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The Fortune Hunter







Bonnie Dee




SMASHWORDS EDITION


Copyright © 2018 by Bonnie Dee

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.

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Chapter One

London, October 1920

From the moment Julian’s cousin Margaret Gresham introduced her new fiancé to Julian, he distrusted the charming man. Halstead Wiley was glib, overly friendly, too ingratiating, and far too attractive with his dark auburn hair and striking green eyes. His smooth voice and sparkling smile made the hairs on Julian’s neck rise and an inner voice warn Liar.

But Julian managed a smile as he firmly clasped the man’s hand in the foyer of Julian’s town house. The brush of flesh started a flush of warmth in his groin to match the rising of his hackles. Unexpected, unwelcome attraction warred with distrust in an unsettling stew.

Julian didn’t display either emotion in front of Margaret, who beamed. “I’m so glad to finally introduce the two men dearest to me.”

“How do you do, Mr. Wiley?” Julian said.

If Wiley was a liar, he didn’t betray it by any shiftiness of expression. His gaze locked on Julian’s as they shook, the smile never leaving his handsome mouth.

Enticing? Julian banished the inappropriate thought.

“Pleased to meet you at last, Mr. Needham. Margaret has told me so much about you.” The baritone, smooth as fine whiskey, made Julian want to savor the sound.

Funny she didn’t mention you at all until today. No doubt Margaret had feared Julian would question her out-of-the-blue engagement to a stranger.

Julian moved near Margaret and slipped an arm around her tall, thin body. “Margaret and I have always been very close. She’s been like a sister to me ever since she and Aunt Gladys came to live with us.”

“And what I would’ve done without Julian after Mother passed, I can’t imagine. He was my rock.” The love shining in Mags’s hazel eyes quite melted Julian’s shoe-leather heart. There was no guile in his generous, good-natured cousin. Damned if he’d let some upstart take advantage of her trusting nature to win her wealth.

Julian returned his attention to the interloper. “Welcome to my home, Mr. Wiley.”

“Hal, please. I insist on the informality. We shall be practically brothers soon, and I want us to be the best of friends.”

Julian led the way to the sitting room. His ex-butler would be horrified to know Julian now answered his own door, but at thirty, Julian had decided to live life exactly as he pleased. That included having a minimum number of servants to look after his house, none of them live-in. His nights were his own. He could invite whomever he wished to stay for as long as he wished with no curious eyes watching. It was once considered eccentric to live without a staff, but this was an age of change. The strict traditions of the upper class were becoming obsolete.

Julian cast a glance at the stranger clasping Margaret’s arm. The sight of that possessive hand sent a flare of annoyance through him. It hurt that Mags hadn’t written him to tell about her new love. When had they become so distant she would fail to inform him the moment she became infatuated? Julian knew the answer but didn’t choose to think about it. He ushered his guests into the parlor and offered brandy all around.

“To the happy couple. May you have many long and fruitful years together.”

“Hear, hear.” Mr. Call me Hal, we’re practically brothers Wiley drained his glass too quickly. Perhaps he was more nervous than he let on.

Margaret fixed Julian with her clear gaze that always could see right through to his heart. “This is a bit of a shock, isn’t it? I should’ve written, but it all happened so quickly.”

Julian searched for something positive to say about that. “It happens that way. Love takes one by surprise sometimes.” Never to me, but to some people, or so they claim.

“I first laid eyes on my dearest Mags at a bookstore where she gave me her opinion on The Return of the Soldier,” Wiley said. “I knew immediately she was a woman of substance and intellect. Very different from the flighty Bright Young Things that are all the rage these days.”

At least he didn’t swear he’d been seized by her beauty, for then Julian would know he was lying. There was no way around it. Margaret was plain-faced. Julian’s estimation of Wiley rose a little at his admiration of Margaret’s keen mind.

“What did she have to say about the book?” Julian asked.

“That it was a vivid representation of three very different types of women, and the male protagonist became rather a shade in comparison. His character changed depending on how he related to each of the ladies in his life.”

Margaret sipped her drink and looked fondly at her fiancé. “I was privileged to hear the author, Rebecca West, speak once. She is an extremely forward-thinking woman in all regards. I wish I had her talent for writing.”

The conversation flowed from topic to topic, comfortable and natural as it always was with Margaret. Julian started to relax and think perhaps his instant harsh judgment of Wiley was due to jealousy over losing a portion of Margaret’s heart. If she had truly found love in this ridiculous world, who was he to challenge it?

Then Wiley said something that turned those warm feelings to ice. “When we move to New York, you must come and visit us.”

Julian clutched his glass tightly. “You’re considering moving to the States?”

Margaret laughed. “Calm yourself. It’s hardly the moon. The passage now takes less than a week. We shall see each other again, perhaps more than we have these past few years while living in the same city.”

The reminder that he’d avoided her invitations and seldom made room for her in his schedule was upsetting. If she got snatched up by a stranger who planned to whisk her away to a foreign country, Julian had no one to blame but himself for not paying better attention. Perhaps there was a good reason for the proposed move, some career opportunity Wiley pursued, but until Julian knew more about the man, he wouldn’t feel comfortable about the abruptness of this plan to leave London. Fortune hunters seemed to be on the rise since the Great War, and a woman of independent means such as Margaret was a desirable target.

“Have you written to Mother and Father?” Julian asked. “They will be so pleased to meet Mr. Wiley. We should all go to Barton Park next weekend. Perhaps I’ll contact some of the more distant relatives, and we’ll make a family gathering of it.” Julian offered Wiley a challenging stare. “Do say you can make room in your schedule.”

*

“That sounds like a capital idea. I can’t wait to meet the family,” Hal proclaimed with a frozen smile. He’d known he’d eventually have to meet the Needhams. There was no avoiding it. But an entire weekend with the lot of them?

