The mood at Chelsea House was considerably lighter for Will’s return. Berger valiantly managed to collect the clothing from the library before the maids found it, though one stray button remained unaccounted for and later found its way back in the quiet, unobtrusive way of the Lecter family staff.
There was a tacit understanding between the Lords Clarges that Will would remain with Hannibal until they both could go back to Hartford House together. After everything that had happened, any talk of separation was anathema and avoided as such. They made their arrangements accordingly, finding time over breakfast to speak what had transpired in Will’s absence regarding Abigail.
“I do wish they would let us at least see her,” Will said, rapping his spoon with a fierce cock of his eyebrow when he caught Hannibal sneaking Winston another bite of smoked ham beneath the table. “Hannibal.”
“They fear our influence,” Hannibal said, grinning at the threat in his husband’s eyes. He generously added another slice of ham to Will’s plate, which won him a small smile. “But I, too, wish we could visit with her. She must be very nervous and unhappy in such a place, though the Cenobites are not unkind.”
“She is a young girl used to fresh air and freedom,” Will said, able to return to his breakfast now that Hannibal had both hands in view. “The city must seem stifling and everything so strange. A Cenobium is surely a very dismal place for a child.”
“I managed a very elegant suite for her there,” Hannibal said, sipping the coffee that Will preferred for breakfast over their usual tea. “It was used to house the Queen Mother after her arrest. It is peaceful, with a lovely view of the garden.”
“Nothing is lovely when viewed through bars,” Will remarked, patting his mouth with his napkin. “Can we at least see to her comfort?”
“Yes, that much I insisted on,” Hannibal said, lowering his cup. “Incidentally, it would be of great help to me if you could go in my place to make purchases on her behalf. I will be tied up in audiences with several judges today and will not be able to tend to it as soon as I should prefer.”
“I will see to it,” Will offered, smiling when Hannibal reached out to grasp his hand, fingers twining in his. There was no kiss to follow, it was merely for the sake of touching him, a reassurance that Will was within reach. “She has nothing at all?”
“A few undergarments and another dress Emily provided,” Hannibal confirmed. “That aside, she is completely at the mercy of what the Cenobium can offer.”
“Without her measurements, it will be somewhat tricky,” Will said, giving Hannibal’s hand a squeeze, “but I will order a small wardrobe for her, just simple things to see her through until we may take her home.”
Hannibal did kiss his hand then, lifting it to press his lips to Will’s knuckles before asking, “You really would have her at Hartford House?”
“Yes, of course,” Will said, surprised that he should ask, “if she desires such a thing. Hartford House is where she was born. She has every right to call it home.”
Hannibal rubbed his thumb over Will’s knuckles, his brow wrinkling in thought as he said, “Abigail wished for me to tell you that she was sorry.”
“Sorry? What on earth for?” Will asked, echoing his frown.
“She told me that the day she left Marsham, she said things to you which she regrets,” Hannibal told him. “She wanted you to know that she’s sorry for what she said, and she thanks you for being so kind to her.”
Will smiled, and said, “Her mother would be very proud of her for that. I know I am. I had quite put it out of my mind, but I will be sure that we make up properly when we are all together again.”
Hannibal smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling in that way Will so admired. “You truly are a wonder, Will Lecter-Graham.”
“I imagine I would have to be in order to suit such a peculiar Alpha as you,” Will said, his full mouth curving in a smile that made Hannibal’s widen. “Speaking of peculiar, I did mean to ask, Hannibal—why did you tell Abigail you didn’t know who her father was?”
Hannibal’s smile faded somewhat. His fingers toyed with Will’s own, the same fingers that had helped to dress him this morning rather than hand him into Berger’s expert care.
“I have always known you to be honest,” Will said, sensing his disquiet. “Sometimes brutally so. Is there some reason you wish to keep Abigail from knowing who her father is?”
“The reason is that it would do more harm than good just now. The man who fathered her was somewhat notorious in the area and had run afoul of Grandfather more than once,” Hannibal said, his fingers stroking Will’s skin, seeking comfort as well as giving it. “He was a poacher, a thief, and had a habit of using his smooth tongue to worm his way out of the consequences. He had no interest in Melinda outside of the distraction she provided and was the one who suggested she name me as the baby’s father.”
“What a horrid man!” Will said, appalled that Melinda had fallen in with such a terrible excuse for a person. “What on earth ever became of him?”
“He stole from someone far less forgiving than Grandfather,” Hannibal said, fiddling with his coffee cup before dropping his hand to Winston’s head, his other hand still firmly on Will’s own. “About two years after I left for the front, he was hanged and then buried in a pauper’s grave. I couldn’t even tell her where to find his final resting place, should she ask.”
His amber eyes found Will’s and held them, familiar softness filling his voice when he reasoned, “Abigail has quite enough to trouble her. I doubt learning of her parentage would do her any favors.”
“I admit I am conflicted on that count,” Will said, frowning. “Secrets cause nothing but trouble, do they not? But there is no reason to rush into further disappointment for her. Perhaps if the Fosters show interest, they might speak of it to Abigail.”
“They have expressed interest,” Hannibal said, relieved to have the subject at temporary rest. “Grandfather has been in contact with them since he received your letter regarding the events at Marsham Heath. They are eager to see her, if she would be amenable to such a thing, and as she has asked after them I see no reason why we cannot bring them together again.”
“That is wonderful news,” Will said, a small measure of his concern for Abigail lessening in the knowledge that her family was hopeful for a reunion. “I had intended to reach out to them. I am grateful that Grandfather thought to do so.”
“He moves with remarkable speed for a man who insists he is teetering at Death’s door,” Hannibal said, taking a sip of his coffee around a wry smirk. He settled his cup back carefully and added, “In the meantime, we will take the best possible care of Abigail and see to it that her stay at the Cenobium is comfortable.”
“I will set out when Jack’s men return,” Will said, eager to get started. “Hopefully, I will be able to join you this afternoon, though it will take some time to get everything arranged.”
“I will wait with you until they arrive,” Hannibal offered, kissing Will’s hand again before releasing it entirely. “Finish your breakfast, Will. We have a long day ahead of us, though I hope we can be ready to set out for Hartford by teatime.”
