Oliver stared out the window of the library at Halstead Hall. The dreary winter day further depressed his spirits as he fought to shove his painful memories back into the stout strongbox in which he kept them. It was so much harder here than in town, where he could lose himself in wenches and wine.
Not that he could lose himself for long. Though the scandal was nineteen years old, there were still whispers of it wherever he went.
Gran had told the guests that night that Mother had gone to the hunting lodge to be alone and had fallen asleep. Awakened by sounds of what she thought was an intruder, she'd panicked and shot him, only to discover that the man was her husband. Then, in her shock and grief, Mother had turned the pistol on herself.
It was a flimsy tale at best to cover up a murder and a suicide, and the whispers never quite subsided since the guests had been eager to speculate on the truth. Gran had ordered him and his siblings not to speak of it to anyone, even each other, from that day forward.
She'd said it was to stifle the gossip, but he'd often wondered if it was because she blamed him for what happened. Otherwise, why reverse her decree in recent months to question him about the quarrel between him and Mother that night? He hadn't answered, of course. The very thought of telling her turned his stomach.
Whirling away from the window, he paced beside the table where his siblings sat waiting for Gran. This was precisely why he avoided Halstead Hall — it always put him in a maudlin mood.
Why in God's name had Gran asked to have her blasted meeting out here? He'd kept the place shut up for years. It stank of must and rot, and was chilly as the Arctic besides. The only room lacking dust covers was the study where his steward did the work of running the estate. They'd had to remove the covers in here just to have this meeting, which Gran could have held perfectly well at her house in town.
Normally, he would refuse her request that they troop out to his neglected estate. But ever since his brother Gabriel's accident three days ago, he and his siblings had been skating on thin ice with her. That was made more than clear by Gran's uncharacteristic silence about it. Something was afoot, and Oliver suspected it wouldn't be to their liking.
"How's your shoulder?" his sister Minerva asked Gabe.
"How do you think?" Gabe grumbled. He wore a sling over his rumpled black riding coat, and his ash-brown hair was mussed as usual. "Hurts like the devil."
"Don't snap at me. I'm not the one who nearly got myself killed."
At twenty-eight, Minerva was the middle sibling — four years younger than Jarret, the second oldest; two years older than Gabe; and four years older than Celia, the baby. But as the eldest girl, she tended to mother the others.
She even looked like their mother — all creamy skin and gold-streaked brown hair, with ivy-green eyes like Gabe's. There was virtually no resemblance between those two and Oliver, who'd inherited the coloring of their half-Italian father — dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin. And a dark heart to match.
"You're lucky Lieutenant Chetwin pulled back in time," Celia pointed out to Gabe. She was a slightly paler version of Oliver, as if someone had added a dollop of cream to her coloring, and her eyes were hazel. "He's rumored to have more bravery than sense."
"Then he and Gabe make a good pair," Oliver growled.
"Lay off of him, will you?" Jarret told Oliver. Closest to being a blend of their parents, he had black hair but bluegreen eyes and no trace of Oliver's Italian features. "You've been ragging him ever since that stupid carriage race. He was drunk. It's a state you ought to be familiar with."
Oliver whirled on Jarret. "Yes, but you were not drunk, yet you let him — "
"Don't blame Jarret," Gabe put in. "Chetwin challenged me to it. He would have branded me a coward if I'd refused."
"Better a coward than dead." Oliver had no tolerance for such idiocy. Nothing was worth risking one's life for — not a woman, not honor, and certainly not reputation. A pity that he hadn't yet impressed that upon his idiot brothers.
Gabe, of all people, ought to know better. The course he'd run was the most dangerous in London. Two large boulders flanked the path so closely that only one rig could pass between them, forcing a driver to fall back at the last minute to avoid being dashed on the rocks. Many was the time drivers pulled out too late.
The sporting set called it "threading the needle." Oliver called it madness. Chetwin had pulled back, yes. But Gabe's rig had caught the edge of one boulder, breaking off a wheel and subsequently turning the phaeton into a tangle of splintered wood, torn leather, and twisted metal. Thank God the horses had survived, and Gabe had been lucky to get out of it with just a broken collarbone.
"Chetwin insulted more than just me, you know." Gabe thrust out his chin. "He said I wouldn't race him because I was a coward like Mother, shooting at shadows." Anger tinged his voice. "He called her the Halstead Hall Murderess."
The familiar slur made the others stiffen and Oliver grit his teeth. "She's been dead for years. She doesn't need you to defend her honor."
A stony look crossed Gabe's face. "Someone's got to. You won't."
Damned right he wouldn't. She'd done the unthinkable. He could never forgive her for that. Or himself for letting it happen.