“I’ll wire Mother and Father and arrange it. They refuse to enter the twentieth century and install a telephone.” Julian Needham continued to weigh Hal with his gaze. “What about your side? Aren’t there some family members I should invite? No time like the present to introduce all parties.”

Hal’s smile faded, and he bowed his head. “Sad to say, I’ve no one with whom to celebrate the happy news. I’m an only child, and my parents are dead.” Which could be true as far as he knew.

It would take very little for Needham to snip away at the fragile threads of his web of lies until it collapsed. A question or two to the right people, and Halstead Wiley would be revealed as plain old Hal Stanton, an orphanage-raised lad with nothing to recommend him.

Margaret’s hand covered his. Hal turned his palm up to entwine his fingers with hers. She truly was a dear. The fact that he liked her would mean nothing to Needham if the man learned Hal was marrying the twenty-eight-year-old spinster in order to feather his nest. If Margaret hoped their married life would contain passion, she’d be disappointed. Hal could put on a good show and occasionally fornicate for the sake of making the children they both desired, but he would never be attracted to her the way she might wish. The least he could do would be to keep his wedding vow to “cherish her and cleave only unto her,” which meant no more sex of the sort he craved. His natural inclination attracted Hal to men like his potential brother-in-law with the soulful smoke-gray eyes and full, kissable lips.

Was he the very devil for consigning Margaret to a loveless match? Probably. But it seemed homely, opinionated, progressive Margaret Gresham wouldn’t have found a husband anyway. Perhaps she’d even agree that comfortable coexistence with a good friend was better than being alone.

Hal stopped trying to make excuses for his behavior. It was done. He’d offered a secondhand-store ring, and she’d accepted. Now he just had to get her to the altar before his past was uncovered.

He glanced up from under lowered brows to see Julian still watching him. Julian nodded slightly. But it felt less like a sympathetic gesture at Hal’s announcement of being orphaned than a silent challenge.

Game on. We’ll see who flinches first.

Chapter Two

Julian alighted from the trap that had brought him from the train station to his parents’ home. They owned no motorized vehicle, clinging to the technology and conventions of the previous century. Not that they could afford either an automobile or electricity anyway. The days of a large house staff and a full stable at Barton Park had passed. There remained only several horses and the head groom.

“Thank you, Carroll. I can get my own bags.”

The elderly groom grunted as he hoisted out the luggage. “I guess I can still do me own job, sir.” Shoulders sagging from the weight of carrying a suitcase in each hand, he plodded stiff-legged toward the house.

Julian gazed at his home for a moment. He hadn’t been here in well over a year. The front door paint was scarred and faded, the walls stained from years of rainwater trickling down, and ivy scrambled up the foundation as if trying to drag the house into the earth. Although the ancient building was exactly the same, it looked different after such a long absence. Then Julian realized, the only difference was in himself.

He’d once loved arriving home on school holidays or after a long stretch of city living. Now he dreaded entering the house, seeing his parents and accepting their embraces. What a wretch he was. The longer he’d stayed away, the harder it became to face them. James haunted the very air around them.

For Margaret, he reminded himself as he mounted the steps beneath the portico and entered the great hall. The entryway to the nearly medieval structure wasn’t as cavernous as it had seemed when he was a child. But it was still quite imposing. Unfortunately, the red Oriental carpet was threadbare, and dust kittens prowled along the walls. The paintings and their gilt frames could both do with a good cleaning, while a large speckled mirror reflected a wavy, distorted version of his face. Still, the familiarity made him heartsick for times gone by. He abruptly missed James with a fierceness that stabbed his heart.

Julian barely had time to compose himself before Grover shuffled in to take his hat and coat. The butler appeared even older than Carroll and impossibly stooped and thin. Julian wanted to clap him into a wheelchair and roll him back to the butler’s pantry to rest.

But Grover’s acid wit had not diluted with age. He peered at Julian with gimlet eyes. “Good day, sir. Who may I say has come to call?”

“Funny,” Julian replied as soon as he’d decided Grover’s mind wasn’t clouded and he knew full well Julian was the prodigal son returned at last. “Are Mother and Father in the drawing room?”

“It is nearly four o’clock,” Grover replied.

Julian’s parents’ routine hadn’t changed a jot in forty years. They always met in the drawing room at four. When James, Julian, and Margaret were small, they were brought down from the nursery to spend an hour with their parents at that time. Later, when the boys were home from school on holidays, this family hour was still considered sacrosanct. No excuse of having other things to do was allowed.

As Julian followed Grover’s slow path to the drawing room, he reviewed what news from his life he could offer his parents. As a youth, he’d come prepared with all the tales from school suitable for telling. But if he feared getting into trouble for his latest bad behavior, he’d turn the conversation to James, who could be counted on to distract the parents for the duration. They never tired of hearing of his accomplishments. What a brick James had been, the very best brother a fellow could wish for.

With the bittersweet memory in mind, Julian entered the blue-hued room, where Father read a newspaper in his armchair, head tilted to look through his spectacles, bald head shining. Mother sat slumped in the chair across from him. Her eyes were closed, a book resting facedown on her lap.

Julian froze in shock. He could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen his mother sleeping. She did not catnap in the afternoon, nor was her hair nearly snow white and thin upon her scalp. Surely such a drastic change couldn’t have taken place in such a short time. Guilt devoured him at allowing his parents to slip into old age without him in attendance.

These thoughts passed through his mind in the time it took for Father to look up from his paper and Mother to startle awake with a most unladylike snort. Her gaze remained unfocused for a moment, then a smile curved her lips. “Julian, my darling, you’ve arrived at last.”

The time was precisely what he’d informed them it would be in his telegram, but he returned her smile and went to help her from her chair into his arms. Her body felt light as thistledown, but she smelled of lily of the valley as always, sweet and familiar.

Julian then shook hands with Father. The scent of pipe tobacco was also exactly the same. “Good to see you, sir.”

“Is it? One wouldn’t know from the rarity of your visits. But then you always did do just as you liked.”

