Hampshire, England 1857
WILLIAM RICHMOND, the Earl of Claren, frowned at the letter he held. Threats and blackmail. Well, it seemed an old enemy had reappeared, but which one? He placed the letter on the large wooden desk and studied the missive for clues. Such careful wording and thinly veiled threats marked the author as someone with knowledge of both his current personal life and his former occupation.
William sighed and leaned back into the chair, allowing his gaze to roam over the book-lined study. There was little point in trying to read, as concentrating would be impossible. His brows drew together as he returned his attention to the offensive letter. Blackmail. After all these years, it made little sense. There were no immediate demands, but mentioning his family, specifically his son, Thomas, had gained his attention. No doubt, the demands for money would follow.
A loud bang on the study door caused him to jump.
“I have your tea, my lord.” The young maid staggered across the room, balancing the laden tea tray.
He tossed the letter into the drawer and cleared a large space on his desk. It was best to aid the girl, or he was liable to end up wearing the tea.
“Thank you, Betsy. Tell Mrs. Pritchet I will not be requiring anything else this evening.”
“Yes, my lord.” She bobbed a curtsy, turned, and bumped into the wingback chair by the fireside before stumbling out the door.
He sighed and shook his head. He should have his housekeeper dismiss her. Shortsighted, clumsy, and none too bright, she was quite unsuitable. Why did she have to be so cheerful and eager to please all the time? It made it impossible to order her departure.
With deliberate care, he poured himself some tea and added cream and sugar, but the small distraction didn’t last. Blackmail. Why now? He threw the spoon onto the tray. Nine years prior, he had carefully erased all evidence of his covert identity. Well, the proof was right there in the drawer that he had done a damn poor job of it.
He snatched the brandy decanter from the sideboard and added a generous dash to the tea. Heat seeped from the cup to warm his hands as he stared at the flickering flames in the fireplace. His family was in danger.
The blackmailer could only threaten two people—his mother and his son. His father and brother were gone, dead before their time, and he’d be damned if he would sit back and allow the blackmailer to threaten his son. Motherless since birth and only seven years old, Thomas made life worth living. The muscles in his jaw tensed as he clenched his teeth. To threaten his son was a grave error of judgment. He narrowed his eyes.
Once found, the coward would not live long enough to beg for mercy.
FROM ATOP a dappled gray pony, Thomas gestured toward the beach. “Papa, there’s something large on the sand. The storm must have washed it in. May we go and see what it is?”
With a twitch of the reins, William turned his horse. A brisk breeze ruffled his hair as he scanned the shoreline. Overnight, the storm had battered the coast, littering the sand with seaweed and debris. On the sand by the rocks lay a long, dark object, most likely a log or a tree branch. Thomas loved to investigate flotsam. No doubt, they would find an item or two to add to the fine collection of sea treasures he kept in the old nursery.
“You may, but ride slowly down to the beach. There’s bound to be storm debris upon the path.” With the barest of movements, he urged his well-trained horse to follow his son’s pony. “It appears quite large, Thomas.”
“Perhaps it’s a pirate’s chest filled with gold and jewels. If I claim it as mine, I’ll be as rich as you, Papa!”
“Indeed.” He smiled at Thomas’s exuberance and steered his large black horse from the grass-covered hillside to the well-trodden beach path. His horse, Blackguard, could most likely travel the familiar route blindfolded. And a good thing too, as William’s mind was certainly not on the task at hand.
That damned letter. The previous afternoon, he had visited the village, seeking information. He had questioned Billy Wharton, the blacksmith’s youngest son. Billy had delivered the letter to the manor house and had received a coin or two from a stranger to complete the errand. However, the boy recalled few details of the man save his “gentleman-like speech” and his dark-colored hair. Billy’s father had confirmed the description and commented on the stranger’s fine horse.
“Papa, look! It’s a man. He’s…. I think he’s dead.”
William’s heart raced as he looked toward the beach. The image of a different body upon the sand, washed in and abandoned by the waves, flashed before his eyes. He gasped for air as the line between present and past blurred. Once again, he saw that cold, lifeless body with unseeing eyes. Eyes that still managed to stare accusingly at him. Eyes that haunted his dreams.
No! No, it’s all my fault. Alec.
I’m sorry, Alec. So sorry….
His focus snapped to his son—to the present—and then slid to the motionless man on the sand.
