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"What are you doing?"
Courtland Becket said something unlovely under his breath as the hammer came down hard on the side of his thumb rather than the small brad he was tapping into place.
"Cassandra, how many times have I asked you not to sneak into my workshop without knocking?"
"Dozens, I suppose," she said, hopping up onto the workbench, her slipper-clad feet crossed at the ankle and swinging back and forth tantalizingly close to Courtland's face as he sat on his work stool. "You know I don't listen when you bluster."
"I do not bluster," he said, tapping the brad home and then inspecting the finished project that had occupied him for most of the morning. "There. Done. What do you think?"
Cassandra leaned forward and took the thing from him, held it up in front of her. "Very fine workmanship, Mr. Becket, as always. You do exemplary work. What is it?"
He took the thing back, prepared to show her. "It's for Rian, to help him on with his boots. Lookthese two hooks go into the loops at the top of either side of his boot. The hooks are connected to this handle. Rian positions his foot in the boot as best he can, and then attaches the hooks, then pulls. He'll still probably have to stamp his feet entirely into the boots, but this should help him a lot."
"Amazing. Let me try it. To see if it really works, I mean," Cassandra said, hopping down from the workbench.
"You aren't wearing boots," Courtland pointed out, as he'd been doing his best to keep his gaze averted from her slim, shapely ankles as she had deliberately goaded him by dangling them in his face.
"Yes, but there's a boot over here. Rian's? Of course it is, so you could test your brilliance." She slipped out of her right shoe and grabbed the boot.
"So, pretending I only have the one arm and hand, I simply step into the boot as far as I can, and thenoh, pooh, it went on by itself. I didn't realize Rian had such large feet. And the top comes up past my knees. How on earth do you men walk in these things?"
Courtland sat back on the stool, smiling as Cassandra comically clomped around his workshop in the boot, her skirts pulled up, her tawny curls bobbing as she stepped, limped, stepped again.
She knew what she was doing, of course. She was bedeviling him again. On purpose. With full deliberation and malice aforethought.
And he was watching her, entranced, again. Unable to help himself. Wondering how long it would be before he had to leave Becket Hall forever, or else break her heart.
"Enough, Cassandra. Why did you come down here?"
She boosted herself back up onto the workbench and lifted her right leg toward him, wordlessly telling him to remove the boot for her. Which would expose her bare leg all the way to her knee.
He'd rather chew the last of the metal brads in the pocket of his leather apron.
"Papa wants to see you in his study," she told him, lowering her leg, at which time Rian's boot simply slid off her foot and onto the floor. "Hand me up my slipper, if you please, you big spoilsport."
Courtland bent down, retrieved her slipper, and raised himself up in time to see her bare foot extended, her leg uncovered to her knee as she held up her hem once more. "Cassandra, for the love of God "
She smiled down at him as he took hold of her bare ankle and pushed the slipper onto her foot. "There, that wasn't so painful, was it? Honestly, Court, anyone would think you've never seen a female ankle before."
"And if I say I have, that would mean you'd then quiz me about whose ankle it was that I've seen, so I'm not going to say it," Courtland said, getting to his feet as he untied his apron and laid it on the workbench. "Who else will be there?"
"Where?" she asked him, grinning like the minx she was. Her mission in life, for today, forever, seemed to be to do her best to drive him mad, send him screaming into the Channel to drown himself, just to be away from her. The temptation of her.
"Never mind, I was a fool to ask. I'll find out soon enough."
Cassandra hopped down from the workbench again, chasing after him as his long strides took him out of the basement workshop and toward the stairs leading up to the first floor of Becket Hall. "Spencer, and Rian, and Jack. Jacko, of course. Oh, and Chance."
Courtland turned around, causing Cassandra to bump into him. She looked up at him, smiling, and he could smell the sweet jasmine in her hair. "Chance? When did he get back?"
"I didn't mention that? Honestly, Courtland, if you didn't spend half your time moldering down here in the cellars, you'd know more. Chance and Julia and the children arrived at least an hour ago. He may have news on Edmund Beales."
"I do not molder."
"I suppose moldering is in the eye of the beholder, then," Cassandra said, dancing past him and up the steps, leaving Courtland to follow after her. He always seemed to be following after her, even while trying to tell himself that she'd become too old for him to consider her his personal responsibility and old enough to know that her grown-up self caused him problems he refused to face.
As a child, she had tagged behind him everywhere, and he'd been flattered, delighted. She'd taken her first real steps to him. She'd run to him when she fell, scraped her knee.As her papa, now known to the small world of Romney Marsh as Ainsley Becket, hid in his study, turned away from the world in his grief, it had been Courtland who had sat Cassandra on his knee, taught her sums and her letters, read her stories, held her hand when the storms raged in off the Channel.
