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Lord Cheverley, son of the Duke of Ithwick, never wanted to go to war, but when he eloped against his father’s wishes, the furious Duke forced him to choose—either take a naval commission, or have his marriage annulled. Devastated physically and emotionally by seven years of war, a shipwreck, and six years in the captivity of a brutal pirate, Cheverley returns to England to find that the courts have declared him dead, and his wife is entertaining suitors. Should he demand his rightful place, disrupting his family’s lives, or should he return to sea, seeking vengeance against the pirate? He sets out to find the answer in disguise.
Penelope once believed in love, but then the man who swept her off her feet deserted her, leaving her and her unborn child utterly alone. Now a widow, she will do anything to protect her son, including enlisting the aid of a mysterious sea captain to uncover the true intentions of her devious suitors. When the captain awakens something in Penelope she thought long dead, she begins to suspect he is no stranger. But, as they peel back the layers of a deadly plot, can this broken family heal their wounds in time to save what really matters?
A Legend to Love
ADVANCE READING COPY
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2018 by Wendy LaCapra. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
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Cover design by The Midnight Muse
Developmental Editing by Lindsey Faber & Copy Editing by Louisa Cornell
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-9994253-2-9
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition December 2018
For my parents, Galen and Priscilla Gavel
The Odyssey meets the Regency
His Duchess at Eventide
Author’s Note on the Odyssey
A Legend To Love Series
Excerpt from the second book of A Legend to Love series
Books by Wendy LaCapra
WIND WHIPPED CAPTAIN Lord Cheverley’s improvised sail against his raft’s mast. Salted sea-spray stung his lips and gusts roared in his ears. Using his shoulder, he wiped rain from his eyes and then re-wedged the paddle between his left arm and leg. Thighs straining, he gripped the groaning rudder.
He hadn’t survived the unspeakable—seven years of war, a shipwreck, the loss of his right arm below the elbow, and six excruciating years of captivity—only to fail now.
Wine-dark depths did not defer to long-serving officers of the Royal Navy. Frothy white waves were indifferent to sons of dukes. And life-hungry storms didn’t give a damn if they stripped wives of their husbands, or sons of their fathers.
Penelope. Thaddeus. Vast emptiness yawned. Instinctively, he beseeched the heavens. Please. I must survive.
No god answered, only darkness without direction, no land, no guiding stars. The blank, shifting water beneath promised death—the same, slow demise that had claimed the lives of Chev’s fellow seamen stationed with him on the HMS Defiance.
That gale, too, had materialized as if summoned by Poseidon’s trident, without warning and yet powerful enough to devour his sixty-four-gun ship. Rocks like rusted knives protruded from a deadly shoal. Waves thundered without reprieve, breaking the Defiance into pieces unfit for kindling. And his ship’s end had been only the beginning of his nightmare.
Tu n'es rien. You are nothing. Je possède chaque partie de tu, maintenant. I own every part of you, now.
His raft listed. He spit over the side.
How much adversity could a man face before he surrendered to annihilation’s mercy? How god-damned much?
The wind bellowed. Siren whispers sounded, sensing weakness—supplicate, surrender, submit.
What did he have to offer the world he’d left behind? He’d thought he’d return a hero. Instead, he was broken in body and soul. If he yielded to the storm, would it not be kinder to his family and a just restitution for his sins?
Memories feathered through his thoughts. His face buried in the softness of Penelope’s hair. Her fingers, drifting in soothing circles against the small of his back.
He inhaled deep, straining against invisible bonds and roaring back into the wind. He cursed fate. He cursed God. He cursed the pirate witch who’d kept him captive. Then, he cursed himself.
His anger crystalized in breath, clouding the chilled air. He’d escaped captivity, darkness, restraints. Zephyr’s winds and Poseidon’s waves demanded the final say, but he would not give up without a fight.
The bundle strapped across his back held what little remained of hung beef and brandy. His cask of fresh water ran low, but he had enough to last another day.
He smothered his weakness, gritted his teeth, and held fast to the rudder.
He’d survive on the pure need for vengeance.
