There were tears in Grandfather’s eyes as he reached for Will’s hand, extending his other to Hannibal. His long fingers shook, a tremor that had increased since they had last seen him and caused Hannibal to worriedly ask, “Have you been unwell, Grandfather?”
“No, no, no, it is only the excitement of seeing you both safe and sound,” he insisted, squeezing Hannibal’s hand and kissing Will’s while Mina looked on. “I am not as resilient as I once was.”
“Well, excitement or not, I’ll have a look at your medications,” Hannibal said, concerned to find his grandfather so drawn. He seemed to have aged years in their short absence, his grip weaker and his stamina lessened.
“That will be just fine, Hannibal,” Grandfather said, delighted with any suggestion they might make. “Ah! And this must be Winston! Hannibal has written to me about you. I hope we can always rely on him to keep you out of trouble, Will, hm?”
“Not my finest moment,” Will admitted, squeezing Grandfather’s hand and uttering an embarrassed laugh. “But he has made a wonderful addition to the family.”
“Well, not precisely the addition I had my heart set on,” Grandfather said, lifting Will’s hand to his lips again, this time with a surreptitious brush of his nose against Will’s wrist. The subtle change in Will’s scent brought a pleased grin to his lips and he added, “but soon, perhaps?”
“That’s quite enough of that, you old goat,” Hannibal scolded, amused.
“Hannibal, dear,” Mina said, politely appalled by him. “Heavens, such language! I am very happy to see you home, so I will not hold it against you, but you mustn’t speak so in front of His Grace, surely!”
“It is quite alright, my dear,” Grandfather said, giving her an expansive smile. “I am used to my grandson’s manners!”
“You should be, as I learned from you,” Hannibal said, releasing Grandfather’s hand to give Mina a tight smile. “I trust you have been taking excellent care of him?”
She held her hand out to him in expectation, her lashes fluttering over her upturned eyes.
He only took it when Will cleared his throat, his eyebrows beginning to disapprove.
“You look absolutely lovely, Lady Rathmore,” Hannibal told her, kissing her hand as bidden and releasing her just after. “I see time in the country agrees with you.”
“No less than time in the Capital agrees with my brother,” she said, her assessing blue eyes searching Will, who blushed brilliantly when she added, “the papers have been quite entertaining of late!”
“Oh, Hannibal pays no mind to that sort of thing,” Will said, his smile wry.
“Nor should he,” Grandfather said, and turned to Mina to ask, “If I might have a moment in private with my children, dear?”
Mina’s brow furrowed in a frown so similar to Will’s that it gave Hannibal goosebumps. Before she could find a suitable way to protest her dismissal, however, Will came to the rescue by saying, “I should love to have a quiet talk with you, Mina, if you have time? I’ve asked Mrs. Henderson to take tea up to my sitting room. Perhaps you could wait for me there?”
“Oh, yes, darling, of course!” she said, her spirits instantly rebounding. “I have just the thing! A very lovely tea, as His Grace can tell you! I will see that it is prepared. Heaven knows Mrs. Henderson has her hands full just now!”
She excused herself with a deep, lovely curtsey to Grandfather, who nodded his approval, and took herself off to tend to Will’s request.
“She’s certainly in fine form,” Hannibal said, still somewhat taken aback to have been scolded. “Correcting me in my own house!”
“She has a tendency to protect my dignity even when she needn’t do so,” Grandfather said, tugging his lap blanket up closer around him, a slight shiver wracking his frame. “I beg your pardon, Will. She is a delightful and intelligent young lady who is entirely determined to embed herself in my side.”
Will laughed, a husky, raspy sound of rare true mirth that made Hannibal smile. “She is every bit as stubborn as I am, Grandfather.”
“Here, come sit,” Grandfather insisted, wheeling his chair towards the settee with a wave that they should occupy it. “Jimmy said you had gone back to the Capital and I worried something must have happened to one or both of you.”
“Oh, just this business with Miss Hobbs,” Hannibal said, settling Will before sitting next to him. He gathered his hand up without being aware of it, resting their laced fingers against his thigh. “Will correctly surmised that I needed a wiser head than my own and returned to rescue me from an impulsive and regrettable decision.”
“Impulsive? You?” Grandfather asked, shaggy brows lifting in amusement. “I take it things didn’t work in your favor?”
“We have come to the conclusion that she might not return to Hartford as we’d hoped,” Will said, amused by Roland’s good humor. “The Lord Chancellor suggested she sue for emancipation instead.”
“I am sorry to hear that, as it must disappoint you both,” Grandfather said, his smile fading to a thoughtful frown. “The Fosters were so hoping to meet her.”
“She would like to meet them, as well,” Will said. “Perhaps, should everything happen without incident, we could arrange for them to meet here at Hartford and go from there?”
“I have no argument with that,” Grandfather said, waving his hand in dismissal that made Hannibal frown, though he knew well enough that Melinda’s daughter had never been at the top of his grandfather’s list of priorities.
“Tell me, Grandfather, what news have you in the investigation?” Hannibal asked instead, changing the subject. He and Grandfather would never see eye to eye on the subject of Melinda, he knew, and it was best to let it rest.
“There is excessively little, I’m afraid,” Roland said, his weighty gaze landing on Will, who looked back at him with his usual calm. “Zeller has been unable to find Mr. Brown, which I can only assume is because his family is sheltering him, but the detectives searched the livery and turned up a trunk with your cut girth strap.”
“A cut girth strap,” Will softly corrected, cocking his head. “Why on earth would he save it, if he thought it might implicate him?”
“A trophy, perhaps?” Hannibal offered, but failed to sound convinced.
“Grandfather, Matthew Brown has no reason at all to harm me, or he would have done so in the last six years,” Will insisted, “Nor has he any reason to discredit Hannibal.”
“There was a note inside the trunk as well,” Grandfather said, solemn. “Mr. Brown confirmed it to be Matthew’s handwriting, Will. It detailed his intentions to make the harm appear as if it was Hannibal’s doing. There was a hope that by doing so he would keep Hannibal from returning to burden you with his presence.”
Will shook his head, an absent gesture as his thoughts ran wild, saying with mute shock, “That is entirely foolish!”
“No one would keep such obvious evidence in hand, surely,” Hannibal said, finding it about as likely as Will did, which was not at all. “And why on earth would Matthew Brown wish for my absence? How would such possibly affect him?”
“The detectives have the note; they can show it to you both,” Roland said, troubled. “But the general understanding is that he feared you would drive Hartford House into the ground and undo all of Will’s work, and that in doing so you would ruin the livelihood of those in Hartford Town. It would seem Matthew formed something of an attachment to Will in the six years of their acquaintance, despite thinking him a beta male.”
That brought Will’s head up, his attention focusing sharply.
“Was it stated so in the note?” he asked, and Roland nodded. “Grandfather, Matthew has always known I am Omegan. He said as much to me the last time we spoke.”
Hannibal’s frown deepened, matching Grandfather’s own.
“Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make us focus on Matthew Brown,” he said, echoing Will’s sentiments. “To the point where Matthew has fled, no doubt from fear of our believing it. Whoever they are, they were able to forge his handwriting well enough to convince his own father. Perhaps we should be looking at those who knew him well enough to do so?”
Grandfather scowled, rubbing his forehead with a trembling hand. “I admit I’ve had my doubts, having known him for so long, but I am so desperate to ensure your safety, Will.”
“I know you are,” Will said, his hand tightening on Hannibal’s, both of them concerned by Roland’s frailty. “And I think for now we can rest easy knowing that they will try nothing more.”
