaped down at him, unable to comprehend such a vile thing.
Hannibal, however, merely took another assessing look at the body, realization filling his fine features.
“He’s eating them, Jack,” Will said, numb with understanding.
The beast raised its head and Will stared into the face of Garrett Jacob Hobbs.
The smokehouse lit day and night and woods empty of prey.
“Oh, my gods…”
The beta wife who never bore a child.
The daughter who wanted to find her birth parents.
A barren Alpha whose fundamental and primary drive had been rendered inert and redirected towards hunting.
A lifetime of Omegas who refused to bond to a sterile Alpha.
Mine, mine, mine—all of this is mine. You will never take this from me, not now, not ever.
Grasping, greedy hands like claws laying claim to what he thought was being stolen from him, chewing it up and swallowing it down to make it all part of him forever.
And they had just struck a match to the tinder and ignited a blaze.
“I was wrong,” Will said, sickened to his core. “It isn’t the girls of this village he has a grudge against, it’s the daughters.”
“Will? What is it?” Hannibal asked, his attention sharp as a blade.
“It’s Hobbs,” Will gasped, surging to his feet, Hannibal rising with him, alarmed by his sudden concern. “Abigail is in danger!”
Will pulled away from his husband in a near-blind panic and ran back towards the village, his fear granting him speed, his heart pounding and his ears ringing with the sound of his own harsh breathing and the echoing snarl, ‘Mine, mine, mine!’
Hannibal dashed after his mate, Will’s horror, his despair and terror welling up like a vise around his heart.
“What on earth was all that?” Magistrate Crawford demanded, crashing after him. “I thought you said he could handle this?”
“He did handle it,” Hannibal called back, trying to keep Will’s fleeing form in sight. His mate’s comments strung themselves together, a tapestry of realization that made him shout, “He knows who your murderer is, Magistrate Crawford. We have to get to the Hobbs house, and quickly!”
Despite his confusion, Jack followed his gut and came with Hannibal in pursuit of Will, the two of them rushing through the woods at an angle in the hopes of intercepting him.
Hannibal could only desperately hope and pray that they caught up to him before Will caught up to their killer.
Will burst from the treeline and hit the lane at a dead sprint, his blood roaring in his ears, his heart pounding. Over and over, all he could think was that their meeting with Mrs. Hobbs might have tipped the delicate balance of Mr. Hobbs’ control and he would finally take what was precious to him.
His Abigail, his little girl, his only daughter, slaughtered and eaten, far beyond the reach of any hands that might steal her away from him.
Will spied the Hobbs’ cottage ahead and saw the stoor standing open, a splash of blood on the panel, a crimson smear of grasping fingers wrenched away.
The sound of Hannibal’s voice was so distant, hollow, unable to reach Will where he was at, floundering in darkness where the boogeyman snatched children and gobbled them up, all of them up, leaving only their head, hands, and feet.
Will didn’t dare wait on him, even as his husband and the Magistrate bore down on the little house. He pushed his way inside, calling out, “Mrs. Hobbs! Abigail!”
The coppery, sharp scent of blood reached him at the same time he heard the soft, stifled sound of someone weeping. “Abigail?! Mrs. Hobbs! It’s Will Gr—Lord Clarges!”
He caught the rotten, bitter scent of Garrett Jacob Hobbs and his heart began to thump a frenetic staccato when the sting of blood flooded over it, strong enough to dim even that unwholesome stench.
“Mr. Hobbs, the Magistrate is nearly here!” Will called, trembling but determined as he eased down the hallway. He could see into the little kitchen where a pale hand broke the line of the doorframe, fingers still.
Louise Hobbs lay splayed out on the floor of her kitchen in a spreading pool of blood. Her throat was parted in an obscene, gaping red smile at odds with the shock plastered on her white, slack face.
“Louise!” Will called, and rushed to her side, trying in vain to close that smile, to somehow force the blood to reverse its flow back into her gurgling throat. Her blue eyes rolled in horror before they dimmed, and Will followed her gaze, her blood hot on his hands and seeping into his clothes.
Garrett Jacob Hobbs himself was backed into the corner, his terrified daughter held fast against his chest, half hostage and half shield.