Julian refrained from mentioning the train ran both ways, which would only serve to remind Father the distance could be traveled in a couple of hours. Julian truly had no good excuse for his long absence.

He sat and accepted a glass of sherry Grover poured for him. “How have you both been? In good health, I hope.”

The next half hour was occupied by a litany of aches and pains followed by news of neighbors and the distant relatives, none of whom had been able to come on short notice, which was just as well—if things ended between Margaret and her fiancé, Julian didn’t want her embarrassed any more than need be.

When his parents’ store of gossip ran out, the inevitable questioning began.

“Have you been in good health, dear?” Mother asked. “Tell us your news.”

“I’ve been occupied,” he answered vaguely. “The economic climate has required a shift in investment strategies.”

Mother shook her head. “It’s beyond me how you understand the intricacies of the financial world. I never doubted you had a head for it, but somehow I believed you’d use it here to help with running the estate.”

A fresh stab of guilt lanced through him. As the oldest son, James had been slated to take over after Father passed. Julian should have stepped up to fill his shoes, but he’d remained away while Father had been forced to sell parcels of land, keeping only the house and a little acreage.

“Have you made time for a social life amidst all this work?” Mother continued. “Met any young ladies you could envision as your wife?”

“I’m afraid I plan to remain a bachelor. Don’t count on any grandchildren from me. You’ll have to look to Margaret for that,” Julian answered firmly. “Speaking of which, I have doubts about this fiancé who’s sprung from nowhere. My solicitor is looking into his background.”

The permanent lines in Father’s forehead deepened. “You believe him to be a fortune hunter.”

“I couldn’t say, which is why I’ve suggested Margaret bring him home. It’s past time she introduce him to you, but also I hope to ferret out who the devil he is.”

“Glad to see you looking out for your cousin’s well-being and showing some responsibility to your family at last.” Naturally Father could only offer a backhanded compliment.

Mother clicked her tongue. “Stop it! Couldn’t you imagine a man might actually have fallen in love with Margaret? She has many lovely qualities that would attract the right sort of person, a man of quality.”

“I adore the girl, peculiar as she may be with all her suffragette nonsense,” Father said. “But it is our duty to make quite certain her fiancé is worthy of her.”

“I’ll be circumspect,” Julian added. “He will never know he’s being examined, and with any luck, my fears will prove unfounded.”

But he highly doubted that would be the case. When he’d shaken Wiley’s hand and looked into his eyes, he’d sensed a certain flicker, that instant flare of attraction he was all too familiar with. It was a subtle signal that passed between men of a certain kind that allowed them to take a chance on revealing their true desires to each another. Under other circumstances, such a moment might lead to a lusty encounter in some secluded place. Feeling that rush of interest come from his cousin’s fiancé was not a good sign. If Wiley preferred men, he was not a good match for Margaret.

Julian guessed before the weekend visit was over, he and Halstead Wiley would cross metaphorical swords. He prayed he could get rid of the man in a way that wouldn’t injure Margaret’s tender heart too badly.

Chapter Three

Drawing up in front of the Needham house on the curved driveway, Hal felt as if he ought to be arriving in a carriage and four rather than Margaret’s Daimler motorcar. The sprawling limestone house was a convoluted collection of roof peaks, turrets, and wings added on over the years. It looked like a castle, proclaiming nobility dwelt within and an outsider like him would never belong.

Hal didn’t resent the upper class their wealth, power, and prestige. He merely wanted to become one of them. Was that so awful? A friend had once come to Hal’s flat begging a sanctuary to spend a night or two. The stay had turned into something more like two months. But Hal certainly understood that desire to lay down the burden of constant struggle to survive and find a quiet, comfortable resting spot.

Margaret would be his safe place, and he would be hers, making certain she never wanted for companionship. In return, he’d have a nice house, good food, and a fine wardrobe. He would guard her fortune as if it were his own, spending wisely and increasing it shrewdly. He wouldn’t be a burden but a life companion in an easygoing, if chaste, arrangement.

He got out of the passenger side of the car, and Margaret came around to join him. “What do you think? The house may appear grand, but don’t let the battlements fool you. Inside, it’s quite shabby. Despite a respectable family name, my aunt and uncle aren’t wealthy by any means.”

Hal tucked her hand through the loop of his arm. “I’m not nervous. I’m quite ready to meet them and explain why I’ve fallen in love with their one-of-a-kind niece. This must have been a wonderful place to grow up with all those nooks and crannies to explore.”

“It truly was. Mother and I could have afforded to stay in our own home after Father died. But I’m so glad we came to live with Aunt Agnes and Uncle Harold; otherwise, I never would’ve had brothers like Julian and James.” She frowned. “After nearly two years, I still have trouble thinking of James in the past tense.”

Hal recalled James had survived France but died in the influenza epidemic almost immediately upon his return home. He put an arm around Margaret and hugged her. “You must miss him terribly.”

“His passing has been difficult for me but nearly killed my aunt and uncle. They’re still mourning. And Julian…” She shook her head.

“Misses his brother and perhaps blames himself for being alive,” Hal guessed. “I understand that feeling, having lost many comrades at the front.”

Margaret stopped at the doorstep and turned to him, eyes shining. “You survived because God had more for you to do in this life. He brought you to me, for which I am ever grateful.”

Hal hated himself just a little more at her declaration. When he’d begun this plan, he’d imagined landing a wealthy older widow who knew the score and didn’t mind so long as she had a handsome young husband to show off to her friends like a trophy. But then he’d met Margaret. He’d been so taken with her blend of sweetness and assertiveness that it had seemed possible to make a sham marriage work. Now he was stuck with the plan he’d devised.

The door opened before they knocked. A stooped older man with a paunch swelling his waistcoat greeted them. “Welcome home, Miss Margaret.”

“Hello, Grover. You’re looking very dapper today. I’m so glad to be back. I’ve missed home these past months. May I present my fiancé, Mr. Halstead Wiley.”