“Surely we should wait until morning?” Will said, perplexed. “That is no small distance and I do not relish the idea of applying myself to it again in such short order.”
“I don’t think it will take as long as you imagine. Last night’s paper announced that the rail line has added Chesterton to their schedule,” Hannibal told him, grinning at Will’s unabashed surprise. “The stop is fully functional and the line is heading north.”
“Chesterton? That is barely two hours from Hartford by coach!” Will said, delighted. “They shall soon begin construction of our little station, and far ahead of schedule.”
“I thought you might enjoy that tidbit,” Hannibal said, sneaking another slice of ham to Winston when he thought he had Will thoroughly distracted. “I hoped I could persuade you to take the train with me tonight. We could let a room in Chesterton and ride the rest of the way in tomorrow.”
“Grandfather and Mina will be very surprised,” Will said, delighted by the prospect. “But what of Winston?”
“I would suggest that he take the coach with Berger from here,” Hannibal said, noting that Will’s eyebrows didn’t approve in the least. “However, knowing how fond you are of him—”
“How fond we are of him,” Will corrected.
“—I would venture to guess that he can ride behind one of us when he tires,” Hannibal said, reaching down to rub Winston’s ears. “He’s a smart little fellow and not shy of horses, by any means. If he cannot manage, we’ll hire a cart. There’s a posting house there, I’m sure they can manage something suitable.”
“I think that is a wonderful idea,” Will said, looking forward to it, even if the proposal had every indication of being for his safety more than convenience. “Thank you for suggesting it, Hannibal. I’m looking forward to the journey, now, rather than dreading how far it is. I only wish we were taking Abigail with us when we go.”
“The process we’ve embarked on will require quite some time, unfortunately,” Hannibal said, sighing a little in disappointment. “But soon, perhaps. I have an appointment with the Lord Chancellor and I am hopeful he will push through my request. In the meantime, we will prepare a place for her when she can return.”
Mr. Black intruded on them, somber and stiff with dignity, to announce, “There are three officers out front, my Lords. They claim they have come at your command?”
“Ah, indeed they have,” Will said, laying his napkin aside and pushing his chair back to stand. “We should get going, Hannibal, if we are to make the train this afternoon.”
“Shall I send someone to purchase tickets and acquire a schedule, my Lord?” Mr. Black asked, so thoroughly pleased to have Will back that he oozed satisfaction. “When should you like to depart?”
“Send for the schedule, Mr. Black,” Hannibal said, rising as well. “We will see where we are after our business is conducted.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
Will started around the table but Hannibal snagged him back by his arm, turning him to loop both arms around him. Will grinned, eyes closing in a moment of pure happiness to be held against Hannibal’s chest in such a spontaneous, impulsive way.
“Do not slip your guards,” Hannibal warned, his breath stirring Will’s curls. “Or else I shall be extraordinarily put out with you.”
“I will keep them at my side at all times,” Will said, loosening his arms to step back. “I’ll take Winston, as well, if you can bear to be parted from him?”
Hannibal chuckled at that, both of them moving to the foyer to gather their coats, gloves, and hats, Mr. Black assisting in his unobtrusive way. Winston danced with excitement, wriggling enough that Will laughed aloud at his antics, nearly unable to clip his lead on him.
Hannibal looked out at the men while Will was doing so, just to confirm that they were the same guards he had packed off with Will the morning prior. He chided himself for being overly cautious, but a look at Will’s smiling, beautiful, beloved face reminded him that no measure was too extreme when it came to protecting his mate.
“Is something wrong?” Will asked, cocking his head as he rose.
“Here, quickly,” Hannibal said, ducking his head in a quick offering of a kiss which Will granted him, smiling at the way his husband purred. “Now I am properly armed.”
Will chuckled and patted Hannibal’s pocket watch through his clothing, telling him, “I will always protect you, Hannibal. I hope it brings you the best of luck today for Abigail’s sake.”
With that, he moved swiftly through the door Mr. Black held wide, skimming down the stairs with enviable grace, Winston trotting at his side.
Hannibal sighed, watching them go out to be surrounded by guards, the entire small party heading up to the Row. It hurt to let Will go off without him, as if something inside of him was pulled away along with his husband. Bond or no bond, Will was as much a part of him as the heart that beat inside his chest and the blood that flowed through his veins and he needed him just as desperately.
“I will find a way to fix it,” he whispered, watching Will vanish out of sight, his heart giving a funny, familiar little lurch in response to his absence. “I will find a way to complete our bond, Will. I promise.”
And Hannibal Lecter always kept his promises.
Despite the unhappy circumstances, Will was able to go about his duties with a light heart, settled in the confidence that Hannibal would find a way to bring Abigail back under their protection, if not into their home. With that hope in mind, he moved up and down the Row ordering things to help her while away the hours and keep her comfortable. Books, blankets, a basket of embroidery tools, stationary and a pen set complete with ink—he purchased everything he could think of that might distract her from her worries and keep her hands busy. He saved the dress shop for last, knowing it would take the longest and hoping he could arrange something fairly quickly for Abigail’s use.
The guards were more than happy to stay on the street with Winston to rest and smoke, exchanging low conversation as Will took himself inside the busy shop.
Mr. Avery’s sister store never failed to impress with its grandeur and Will took his time to enjoy the sights before him. The windows were as beautiful from the inside as they were without, the latest fashions on display for gentlemen, ladies, and Omegas. Will wandered through the store, past the rare ready-made items to the women’s department. The staff, no fools by anyone’s standards, quickly conveyed his arrival to every waiting ear. It was unsettling and odd to Will to be known on sight by strangers, to hear his title whispered, but not his name. A familiar sense of being out of place gripped him. Though for entirely different reasons than before, it was still discomfiting and he wondered how much of the whispers involved his role in the Moseley tragedy.
He ignored it as best he could and sought assistance from an Omega who seemed surprised by the version of Lord Clarges they found awaiting them. They rallied, however, and were very pleasant with him, their welcome chasing away the uneasy feeling of being an outsider.
After listening attentively to the situation, they helped Will in arranging both ready-made as well as custom garb for Abigail. Simple dresses, underthings, nightclothes, thick stockings, a suitable coat, and a robe to shield her against the cold of the Cenobium were all added to the list. They also very kindly suggested he order a small bolt of cloth and a sewing kit to amuse her, which Will thought was a fine idea.