The door opened and their grandmother entered, followed by the family solicitor, Elias Bogg. They collectively sucked in a breath. The presence of an attorney boded ill.
As Bogg took a seat, Gran stopped at the head of the table, a look of utter weariness etching lines in her already fully etched face. A new sort of guilt stabbed Oliver. She looked even older than her seventy-one years these days, as if the weight of her responsibilities had stooped her shoulders and shortened her height.
He'd tried persuading her to step down as head of the brewery that their grandfather had founded. She needed to hire a manager, but she refused. She liked the work, she said. What was she to do, stay in the country and embroider? Then she would laugh at the idea of a brewer's widow doing embroidery.
Perhaps she had reason to laugh. Hester "Hetty" Plumtree was what many would call "common." Her parents had kept the tavern where she'd met her husband, and the two of them had turned Plumtree Brewery into an empire big enough to afford the finest schools for Oliver's mother, Prudence. Big enough to enable Prudence to snare an impoverished marquess for a husband.
Gran always reveled in the fact that her daughter had managed an alliance with one of the oldest branches of English aristocracy. But she could never hide the taint of "trade" clinging to her own skirts. It crept out at odd moments — when she enjoyed a spot of ale with her dinner or laughed at a bawdy joke.
Still, she was determined that her grandchildren become what she could not: true aristocrats. Gran hated their tendency to outrage the society that regarded them as the ne'er-do-well spawn of a scandalous couple. Due to her struggle to move her family up in the world, she felt entitled to see the fruits of that labor in good marriages and fine great-grandchildren, and it angered her that none of her grandchildren were rushing to accommodate her.
Oliver supposed she had some right to feel that way. Though she'd often been absent during their youth, busy running Plumtree Brewery after her husband died, she was the closest thing to a mother the younger ones had ever had. That was why they adored her.
As did he, when he wasn't fighting with her over money.
"Sit down, Oliver." She fixed him with her sharp blue gaze. "Your pacing makes me nervous."
He stopped pacing, but didn't sit.
With a frown, she squared her shoulders. "I have made a decision about you children," she said, as if they were still in leading strings. She scanned the room, her voice growing steely as she said, "It is high time you settled down. So I am giving you a year, during which matters will remain as they are. Then I mean to cut you off — every single one of you. You will be cut out of my will, as well." She ignored their collective gasp. "Unless..." She paused for effect.
Oliver ground his teeth. "Unless what?"
Her gaze turned to him. "Unless you marry."
He should have expected this. At thirty-five, he was well past the age when most men of rank took wives. Gran often bemoaned the fact that there was still no heir to the title, but who in their right mind would want to see this benighted line continue? His parents had married for money, and the result had been disaster. No matter how low Oliver's finances sank, he wasn't about to repeat the error.
Gran knew how he felt, and for her to use his siblings to ensure that he danced to her tune was a painful betrayal.
"You would leave my brothers and sisters destitute just to get me leg-shackled?" he bit out.
"You misunderstand," she said coolly. "When I say 'you,' I mean the whole lot of you." She turned her gaze to include his brothers and sisters. "You must all marry before the year is out, or say good-bye to your inheritance. What is more, I will let my lease on the town house lapse, since I only stay there because the girls are there. There will be no dowries for them, and I will no longer foot the bill for Gabe and Jarret's bachelor quarters in London and the stabling of their horses. If you five do not marry, that is the end of my support. You will be Oliver's responsibility and Oliver's alone."
Oliver groaned. The cumbersome estate he'd inherited scraped by, but it was far from self-sufficient.
Gabe shot up from the table. "Gran, you can't do that! Where will the girls live? Where will Jarret and I live?"
"Here at Halstead Hall, I suppose," she said with no apparent remorse.
Oliver scowled at her. "You know perfectly well that's impossible. I would have to open the place up."
"And God forbid he do that," Jarret said, with a note of sarcasm. "Besides, he's got the income from the estate to support him. So even if the rest of us do as you ask, he doesn't have to, so we'll be penalized when he refuses."
"Those are my terms," she said coldly. "They are not negotiable, my boy."
No matter what Jarret thought, Gran had to know that Oliver wouldn't let his siblings suffer. She'd finally found a way to make them toe her line: use their affection for each other, the one constant in their lives.
It was brilliant. It was diabolical. And probably the only scheme that would work.
Jarret might tell her to go to hell if it were only him involved, but he wouldn't sentence his sisters to live as spinsters or governesses. Minerva, who made a bit of money from her books, might thumb her nose at Gran's terms and attempt to live off her earnings, but she also wouldn't sentence the others to poverty.