“Stay back!” Hobbs snarled, the Alpha boom in his voice causing Will to flinch despite himself. But he couldn’t look away. He found himself compelled to try to mend this situation for the sake of the child trembling in her father’s hold.
“Mr. Hobbs,” Will said, lifting his steady hands, familiar calm overtaking him. “Mr. Hobbs, Magistrate Crawford is outside. Please, don’t make this worse than it already is. Let Abigail g—”
“No!” It was a snarl, a reverberating shout that thudded through Will’s bones. Fury, guilt, and a terrible sorrow that had fired instincts over and over to a task his inutile body could not perform. The sheer wretched horror of it made Will’s mouth tighten, resenting that he could so easily find sympathy for such a vile man.
The bloody knife in Hobbs’ hand flew to Abigail’s throat in an instant. He was wild-eyed, a cornered, rabid animal willing to deal as much destruction as he could before his inevitable end. “You wanted to take her away from me, didn’t you? Coming around here, sniffing after my daughter! I knew! I knew! You can’t have her! She’s mine!”
“Mr. Hobbs,” Will said, again, taking a tentative step forward, Louise’s blood trailing against the toe of his boot. He stopped when the knife pressed harder and Abigail sobbed, her huge blue eyes entreating him to help her.
Will trembled, hearing Hannibal calling for him and Jack shouting, “Garrett Jacob Hobbs! Come out right now!”
Hobbs jumped, squeezing Abigail tighter.
“You just don’t understand,” he snarled, the crack in his voice making Abigail whimper, straining away from the blade at her throat.
“I do,” Will said, ignoring their calls, Hobbs’ own resentment dripping from his words. “I do understand. She’s yours, isn’t she? You were the one who raised her, weren’t you? Drying her tears when love broke her heart, teaching her how to handle herself? She’s yours. I swear, she’s yours. We would never seek to take her from you, any of us—”
The front door banged open and the two men burst into the house, shouting for Abigail, shouting for Will.
Hobbs’ eyes widened, showing whites all around. His knife hand trembled, wavered, but steeled hard with purpose when the thunder of boots on the floorboards grew nearer.
“Just be still,” Hobbs said, anguished by his choices. “It’ll be over soon and everything will be just fine. You’re mine. My Abigail, my little girl. No one is ever going to take you from me.”
Will saw him tense, saw the muscles in his forearm bunch with intent, and something else entirely took him over then, some deep-dwelling instinct to protect her, this motherless daughter, this terrified child who had stirred such chaos with nothing more than a desire to know where she came from.
The woman dead on the floor stared up at him, her ability to protect her precious child stripped of her, and how dare he? How dare he? What did he know about having a baby? What did he know about loving someone past the bounds of all reason? What did he know about wiping tears and soothing scrapes and soft, whispered secrets, of shy smiles and the gentle talks had over the burgeoning beginnings of womanhood?
He knew nothing. He was only an Alpha claiming his property, not a father. A father would never do such things.
He had no right to do such things.
“Don’t you dare touch my daughter!” Will snarled, lunging as the knife began to move, launching himself forward to grab Hobbs’ arm with such force that he tackled him sideways, all three of them tumbling to the floor.
Abigail rolled away, gasping and coughing, blood welling over her pale fingers where they pressed to her throat, her blue eyes pouring tears.
Will’s fury rose like a tide. He thrashed beneath Hobbs when the Alpha twisted atop him, struggling to wrest the knife from his grip. Over their forced breaths and curses he heard an unearthly snarl that momentarily stunned them both, it was filled with such absolute and pointed threat.
The Alpha froze above him, but the snarl filled Will with strength, the surety that his mate was coming, that he was furious, and that nothing would stop him from protecting what was his. Will took advantage of Hobbs’ stricken reaction and knotted one hand into a fist before smashing it into Hobbs’ face.
Hobbs growled, his nose and lips bloodied, and flipped the blade around. With an echoing roar of mindless outrage, he drove the knife down towards Will’s chest.
It was a very unsettling sensation for Hannibal’s belly to sink in a sudden pit of horror, as if he were once more on the battlefield making his way through the severed pieces of lives lost. It was a feeling that filled him, that erupted out of him in violence he had long since left behind him on foreign shores.