The butler bowed. “Good day, sir. Welcome to Barton Park.”

Hal almost returned the bow, then recalled his proper standing and nodded politely instead. “I’m happy to be here.”

Grover escorted them to the drawing room, where Mr. and Mrs. Needham and Julian were already gathered. Hal assessed the room before following Margaret inside. Pale blue walls and rug offered a sense of tranquility and the room was not overly cluttered. The dark, heavy pieces of furniture from an older century didn’t fit the pale color palette that suggested a more chic, modern décor.

Margaret’s aunt and uncle rose to greet him. The outdated style of Mrs. Needham’s gown didn’t detract from her aura of grace and refinement as she offered her hand. “Mr. Wiley, we’re pleased you could come. Darling Margaret is the daughter we never had, and we were eager to meet the man she’s chosen.”

“Quite so,” Mr. Needham said.

Hal wasn’t certain if he was meant to shake Mrs. Needham’s hand or kiss it. The customs of the gentry weren’t familiar to him. He gave a polite press before letting go, then turned to offer a hearty shake to Mr. Needham. “The pleasure is mine. Your niece is a prize.”

“Yes, she is.” Mr. Needham gave Hal an assessing look with gray eyes very much like his son’s.

Hal scanned the rest of the room to find Julian standing near the window. Sunlight burnished his brown hair with golden highlights. His well-cut profile with its straight nose and strong jawline was haloed in light. When he turned his stern gaze toward Hal, a little hum of anticipation awoke within him.

Hal squelched this reaction to a man he considered an adversary. Needham had invited him here to poke holes in his story, so he must be on guard every moment not to give himself away. If this wedding were to be called off, he’d be jobless and desperate again. One would expect work to be plentiful in the aftermath of the Great War with so few veterans returning, but the economy was in shambles. Odd jobs were all Hal had been able to find, spurring him to his mad scheme to land a wealthy woman.

He offered a bright smile. “Good to see you again, Mr. Needham.”

As much as it wasn’t, it actually was. Needham intrigued Hal, not only his physical demeanor but his affectionate manner with Margaret and his magnetic presence. Had they met under other circumstances, he and Julian might have been friends—or probably something more than friends, for Hal guessed “confirmed bachelor” Julian shared his attraction to men.

Hal dragged his thoughts away from the sorts of activities they might have gotten up to in another time and place, as he sat beside his betrothed on a sofa. “You have a lovely home,” he complimented his hosts. “Its history must be fascinating.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Needham said. “Barton Park was built in 1640 and belonged to several families before the Needhams took possession.”

Her husband added dryly, “You may learn the entire history on every second Wednesday of the month, when the house is open. I daresay the tour guide is more educated on both the history and the architecture than we are.”

“Tours?” Julian abandoned his spot by the window to stride across the room with long-legged grace. “When did this begin?”

“Surely I mentioned this in one of my letters. A company that arranges tours approached us this past summer,” Mrs. Needham explained. “At first, your father refused to speak with their representative, but when we learned other owners of other estates were allowing tours, we decided to give it a go. It’s a respectable way to share one’s heritage and is little trouble at all. Thus far, the tourists, both domestic and foreign, have been orderly and respectful.”

“Not at all annoying having strangers troop through one’s home,” Mr. Needham continued in his sub-Saharan tone. “And you’d know about this if you paid the least attention to what your mother writes, or if you came for a visit every so often.”

Julian stood before his parents, scowling. “You did not mention this in any of your letters. I’d no idea you’d reached such a…” He glanced at Hal and seemed to reconsider airing his family’s financial business. “That you were considering such a thing.”

“It has become quite common these days for historical houses to be on display,” Mrs. Needham pointed out. “As you’ve said, times are changing.”

“More’s the pity,” the elder Needham growled.

Hal sat very still, wishing he were someplace else and not witnessing this family argument. He’d had no idea the Needhams were in such difficult straits until today. Apparently, their children hadn’t either. Surely Margaret would want to offer financial help, which would cut into the inheritance from her father’s side. He was a horrible person to immediately consider how the Needham family’s misfortune might affect him and his plans.

“Honestly, I think it’s rather brilliant to open the house to tours.” Margaret smoothed the folds of her modish knee-length dress. “Tourists enjoy seeing grand houses from a former century. The building should earn its maintenance at the very least. But if you require more financial assistance, please let me know. I want to do my part for the family.”

Julian Needham quickly added, “I can offer help as well. My investments are doing well enough.”

“We’re not quite destitute, although apparently our home has become a museum artifact to be gawked at by strangers,” Mr. Needham said.

“Thank you, my dears, for your generous thought. But such a discussion is most inappropriate at this celebratory occasion.” Mrs. Needham turned her attention to Hal. “Tell us how you two met.”

“We were both browsing at a bookstore. I shared a recommendation with Hal, and we talked for hours. You can see how that conversation ended.” Margaret turned her beaming smile on Hal. “Or never ended, for we always find something to discuss.”

“I was taken with Margaret from the moment we met. She manages to be both imaginative and levelheaded at the same time. One doesn’t let a quality woman like Margaret slip away.”

“Your family approves the arrangement?” Mr. Needham probed.

Hal seized a quick breath before plunging into his embroidered history. He hadn’t tried to pretend to Margaret that he came from any sort of gentility, instead inventing middle-class parents of modest means.

“My parents have passed, and I have no extended family. But I’m certain both Father and Mother would have welcomed Margaret with open arms.”

“Tell us about your parents,” Needham senior pushed.

“My father owned several shipping concerns. But in one year, a freighter was lost at sea and another seized by pirates. This put a great strain on his fortune and took a toll on his health.” Hal patted his chest, indicating possible heart failure or a broken heart. Let them decide which. “He passed away within a year, and my dear mother followed soon after. I believe she couldn’t face life without him.”

