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Sex with Ashe Bedevere was one of the 'Great Pleasures' of the Season and not to be missed, which explained why Lady Hargrove was favouring him with a splendid pout and a peek-a-boo glimpse of her bosom beneath a carefully draped sheet in hopes of persuading him to stay.
'Surely a few more minutes will not matter,' she protested with a coy look, letting the sheet slip ever so provocatively over the curve of her hip.
Ashe shoved his arms through the sleeves of his shirt, dressing rapidly. Whatever he'd found appealing about Lady Hargrove's feminine assets earlier in the evening had vanished in the wake of the note that had come for him. He pulled on his trousers and favoured her with a sinful smile designed to placate. 'My dear, what I had in mind for us takes more than a few minutes.'
The promise of deferred pleasure was enough. Ashe eased out the door before she could argue, all his thoughts fixed on one goal: getting to Bedevere, the Earl of Audley's family seat. Never mind that Bedevere was three days' ride away. Never mind he hadn't any idea of what to do once he got there. Never mind he could have answered numerous requests to return home in the past years and hadn't. Never mind any of it. This time it was different. This time, the solicitor had written two desperate sentences. 'Come home. Your father has died.'
Ashe sprinted the last few streets to his rooms on Jermyn Street, fuelled by a sense of urgency and impotence. He'd always thought he'd have more time.
Three days later
God and the devil in the details! Ashe swore none too softly and pulled his bay stallion to a jolting halt. This was Bedevere land? More to the point, this was his father's land? He could hardly reconcile the weed-choked fields and broken stone fences lining the roadway with the once-fertile fields and immaculate roads of his youth. He'd seen plenty of the devil since he'd ridden on to Bedevere land and not much of God. How had it come to this?
A sharp pang of guilt stabbed at him deep and hard. He knew the answer.
It was his fault.
The current summons home wasn't the first, but it would be the last. Ashe could have come home long before when the first bout of illness had settled in four years ago. He could have come home when his brother had gone round the bend two years ago for reasons still unclear to him. But he hadn't and an extraordinary consequence had occurred as a result: the timeless fortitude of Bedevere had faltered, proven fallible at last. He'd waited too long and all this ruin could be laid at his feet.
It seemed an ironic twist of fate that he was now poised to be the curator of a place he'd so willingly fled in years past. The place had been perfect then, so unlike his imperfect self. It was less perfect now and he was still flaweda broken king to rule a broken Camelot.
There was no use in putting it off. Ashe kicked his horse into a canter for the last ride home. His trunks would have arrived yesterday, signalling that he was not far behind. The aunts had probably been up since daybreak, anticipating his coming, and they would all be waiting.
All four of them. He was their protector now, a role he felt ill suited to play. He supposed that was part of the Bedevere legacy, too; the Bedevere women didn't marry men who had the foresight to provide beyond the grave and the Bedevere males hadn't much luck in living long enough to do it for them.
The rough-kept lands preceding the park were a blessing of sorts in that they prepared him for the sight of the manor. Ivy crawled rampant across the formerly pristine sandstone of the hall's facade. A shutter hung loose from a second-storey window. Flowerbeds were overrun with plants that had long outgrown their intended shapes. Nature was having its way with the onceorderly estate.
Years ago, it had been a point of pride that Bedevere Hall, seat of the Audleys for four generations, was the gem of the county. It might not have been the largest homeSeaton Hall was bigger just a few miles to the southbut Bedevere was by far lovelier with its comely gardens and well-appointed views. From what Ashe could see trotting down the drive, there wasn't much of that left now.
Ashe dismounted and steeled himself for what lay inside. If the outside looked this bad, he could only imagine what had taken place inside to allow such decay to be permissible. A lone stable boy ran up to take his horse. Ashe was tempted to ask him about the state of things, but decided against it. He'd rather see it all with his own eyes.
Ashe doubted he'd even finished knocking before the door swung open and time stalled. Gardener stood there, as tall and sombre as Ashe remembered him, perhaps a bit greyer, a bit thinner, but very much the same. Growing up, Ashe had thought it was funny to have a butler named Gardener and a gardener named Smith, who looked to be long gone from the state of things.
'Mr Bedevere, welcome home.' Gardener bowed, 'I am sorry for the circumstances, sir.'
For a moment, Ashe almost looked behind him to see who else had followed him homethe greeting had been so very formal.