He didn’t see the body of Louise Hobbs. He didn’t see Melinda’s daughter thrashing in her own blood.
He saw Will, his mate, pinned by a vile monster, a bloody knife flashing down to cut everything short, to wash every wonderful aspect of his amazing, unique husband from the world with one cruel thrust.
And Hannibal would rather die than allow that to happen.
He lunged, lessons hard learned at war so ingrained in him that his muscles moved from instinct. He smashed into Hobbs with another reverberating snarl, his momentum carrying both of them past Will to crash into the cast iron oven.
The Alpha flailed, compelled to fight, the knife nothing more than a trite inconvenience to Hannibal.
This man had threatened his mate. No flimsy knife would keep Hannibal from his retribution, no matter how the Magistrate raged, too wise to embroil himself in a fight between two Alphas.
Will gasped for breath, winded by his run and the struggle and Hobbs’ lean weight. The air he sucked in was thick with Hannibal’s powerful scent, the threat of his snarl manifesting in violence that Will instinctively knew would not touch him.
The sound of Abigail choking ripped Will from the clashing Alphas before him. Trembling, Will shoved away from the mess of blood on the floor and fell sideways, fumbling his way to Abigail, who lay pale and frightened next to her dead mother, her blue eyes darting around a familiar room made alien by this nightmare.
“No, no, no! Abigail, it’s going to be okay,” he said, pressing his hand over hers to staunch the welling blood, his smile twisted and taut as he tried to reassure her. “You’re safe, now.”
“Both of you stop!” Jack shouted, discharging his pistol into the ceiling.
It was a distraction Hobbs used to his advantage—momentarily freed of Hannibal’s grip when he was flung against the wall, he turned and fled through the back door still clutching his knife, bouncing against the frame and staggering with the thrashing he’d taken.
Hannibal moved to pursue him, but Will’s entreaty stopped him, the need to protect his mate far stronger than the need to fight.
“Hannibal, please,” Will said, his voice cracking with tension. “She’s bleeding! Please, help her!”
Jack gave both of them a look of sweeping disapproval and vanished through the back door in pursuit of Hobbs, leaving Hannibal and Will to handle Abigail.
Bloodied from his battle and frightful with intensity, Hannibal moved at once to assess Melinda’s daughter. His fighting fury died a quick death when he saw how dire her situation was, the Alpha in him giving way to the healer. He had to firmly pry both Will’s and Abigail’s hands away from the wound, but he finally managed to uncover it.
What he saw made him pale.
“Sh, hush,” he soothed, panting as he plucked his handkerchief free of his pocket. He pressed it to her throat, palm holding it firmly in place while he got his breathing to slow. Abigail calmed then, responding to his firm control of a frightful situation, enough so that he could get a better look at Will.
Will anxiously watched him, his bloodied hand resting on Hannibal’s shoulder, all of his attention focused on Abigail. Blood had sprayed his face, his clothing, his hands and body, but for everything that had happened he appeared unhurt. Softly, still struggling with the rage that had overcome him, Hannibal asked, “Are you hurt?”
Will shook his head, “No, he didn’t get a chance. You got here before he could. Gods, Hannibal! He’s hurt you!”
“Not as much as I hurt him,” Hannibal growled, bristling all over again.
Will touched Hannibal’s busted lip with a wince, his concerned blue gaze torn between Abigail and his husband.
“He’s taken off into the woods,” Jack said, pushing back in through the back entry in a mire of irritation. “What in the seven hells happened here?”
“You know as much as I do, Magistrate Crawford,” Hannibal said, lifting the handkerchief to see if the flow was slowing. “But if he lays hands on my mate again, he will not survive it.”
“Garrett Jacob Hobbs is your killer, Jack,” Will said, hoping the explanation would suffice.
“We need to move Miss Hobbs up to Marsham,” Hannibal told them. “Now.”
Will helped him lift her, only half an ear to Jack asking, “So what set him off? What is all this? And how on earth could you know any of it, Lord Clarges? ”
“You wanted to borrow my imagination, Jack, not dissect it,” Will reminded him, tucking Abigail’s bloody skirts up out of the way for Hannibal to hitch her legs over his arm. “I can’t tell you how it works any more than you can tell me how your authority works—it just does.”