Hannibal angled a look down at him, curious, but realization dawned.
“Having their scapegoat means that they do not intend to try again, lest they risk turning the attention from Matthew to themselves,” he murmured, getting a small nod from Will. “Whatever they were hoping to accomplish by harming you, they have changed tactics.”
“Which means I am even more at a loss as to their purpose,” Will said, grateful when Hannibal’s hand slipped from his to rest on his nape, giving him a comforting squeeze.
“Regardless as to whether they want to harm you or not,” Roland said, rallying, “I have kept the two detectives on payroll and they are to accompany you as your guards.”
“No, Will, I insist on it,” he said, holding up his hand to still him. “Give a weary old man some peace, I beg of you. I could not survive the loss of more children.”
“Grandfather,” Hannibal said, holding his amber gaze. “You will not lose us. Will is never unarmed and I would gleefully destroy anything or anyone who tried to harm him.”
Roland smiled, some measure of his unease vanishing with Hannibal’s declaration.
“That isn’t something I ever dreamed I would hear out of you, Hannibal,” he whispered.
“I think he surprises himself more than he ever surprises us,” Will said, his hand curling over Hannibal’s knee as he cast a wry look at his husband. He looked back at Roland, then, adding without any doubt coloring his voice, “Hannibal will ensure that I am safe, Grandfather, but I am certain that whatever they were about, they will not try again. I cannot explain how I know it, only that I do.”
“He’s right, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, supporting Will’s stance. “As odd as it seems, it does make sense, all things considered. And on the off-chance that Will is wrong, I will be here to protect him.”
Roland’s eyes filled with unabashed delight as he looked at his grandchildren seated before him, every nuance of their body language speaking to a deepening regard that only confirmed what he’d found in their respective scents.
“When Matthew is found, I want to speak to him directly,” Will added, noting Roland’s sudden softening. “He might be more than a convenience to displace these events onto. He may know something more about what is happening and they are seeking to silence him.”
“It is very possible,” Hannibal mused, thinking back to the night Will had been pushed down the stairs. “Matthew is an Alpha, yet there was no trace of Alpha scent on the stairs the night you were pushed. Unless the accident with your mare and the accident with the stairs are entirely unrelated, of course.”
“One crisis at a time,” Will warned, the fine hairs on his nape lifting in response to the warm squeeze of Hannibal’s hand. “I will leave you gentlemen to speak in private, however. If I keep my sister waiting, she may feel compelled to come fetch me.”
He slid out of Hannibal’s grip and rose, moving to clasp Grandfather’s hand in both of his. He kissed the ring Roland always wore and pressed his cheek to his knuckles in a moment of soft affection that surprised the old Alpha.
“I am so very glad to be home again, Grandfather,” he said, lowering Roland’s hand with care not to hurt him, “and so very glad to see you.”
“My dear, the joy is entirely mine,” Roland told him, watching Will and Winston quit the room with a soft smile on his face.
“He knows, by the way,” Hannibal said, stretching out on the settee with his arms along the back, one booted ankle crossed onto his opposite knee.
“Hm?” Roland asked, turning his attention to his grandson with difficulty, the specters of his youth more demanding these days than the attentions of the living.
“Aunt Margaret tattled on you, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, grinning at the sudden cagey expression that fell over Roland’s face. “I guess Bedelia takes after her, doesn’t she? She took herself all the way to Marsham Heath to give Will and I some very interesting information regarding you and Charles.”
“There is nothing in the world interesting about me, you brat!” Roland countered, wagging a finger at him in reproach. “Mind yourself or I’ll have Lady Rathmore in to scold you!”
Hannibal shuddered, much to Roland’s amusement.
“Now, I have some information for you, Hannibal,” Roland said, back to business as he wheeled his chair over to his desk. “I will leave it to your discretion what you do and do not tell your husband.”
“Keeping secrets from Will is detrimental to my health, not to mention my happiness,” Hannibal warned, pushing to his feet to join his grandfather at his desk, where Roland was shuffling papers out of a locked drawer. “What on earth have you been up to?”
“Financial papers,” Roland said, lifting stacks of papers free. “Investment schemes, a list of creditors—Mr. Buddish has spent an inordinate amount of time helping you recently, so I have had to rely on his assistant, but here we have it.”
Hannibal skimmed the papers, eyes widening to see an expanded version of what he’d been provided at Marsham Heath.
“I knew the Rathmores were in some dire straits, but this,” he said, eyes narrowing, “this is even more shocking.”
“I found I was curious how he has maintained his lifestyle,” Roland said, shuffling the papers, “not to mention keeping Mina in the luxury she is accustomed to. Here, look here.”
Hannibal took the note up, quickly realizing that Timothy had been doing business under his mother’s maiden name.
“Who on earth provided him with this sum?” he asked, searching the paper to the bottom to find the creditor. It was a Capital-based agent, but the name gave him pause.
“I had that man looked into,” Grandfather said, offering another paper. “Hannibal, that little scoundrel is taking money from a foreign government. We could never convince a court with this, but you know as well as I do who Timothy St. Martin is, hm?”
“Do you think he is selling our military out?” Hannibal asked, anger banking in his belly, slow and steady.
“I think it is rather an unusual coincidence that such a large sum was given for ‘services rendered’ just before Ostham fell.”
“And then Lord Rathmore encouraged our military to lay siege,” Hannibal murmured, scowling. “It is no wonder he’s opposed to any treaties! He has everything to gain from the war continuing on! This is treason!”
“This,” Grandfather said, tapping the papers, “is conjecture, Hannibal. Without proof, we can do nothing more than what I have already done, which is send the information to the Courts and ask them to investigate the matter.”
“What a vile little beast,” Hannibal said, outraged than any son of this country’s soil would use Her so badly and with such vicious intent. “Yet from the looks of things, he is only racking up more debt rather than paying it off. He must be desperate by now.”
Roland reached back into the drawer, pulling loose a folded note initialed by Zeller.
“Since our discussion before you left, I worried that Mr. Verger might have some hand in what happened to Will,” he said, unfolding the note to smooth it, revealing a list of names. “This is a list of Mr. Verger’s visitors since his incarceration. I ran Zeller nearly ragged identifying them all, the lazy brat, but this man is in Lord Rathmore’s employ.”
Hannibal peered at the name, no wiser for having seen it but still concerned that there was a link between Will’s in-laws and the Vergers.
“Have you found any reason for the visit?” Hannibal asked, deeply disturbed by the connection.
“Not as yet,” Roland admitted, weary. “But I have asked for copies of the correspondence log. It will take some time, as certain parties had to be convinced of my need for it, but it should arrive sooner rather than later.”
“Please be sure to show me when it does,” Hannibal said, absently rubbing his forehead. “This is terribly worrisome. Have you any suspicion that Mina knows what Rathmore has been about?”
“None whatsoever,” Roland told him, carefully stacking the papers together. “In our various discussions, it sounds as if Lady Rathmore has little contact with either her husband or her household. Before she arrived here at Hartford, she was with one of her sisters in the Capital, where she had been for nearly six months’ time.”
“Does she correspond?”
“She sends letters every morning,” Roland said, shrugging his bowed shoulders. “But they are always addressed to various ladies of her acquaintance or to shopkeepers in the Capital. She is, to all observable purposes, entirely ignorant of her husband’s machinations.”
Hannibal heaved a sigh, sliding his hand down over his face and nodding. “Good. It would break Will’s heart if she were to be involved in anything to his detriment. She is the only member of his family who even pretends to love him; I would save him from losing that, if I could.”
