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Panting, Daniel Lewiston heaved himself up the last two steps to the Kinsle terrace and collapsed onto the stone bench in delighted exhaustion. Voices, young and strident, echoed his name across the emerald lawn and set the swans to fluttering in the placid lake below. His best friend Jonathan Kinsle glanced up from his week-old copy of The London Times. "I trust you're enjoying this debacle?"
Despite the fact he could barely catch a breath, Daniel grinned. "Immensely," he managed. He grabbed the crystal glass of lemonade Jonathan's manservant had poured for him earlier and gulped the tart liquid down. That seemed to help the spasms in his chest. He really ought to see about getting more exercise if a brisk game of ball could so wind him. Refusing to allow his state to ruin a perfect summer's day, he leaned back against the terrace balustrade and tried to pretend he didn't notice the two small figures stealthily approaching the steps. "You should join us."
Jonathan reached out a languid hand to pick up his own china tea cup and quirked a blond brow. "Heaven forbid. I wouldn't dream of spoiling your fun, old man. Duck."
Daniel bent over as a blue cloth ball sailed past the spot his head had been moments before. Someone cried out in vexation below, only to be quickly shushed. Daniel bent lower to retrieve the ball, wincing as his stomach protested the compression.
Exercise more often and eat less, he amended the thought.
"You might find you enjoy it," he chided his friend as he straightened. "These nephews of yours are simply ingenious." He lobbed the ball over the top of the bushes and heard a quite satisfactory yelp of dismay.
"Entirely tooingenious," Jonathan muttered as the bushes shook with obvious plans for revenge. He flicked a displaced leaf from the otherwise immaculate sleeve of his dark blue coat. "Seriously, Danny boy, if you hadn't taken such a shine to them, I don't know how we would have managed these last three weeks with Cynthia in London."
Daniel ran a hand back through his already tousled brown hair and shifted his weight along the bench to the right. He heard the protest from the seat of his dun-colored trousers and felt the back of the bush snag on his own blue coat, which was far from immaculate. More exercise, less food, and a new tailor.
"It was no great burden," he assured Jonathan. "I haven't had this much fun in years. In fact, I can't remember when I ever had this much fun." He shot to the left, and the ball neatly missed him again. Feeling a bit more satisfied with his performance, he bent to retrieve it.
Jonathan chuckled. "Yes, you were the most pitied boy in the neighborhood, growing up with all those sisters and a mother who was determined to protect you against any calamity, especially ones that were any fun."
Daniel smiled as he rolled the soft cloth back and forth in his large hands. "She was rather over protective, God rest her soul."
"Thank God, Cynthia has more sense," Jonathan said with a sigh. "Although there are times I see the similarities between your mother and my sister. She seems to have kept the boys close, but I suppose that's natural in a big city like Bristol and so near the docks. Can't have been a very savory environment, if you take my meaning. It's a shame our parents weren't more willing to forgive Cynthia for her elopement. We might have been able to teach them some manners."
Daniel shook his head at the reproof. "They're no worse than you were at that age, Johnny."
Jonathan raised an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon? I may have been an active child, but I don't recall chasing our neighbor about the back lawn."
"That's because your neighbors consisted of four fatherless girls and a boy who wasn't even allowed to leave home for school." Keeping an eye out for his would-be attackers, he leaned closer to his friend. "Although I understand from young John that Cynthia may be marrying again. I realize she most likely wants a father for them, but isn't that a little soon? Their father has been dead less than six months."
Jonathan shrugged, crossing long legs without so much as creasing his fawn-colored trousers. "What would you have her do? He left them next to nothing, and she knows I'll be hard pressed to keep them. If this business with the Admiralty comes to naught I'm not sure how we'll get along unless she remarries. Mind you, I hadn't heard her mention any gentleman in particular, but it wouldn't surprise me. Cynthia may be past her prime, but she's not bad looking."