As the pleasant, smiling assistant handed off the parts of his order that could be packaged and sent ahead, Will idly glanced around at the displays again, feeling a draw to their beauty that he thought had died beneath his father’s leather belt. He spied a beautiful hat on display, the pale ribbons worked with flowers reminiscent of those in the meadows at Marsham Heath.
The assistant, taking instant notice of his interest, promptly moved around the display to pluck it up and offer it to him.
“This is one of our newer styles, quite the fashion on the Continent,” they told him. “The style and color is just perfect for a young person nearly an adult.”
“Is it? Suitable, I mean? I have no head for fashion,” Will said, offering an embarrassed smile that made them chuckle.
“A Lord tends to make trends rather than follow them,” they said, eyes twinkling. “But in this case, I can say that any young person would adore this hat. Shall I box it for you?”
“Please do. Oh, and might I have a card, please?” he requested, and was promptly provided one, as well as a pen.
He pondered a moment, hoping to find words to convey that there was no need of forgiveness between them, and finally wrote on the little card:
For the walks we will soon take together,
Lords Clarges, Will and Hannibal
“Could I put this in with the hat?” Will asked, uncertain if her belongings would be searched, but hoping it wouldn’t be confiscated.
They promptly tucked the card inside the hat and nestled it in the box with a wink.
“We’ll have it all delivered to the Cenobium by the end of the day, my Lord,” Will was told. “The patterned items should be ready by tomorrow. I’ll have every seamstress on the dresses. I’m acquainted with several of the Cenobites, as well, so I’ll ask if they can do the adjustments for her.”
“Thank you so very much. You’ve been very helpful,” Will said, genuinely relieved. He made a mental note to add a generous commission when the bill arrived. “Might I have your name?”
“Nichola, my Lord,” they said, putting the top on the box and tying it with a gorgeous length of ribbon, looping it with a knot to make a little handle at the top. “And we are always more than happy to help. You really are every bit as beautiful as the papers claim, and ever so kind. Lord Clarges is a very lucky man, but I am certain he knows that.”
Will blushed but smiled, murmuring a diffident thank you to the older Omega. He began to collect his things to go, but Nichola very innocently said, “By the by, my Lord, I noticed your interest in several of our displays. Might I prevail upon you to try some of our newer fashions?”
“Oh, I am sorry, I wouldn’t do you any good, I’m afraid,” Will said, intrigued despite himself. He had glanced several times at the Omegan section of the store but had no reason to go over there when purchasing for Abigail. “My taste in clothing is somewhat funeral, according to my husband.”
They laughed, a lovely and soft sound that teased an answering smile from Will.
“Well, if you’ll pardon my being forward,” Nichola said, gathering up Will’s hat and gloves as they came around the counter. “I think I have several items that could have been created just for you. I would love to give you a taste of what our store has to offer our Omegan customers. If you’ll just come right this way…”
“I’m not certain I should,” Will protested, but it was weak even to his own ears, his blue eyes already flicking around the displays as they moved into the Omegan section.
“It’ll only be a moment, my Lord,” Nichola assured him, their eyes dancing with impish delight. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
Will smiled, surprising himself with his eagerness to go along with it, but it was a rare occasion he had to try anything other than the strictly male clothing he had in his wardrobe and his night at the Masquerade had piqued his curiosity.
It didn’t take as long as Will feared, and it felt wonderful to shed his clothing and don Omegan gear under Nichola’s watchful eye. They had not spoken lightly of the pieces he tried seeming to be made just for him. All of it fit with near perfection, and what didn’t fit, they made note of and pinned. Will feared he would be pressed to purchase, but it seemed to content his lovely shop assistant just to fit things to him with a discerning, watchful eye. Nichola even measured him personally, just to have his numbers on file should he ever decide to purchase, he was assured.
The whole flattering encounter lasted just under an hour, but it ran Will behind enough that he was in a rush as he left, eager to return for news of Abigail’s case.
He was moving a bit faster than he should’ve been and trying to put his hat on as well when he bumped into someone, his gloves tipping from his arm.
“Gracious, watch where you’re going!”
The gloves were snatched in mid air and Will straightened in startlement, saying, “Timothy!”
His brother-in-law raised his head, his pale eyes widening with surprise equal to Will’s own. A shocked laugh erupted out of him and he asked, “What on earth are you playing at? Why are you dressed in that get-up? You’ve shocked the life out of me! Are you practicing, my dear?”
“Timothy, what on earth are you talking about?” Will asked, hastily taking his gloves back. His guards spied him and drew closer on high alert, Winston straining at his leash. “Practicing for what, precisely? Being a gentleman? Should I suggest some practice of your own?”
“Will?” Timothy said, and laughed again, another bark of surprise that exceeded the first, threaded with a note of unease. “I beg your pardon, I just—I thought you were Mina.”
Will’s brow furrowed and he frowned. “I find it hard to think that a man could mistake someone else for his wife, even her twin. And why on earth would she be dressed in male clothing? I am certain even Mina would hesitate to do something so outrageous.”
“I do apologize, my dear, I was simply surprised! You know well enough that I’ve always found your resemblance to be positively uncanny,” Timothy said, smirking. “There were times when I would visit and I wasn’t sure which was which, hm? The two of you standing together pretty as you please.”
“Mina has always been somewhat shorter than I,” Will reminded him, baffled by his insistence. “Albeit without her shoes.”
“Well, there we have it,” Timothy said, as if Will had made his point for him. “I have never seen my dear Mina without her shoes.”
“That must make your marriage bed a somewhat dangerous place, mustn’t it?”
Timothy laughed, delighted, raking Will with an appreciative look as he said, “Aren’t we a pert little thing these days? Your sister’s presence is like a fine, aged port—it is best enjoyed in small increments and on rare occasions.”
“You must prefer your port on very rare occasions, indeed, as my sister has been my guest for quite some time,” Will said, deciding that he disliked Timothy immensely, even more than he had when he’d come courting Mina. “I find I am suddenly feeling much more generous in my invitation towards her. At least in my house she is properly recognized, as am I.”