Mrs. Needham gave a soft murmur, and Margaret reached to pat Hal’s hand. He bowed his head, hoping he wasn’t overdoing the drama.

“Were you left penniless then?” Julian’s tone was cool and less than sympathetic.

“Julian!” Mrs. Needham exclaimed at his shocking ill manners.

“It’s all right, Mrs. Needham. It is quite reasonable to wonder about the stranger your niece has brought home. I should have followed custom and asked permission for her hand.” Hal offered an apologetic smile, then continued trying to reassure them he had nothing to hide.

“I invested the small inheritance I received and have increased it over the years, so I live quite comfortably. I won’t pretend to be more than I am. I come from a middle-class background, and I’m in love with a woman who is clearly above me. But I care for Margaret very much.”

The last part at least was true. Hal took her hand, gazed into her eyes, and prayed his selfish intentions could be forgiven.

Margaret smiled. “As I care for you.”

Julian made a small sound that might have signaled either acceptance or disgust.

Hal darted a sharp glance at him.

“It’s a lovely afternoon. I should like to take you on a tour of the land before supper,” Margaret said.

“Perfect weather for an invigorating walk,” Hal agreed and blessed her for freeing him from the relentless questioning.

“I’ll go with you.” Julian had not taken a seat during the entire conversation, and now he started for the door. “I should like to see how the farms are doing.”

They bid their elders goodbye and entered the hallway. Margaret excused herself to change into proper attire.

Hal had brought no walking shoes and lingered awkwardly with Julian, who scanned him up and down.

“You’ll want a pair of Wellingtons. The fields and woods are muddy. And a drover’s coat to cover this fine wool.” He fingered the lapel of Hal’s jacket, tailored for a gentleman and discovered by Hal in a secondhand store.

Julian stood so near, Hal felt the heat of his body and inhaled the scent of his shaving lotion. Did Julian mean to be intimidating? Probably, because he stared at Hal with the assessing eyes of judge, jury, and executioner.

When Julian at last stepped back, Hal took a deep breath. Unfortunately, the man wasn’t only a barrier to breach, he also unleashed attraction such as Hal hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps Julian sensed his desire and was baiting him to make an impulsive move.

But Hal wouldn’t reveal himself so foolishly. Nothing could come between him and the quiet, calm, comfortable life he craved. He must convince this doubting Thomas before he derailed Hal’s matrimonial plan.

Chapter Four

“Good heavens, Jules, do you recall this spot?” Margaret walked along a stone wall that divided two fields, occasionally stooping to touch one of the lichen-covered rocks. “I know it’s somewhere along here.”

While Margaret examined the wall, Julian walked beside Wiley. The visitor wore a pair of old oversized boots that made him stumble over a hummock. Julian shot out a hand to set him steady, then quickly released the tweed-clad arm as if its warmth had burned him.

“A secret hiding place?” Wiley asked.

“We’d exchange notes with our neighbor, Abner Barry. Or James would place a map leading to hidden treasure to keep all of us entertained for an afternoon,” Julian explained.

“It was the greatest fun.” Margaret pushed back a hank of her shoulder-length hair. She was as pink-cheeked and youthful-looking as when they’d come here on one of their childish adventures. The country air agreed with her. Or maybe it was her fiancé who made her so happy.

Julian slanted a look at the trim figure beside him: the dark fall of hair, the bright green eyes, impossible for a woman to resist. God help the blighter if he was using Margaret. Julian might just plant him in one of these fields, never to be found again.

Hal braced a hand atop the low wall and scraped the bottom of his borrowed boot against the stone, trying to remove traces of a cow pie he’d trod in. Julian smiled at Hal’s disgusted grimace and went to join Margaret in searching for the loose stone with the hollow behind it.

“All the stones look alike now.” She sounded more dismayed than the loss warranted.

As Julian tried to pull loose one stone after another, he began to catch her distraught mood. It suddenly seemed extremely important to find the reality behind this childhood memory.

He recalled a time after he’d had a particularly bad bout of bronchitis. James had placed a treasure here for him. A small thing, only a little cannon from James’s platoon of toy soldiers, but it had brightened Julian’s day like finding a nugget of gold. A sense of loss washed through him, stronger than the one he’d felt when they’d lowered James’s coffin.

“It must be here. We’re just not looking in the right place,” Julian assured Margaret.

“Is this what you’re searching for?” Wiley called.

Julian turned to see the man silhouetted against the sun, a flat stone raised in one hand, a gap in the wall beside him.

Margaret clapped her hands together and ran over with Julian close behind. She stooped and thrust her hand into the narrow alcove. “Oh, my goodness! There’s something here.”

“Not a dead animal or spiders, I hope,” Wiley said.

Margaret spun around and thrust a dirt-encrusted packet at Julian. “James must have left it for one of us, but we never returned here. You open it.”

Julian’s heart went from a steady beat to erratic thumping as he stared at the small oilskin-wrapped parcel. Horror lanced through him. Margaret might well have been handing him a tiny corpse. He didn’t want to touch it, let alone take it from her. But he forced himself to reach out and grasp this final memento from his dead brother.

He unwound filthy string from around it and unrolled the oilskin which had protected the paper inside for God knew how many years. He imagined ginger-haired James, perhaps home from university and whimsically deciding to place a missive in their childhood hidey-hole.

But when Julian unfolded the paper and scanned the note, he realized James had written it much more recently. His heart crumbled as he read.

very sorry

wish we hadn’t parted so

if I don’t return, please remember

Above all things you should know…

Remember me with fondness.

Your devoted brother,

James

The bits in between those key words blurred and were lost to him. James had penned this before taking a troop steamer to France. It was an apology for his part in the argument they’d had before parting.

Julian had been in a foul mood that day, humiliated at being unable to enlist when it seemed every able-bodied man in England was serving. Asthmatic lungs and an irregular heartbeat made him unfit for duty. His frustration and anger had been turned on James over some ridiculous disagreement that meant nothing. It was the last time they’d spoken to one another.

