Oliver stared out the window of the library at Halstead
Hall. The dreary winter day further depressed his spirits
as he fought to shove his painful memories back into the
stout strongbox in which he kept them. It was so much
harder here than in town, where he could lose himself in
wenches and wine.
Not that he could lose himself for long. Though the scandal
was nineteen years old, there were still whispers of it
wherever he went.
Gran had told the guests that night that Mother had gone to
the hunting lodge to be alone and had fallen asleep.
Awakened by sounds of what she thought was an intruder,
she'd panicked and shot him, only to discover that the man
was her husband. Then, in her shock and grief, Mother had
turned the pistol on herself.
It was a flimsy tale at best to cover up a murder and a
suicide, and the whispers never quite subsided since the
guests had been eager to speculate on the truth. Gran had
ordered him and his siblings not to speak of it to anyone,
even each other, from that day forward.
She'd said it was to stifle the gossip, but he'd often
wondered if it was because she blamed him for what
happened. Otherwise, why reverse her decree in recent
months to question him about the quarrel between him and
Mother that night? He hadn't answered, of course. The very
thought of telling her turned his stomach.
Whirling away from the window, he paced beside the table
where his siblings sat waiting for Gran. This was precisely
why he avoided Halstead Hall -- it always put him in a
Why in God's name had Gran asked to have her blasted
meeting out here? He'd kept the place shut up for years. It
stank of must and rot, and was chilly as the Arctic
besides. The only room lacking dust covers was the study
where his steward did the work of running the estate.
They'd had to remove the covers in here just to have this
meeting, which Gran could have held perfectly well at her
house in town.
Normally, he would refuse her request that they troop out
to his neglected estate. But ever since his brother
Gabriel's accident three days ago, he and his siblings had
been skating on thin ice with her. That was made more than
clear by Gran's uncharacteristic silence about it.
Something was afoot, and Oliver suspected it wouldn't be to
"How's your shoulder?" his sister Minerva asked Gabe.
"How do you think?" Gabe grumbled. He wore a sling over his
rumpled black riding coat, and his ash-brown hair was
mussed as usual. "Hurts like the devil."
"Don't snap at me. I'm not the one who nearly got myself
At twenty-eight, Minerva was the middle sibling -- four
years younger than Jarret, the second oldest; two years
older than Gabe; and four years older than Celia, the baby.
But as the eldest girl, she tended to mother the others.
She even looked like their mother -- all creamy skin and
gold-streaked brown hair, with ivy-green eyes like Gabe's.
There was virtually no resemblance between those two and
Oliver, who'd inherited the coloring of their half-Italian
father -- dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin. And a dark heart
"You're lucky Lieutenant Chetwin pulled back in time,"
Celia pointed out to Gabe. She was a slightly paler version
of Oliver, as if someone had added a dollop of cream to her
coloring, and her eyes were hazel. "He's rumored to have
more bravery than sense."
"Then he and Gabe make a good pair," Oliver growled.
"Lay off of him, will you?" Jarret told Oliver. Closest to
being a blend of their parents, he had black hair but
bluegreen eyes and no trace of Oliver's Italian
features. "You've been ragging him ever since that stupid
carriage race. He was drunk. It's a state you ought to be
Oliver whirled on Jarret. "Yes, but you were not drunk, yet
you let him -- "
"Don't blame Jarret," Gabe put in. "Chetwin challenged me
to it. He would have branded me a coward if I'd refused."
"Better a coward than dead." Oliver had no tolerance for
such idiocy. Nothing was worth risking one's life for --
not a woman, not honor, and certainly not reputation. A
pity that he hadn't yet impressed that upon his idiot
Gabe, of all people, ought to know better. The course he'd
run was the most dangerous in London. Two large boulders
flanked the path so closely that only one rig could pass
between them, forcing a driver to fall back at the last
minute to avoid being dashed on the rocks. Many was the
time drivers pulled out too late.
The sporting set called it "threading the needle." Oliver
called it madness. Chetwin had pulled back, yes. But Gabe's
rig had caught the edge of one boulder, breaking off a
wheel and subsequently turning the phaeton into a tangle of
splintered wood, torn leather, and twisted metal. Thank God
the horses had survived, and Gabe had been lucky to get out
of it with just a broken collarbone.
"Chetwin insulted more than just me, you know." Gabe thrust
out his chin. "He said I wouldn't race him because I was a
coward like Mother, shooting at shadows." Anger tinged his
voice. "He called her the Halstead Hall Murderess."
The familiar slur made the others stiffen and Oliver grit
his teeth. "She's been dead for years. She doesn't need you
to defend her honor."
