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The wind keened outside the ancient walls of Beresford Abbey. Bane, following on the heels of the ancient butler along the stone passageway, noticed that only one sconce in five had been lit. Blown out by draughts? Or a sign of his welcome? No matter which, the gloom suited his mood.
'You should have left the dog in the stables,' the butler muttered over his shoulder.
Bane glance down at Ranger, part-lurcher, part-wolfhound, pressed to his left side. 'The dog stays with me.'
The butler tutted. 'And how shall I announce you, sir?' He gestured to the open door a few feet along the gloomy corridor.
A wry smile twisted Bane's lips. Was there a protocol to be followed? If so, he didn't know it. 'I'll announce myself.'
Looking shocked, but also relieved, the doddering old man turned back, shuffling down the dim stone corridor shaking his head. A wise old bird for whom discretion was the better part of valour.
Bane approached the doorway on feet silenced by carpet. He paused at the entrance to the cavernous chamber. The flickering light from ten-foot-high torcheres on each side of the heavily carved four-poster bed fell on the features of the shrunken man propped up by pillows. A face lined by dissipation and framed by thin strands of yellowing grey hair straggling out from beneath a blue silken nightcap. Bony shoulders hunched in silk valuable enough to feed a family of four for a year shook with a spasm of coughing.
A dead man breathing his last. Finally. The chill inside Bane spread outwards as he took in the others clustered at the edge of the circle of light. Two women, three men, some of whom he recognised as family. He'd investigated all of his relatives to avoid unnecessary surprises.
The older woman was his aunt, his grandfather's daughter, Mrs Hampton, returned home as a widow. Her gown was the first stare of fashion as befitted her station. Tight curls of grey hair beneath a lace cap framed a middle-aged but still arresting face. As a young woman she'd been lovely, according to his mother, and too proud to make a friend of a lass from Yorkshire. At her side stood her son, Gerald, an almost too-pretty lad of seventeen with a petulant mouth and vivid blue eyes. The other young man was a distant fourth cousin. A Beresford through and through, slight, dapper, with blond hair and light blue eyes and a man his grandfather would have been happy to see as his heir had Bane not stood in the way.
An aspiring tulip of fashion in his early twenties, Bane had seen Jeffrey Beresford in town. They had no friends in common, but they bowed in passing—an acknowledgement of mutual distrust.
The other woman he did not know. Young, with a willowy figure, standing a good head taller than Mrs Hampton, she had inches on both young men. A Beresford also? She had the blonde hair and blue eyes to match the name, though she was dressed simply, in some dark stuff bespeaking modesty rather than style. The desire to see that statuesque body in something more revealing caused his throat to close. Surprised him.
As a boy he'd had lusty thoughts about anything in skirts. As a man, a businessman, he had more important things on his mind. Women like her wanted home and hearth and a man to protect them. His life was about taking risks. Gambling all, on the chance for profit. No woman should live with such uncertainty. They were too delicate, too easily broken as his mother had been broken. The pain of her death had been unbearable. Not something he ever intended to experience again. Nor was it necessary. He was quite content to avoid the respectable ones while enjoying those who only wanted money in exchange for their favours, the demi-monde.
So why couldn't he keep his eyes from this most respectable-looking of females? Who was she? He wasn't aware of a female cousin, close or distant. Not that there couldn't be a whole host of relatives he didn't know about, since he didn't give a damn about any of them. But as his gaze ran over the girl, a prickle of awareness raised the hairs on the back of his neck. A sensation of familiarity so strong, he felt the urge to draw closer and ask for her name.
Yet he was positive they had never met. Perhaps it was the wariness in her expression that had him intrigued.
A blinding flash of lightning beyond the mullioned windows lit the room in a ghostly light. An image seared on Bane's vision. Stark otherworldly faces. Mouths dark pits in pale skin as the air moved with their startled gasps. They looked like the monsters who had peopled his childish nightmares. His enemies. The people who wanted him dead, according to his uncle. His mother's brother.