"Spoken like a true brother," Daniel teased. "Your sister was always a diamond of the first water, and I can't imagine a few years has changed that."
"A few hard years, old man," Jonathan replied, voice as tart as the lemonade. "Nathan Jacobs may have been a devoted husband and father whenever he happened to return from the sea, but he wasn't a very good provider if I'm any judge of things. You might want to aim for that mulberry."
Daniel rose casually, then twisted to hurl the ball into the bushes at the bottom of the terrace. A chorus of complaints rose in its wake. He gazed thoughtfully down at the quaking vegetation. "Let's talk no more about this with present company, eh, Johnny? He was their father, after all."
Jonathan shook his head and reached once again for his tea. "Never could stand to hear an unkind word said about anyone, could you, Danny boy? You even speak highly of Enoch McCreedy, and everyone knows what a tartar he is. This tendency will come back to bite you one day, you see if it doesn't. There are scoundrels in this world that deserve to be recognized."
"And there are three little boys who deserve to have a bit of fun," Daniel countered, a frown creasing his brow. "Although, at the moment, I can only locate two of them."
Inside the manor, the third boy crept stealthily up to the terrace doors. He was so intent on secrecy that he didn't hear the front door open or the manservant murmur a welcome. He plucked the dusty gauze curtains aside and reached for the tarnished gilt handle.
Cynthia Kinsle Jacobs was shrugging out of her pelisse in the entry hall, bone weary of traveling and dejected by her failure. She caught a movement in the pier glass above the nearby hall table. She blinked, and the picture came into focus. "John Wesley Jacobs," she barked from long practice, "what are you doing?"
The ball was instantly out of sight around his back as he turned to smile at her, his slender face as pale as the worn curtains behind him. She ought to be cross with him for making mischief in Jonathan's house, but it was difficult when she'd missed him and his brothers so much the last three weeks. She kept envisioning them as they had been since moving from Bristol: pale, quiet, listless, more like three little statues than the active boys she had raised. She supposed that rather than being cross she ought to be thankful that he was playing again. But instead she found herself looking over her shoulder for her brother.
Jonathan was the least indulgent of uncles. She supposed it was her fault for not trying to reconcile with her family sooner. He had been no more ready to be an uncle when she had shown up on his doorstep a month ago than she had been at becoming a mother at seventeen. She had had nearly nine years to get used to the idea; Jonathan had had less than six weeks. He was obviously trying to do his duty and just as obviously finding that duty entirely too trying. He had grown used to the quiet solitude of the house since their parents had passed on, and three little boys were three children too many.
If only the Admiralty had been able to tell her what had happened to Nathan's effects! She had been counting on some money coming to light so that she might be able to continue to live with her sons alone. Now that was impossible. They had no choice but to remain here, and any misbehavior by her sons would only make that situation more difficult.
And John was clearly up to something. Even if she hadn't just caught him in the act of some mischief, she'd known he was guilty. He looked entirely too much like his father had after breaking his promise and admitting he was shipping out for the fifth time. She'd often thought the only thing missing from her husband's wide-blue-eyed look of innocence was a halo over his curly blond hair. At least he had that now. That and three sons who looked just like him. She forced the thought to the back of her mind and focused on John.
"Oh, hello, Mother," he nodded politely, edging away from the terrace door. "You're back a bit early."
"Too early for you, I'm sure," Cynthia replied, schooling her face to firmness. "Shouldn't I have to go upstairs to find you at this time of day, sir? What have you done with your Uncle Jonathan?"
John's blue eyes opened even wider, but he didn't stop moving away from the terrace door, threading his way around the three dark chairs and settee the room possessed. "Why, nothing. He's about somewhere."
With a swirl of her black widow's gown, Cynthia stepped to cut off his escape through the open door of the sitting room. "And will I find James and Adam in that same somewhere?"
"I believe they're out on the terrace." John pointed with his free hand, his shoulder shaking only a trifle as he balanced the ball with the other hand. "Perhaps you should go check on them."