For years, while Penelope labored to transform her husband’s estate, Pensteague House, into a haven, she’d done her best to ignore the specter of neighboring Ithwick Manor, her husband’s birthplace. At her worst, she’d wished the house and grounds would simply wither away. Then, however, the duke had been hale, his heir, Piers, alive, and she and her son superfluous to the duchy.
Now, everything had changed, and light filtering through the ducal library’s windows chastised her for those fancies—the carpets were worn, the centuries-old relics, dust-laden, and a must-heavy scent burned inside the bridge of her nose. Hour by listless hour, time had been devouring what was left of her husband’s boyhood world. And Ithwick’s slow demise provided none of her hoped-for triumph.
Still, having done her duty, called on the duke, and reported on Thaddeus’s education and care—not that His Grace had appeared to understand a word—she itched to leave this place full of ghosts and greed, mother to the heir or not.
Mrs. Renton—the duke’s devoted housekeeper, and one of the few Ithwick residents Penelope trusted—wrung her liver-spotted hands.
“You must stay here at Ithwick,” Mrs. Renton said, her pale eyes wide. “The duchy is without a duchess. The duke has lost his sense. Master Thaddeus remains too young to assume an heir’s duties, and I am certain those…those…” Mrs. Renton gestured to the window, “…men mean to destroy everything that’s left!”
Moving to the window, Penelope’s gaze found the duke’s closest male relatives apart from her son. The elder was Mr. Robert Anthony, who, as a descendant of the last duke’s brother, was next in line to inherit after Penelope’s son. The younger was a more recent arrival. Son to the duke’s sister—who had married another duke—Lord Thomas.
Absurd for those gentlemen and their friends to be littered about the lawn in winter, despite the unusually warm weather. Ridiculous, too, to be having a weighted disc throwing competition while attired in the latest, highly impractical fashion.
Penelope touched one of the pins in her tightly knotted hair and then rested her hand against the neckline of her outdated muslin. Unexpected discomfort blossomed in her chest. Hot, outsized discomfort.
Had Mr. Anthony, Lord Thomas, and their friends no shame? Even now, beyond the restless channel, young men were sacrificing their lives defending these craggy shores in a war that had already cost Penelope her husband.
“It appears to me”—Penelope’s voice tinged with bitterness—“Mr. Anthony and Lord Thomas’s only aspiration is a perpetual, decadent house party.”
“It is worse than decadence! It is unnatural ambition.”
Unnatural ambition? Pen knew them to be irresponsible, certainly, but to accuse them of intentionally usurping the duchy’s power?
“Don’t you see?” Mrs. Renton asked. “Mr. Anthony brought suit to have your husband declared dead—you need look no further for evidence.”
Penelope turned. “Mr. Anthony claimed the suit was necessary in order to free funds for Thaddeus.” That was, however, before they’d discovered the surprise codicil to Cheverley’s will granting Penelope full possession of Pensteague.
“Mr. Anthony,” Mrs. Renton replied, “also claims His Grace is in complete accord with every decision he makes. But, you’ve seen for yourself—His Grace’s words are unintelligible. As for Lord Thomas, he often returns late”—Mrs. Renton lowered her voice—“smelling of tipple and perfume.”
Penelope frowned. The amorous exploits of her husband’s cousin weren’t any of her concern.
On the other hand, she could not deny His Grace’s troubling condition. The duke’s blank stare had sent shivers through her spine. For the first time, she’d felt a measure of compassion toward the tyrant.
But compassion for the duke and a willingness to intercede on his behalf were two very different positions.
“If those actions weren’t awful enough,” Mrs. Renton continued, “several women have left our employ so distressed they did not request references. The remaining women serve as mistresses and little else.”
Penelope’s flush spread to her cheeks. A man had to be vile-hearted to take advantage of anyone in their employ in such a way. “If you would, Mrs. Renton, supply the names and direction of those who left. I will provide references for them from Pensteague.”
“Thank you, Lady Cheverley.” Mrs. Renton bobbed a short curtsey. “But what of Mr. Anthony and Lord Thomas?”
Penelope gazed back out to the lawn. Were they merely reckless libertines as she’d long assumed, or were they greedy, dangerous men emboldened by the duke’s illness, Thaddeus’s youth, and his mother’s perceived lack of connections?