Each of them would worry about the others. Which meant they would all feel compelled to do as she commanded, even Oliver.
"You could make this place self-sufficient if you wanted," she pointed out. "Perhaps if the five of you split the duties of running it..." She paused to shoot Oliver an arch glance. "Or if your brother took more of an interest in it, instead of leaving it to his steward and spending his days wenching and drinking, it might bring in enough to keep you all comfortable."
Oliver suppressed a hot retort. She knew why he could barely stand the sight of the place. Father had married Mother for her money so he could save the precious family seat, and Oliver would be damned if he let this blasted estate and everything it represented destroy him as it had his parents.
"I happen to know," Gran went on, "that Oliver sold the last unentailed piece of family property to pay off several debts that you gentlemen jointly accumulated, since I refused to cover them. There is little left to sell that is not entailed. You need what I can provide, if you are to continue to live comfortably."
Deuce take her for being right. With the town house and his brothers' lodgings gone, his siblings would have no choice but to move in here. Even Oliver was without a place at present — the property in Acton that she'd spoken of had been his home until recently. He'd been staying with his brothers while he figured out what to do. But he hadn't planned on having the estate support them all, as well as his brothers' future wives and children.
No wonder Gran had managed to run a brewery with such success for the past twenty-two years. She was a Machiavelli in skirts.
"So who would inherit Plumtree Brewery?" he asked. "Do you mean to say you wouldn't leave it to Jarrett, as Grandfather wanted?"
"I'd leave it to your cousin Desmond."
As Jarret groaned, Minerva cried, "You can't leave it to Desmond. He'll run it into the ground!"
Gran shrugged. "What do I care? I will be dead. And if you won't take the necessary measures to make sure that it stays in your family, then it really doesn't matter where it goes, does it?"
Celia rose in protest. "Gran, you know what Desmond will do. He'll hire children and work them to death." Celia volunteered with a charity that fought to improve child labor laws — it was her passion. "Look at how he runs his mills. You can't leave it to him."
"I can leave it to whomever I please," Gran said, her eyes cold as slate.
Surely she was bluffing. She hated Desmond as much as the rest of them.
Still, she'd never been the bluffing sort. "I suppose you've chosen our mates for us, too," Oliver said bitterly.
"No. I leave that to you. But you will not settle down unless I force your hand; I have indulged you all too long. It is time you do your part for the family, which means providing the next generation to carry on my legacy."
Celia dropped heavily into her seat. "It's not as if Minerva and I can just pick a husband at whim. A man has to propose marriage. What if no one does?"
Gran rolled her eyes. "You're both lovely ladies who turn heads wherever you go. If you, Celia, would stop trouncing your brothers' friends in shooting matches, one of them would probably offer for you in a trice. And if Minerva would stop writing those ghastly Gothic novels — "
"I won't do that," Minerva protested.
"At least take a pen name. I don't see why you must go about acknowledging the fact that you are the author of such disreputable stories, scandalizing everyone you meet."
Her gaze shifted to Jarret and Gabe. "As for you two, you could actually attend a ball occasionally. Jarret, you do not have to spend every night in the gaming hells, and Gabe..." She let out a weary sigh. "If you would only stop racing any fool who challenges you, you might have the time to seek out a bride. You lads are perfectly capable of enticing respectable women to marry you. You never seem to have trouble coaxing whores and actresses into your beds."
"Oh, God," Gabe muttered, his ears turning pink. It was one thing to bed a whore and quite another to have one's grandmother remark upon it.
She fixed Oliver with a steady look. "And we all know that your brother has a considerable advantage: his title."
"And the trade of title for money ended so well for our parents," Oliver said sarcastically. "I can see why you're eager for me to repeat the transaction."
When pain slashed over her face, he ignored the twinge of guilt in his chest. If she meant to force them into this, then she'd have to accept the consequences.
His mother's last words to him clamored in his brain. You're a disgrace to this family....
A chill coursed down his spine. Abruptly he walked to the door and opened it. "May I have a private word with you in the hall, Gran?"
One gray brow flicked upward. "If you wish."
As soon as they were away from the others, Oliver faced her down. "Inflicting me as a husband on some hapless woman won't change anything."
"Are you sure?" Gran met his gaze steadily, her blue eyes softening. "You are better than this aimless life you lead, Oliver."
God, if she only knew. "This is what I am. It's time you accepted it. Mother did."
She paled. "I know you do not like to speak of what happened that day — "
"I don't," he cut in. "And I won't." Not to her or anyone.
"You will not speak of it because you blame me for it."
"That's not true, blast it!" He blamed himself alone. If only he'd ridden after Mother as soon as she'd gone missing. If only he'd pressed Gran harder. If only, if only, if only...
