Elliott sat on the edge of the cliff alone, his hair whipping and eyes stinging in the stiff April wind, watching dawn break over the choppy waters of the North Sea. The wind and the spray were freezing, hence the blanket he had wrapped around himself.
He could hear the comforting creak of his cutter moored a half mile out. The pennant snapped. The anchor watch sounded the bell.
Six of the clock.
In a half glass, the wash of purple and red would give way to yellow when the sun fully crested the horizon.
He had greeted every morning this way since he had first returned from Peg’s bed three weeks ago.
. . . how soundly you sleep when in the bed of a pirate you don’t know . . .
He refused to sleep with a whore at all, but no matter he was safer in Tavendish Manor than he was anywhere else in the world, he was unable to sleep well in his own bed without Fury next to him.
The Penance’s anchor watch changed on schedule and smoke began to waft out of the galley’s chimney stack, signaling the beginning of breakfast mess. There were only a handful of officers and crewmen aboard, but they were willing to make it their home once Elliott had proposed a regular wage, provided good food, and invited their women (and children) to abide with them. He had no particular plans for the ship other than passage back and forth to London.
The North Sea wind cut through him, and he shivered. He should return to the manse and prepare for the day, but he could not bear to leave just yet. Here, on the cliff, was the only place he could find any solace from Tavendish Manor, aware that his position here, halfway between his manor house and his ship, was a painful metaphor.
This was his home, the place he had spent the many happy years of his childhood with his happy and loving family. It was also the place to which he had returned after his acquittal, to find peace and succor within, where he could recover his strength and sanity after two long years in Newgate.
But now . . .
The pennant snapped again thrice in rapid succession and sunlight glinted off the watchman’s glass, there at the platform of the main mast. He waved when he caught sight of Elliott, and Elliott waved back.
For unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. Unto us a son is given . . .
Never again would he meet another dawn without hearing her voice commanding the sun to rise and the wind to obey her will.
And unless he could find her somewhere, never again would he hear her voice in any respect: not soaring majestically over a glass ocean, not barking orders in any one of four languages, not trading bawdy jests, and most definitely not whispering words of desire in the dark of night whilst they loved.
Even if he knew where she was, he would not be free to seek her until he had wed and produced two sons as his station demanded. If she still would not have him, he had no idea what he would do with the years looming before him.
The ship’s bell rang again. Half past six and mess would have begun. His own mess would be awaiting him on the sideboard in the breakfast room.
Flip, why do you want to switch places? You’re going to be an earl and have the Grange.
That’s why I want to switch places, Eli. I want to sail on a ship and kill pirates. You don’t want to do that and I don’t want to be an earl, so why can’t we switch?
I don’t want to be an earl, either, but I would do if it meant I could stay here.
How can you not want to go to sea?
How can you not want to stay here?
I want to be the earl!
Shut up, Lucy. Girls don’t get to be earls.
And that’s not bloody fair.
Lucille would be in the study by now, beginning her daily tasks of estate stewardship. Elliott could not bear to be in the house when she was roaming about, thus he had taken to breaking his fast after she had closed herself in the library.
The feeling was mutual. His sister, barely ten months older than he, his childhood playmate and confidante, was as wary of him as any new officer straight off his mama’s tit. In spite of their truce, which was fragile at best, she could barely speak to him, and what information she had to convey was grudgingly given. Their comings and goings in the three weeks since he had threatened her position had become as carefully timed as a clockworks so as not to meet each other in a hallway or in the stable.
Lucy’s habit was to emerge from her ledgers at half past nine to dine, but by one quarter past nine, Elliott would be on a horse, headed for the village to continue to help his men with their homes and businesses.
And God knew he had nothing else to do, since, unbeknownst to him, his role in rebuilding the earldom’s wealth was finished long before he set out to put a period to Lord Kitteridge’s existence. Every tonne of contraband Elliott had brought to his mother and sister had returned fourfold under Lucy’s wise stewardship, his mother’s shrewd investments, and Hugh’s discreet alliances—all the while managing to hide it from Elliott’s father and older brother.
Now that his crew’s homes and businesses were almost finished, he had had time to walk the estate and study what Lucy and their mother had accomplished.