'This way, sir,' Gardener said. 'You are expected.'
Ashe followed Gardener down the hall to the drawing room, making mental notes as they went: bare hall tables, faded rugs and curtains. There was a shabbiness to the house. But most striking was the emptiness. There were no maids polishing the staircase, no footmen awaiting errands. The usual bustle of the hall was silent. There was Gardener and the stable boy. Presumably there were more, including a cook, hopefully, but Ashe didn't want to presume too much. It didn't look promising.
Ashe paused outside the drawing-room door and took a deep breath. Beyond those doors lay a responsibility he'd eschewed for years. He had his reasons. It was a mean act of fate that all his efforts to avoid it had come to naught. The Bedevere legacy, the one thing he'd tried so hard to escape, had landed quite squarely in his lap anyway. Perhaps it was true that all roads lead home in the end.
'Are you ready, sir?' Gardener enquired. With years of impeccable service behind him, Gardener knew how to read his betters and had given him a few seconds to prepare himself.
'Yes, I'm ready.' Or not. Ashe squared his shoulders.
'Yes, sir, I believe you are. Ready at last.' Gardener's eyes held the twinkle of approval.
'I certainly hope so,' Ashe replied with a nod of his head. He could see Gardener's rendition of the tale below stairs already, full of admiration about how the young lord had ridden in, taking no time to fuss over his appearance after a long ride. Instead, he'd gone straight to his aunts.
Gardener had made a habit of seeing the best in him in his youth. Gardener would make him out to be an angel by evening. But if he was an angel, he was a very wicked one. Heaven forbid anyone at Bedevere ever learn what he'd been doing the moment the message of his father's demise had arrived. In hindsight, 'aggressively flirting' with Lady Hargrove seemed akin to fiddling while Rome burned.
Gardener opened the door and cleared his throat. 'Ladies, Mr Bedevere.'
Ashe stepped into the room, noticing the difference immediately. The curtains were faded, but the best of what was left in the house had been brought here. There were vases filled with flowers on the side tables, pillows on the sofas, little knick-knacks set about the room for decoration. Ashe saw the room for what it was: an oasis, or perhaps bastion was a better worda last bastion of gentility against the bare realities that lay outside the drawing-room doors.
His eyes roved the room, taking in the surprising amount of occupants. His aunts were not alone; Leti-cia, Lavinia, Melisande and Marguerite were settled near the fireplace with a man he didn't recognise, but it was the woman seated just beyond them, by the window overlooking the garden, who held his attention. She was of uncommon lovelinessdark-haired with wide grey eyes framed by equally dark lashes against the creamy backdrop of her skin. Even in a crowded London ballroom she would stand out. Ashe suspected she'd chosen her seat away from the others in an attempt to be discreet, a task her beauty no doubt made impossible under the best of circumstances. Today, in a room peopled by elderly ladies and a middle-aged man, there was no opportunity for obscurity.
Ashe approached and gave his aunts his best bow. 'Ladies, I am at your service', but his gaze kept returning to the corner. Her comeliness was not all due to her good looks. It was in the way she held her slender neck, the straightness of her shoulders, both of which said, 'Notice me, I dare you.' For all her delicate beauty, she was no shy maiden. He could see it in the jut of her chin and the frank stare of her gaze in spite of her efforts at anonymity.
Leticia swept forwards, white-haired, regal and perhaps more fragile than Ashe remembered. They were all more fragile than he remembered, except for the siren at the window. She'd been watching him since the moment he'd entered the room, no doubt wondering and assessing, just as he was now. She was no one he recognised, but apparently she was important enough to be invited to his homecoming. More importantly, she'd been invited into the household in the aftermath of a significant death.
Ashe was cynical enough in his dealings with the world to be suspect of such an invitation. The aftermath of funerals were private matters for families, a chance for the bereaved to mop up the particulars of the deceased's life, reorganise and carry on. The weeks after a funeral were intimate times. Strangers were not welcome, although strangers invariably came in the hopes of grabbing a scrap from the table. Lovely, dark-haired females aside, Ashe had a word for those importunis-tic people: carrion.
Leticia took his hand. 'Ashe, it's so good of you to come. I am sorry we could not wait to bury him,' she said softly.
