Oliver Sharpe, sixteen-year-old heir to the Marquess of Stoneville, left the stables at Halstead Hall with his heart in his throat. His mother had ridden off toward the hunting lodge in a fury, and Oliver rarely saw her like that. Mostly, she was just sad . . . unless something monumental set her off.
Like finding her son acting in the basest fashion imaginable.
Mortification swamped him.
You’re a disgrace to this family! she’d cried in a voice of sickened betrayal. You’re behaving exactly like your father. And I’ll be damned if I let him turn you into the same wicked, selfish creature as he is, sacrificing anyone to his pleasures!
Oliver had never heard his mother curse, and the fact that he’d driven her to do so chilled him. Was she right about him? Was he becoming just like his careless and debauched sire? The very thought made his stomach roil.
Worse yet, she was now riding out to lay his sins at Father’s door, and Oliver couldn’t stop her since she’d ordered him to stay out of her sight.
But someone had to go after her. The only other time he’d seen her in a rage was when she’d first discovered his father’s infidelity, when Oliver was seven. She’d set fire to Father’s collection of erotic books in the courtyard.
God only knew what damage she would wreak now that she believed her son was following in his father’s footsteps. Especially with the house party in full swing.
As Oliver rounded the walls of the semifortified manor that was their country home, he spotted a familiar carriage coming up the drive, and his heart leaped. Gran! Thank God she’d arrived; Mother might actually listen to her own mother.
Oliver reached the front of the house just as the carriage stopped. Hurrying forward, he opened the door for his grandmother.
“Well, now, isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” she said with a warm smile as she stepped down. “I am glad to see you have not lost your courtly manners like some young rascals your age.”
Normally he’d make a witty retort and he and Gran would spar a little, all in good fun. But he couldn’t manage it today, not with fear riding him.
“Mother is angry with Father.” Offering his arm to escort her to the house, he kept his voice low. The servants mustn’t hear. Half the world already gossiped about Father’s infidelities—no need to feed the sharks more chum.
“That is nothing new, is it?” his grandmother said dryly.
“This time is different. She’s in a rage. She and I quarreled, and she rode off toward the hunting lodge alone.”
“Probably looking for him.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. You know how he likes to bait her. If he’s there, she’s liable to do anything.”
“Good.” She flashed him an arch smile. “Perhaps she’ll destroy that wretched lodge. Then Lewis will have nowhere to take his little whores.”
“Blast it, Gran, I’m serious!” When she lifted an eyebrow at his language, he bit back an oath. “Forgive me, but this isn’t like usual. You have to go after her, talk to her, calm her down. It’s important. She won’t listen to me.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
He colored. “Of course not.”
“Don’t lie to your grandmother. What was your quarrel with your mother about?”
How could he tell her? He cringed every time he thought of it. “It doesn’t matter. Just believe me when I say she needs you.”
Gran snorted. “Your mother hasn’t needed me from the day she was born.”
“See here, Oliver,” she said, patting his hand as if he were some child, “I know you’re close to your mother, and it upsets you to see her angry. But if you give her time alone to let her anger run its course, she’ll be fine, I swear.”
“No, you’ve got to—”
“Enough!” she snapped. “It’s been a long, hard trip, and I’m tired. I need a hot cup of tea and a good nap. I’m in no mood to involve myself in your parents’ quarrels.” At his look of desperation, she softened her tone. “If she hasn’t returned by nightfall, I promise I’ll go after her. You’ll see—she’ll be back long before then, full of apologies, and this will all be forgotten.”
But his mother never returned. That night at the hunting lodge, she shot his father and then herself.
And Oliver’s life was never the same.
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 blue-green 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.”