Margaret touched his arm. “What does it say?”

Too overcome to answer, Julian handed her the note and walked away. Such a selfish fool he’d been. After James came home, he should’ve been there to welcome him and reconcile. But Julian had delayed his return for no good reason, and influenza had accomplished what war could not, stealing his brother from him.

Julian jammed his hands in his pockets and strode some distance from the stone wall. He splashed through a puddle, then stopped to stare across muddy fields, already harvested and lying fallow until spring. He firmed his quivering lips and blinked away tears. This was no time to break down. Not in front of a stranger.

Wiley had already witnessed too much family drama. Although, perhaps it was good he’d learned the Needhams had no fortune he could tap. If the man truly was a leech, he should understand Margaret’s respectable income was all she possessed. Maybe he’d abandon her to hunt bigger game. She would be hurt and disappointed, but better a little pain now than a lifetime spent with a liar.

He cast a glance back at Wiley, who had an arm around Margaret and was talking quietly. Was his comforting part of an act or was Julian leaping to conclusions and judging too harshly? Perhaps the man truly cared for Margaret. Maybe every word out of his mouth was golden truth and Julian was simply too cynical to recognize it.

He wanted to believe. It would be lovely for Margaret to have someone at last and wonderful to believe that love truly existed. Julian may have completely imagined the shimmer of attraction in the air between himself and Wiley inside the house.

Determined to give this man the benefit of the doubt for now, Julian squared his shoulders and rejoined the others. Margaret offered him the oilskin packet, carefully wrapped once more. She didn’t comment on the contents, but her soft smile spoke of their shared grief. She pulled him into a fierce hug before letting him go.

“This place brings back so many memories,” she said. “I wonder if Abner Barry still lives on his father’s farm.”

Julian glanced past her at the path winding that direction. “We’re nearly there. We could stop by the cottage and say hello.”

“Oh yes, let’s! I should dearly love to see our friend again if he’s home.” She turned to her fiancé. “Abner is the son of our nearest neighbor and former tenant—until Father sold him the land. We played together as children, whenever the boys and I could escape our lessons and Abner his farm chores.”

Wiley twirled a wildflower he’d plucked. “A bit unusual, wasn’t it, the children from the manor house playing with a farmer’s son?”

“At the time, we never thought of it. There were no other children close to our age. Abner was simply our playmate. That’s how we saw him. The four of us once spent several days working on a small dam in a creek in the bottomland. We were so proud of our accomplishment when it actually worked and a pool formed behind the dam.”

Julian smiled. “Farmer Barry scolded us to hell and back when our construction project actually flooded the high field and reduced the creek to a trickle at the spot where the sheep usually watered.”

Margaret’s laughter pealed through the air. “The boys were forced to dismantle the dam while I managed to avoid any trouble because no adults knew I’d been a part of it. You see, I used to leave my very old governess, Miss Minchon, napping nearly every afternoon and sneak outdoors. Naturally, she would never have allowed me to play with the boys.”

“It sounds as if you had a perfect childhood.” Wiley smiled, but Julian thought his expression was wistful. He wondered what sort of boyhood Wiley had experienced.

“It really was.” Margaret, walking with a long stick she’d picked up, poked it into a gopher hole. “I wonder if Abner has found the opportunity to continue building. I know he and Julian used to dream of constructing great buildings and bridges.”

“You know how life is here,” Julian said. “It would be unimaginable for Abner not to work the land like his father before him.”

As it was unimaginable Julian wouldn’t assume running the estate so Father could step back. He’d avoided his heritage since James’s death, but learning his parents were reduced to cutting staff to a minimum and having house tours, he could shirk his duty no longer.

“There it is!” Margaret dropped her staff and trotted ahead toward the house and outbuildings of the Barry farm nestled in a fold in the land.

Wiley held back, walking apace with Julian. “She seems so happy here. The pastoral life suits her.”

“Mags always did enjoy a long ramble in the countryside. I’m surprised she’s lived in London all this time.” Perhaps she’d been avoiding memories of James as Julian himself had done.

“Ah, but then I should never have met her,” Wiley pointed out.

“Hm.” Julian glanced again at the handsome man, whose eyes seemed even more like emeralds in the bright light. He was too pretty by far for plain Margaret. A disloyal thought, but was it any wonder he had his doubts about Wiley’s motives in pursuing her?

“Margaret is very independent. She has her activities and friends in the city. Living here, I suppose there would be little to keep her occupied. You know she attends women’s suffrage meetings and doesn’t believe the movement is finished simply because they’ve received the vote. She is a strong-minded woman not to be trifled with.”

He let that veiled warning simmer in the air.

Wiley stopped walking and put a hand on Julian’s arm to halt him. The pressure of that hand halted Julian’s breathing for a moment as well. He held utterly still as Wiley spoke.

“Rest assured, I admire your cousin and would never attempt to curtail her activities. When we are married, I expect her to continue on with her cause and the other things she wishes to do. The only difference will be that she will have a partner in life. Please, trust that I wish only the best for Margaret.”

It was difficult for Julian to continue meeting that intense green gaze. He noticed Wiley had said partner but not mentioned the word love at all.

Since Wiley was being blunt, he would do the same. “If companionship is all you mean to offer, you must make it very clear to her before finalizing this union. If she is willing to enter into such an agreement, then I won’t stand in her way.”

He’d as good as said he understood Wiley intended to have a platonic arrangement with Margaret. That was enough to establish for now.

Julian pulled away from Hal’s grip, feeling the imprint on his arm as he headed down the slope toward a stone cottage which had likely stood for as long as the manor house. He spotted a man walking across the farmyard. John Barry had died around the same time as James, so this must be his son fully grown.

“Abner Barry!” Margaret called and waved as she approached him.

Barry stopped, clutching a shovel in one hand and tentatively lifting the other partway. Then he recognized them and waved in greeting.

