FORSAKING THE PRIZE
ONCE UPON A TIME, Tobias Randall had expected a simple future; education, honest employment, and family. But the Duke of Romsey had stolen that bright future and discarded him to the whim of fate and the dangers of the sea.
Tobias glanced about him with a keen eye, surveying his current surroundings. Romsey Abbey wasn’t the home he’d expected to return to. However, since his brother Leopold resided here, managing the estate for the Duchess of Romsey, he had little choice but to remain as a guest if he wanted to be close to his brother.
“Can I be of service, Mr. Randall?”
Tobias turned toward the voice and found Romsey’s butler waiting at the doorway. “I’m well set up here, Wilcox.”
“You may retire for the night.” Leopold strode into the room and waved Wilcox away. “Come with me, Tobias.”
Tobias glanced around as he followed along. “I thought you might be busy for a while with Her Grace.”
“The duchess has retired for the night,” Leopold said in a tone that allowed no discussion. “It’s been an exhausting day for her.”
Tobias swallowed, conscious that Leopold may still be very angry with him. “Wilcox is exactly as I remember. How do you stand him?”
“Wilcox has been of great value to the duchess and to me.” Leopold strode up the stairs quickly. “Unlike some I can name.”
“Mama never trusted him and I don’t either,” Tobias said quietly as he followed along, gawking at the richness about him. He had learned the hard way when to trust his instincts. There was something wrong about the man, but he couldn’t put his finger on what.
Leopold hurried him along a dim hall. As they rounded a corner, Tobias spotted a maid and a footman before a door somewhat further along, whispering urgently to each other. They stopped speaking suddenly and then the maid scurried away. What exactly was inside that room that could be so diverting? And then it struck him. The mad countess was likely housed in there.
Leopold stopped one door shy of that bedchamber and turned the knob. “Here you are.”
Wonderful! Berthed next door to a mad woman. He hoped she didn’t wail during the night and whisper evil through the walls. Tobias crossed the threshold and whistled. If he’d thought downstairs was impressive, he’d been mistaken. This room could easily be part of a palace. Deep red velvet curtained a wide bed, roaring fire burning in the hearth, and a set of large windows that he could easily escape through. Certainly not the worst sleeping place he’d been in. He glanced over his shoulder at Leopold. “Bit small, isn’t it? Have you anything grander?”
“Tobias,” Leopold growled in warning. “Do not push my patience.”
“Sorry. The change is a lot to take in. After all, just a few weeks ago I was a seaman aboard a whaler. I never expected a warm welcome at Romsey.”
Leopold slapped his shoulder. “It does take some getting used to.”
A knock sounded on the door and Leopold bid them enter. Two footmen set a copper tub before the fire and two more carried pails of steaming water to fill it. Tobias shook his head. He’d not had a servant for more than a decade. This would undoubtedly take some getting used to.
Another servant crossed the threshold and when their eyes connected Tobias scowled. Eamon Murphy. They’d never gotten along when they were young and the look in Murphy’s eyes hinted he hadn’t entirely forgotten the pranks Tobias had played on him when he was a boy. “What the hell are you doing here?”
Murphy’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I really didn’t miss you.”
“The feeling is completely mutual.”
“Your valet sent these for Tobias, Mr. Randall.” Murphy laid a clean shirt and trousers on the bed. “Your brother has engaged me as his assistant. He runs the estate, I do his leg work. Just like old times. My first duty is to see that you are fit to be seen.”
Tobias scowled and crossed his arms over his chest. “Try it and you might loose your teeth.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Leopold spluttered. “Have you two not outgrown this childish competition. Tobias, you will be made presentable and Murphy will assist.”
Murphy shrugged. “Very well.”
“Fine,” Tobias groaned. “Can’t have Murphy under the lash on his first dangerous assignment. As much as I would like to continue in this vein, how about we renew hostilities tomorrow? Do we have an accord?”
Murphy nodded. “We do.”
Tobias smiled, glanced at his brother, and then began to laugh. “God I missed this. Good to see some things haven’t changed, brother. All right. All right. I give in willingly. I’ll behave.”
“See that you do,” Leopold warned.
Tobias shrugged off his coat and waistcoat, ignoring how Murphy picked them up with two fingers and set them aside. He loosened his neck cloth and ripped the shirt over his head.
Behind him, Leopold gasped and he remembered others might not care for the state of his back. He kept the view from Murphy as he kicked off his footwear, only to remember there were more scars circling his ankles.