A stony look crossed Gabe's face. "Someone's got to. You
Damned right he wouldn't. She'd done the unthinkable. He
could never forgive her for that. Or himself for letting it
The door opened and their grandmother entered, followed by
the family solicitor, Elias Bogg. They collectively sucked
in a breath. The presence of an attorney boded ill.
As Bogg took a seat, Gran stopped at the head of the table,
a look of utter weariness etching lines in her already
fully etched face. A new sort of guilt stabbed Oliver. She
looked even older than her seventy-one years these days, as
if the weight of her responsibilities had stooped her
shoulders and shortened her height.
He'd tried persuading her to step down as head of the
brewery that their grandfather had founded. She needed to
hire a manager, but she refused. She liked the work, she
said. What was she to do, stay in the country and
embroider? Then she would laugh at the idea of a brewer's
widow doing embroidery.
Perhaps she had reason to laugh. Hester "Hetty" Plumtree
was what many would call "common." Her parents had kept the
tavern where she'd met her husband, and the two of them had
turned Plumtree Brewery into an empire big enough to afford
the finest schools for Oliver's mother, Prudence. Big
enough to enable Prudence to snare an impoverished marquess
for a husband.
Gran always reveled in the fact that her daughter had
managed an alliance with one of the oldest branches of
English aristocracy. But she could never hide the taint
of "trade" clinging to her own skirts. It crept out at odd
moments -- when she enjoyed a spot of ale with her dinner
or laughed at a bawdy joke.
Still, she was determined that her grandchildren become
what she could not: true aristocrats. Gran hated their
tendency to outrage the society that regarded them as the
ne'er-do-well spawn of a scandalous couple. Due to her
struggle to move her family up in the world, she felt
entitled to see the fruits of that labor in good marriages
and fine great-grandchildren, and it angered her that none
of her grandchildren were rushing to accommodate her.
Oliver supposed she had some right to feel that way. Though
she'd often been absent during their youth, busy running
Plumtree Brewery after her husband died, she was the
closest thing to a mother the younger ones had ever had.
That was why they adored her.
As did he, when he wasn't fighting with her over money.
"Sit down, Oliver." She fixed him with her sharp blue
gaze. "Your pacing makes me nervous."
He stopped pacing, but didn't sit.
With a frown, she squared her shoulders. "I have made a
decision about you children," she said, as if they were
still in leading strings. She scanned the room, her voice
growing steely as she said, "It is high time you settled
down. So I am giving you a year, during which matters will
remain as they are. Then I mean to cut you off -- every
single one of you. You will be cut out of my will, as
well." She ignored their collective gasp. "Unless..." She
paused for effect.
Oliver ground his teeth. "Unless what?"
Her gaze turned to him. "Unless you marry."
He should have expected this. At thirty-five, he was well
past the age when most men of rank took wives. Gran often
bemoaned the fact that there was still no heir to the
title, but who in their right mind would want to see this
benighted line continue? His parents had married for money,
and the result had been disaster. No matter how low
Oliver's finances sank, he wasn't about to repeat the error.
Gran knew how he felt, and for her to use his siblings to
ensure that he danced to her tune was a painful betrayal.
"You would leave my brothers and sisters destitute just to
get me leg-shackled?" he bit out.
"You misunderstand," she said coolly. "When I say 'you,' I
mean the whole lot of you." She turned her gaze to include
his brothers and sisters. "You must all marry before the
year is out, or say good-bye to your inheritance. What is
more, I will let my lease on the town house lapse, since I
only stay there because the girls are there. There will be
no dowries for them, and I will no longer foot the bill for
Gabe and Jarret's bachelor quarters in London and the
stabling of their horses. If you five do not marry, that is
the end of my support. You will be Oliver's responsibility
and Oliver's alone."
Oliver groaned. The cumbersome estate he'd inherited
scraped by, but it was far from self-sufficient.
Gabe shot up from the table. "Gran, you can't do that!
Where will the girls live? Where will Jarret and I live?"
"Here at Halstead Hall, I suppose," she said with no
Oliver scowled at her. "You know perfectly well that's
impossible. I would have to open the place up."
"And God forbid he do that," Jarret said, with a note of
sarcasm. "Besides, he's got the income from the estate to
support him. So even if the rest of us do as you ask, he
doesn't have to, so we'll be penalized when he refuses."
"Those are my terms," she said coldly. "They are not
negotiable, my boy."
No matter what Jarret thought, Gran had to know that Oliver
wouldn't let his siblings suffer. She'd finally found a way
to make them toe her line: use their affection for each
other, the one constant in their lives.
It was brilliant. It was diabolical. And probably the only
scheme that would work.
Jarret might tell her to go to hell if it were only him
involved, but he wouldn't sentence his sisters to live as
spinsters or governesses. Minerva, who made a bit of money
from her books, might thumb her nose at Gran's terms and
attempt to live off her earnings, but she also wouldn't
sentence the others to poverty.