In truth, he hadn't expected to see family members here. He'd preferred to think of the old man alone and friendless as he gasped his last.
Just like Bane's mother.
If not for this man, his mother might be alive today and the guilt of her death would not weigh so heavily on Bane's shoulders. No matter how often he tried to put the blame where it belonged, on the man in the bed, he could not deny his own part in the events of that day. His thoughtless anger that had put her at risk. Hell, even his very existence, the reason she had run from this house in the first place.
Power and wealth brought invulnerability. His mother had drilled it into him since the day he could understand his place in the world. And that was why he was here. That and to see the old man off to the next world. He simply couldn't pass up the chance to see the dismay in the old earl's gaze.
He could count the number of times he and the old man had met face to face on one hand. But he had always been there, in the shadows, a threatening presence. Forcing his will where it was not wanted. Guiding Bane's education, trying to choose his friends, but his mother's brother had been more than a match for the earl. Bane still remembered his horror as he stood with his uncle on the doorstep of this house and listened to an argument over him, about money, about cruelty and murder. Accusations that had haunted him as a youth. Fed his anger at this man.
But his temper was not the hot flash of his youth, the kind that brought trouble to him and those around him. It was a cold burn in his gut, controlled, and carefully directed. Guilt over his mother's death had taught him that lesson.
Since then, Bane had striven to be the gentleman his mother always wanted him to be. He had battled for the respect of the scions of other noble houses at school and held his head high. But at heart he was the son of a coalminer's daughter. And proud of it. Mining was in his blood and showed in the scars on his knuckles and the muscles in his shoulders developed at the coalface.
He was more Walker than Beresford, whether or not he had any Beresford blood.
The lightning faded. Shadows once more reclaimed all but the man in the bed. As his coughing subsided, the earl's gnarled fingers clawed at the bedsheets, then beckoned.
Resistance stiffened Bane's spine. He wasn't about to be called to heel like some slavering cur. But, no, apparently this particular summons was not for him. The old man must not have seen him yet, since it was the two women who moved towards the bed, Mrs Hampton nudging the younger one ahead of her, making her stumble.
Bane took a half-step, a warning on his lips, but the girl recovered inches from the earl's warding hand, mumbling an apology.
Who was she? Some indigent relative looking for crumbs in the final hours? There would be no crumbs for any one of them. Not if Bane had a say.
'So you are Mary.' The old man's voice sounded like a door creaking in the wind. 'She said you were no great beauty, but not that you were a beanpole. You take after your father.'
'You knew my father?' the girl asked, and Bane sensed how keenly she awaited his answer. Her body seemed to vibrate with the depth of her interest.
The old man grimaced. 'I met him once. Kneel, girl. I'm getting a crick in my neck.'
Like a supplicant, the girl sank down. Anger rose hot and hard in Bane's throat on the girl's behalf, but she seemed unperturbed by the command and gazed calmly into the dying man's face.
She spoke again, but her low voice did not reach all the way to Bane in the shadows beside the door.
The old man glared at her, lifted a clawed hand to twist her chin this way and that. Glimpses of her profile showed strong classical features, a straight aristocratic nose. Lush, full lips. A narrow jaw ending in a decided chin. Not a classical beauty, but a face full of character.
The sight of the old man's hands on her delicate skin caused Bane's hands to fist at his sides, made him want to go to her rescue. An impulse he instantly crushed. A weak old man could do her no harm. And Bane had no interest in her, despite her allure.
She was not his type of woman.
Ranger growled, more a vibration under his hand than a sound. Bane glanced down at the dog and signalled him to settle. By the time he looked back, the old man had released his grip on the young woman. 'No,' the old man said, answering the question Bane had not heard. 'My reasons are my own.'
The girl's shoulders seemed to slump, as if she had hoped for a different response.
Bane remained still in the shadows, content to watch a little longer, content to choose his own moment to reveal his presence.
The old man peered into the shadows on the other side of the bed. 'She'll do,' he said with a triumphant leer. His smile was a mirthless drawing back of lips over crooked yellow teeth.