“Mind you, I am not saying she is entirely innocent, nor pleasant, but despite being unbearably spoiled and self-centered, I have no reason to complain of her conduct,” Roland said, somber. “I blame her father for the way he raised her, and her own personality for being so indulgent in herself, but she has no malice that I can measure outside of what jealousy can rouse in a person’s heart. Because she is wildly jealous of Will, Hannibal.”
Hannibal cocked his head, somewhat taken aback by the steady stare he got in return.
“She threw him into your clutches to save herself and finds the reward for her selfishness is an abysmal marriage to a licentious fool,” Roland said, stern in his rebuke of Lord Rathmore. “He spends every cent they have on his own pleasures and garners unpleasant gossip everywhere he goes. Mina has done herself no favors with her actions and she knows it.”
“Good,” Hannibal said, unwilling to be gracious with her. “I am delighted she is stewing in her own jealousy. I hope the remainder of the time she spends here—as short as I can make it, considering what the Capital is saying regarding my relationship with her—simply boils her in her own regrets.”
“Yet, if she had not acted so selfishly, you would never have been married to Will,” Roland reminded him, flummoxing his grandson for a moment. “You would have married Mina… and I do not think I speak out of turn when I say that you would be far less happy today had you done so.”
“You aren’t wrong about that,” Hannibal admitted, smiling as Will’s beloved face turned to his in his mind’s eye. “Will is an excellent fisherman, Grandfather. I am well and truly and happily snared by him and he knows it.”
Roland chortled, pleased and unafraid to show it. “Don’t flatter yourself, Hannibal! A wonderful Omega like Will would hardly have to exert himself! Flung yourself onto his hook is more like it, I’m sure!”
“Gloat all you like,” Hannibal offered, expansive in his invitation and smiling at his Grandfather’s obvious joy. “It all played out as you hoped for, you old romantic. The bloodlines you dreamed of merging are well on their way, or so I hope.”
Roland’s eyes widened. He pressed his fingertips to his mouth in surprise before he whispered, “Will’s heat?”
“I am not discussing it with you,” Hannibal warned, cocking his head. “It’s enough for you to know that we came through it together with a better understanding of our place with each other. I should like to have that cottage in the woods torn down, by the way, as he assured me he will no longer be spending such times alone there.”
Grandfather grinned, lifting his eyes to the heavens in silent thanks that brought a chuckle from his grandson.
“Now, let’s have a look at what you’ve been taking recently, Grandfather,” Hannibal said, helping him put the paperwork back for now and quietly ordering what he had learned so that he could later inform his mate.
The tea service was just being carried in by Mina’s maid, Miss Speck, when Will reached his sitting room. He could hear his sister’s voice raised in firm instruction, the haughty tone bringing an indulgent smile to his lips.
He let himself in as Miss Speck settled the tray, his smile widening to a grin when Mina yipped in alarm at Winston’s excited barking.
“Oh! Heavens! Will!”
“It’s fine, Mina, he’s just excited,” Will said, chuckling as patted his thigh, bringing Winston to his side in a bounding flurry of high spirits.
“Truly?” she asked, dubious but trusting him.
“Yes, Mina, I promise,” Will said, and said to Miss Speck, “Might you ask one of the footmen to take him for a walk, please?”
“Yes, m’Lord,” she said, giving him a small bob of her head. There was no hesitation in her when she called Winston to her, and she seemed happy enough to take him with her.
“Ah, my love,” Mina sighed, and crossed the room to take his hands. Her eyes flicked over his face as if searching for a secret and she said with an air of question, “You look positively radiant, Will.”
“And you look very lovely, Mina,” Will said, delighted to see her so at ease and comfortable. “Shall we sit?”
“Oh! Indeed!” she said, moving to settle on the settee. She patted the space next to her and told him, “I will pour for us, shall I?”
“Thank you,” Will said, moving to settle at her side.
“This,” Mina said, pouring a full cup for them both, “is a special blend of tea, Will. It purges the blood of impurities and encourages good spirits. I ordered it especially for you, my dear, as I feared you would be quite undone on your return.”
“Undone?” Will asked, taking his cup up to give the contents a slight sniff. “In what way, Mina?”
“Oh, only in that I feared for your safety alone with that man,” she said, troubled. “How I fretted day and night over you, Will! I was not entirely certain you would return home.”
“Oh, Mina,” Will sighed, shaking his head. “Hannibal would never harm me, especially not now.”
Her blue eyes narrowed, a flash of irritation showing in their depths before it vanished so quickly that Will wasn’t sure he’d seen it at all. He took a polite sip of his tea to distract himself, and when Mina asked, he answered with a slight nod, “It is rather stronger than I prefer, and somewhat bitter, but I am sure it will grow on me.”
“Indeed it shall,” Mina said, smiling at him. “It is good to see you so well, darling. You look different somehow.”
“I feel different,” Will admitted, settling his cup back into its saucer with a grimace. “I feel… happy, Mina.”
“Oh, my darling, that is wonderful news,” she said, putting her cup down to take his hands. “You must tell me everything! It’s been so long since we could visit and I have missed you so!”
“Of course,” Will assured her, a slight frown bowing his mouth. “Mina, forgive me, but why did you not write to me regarding Mr. Dolarhyde?”
“Why, what do you mean, Will?” she asked, confusion filling her lovely face. “I did write to you, darling. The first moment I was able! When he arrived with your letter, I was so surprised! I certainly never expected to see him alone.”
“I never received any communication from you,” Will said, the tension easing from Will’s shoulders, some small suspicion laid partially to rest with her words. It worried him that the letter had gone astray, but it was not entirely unheard of for mail to go missing.
“That is rather strange,” she said, her brow wrinkling in a familiar frown. “I took myself straight upstairs and wrote you immediately, darling, to assure you that I was not harmed by him!”
“You believe that he was responsible for those deaths?” Will asked, his stomach sinking with upset.
“I was shocked, Will! Simply shocked to read what you had written me!” she said, roses blooming in her cheeks with her agitation. “Two men dead and Francis pretending to be about my business?”
“So he was not,” Will said, another thread of suspicion unwinding. He strained to read Mina but it was difficult for him and always had been. When Mina lied, she believed it as solid truth, and lacked any sign of dissembling.
“Darling, no,” Mina breathed, properly aghast. Her hands were cold on his, her buffed nails sharp even pressed so lightly to his skin. “I have no idea why he was in the Capital! But goodness, such horror! Two men killed and flung into the river? I was terrified!”
“You did send him away, then?” Will pressed, searching her face.
“Naturally!” Mina said, her fingers tightening on his. “I was nearly in a faint, Will! I am not used to that sort of thing, you know! I was terrified and sent him packing immediately.”
Will cocked his head, turning his hands in hers to clasp them, chafing her fingers to bring warmth to the surface.
“The letter was unopened when he arrived?” he asked. “It hadn’t been tampered with?”
“Heavens, no,” Mina assured him. “Francis knows that is a sure way to earn a dismissal! I’m certain he was hoping that whatever you’d written I would excuse or condone somehow. Having been betrayed by you, he put his faith in me.”
Will flinched at that assessment, thinking of Francis as he’d last seen him—incredulous and torn and deeply unhappy. It pained him to think of it as a betrayal. Whatever his failings or imperfections, Francis had only ever wanted to protect him, and it soured Will’s stomach to think he had repaid him with treachery.
