On the way back, Vander hoisted Charlie onto his shoulder and the boy slung a thin arm around Vander’s neck and chattered about horses and smithies all the way back up the hill. Charlie had decided that he would like to be a blacksmith. Vander didn’t point out that a hereditary title and its estate could not be renounced in favor of a smithy. He was living proof that a member of the peerage need not restrict himself to lounging about ballrooms.

“I could make crutches for people like me,” Charlie told him.

“From steel? They’d make an awful racket on the cobblestones.”

Advertisement

“But wood isn’t as strong. You could swing a steel crutch and take someone’s head off,” Charlie said, with relish. He was a boy, through and through.

Even as Charlie happily nattered on, resolve was slowly growing in Vander’s mind. Sir Richard Magruder had ruined his damned life, as surely as if he’d swung a steel crutch at his head. And Vander meant to pay him a visit that very night.

“Aunt Mia says we’re moving back to Carrington House,” Charlie said, out of the blue. He was clutching Vander’s hair to keep his balance.

“Yes. But you’ll pay me frequent visits, as often as every day, if you’re not at school.”

“I will?”

Vander gave the legs dangling against his chest a squeeze. “You’re mine, Squinty.”

-- Advertisement --

“I don’t squint!” Charlie squealed.

“I’m preparing for when you do,” Vander told him. “Looking ahead.”

Charlie gave his hair a tug. “I want to live here, with you. I want to go to the stables every day.”

Vander reached up, lifted him over his head, and set him down. Then he crouched down so they were at eye level. “You have to go away to school, Charlie. You’ll be going to Eton with other boys. But you’ll be luckier than they are, because you’ll have two fathers: Mr. Reeve and me.”

Charlie’s mouth twitched.

“He’s a good man,” Vander said, hating every word. “Your Aunt Mia will be his wife. But never forget that your estate runs alongside my lands. We will see each other often, for the rest of our lives.”

Charlie stepped forward and with the great simplicity of childhood, put his arms around Vander’s neck. He didn’t say anything.

And Vander didn’t say anything either.

After a while, they continued on their way. They talked about how a blacksmith was the heart of a great estate. Charlie would need to know these things.

Vander had the feeling that professors didn’t know how to run estates. Why should they? “A good smith will say that a ‘job well done is a job never seen again,’” he told Charlie, keeping an eye out to see if the boy was starting to flag from overdoing it. But his leg was visibly stronger, just in the last week.

They returned to the stables and stayed there until Thorn showed up, walking from his carriage with that loose-limbed ferocity of his. He didn’t say a word about what had happened. Instead, the three of them got grubby washing down Jafeer, and ate roughly cut ham sandwiches with the grooms while discussing training schedules and other important things.

When Charlie had been dispatched to the care of Susan, Vander jerked his head at Thorn. “Sir Richard had Mia’s fiancé—Reeve—thrown in prison under false charges. He was about to be sent to Botany Bay when he escaped.”

“Reeve? Edward Reeve who made that paper machine I told you about?”

Vander nodded.

“I never knew the name of your wife’s betrothed.”

“Not my wife for long,” Vander said, striding into the house. “She will be Reeve’s wife, which is the way it should be.”

“Right.” There was something guarded in Thorn’s voice, but Vander ignored it.

“Sir Richard?” Thorn asked, following him into his bedchamber.

Vander nodded. The time had come. He stripped, then donned a black shirt and close-fitting trousers that went to his ankles.

“My breeches and coat are dark, but my shirt won’t do. Have you another black shirt?” Thorn asked.

“This will be dangerous. Your wife is carrying a child.”

Thorn’s response to this was a curled lip, and after a moment Vander tossed him a shirt like the one he’d put on. Then Thorn left to collect his matched pistols, left in his carriage, and Vander took his own Bennett & Lacy pistols from the gun cabinet. They were overly embellished for his taste, with the ducal insignia picked out in silver, but their aim was true.

It would take approximately an hour to reach Sir Richard’s estate, on the far side of the Carrington lands, if they went across country on swift horses. If there was one thing Vander’s stables could supply, it was swift horses.

He had thought to take his usual mount, but as he walked down the central corridor of the stable, he heard a soft whicker. Jafeer’s head appeared over his stall door. His eyes shone with lonely, surprised betrayal. Mia hadn’t come to the stables before she left.

“Saddle up Jafeer,” Vander instructed Mulberry. “And Ajax for Mr. Dautry.”

“Are you certain about Jafeer, Your Grace?” Mulberry had clearly appraised Vander’s attire and guessed that something was afoot, not much of a leap, given the pistols tucked into Vander’s belt. “He still tends to shy at the slightest thing.”

“He’ll be fine.” Vander could see it in Jafeer’s eyes. The horse had known love back in Arabia and lost her; he had known love here in England and lost her. He had won his first race. Jafeer had grown up.

A half hour later they were flying straight across Pindar fields, and Jafeer was responding to every touch of Vander’s knees and hands as if he had been born with a man on his back.

The moon was rising by the time Vander slowed Jafeer to a walk, Thorn pulling up Ajax behind him. The horses were breathing heavily, but Jafeer’s ears were twitching with delight and the willingness to gallop through the night.

They had reached the border of Sir Richard’s land. They picked their way quietly through the surrounding wood, finally stopping at the edge of a long, rolling lawn.

Vander dismounted, tied Jafeer to a tree, and told him to be quiet. Thorn followed suit, and they melted into a clump of ash trees.

He had a shrewd notion that Sir Richard kept men on guard all night. He likely had enemies of every stripe. Sure enough, as Vander came closer, he saw that there was a man standing beneath the front portico, his outline just visible when the moon came out from behind a cloud.

Thorn touched his arm and nodded toward the shadow cast by a man leaning against the side of the house. There were likely at least two more guards inside the front door.

At that moment, the moon emerged fully from the clouds and Vander saw the cruel face of the man guarding the front door. He had the bone-chilling air of a man who would kill for a triviality, for a baked potato.

Vander gestured with his hand parallel to the ground, and Thorn nodded. Silently, slowly, they sank to a sitting position against a tree and waited for something to happen, something they could take advantage of.

For an hour or perhaps longer, the grounds were utterly silent. More clouds drifted by, causing the moon to be obscured more often than it shone. The man in front took a piss off the steps, but no one made a circuit of the house. In fact, neither man stirred, which Vander took to mean that Sir Richard wasn’t worried about the house being broken into from the rear.

-- Advertisement --