Tavendish Manor was in prime repair, sparkling with renovations and a new wing that housed Lucy, Hugh, and nine of their eleven children still at home. The Grange gardens, labyrinths, paths, lawns, and fountains were perfectly manicured and maintained. The kitchen garden, conservatory, and orchards bore more than enough to feed everyone on the estate year-round, with fruit and vegetables enough to feed the villagers in need. The village itself was clean, sharp, and brisk with business. The tenants’ cottages were sound, with newly thatched roofs and fortified hearths. They had the newest in farm implements, and their animals were strong and healthy.
There was nothing he could do to better Lucy’s efforts, and stripping her of her duties would harm the estate as much as it would harm her. Not only had she coveted the position from childhood, she was extraordinarily talented at it and Elliott had never been one to take an officer off a duty at which he excelled.
She didn’t know that, though, and was terrified he would do exactly that if she so much as spoke to him.
But assuring Lucy’s position meant Elliott’s role as earl now consisted solely of tending to the matter of his sisters’ and nieces’ marriages, breeding the next earl, and attempting to become the extraordinary statesman his father had been. He would also be expected to indulge his vices, none of which appealed to him for more than two or three consecutive evenings out of every quarter.
His foremost duty, then, was to stay out of his mother’s and sister’s way—and better he do it in London than remain underfoot at the Grange.
Fury, I’m on my way home. To stay.
He belonged neither at Tavendish Grange nor on the Penance, both of which were estate assets.
The only thing he owned, the Silver Shilling, was in Rotterdam—and he missed it.
I have no home!
Now he had some understanding of Fury’s complaint, to be wishing himself back aboard the frigate he had so wanted to escape. Being there would not settle his soul, either.
He was neither commander nor earl; sailor nor landsman; fish nor fowl.
Ah, but that was his life, it seemed. Sailors learned how to walk on a rolling deck whilst landsmen had their feet firmly in the dirt. It had taken Elliott much longer to find his sea legs than others of his age and class, but he had done it and done an exemplary job of it.
He had longed for a life spent on land, but he was accustomed to life at sea. He knew from experience he would adapt to this life and thus, he must simply be patient.
With his brother and his nephew, who would likely grow as disenchanted with his presence as the rest of his family.
He stared at the Penance and allowed his mind to wander as it had in Newgate. In three days he could be in Rotterdam. In another eight weeks he could be in Philadelphia. Provided he could dodge the war, another four weeks would see him on the bank of a river flanked by wild meadows, oak and maple trees, and game aplenty.
Milk and honey.
It would be so easy . . .
He started at the faint sound of barking dogs and twisted to see his youngest sister, Sophie, dressed as hoydenishly as Lucy, most of Lucy’s daughters, and Fury. She was following her pug dogs as they barreled toward him with lolling tongues.
Though Sophie’s dogs were happy and boundless, she was not. She walked slowly, her blonde head bowed, her little body in danger of being swept off by the breeze. The girl was as different from her siblings as her name, the only one of the six of them to have inherited their mother’s affect.
Presently, a half dozen little dogs were pouncing around him in mindless joy and, when he reached out to scratch one between the ears, he found himself wondering if Fury had taken Dindi into London with her or left her in Rotterdam. He looked up at Sophie when she came to a halt beside him but remained silent, staring out at the sea.
Without a word, Elliott opened his blanket. She crossed her legs and sank onto the wet grass. He pulled her close and, to his great shock, she turned her face into his shirt and began to sob.
The dogs rooted and sniffed the ground around them and the sun began to warm them. Elliott studied the color of the sky and the cloud formations and knew it would storm later that day and throughout the night; he could predict the onset within three or four hours, but no closer.
Fury would be able to do it within a half glass.
“Mother has finally informed you of your very near future, I take it,” Elliott murmured.
She nodded miserably.
Camille had taken the news of her impending Season in London with excitement, but of course, such news came with the knowledge that her wardrobe would increase beyond imagining and she would be dancing her nights away at balls and routs all spring and summer long.
No one had expected Sophie to be so phlegmatic about it.
