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Before the Scandal
Lieutenant Colonel Phineas Bromley didn't expect paradise. True, after ten years spent fighting the French in Spain, anywhere seemed an improvement, but as he crossed the bridge over the River Ouse and onto Quence Park land, he felt more as though he were stepping into hell.
His friends, former soldiers now, had written him over the past two years and told him a little about the condition of his family's ancestral property, so he knew the fences would be in need of repair and the granary roof would leak. The estate, set in the middle of East Sussex, was still pretty enough, but he scarcely noticed the green of the grass or the crisp freshness of the air. Ten years away. The absence seemed both far too long and far too short.
The uneasiness that had been tangling through him since well before he'd rented the only available transportation in Uckfield, grew into a hard-edged dread. It wasn't that he minded appearing on Quence's doorstep in a hay cart. The problem was what lay beyond the door.
Phineas reached into his uniform jacket and touched his sister's letter again. He'd memorized the correspondence from Elizabeth in the six days since he'd received it and taken an emergency leave from the First Royal Dragoons, but he continued to reread it anyway. According to his younger sister, their oldest sibling William, the Viscount Quence, was seriously ill. Haste was all-important, she'd said, if he wanted to arrive home before it was too late.
And so he put aside the thought of what he must look like, a crimson-coated army officer sitting behind an ancient gray nag in an ancient hay cart. And he put aside the wayhis breathing sped and his heart pounded as he trotted up the main road toward what had once been home. Whatever he felt at the moment didn't matter. At this point the only thing worse than setting eyes on his brother again would be arriving too late to do so.White, with tall, narrow windows and the typical asymmetrical sprawl of a house expanded over several generations, Quence sat on a slight rise overlooking a pond and a large landscaped garden complete with faux-ruins and a moldering marble statue of Apollo. It had been a beautiful, half-wild place rampant with deer and foxes and, he'd been certain as a boy, a faerie giant or two.
For a moment he closed his eyes. Before he'd left, before the scandal, there'd been a princess there, too. Dark-eyed Alyse Donnelly. He hadn't heard a word about her in years, but if her plans had gone as intended she would have married a prince or a duke by now. For a spritely young lady of fifteen, she'd had a very clear idea of her future. Phineas smiled as he remembered her, then shook it off again. He had the present to worry about.
Other than looking as though it needed a coat of paint and some pruning done in the garden, Quence Park looked exactly the same as it had the last time he'd set eyes on it...which was strange, because he didn't feel at all the same. Except for the nagging guilt, of course. That had been his companion for the past ten years, and he imagined he would carry it with him to the grave. Now it sat like an old, not-quite-comfortable coat, loose enough to let him breathe, but tight enough that he had to make a conscious effort to do so.
He sent the cart up the curving road to the front of the mansion. A groom he didn't recognize trotted out from the stables at his approach, and Phineas climbed down from the seat. "This needs to go back to the hostelry at Uckfield," he said as the grizzled fellow took the bridle in one hand."Yes, sir," the groom returned, sending him a curious look before he escorted the cart, with his trunk on the back, around the side of the house.
Wide, shallow granite steps, a griffin perched on either side, marked the front entry. Keeping his pace steady, Phineas topped them to pause on the pillar-edged portico. The front door opened.
"Hello, Digby," he said to the ancient butler looking at him from behind a nose the shape of a hawk's beak. Digby had been old ten years ago. Now it looked as though all of the color had been leached out of him, part of his metamorphosis into a stern, efficient statue.
The butler blinked his pale eyes. "Master Phineas? Good heavens! Come in, sir!"
No black armband, no black crinoline draped anywhere...Phineas let out a slow breath. The worst of his fears hadn't come to pass. That didn't mean he wouldn't be in for it, or that he didn't deserve every bit of bile hurled in his direction, but at least no one had died. "Are William and Elizabeth to home?" he asked, still reluctant to step through the front door. He'd lost that privilege, if not in their eyes, then in his own.
"They are in the dining room. I shall have a plate set for you, sir."
"No, that won't be necessary. I. . . may not be staying."
"You might go and tell them I'm here. Give them a moment before I barge in." The butler nodded, but before he could do more than turn around, Phineas grabbed his arm. "Wait. On second thought, I'd best barge in." Otherwise he might not have the chance to see them at all.
"As you wish, Master Phineas."
Squaring his shoulders, Phineas strode through the front door. It felt more momentous than it undoubtedly looked, but his insides were rattling about so loudly that he wouldn't have been able to hear anyone else's opinion.
He still remembered precisely where the dining room lay down the long hallway, and he stopped outside the half-open door. Inside, low conversation touched his ears, enough that he could hear the voices but not the words being spoken. His younger sister and his older brother. The only family he had.
Just get it over with, he ordered himself. For God's sake, he'd faced down cannon fire with less trepidation. Death, though, was likely easier than this. All that entailed was giving up. With a last shallow breath Phineas pushed open the door.
And he realized two things: One, William didn't look even close to being on his deathbed, which meant Elizabeth had lied to him; and two, once he'd heard that they were sitting down to dinner he should have asked whether or not Lord Quence might be entertaining. Bad form for a soldier, and even worse for a prodigal son.Before the Scandal. Copyright © by Suzanne Enoch. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.