The fine-looking boy had turned into an even finer man, Julian realized as he drew close. Abner wielded his shovel with strong, sun-browned arms visible below rolled-up shirtsleeves. The sight of his old friend’s compact, muscular body immediately brought Julian back to when his youthful admiration for Abner had been a pricking thorn. Those intangible feelings of heat and longing had confounded him, until much later when he came to understand his true desires.

Memories unlocked from some inner box he’d slammed the lid on flooded through him: summer days in the woods playing with James, Abner, and sometimes Margaret, the innocent joys of childhood evolving into the confusion of youth, followed by the incredible loss of everything—the friendship, the pastoral life, the brother…

Julian watched Margaret rush to meet Abner. A hundred little childhood memories fell into place, and he abruptly realized Mags had been as besotted with Abner as he had been. But like him, whatever feelings she’d possessed remained forever unexpressed. Such an alliance, crossing a deep social chasm, would have been equally impossible for Margaret.

The futility of so many unfulfilled romantic dreams washed over him in a melancholy wave. What was life? A brief flash of time, most of it spent preoccupied with minutia. James’s life had been stolen before he’d had a chance to find happiness or love. Margaret was about to trade spinsterhood for a mere charade of love. And Julian hardly knew what the word meant. Occasionally, he was carnally fulfilled, but he’d never again experienced that pure emotion he’d once felt for Barry. Was love even a possibility for a man with perverse desires?

Wiley had come up beside him, and together they watched the reunion in the farmyard. “Are you feeling all right?” he asked, and those searching eyes studied Julian too intently.

“Fine,” Julian replied and started forward again to meet this paragon from his youth.

Chapter Five

Crossing the muddy, barren field, Hal thought of the last time he’d been in any sort of open land. Born in the city and raised in an orphanage, he’d rarely been away from enclosing walls until the battlefield near Ypres. He could hardly bear the sight of those damned poppies in buttonholes people wore to commemorate the losses of the Great War—which hadn’t been “great” at all. He’d actually been at Flanders Fields, and the symbolism of the bright red flowers didn’t move him. He mostly wanted to forget he’d ever seen or done the things he had during his time as a soldier. The Armistice had been signed two years ago come November. Time to put that evil in the past and carry on with the future.

But even as Hal picked his way through the shorn barley field, an echo of gunfire and men’s screams haunted him. Vivid bloody images flashed through his mind. He cursed his inability to blot out these memories when they occasionally came over him in a storm even now. He forced himself to focus instead on the peaceful farmyard and the trio of old friends meeting once more.

His fiancée had exchanged her chic traveling costume for a mid-calf woolen skirt and thick knit stockings. Her clunky, lace-up brogans were the antithesis of the pretty low-heeled pumps she’d worn on the trip up from London. But this rough country attire seemed to suit Margaret. She positively glowed as she greeted the neighbor man. Needham held back, hands jammed in coat pockets. He only withdrew one when it was his turn to shake Barry’s hand.

Hal thought about the friends he’d had growing up. They’d been as close as boys sharing a dormitory would be, but orphans were dispersed to the winds like so much chaff as soon as they were of age. Like Hal, a number of the fellows had enlisted in 1914 at a mere sixteen years of age. The war gave them purpose and direction—straight to the grave for most of them. He wondered if he’d recognize some of the others if he saw them now. Probably not, and certainly not with the fondness these three seemed to share.

He walked slowly, giving Margaret, Needham, and the farmer time to reminisce and catch up on what directions life had taken them. As he drew close, Abner Barry was telling of his family. “Sally died in childbirth three years ago and our little girl did not survive the day. I haven’t had the desire to remarry.”

“I’m sorry to hear of all your losses.” Julian’s pleasant rumble rolled beneath Barry’s quiet tone. “It is a hard thing to lose those we care about.”

The man took off his cap and pushed blond hair back from his sweating forehead. “I was sorry to miss James’s funeral, but I was at Dad’s bedside at the time.” He smiled at Margaret. “Thank you for your kind note after his death.”

“It was a small enough gesture. We have all lived with too much death these past few years.” Her eyes shone with unshed tears, and she rested a gentle hand on Abner’s arm. “I regret how estranged all of us have become.”

Barry covered her hand with his. “It was to be expected. We were friends as children. Naturally, our adult lives are very different.”

“Still, the postal service is available. We should have kept better informed of each other’s lives.”

Hal watched her expressive face and the way her body inclined toward Barry as she spoke. He was usually in tune to signals demonstrating a person’s inner feelings, and in that moment, he guessed Margaret had once been, and was perhaps still, enamored with her neighbor. He wondered if old emotions might rise again to entice her away from him. But no, as open-minded as Margaret was in many matters, she would only venture so far outside the boundaries of convention. A relationship with such a vast social inferior could not be entertained—which was precisely why Hal had provided himself with an upper-middle-class family in his story.

Margaret beckoned Hal over. “Abner, may I introduce my fiancé, Mr. Halstead Wiley. Darling, this is our family friend and neighbor, Mr. Abner Barry.”

“Good day to you, sir.” A rough hand that had never known a day’s idleness clasped Hal’s. Curious brown eyes assessed him.

Hal attempted to appear worthy of Margaret’s affection. Damn, but this being constantly judged was exhausting. What a relief it would be to return to London, where no one among Margaret’s friends raised questions about his suitability.

“Pleased to meet you. Your farm is very impressive. How many acres?” Hal supposed that was the sort of thing one should ask a farmer.

Barry pointed out the boundaries from stone wall to creek to a far distant tree line. “I have some hired help. It’s hardly a one-man operation.”

“I see you’ve made improvements.” Julian nodded at the house and outbuildings. “Well done. I particularly like the new shed you added. You always did like to build. Remember our destructive dam?”