Anthony had come to Ithwick following the duke’s sudden illness and—at Piers’s request—had taken over the duties of steward. After Pier’s death, Lord Thomas had arrived. They’d been indifferent to Penelope and only cursorily interested in Thaddeus, and she was happy enough to allow things to remain as they were.
But what if they were intentionally robbing Ithwick? What remedy could she bring? She’d need solicitors, barristers, and witnesses to bring suit.
Though Pensteague thrived, she returned every sixpence earned to the estate…the only way she could care for the wounded seamen who regularly appeared on Pensteague’s doorstep.
She’d taken the land her husband, Cheverley, had been granted as part of his mother’s marriage settlement—a small cottage with surrounding forests and wastes—and transformed it into a thriving estate with choice livestock, crops, fallows, and coppiced wood. She’d raised Thaddeus without assistance from his ducal grandparents. She’d remained dutiful and loyal to Cheverley—and, by extension the duchy—all while striving to provide the wounded seamen Pensteague sheltered the dignity of a generous livelihood. And now, Pensteague was hers and hers alone.
Why should she place all she protected and all she’d built at risk?
“Mrs. Renton,” she began, “you’ve always shown me kindness—”
“You were devoted to young Lord Cheverley,” Mrs. Renton interrupted, sniffling. “I had hoped—”
“Allow me to speak plain.” Penelope’s own dashed hopes were difficult enough to bear, thank you. “To Lord Cheverley’s family—everyone but the late duchess—I have always been an interloper. It is not my place to interfere.”
“But there is no one else,” Mrs. Renton replied. “Mr. Anthony acts as if he is master of Ithwick. You are the only one who can stop him.”
“Mr. Anthony has been inclined to be pompous for as long as I have known him.” But pompous and criminal did not negate one another, did they?
Pen attempted to rationalize again. “Isn’t it natural Mr. Anthony take an interest in running the estate? He is, after Thaddeus, the next in line to inherit.”
“Mr. Anthony and his coterie are draining the coffers. They are depleting the livestock. Their mismanagement is so severe, long-time tenants are choosing not to renew their leases. Please help us, Lady Cheverley. If you do not protect Ithwick, I fear there will be nothing left for young Master Thaddeus to inherit.” Mrs. Renton paced the length of the rug, paused, then glanced up at a painting. “If Lord Cheverley were here now, it’s what he would wish you to do.”
Pen’s lips flattened at the invocation of her husband’s name. Reluctantly, she turned her gaze to the painting she’d avoided since entering the room—a portrait of Cheverley and his older brother as boys.
Though in the portrait, Cheverley’s pale blonde hair had yet to darken, his stance already hinted at future swagger. His sheepish half-smile acknowledged worlds he had yet to understand, let alone conquer, but his pale blue eyes alit with a sickle-sharp cunning and an insatiable thirst for adventure.
A thirst that would rob her of a husband and Thaddeus of a father.
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes. Foolish, foolish man.
She did not, however, regret their brief affair and whirlwind marriage. The experience had been transformative and grand—to the extent her sixteen-year-old mind could comprehend grand—a rush that had taken her from the threshold of womanhood to the full blossom of her feminine power. And what followed, though unpleasant, had been the gauntlet that formed her character.
Thirteen years had passed since she’d seen her husband, six since he disappeared off the coast of France, though she hadn’t known the gut-wrenching details of his final hours until the recent trial to prove his death.
Cheverley’s ship had left the Channel Fleet on orders to capture a French privateer. Soon after the privateer was won, Chev ordered his first mate to sail home the prize. Then, a sudden storm parted the ships, pushing the HMS Defiance off her reckoning by three degrees. But three mere degrees had altered the ship’s course enough for the naval gunner to meet a gruesome, rocky end.
In the horrible hours it took the hull to break to pieces, Chev sent part of his crew in a cutter, hopeful they’d find harbor. He remained with his ship…exactly what Penelope would expect of her husband—always certain he could find or forge a way, always driven to display mythic heroism, even at the expense of those he held dear.
In this case, Chev failed. The cutter capsized. The few survivors drifted for days before being rescued. As for Cheverley…after reviewing the evidence, a judge declared him dead. No man, he said, could have survived the wreck.
Then again, her husband had not been just any man.
A burst of low, male laughter rose up from the lawn.