“Ah, you cruel creature! Come now, Will, don’t be so annoyed! I haven’t seen you in, what, six years? Seven? You’ve grown,” he said, stepping back to look at him, ignoring the press of people spilling around them. Will’s skin prickled at that look, his hackles rising with distaste when he recognized the gleam in his brother-in-law’s eyes. The trail of his gaze was a sticky touch that lingered on Will’s mouth the longest, tracing the curve of his lower lip with relish.
“You simply must forgive me, your resemblance to your sister is uncanny,” Timothy said, murmuring the words with a smile Will wanted to wash from his memory. He reached up to touch Will’s face and he tipped his head back to avoid it, distaste wrinkling his nose. It made his brother-in-law laugh, for whatever ugly reason, and say, “You act like her as well. It truly is remarkable. Why, I daresay no one could fault me for being unable to tell the two of you apart in full dress, hm?”
Will bristled, outrage rising when Timothy brushed a finger down his nose and added, “Without the clothing would be another matter altogether, wouldn’t it?”
Will lifted his hand and brushed Timothy’s aside, icy disdain coloring his voice when he said, “Do not presume to speak to me in such a familiar way, Lord Rathmore. We are strangers to one another, and should remain so if you insist on being coarse in your manner.”
“Coarse? Goodness!” Timothy huffed, amused. “Quite a cold little thing, aren’t you? Careful, Will, else everyone will believe the rumors are true.”
Will stared at him, eyes sparking with ire.
“A frigid spouse makes a man’s eyes wander,” Timothy said, giving Will a smug smile as if he’d said something even remotely clever.
“Is that the excuse you give for your own behavior regarding my sister?” Will asked, flat and cold.
He had to admit, he was rather pleased when Timothy’s smile faltered.
“I would have thought you would be more cautious, Will,” he said, taking a wary step back, “considering the trouble that seems to follow you, according to my wife. Her letters have been most enlightening in regards to your various accidents. It’s almost as if you’ve become a target, isn’t it? I wonder who on earth would ever want to hurt someone as lovely as you?”
“Someone who clearly has no idea what they’re getting into,” Will warned, putting more distance between them.
Timothy’s brows rose and another unsavory smile curled his lips.
“Do have a care, Will. I should hate to hear anything terrible has happened to you. In times like these, you never know who you can trust,” he purred, and loomed closer to whisper, “Give my regards to my wife, my dear.”
With that, he touched his hat in parting and moved around Will into the store.
“Everything alright, Lord Clarges?” the Captain asked, handing over Winston’s lead with his arrival.
“Yes, thank you,” Will said, but he cast a glance back at the shop as they moved away, a terrible unease casting a pall over his day. “Everything is just fine.”
Hannibal waited patiently where he sat, a small frown pursing his lips as the minutes slipped by. Mr. Buddish shifted in the chair next to him, equally restless, but they had spent several precious hours arranging this meeting and could not afford to squander it.
“You have no proof that this child is your lost stepdaughter, is that correct?”
The somber, serious elderly man seated behind his massive desk removed his spectacles to peer at Hannibal, his gaze direct and sharp as if he might cut through any lies with a well-aimed glare. He’d spent over an hour going through the paperwork they’d amassed in support of guardianship, and only once every line was inspected did he deign to speak at last.
Hannibal’s spine straightened a touch and he returned the look, secure in his position as a noble, as a Lord, and as a man known for his strength of character.
“No, Lord Chancellor, none at all,” he admitted. “Only the witness of those in my employ, the testimony of the girl’s deceased mother, and a midwife who refuses to admit the truth of the matter.”
“The truth of the matter,” the Lord Chancellor echoed, settling back in his chair in a groan of wood. “As you see it.”
“Lord Chancellor, the child’s heritage notwithstanding,” Mr. Buddish said, no more cowed by his authority than Hannibal was, “the fact is that Miss Hobbs has no other means to live in the world than to rely on the state for assistance. What my client is offering is support—quietly and with minimal fuss. Assigning guardianship of Miss Hobbs to the Lords Clarges is no hindrance in any respect to your authority and she has no fortunes they wish to lay hands on. They merely wish to see her cared for when her only other option is an orphanage, or worse.”
The Lord Chancellor tapped his spectacles against the papers before him, a frown quivering from the corners of his mouth all the way down his jowls.
“I am not reluctant to sign these papers on any count of worry over your intentions,” he said, watching Hannibal with his rheumy but critical eyes. “It is the perception I fear, Lord Clarges. You and your mate were there the day that Hobbs killed his wife and attempted to kill his daughter. I realize that you saved her life and feel responsible for her, but there are those who would find this very troubling, indeed.”
“Had I any desire to acquire a daughter, Lord Chancellor,” Hannibal said, a wry smile quirking his mouth, “I can assure you, I would not need to arrange a tragedy to orphan one first.”
“You understand that guardianship does not guarantee safety from the reach of our laws, Lord Clarges?”
“He understands that very well, Lord Chancellor,” Mr. Buddish said, “as I am employed to ensure that he does not run afoul of any single one of our laws.”
“And have you carefully considered what this will do to your household?” the Lord Chancellor asked, reaching again for the papers Mr. Buddish had prepared. “From the day that you take charge of Miss Hobbs’ affairs, the Lecter name will be linked through history to a series of grisly murders, the blasphemy of cannibalism, and the horrors of a family sliced to ribbons at its very foundations.”
“I have considered it,” Hannibal said, leaning back in his chair, his fingers drumming a restless rhythm on the wooden arm where his hand rested.
“And your children?” the Lord Chancellor inquired. “Have you considered what they will face as they age? What Society will whisper to them?”
His immediate, knee-jerk response was to say that he didn’t care about popular opinion, but the words gave him pause. He thought of Will and the children he hoped they would have some day. His mate was more than up to the task of dealing with gossips, but talk could be very damaging for a young child, as he well knew.
“What of Miss Hobbs’ blood relatives?” the Lord Chancellor asked, knowing he’d struck a chord. “The Fosters, was it?”
“His Grace has been in contact with them, Lord Chancellor,” Mr. Buddish said, ruthlessly filling the silence. “They have expressed their desire to become reacquainted with Miss Hobbs and hope she will accept their invitation to reconcile.”