“I couldn’t bear to keep him near me, Will,” she whispered, a plea in her voice as if she begged his understanding. “I realize there is no proof that he had anything to do with it, but that he might have done so… it quite chilled me. He has always been so gentle and quiet. It is difficult for me to think that he is capable of such terrible violence, but I erred on the side of sense and sent him off to Town to take a room, as you requested.”
There was a small silence as she gathered her thoughts, a subtle, mulish set to her mouth warning Will that he had given her offence.
“And I am greatly disturbed, Will, that you think some business of mine would require such secrecy that men should be killed for it!” she said, sliding her hands free to take up her teacup again, covering her upset with a tiny sip.
“Mina, I did not mean to imply that you were involved in something unsavory,” Will told her, still plagued by doubts on that count. “I only meant to assure you that no matter what troubles you, I will support you and help you through it. I have heard some very disturbing things in regards to the Rathmore fortunes. I was concerned that the family had been involved in some scheme to reverse a run of bad investments.”
Her face smoothed into an expressionless mask, but he could see the thoughts spinning behind her blue eyes.
“That is absurd,” she said, lowering her cup to freshen his tea for him, turning Will’s handle towards him with care. “There isn’t a thing wrong with our fortunes, dearest.”
Will held his tongue, thinking it very likely that Timothy would keep such things from Mina, who professed a lack of understanding with numbers which Will knew was entirely contrary to the truth of her keen, sharp mind. Mina, however, had always masked her intelligence, unwilling to be burdened by the responsibilities it brought to bear.
“I ran into Timothy yesterday,” Will said, startled when she nearly dropped her cup. “Mina? You’ve gone quite pale! Are you unwell?”
“No, silly, I just didn’t expect you to say such a thing,” she said, her laugh breathless and uncomfortable. Her hand trembled when she put her cup down and plucked up a folded napkin to wipe the tea from her fingers. “I didn’t imagine the two of you would cross paths, darling, that is all.”
“The Capital is a rather large place,” Will conceded. “He mentioned something about your practicing at something?”
There was a fleeting flicker of panic in her blue eyes that she quickly averted her gaze to hide.
“Oh, that,” she said, uttering a breathless laugh. “He was probably teasing about my acquaintance. He is an actor and Timothy dislikes him immensely. But tell me, darling, where on earth did you run into my husband?”
“I was leaving the tailors as he was coming in,” Will said, taking another sip of the bitter tea and putting it down with a wrinkle of his nose. The tea made him slightly queasy and he sincerely hoped she would not insist on sharing it very often. “We did not speak for long, but it was long enough for me to understand why you might wish to remain here at Hartford with us for a little longer, Mina.”
Her blue eyes rose to his, wide and hopeful. “Truly, Will?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling when she did. “I will not trouble you with our exchange, but he is an altogether unpleasant man and his regard for you was certainly not what I would wish for.”
He considered mentioning how Timothy had mistaken them for one another, but changed his mind. It would break his heart should Hannibal ever mistake Mina for himself, and as little as Mina professed to care for Timothy, he was the man she had chosen to marry and there were feelings behind that decision, he knew.
“I should like you to remain here at Hartford through Grandfather’s gathering,” Will decided. “Write to Timothy and tell him so. I cannot extend the invitation indefinitely, as there are some troubling rumors that have started, but we will do what we can. Perhaps when you leave here, you might go to the seaside? Or to visit Father?”
“Yes, darling, that would be lovely!” Mina said, her relief so vast that Will’s heart ached for her. “But what rumors, my dear? I have been here in the country for ages, now, and I am bereft of any gossip!”
“That is not a bad thing, is it?” Will teased, earning himself a playful swat of her hand. “Hannibal and I attended a Masquerade, the annual charity ball for the Ministry of War, as a matter of fact.”
“Oh, yes, I read about it in the papers!” she gasped, hand flying to her chest. “Will! What scandalous behavior! Father was no doubt frothing to read of it! Were you truly carrying on with Prince Bert? Honestly, Will, I never would’ve expected such behavior from you! Timothy wrote to say he would not attend. I should have come if only to keep you from such disgraceful folly! And your husband, was he furious? He is always so expressionless and cold, I can never tell what is going on in that mind of his!”
“Mina, no, no,” Will said, laughing and shaking his head. “Nothing of the sort happened! You know how those columns are! But there was a misunderstanding at first that I was you.”
“Me,” she said, sounding mildly offended, her nose wrinkling in a mirror of Will’s own expression.
“Yes, there was a rumor that Hannibal had taken you as his mistress and brought you to the ball right under your husband’s nose,” Will said, one eyebrow arching over his eye. Mina gaped at him, equally horrified and amused. “They thought you had cut your hair.”
“As if I would ever do such a ghastly thing!” she squeaked.
“Cut your hair or bed my husband?” Will inquired, chuckling when she covered her mouth to stifle appalled laughter.
“Will! Shame on you!” she said, but scooted closer, as if there were listening ears who might overhear them. “But you must tell me everything! What has happened to make you so happy? It surely cannot be that man, old horror that he is!”
“It is that man, actually,” Will said, a fond smile curving his mouth when he thought of Hannibal.
“Tell me,” Mina urged, and prodded him with her beringed finger when he only smiled. “Tell me, Will! I want to know everything! Confide in me! I have no excitement, wasting away out here in the country while you adventure in the Capital! Tell me what has happened.”
“Well,” Will said, heaving an exaggerated sigh. “Very well, Mina, if you insist.”
A cat-like smile curved her full mouth when she purred, “I do.”
Between making arrangements for Mr. Dolarhyde, per Will’s request, scheduling interview times for the land agents, and attending to the correspondence that had built up at Hartford, Hannibal found the entire day had gotten away from him without seeing Will even once. He didn’t like it one bit, but looked forward to dinner with his mate and hurried upstairs when Berger came down to remind him.
“Where is Will?” he asked, sighing with relief to tug his neckerchief free and shrug his jacket off.
“I believe he is still in with Mrs. Henderson, m’Lord,” Berger said, divesting him of his waistcoat. He fished Hannibal’s watch out with care to lay it on his vanity along with his cufflinks.
“He hasn’t seen the bathtub yet?” Hannibal asked, grinning when Berger shook his head.
“No, my Lord,” Berger said, doing his best to remain serious. “Price is in raptures over the dressing room, though. I took a peek myself, m’Lord, and they did an excellent job, though it looks a bit empty.”
“Not for long,” Hannibal said, pleased. He sat down and tugged his boots off, shedding the rest of his clothes with absent grace before shrugging on his robe. “He got a final fitting for that wardrobe I ordered him; I imagine it will be on its way any day now.”
“I’ll be sure to know ahead of time,” Berger said, heading into the washroom to start the bath, “so I can find a place to hide until the dust settles.”
Hannibal chuckled, but he didn’t deny it. Will’s propensity for violence remained a source of unadulterated enjoyment for him.
“You’ll be having some guests tonight,” Berger mentioned, laying out bathing sheets and tidying as he went. “His Grace had already settled his plans, I’m told.”
“Who is it?” Hannibal asked, finding more letters neatly stacked on his desk. He glanced through them, only half listening to Berger’s reply.
“Lord du Maurier and his guest, m’Lord,” Berger said, emerging from the washroom when Hannibal said nothing. He spied his master looking through the letters and said, “Beg your pardon, Lord Clarges, those come in just this evening.”
Hannibal came to a weatherbeaten envelope and felt a spike of anxiety when he saw that it was from the front.
“Is everything alright, m’Lord?” Berger asked, worried by his sudden stillness.