“They laugh while they drain the duchy dry,” Mrs. Renton murmured. “They wouldn’t have dared to set foot in the house in the first place if…if…”
“…If Lord Cheverley were here,” Pen finished quietly.
Yes, she was weary. Yes, she could not spare the expense.
But could she truly turn her back on this part of her husband’s past, forever denying skeletons that were not so much in a cupboard as atop a neighboring hill?
“Perhaps,” Mrs. Renton whispered, “Lord Cheverley will yet return.”
Penelope’s neck prickled.
If she were honest, on nights when the moon’s glow brightened the sheets of her marriage bed, loneliness pierced her heart like one of her husband’s hand-crafted arrows, and she sometimes allowed herself to imagine Cheverley would return. …
“Mrs. Renton”—she squelched irrational hope—“we must be careful what we wish. If Cheverley survived, a terrible fate must have befallen him. If he is alive, he is suffering.”
She turned away from the portrait.
What would Chev have wanted her to do? If he were here, he would have wanted her to remain tucked up in the proper little jewel casing he’d prepared while he forged forth to set everything to rights in a spectacular show.
But he wasn’t here. He hadn’t been here for thirteen years.
The better question was—what did she wish to do? How much of what she’d built in Cheverley’s name could she risk?
She turned about, taking in the ducal library and considering the stern faces of her husband’s ancestors glaring down from centuries past.
If Mr. Anthony and Lord Thomas were corrupt, what would she be teaching Thaddeus if she remained ensconced in comfort while corruption flourished?
Corruption bred fear. Fear bred distrust, anger, divisions and even—if left unchecked—bloodshed.
She did have a responsibility, loath as she was to admit it. Whatever the cost now, it would pale in comparison to the future cost if these men succeeded in fully usurping the duchy’s power. She must find a way to root out and remove the corruption. Not only for Thaddeus’s sake, but for the sake of those, like Mrs. Renton, whose livelihoods depended on Ithwick.
“Mrs. Renton, I concede.” Lord help her. “Thaddeus and I will take up residence at Ithwick, care for the duke and keep a close eye on Mr. Anthony and Lord Thomas. Having the heir and his mother present should gentle the worst of their conduct.”
“And if they ask why?”
“I will tell them I intend to weave a shroud for Cheverley on the medieval loom upstairs.”
“Bless you, my lady.” Mrs. Renton’s brows knit. “But is it wise to bring Master Thaddeus? As Master Thaddeus’s guardian, Lord Thomas could make trouble.”
Let him try.
“Thaddeus goes where I go.” In fact, Thaddeus was so protective, she couldn’t have confined him to Pensteague if she wished. “Besides, both the duke and Lord Thomas serve as guardians. Thomas cannot assert himself without exposing the duke’s state. And, in a few months, Thaddeus will be fourteen—old enough to choose his own guardians.”
She recast her gaze toward the group of gentlemen below. Another drunken cheer rose from the lawn.
“You needn’t worry any longer, Mrs. Renton.” She spoke with bravado she did not feel. “I will become Ithwick’s unlikely champion.”
But were her adversaries indolent man-children, or were they a crawling nest of vipers?
And, if they were a nest of vipers—she chilled—which would be the first to sting?
LUNGS—CHEVERLEY INHALED—on fire.
He came fully awake, coughing like a man possessed. Air pricked in his chest, stubbly as a beggar’s cheek. Every attempted inhale thrust another shard of glass between his ribs. If only he could sit, he could…
He expelled a guttural oomph as his chin landed in straw. Yes. Pain rippled through his bones. Right.
Yet, somehow, the sensation of a hand remained, right down to the jarring ache in his non-existent—though strangely fisted—fingers. He rolled onto his back and blinked into the dim light breathing in air thick with tallow’s heavy scent. Above him, a roof of thatch. Beneath him, stillness.
He’d made his way to land, at least.
A man’s voice. Not one Cheverley recognized. English, though. Which was an immense relief…for unclear reasons.
“Lord have mercy.” A woman. “T’ain’t right. He was dead, he was, when you pulled him out the water.”
Out of the water.
Where had that come from? He didn’t give a sixpence about grammar. What passed for English on his ship would have curled a schoolmaster’s toes—not counting the sizable portion of the crew who had other native languages.