"I don't blame you for anything in the past. But I will blame you for this."
"Surely even you can see that something must be done."
"Why? Minerva and Celia will marry eventually, and Gabe and Jarrett are just sowing their wild oats. Given time, they'll settle down."
"You have not."
"Why is it different?"
"Why are you suddenly so determined to push this matter of our marrying?"
"Answer my question, and I will answer yours."
So that's what she wanted — to force him into a confession of his sins. Well, she was never getting that from him.
"Someday, Oliver," she went on when he remained silent, "you will have to talk about what happened that day, if only so you can put it behind you."
"I have put it behind me." Turning on his heel, he strode for the door.
As he jerked it open, she called out, "I am not changing my mind about the inheritance or the rest of it. Marry or lose everything."
When he froze with his hand on the knob, she came up to stand in the doorway and sweep her gaze over his siblings inside the room. "I am tired of hearing you children called the Hellions of Halstead Hall in the scandalsheets. Of reading that my youngest granddaughter has once again horrified society by appearing at some shooting match." She leveled a glance on Gabe. "Or that my grandson nearly lost his life in a race. This will end now."
"What if we agree to behave more discreetly in the future?" Oliver snapped.
"Not good enough. Perhaps if you five have someone else depending on you — a spouse and children — you will finally learn the value of what you have."
"Damn it, Gran — "
"Stop cursing at me, Oliver. This is the end of the discussion. Mr. Bogg will explain the particulars of my demands and you may ask him your questions. I must attend a meeting at the brewery."
She walked off down the hall, her cane briskly tapping along.
The minute Oliver reentered the room, his siblings turned to Mr. Bogg. "She doesn't mean it, does she?" said one. "How could she do this?" said another. "You must talk her out of it," said a third.
Bogg sat back in the antique chair, which creaked in protest. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. After Lord Gabriel's injury, she became determined not to watch her grandchildren die before they do their duty to the family."
"You see what you've done, Gabe?" Celia cried. "You ruined everything!"
"It's not about Gabe," Oliver said wearily. "It's about me. She doesn't want to lose the title and position that she fought so hard to gain for her family. She means to make sure one of us chaps carries it on."
"Then why force me and Celia into it?" Minerva asked.
"Forgive me, your lordship," Bogg put in, "but you're wrong. She worries about all of you. She wants to make sure you're well settled before she dies."
Oliver's head snapped around. "Dies? Is Gran ill?" That possibility tied his insides into a knot. "Is there something she's not telling us?" It would explain the suddenness of her scheme.
Bogg paused before shaking his head. "She's merely tired of waiting for you five to provide her with greatgrandchildren."
Now that Oliver could easily believe.
Bogg cleared his throat. "Have you any more questions?"
"Just one," Oliver said. "Did she really not stipulate whom we could marry?" He had an idea how to thwart her mad scheme.
"No stipulations on that score. But there are other rules."
Oliver listened as the man detailed those, one of which was that they must marry in England and not engage in a "havey-cavey Gretna Green elopement." Apparently she worried about such a marriage being disputed in court. Fortunately, none of what Bogg said would affect the plan forming in his mind.
After Bogg finished his duty and left them to their misery, Minerva appealed to Oliver. "You must convince Gran that this is insane. I don't see why I should put up with a husband when I'm perfectly content with my life as it is."
"I'm no more eager to marry than you are, Minerva," Jarret growled. "Next thing you know, she'll have me running the bloody brewery. And that is the last thing I wish to do."
"I say we move in here and show her that we don't need her money," Celia exclaimed. "Do as she says, run the estate together — "
"Yes, because you know so much about running an estate," Gabe shot back.
"Celia has a point, though," Minerva put in. "If we show her we can manage perfectly well on our own, she might rethink her plans. Besides, if we're going to end up here eventually anyway, we should start getting used to it."
"God help us." Jarret shot Oliver a hard look. "You don't want us moving in here, do you?"
Oliver sighed. "I'd just as soon never see the place again. Unfortunately, Celia's idea is sound. If we live here, we'll call Gran's bluff. We can invite her to visit, let her see what fruit her nonsense will bear if she goes through with it."
He struggled to contain his revulsion at the thought of living at Halstead Hall again. But it would only last until he could bring his plan to fruition; then life could go back to normal.
"In the meantime, I have another trick up my sleeve," he went on. "It's risky, but it might force Gran's hand. She hasn't fully thought this through, and I mean to make her realize that. I still have money left from the sale of that last property, and here's what I propose...."
Copyright © 2010 by Sabrina Jeffries, LLC