“It’s from Captain Rogers,” Hannibal said, frowning as he opened it. It was weeks old, from the looks of it, and had been rerouted through Galley Field before finding him here. “I had assumed he’d retired.”
“He did, m’Lord,” Berger supplied, nervously standing by for information. It would have been unseemly under other circumstances, but Hannibal knew his valet was anxious to know if something had happened. “But he returned about a year back, took up his old post.”
Hannibal scanned the letter, blunt and to the point, as Rogers himself was.
‘I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but recent actions have been taken regarding the soldiers. There’s a new council, the Council for the Betterment of Omegas, and it’s beginning to take its toll. This may come as a shock to you, Clarges, but there are Omegas in Their Majesties’ army. Most of my own company are Omegas and they are falling under heavy persecution. The Council, working in conjunction with the Ministry of War, has enacted stipulations on freight. The supply lines they use to obtain their needed medicines are drying up one by one and the situation is growing desperate.
‘I am fully aware of your feelings on the subject of Omegas, Lord Clarges, but I appeal to your oath as a physician. These soldiers are facing crisis and I have nowhere else to turn. I came back to duty to see if I could somehow assist my men, but this problem has grown teeth and is beyond my singular ability. As a Peer, your supplies can get through to us without argument. I beg of you to do what you can for their sakes, my Lord. They are brave soldiers, every one, and they are facing horrors I dare not imagine if they are exposed to the mercies of this Council…’
It echoed in his head, a reminder of the man he’d been until far too recently. That Rogers would even have to couch his request in an appeal to Hannibal’s oath to do no harm left him queasy, sickened to think of the monster he’d been to those he had never deigned to notice.
“M’Lord?” Berger asked, daring to intrude on his thoughts.
Hannibal handed him the letter, frowning and thoughtful, silent while Berger read it for himself.
“Heavens and gods preserve us,” Berger whispered, his hands trembling as he handed the letter back. “A council? Aren’t there troubles and woes enough to concern them that they can leave decent and brave soldiers to their duties?”
“Apparently not,” Hannibal said, grim and pensive. He rubbed his forehead, a headache welling behind his eyes. “Gods, Berger, I doubt even my influence is enough to shut this Council down.”
“I’m shocked, my Lord,” Berger said, at an absolute loss. “How did these types gain such control?”
“They did it with stealth and patience,” Hannibal said, his voice dropping to a low growl, “beneath a veneer of public safety that kept the rest of us comfortable while they amassed their power.”
He shuddered, horrified by the implications. A council for such purpose would repress Omegas slowly, pretending to do what was best for everyone and protect the sanctity of their position, all the while stripping their choices from them.
“If they succeed with this,” he said, lifting the letter and giving it a small shake, “then they will turn their attention to Omegas here at home.”
“What can we do for it, my Lord?” Berger asked, his eyes liquid with anguish. “More to the point, what can you do for it? People like me and mine, we have no sort of power over anything. We have to rely on our Lords.”
“I know, Berger,” Hannibal said, rubbing a weary hand over his eyes. “I will think of something.”
He took the letter with him to the bath, sinking up to his shoulders in the blessedly hot water, reading the lines over and over in the hopes that he would be inspired with a way to sort the dismal mess that had been presented to him.
Will spent the afternoon with Mrs. Henderson finalizing the plans for the menu and decorations as well as the distribution of rooms to those who would stay with them. He approved more house staff, young men and women from the village whose families he knew well, some of whom he had watched grow from child to young adult in his time here at Hartford. He returned to his suite to clean up for dinner, looking forward to seeing Anthony for dinner and filled with a kind of quiet peace to be home, a beloved and important member of the Lecter household, just as he’d dreamed when he’d come here six years ago.
He heard movement in his suite as he entered and found Jimmy getting his things ready, moving in and out of the dressing room with a smile on his pleasant face.
“Good evening, my Lord!”
“Good evening, Jimmy,” Will said, absently rubbing his stomach, which had been strangely unsettled all day. “I’m sorry to have left you so suddenly on the road, I hope I didn’t frighten you.”
“Oh, my Lord, the moment they told me you’d turned back, I knew you were in good hands,” Jimmy said, winking at him. He gestured at the dressing room, then, asking, “Have you seen what his Lordship managed while you were away?”
Will’s brows rose and he smiled, unable to resist Jimmy’s excited delight. He moved into his dressing room and gaped at the changes that had taken place. The room had been expanded by better than half, the original dressing room opening up into the former maid’s room to create one large, tasteful dressing room. The wardrobe that Hannibal had purchased for him so long ago at Mr. Avery’s shop barely took up any room at all, leading Will to laughingly ask, “What on earth did he do this for?”
“I could wager a guess,” Jimmy offered, beaming and pleased, “but I’d much rather wait and see, wouldn’t you?”
Will laughed again, belly-deep and helpless, the sound echoing in the large space. His blue eyes roamed the details, his laughter fading to a soft smile as he thought of his husband and the loving intent behind such a gift. The bond was somewhat muted when he reached for it, something he did more often now, especially when moved by his affection for Hannibal. He found beneath his contentment was a strange concern, as if his husband dwelled on something that troubled him but was deliberately attempting to shield Will from it.
“Is his Lordship in his suite?” Will murmured, smoothing his hand over the panel that led to the passages, relieved it had not been disturbed.
“I believe he’s soaking in the bath, my Lord,” Jimmy said, gathering up clean underthings for Will to change into. “Would you like Mr. Berger to hurry him?”
“No, thank you, Jimmy,” Will said, pushing away from the wall and heading towards the washroom. “I’ll do it myself.”
He cracked the washroom door, peeking in to find his husband perusing a letter and worrying his lower lip with his sharp teeth. The unhappiness was a coal beneath the layer of his emotions, a kernel of dismay that Will reached for, countering its livid heat with calm. Hannibal looked up at him, catching his scent and startled by his silent arrival, but the pleasure he felt when laying eyes on Will was unfeigned.
“I was planning to scold you about the changes made to my suite,” Will told him, “but I changed my mind.”
“Oh,” Hannibal said, making a show of checking Will’s hands for coshing items. “May I ask why?”
“Just the sight of my husband up to his chin in the biggest bathtub I’ve ever laid eyes on,” Will said, closing the door behind him and leaning on it. Whatever it was that bothered Hannibal, his presence alone was enough to distract him from it, Will was relieved to know.
“I should have let you use it first, as it’s a gift for you,” Hannibal said, sitting up fully, the steaming water lapping at his chest. “Surprise?”
Will chuckled, moving around the washroom to have a look at the massive, claw-footed tub.
“What do you think?” Hannibal asked, shifting in a quiet ripple of hot water.
“About the dressing room or about the tub?” Will inquired, circling around to Hannibal’s side to sit on the lip of the tub. He dipped his fingers into the water, a flush on his cheeks as he looked his fill at his husband’s athletic body.
“Both,” Hannibal said, leaning back to encourage Will’s lingering stare, the Alpha in him ever ready to display himself to advantage.
“I think I have a very generous husband to thank,” Will murmured, trailing his fingers through the water to brush Hannibal’s knee where it rested just beneath the surface. “And that luckily this tub is large enough for two.”
Hannibal grinned up at him and said, “I had just the same thought when I ordered it… should we try it? Just to make sure, of course.”
Will laughed, marking the letter laying on the tub-side tray and wondering if its contents could explain the strange unhappiness his husband was feeling. He reached for the buttons on his coat and said, “I think we’d better. Just to make sure.”