“I see,” the Lord Chancellor said, thumbing through the papers. “Might I suggest something to you, Lord Clarges? On behalf of your Grandfather, who has always been a friend to me and who has suffered quite enough at the hands of your father?”
Hannibal stiffened at the mention of his father, his voice taut with unhappiness when he said, “Yes, Lord Chancellor.”
“Rather than pursue what is clearly an action taken from an excess of misplaced guilt and relief, consider suing for emancipation on her behalf through Mr. Buddish,” he said, his eyes resting on Hannibal with the crushing weight of long experience, “which I would be more than happy to provide as it would absolve the state from the burden of her care. Then she could, with the full approval of the law, apply to change her surname, perhaps to that of her mother’s family?”
Hannibal swallowed hard, his heart thundering in his chest but he kept a firm hold on it, keenly aware that Will could sense his disquiet and not wishing to disturb him.
“I have only just found this child after sixteen years,” Hannibal said, his voice husky with strain. “Would you ask me to abandon her again, Lord Chancellor?”
“There is nothing in my suggestion that would prevent you from being the child’s benefactor,” the Lord Chancellor said, cocking a bushy eyebrow in Hannibal’s direction. “Indeed, she will need every support she can get should she be suddenly burdened with the worries of adulthood. Wardship simply cannot take place while her father is still alive, Lord Clarges, you must see that? She is not an orphan.”
Hannibal frowned and Mr. Buddish cleared his throat, saying, “We all of us know that she soon will be, Lord Chancellor. Be it by bullet or noose, Garrett Jacob Hobbs will die for his crimes.”
“And until he does, he is legally her father,” the Lord Chancellor said. “That sort of thinking may have carried you past my younger peers, Mr. Buddish, but I have been in this position for longer than you have drawn breath on this earth, young man. I know the law better than I know my own wife, gods rest his blessed soul.”
“But an emancipation can be accomplished whether her father lives or not,” Hannibal said, getting a small nod in response. “And we can act as her benefactors.”
“With her blessing,” the Lord Chancellor amended. “Provided you remain anonymous, there will be no discussion regarding the propriety of the arrangement.”
Hannibal’s cheeks flushed with quiet fury at that, but it was a risk always associated with such actions and he knew how it would look to those who found the worst in everyone—a young person in a vulnerable position with a powerful patron always drew speculation and talk, the more unsavory, the more popular it became.
“With a legal name change, she can become Abigail Foster, unknown to the public eye, rather than the infamous ward of the Lords Clarges, every detail of her person known to the world at large by virtue of your association,” the Lord Chancellor said, making a graceful gesture with one hand as if the answer were simple. “Once the emancipation is granted, you could arrange for her to live in a way that best suits you all, and no one ever need know what became of Miss Abigail Hobbs.”
“Surely, the trial—”
“My colleagues and I have arranged to interview Miss Hobbs in the coming days to record her recollection of the events. Should there be a trial, she will not be called to witness, considering her youth,” the Lord Chancellor said, cutting Mr. Buddish off. “A trial, however, is questionable at this point. The facts being what they are, we have been instructed by the highest order to see this case and its details settled as quickly and quietly as possible.”
He leveled another somber look at Hannibal, who had withdrawn into pensive consideration of what he was being told.
“I can assure you, given your own statement as well as those of Magistrate Crawford and your spouse, Miss Hobbs is, at this point, seen as nothing more than another of her father’s victims,” the Lord Chancellor said. “Should her testimony lend credence to your claim of her innocence, we will strive to ensure that this tragedy does not continue to cast a pall over her future, and I would hope you should grant her the same consideration.”
A heavy silence fell over them, a silence in which Mr. Buddish watched Hannibal, ready to act on whatever decision he made.
“Naturally, until Garrett Jacob Hobbs is accounted for and imprisoned,” the Lord Chancellor said, “or else shot, Miss Hobbs will remain in the safekeeping of Our Gods of Unity Cenobium.”
“Lord Chancellor, if we could take her to the countryside with us, we could arrange for her safety,” Hannibal said.
“I encourage you, Lord Clarges, to use this time of separation to consider what is best, not just for your need to make amends, but for your family, for the Lecter name, for the children you will someday father,” the Lord Chancellor warned, “but most importantly for Miss Hobbs.”
Hannibal swallowed hard, wetting his dry lips, his eyebrows knitting together in a frown. “I will discuss the details with my spouse, if you would be so kind as to communicate with Miss Hobbs?”
“I will see to it that she is made aware of every option available to her,” he was promised. “If and when you decide to proceed with an emancipation petition, Mr. Buddish here can provide the necessary paperwork at Miss Hobbs’ request, and I will see to it that the legal necessities are granted. From there, she will be free to decide for herself, which is, I believe, somewhat of a novelty for most of us in life.”
“Yes,” Hannibal said, his thoughts turning to Will and how he had flourished, armed in the knowledge that his choices were his own, “it certainly is.”
There was very little for Will to do on his return. Berger had Hannibal’s valise packed and Will had come with nothing, including Jimmy. Their respective wardrobes installed at Chelsea House would remain there for their convenience, Berger had already packed another valise of Will’s things to take on the train, Jack Crawford’s men had been sent back to Moseley, and Winston was snoring with bliss on the rug before the parlour fire.
Will sighed, temporarily at a loss with nothing to distract him. He heard the door and got to his feet, eagerly hoping Hannibal had returned, though he had no sense of such through his bond.
Footsteps thudded softly down the runner in the hallway before a sharp rap came on the door, followed by Mr. Black’s arrival with a silver salver.
Surprised, Will took the card he presented, frowning when he saw the lovely configuration and the swirling script that read, ‘Henriette W. of Kirk’.
“Oh dear,” Will breathed, reading the card again. “Bring her in, Mr. Black, we must not keep her waiting.”
“Right away, my Lord,” Mr. Black said, taking the card back with smooth grace. “I will have refreshments sent directly. Should you like me to remove Mr. Winston?”
“No, he’s fine,” Will said, fussing with his neckerchief, even though Nichola had done an expert job of tying it for him.