And he was as creative as his father about getting out of scrapes as well. She lay a hand on his shoulder and propelled him back across the thick carpet toward the terrace door. "Let's go see them together, shall we? Unless, of course, you'd like to explain what you're doing in the sitting room with a ball in your hand?"
Her son sighed, deflating in defeat. "Oh, very well. If you must know, we were having a game with Mr. Daniel."
"Mr. Daniel?" Cynthia frowned, absently smoothing her dark blond hair back into the coil at the nape of her neck.
"You must have met him, Mother," John insisted. "Uncle Jonathan said he's known you since you were born."
Cynthia blinked, thoughts momentarily arrested as time seemed to slip backward. She sank onto the settee. "Not Daniel Lewiston?"
John nodded. "Yes, that's him. I knew you knew him. Uncle Jonathan said you were going to marry him before you met Father."
Cynthia shook her head with a twinge of melancholy. That was one subject she had thought long settled and one person she had thought never to meet again. But she should have realized she'd meet him if they continued living here.
"Your uncle says entirely too much," she said. At her son's frown, she felt compelled to explain. "Your grandmother and grandfather wanted me to marry him, John, but please believe me when I say that Daniel Lewiston and I would never have suited."
To her dismay, she saw her son regarding her with narrowed eyes as if he very much doubted the truth of her last statement. She couldn't imagine why, but she felt a blush heating her cheek. "Now, John, this is none of your affair. All you need know is that the only man I've ever loved was your father."
"Of course," John nodded complacently. "But now that Father's dead, you have to marry again, Uncle Jonathan..."
"Said so," Cynthia finished for him, deciding to say a few words herself when next she saw her dear devoted brother. "I've heard entirely too much on that score from your uncle, the vicar, and every matron in London, so don't you start on me too."
He crossed his arms over a narrow chest and affixed her with a stern gaze. "Surely you must see reason, Mother. Uncle Jonathan has no use for us. And he says we do not have enough money to live on our own."
She met the forthright gaze with difficulty. How dare Jonathan tell her son such things! For all that they were true, it was too heavy a burden for an eight-year-old boy. From an early age, John had been a help to her when Nathan was gone, going with her to the nicer parts of town to carry the socks and clothing she mended to augment Nathan's pay and later caring for his younger brothers while she made the rounds herself. Lately, however, she had noticed that he seemed intent on taking control of more and more situations, bossing his brothers incessantly and trying to do the same for her. It was as if he no longer trusted the adults around him.
"We'll do all right, John," she told him, praying God would understand the need for her lie. "I don't want you to worry about such things. Haven't I always taken care of you?"
"You are an admirable mother," he replied, small chin so high she didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the mature words. "But I'm the man of the family now that Father's gone. And it is my duty to take care of you."
Pride swelled along with a lurking desperation. "That is very brave of you, John," she murmured.
He bowed his head in noble acknowledgment and strolled toward the door. Just as he reached it she remembered he still held the ball. "John," she began, rising.
The terrace doors burst open, flooding the room with light. Cynthia jumped in surprise. Then, heart pounding in her throat, she fell back from the huge dark shape that stumbled toward her. One of the chairs toppled over with a crash, and she reached out instinctively to protect John. Surely some sort of a madman had blundered into the house! She could hear Adam and James shouting and peered closer but all she could make out in the bright sunlight was a misshapen form that seemed to have three heads.
"Ah ha!" the largest of the heads yelled at her oldest son. "Now I have you!"
"No, you don't!" John contradicted, pulling away from her to dash into the entry hall and clatter up the stairs. The creature made to follow him and as it ambled past her, she finally brought it into focus. A tall man, heavy, disheveled, and thoroughly out of breath, with Adam riding one shoulder and James the other. She was so surprised that they were past her before she could stop them.