It was possible that had he not met Fury and thus Georgina, he would be entirely unsympathetic to Sophie’s plight. After all, it was what noblewomen were expected to do. They were no less exempt from their duty than Elliott was, but now he could be nothing but sympathetic.
Sophie’s weeping eventually subsided, but he waited until her hiccups were few and far between.
“If you could choose your future,” he mused, “what would it look like?”
She stiffened and pulled away from him a bit. “Are you going to mock me?”
He shook his head soberly. “I have no reason to. Tell me your dearest desire.”
Sophie’s throat bobbed. “I would—” She cleared her throat and whispered, “I would like to live at Fulster Cottage and raise pugs and roses and build a respectable breeding stable. His Grace praised my foals. He said Father had taught me well.”
Not one thing about that surprised him. “Alone, then?”
She hesitated. “Not always, I don’t think, but I have no fear of the shelf and no fear of taking a lov—” Elliott’s eyebrows shot up, but she hid her face when he leaned down to look at her. She mumbled, “Must I marry immediately upon leaving the schoolroom?”
“Nay,” Elliott said quietly and hugged her to him.
“I don’t know why we are speaking of it at all,” she grumbled. “Mother will have her way.”
Elliott bit back a sharp retort. Had Sophie come to him as a confidante of last resort, believing he had no power to give her what she wanted, even if he were inclined to do so? Did she still not see him as the earl?
Did anyone else?
Elliott gathered himself enough to speak calmly in spite of his irritation. “Mother is not the head of the house.”
Sophie huffed. “Do not tease, Eli.”
His temper flared. He shrugged her away from him and cast her a disgusted glance. “What did you think I would do when I returned to stay? That I would spend my days as Father and Flip did, hunting and casting about the country for the next fine piece of horseflesh? Did you think I would not, in fact, act like the head of the house since I do happen to be the earl?”
She looked at him in confusion. “Well . . . yes. Did you think differently?”
“Bloody hell,” he whispered and looked away, rubbing his mouth and chin.
“Elliott, I— I’m sorry,” she said in a very small voice. “I— I don’t know what I said to make you cross with me.”
His jaw ground. “You said nothing untoward and I am not cross with you,” he muttered. “If you would be so kind as to put in writing exactly what you would like, I will do my best to see it done.”
“Good luck, then, getting around Mother.”
“Sophie!” he roared. “Attend! I do not need to get around Mother. I—am—the—earl and I will do what I please. In this instance, it pleases me not to force you into a marriage you don’t want.”
Her joy was slow and cautious but unmistakable. “Truly?” she whispered.
She blinked several times, but then knuckled away her tears even as her smile grew. “Why?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter?”
He grunted when she threw herself at him and hugged him, laughing with utter glee. He began to smile, his mood lightening markedly when she jumped up and spun about, gathering two of her beloved dogs in her arms.
Finally. After more than a month home, he had reason and opportunity to wield the authority he had earned over the last twenty years, the authority that was now his birthright.
He suffered more of Sophie’s gratitude, then watched her scamper off up the rise to the house, shouting, “I don’t have to get married! I don’t have to get married!” Her dogs were unable to keep pace.
Then he stood. After brushing off the seat of his breeches, he tossed his blanket over his shoulder and strode toward the manor with purpose.
The delicate peace lay between him and Lucy and his mother would shatter under this decision. His mother had caused a scandal in her time, but it was a delicious one, one within the bounds of expectation (albeit barely), and thus, eventually, acceptable. Even Lucy’s breeches and position on the estate, whilst scandalous, were tolerable because she had wed properly (according to the records, anyway) and borne her proper husband eleven healthy and proper children—one of whom was a clever and well-respected solicitor and another who had also wed. Properly. The fact that Tavendish Grange was three hundred fifty miles from London and none but the least objectionable of the Raxham family had been seen in Town since Elliott’s trial made them really rather forgettable, much less scandalous.
What order could have been that repugnant to you?
I had my reasons and those are my own . . . I expected to die for it . . . I’d defy him again. And for the same reason.
What he had just given Sophie was unheard of, outside all bounds of anything approaching propriety. Elliott had fired the first shot in a battle that would begin a war—
—a war he would win.