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Ten Years later
The call penetrated even the laughter and chatter of the Guards' Officers' Mess.
Christian had been Viscount Grandiston for nearly a year, which was long enough for him to respond to it but not long enough to be pleased about it. He was also just leaving with a group of friends to go to the theater.
At the second bellow he turned to look across the crowded room misted by pipe smoke.
"Hades," he muttered. Middle-aged, bulldog-jawed Major Delahew was beckoning him. These days, Delahew was a paper pusher in the regimental administration, but he was a tough old soldier with an honoroable career, and a superior officer to boot. He couldn't be ignored.
"Don't leave without me," Christian said to his friends, and worked his way through the crowded room. What bit of paperwork had he bungled this time? Peacetime soldiering was a devilish bore, perhaps especially when a man had known nothing but action in his career.
Delahew's glare turned into a rueful smile. "Sorry, didn't mean to bellow an order. So demmed noisy in here. Drink?"
Christian had to accept the offer and sit at the man's table.
Delahew eased into his chair, arranging his wooden leg at an angle. Such things were sobering evidence of the consequences of war, but these days Christian could almost find thought of wounds exciting.
He was coming to regret transferring to the elite Life Guards. When his father had inherited the earlier kingdom of Royland, he'd urged the move. He'd seemed to think it would be a treat for Christian, though he hadn't been bli8nd to the advantages of his heir in the palace guard.
With the French and Indian War over, Christian had been ready for lighter times, and playing the military beau in London had promised amusement. London was the center of the world, full of good company and lovely ladies. He'd be close to old friends, especially Robin Fitzvitry, now Earl of Huntersdown, and Thorn, the most eminent Duke of Ithorne.
His new life had amused for a while, but he was beginning to itch for action, any action, near or far. Delahew would hardly choose this moment to discuss some adventurous posting, alas.
Christian took the glass of wine and sipped, hoping he could cut this short. There was a wager running to do with the reigning actress, Betty Prickett, with Christian the favorite.
"Got a relative by the name Jack Hill, Grandiston?"
Christian returned his attention to Delahew. "Yes, sir."
"Gads, I hope not." A spark of alarm fizzled. No one would send Delahew to inform him of a death in the family. "Younger brother. About seven years of age."
"Ah." Delahew drank. "Thought you might be able to cut through a knot."
"Sorry not to be able to help, sir." Christian drained his glass and declined more, hoping that was it. "I could ask my father. There might be a family reason he called a son John — that's Jack's baptismal name — though now I think of it, he'd been reduced to using the evangelists by the twelfth child."
"Twelve?" Delahew stared.
"Ninth was Matt, sir, then Mark, Luke, and Jack."
"My parents haven't lost a one."
"Twelve," Delahew said, shaking his head. It could have been admiring, but Christian supposed he was thinking it unnatural in the extreme.
"Thirteen, actually, sir," Christian said, to rub the salt in. "Benjamin, aged three."
Silence fell. Christian glanced at the door. His friends were leaving. "This other Hill in trouble, sir?"
"No, no," Delahew worked his heavy jaw as if chewing stringy meat. "Letter came from York asking for any information about a Jack Hill, regiment unknown, rank unknown, but an officer said to have died at Quebec. No one of that name in the casualty lists there. Probably an inheritance issue, but I'm not about to order a search of records on a fool's chase like that."
"No, of course not. Get many like that, sir?"
The offices of the Horse Guards had become the headquarters for administration of the whole army.
"Every now and then. Even more difficult if it's one of the common men. Many are illiterate so their names end up spelled by guess, and they often enlist under a false one, trying to escape the law or some woman."
He drained his glass. "Charging the enemy's guns is a damned sight easier than paper pushing, I can tell you."
"I'm sure it is, sir." Christian judged the moment right and rose. "I'll ask my father, but 'Hill' is such a common name. There might be no connection at all."
"My regards to Lord Royland. Sorry to have bothered you."
Christian lied and assured him it had been no bother at all, and caught up with his friends as they were climbing into a carriage.
"Come on!" Balderson called, and dragged him into the overcrowded coach just before it lurched off. "Even though you'll capture the citadel, you handsome bastard, and a future earl to boot."
"If I were a bastard, I wouldn't be in line to inherit, would I? Which would make my life a damned sight easier. I wouldn't be the prime target of all those husband hunters."
The young men all gave theatrical groans.
"And we can't even avoid them," said plump Lavalley. "Plaguey hostesses seem to think Guards officers exist for their convenience."
"Wouldn't mind being caught by a rich husband hunter," said Greatorix, "but they want to buy a title."