"James, Adam!" she commanded, gathering her wits. The behemoth slid to a stop at the foot of the stairs, one hand clutching the carved newel post. His massive shoulders straightened as if he knew he was in trouble as well. Not a madman, then. She couldn't imagine who would be so bold as to dash about with her sons on his shoulders, but the game clearly had to stop before Jonathan caught them. Two heads swung back with wide blue eyes in an uncanny mimic of her late husband. She offered them her sternest gaze, ready to scold both her sons and the man who carried them. "Is this how you behave in your uncle's house?" she demanded.
Seven-year-old James looked thoughtful, reminding her more of Jonathan than her Nathan. Four-year-old Adam wiggled on his perch, further wrinkling his black short pants.
"I'm afraid it's my fault," rumbled the gentleman in a voice that was familiar, although deeper than she seemed to remember it. He turned carefully so as not to upset the boys, and Cynthia realized it was Daniel Lewiston.
He was much changed since the last time she had seen him, then a young man of eighteen whom she had found impossible to understand. His mahogany brown hair was shorter although that only made the waves more noticeable. His eyes seemed darker, but then the gray had always reflected his emotions. She wondered what he was feeling now--embarrassment if the crooked smile on his large, full-lipped mouth was any indication. However, probably the biggest change was the state of his usually tidy clothing. Now there wasn't a patch that wasn't snagged, smeared, or rumpled. But then, her sons in the best days seemed to have that affect on people.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Lewiston," she said with a smile, concerns fading. Surely Jonathan would know Daniel was playing with the boys. Daniel had obviously had a hand in helping her children recover their usual high spirits, although whether that was a blessing or a curse just now she wasn't sure. "It's good of you to take the blame for these antics, but I very much doubt you had to hold my sons' feet to the fire to get them to agree to this game."
Daniel found it harder to smile back. Cynthia Kinsle had always been able to send a shiver up his spine. It wasn't so much that she was beautiful, although that might have intimidated others. Her hair, soft and rich as the honey of its color, those thick-lashed eyes as dark as violets, and her slender figure would have made her the toast of the ton, if she had ever come out as expected. She'd certainly broken every heart in the neighborhood before eloping with a handsome naval officer of dubious family. His mother and hers had mourned, so sure were they that she and Daniel would make a match. He had never had such delusions. Cynthia was clever and spirited, and she delighted in making fun of a certain gangly youth. Just standing near her made him feel maladroit. They would never have suited.
But there was something different about her now, standing there with the sunlight making her widow's weeds look nearly purple. Perhaps it was the dark circles under her eyes or the way her long fingers plucked at the dress, a dress that reminded him of why he was playing with the boys in the first place. "You'd be surprised how much coaxing it took to get them to have a little fun," he replied. Adam wiggled again, and he reached up and set the little fellow on his feet, with James beside him.
"No," she said quietly, "I would not be surprised in the slightest. Unfortunately, Mr. Lewiston, my sons do not have the luxury of having fun whenever it so pleases them. James, Adam, go find John and take yourselves upstairs to your room. I'll join you shortly."
Daniel offered them a smile, but they hung their heads and shuffled upstairs. He supposed they were in for a scold, and he turned to Cynthia to explain again that any misconduct was entirely his own fault. The unshed tears in her violet eyes stopped him.
"Are you all right?" he felt compelled to ask.
Cynthia refused to let him see her cry. She was tired from the journey and suddenly sick of being the one to stop the games and never the one to play them. Most likely he hadn't meant to criticize how she was raising her sons, but the words stung just the same. Like it or not, they were no longer on their own. They would have to live according to Jonathan's rules. "I assure you, Mr. Lewiston," she managed, "I'm quite all right. Thank you for taking time to play with the boys. Now if you'll excuse me."
"Of course," he bowed her out, telling himself he ought to be relieved. But if anything, he was more troubled than he had been in days and he wasn't surprised to find, as he turned to the terrace, that clouds had moved in to spoil his perfect summer day.