He'd tied her sashes when they came undone, taught her how to fly a kite, sat her on her first pony, held her above the waves when, as all Beckets had to do, she learned to swim.
He'd instructed her to stay away from the shifting sands that ran along the shore to the east of Becket Hall. He'd shielded her from the teasing of her older siblings, explained to her that her papa did indeed love her, very much, even if sometimes he was too sad to look at the child who, day by day, more closely resembled her dead mother.
And that had all been fine.
When Cassandra was two. When she was five, ten. But at fourteen? Yes, that's when it had all begun to change, slowly at first, without him really noticing what was happening.
She still followed after him everywhere he went. But now it was to tease him, to goad him, to dare him. Look at me, Courtland. Look, I'm growing up. What will you do with me now?
She was his sister, damn it!
No. Not his sister. Never his sister. He knew who he was. He knew who she was. She was the daughter of the house,Ainsley's child. He was the mongrel, the boy who had slept and eaten with the dogs, the boy who had been an object of pity, brought home because what else was to be done with him?
He owed Geoffrey BaskinAinsley Beckethis life. His loyalty.
Ainsley Becket owed him nothing, least of all Isabella's daughter.
Courtland shook his head, disgusted with that part of himself that refused to accept what had to be, and bounded up the stone steps to the main floor of the large house, turned and headed for Ainsley's study. He needed to concentrate on Edmund Beales, the monster so long thought dead, but the same man Rian had gone head-to-head with only a little more than a month ago, in France.
Beales had come out of that encounter wounded, but not defeated, not dead. And now he knew that Ainsley, his old partner Geoffrey Baskin, also still lived.
A reckoning was coming, and coming soon, and the tension inside Becket Hall was fast becoming unbearable.
All of the Beckets had gathered in Romney Marsh a month ago, to talk, to plan, to prepare for that final reckoning, discuss the many ways Edmund Beales might come at them. When, and where. Would he chose sudden violence, or stealth?
It had been a large gathering, all eight Beckets and their wives and husbands, a menagerie of children.
Morgan, now the Countess of Aylesford, and her husband Ethan, their young twins, Geoffrey and Isabella.
Chance and his wife Julia, bringing with them their three children.
Fannygood God help them all, now the Countess of Bredeand Valentine, the most long-suffering and piteously besotted fellow in creation.
They'd joined Eleanor and her husband, Jack Eastwood, who resided at Becket Hall along with Spencer and his wife Mariah, and their two children.
And Rian. Rian and his new bride, Lisette. Edmund Beales's daughter.
God. Lisette's introduction to the family had caused some tense moments, and still did, unfortunately, especially with Jacko, Ainsley's second-in-command during the years in the islands.
But they were all together again, all of Ainsley's eight "acquired" children who had survived the attack on the island; his seven hostages to fortune, and the child of his beloved Isabella.
Almost eighteen years after that last day, that terrible, unforgettable day, they had rebuilt, grown, possibly even healed.
The ships, the Black Ghost and the Silver Ghost had been dismantled once they'd reached what would be called Becket Hall, the boards used to construct Becket Village, housing the survivors of the attack on land, the betrayal at sea.
Life, often painful, had moved on only to have Edmund Beales resurface, bringing danger to all of them.
Courtland had never asked Ainsley about the warning Beales had written in the blood of his victims: You lose. No mercy, no quarter. Until it's mine. He didn't think it was his place, especially when Ainsley had been so cruelly hurt, outwardly strong for his crew, for the survivors, but dead inside for too many long years.
No one had asked when they'd all first come together again last month. But perhaps it was time. Time to know what it was that Edmund Beales had wanted and could not find, the reason behind the tortured bodies, the eventual massacre.
Until it's mine.
They had all thought Beales wanted Isabella, but it would seem that the man had coveted more than his friend's wife. What? What had the man wanted? What might he still want?
Courtland stood outside the closed door to the study, certain it would be he who would finally be the one to ask that question.
Cassandra entered the drawing room to see Julia sitting with Mariah, the two with their heads together, speaking quietly.
"Secrets?" she asked, sitting down beside Julia.
"Don't tell me one of you is breeding again. I'm too young to be an aunt so many times over."
Mariah colored beneath her flame-red hair, and dipped her head. "You weren't supposed to guess. We all have enough on our plates with Elly at the moment, with with everything else that's going on. The men need to feel free to concentrate on finding Beales, putting an end to this long nightmare."