Wait…his ship? Was he a captain, then?
“He looked dead at first,” the man agreed. “But he’s coughin’ now, ain’t he?”
He was. He snatched another illusive, rasping breath.
“Should have left him. You ain’t got no reason t’be dragging in strays like you do.”
A cat’s hiss suffused the shadows. He shivered.
“Go on,” the man cooed. “She’s all talk.”
The feline mewed.
“Mark me, lass,” the man continued, “they’ll be a prize for this one.”
The woman snorted. “I ain’t no lass. And that one ain’t worth a half-penny. Can’t you see he’s missing his arm?”
The man grasped his ankle and twisted. Chev cried out, punctuating with a kick.
“Areeah! Stop that.” The man lowered his voice. “Look here. That is the Hurtheven crest. No telling the other two—his scars cut right through. I wager he’s quality, though.”
Chev stilled. Hurtheven…?
“Quality?” The woman harrumphed, dismissive. “What’s he doin’ with his clothes all tattered, then? He ain’t nothin’ more than a fisherman. Or worse.” She paused. “He could be from the other side.”
What did she mean, the other side? He concentrated. Ah, yes. War. Between the kingdom and France.
Chev lifted his head. “Not”—he coughed—“French.”
“You see?” The man said.
The woman folded her arms. “Just what a…Frenchman would say, ain’t it?”
“What’s this here on your ankle?” The man tapped Chev’s bone.
Cheverley yanked back his leg. As he stared down at a trio of crests, two faces from his boyhood pieced together.
“Hurth…Hurtheven,” he repeated the title the man had supplied.
Yes, one of the faces was Hurtheven. Hurtheven—whom he’d met… at Eton? That sounded correct. Hurtheven… who was a good sort, even if he had been mad enough to insist the three of them scar their ankles with pins and ink. It had stung, damn it all.
He frowned again.
How had he remembered that detail? And what of the other boy? He touched the second crest. The boy’s family title remained elusive, but as he touched the third, the name of his own family seat came rushing back.
Suddenly, he knew he was Captain Lord Cheverley, the second son of the Duke of Ithwick—not that he was going to proclaim the fact to these two. He didn’t know where he was. He barely knew who he was.
Hurtheven would have to be enough.
“I work…for”—Almighty! Every dammed word was a struggle—“the Duke…of Hurth…even.”
“Knew it!” the man crowed.
“Pfft. You said he was quality. Not that he worked for quality.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the man replied. “Hurtheven’s sure to give a prize. A shilling at least.”
“A tuppence at best. What good’s this one to anyone, let alone a duke?”
“Hurtheven will…reward. Get word…please.” Forcing out the final word, Chev collapsed.
He closed his eyes against a wave of nausea. The louse had better provide a reward, even if it had been a long time since they’d seen one another.
He couldn’t remember, and the reason was important. Very, very important. There were other things he should remember too. Things even more vital.
The image of a woman shimmered beneath his lids. A woman with blonde hair, smooth as corn silk. Graceful and willowy yet brimming with a determination that was the essence of life.
Penelope. His wife.
A prize he had whisked away to store and to protect.
In his memory, his lips touched her collarbone before sliding over to the adjacent valley in the v at the bottom of her throat.
His longing stretched out into the ether, grasping for balm that could soothe his soul. What returned, however, was a sense of foreboding.
He closed his eyes. Another woman’s image replaced Penelope. A woman with dark hair and a voice that cut like a metal scourge.
Tu n'es rien. You are nothing.
Her whisper sliced through his ears. His blood went cold. His breath lodged in his throat. Then, oblivion claimed him once again.
The ship had resumed rocking.
That, however,hadn’t felt like the list of a ship. And even a gale couldn’t cause a rumble like—bam.
The back of Cheverley’s head smacked against a hard surface.
St. George’s dragon.
Only, had St. George killed a dragon? Or, had it been St. Michael?
No. Not St. Michael. His heart surged as another memory slipped into place. The other Michael, the archangel…he killed the dragon. But maybe St. George had also—bam.
His nonsensical thoughts arrested.
“Christ!” he cursed.
He ached all over. And someone had left an anchor on his chest. Though… the weighted spot was rather small to be an anchor. Instinctively, he swatted. Air, of course.