True enough, Christian thought, squeezed into a corner with an elbow sticking into his ribs. What's more, an impoverished tile beckoned a predatory heiress like a wounded rabbit appealed to a fox.
He was certainly no richer than he'd ever been. The earldom had increased his father's income, but when a man has thirteen sons and daughters all needing their start in the world, he needs every penny.
That was why Christian's presence at court and in the upper circles of power should serve the family. Juicy posts, privileges, and sinecures were always floating around. He was willing to do his best there, but he was balking at his father's latest strategy — using Christian as bait to bring a rich heiress into the fold.
He put that out of his mind and turned his attention to enjoying the evening. The play was excellent and the farce suitably ribald. In the greenroom he made progress with the pretty Prickett, but she wasn't willing to be captured yet.
It was only later, rolling home drunk and merry in another overcrowded carriage, that Delahew's question popped into his mind again."
It was too noisy for most to hear, but Arniston, crushed up against him, slurred, "If you're going to puke, Hill, turn the other way."
Christian ignored him, the name "Jack Hill" echoing in his mind. The name he'd given for that ridiculous marriage — how long ago? His sozzled brain protested arithmetic, but it had been just before he sailed. A bit over ten years, then.
But in all that time, it had been as if it hadn't happened.
Moore's death had been reported as a drunken brawl with an anonymous opponent. The Froggart woman's doing, he supposed, and he was grateful to her for that, at least. No one in the regiment had doubted the story. Everyone assumed that the girl's vengeful relatives had done for him, and the news that she was only fourteen had meant everyone applauded the deed.
When a vague story had circulated that a wedding had been involved, it had been assumed that Moore had married her and that his death had ended it. Within days, the regiment had begun its preparations for departure, and that had been that.
There'd been the long sea voyage, with him sick as a dog for half of it, and then the excitement of a new world and the demands of learning to lead and fight. Somewhere in the midst of it he'd received a letter from the aunt to inform him that the girl was dead. He'd been sorry for her short life, but he couldn't claim any deep concern.
After that, he'd given it not a thought. Until now.
Someone in Yorkshire was inquiring about Jack Hill.
There couldn't be any connection, but an icy worm was creeping down his back, and he'd learned to pay heed to it.
What if the letter had been a lie, and his bride still lived?
He didn't want to be married. Growing up in a modest manor house bustling with infants cured a man of that, and one advantage of having seven healthy brothers was that his father had never pressed him on the matter.
Until now — not to secure the line, but to ensure the family's fortunes by hooking wealth through marriage.
Christian knew his father wasn't motivated only by money. When the ear came to Town for Parliament, he shook his head over his son's "solitary state" — struth, did he not understand barracks life? — and lack of wifely comforts. Christian didn't think his father could be as naïve as to assume him celibate, so he assumed he meant a well-managed household. And children.
His father, both his parents, were dear souls and a loving couple. So much so that they produced children constantly. After him had come Mary, Sarah, Tom, Margaret, Anne, Elizabeth, and Kit. Then the easily remembered Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and finally, he hoped, Benjamin. Surely his mother must be past childbearing age now.
He had no memory of his solitary reign as eldest, but a clear one of a new baby every couple of years, demanding attention and filling the household fuller and fuller. No wonder he'd been keen to escape when the opportunity presented.
He'd been ten, and Lisa was squalling in her cradle when his father had been approached by the guardians of the young Duke of Ithorne, one of whom had been Christian's uncle. Thorn's father had died before he was born, so he'd been born a duke and an only child. His guardians had belatedly realized he needed a companion of his own age, and Christian had been the lucky choice.
He remembered his parents' tears, but they'd seen the value of the opportunity. With boyhood callousness, Christian had felt nothing but the thrill of adventure. He'd traveled to Ithorne Castle to become the young Duke's foster brother with all the space anyone could want, and everything else as well — horses, boats, weapons, travel.
He was in Town at the moment, and his level head could be useful. Christian would stroll around for a visit tomorrow and talk this over. Delahew's query had to be some wild coincidence. His long-forgotten bride couldn't be stirring from the grave.
"Hill, m'man!" Someone poked him hard. "Wake up."
"Not asleep, and it Grandiston."
"Well, I beg your pardon, your damned grandstandandiston!"
Struth, it was Pauley and he was a fighting drunk.
"No offense, Pauley. As you say, half asleep and with weird dreams. Dreamt I was married."
The whole coach rocked with the cries of alarm, and as it pulled to a stop, the bunch of young bachelors tumbled out laughing to stagger off to their beds."