The woman, Mary, jerked back. 'I have given my thanks, my lord, I do not need your approval.' Her words rang with defiance. Brave words, but the voice shook.
Bane ruthlessly quelled a tiny surge of pity. He had no room for pity or mercy.
Beresford wheezed a laugh. 'Bold piece, ain't you. No milk-and-water miss. All the better.' He flicked his fingers in dismissal. The girl rose to her feet and turned.
Bane knew the moment she saw him. The widening of her eyes, the hesitation, the flare of recognition in her gaze, not recognition of him as a person, but of his presence. The connection between them was a tangible thing, a twisting invisible thread that kept their gazes locked. And he felt ..something. A tightening of his body. The kind that heralded lust. Not something he wanted or needed right now.
He shook his head, a warning to remain silent, and it seemed she understood for she strode back to Mrs Hampton's side as if she hadn't seen him at all. An unwanted trickle of admiration for her quiet calm warmed his veins.
He dragged his gaze back to the man in the bed. It was time to be done with this farce. Bane forced himself not to square his shoulders or take a deep breath. He was no boy worried about his acceptance. He belonged here and he cared not a whit if they thought otherwise. He signalled Ranger to lie down, yet still he hesitated to take the first step.
The earl again looked over into the shadows on the far side of the bed. 'You said he would come,' he quavered.
A man trotted up to the bed. Tight lips. Eyes that darted hither and yon, never resting long enough to be read, bald pate shining. 'He is expected, my lord. I sent word as you ordered.' A dry, officious voice. A clerk of some sort. Solicitor, Bane decided.
'The storm must have delayed him.' The solicitor rubbed his palms together with a papery sound. 'Perhaps tomorrow.'
'Tomorrow will be too late.'
A flash of lightning punctuated his words, the room once more a colourless tableau of frozen players.
Bane stepped into the lamplight in that moment. His shadow loomed black over the bed and up the wall behind the dying man like some portent of evil. 'I am here.'
The old man's gasp was eminently satisfying. No doubt he had carried the hope his elder grandson would miraculously die at the eleventh hour.
Thunder rolled beyond the window, drowning out the old man's muttered words.
Bane's lip curled. It no longer mattered what the old man said. Beresford Abbey was a few short breaths from being passed on to a man who likely had not a drop of Beresford blood.
Oh, the old man had tried to make the best of an heir he despised once he'd discovered Bane had survived to stake his claim. He'd tried to force the twelve-year-old Bane into the appropriate mould. The right sort of school, the right education. As much as his mother's family would permit. And Bane had used what he needed to take back what was rightfully his. His mother had fled the Abbey because she feared for Bane's life. She had lost her own, trying to keep him safe. The powerlessness he'd felt that day still haunted him. He'd fought. How he'd fought. And those men, they had laughed at him. Mocked him. After that day he had sworn he would never let anyone make him feel weak and helpless again. He never had. And never by the man lying in the bed.
He'd used the best of both his worlds. The strength of the coalminers he'd worked alongside in summer holidays and the power of the nobility given by the title he would inherit. He'd taken control of his life.
No one would ever manipulate him again. Not his mother's brother, or the earl.
Bane glanced over at the watchers. If one of them, just one of these relatives, had taken pity on his mother, offered her their support, he might have been able to find a little mercy in his heart. But they hadn't. He bared his teeth in a smile that would do Ranger proud.
The old earl looked him over, his red-rimmed, faded blue eyes watery, his face a picture of scorn. 'So, the scavengers are circling.'
'You sent for me, Grandfather,' he said his tone mocking.
The earl's gaze lingered on Bane's face and he shook his head. 'A curse on your mother for sending my son to an early grave.'
Bitterness roiled in his gut at the vilification. A drunken lord driving his carriage off the road was hardly his mother's fault. His chest tightened until his lungs were starved. Not that he was surprised by the accusation, just by his own visceral reaction, when there was nothing this decayed piece of flesh could do to her any more. 'But for you, my mother would be alive today.'