“Keep still, would you?” The voice came from far away, not in proximity but in time.
With concentrated effort, Cheverley lifted leaden lids. He was in some sort of a carriage. A long one. Curtained. Black. No benches.
Bam—hell and damnation. Was he in a hearse? A moving hearse?
He struggled to rise. The anchor still did not move. He squinted, parsing the shadows. The anchor was a hand, and the hand was unquestionably attached to a man crouching at his side.
The man was large. Herculean, almost, though his glinting buttons suggested he was far from common.
“What the devil?”
The man’s teeth flashed as he smiled. “Not the devil, though some suggest I am related to him.” He lifted one brow. “And, when you rise from the dead, you’re bound to increase their certainty.”
Pardon? “Not dead.”
“Yes.” He sighed. “I am afraid you are. As far as the law and your family are concerned, anyway.”
The man’s words sent warning through Cheverley’s blood, though his voice—not just the tone, but his way of speaking—felt very familiar.
“You needn’t worry.” The anchor tapped against his chest. “We’ll do something about the ‘your being dead’ part…after we take care of your problems with the Admiralty.”
The man clucked his tongue.
“You are in a good deal of trouble, you know—not that I should be surprised.” He held up a finger. “At sixteen, you stole a carriage and eloped with the daughter of a pig farmer,” a second finger joined the first, “at twenty-three, just before disappearing without a trace, you demanded I meet you in enemy waters so you could amend your will, and, now,” he held up a third, “on the cusp of your third decade, you wash up in rags with little more to say to your rescuers than my name. Which means,” The man’s face loomed, “you’ve placed mein a good deal of trouble, too.” A crease marked his patrician chin. “I detest trouble.”
No, you don’t. Chev’s answer formed without thought. You revel in trouble.
“Too much, too fast?” The man’s dark brows drew together. “Let’s start with the main, then. Do you know who you are?”
“Captain Lord Cheverley.” Chev hated the implied question in his voice.
The man, however, was pleased. “That’s right. Though, to be fair, I might not have recognized you but for the helpful bit of artistry on your ankle. Do you know me?”
“Do I?” Chev asked. “Know you?”
“I should hope so. Though, if you’ve forgotten, proper introductions are in order.” The man cleared his throat. “The Duke of Hurtheven”—he inclined his head—“at your service.”
Chev blinked again. “Hurtheven?”
“Last time I checked. And you should know, you laughed like a madman after seeing me in my first set of parliamentary robes.” His grin returned. “Bad form, that.”
“You looked preposterous,” Chev said, again, without thought.
Then, recollections rolled past like alabaster marbles, zig-zagging through time and flashing with head-splitting brilliance. Hurtheven in his robes. Hurtheven and another man, witnessing his wedding. Penelope, heavy with child and begging him not to go. The thunder of cannons. A vast darkness. A vicious sea. As best he could, he sorted them in time.
“I was in a raft.” Why had he been in a raft? “Then, there was a man…and a woman… and…” a cat?
He hated cats. He was clear about that much, at least.
“Yes. Right again,” Hurtheven said. “A man. And a woman.” He lifted a brow. “I don’t suppose you had a choice who fished you from the sea, but next time I would be obliged if you wash up closer to someone less grasping. You cost me two gold guineas, you know.”
“Gold guineas?” What kind of fisherman demanded gold from a duke?
“Well…” Hurtheven paused, “…if you prefer to be exacting—one guinea was for your person, the other to secure their silence.”
“Silence?” Cheverley asked. “Why?”
“I told you.” Hurtheven made an exasperated sound. “You’re dead.”
“Explain,” Cheverley said through gritted teeth.
“Well, I couldn’t have those greedy bob tails realize they’d fished you out of the channel. You bet your Hessians they’d have demanded more than two guineas for the heir apparent to the Duke of Ithwick, and two was all I had.” He glanced askance. “Bad night at the tables.”
Heir? Cheverley coughed. “Not… heir.”
“You aren’t now, of course. You are dead. The distinction of heir presumptive, therefore, belongs to your son.”
His son? His heartbeat surged. Yes. He did have a son, didn’t he?
He strained to recall a face. But, no. He’d never met his son.
The old wound broke open and other memories spilled forth.