“Now is not the time for explanations,” Hannibal said, hefting Abigail’s slight weight easily against his chest.
“Humor me,” Jack said, hands on hips and irritated.
“Magistrate, this young lady needs medical attention and I cannot provide that here under these circumstances,” Hannibal said, tucking her higher into his arms to keep pressure on her throat, Will moving in synch to free her tangled hair from the crook of his arm. “One crisis at a time is rather our motto of late. I would appreciate it if you could escort us back to Marsham in case Hobbs decides to take his chances again.”
“I have no doubt you could handle it, Lord Clarges,” Jack said, eying them both when he said it, but he moved to the door ahead of them, a man rigidly bound to honoring his duties and faithful to the people in his charge.
They emerged from the cottage, flinching against the sunshine. It seemed as if hours had passed since going gone inside, yet it couldn’t have been more than a few moments. There was no time to thank the luck of their stars for walking out alive—Abigail was in dire straights and they rushed up towards Marsham as fast as Hannibal dared to go.
“Get that little girl taken care of,” Jack warned, breaking off near the trail that led back to the bodies, well within sight of Marsham Heath. “I’m going to round up those detectives and go looking for Hobbs. If we can get a confession—”
“You won’t get a confession,” Will warned, waving down one of the little house boys on watch in the yard, who gaped for a moment before darting off to warn Mr. Thatcher. “Hobbs has no intentions of surviving this. He’ll make you kill him, Jack, or else he’ll kill himself.”
“Then how will we prove he was our killer?”
Hannibal exchanged an uneasy look with Will and nodded encouragement.
“Check the smokehouse, Jack,” Will said, wishing he didn’t have to speak it, let alone imagine what he knew was inside. “That’s where you’ll find them… what’s left of them.”
Jack drew up as if Will had slapped him. There was a challenge in his dark gaze, almost resentment, as if by understanding the unforgivable somehow made Will complicit in Mr. Hobbs’ crimes. His eyes bored into Will with dangerous calm as he said, “Then we’ll go back, remove Mrs. Hobbs, and see what they have in the smokehouse, my Lord.”
The quiet at Marham Heath gained a new intensity with the arrival of Miss Hobbs, who was taken directly up to Will’s room at his insistence. Mr. Berger followed Hannibal in with his medical bag in hand and a curt order for the water to be brought up the moment it boiled.
With nothing to lend the impromptu hospital room and not wishing to be in the way, Will ordered every entrance to Marsham Heath be bolted shut and all the rooms locked in case Mr. Hobbs attempted to gain access to the house. He cleaned up quickly with Jimmy’s help and wrote letters to Mr. Buddish and to Grandfather explaining what had happened, who Abigail was, and asking for their advice in the matter. He then detailed everything concerning his involvement in Jack’s investigation and sent a copy down to the Magistrate’s office for public record. He also asked for all funeral arrangements for the Hobbs family, as well as those of the missing girls, be billed through Mr. Wells. It was the least he could do for them, and for Louise Hobbs.
And then all he could do was wait, mired in worry and impatient with his own anxiety when so many others had better reason to feel it.
He was pacing outside of the door when Mr. Berger emerged. Before he could even ask, Mr. Berger nodded and said, “She’s resting, poor lamb. Stitched up tight and will carry the scar all her years, but better that than gone into the good green earth.”
“Certainly better, Mr. Berger, thank you,” Will said on a deep, relieved sigh, a smile finally brightening his solemn face. “There’s a bath waiting for you downstairs, if you wish to use it.”
“Oh, but his Lordship—”
“Has a bath waiting as well,” Will assured him, spying Jimmy leaving Hannibal’s suite with a small nod of confirmation, “and I will tend him. You both have earned your rest and I intend to see that you get it.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” Berger said, shoulders slumping but his smile firm. “He’s fair knocked about from that Hobbs fellow. Bless you for caring for him.”
“Bless you, Mr. Berger, and thank you. Your hard work is very appreciated,” Will said, and moved past him into his room, bracing himself for what was to come.