He made short work of undressing, his cheeks pinking up brilliantly beneath Hannibal’s sparkling amber gaze, but there was no shyness in him in the end. He slipped into the tub with the supple grace Hannibal always found so striking, settling into the cradle of Hannibal’s body to rest against his chest.
Hannibal wrapped both arms around him and poked his nose against Will’s throat on a deep inhale.
“I’ve missed you,” he sighed, nuzzling Will’s curls and hitching him up closer, both of them warm and relaxed in the deep tub.
“I can tell,” Will said, a small wriggle of his backside making his point. He turned on his side, twisting to rest one hand on Hannibal’s furry chest. His blue eyes were a pale, bluish-green in the strong lamplight, Hannibal noted, beautiful and glimmering behind the fan of his lashes. “Something is troubling you, Hannibal.”
He smiled, stroking his wet hand down Will’s cheek to his shoulder with a soft sigh.
“You can’t lie to me, remember?” Will murmured, leaning in to nuzzle his nose, a gentle gesture of affection that made Hannibal’s heart skip a beat.
“I received a letter from Captain Rogers,” Hannibal said, his deep voice reverberating in the tiled room. “The Omegas overseas are under fire from our own shores.”
Will shook his head, not understanding.
“There is a Council,” Hannibal said, stretching out one arm to snag the letter. It was smeared here and there from where he’d handled it with wet fingers, but still legible. He waited for Will to lean back against him and wipe his fingers dry before he handed it off. “They have begun closing all avenues these soldiers need to maintain a secret that is rightly theirs to keep.”
“The Council for the Betterment of Omegas,” Will read, nose wrinkling in distaste. He absently hooked his feet over Hannibal’s ankles, toes curling beneath his husband’s heels to anchor himself. Hannibal’s arms looped around his waist, warm and strong and comforting. “Do you have any idea who the members are?”
“No, but I intend to find out,” Hannibal said, reading it again over Will’s shoulder, his head leaning against his husband’s.
Will put the letter aside with care, saying in a husky whisper, “What will you do?”
“Everything in my power,” Hannibal said, his arms tightening on Will in a spasm of pain, seeking comfort only his mate could offer. “I owe it to them, to all of the soldiers who died because they feared I would expose them. Ten years of it, Will. I cannot fail them now, not again.”
“Then let it fuel you,” Will urged, rubbing his hands over Hannibal’s beneath the water, smoothing his skin in gentle strokes. “Let it be the ember which will consume that awful Council in flames.”
“I will,” Hannibal said, nuzzling Will’s curls with his eyes closed, momentarily completed simply by his presence. “But that will take time and I must do something more immediate regarding their supplies.”
“Arranging shipments is a solution, though a temporary one at best,” Will pointed out, tipping his head a bit to press a soft kiss to Hannibal’s cheek. “The supply lines themselves need to be opened again. I can arrange a shipment of suppressants and scent blockers; Jimmy is very well acquainted with several suppliers in the Capital, but if they are keeping them from arriving, then it will do no good. Have you any contacts on the Continent that could accept and deliver it without the Council any wiser?”
“I shall have to confer with Mr. Buddish,” Hannibal said, considering it, “but I believe it can be arranged. It is, as you said, a temporary solution, but it will serve until I can manage to find a way to undermine that damned Council!”
Will smiled suddenly, his blue eyes crinkling in a way Hannibal found both distracting and absolutely adorable.
“What?” he asked, a mystified but pleased that he had somehow gratified his mate.
“Hannibal Lecter, Marquess of Clarges, legendary scourge of Omegas,” Will breathed, sprinkling the words with playful kisses, “absolutely incensed at the injustice done in the name of saving Omegas from themselves—I am elated to be a witness to your transformation.”
“Witness? Catalyst is more like it,” Hannibal said, jostling Will in his arms and curling around him. “Were it not for you, I might even myself be sitting on that ghastly Council, smug and secure in my hateful actions.”
“I wonder if my methods would work as well on them?” Will mused, pretending to consider it even as his husband began to glower. “A little wheedling, a trout or two, perhaps a glimpse of my knees?”
He grinned when Hannibal snarled, delving into his throat with mock fury to place a loving kiss on his mark.
“Oh, I do love you, Will,” he sighed, kissing the place again and just holding him, filled with wonder that his mate could so easily bring him from bleak worry to confident action in only a few moment’s time. “There is nothing in my power to give you that I would refuse.”
Will smiled, flustered but pleased, and eased around in the sloshing water to give his husband a tender, coaxing kiss.
There was an air of festivity in Hartford House that evening as they came down to the parlour. The coach from Fernhill had arrived in their absence, delivering Anthony as well as his guest for their evening with Grandfather.
Will’s smile faltered when he saw the guest was Thomas Marlow, the man who had spoken to him so rudely at the Fernhill Garden Party.
“Ah! I finally get to meet you properly!” he said, beating a hasty path to Will’s presence to take his hand. He pressed a kiss to Will’s knuckles and said in low tones, “I beg you, beg you for your forgiveness, Lord Clarges! I had no right to speak to you in such a familiar way! Please, allow me to make clear my humblest and deepest apologies!”
“Steady on,” Hannibal warned, noting the way Will arched a single eyebrow, as if considering settling the matter with violence just to make his point. “One more word out of you in that vein and I’ll hand him your head on a platter, Thomas.”
“Ah, of course! Excuse me,” Mr. Marlow said, chagrined. He released Will’s hand with a shamed smile, as if Will had scolded him harshly. “I only want to convey how deeply sorry I am—”
“That you spoke so?” Will asked, cocking his head. “Or that I turned out to be the one you spoke of?”
“Hannibal! What on earth are you doing to Thomas?” Roland called, craning a suspicious look at them. “He looks like a hairy beet!”
“That’s just his face, Grandfather,” Anthony assured him , laughing at the glare Thomas gave him.
“Truly, Lord Clarges—”
“You are forgiven,” Will said, cutting Mr. Marlow off, impatient with any self-serving apology. “Please, think no more of it. If you are a friend of my husband’s, then I will strive to be your friend, as well.”
“Wonderful! Wonderful!” Thomas said, his delighted grin faltering somewhat beneath the weight of Hannibal’s disapproving stare.
“Not too good a friend, I expect,” Hannibal said, his displeasure heavy in his deep Alpha voice. “I admit I am surprised to see you, Thomas.”
“Thomas is staying in the country to keep me company,” Anthony said, moving to kiss Will’s hand in a familiar gesture of respect tinged with his usual playful lechery. “I’ve been inconsolable without you, Will.”
“Now, that is quite enough—”
“I’ve missed you, too, Anthony,” Will said, smirking at the look of purely indignant outrage Hannibal wore. “And so has Hannibal.”
“That is highly questionable,” Hannibal said, frowning. He puffed up like a bullfrog and glowered at his cousin. “I’m not so certain I have missed you, Anthony. Perhaps if you leave, I might find out?”
“Hannibal,” Will laughed, shaking his head, but their conversation was interrupted by Mina’s arrival.
She floated into the room like an emerald angel, her pink cheeks a becoming complement to the green of her gown, her hair carefully piled atop her head with ringlets teasing her soft cheeks. She looked, to Will’s eyes, an absolute vision of beauty, yet when he glanced at his husband to say so, he found Hannibal had eyes only for him.
“What?” he whispered, using the momentary privacy as Mina greeted the other gentlemen.
“Nothing,” Hannibal answered, his lips curving in a smirk. “I am only appreciating my beautiful spouse.”
Will grinned and purred, “You appreciated me rather thoroughly in the bath, Lord Clarges. Mind yourself, or shall I mention Aunt Margaret?”