He’d eloped to Scotland without his father’s consent and then further enraged the duke by beginning to work a separate estate made irrevocably his because of a clause in the duchess’s marriage contract.
Naively, Chev believed the estate would place his family beyond the duke’s power.
Then came the duke’s ultimatum—either Chev take a naval commission, or face a lawsuit challenging his marriage and potentially making a bastard of his child, already well on the way.
At first, he’d gambled the duke would come to his senses and place family above pride and relent.
His Grace had not.
When Chev reluctantly accepted the commission, his father demanded he not return until he had proven himself. Chev left, determined to rise above his father’s power by becoming the greatest naval hero England had seen since Raleigh. And then—
Then what? Nothing came.
But he was in rags. So, not Raleigh.
And—he grimaced—Hurtheven had said heir.
He was certain he hadn’t been heir, which meant... “My brother?”
“Devil take it. I’d forgotten you wouldn’t know.” Hurtheven gripped Chev’s shoulder and bowed his head. “Piers is gone.”
“Nasty bit of bad luck.” Hurtheven winced. “He was wandering through the woods at Ithwick and stepped into a nest of adders, poor chap. Two days passed before they found him. Coroner wasn’t sure if it was the snake bites or the cold damp that got him—likely a bit of both. I am sorry, Chev.”
Loss settled over Cheverley. Ah, Piers. His brother had loved his woodland rambles.
How could it be Chev had survived war and disaster while Piers had been killed by something so common in Cornwall as a few snakes and a bit of rain?
“Her Grace, the Duchess of Ithwick,” Hurtheven continued, “passed away last year. Grief, the physician said, as if such a thing were possible.”
Chev swallowed, roughly.
“The duke lives, though he is, I understand, not well. In the absence of an adult heir, your cousins have become”—Hurtheven cleared his throat—“quite solicitous.”
Both his brother and his mother were dead? He finally grasped Hurtheven’s meaning. He must have been declared dead, too.
He wasn’t dead. He’d been lost at sea.
That’s what had happened. He’d been lost at sea for… Months? Years? More? Anyway, he’d been desperate to get home from…?
He shook his head, coming back to the idea that his wife and son believed him to be dead.
Lost was an unfinished sentence; Dead, a conclusive period. The end to one sentence so that another one could begin. If he were dead, his belongings would have been disbursed and his wife…
Good God. Was Pen still his wife? “Penelope?”
“Alive.” Hurtheven’s gaze slid away. “Hale, the last time we met.”
“But is she…is she…?”
Hurtheven grimaced. “I judged it impertinent to ask if she’d been faithful. But she is unwed.” He flashed a look. “At present.”
At present? Chev coughed. “And what of my son?”
“Thaddeus”—Hurtheven’s expression softened—“is a healthy lad. If you can call a young man of thirteen a lad.”
Thirteen? Chev grasped his head between his thumb and forefinger. He’d been apart from his family for thirteen years?
Impossible, but true.
He was not a lost man found, but a dead man resurrected. His mother and brother, gone. His father dying. A son he did not know on the cusp of manhood. And a wife…
Not wed. Yet.
His whole being hung from yet, swaying like fresh kill on a gamekeeper’s hook. He massaged his temples.
Had he really believed, even for a moment, she could have been pining for him all this time?
“Better I hadn’t returned.”
Hurtheven inhaled sharply. “How dare you suggest Pen would be better off if you were, in fact, dead?”
Bitterness twisted Chev’s features. “Not worth a half-penny, the woman said.”
“The grasping, greedy bob tail.”
Hurtheven snorted. “If I’d known how she felt, it would have saved me a good deal of blunt.”
Nothing about this circumstance was amusing in the least. Even if Pen were to have held out hope—“How is my wife to feel when this”—Chev lifted his severed arm—“is returned to her?”
Hurtheven examined Chev’s raised arm with interest. Then, he met Chev’s gaze. “You speak,” he said, “as if you were a stray package. You are her husband. Her beloved husband.”
“I am not,” he said, “the man she married.”
“I should hope not! She married a randy sixteen-year-old buck with a good deal more brawn than brain.”
Chev’s startled cough ached in his ribs. “Whoreson,” he said with affection.