Abner chuckled. “How could I forget? My father tanned me for that escapade. But it wasn’t only my design. I recall you were equally as interested in architecture.” He gestured toward the stream. “I’m currently constructing an irrigation system to divert water to the upper fields and minimize flooding in the lowlands. With the crops harvested, I’ve finally begun digging and damming and hope to have it completed before the worst of winter sets in.”

“Very impressive,” Margaret praised. “Maybe not the massive bridges you once dreamed of designing, but equally as important.”

Oh yes, she definitely admired the rugged, capable man her childhood friend had grown into.

“If you have time during your visit, I’d love to show you what I’ve done so far.” He noted the men’s boots and Margaret’s sturdy brogans. “Unfortunately, I’m busy right now, but perhaps tomorrow?”

“We’re here through the weekend,” Margaret said. “Perhaps even a few days longer if Hal doesn’t mind. I haven’t visited home often enough recently. It’s a joy to be here in the country again.”

Hal was completely taken by surprise. The last thing he wanted was to extend their stay, but if he pleaded off due to “business” and returned to London, he risked Margaret falling under the influence of her relatives and beginning to entertain doubts about him. It was imperative he remain by her side until they were both safely back in the city.

“Yes, of course, darling. Whatever you wish.”

“I’ve been thinking the same,” Needham said. “I believe I’ll be staying on for a while as well.”

The tiny glimmer of a smile he cast at Hal might have been a glove thrown down in challenge. Needham wasn’t going to let Hal out of his sight. This match was on. But Hal believed he could hold his own in their battle for Margaret.

After bidding goodbye to Barry, they resumed their pastoral stroll. By the time they returned to the house, Hal’s unaccustomed city legs ached from treading over uneven ground.

They parted, each to his or her bedroom, to rest and refresh themselves before supper. Hal stretched out on a surprisingly lumpy mattress under a beautiful embroidered coverlet and stared at the decorative molding and the four posts of the elaborately carved bedstead. He imagined past generations of Needham forebears lying here. How disdainfully they would regard the lineage of its current occupant.

Hal reviewed his invented history to avoid any inconsistencies in his story if it should come up again that evening. But he planned to avoid questions by deflecting the conversation back to his hosts.

More exhausted by the fresh air and long tramp than he’d thought, Hal blinked awake to a darkened room. A distant gong alerted him he should be dressed by now. He sprang up, dressed in his one and only dinner jacket, and went to escort Margaret to the dining room.

The Needhams might consider themselves on hard times, but Hal never would have guessed it from the fine china and silver that adorned the table. Each place setting was meticulously placed as if a servant had measured the distances between cutlery, plate and glassware. The tablecloth was snowy white, and a large flower arrangement graced the center of the table.

Hal recalled the details of proper dining he’d learned from a friend who’d worked as a footman. He knew which utensil to use for which course and in what order to expect them. So many delightful dishes one after another, and this wasn’t even a formal event, merely a family dinner. He could happily become accustomed to such a comfortable life as this and to sharing a table with an actual family, even if it meant keeping up a pretense of being someone he wasn’t.

It was easy to keep a low profile during the meal as Margaret spoke at length about their walk and the encounter with Abner Barry. Hal noticed she didn’t mention James’s letter to his brother. He guessed the childhood hiding spot had never been shared with adults, and he wondered about the contents of the note that had so obviously upset Julian.

“Shall we withdraw?” Mrs. Needham asked Margaret as the meal ended.

“Oh, Aunt Agnes, don’t you believe that custom is rather outdated? None of our gentlemen smoke, and we could all do with a glass of brandy.”

So all of them passed through to the drawing room and arranged themselves in the nicely upholstered but oh-so-hard chairs. They chatted about local friends and sipped liquor until Margaret proclaimed she was exhausted. Hal jumped up, ready to accompany her to her door, then retreat to the blessed solitude of his own room, but Julian stopped him.

“Come with me, Wiley. We’ll play billiards.”

It was a command, not an invitation, which Hal couldn’t refuse. He bid his fiancée and the Needhams good night as they all headed upstairs, and joined Julian in the billiard room. The wood-paneled, dimly lit room smelled of cigar smoke from generations of men gathering over a game. From fox-hunting paintings and mounted deer heads to the solid dark wood of the armchairs, it declared itself a masculine haven.

Julian removed his dinner jacket and unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt. He rolled the sleeves before taking up a cue. The ripple of muscles in his forearms made Hal catch his breath, and the combination of stark white shirt and pale brown vest set his pulse beating far too quickly. That second glass of brandy was affecting him too much, lowering his defenses and heightening his desires.

Hal took a cue from the rack and stared at the felt-covered table. He’d never played billiards and only knew he was meant to strike either the red target ball or his opponent’s, hopefully into a pocket. His palms began to sweat as he realized he couldn’t pretend enough knowledge to get by.

“Sorry to say, I’ve never played the game,” he admitted. “So this white ball is mine, and I’m supposed to knock it against your balls?” He winced as he heard the innuendo in those words.

Bent over lining up a shot, Julian glanced up with one eyebrow raised.

Hal pretended to be oblivious to the double meaning and focused his attention on the table.

“Yes, something like that,” Julian drawled.

The thought of bumping balls hung in the air like a silent accusation, and an earthy possibility that made Hal’s cock stiffen. He distracted himself by listening to Julian’s instructions on the rules and scoring. The smooth cadence of that well-bred voice was like a cat’s tongue rasping against Hal’s skin. It excited and warmed him and made it extremely hard to aim his cue with any sort of dexterity.

After his turn, Hal stepped back to watch Julian move around the table with the grace of a fencer searching for just the right place to strike. Again, he bent to sight down the cue, the line of his body taut and his arse jutting out enticingly. Hal imagined moving in behind him, grabbing those hips, and pushing against that rear. Moving. Grinding. Thrusting. Gripping the man’s waist while Julian braced his hands against the felt, then he’d knock those silly little balls aside and lay across the table, surrendering his body.


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