Each of them would worry about the others. Which meant they
would all feel compelled to do as she commanded, even
"You could make this place self-sufficient if you wanted,"
she pointed out. "Perhaps if the five of you split the
duties of running it..." She paused to shoot Oliver an arch
glance. "Or if your brother took more of an interest in it,
instead of leaving it to his steward and spending his days
wenching and drinking, it might bring in enough to keep you
Oliver suppressed a hot retort. She knew why he could
barely stand the sight of the place. Father had married
Mother for her money so he could save the precious family
seat, and Oliver would be damned if he let this blasted
estate and everything it represented destroy him as it had
"I happen to know," Gran went on, "that Oliver sold the
last unentailed piece of family property to pay off several
debts that you gentlemen jointly accumulated, since I
refused to cover them. There is little left to sell that is
not entailed. You need what I can provide, if you are to
continue to live comfortably."
Deuce take her for being right. With the town house and his
brothers' lodgings gone, his siblings would have no choice
but to move in here. Even Oliver was without a place at
present -- the property in Acton that she'd spoken of had
been his home until recently. He'd been staying with his
brothers while he figured out what to do. But he hadn't
planned on having the estate support them all, as well as
his brothers' future wives and children.
No wonder Gran had managed to run a brewery with such
success for the past twenty-two years. She was a
Machiavelli in skirts.
"So who would inherit Plumtree Brewery?" he asked. "Do you
mean to say you wouldn't leave it to Jarrett, as
"I'd leave it to your cousin Desmond."
As Jarret groaned, Minerva cried, "You can't leave it to
Desmond. He'll run it into the ground!"
Gran shrugged. "What do I care? I will be dead. And if you
won't take the necessary measures to make sure that it
stays in your family, then it really doesn't matter where
it goes, does it?"
Celia rose in protest. "Gran, you know what Desmond will
do. He'll hire children and work them to death." Celia
volunteered with a charity that fought to improve child
labor laws -- it was her passion. "Look at how he runs his
mills. You can't leave it to him."
"I can leave it to whomever I please," Gran said, her eyes
cold as slate.
Surely she was bluffing. She hated Desmond as much as the
rest of them.
Still, she'd never been the bluffing sort. "I suppose
you've chosen our mates for us, too," Oliver said bitterly.
"No. I leave that to you. But you will not settle down
unless I force your hand; I have indulged you all too long.
It is time you do your part for the family, which means
providing the next generation to carry on my legacy."
Celia dropped heavily into her seat. "It's not as if
Minerva and I can just pick a husband at whim. A man has to
propose marriage. What if no one does?"
Gran rolled her eyes. "You're both lovely ladies who turn
heads wherever you go. If you, Celia, would stop trouncing
your brothers' friends in shooting matches, one of them
would probably offer for you in a trice. And if Minerva
would stop writing those ghastly Gothic novels -- "
"I won't do that," Minerva protested.
"At least take a pen name. I don't see why you must go
about acknowledging the fact that you are the author of
such disreputable stories, scandalizing everyone you meet."
Her gaze shifted to Jarret and Gabe. "As for you two, you
could actually attend a ball occasionally. Jarret, you do
not have to spend every night in the gaming hells, and
Gabe..." She let out a weary sigh. "If you would only stop
racing any fool who challenges you, you might have the time
to seek out a bride. You lads are perfectly capable of
enticing respectable women to marry you. You never seem to
have trouble coaxing whores and actresses into your beds."
"Oh, God," Gabe muttered, his ears turning pink. It was one
thing to bed a whore and quite another to have one's
grandmother remark upon it.
She fixed Oliver with a steady look. "And we all know that
your brother has a considerable advantage: his title."
"And the trade of title for money ended so well for our
parents," Oliver said sarcastically. "I can see why you're
eager for me to repeat the transaction."
When pain slashed over her face, he ignored the twinge of
guilt in his chest. If she meant to force them into this,
then she'd have to accept the consequences.
His mother's last words to him clamored in his brain.
You're a disgrace to this family....
A chill coursed down his spine. Abruptly he walked to the
door and opened it. "May I have a private word with you in
the hall, Gran?"
One gray brow flicked upward. "If you wish."
As soon as they were away from the others, Oliver faced her
down. "Inflicting me as a husband on some hapless woman
won't change anything."
"Are you sure?" Gran met his gaze steadily, her blue eyes
softening. "You are better than this aimless life you lead,
God, if she only knew. "This is what I am. It's time you
accepted it. Mother did."
She paled. "I know you do not like to speak of what
happened that day -- "
"I don't," he cut in. "And I won't." Not to her or anyone.
"You will not speak of it because you blame me for it."