Mr. Black left to fetch their visitor, and a more surprising one Will could not imagine. Meeting Prince Bert at a Masquerade was one thing, but entertaining his wife was quite another and Will felt his own lack in practice with such things.
“Lady Withome of Kirk, my Lord,” Mr. Black said, admitting a smiling beauty whose expensive perfume complemented the underlying fragrance of her Omegan scent. She spilled into the room in a froth of lace and excitement, her brown eyes sparkling and one beringed hand extended. Her vibrant energy filled the room and Will relaxed, smiling in response, chiding himself that any wife of Prince Bert must surely have a sense of humor.
“Here, come take my hand, Lord Clarges!” she said, splaying her fingers. “Don’t be shy and please don’t stand on formality. Here, please, come sit with me.”
Will did as he was bidden, taking her hand in his and guiding her to sit with him. She settled with a happy sigh, arranging her skirts around her and angling her head to his, saying to the footman who had accompanied her, “Wait in the foyer, please, Adam.”
Will waited for her to get comfortable before he ventured, “We are very honored to host you, Lady Withome.”
“Oh, thank you!” she said, flashing her small Omegan fangs in a wide, delighted smile. “One of my girls came in from the Row and mentioned you had arrived back in the Capital and I couldn’t let this moment pass. Bertram was agog at you, my dear. ‘Henry,’ he said to me, ‘you must meet him. He’s positively divine and he hit me, so be sure to scold him.’”
Will laughed, hoping it had not offended her, and asked, “Did he happen to mention the circumstances?”
“No, he values himself far too highly to implicate himself in any of his actions,” she said with a soft laugh, idly smoothing a stray coil of curly hair from her cheek. “But trust me when I say I know my husband well enough to guess what he was up to. He isn’t nearly as circumspect as he imagines he is. I do hope you hit him hard?”
“Hard enough to make my point,” Will said, warming to her. The tea service arrived and Will poured for them in silence, going through the ritual of filling cups and sipping before any conversation marched ahead.
“I am so very pleased to finally meet you myself,” she said, admiring the pattern on the teacup. “I trust that Hannibal is as smitten with you as my husband is?”
“He has his moments,” Will said, taking a sip of his tea with a small smile.
“It has been an age since he’s visited,” she sighed. “I’ll send an invitation this Season. Bertram and I throw an annual holiday ball that I insist you attend.”
“Thank you, that would be very lovely,” Will said, sensing there was something more behind her visit than pleasantries and meeting someone her husband expressed an interest in.
A cup of tea and two biscuits later, he found out what it was.
“There is a most odd story making its way through the Ministry of Justice,” she said, placing her half-eaten biscuit on her saucer. “I wondered if you might have any information, given that it occurred at Moseley?”
“Oh?” Will asked, brows up. There had been little hope to keep things secret, as Hannibal had said, but Will wasn’t sure just how much had escaped ahead of them. The press had, against all expectation, not published their name in conjunction with the issue, which Will felt the heavy hand of Grandfather behind.
“Surely you know what I speak of,” she coaxed, smiling. “The papers mentioned that your estate, Marsham Heath, is situated just outside of Moseley. Missing children and cannibals and all sorts of horrors! Bertram refused to find out for me, claiming that what I knew somehow found its way to every waiting ear at a speed which shocks him. Terrible man, implying I am a gossip!”
Will seized on that statement, knowing well enough the power that whispers in drawing rooms had on public opinion.
“Apparently, the murderer’s daughter is already in custody!” she went on, putting her cup down with care. “It was all over the papers about her. Do you know of her?”
“I do know of her,” Will admitted, sipping his tea to fill the silence.
“It seems most people think she must have helped him,” Henriette said, her voice lowered in a whisper. “They’re calling her a siren, luring those girls to their deaths at her father’s hands. I don’t believe she could do such a thing, but I am a mother and my heart goes out to a child who has lost so much. I find I am in the minority on that count. What do you think?”
Will blinked, considering very carefully before he leaned towards her and asked, “Can you keep a secret, Lady Withome?”
Her eyes widened with excitement and she said, “Trust me, my dear, I am the soul of discretion!”
Will smiled and put his cup down, turning to face her and lowering his voice to a mere whisper to say, “Then allow me to tell you of the tragedy that befell Miss Abigail Hobbs.”
Hannibal arrived back to Chelsea House to find the faint scent of another Omega still lingering in the air. It was familiar somehow, but he couldn’t place it, and asked Mr. Black as he handed off his hat and gloves, “Who has called?”
“Lady Withome of Kirk, my Lord,” Mr. Black said, wrinkling his nose at the faint grime that had settled atop Hannibal’s hat.
“Henry was here?” Hannibal echoed. “It’s a shame I missed her. Did she have someone with her? An Omega?”
“She was quite alone, my Lord,” Mr. Black said, heaving an exasperated sigh. “Honestly, my Lord, you have known her for years—”
“Don’t scold me, Black,” Hannibal warned, annoyed with himself. “I don’t go peeking under the skirts of every person in my acquaintance!”
“Well, that is a relief,” Will called, jostled in the doorway to the parlour when Winston hurtled past him.
Hannibal crouched to pet the excited dog, smiling at his mate, who beckoned him into the parlour.
“Have you any news?” Will asked, anxiously watching him as Hannibal closed the door behind him.
“Not what we should wish to hear,” Hannibal admitted, drawing Will down to sit next to him as he settled. Winston reared up to balance his front feet on Will’s leg and Will absently stroked his head, giving the dog the attention he desired. “The Lord Chancellor has suggested we seek emancipation for Abigail rather than guardianship.”
Will drew back at the abrupt nature of that suggestion, but in seconds both the furrow in his brow as well as his frown faded.
“She would, for all purposes, be considered an adult,” he mused, then asked, “Would she be held accountable as one should they decide to hold her responsible for her father’s crimes?”
“I have it from the highest authority presiding over the case that unless Abigail gives some type of confession,” Hannibal said, his fingers seeking Will’s, “they are prepared to release her the moment her father is in custody. They will be interviewing her privately in the next several days, but her chances are very good, no matter what the news has been saying.”
“I have every hope that the news will soon reflect a different opinion,” Will said. “Please, don’t scold me for doing so, Hannibal, but Lady Withome called and I unburdened myself to her in the matter of Abigail Hobbs.”