“Aunt Margaret?” Anthony asked, catching the name. “She is still in the Capital, bless her. She mentioned she’d visited you all at Marsham Heath?”
“Bearing tales on Grandfather,” Hannibal said, his hand pressing to the base of Will’s spine.
“Ah! There is Mr. Hawkes, thank heaven,” Grandfather said, wheeling over to them with obvious relief to interrupt. “Shall we, children? Will, if I could escort you, my dear?”
“What on earth is he hiding?” Anthony asked, mystified, his dancing blue eyes on Roland and Will.
“Ask Aunt Margaret,” Hannibal suggested, offering his arm to Mina, who laced her own with his. He leveled a biting smile at Thomas and said, “I suppose you’ll have to escort my cousin, Thomas.”
“You make it sound so onerous,” Anthony scoffed, presenting his elbow to Thomas, who took it with a show of being put upon.
“Had Hannibal not returned, you could have escorted me, Lord du Maurier,” Mina said, fluttering her lashes at Anthony, her smile coy. “Perhaps another time?”
“Alas, there will be little chance of that,” Hannibal said, leading her into the dining room, “as I have every hope of remaining here at Hartford House.”
“Do you?” Anthony asked, pleased and surprised.
“Nonsense, of course he does!” Thomas said, laughing. “He’s talked of nothing else for six solid years! He even planned to—”
“Thomas,” Hannibal said, the note of warning quite enough to stop his blathering. He seated Mina at Will’s side, belatedly realizing that he would have to sit opposite his spouse rather than next to him. It didn’t prevent him from brushing his hand over Will’s shoulders as he passed, however, nor did it keep him from catching Will’s beautiful, content smile.
Roland headed the table in glowing pride with his small brood, pleased to have his grandchildren about him. Despite it, he seemed wan and rather tired, Will noted, not quite as attentive as he usually was.
“I am so pleased to see Lord du Maurier again,” Mina whispered, tipping her head down so that Will had to strain to catch her words. Seated across from Hannibal, he found it was incredibly distracting to watch his husband smiling and laughing with his cousin and Grandfather, his usual solemn soberness giving way to a softer part of him most people missed entirely.
“Anthony mentioned that you had spoken with him shortly before Hannibal returned,” Will said, forcing himself to focus on her words and pay her polite attention. “Which reminds me, Mina—Francis told me you’d sent him looking into Hannibal’s former wife some months ago before he returned.”
“Oh,” she said, tearing her gaze away from Anthony’s profile as the servants began to make their rounds. “Iris and I were discussing it. She asked me if I had spoken with you and I was so sad to tell her that I had not. She mentioned the former Lady Clarges to me. To that time I had never heard a single mention of her. I confess to being terribly surprised by what Francis returned with.”
Will frowned, but had no choice but to accept her reasoning. She had no reason outside of morbid curiosity to seek out the details of Hannibal’s former wife that he could see, and recalled all too clearly how frightened she had seemed for him at the Garden Party.
“Well, I am very happy to have you lovely children with me tonight!” Roland said, gathering their attention to him as he tipped his glass towards them as a whole. “And we are a happily enlarged party now that Will and Hannibal have come home! I hope such blessings will continue and we may be increased yet again with a surety for the Lecter bloodline.”
“Grandfather,” Hannibal said, but still smiled, pleased when he looked at Will. He picked his glass up and lifted it, adding, “There is no greater blessing in the world than the happiness of my beautiful mate.”
Will blushed but a smile played about his lips as he drank, hiding his embarrassment behind the rim of his glass while the starter made its rounds. It was a creamy cucumber soup Will was especially fond of and had been delighted to see on the menu.
He picked up his spoon with happy anticipation, but paused, frowning as he looked at the silver, which was not the set he had kept in place the entirety of his stay at Hartford, but one he had only seen on inventory.
“Mina,” he said, faintly annoyed to think that she might have taken such decisions upon herself. “Did you ask for the silver to be changed?”
Hannibal stifled a cough, covering his mouth with his napkin and turning his head away, shoulders shaking.
“No, dearest, Mr. Hawkes insisted,” Mina told him, cutting a curious look at Hannibal, who cleared his throat and sipped his sherry, his cheeks bright with a blush and his eyes watering.
“Mr. Hawkes?” Will questioned, bewildered. “Is there something wrong with the Duchess set?”
“No, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, his sonorous voice carrying throughout the dining room with ease. “His Lordship requested that the silver be changed.”
“Hannibal?” Will asked, mystified.
Grandfather said absolutely nothing, but his amber eyes brimmed with humor as he looked from Will to Hannibal, his amusement growing by the second.
“I had Hawkes tend to it some time before we left for Marsham Heath,” Hannibal said, moderately composed once again, enough to scowl at Anthony’s grin and Thomas Marlow’s frank curiosity. “I found it too distracting.”
“Distracting,” Will said, stirring his soup, confounded. “That set is your grandfather’s favorite, Hannibal. It had no lack that I could see.”
“I found it threatening,” Hannibal said with a sniff, tugging at his neckerchief.
“Threatening,” Will said, watching him. “A silver set?”
“It was quite indecent,” Hannibal said, gathering his dignity around him lest it all fall to tatters in the course of their conversation. “Decadent, even!”
“Decadent silverware?” Anthony mused, his twinkling eyes skating from Hannibal’s face to Will’s, which was fixed with incredulity.
“Yes,” Hannibal said, compelled to defend himself. “The spoons were especially salacious! How is one expected to hold rational conversation at a table filled with lascivious silverware, hm?”
Will restrained his amusement with difficulty, just watching Hannibal bluster from across the table. He brought a spoonful of soup up to his mouth, his eyes fixed on Hannibal in enjoyment as he tasted it.
There was an immediate swell of desire that bubbled up through the bond as Hannibal watched him, his arguments regarding suggestive spoons dying on his perfect lips.
“It’s neither here nor there,” Mina was saying, her chatter keeping their guests engaged. “It can always be sorted again, can’t it? There are so many sets here, you could change them every day, if needs be!”
Will slid his spoon from between his full lips, amused by the way Hannibal’s eyes tracked the motion. He licked his lips and Hannibal shifted in his seat, clearing his throat again.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t,” he said to his sister, cocking his head to regard the spoon before lifting his dancing blue eyes to Hannibal’s, “if there is some quality to the silver that inspires moral decrepitude.”
Hannibal shifted again, a flush on his high cheeks as he admitted, “It appears to be a quality invested in any tableware we have, provided it is in your perfect hands, Will.”
“Why, Hannibal,” Will said, a smile teasing his lips. He cocked his head, pleased when Hannibal smiled in return, unrepentant and delighted. “What on earth could you possibly mean?”
“Children,” Roland said, the note of warning belied by the amused smile on his lined face.
“It appears the problem does not originate with the silverware in the least,” Hannibal said, paying the favor back to Will with a taste of his own soup. Will had to admit, it was moderately more distracting than he’d first thought to watch Hannibal’s lips slide around the silverware. It brought a forceful reminder from his vivid imagination of that same precise movement not an hour before as Hannibal bent his head to Will’s groin.
He twitched in his seat, staring at Hannibal’s tongue as it flicked to chase a drop of soup from his lower lip. He was nearly not paying attention to his husband’s words at all when Hannibal said, “It turns out I appreciate them all with equal fervor when they are put to such excellent use.”
Will’s surprised grin became a pleased, raspy laugh, his amused exasperation growing with every knowing glance exchanged between Hannibal and himself, much to Grandfather’s delighted observation.