Abigail lay in his bed like a princess from a fairy tale, her snarled hair dark against the pillows, the blood on her skin dried almost black. She seemed so small to him, pale and vulnerable but clinging to life. Humanity’s stubborn determination to survive and overcome distilled into the pale and quiet body of a sixteen-year-old girl.
Hannibal stood gazing down at her, his arms loose at his sides, his rolled-back sleeves baring his graceful wrists and strong hands, bloodied from closing Abigail’s wound and bruised from his short, furious fight with Garrett Jacob Hobbs. He sensed Will behind him but didn’t turn, a wordless invitation to join him.
Will stepped next to his side, pressing his hand to the base of Hannibal’s spine in unconscious echo of his husband’s touch. He settled against him, stroking him softly, and just stood there in silence waiting for Hannibal to speak.
“She lost quite a bit of blood,” Hannibal said, his voice a low purr in the silence. “But she’ll rally.”
“Your skill has saved another life, Hannibal,” Will whispered, his pride evident in the soft words. “For the second time, you saved her life.”
“I wish it hadn’t been necessary either time,” Hannibal told him. He lifted his arm and draped it over Will’s shoulders, turning to tug him into an embrace. Will felt him trembling, spent energy and intensity, too much a return to his ten years at war. He wrapped his arms around Hannibal’s waist and tipped his head, the slightest offering of his neck.
Hannibal buried his nose beneath Will’s jaw with a weighty sigh, drawing in the comfort of his scent and presence.
“I am… beyond angry at you,” he whispered.
“I know,” Will said, glad that Hannibal couldn’t see his small, sad smile. He smoothed Hannibal’s spine and squeezed him before pulling back to take his bloodied hands. “But right now you’re exhausted and can’t work up a proper temper, so you’ll just have to bear with it. I think a hot bath, a brandy, and some quiet should go a long way towards helping you regain your spleen, don’t you?”
“As lovely as that sounds, I now have a patient,” Hannibal said, and looked back at the bed, fond softness in his gaze. “A very precious patient.”
“Even moreso than we expected,” Will agreed, but was determined his husband catch his breath. “She is stitched and resting, and there is nothing more you can do just now. I will have the girls come clean her up and change her clothing, and one of them can sit with her while you are otherwise indisposed.”
Hannibal’s mouth parted in a lopsided, tired grin and he leaned forward to kiss Will’s cheek, murmuring, “My voice of reason.”
“It’s a pity you never developed one,” Will whispered, leading him into the modest little washroom where the tub was filled to the brim with steaming water. “But I am glad I am a suitable substitute. In you go.”
Grateful, Hannibal began to strip down at once. Will left him to it, ringing for Jimmy and giving instructions for Abigail to be bathed and changed. He had no suitable clothing for her, but one of his nightshirts would suffice.
Hannibal was slumped neck deep in water when he returned, and slit an amber eye when he heard the door, both opening wide in surprise to see it was Will and not Mr. Berger.
“I sent Mr. Berger downstairs for a bath,” Will explained, shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it.
“That was kind of you,” Hannibal said, mystified when Will shed his waistcoat as well as his neckerchief. Will turned and paused, prompting Hannibal to say, “Don’t stop on my account.”
“Honestly,” Will sighed, rolling back his sleeves. “It’s not that sort of tending, Hannibal.”
“A man can always hope,” Hannibal said, sitting up when Will urged him to. He dragged a washcloth down into the water over his hips to spare his mate’s prim sensibilities. “Though I doubt I have it in me just now.”
Will quirked a brow at that, but only reached for the medical supplies Jimmy had very thoughtfully placed next to a separate basin. He settled on the small wooden stool, soaked a cloth in waiting antiseptic, and dabbed at the cut on Hannibal’s mouth. His concentration was absolute as he tended to his husband, smoothing his young face of any frown or wrinkle of worry. The rightness of it pulled a quiet, soothing purr from him, a low, near soundless vibration that caused Hannibal’s amber eyes to brighten with interest.
“Thank you, Will,” he murmured, just watching his little mate so intently clean his wounds, doing what he could to bring Hannibal comfort after the stress of saving Abigail.
“For tending you?” Will asked, wiping the last of the blood off of his face. The cuts were superficial, glancing blows landed from luck.