“Did you, now?” Hannibal asked, impressed. “I take it you did so with the understanding that she has never kept a secret in her life?”
“She’s kept one that I know of,” Will pointed out, cocking a brow at Hannibal’s embarrassed flush. “Though perhaps she never meant to and it was solely your fault that you had no idea she is Omegan.”
“That perfume of hers makes my head ache,” Hannibal said in his own defence. “But what did you tell her?”
“The truth, though I left our actions out of things,” Will said, adding, “Abigail is a child nearly an orphan who is facing the noose for crimes she had no part in, nearly murdered by the father she loved and trusted on the heels of watching her mother be killed right in front of her. Lady Withome was beside herself with horror on Abigail’s behalf and quite agitated that she must get to a luncheon the moment I finished. It was a very different story than the papers have been printing and I trust that the truth of things will soon be reflected in popular opinion, should she have any sway in people’s hearts.”
“She does, and then some,” Hannibal said, ruffling Will’s curls with fond tenderness. “My brilliant mate.”
“Practical, Hannibal,” Will corrected, though he blushed with pleasure. “I had thought at the time we would be bringing Abigail into our family. I wanted the truth of her situation to be known, not this perception everyone has of her as complicit in her father’s vile actions. It is bad enough they think she is truly his daughter and might someday exhibit the same madness that gripped him. But we will not be taking her home to Hartford with us, will we? At least, not as our daughter?”
Hannibal loosed a soft sigh, his hand falling to cup Will’s cheek, thumb rubbing beneath his sorrowful blue eye.
“It is not a decision I would make, but it isn’t up to us, Will. The Lord Chancellor made a convincing argument not to pursue guardianship,” Hannibal said. “The publicity of it alone would ensure she would be known wherever she went. His suggestion was to have her apply for emancipation, which he promised to grant, and then we could quietly arrange for a legal name change and support her financially as she makes her way forward. He suggested she take her mother’s maiden name and live her life as Abigail Foster, unknown to anyone as the child of Garrett Jacob Hobbs.”
Will’s frown returned, but it was thoughtful, sad.
“I admit to being disappointed,” he whispered, sliding his hand from Winston’s head to draw Hannibal’s own from his cheek. He held it in his lap, twining their fingers together as his mind worked the problem. “But there is wisdom in such a suggestion. He knows the law backwards and forwards, I am sure, and has no doubt seen similar cases unravel to the detriment of all involved. But of course it is Abigail’s decision and not ours. Yet, I strongly feel that if she prefers guardianship, then we should move forward with it and take the consequences as they come.”
“As do I,” Hannibal said, lifting Will’s hand to kiss it. “The Lord Chancellor has asked the All-Mother Superior to discuss the options with Abigail. However she chooses to proceed, Mr. Buddish will deal with the necessary details and send word on to Hartford. As for you and I, we have Grandfather’s gathering to suffer through, and should focus our energies on a problem we can tackle.”
“One crisis at a time?” Will asked, chuckling softly. “Well, at least the things we purchased for Abigail should keep her occupied.”
“Were you able to procure clothing for her, as well?” Hannibal asked, his fingertips seeking out the pulse in Will’s wrist in a light caress.
“Yes, the assistant at the tailor’s was incredibly helpful,” Will said, adding with a bemused smile, “Nichola was their name. I must be sure to add a suitable tip for the effort they undertook. They even managed to persuade me into trying on a number of garments. I could not believe how well they fit already. They truly do quality work.”
“A number of garments, you say?” Hannibal asked, his tone all silky innocence and a wicked smirk curving his mouth. He made a mental note to double the commission for the staff for so expertly maneuvering Will into a final fitting without giving away the surprise.
And his beautiful, guileless mate had so little dealings with such places that he saw nothing odd about it in the least, only saying with faint longing, “Oh, yes, all manner of clothing, it seemed nearly one of everything in the store. I suspect they were hoping I would place an order.”
“You should have,” Hannibal told him, controlling his glee with difficulty lest Will sense it through his bond. “The wardrobe we ordered when I first returned is merely a skeleton, Will. A gentleman’s closet needs flesh to round it out.”
“Perhaps later,” Will said, his hand falling to his stomach to rub just below his navel. He wasn’t even aware of doing so, but Hannibal noted it and tactfully changed the subject, asking, “Do we know when we should set out for the station? I find I’m eager to return to Hartford and check on Grandfather.”
“Mr. Black provided me with a schedule,” Will said, relieved by the shift in conversation. “It looks as if a train is leaving within the hour, if you’d like to try to make it?”
“I cannot imagine how we would be delayed,” Hannibal said, adding with mock surprise, “Oh, how marvelous, another carpet unexplored.”
“Hannibal!” Will scolded, appalled but amused. “We haven’t time to dally!”
“No?” Hannibal said, abjectly bereft and doleful as he kissed Will’s hand again, pleased when Will didn’t pull away.
“Your appetites are far greater than you first led me to believe, Lord Clarges,” Will pointed out, urging Winston down so he could reach for his husband.
“My appetites have grown with such a succulent dish before me,” Hannibal teased, leaning in to give Will a soft, sweet kiss.
Will’s mouth pursed, but there was delight floating in every word when he whispered, “Perhaps we could take a later train…”
Hannibal grinned, thoroughly pleased, and pulled Will into his arms.
The Lord Clarges ended up taking the train the next morning, distracted as they were and somewhat reluctant to impede their growing happiness with their duties and familial obligations. But it was a happy homecoming nonetheless, riding up together to Hartford House with Berger trailing behind and Winston seated as comfortably as could be managed across Will’s lap.
Even without warning to prepare them, the staff made a show of unity, turning out from their duties to welcome them home, beaming and delighted to have their young Lords back in their care.
“I don’t recognize those two men,” Will remarked, easing Winston down to one of the footmen who approached to take their horses and the valises.
“Those must be the detectives,” Hannibal surmised, swinging down with his usual supple grace to admire his mate in the late morning light. “I already regret our hasty return.”
“Is it terrible to admit that I do, too?” Will said with a note of longing, but he dismounted as well and straightened his clothes, surprised that his sister had not come. “Is Lady Rathmore not here?”