No. Not Alec. A stranger.
He drew in a deep breath to steady himself. “Don’t touch him, Thomas.” With a sharp tap of his heel, he urged his horse to a faster pace, covering the last stretch of sand in seconds.
After dismounting, he joined his son beside the motionless figure lying facedown upon the sand. The man’s sodden clothes lay in tatters, but they were clearly the attire of a man of some means. The ripped white silk shirt revealed a muscular back and arms covered in bruises and abrasions. A man of means, certainly, but with a muscular physique, he was perhaps not the average pampered gentleman.
After removing the leather glove from his right hand, he applied pressure to the vein in the unconscious man’s neck. A faint pulse fluttered beneath his fingers. Good, he was still alive. With his hands beneath the man’s shoulder and hip, he rolled the cold, wet figure over.
The breath caught in his throat. Beautiful. The man was beautiful. Like an alabaster stone statue, strong jawed, pale, and… beautiful. No other word would suffice.
The injuries did little to detract from the smooth skin and perfect symmetry of his features. A nasty gash slanted across the man’s forehead to disappear beneath dark blond hair, and numerous ugly black and purple bruises surrounded the wound, standing in stark contrast to the deathlike paleness of his face.
He pushed back the wet hair from the young man’s forehead before trailing his fingers down the ice-cold cheek. So pale. So—
“Is he alive, Papa?”
He jerked upright and snatched his hand away. “Yes. Yes, he still clings to life, but we must make him dry and warm.” He shook his head. What was he doing? The blackmail letter had unsettled him, addling his brain and leading to foolish thoughts. It was a… pleasant face. On an exhale, he relaxed his tense shoulders. Yes. Pleasant. The man appeared perhaps five and twenty years old and had a… pleasant face.
He swallowed the lump in his throat before turning to Thomas. “Hold Blackguard steady, and I will lay the gentleman across the saddle.” Seawater dampened his jacket as he wrapped his arms around the damp torso and hauled the man from the ground. Not a lightweight, but not too heavy. He draped the man over the large horse, legs on one side and head hanging over the other.
Thomas vaulted onto his pony and then turned to his father. “Will it hurt him to lie like that?”
“It’s not ideal.” He settled his hand on the man’s back. “But I’m afraid it can’t be helped. We must take him back to the house as soon as possible. You ride Star and hold Blackguard’s reins to lead him home. I will walk beside him to ensure the gentleman doesn’t fall.”
The short journey home seemed endless. The young man’s battered back, head, and arms dangled upside-down beside him as they steadily trod the beach path. Had he fallen overboard from a ship? Those wounds most likely came from battering against the jagged rocks of the rugged coastline.
A cold gust of wind slapped against his face, sending a shiver down his spine, and his fingers grew numb where they braced against the man’s bare back. Like a leech, the frigid skin beneath his palm sucked the remaining warmth from his bare hand. He must have dropped his glove on the beach, but a missing glove was of little consequence. A tightness gripped his chest. The man could so easily have died… and may yet. Flexing his fingers, he prayed they were not too late to save him.
Years ago, he’d been unable to save Alec, and he’d had to live with the consequences. He couldn’t help but feel this was a second chance. Save this man—save Alec. It was an irrational thought, but he couldn’t shake it from his mind.
Upon entering the stable yard, he called for the stable master.
Thomas joined in as he slid from his pony. “Baines! Come quickly. We have found a man near dead.”
With the speed of a man half his age, Baines rushed forward to steady the horses. “My lord?”
“We found him half-drowned on the beach. I need to get him inside.”
“How can I help, my lord?”
William strode to the other side of his horse. “Just keep Blackguard steady.” As he grasped the unconscious man’s hips, he averted his gaze from the pale strip of skin exposed by a large rip in the black trousers. With a grunt, he pulled the man from the saddle and hoisted him over his shoulder. Damn. Perhaps he had underestimated the man’s size.
With his load in place, he headed for the nearest entrance to the house. “Thomas, inform Mrs. Pritchet of the morning’s events. She’ll know what needs to be done. I’m taking him to the blue bedchamber.”
As William moved through the house, his burden weighed heavily against his shoulder. His thigh muscles protested, and progress slowed as he mounted the stairs. Almost there. At the bedchamber door, he paused to catch his breath. He was getting old. One kick of his boot-clad foot propelled the door open, and with one last surge, he crossed the room and lowered the young man to the four-poster bed. The man’s moan of pain was a welcome sound as it whispered across William’s ear.