“That is an entirely odd thing to say, Hannibal, dear,” Mina remarked, exchanging a confused look with Thomas. “Do you appreciate the salacious spoons, or do you wish to be rid of them?”
“Yes, I think, is the answer to that, Mina,” Will replied with another throaty chuckle, and returned to his soup with gusto under Hannibal’s watchful eyes.
It made for a pleasant, enjoyable meal, their party small enough to allow light conversation and catching up between them. They had only just finished the main course when there was somewhat of a commotion out of sight. Mr. Hawkes left to investigate, his expression thunderous, but he returned with near immediacy, his face drawn with concern as he moved to Hannibal’s side. Will saw him hand Hannibal a folded message as he leaned down to murmur something into Hannibal’s ear.
Mina, Anthony, and Thomas took not notice of it, involved in their banter as they were, but Will felt a sudden spike of fear through his bond when Hannibal read the note, strong enough that he cautiously asked, “Hannibal?”
“It’s too early,” Hannibal said, his voice strained and hoarse. He passed the paper to Grandfather, who skimmed it and handed it to Will with a shaking hand, a scowl darkening his lean face.
“Excuse me,” Hannibal said, rising with minimal fuss, his movements tight and short.
Will unfolded the message, written in ragged, feminine hand, the anxiety as sharp as the peaks and dips of the letters crossing the page.
‘We have come to Chelsea House. Forgive us, we didn’t know where to go. Alana is in labor and we need you.
“Is something the matter?” Anthony asked, confusion chasing the smile from his face as Hannibal tossed his napkin down.
“Everything is fine,” Will said, tucking the note into his jacket as Hannibal rushed out of the dining room. “Please, let’s enjoy the rest of dinner. Mrs. Pimms has made her prize-winning sponge cake for dessert and I, for one, should hate to miss it.”
“Will,” Grandfather said, shaking his head only slightly, a wish rather than an order.
“I will return in a moment, Grandfather,” he said, laying his napkin aside and giving the older Alpha’s hand a light squeeze. “If you will excuse me?”
He rose with Mr. Hawkes on his heels. Once they were clear of the dining room, he stopped and asked, “Has Mr. Berger gone up?”
“His Lordship will have called for him already, my Lord,” Mr. Hawkes said, the pair of them joined by Mrs. Henderson, who wrung her hands in distress.
“Have two horses saddled and waiting on the drive, Mr. Hawkes,” Will quietly instructed “Have you the train schedule we returned with?”
“Yes, my Lord, I’ll fetch it right away!” Mrs. Henderson said, rushing off to do just that.
“Mr. Hawkes, if you could please send Mr. Berger the train schedule when you’ve finished?” Will asked. “And please fetch me before his Lordship leaves?”
He moved swiftly back towards the dining room as Mr. Hawkes called after him, “Yes, my Lord.”
It was agonizing to sit through Mrs. Pimms’ lauded sponge cake when Hannibal was so deeply disturbed and agitated upstairs. Grandfather valiantly took the burden of conversation on himself, entertaining them with stories of the family that kept their guests in cackling laughter.
Will heard little of it. He kept one eye on the dining room door, growing more restless by the moment. When Mr. Hawkes finally motioned from the doorway, Will stood in a surge of nervous energy, murmuring, “excuse me,” as he swiftly left the dining room.
Hannibal came rushing down the stairs as Will reached them, already dressed for travel, his coat billowing out behind him with the speed of his descent. Berger followed in his wake, the train schedule clutched in one gloved fist, his face grim with concern.
Will came to a stop, breathing deeply to calm his shaky nerves. Just the sight of Hannibal so tense and worried sent a pulse of pain through his heart, no less than the fear that slithered through his bond like a creeping shadow.
Berger scooted past them both, heading for the front door to ensure the mounts were ready for their departure, too wise to embroil himself in their private discussion.
“Will,” Hannibal said, spying him there and moving to reach him. “I am so sorry—”
“Hannibal, no,” Will said, the even calm in his voice pausing him, his amber eyes shaded with worry. “You can hardly control an emergency. You are needed there.”
Hannibal flinched. His voice was hoarse when he asked, “As I am needed here?”
Will smiled and reached out, the brush of his fingers light against Hannibal’s cheek, but even so faint a touch was enough to drain the tension out of his husband’s shoulders. Hannibal tipped his face to that touch, clasping Will’s hand to his cheek with a soft sigh.
“Can you ever doubt it,” Will murmured, smoothing his thumb over the stark curve of Hannibal’s cheekbone. “Of course you are, Hannibal.”
Hannibal turned his head, inhaling against the soft skin of Will’s wrist to gather his scent.
“Gods, I am half a mind to take you with me,” he said, rubbing against Will’s hand, a dangerous, silken cat purring to his touch.
“There is hope, isn’t there?” Will whispered. Sympathy for Alana and Margot both rose to the surface, sympathy for the fear that they must be feeling after everything they had already lost. He knew that were he in their place, he too would want Hannibal there for support.
“There is always hope,” Hannibal said, allowing himself to linger in these last few precious moments with his mate before they were parted yet again. “I will do what I can to ensure nothing more goes wrong than Nature intended.”
Sudden determination lit his amber eyes then, a kind of grim somberness overcoming him as he said, “Go to my suite after dinner, Will. I’ve left a pistol in a lock box for you. The key is in my tray.”
“I trust you can shoot?”
Will nodded and Hannibal mirrored him, relieved.
“Good. I want you to carry it with you at all times, Will. You may never be unarmed, my love, but a bullet is far more convincing than a trout.” He trailed off with a pained, crooked smile, amber eyes weary and filled with yearning. His voice was thick with emotion when he whispered, “Stay safe in my absence, Will. Do nothing impulsive or dangerous until I am home to be frightened by it.”
“You’d best come back quickly, then,” Will said, turning his fingers against Hannibal’s cheek to brush beneath his jaw, skimming the places where his scent was heaviest. “Go safely and come back to me, Hannibal.”
“A faithful heart will always bring me back home,” Hannibal whispered, kissing the pulse in Will’s wrist. “I will always return to you, Will.”
Will smiled and slid his hand to Hannibal’s chest, closing his eyes to feel the pump and thump of it beneath warm skin and firm muscle. His home, fragile and finite and caged in bone, but his to its depths, singing to his touch and beating the syllables of his name.
“Send word,” he whispered, slitting his eyes open.
“I will,” Hannibal promised, pulling Will’s hand to his lips.
“And give my regards to Miss Bloom and Miss Verger. I do hope for the very best outcome for them and the baby,” Will said, motion at the corner of his vision showing him Thomas Marlow and Anthony watching them, lingering in the hallway on their way to take brandy with Grandfather.
“I will tell them,” Hannibal said, knowing they had an audience and not caring in the least. He pulled Will against his chest and hugged him close, pressing a gentle, loving kiss to the rim of his ear, engulfing him in strength and his earthy Alpha scent.
“Be careful, Hannibal,” Will whispered, taking a shaky breath, his calm vanishing in a flood of anxiety for him, in a rush of tenderness for the Alpha he claimed as his own. He hugged Hannibal with all of his strength, as if the force of his affection might shield his husband from circumstances and events outside of his control. “Do your very best for them.”
“I will,” he breathed again, brushing his mouth over Will’s in a brief, sweet kiss.
Before the warmth of his body had faded he was gone, leaving Will silent and trembling at the foot of the stairs, a solitary figure with his fingers pressed to his mouth, holding Hannibal’s parting kiss to his lips.