"That's not true, blast it!" He blamed himself alone. If
only he'd ridden after Mother as soon as she'd gone
missing. If only he'd pressed Gran harder. If only, if
only, if only...
"I don't blame you for anything in the past. But I will
blame you for this."
"Surely even you can see that something must be done."
"Why? Minerva and Celia will marry eventually, and Gabe and
Jarrett are just sowing their wild oats. Given time,
they'll settle down."
"You have not."
"Why is it different?"
"Why are you suddenly so determined to push this matter of
"Answer my question, and I will answer yours."
So that's what she wanted -- to force him into a confession
of his sins. Well, she was never getting that from him.
"Someday, Oliver," she went on when he remained
silent, "you will have to talk about what happened that
day, if only so you can put it behind you."
"I have put it behind me." Turning on his heel, he strode
for the door.
As he jerked it open, she called out, "I am not changing my
mind about the inheritance or the rest of it. Marry or lose
When he froze with his hand on the knob, she came up to
stand in the doorway and sweep her gaze over his siblings
inside the room. "I am tired of hearing you children called
the Hellions of Halstead Hall in the scandalsheets. Of
reading that my youngest granddaughter has once again
horrified society by appearing at some shooting match." She
leveled a glance on Gabe. "Or that my grandson nearly lost
his life in a race. This will end now."
"What if we agree to behave more discreetly in the future?"
"Not good enough. Perhaps if you five have someone else
depending on you -- a spouse and children -- you will
finally learn the value of what you have."
"Damn it, Gran -- "
"Stop cursing at me, Oliver. This is the end of the
discussion. Mr. Bogg will explain the particulars of my
demands and you may ask him your questions. I must attend a
meeting at the brewery."
She walked off down the hall, her cane briskly tapping
The minute Oliver reentered the room, his siblings turned
to Mr. Bogg. "She doesn't mean it, does she?" said
one. "How could she do this?" said another. "You must talk
her out of it," said a third.
Bogg sat back in the antique chair, which creaked in
protest. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing I can do. After
Lord Gabriel's injury, she became determined not to watch
her grandchildren die before they do their duty to the
"You see what you've done, Gabe?" Celia cried. "You ruined
"It's not about Gabe," Oliver said wearily. "It's about me.
She doesn't want to lose the title and position that she
fought so hard to gain for her family. She means to make
sure one of us chaps carries it on."
"Then why force me and Celia into it?" Minerva asked.
"Forgive me, your lordship," Bogg put in, "but you're
wrong. She worries about all of you. She wants to make sure
you're well settled before she dies."
Oliver's head snapped around. "Dies? Is Gran ill?" That
possibility tied his insides into a knot. "Is there
something she's not telling us?" It would explain the
suddenness of her scheme.
Bogg paused before shaking his head. "She's merely tired of
waiting for you five to provide her with
Now that Oliver could easily believe.
Bogg cleared his throat. "Have you any more questions?"
"Just one," Oliver said. "Did she really not stipulate whom
we could marry?" He had an idea how to thwart her mad
"No stipulations on that score. But there are other rules."
Oliver listened as the man detailed those, one of which was
that they must marry in England and not engage in a "havey-
cavey Gretna Green elopement." Apparently she worried about
such a marriage being disputed in court. Fortunately, none
of what Bogg said would affect the plan forming in his mind.
After Bogg finished his duty and left them to their misery,
Minerva appealed to Oliver. "You must convince Gran that
this is insane. I don't see why I should put up with a
husband when I'm perfectly content with my life as it is."
"I'm no more eager to marry than you are, Minerva," Jarret
growled. "Next thing you know, she'll have me running the
bloody brewery. And that is the last thing I wish to do."
"I say we move in here and show her that we don't need her
money," Celia exclaimed. "Do as she says, run the estate
together -- "
"Yes, because you know so much about running an estate,"
Gabe shot back.
"Celia has a point, though," Minerva put in. "If we show
her we can manage perfectly well on our own, she might
rethink her plans. Besides, if we're going to end up here
eventually anyway, we should start getting used to it."
"God help us." Jarret shot Oliver a hard look. "You don't
want us moving in here, do you?"
Oliver sighed. "I'd just as soon never see the place again.
Unfortunately, Celia's idea is sound. If we live here,
we'll call Gran's bluff. We can invite her to visit, let
her see what fruit her nonsense will bear if she goes
through with it."
He struggled to contain his revulsion at the thought of
living at Halstead Hall again. But it would only last until
he could bring his plan to fruition; then life could go
back to normal.
"In the meantime, I have another trick up my sleeve," he
went on. "It's risky, but it might force Gran's hand. She
hasn't fully thought this through, and I mean to make her
realize that. I still have money left from the sale of that
last property, and here's what I propose...."
Copyright © 2010 by Sabrina Jeffries,