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With a hard-eyed stare, Damien Knight, the earl of Winterley, swung the long-handled axe up over his head and slammed it down with savage force, cleanly splitting the upright log down the middle. The sharp crack of the blow ripped across the snow-frosted field like a gunshot, rousing the squabbling blackbirds that fed upon the frozen stubbled cornstalks. His movements were smooth, his mind blissfully blank as he threw down the axe, adjusted one of his thick leather gloves, and picked up the splintered halves of wood, stacking them on the fortresslike pile that had grown over the past weeks to looming proportions, as though no amount of fuel could build a fire capable of warming him. Positioning the next log on the tree stump that served as his chopping block, he dealt it, in turn, a death blow.
He repeated this ritual again and again, concentrating intensely on the task, allowing it to absorb his tattered mind, until suddenly, in the nearby field, he noticed that something had caught his stallion’s attention.
His white warhorse was his only companion in this place. The stallion had been idly pawing through the frost, nibbling at whatever bits of grazing it could find, but now it lifted its head and pricked up its elegantly tapered ears toward the drive. Damien wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his arm, rested his other hand on the axe’s handle, and squinted against the white glare of the mid-December day, following his horse’s stare.
The stallion let out a belligerent whinny and raced toward the fence, its ivory tail streaming out like a battle pennant. He watched the animal for a moment in simple pleasure. It must have been a month since Zeus had worn a saddle. Both of them were reverting back to a state of nature, he thought, scratching the short, rough, black beard that had grown in on his jaw. Without surprise, only a dim flicker of distress, he watched as his identical twin brother, Lord Lucien Knight, came cantering up the drive astride his fine black Andalusian.
Zeus raced alongside them on the opposite side of the fence, trumpeting challenges to the black for encroaching upon his territory. Fortunately, Lucien was too skilled a rider to lose control of his mount.
Damien dropped his chin almost to his chest and let out a sigh that misted on the crisp, cold air. He supposed his brother had come to check up on him.
He did not fancy the notion of anyone seeing him like this, but at least with his keenly perceptive twin, he did not have to pretend that he was right in the head.
Lucien and his bride of three weeks, Alice, were living in Hampshire, a two-hour ride from Damien’s ramshackle manor house, newly bestowed on him by Parliament along with his title. Not that he knew much about being an earl. His new rank seemed merely to have made him the servant of the bloody politicians. Picking up his last split logs and adding them to the woodpile, he cast an uncertain glance toward the run-down, overgrown mansion they had given him. Constructed of white-gray limestone, Bayley House, circa 1760, was modeled on a classical Greek temple with a triangular pediment atop four mighty columns. Damien thought it looked like a mausoleum.
It felt like one inside, too, sprawling hectares of empty floor bereft of furniture, cold enough to preserve a corpse. He half fancied the place was infested with ghosts, but he knew too well that it was only he who was haunted. He had neither the gold nor the energy to see the house brought back to life and properly appointed, nor did he particularly care. Spartan that he was, he did not require luxury.
Upon arriving here in November shortly after Guy Fawkes Night, he had set up camp and had been bivouacking near the fireplace in what had once been the drawing room. His fellow officers from the regiment—what few survivors there were—had scattered and returned to their families, but at least he was still surrounded by his equipment, all sixty pounds of which he had carried on his back for hundreds of miles on marches through Portugal and Spain. It comforted him: his trusty tent; his scuffed and battered tin mess kit and wooden canteen; his greatcoat for a blanket; his haversack for a pillow; a bit of cheese, biscuit, and sausage to sustain him; a few cigars. A soldier needed little else in life, except, of course, for liquor and whores, but Damien had given these up in an earnest effort to mend his fractured wits through the ascetic life.
’Sblood, though, he missed the lasses a hundred times more than the gin, he thought with a wistful sigh. Lucien could have his refined lady wife; Damien preferred low, bawdy wenches who knew how to handle a soldier. The mere thought of a soft, willing female roused his body’s starved needs, but he ignored his agonized craving for release, coolly setting the axe out of the way as his brother approached. He could not risk anything that might upset his precarious equilibrium.
Snow flew up from under the black’s prancing hoofs as Lucien reined in, vibrant and pink-cheeked with the cold, his silvery eyes sparkling with the aura of the newlywed. He sat back in the saddle for a moment, rested his right fist on his hip, and shook his head, looking Damien over in sardonic amusement. “Oh, my poor, dear brother,” he said with a lordly chuckle.
“What?” Damien growled, scowling a bit.
“How charmingly rustic. You look like some her- mit woodsman. Lancelot, maybe, after he became a monk.”
Damien snorted. “So, she let you out from under the cat’s paw for a few hours, eh? When’s your curfew?”
“Only long enough for my sweet lady to remem- ber afresh how desperately she adores me. When I return—” He flashed a wicked smile. “—the welcome home ought to be worth it.” His luxurious black wool greatcoat whirled out behind him as he dismounted with an agile movement. Smart and elegant, full of Diplomatic Corps finesse, Lucien reached into his coat and presented Damien with a newspaper as he strode toward him. “I thought you might like to see what is going on in the world.”
“Napoleon still under guard on Elba?”
“That’s all I need to know.”
“Well, burn it for fuel, then, though you certainly seem well supplied in that particular. Planning on burning a witch?” Lucien looked askance at the giant woodpile.
Damien regarded him wryly and accepted yester- day’s copy of the London Times without further argument.
Lucien passed a shrewd glance over his face. “How goes it, Brother?” he asked more softly.
Damien shrugged and turned away, abashed by his concern. “It’s quiet here. I like it.”
“And?” Lucien waited for him to report on his mental condition, but Damien dodged the unspoken inquiry, avoiding his twin’s penetrating stare.
“Needs work, of course, this old place. Fences to be mended. We’ll plant barley there”—he pointed to the fields—“oats there, wheat over there, in the spring.” If it ever comes, he thought.
“God, grant me patience. Do not be deliberately obtuse, please. I didn’t ask how your house is. I want to know how you’re doing. Has there been any re- peat of—”
“No,” he cut him off, flashing him a warning look. He had no desire to be reminded of his hellish delirium—or bout of madness or whatever the devil it had been—on Guy Fawkes Night. He hated even thinking about it. The booming of the festival cannons and exploding fireworks had played a kind of trick on his mind, deluding him into thinking he was back at the war. For a full five or six minutes, he had lost track of reality, a horrifying state of affairs for a man so highly trained to kill.
When he thought of how easily he could have hurt someone, it made his blood run cold. He had exiled himself here since that night and did not intend to show his face in Society again until he had somehow cured himself, was no longer a threat to the very people he had sacrificed his innocence to protect, and had become once more the ironclad military hero the world expected him to be.
He noticed Lucien studying him, reading him in his all-too-knowing way, those silvery eyes flashing with formidable intelligence. “Still having nightmares?”
Damien just looked at him.
He did not want to admit it, but the ghastly dreams of blood and destruction were even more frequent now, as though his addled brain could not unbur- den itself of its poisons fast enough. The rage in him was a frozen river like the ice-encrusted Thames that wrapped around his property. He knew it was there, but the strangest thing was he could not quite . . . feel it. He could not feel much of anything. Six years of combat—of ignoring terror, horror, and heartbreak—had that effect on a man, he supposed.