Ashe nodded. He knew that, counting the time it had taken for a message to reach him in London, at least six days had passed since his father's death. Even with all haste, he'd known he'd miss the funeral. One more regret to heap on an already laden platter.
'Come meet everyone. This is Mrs Ralston, our dear Genni.' She gestured fondly to the lovely creature at the window. 'She's been our rock in our time of need.'
Genni was far too girlish a name for the woman. She rose and extended her hand, not to be kissed, but to be shaken. 'It is good to meet you at last.'
Ashe did not miss the note of censure in her tone, so subtly hidden no one would notice it except the intended recipientor was that his own guilt-plagued imagination imposing its own frameworks?
'Mrs Ralston, a pleasure, I'm sure,' Ashe returned drily. Whoever she was, she'd already inveigled her way into the aunts' good graces. He doubted she was a companion, at least not a successful one. Her demeanour was far too confident to play that submissive role and her clothes too fine. Even the simple lines of her afternoon gown of forest-green merino were cut with the perfection of a high-class dressmaker; the lace trim at her collar and cuffs was demure, but expensive. From the looks of Bedevere, affording that calibre of companion made the point moot. But it raised others. If she was not a companion, what was she?
'Genni has bought Seaton Hall for restoration.'
'Is that so?' Ashe said politely, but his speculations ratcheted up a notch. That probably wasn't all she meant to take advantage of. A woman choosing to take on the responsibilities of an estate alone was quite unusual. Perhaps there was a husband at home? Leticia didn't make it sound as if there were and there was no more information forthcoming. A young widow, then. Interesting. Young widows often had the most peculiar histories, some of which didn't necessarily include husbands.
Leticia moved on to complete introductions. 'This gentleman is your father's solicitor, Mr Marsbury. He's generously stayed on until your arrival so the estate can be settled.'
Ashe extended a hand, taking Mr Marsbury's measure. He was an older gentleman, bluff and florid, reminding Ashe of a country squire. 'Thank you for your timely note. I hope you haven't been unduly inconvenienced.'
Marsbury's demeanour was as firm as his handshake. 'It's been no trouble. It made more sense to wait for you to arrive since everyone else involved is already here.'
Ashe gave 'Genni' a cool glance. Did the unfamiliar beauty have a stake in his father's estate? A kaleidoscope of unpleasant scenarios ran through his mindif she was a widow, was she a late-life lover his father had taken? Did she hope to be provided for?
With that pile of satiny black hair and the delicate sweep of her jaw, Ashe had no trouble believing she could entice even the most resolute of men into a proposal, a difference of thirty years in age notwithstanding. Ashe raised his eyebrows in query. 'Everyone else?'
Marsbury met his gaze evenly. 'Your cousin, Henry Bennington.'
Cold suspicion took up residence in Ashe's stomach. 'What does my cousin Henry have to do with anything?'
'Henry has been a great support these past months.' The beauty spoke up from her station by the window. Ashe imagined he saw the quicksilver lightning of emotion flash in the depths of those grey eyes. Did the beauty carry a tendre for Henry? Henry of the blue eyes, golden hair and manipulative manners?
Ashe met her gaze evenly over the heads of the others. 'Forgive me if I find that hard to believe. Cousin Henry's only notable distinction, other than his penchant for collecting literature, is being the nearest male heir should my father die without surviving issue; a prospect, I assure you, he has long dined out on.' Most especially, Ashe knew from London gossip, in recent years when Ashe's brother, Alex, had no longer been a contender and Ashe's own lifestyle seemed destined to place him on the explosive end of a jealous husband's pistol.
Marsbury folded his arms across his broad chest and coughed to indicate his disapproval of Ashe's comment.
'Mr Bennington will join Mrs Ralston and ourselves in the study where we can discuss everything privately.'
Ashe noted Mrs Ralston looked up with surprise that was rapidly masked. An act, perhaps?
Ashe turned his hard stare on Marsbury, his voice firm with command. 'Yes, we certainly shall.'
So, the reading of the will was to involve the three of them. Certainly not the menage a trois he was used to, but the dynamics were the same: two on one. Ashe wondered if the delectable Mrs Ralston and Henry had cooked something up together. She'd been quick to defend him and that had raised Ashe's suspicions.
Whatever webs his cousin had been weaving in his absence, Ashe wanted it understood that Henry Ben-nington had no authority here, nor did pretty, dark-haired Americans. Ashe Bedevere had returned.