“For wanting to,” Hannibal said, smiling at him even though it pulled at his mouth, sore now that it was brought to his attention.
“You came to my defence without hesitation,” Will admitted, a becoming flush rising on his skin. “Despite how dangerous he was, you attacked him to save me. This is the least I can do for you, Hannibal.”
“There is no need to do anything,” Hannibal said, but didn’t pull away. “You are my husband, Will. I could not bear it if anything were to happen to you.”
Will reached for the pile of linens and a thick bar of soap to distract himself from Hannibal’s piercing gaze and the flutter his words woke in his heart. He plunged the cloth into the hot bath water, unable to resist the sight of his husband’s long back and the way his spine dipped into his round backside. He had the fleeting fear that he might not have thought this through very well, but ignored it to soap the cloth up and begin a gentle but firm scrub of Hannibal’s back.
“This certainly is an unexpected bright spot in an otherwise very taxing day,” Hannibal murmured, bending his knees up to lean forward, his head hanging. The dried blood on his hands pinked in the water. It trailed off of him in little dancing swirls that faded, life into nothingness in the blink of an eye.
He closed his eyes against the vision of Will vanishing into that house, stalwart and stubbornly brave. The awful panic began to rise again but he focused on his mate’s warm scent, on the pressure of his hands, on the even sound of his breath. He would have nightmares for the rest of his life, he knew; nightmares where he was too late, where that knife had already found a deadly sheath in Will’s chest, where Hobbs took from him the most precious person in his life.
“I have written to Grandfather and to Mr. Buddish,” Will said, the husky timbre of his voice drawing Hannibal away from his dark thoughts. He washed Hannibal’s back from nape to tailbone, shoulders to sides, gentle and ceaseless soothing until his body gave with the motion, yielding up its tension to his touch. “I have told them everything that happened here, and how our own matters crossed into those of the Hobbs family. I asked them plainly for any advice they could offer. I think we shall need it. Abigail is alone in the world, even if her father somehow survives what he has done. She has no one.”
“She has us.” Hannibal said, sitting up and leaning back to look up into Will’s face. Thoughtful and solemn, he said, “We are her fathers, now.”
Will set the washcloth aside and smoothed his damp hands over Hannibal’s face, tenderness filling him at the sight of his husband’s earnest desire to make everything right.
“We are,” he agreed, fingers curling beneath Hannibal’s jaw in search of his Alpha scent.
Hannibal lifted his dripping hand, a bare brush of fingertips under Will’s chin. “I heard you say something…”
Will’s brows furrowed in a frown, his bond to Hannibal pulling at him with concern.
“You shouted at Hobbs as I was coming into the house,” Hannibal said, and Will’s cheeks bloomed with rosy color. “You called Abigail your daughter.”
Will stood abruptly, Hannibal’s hand falling away. He needed distance for the censure that would surely come, his father’s warnings cavorting in the back of his head in gleeful expectation of being right.
“That is not the first time I have noted such a thing happen to you, Will,” Hannibal said, sitting up to snare his wrist and turn Will back towards him. “Though not with such intensity.”
“I spoke in the moment, Hannibal,” Will said, allowing himself to be caught by his husband’s worried gaze, by the strong fingers on his wrist, by the care that prompted those words. “I have said before that I see too many pieces… The truth is that I can see things as others see them, as if I am them and they are me. I understand why they do the things they do, and with such clarity that the line between myself and someone else grows… faint.”
“It is how you took a conversation with Mrs. Hobbs, an unpleasant encounter with Mr. Hobbs, and the gruesome sight of those dead children and connected them,” Hannibal said, pulling Will down to sit on the side of the tub. “It is why you fought for Abigail’s life as Louise would have, with a mother’s own dedication to protecting her child.”
Will nodded, shaky, a shudder wracking his slender frame.
“It is a heavy burden, your gift,” Hannibal decided, jarring Will from his dread.
“Excuse me,” he breathed, his eyes widening. “I’m sorry, but what did you say?”
“I said that your gift is a heavy burden,” Hannibal said, sliding his grip from Will’s wrist to his hand and lifting it to kiss his palm. “I had not fully understood until I saw it work today. I don’t think I entirely comprehended what it did to you, even after you explained. I thought it was a talent, like cold-reading a person, but now I see that this empathy of yours, this gift, it wounds you. It is a tool, sharp and pointed at both ends.”