With efficiency, he stripped the tattered shirt from the injured man before tugging at the one remaining boot. It was difficult to fathom how the boot had not ended up at the bottom of the ocean. Amid the swirling current, it must have clung on for dear life. With a final sharp pull, the boot came free, and he dropped it to the floor.
Trousers next. He grabbed the waistband and released the fastening. Wet linen clung to battered skin as he pulled and tugged, sliding the cloth over hips and legs. Averting his eyes, he drew the covers over the naked man.
As he settled the blanket over bare, muscled shoulders, his gaze sidled back to the pale face. Blond hair, darkened by blood, lay across the deep forehead wound, sticking to the raw flesh. William’s forefinger trembled against the pale skin as he nudged the hair from the jagged edges. Lips tinged an unnatural blue-gray color twitched, drawing his eyes to focus on a full lower lip.
The bedchamber door opened.
Vertebrae cracked as he jerked upright and stumbled back from the bed.
Clutching an armload of towels and a bowl of water, Mrs. Pritchet bustled into the room, Thomas close on her heels. The rotund housekeeper paused for a second to survey the scene. “We must dry him, clean and salve the wounds, and then keep him warm. Mr. Pritchet has gone to fetch the doctor, and Betsy will be along shortly to light the fire. My lord, if you could dry the gentleman, I’ll tend to his wounds.” She grasped a large white cloth by its corners and pushed it beneath the bedcovers near the young man’s hips. He was not quite sure what she intend—
No wait! He tensed as she whipped the bedcovers away, exposing…. The breath left his lungs with a whoosh. Ah, yes of course, a modesty cloth. Well, good. Not that it mattered. Not at all. He had seen his fair share of injured men in various states of undress. This man was no different. No different at all.
After selecting a towel from the pile, he moved to the foot of the bed. Careful of the many abrasions, he rubbed and dabbed the cloth across the young man’s feet, moving upward over calves, knees, and thighs. Avoiding the cloth-covered groin, he moved to the man’s muscular torso and arms. As he set about his task to aid the young man, a silent and solemn-faced Thomas observed closely.
Some would find an earl’s involvement in the young man’s care unusual, but Cranfield Manor was an unusual household. William’s former occupation made him wary of prying eyes, and as a consequence, he kept the household staff to a minimum. Only a few trusted servants resided in the house, while the other workers journeyed to and from the local village each day.
Mrs. Pritchet finished tending to the large forehead laceration, then handed the glass jar to him. “There now, my lord, if you could apply salve to the smaller wounds, I’ll go and see what’s keeping Betsy. The girl should have been here with the makings of a fire by now.”
Mrs. Pritchet gestured toward Thomas who stood at the end of the bed. “Perhaps Master Thomas could run downstairs to await the doctor’s arrival?”
Thomas shifted from one foot to the other.
Yes, his son needed a task. Something to keep him occupied. He gave a sharp nod.
Quick as lightning, Thomas scampered from the room with Mrs. Pritchet close behind.
The door closed with a loud click.
His heart began to pound. Apply salve to the wounds. Breathe in. Breathe out. With his fingers groping for the jar’s opening, he stepped closer to the bed. The man’s pale, smooth skin lay before him, stretched taut over the curves of shoulder muscles, arms, and chest. The brutal bruises and raw scrapes merely highlighted the flawlessness of the underlying skin.
After a deep breath, he proceeded to apply salve to the scrapes and bruises covering the young man’s face, neck, and shoulders. Although his injuries were numerous, only the large forehead gash appeared serious. With a slight tremor in his hand, he continued to soothe salve across the injuries. His fingers tingled as they rasped across the salt-encrusted stubble of the young man’s jaw. A firm, strong jaw. A sharp razor would soon see the skin smooth again. He lingered, his fingers tracing the curve of—
The door opened.
“Mrs. Pritchet!” He snatched his hand away and leaped to his feet. “I see you have found Betsy.” He thrust the jar of salve into her hands and stepped away from the bed. “Well, I will leave him in your capable hands. I have… matters to attend to. I will return after the doctor has examined him.”
Before Mrs. Pritchet could answer, he spun on his heel, strode from the room, and fled toward the stables.