“Chev.” Hurtheven lifted a lip. “I knew you were in there.”
Cheverley’s sense had started to return, anyway. Wearily, Chev set aside questions too unanswerable for his throbbing mind.
“Where are we going, anyway?” he asked.
Hurtheven raised an imperious brow. “Demanding, aren’t you?”
“You don’t have a destination in mind.”
“I most certainly do! My plan—brilliant for being hastily put together, I might add—begins at the Admiralty.”
The Admiralty. Chev nodded. Of course. He’d remembered he was an officer. A captain. He squeezed his eyes closed. And his ship—the HMS Defiance—a slight, fast beauty with a mast as tall as—
“The Admiralty will court-martial you for the loss of your ship,” Hurtheven said.
Chev winced, turning his head to the side. Behind his lids, the mast swayed, and then split apart from the ship, splashing into the sea.
Suddenly he knew there was more. So much more. And he wasn’t ready for any of it.
“And,” Hurtheven continued, oblivious, “they will also want to know where you have been—as would, well, everyone, by the way.”
Where had he been? The damp stench of a cave stung Chev’s nostrils.
On an island. Or not.
He could not say for certain. However—he glanced down at his arm—his first attempted escape ended with a lead ball in his wrist…which had then led to an amputation.
Saw jaws rattled his bones and then a gravelly, female voice filled his ears.
Le pauvre bébé. The poor baby. Je pense que je t'aime mieux maintenant. I think I like you better now. Plus facile à maîtriser. Easier to subdue.
He saw her face. The pirate.
He slammed the stub of his arm against the hard surface beneath him.
“No answers.” What he had was a devil of a headache and a chill that had seeped into his bones. “Hurts, Hurtheven. Bad.”
“I know.” Hurtheven’s voice softened.
“I cannot go home.” Not like this—weak and left cowering by a few phantom whispers.
Hurtheven was right. Everyone would want to know where he’d been. And Chev had locked the answer in an unfolded memory.
“You can’t go home,” Hurtheven amended, “before you’ve been to the Admiralty.”
“You don’t understand.”
Hurtheven flashed him a startled glance. His lips flattened as he thought. “We’ll store you at Ash’s, then. Until you regain your strength.”
“Ash?” He frowned.
“Weren’t here for that either, were you? Our old friend has been fully fitted with the dubious mantle of his mad father—the Duke of Ashbey.” Hurtheven stopped abruptly. He tilted his head. “For now, let’s just say Ash’s habits are such you could stay with him as long as you need, with no one the wiser.”
Ashbey. Chev fitted the family name to the other face he’d remembered when he’d first awoken.
Hurtheven rubbed his chin. “Perhaps this isn’t the worst of ideas. You, Ash, myself.” He chuckled. “Who’d have thought our brotherhood would reunite?”
Eta Rho Zeta. The ink on his ankle. A name for the secret triumvirate inspired by some American society Hurtheven’s uncle had founded. Three school boys, taking for themselves the mantle of gods—Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.
Poseidon. He snorted. What hubris. If the sea god existed, no wonder the waves had been intent on his death.
“You were always a bit touched,” Cheverley said.
“Entitled, yes. Arrogant, often. But my mind’s as sound as the king’s.”
Cheverley expelled a rough, involuntary chuckle. Hurtheven glanced askance with a half-smile. He squeezed Cheverley’s shoulder.
“My God…Chev.” His smile faded. He shook his head, and then he turned away. “It is really you.”
The hearse jostled, parting the curtains and illuminating Hurtheven’s face. Lines—deep cut—chiseled his forehead and wetness glinted in the corners of his eyes.
Vastness hit Chev all at once—an expanse that set him adrift in uncertainty.
In bone-deep fear.
Hurtheven wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and stiffened. “The sea spit you up. For now, be grateful.”
There was much he didn’t know. So much he had yet to understand. He turned his head to the side. Heat from Hurtheven’s hand seeped into his skin. Warm. Comforting.
Grateful. Yes. For now.
He had made it out of the storm. He had made it back to land. As for the menace lurking just beyond the grasp of his consciousness?
That was too large to be faced—or exorcised—with weakened limbs and a mind engulfed with fog.
First, he must regain his strength. Because when those memories came, they would bring a fury stronger than the sea.