“She is, my Lord,” the footman said, taking the reins from him in exchange for Winston’s leash. “I believe she is in with His Grace.”
“And Mr. Dolarhyde?” Hannibal inquired, a quick scan revealing no trace of the large Alpha’s presence.
“Gone, my Lord,” the footman said, lingering to answer his questions. “He returned to Lady Rathmore and left straightaway, bags and all.”
Will exchanged a look with Hannibal, then nodded at the footman in dismissal, murmuring, “Thank you.”
“Welcome home, my Lords! I know I speak for us all when I say we are very happy to have you back home where we can care for you properly,” Mr. Hawkes said, beaming at them, as pleased as if he’d set eyes on his own children after a long absence. “Your rooms are freshly prepared and everything has been taken care of that you requested, my Lord!”
“Requested?” Will asked, angling a curious look at Hannibal which his husband promptly pretended not to notice.
“Yes, thank you, Hawkes,” Hannibal said, a pointed glare closing the subject. “And how are preparations coming for Grandfather’s gathering?”
“Oh, we are managing, my Lord,” Mrs. Henderson said, adding with a sweet smile that was rather intimidating, “all our help notwithstanding.”
Will heaved an inward sigh, reckoning that Mina had made herself a nuisance in his absence. He doffed his hat and gloves as they moved inside, handing them off to Mr. Hawkes.
The scents of home filled Will’s lungs—the Duke’s Alpha perfume of old books, the dry scent of antiques, the lemon balm polish Mrs. Henderson was so fond of, the indefinable essence that meant he was back in the house that had sheltered him for so many long and lonely years.
Hannibal’s scent joined the bouquet and Will smiled, reminded that he no longer had to be lonely, that he would always have a home here at Hartford House and in his husband’s heart.
“I see we have a new addition!” Mrs. Henderson said, her pleasant voice interrupting his absent musings. She smiled down at Winston, who yipped as Will released his lead.
“Yes, this is Winston,” Hannibal said, leaning down to pat Winston’s head, which reassured the uncertain dog and brought his tail back to vigorous wagging. “We acquired him in town under somewhat unusual circumstances.”
“His Grace did mention a certain incident in the Capital,” Mr. Hawkes said, and leaned down to peer at Winston before he told him, “That was very brave of you, Winston.”
He straightened, asking Will with somber seriousness, “Is there anything we might provide him, my Lord? His Grace did ask us to provide a suitable basket in your suite, but if there is anything we may do?”
“No, thank you, Mr. Hawkes,” Will said, warmed to have Winston’s comfort inquired after, but such was the way of the Hartford staff. No stone was ever left unturned in the matter of their charges’ well being. “Only a bowl when we take our meals so that his Lordship does not stuff him full of pastries.”
Hannibal grinned but didn’t deny it, and patted his thigh to bring Winston close in unabashed affection.
“It is so lovely to be home and no longer idle,” Will said, smiling at the butler and housekeeper in turn, wishing he could frankly admit what a relief it was to be in their care once more. “I will come to your office presently, Mrs. Henderson, to discuss the event details. Only, please do send some tea to my sitting room for now. I need to speak with my sister and we both will need the fortification, no doubt.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“And my Lord, several applicants for the estate manager position have taken rooms in Hartford,” Mr. Hawkes said, the other servants dispersing to their duties now that their Lords were being settled in. “If you should like to set up meetings?”
“I can take care of that,” Hannibal offered, wrinkling his nose a little. “Must you set upon us at the door, Hawkes?”
“Honestly, Hannibal,” Will said, his smile wry. “Thank you, Mr. Hawkes, and you as well, Mrs. Henderson, for your warm welcome. I expect there is quite a lot of work to catch up on and now we are home to tend to it. I appreciate all of your hard work and believe me when I say I understand the particular pressures our guest brings.”
That garnered smiles all around, and Hannibal took Will’s arms in the short ceasefire, saying, “Grandfather will be eager to see us, let’s don’t keep him waiting. Mr. Hawkes, if you could send tea to the study for me? And bring the applicant packets, if they’ve arrived.”
“Very good, my Lord. His Grace is in his suite with Lady Rathmore, my Lord.”
Hannibal looped Will’s arm through his, heaving a weary sigh as they moved through the House with Winston at their heels. “Ah, but to be back at Marsham Heath.”
“Yes, how I long for the days when we were finding bodies in the woods,” Will said, tipping a wry glance at Hannibal, who chuckled, amused. “Things were so much more lighthearted then.”
“Things are certainly never boring when you’re involved,” Hannibal praised. He drew to a stop before Grandfather’s door and brought Will’s hand to his lips for a kiss. “Will… Before we immerse ourselves in our duties, I want you to know how grateful I am to you.”
Will cocked his head, about to make light of his statement,but thinking better of it when he saw how serious Hannibal was. The bond grew heavy with the weight of his feelings, but not a single one of them was concerning. Hannibal was happy and hopeful and content, and Will smiled to know it.
“You have given me a gift I never dreamed could be given, and offered an understanding I always thought was beyond my reach, and I thank you for that,” Hannibal said, kissing his fingertips in turn. “When you do make your decision formally, I will be the happiest man in the world should you still find in my favor. If you decide otherwise, just know that it will never change my feelings for you. I do love you to distraction, Will Lecter-Graham.”
Will cut off as the door opened and his sister uttered a shocked little screech, making the two of them pull apart in haste.
“Goodness!” Mina cried, hand pressed to her bosom, her blue eyes wide and flicking from Will to Hannibal. “You frightened me half to death, lurking outside of the door! Why did no one send for us? I had no idea you’d returned! Ah, but welcome! Welcome home!”
Will couldn’t resist smiling when his hands were seized in his sister’s firm grasp, her beautiful smile without any shadow of pain or heartache, her blue eyes alight with excitement. She hugged his hands to her heart, as if overjoyed by the mere sight of him.
“Hannibal? Will? Is that you?” Grandfather called from within, and Winston barked, excited by new faces and the strange new surroundings.
“Yes, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, spying him wheeling his chair towards the door as Mina stepped back to open it wider. “We have finally come home at last.”
He put his arm around Will’s back, warm and secure, both of them relieved and delighted to have returned safely to their family’s embrace once more.