“Murphy, leave us,” Leopold murmured quietly. Murphy snatched up the clothing and fled, leaving an uncomfortable silence in his wake. “What happened, Toby?”
Tobias glanced up at the intricately molded ceilings and sighed. It had been too much to hope for that Leopold would not ask. “I was unhappy. Dissenters are punished.”
Leopold took a step forward and touched the scars on his back. “My God have you even seen this?”
Tobias shrugged. “No. I have not had much opportunity to gaze at myself in mirrors. There’s nothing you can do about it. Put it from your mind.”
Leopold pushed him across the room until he stood between a set of mirrors. He could see himself from all angles. Every pain he’d suffered was before his eyes. White scars crisscrossed his back, flexing under his muscles in a way that even he found repulsive. He turned from the view. “As expected.”
“This is not what I expected,” Leopold growled. “The duke said you were well cared for.”
“The duke lied, or else has a different definition of care than most people.”
“How can you not be furious?”
“The Duke of Romsey is dead. Cousin Edwin is dead, and the young duke doesn’t look a bit like either of them. He’s your son, right down to the perfect sweep of hair across his ears. He has our mothers’ dimples. There is no one left to be angry with.”
Leopold raked his hands through his hair. “Damn him. No wonder you wrote what you did.”
“I didn’t know our cousin was dead until I returned to England or considered that the duchess might read my letters. Please believe me, I never meant to do her any harm.”
Leopold embraced him. “You’re my brother. My mischievous, troublesome brother. Of course, I believe you.”
When the embrace turned into a battle of wills, as they had often done when he was a boy, Tobias quickly escaped. “Too slow old man.”
Leopold laughed; a sound Tobias would never grow tired of hearing. “It was easier when you were shorter.”
“And considerably weaker. That is no longer the case.”
A grin crossed Leopold’s face. “I’ll keep that in mind should I need to bring you back into line.”
Tobias spied a crystal decanter across the room and poured himself and Leopold a drink, but his mind returned to the woman locked up next door. Her image flashed before his mind. Prim figure, tightly bound dark hair, pale green eyes wide with fright. “What will happen to Lady Venables now?”
Leopold perched on the edge of the large bed. “I don’t know. You scared Blythe quite badly but, according to Mercy, she hasn’t been herself for a long time. Losing her husband and son at almost the same time took a toll. Let us hope the damage isn’t permanent and that she will recover.”
Tobias swirled his whiskey around in the glass. He knew what they did when a ship—a grand lady of the sea—was destroyed beyond repair by battle, no matter how lovely her lines. They were scuttled and left to rot in some out of the way port where no one cared. A mad countess would fare little better. “If she doesn’t recover?”
“We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Tobias crossed to the window and flung them wide. Night had fallen over Romsey Abbey and the grounds were bathed in moonlight. He swung the windows wide, feeling the bite of cool night air whip across his chest. He had a pretty vantage point from his chamber. He could see for miles.
In the distance, he spotted the rooftops of his old family home, Harrowdale, just visible through the woods. A pang of longing shot through him. The old house was boarded up, kept exactly as his parents had left it before their deaths, and likely belonged to Leopold now. He’d stayed there since his return, and if Leopold allowed, he thought he’d like to live there. “You never went home.”
“No. I couldn’t face the empty house.”
“It wasn’t empty. I was haunting the place.”
Leopold slapped his hand on his back. “How did you learn to climb so well?”
Tobias glanced at the grounds below. He was exactly the height from the mizzen mast to the deck of the Enid Wren, the American slaver he’d been traded to by the Williamstown’s despicable captain. Back then, he’d scaled the heights willingly to escape the stench of those being transported. Leopold didn’t need to know he’d served aboard a slaver. “Just a skill I picked up during my time at sea.”
Leopold bumped against him. “I’d like to hear more.”
A sound drifted to him on the wind and he looked left and right, but couldn’t discover the source. He thought he heard a woman sobbing. “Perhaps later. There is no rush is there?”
“None at all. We have the rest of our lives to catch up on what we’ve missed.”
When Leopold moved away, Tobias leaned further out the window, peering at the windows closest to his bedchamber. Light flickered in the one containing Lady Venables, and the window was open a touch. Was she conscious at long last?
Leopold laughed. “Get cleaned up and I’ll see you in the morning.”
Tobias spun about. “Until then.”
The door closed with a solid thump and then a key turned in the lock. Tobias stared at the door in shock. Damn Leopold. He thought to make Tobias a prisoner, too.