Will stared at him for a long, silent moment, trembling with repressed feeling because no one in his entire life—including his own twin sister—had ever properly grasped just how profoundly harmful his gift was.
And of all the people to understand him, the only one who could was Hannibal Lecter.
“That is precisely what it feels like,” Will admitted, Hannibal’s lips tickling his palm. “A tool I cannot control with any degree of mastery.”
“A very dangerous thing,” Hannibal mused, absently rubbing his thumb over Will’s skin in a soft caress. “Much more difficult to protect you from than papers.”
Will laughed softly at the unexpected humor of it, his fears retreating in the face of Hannibal’s warm understanding.
“In some cases, yes,” he said. “I am a burden despite my intentions.”
“No, Will, you are only yourself,” Hannibal corrected, relieved to see Will relaxing at his touch, the comfort working both ways. “And that is all you need to be.”
Will started, surprised to hear a version of his own mantra fall from his husband’s lips, but Hannibal seemed not to notice it.
He was looking at Will with weighty consideration that his mate became aware of far too late.
In one liquid movement, Hannibal tugged his hand, scooped an arm around his waist, and pulled Will down to meet him in a slosh of water.
“Hannibal!” Will sputtered, flailing to grasp the sides of the tub and drag himself back out.
But Hannibal’s arm around his waist held him fast, preventing his escape.
“What on earth did you do that for?” Will flared, bracing his sodden boots at the rim and pushing himself more upright between his husband’s toned thighs.
“That is for giving me the fright of my life again,” Hannibal informed him, giving Will room enough to squirm around and face him.
The scolding he had prepared died on his lips when he saw the vast relief on Hannibal’s handsome face, echoing the emotions he could feel through his bond.
“I am furious that you flung yourself so heedlessly into that situation, Will,” Hannibal told him, tipping Will against his chest to nuzzle his curls. “I was so terrified to know that you were in very real and mortal danger. I could have lost you, Will. Again, I could have lost you.”
“Hannibal,” Will said, reaching back to touch his cheek, the rasp of outgrowth rough against his sensitive fingertips. “You have every right to be angry with me, but please don’t scold me for—”
“I cannot scold a man for adhering to his own convictions, Will,” Hannibal said, drawing his mate closer to him, the press of his sturdy body a comforting weight against his own. He hugged him close, breathing in the perfume of his skin. “I am so grateful you are unharmed. You are incredibly brave, Will, and alarmingly foolhardy, but you plunged in with the desperate hope of saving what lives you could and managed to snatch Melinda’s daughter from Death’s embrace.”
Will warmed from the inside out, the fine sheen of sweat breaking out all over him as much from Hannibal’s praise as it was the heat of the water. It only intensified when Hannibal kissed the rim of his ear and whispered, “I am very angry at you, Will… and I hope each of our children inherit your disposition, though it will vex me to my grave, I’m sure, provided you haven’t done so yourself already.”
It coaxed a soft, surprised laugh from Will, the humor of it mingling with how easily Hannibal spoke of the children they might have. The possibility for new life after so much death here at Marsham Heath was heartening… and tempting.
“Despite the losses we sustained, this is a victory after all,” Hannibal murmured, his arm loosening at Will’s waist, his free hand stroking his slender side. “Melinda’s daughter is found, my mate is safe, and I will not lose either one of you again.”
“That is cause for celebration,” Will agreed, and sat up, the sight of his long back through his soaked shirt making Hannibal reconsider his own state.
For a moment he thought his mate would leave him, but Will only tugged his soaked boots and stockings off, dropping them in a pile on the wet floor. He reached for the bottle of brandy that had been placed near at hand and poured them both a measure.
“To victory,” he proposed, handing one glass to Hannibal and settling at the far end of the tub, his long feet resting against Hannibal’s hips.
Hannibal took hold of his sodden shirt and pulled Will into his lap, grinning when his mate easily straddled him with an expression of exasperated indulgence on his beautiful face.
“To keeping my reckless mate close,” he murmured, and kissed Will’s warm, full mouth, the brandy quite forgotten.
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