They left the baby with Mr Darvill’s – or Arthur, as he insisted Andrew call him – mother and made their way to the Pleasure Gardens.
Andrew felt awkwardly as though he were invading a private moment, even though Matt was already doing that, surely. Still, Andrew paid their entrance fee, which seemed the least he could do, and volunteered to entertain himself and Matt if Karen and Arthur wanted some time to themselves.
“Nonsense,” Karen said dismissively. “Come on, I want to see the tightrope walkers.” She tucked one hand into Arthur’s arm and the other into Matt’s. Andrew was definitely interrupting a private moment, although he was starting to reassess exactly how many people were involved in it.
The tightrope walkers were incredibly diverting and Andrew would usually have loved them, but right now, all he could think was how much he wished Jesse were here to enjoy it with him. Jesse would have been horrified by the heights they reached, would probably have tried to cover his eyes or maybe even hidden his face in Andrew’s shoulder.
Andrew’s neck tingled with the imagined warmth of Jesse’s nervous laughter, and his heart ached.
Afterwards, they visited the Rotunda, and then Arthur bought them all a round of drinks from one of the smaller tents along the walkway.
“Not sure what’s in this,” he said, handing out a cup to each of them. “But I’ve been promised it’ll be good for what ails you.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said, accepting the mug and taking a sip. He coughed, eyes watering. “If what ails me is breathing, I think you’re right.”
Karen winked at him. “Cheers,” she said, knocking their cups together and taking a long drink from hers.
An embarrassingly short time later, Andrew was telling them all about the situation with Jesse. “It’s dreadful,” he moaned, head propped up on one hand. “I miss him so much I want to die.”
Arthur looked sympathetic but Matt and Karen both laughed at him. Andrew patted Arthur’s knee; he liked him, he decided.
“You do not want to die,” Karen scolded him. “You want to do something about it rather than just complaining.”
“Yes,” Matt said enthusiastically, waving an arm around. “Why not storm up to Cambridge and declare your undying love? That would be fun, wouldn’t it? I’d come with you.”
Andrew shook his head, eyes closing helplessly. “I can’t. He’ll turn me down. I’ll die. What are you doing?” That last was to Arthur who’d picked up his hand, fingers pressed to his wrist.
“Checking how likely you are to die,” Arthur said shrugging. “You seem in robust health to me.”
“Are you a doctor?” Andrew asked, impressed.
A complicated expression crossed Arthur’s face. “I will be,” he said, sounding determined.
“Oh, um, if I can, well.” Andrew floundered. He didn’t actually know any doctors personally, but he was sure he could find one, if Arthur needed a recommendation.
“It’s no good,” Matt said sadly, laying his hand on top of Arthur’s. “I’ve already offered that. Several times.”
Arthur frowned at them both. “It wouldn’t be the same if I had help,” he said, “but thank you.”
Andrew nodded, looking at the place where Matt’s fingers were spread across Arthur’s pale wrist. He ached, wanting Jesse even more desperately than he had before.
Karen reached across the table and tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Captain,” she said, “I need a dance partner. These two are hopeless dancers.”
Andrew knew that that wasn’t true – Matt, at least, was an excellent, if overly enthusiastic, dancer – but he obediently rose to his feet, offering her his hand.
“Thank you,” she said, leaning into his side. As soon as they were out of sight of the table, she said softly, “Arthur and I love Matt very much.” Andrew startled, even though he’d suspected it was something of the sort. “We were scared to pursue it, of course, but in the end it seemed as though it would hurt us more to let him go.”
She didn’t say anything else but Andrew got the message. “I don’t know which would hurt me more,” he confessed, taking her hand while the band warmed up.
“Yes, you do,” she said and tossed her hair back over her shoulder, setting her best foot forward as the music picked up for the start of the dance.
Andrew needed to stop waking up with a thick head from the night before, he decided, slumped at the breakfast table the next morning. It simply wasn’t seemly for a man of three-and-twenty to be this hungover this often.
Hallie wasn’t helping at all. She kept tinging her spoon against the side of her teacup and laughing when Andrew winced.
“You’re a devil child,” he told her, his voice flat since he didn’t have the energy for inflection this morning.
“Who were you with last night?” Hallie asked. “You came home so late.”
“Oh, sorry,” Andrew said, feeling guilty. “I didn’t mean to abandon you.”
Hallie shook her head. “You didn’t, don’t worry. I was… well, I was out too.”
Andrew’s head shot up, which hurt rather a lot. “You were?” He frowned. “With whom?”
Hallie smiled sunnily. “Friends.”
It was at moments like this that Andrew really wished his mother were here. He wasn’t qualified at all to successfully parent a seventeen-year-old girl. Before he could press her, though, there was a knock at the door.
“Mr Cumberbatch is in the drawing room, My Lord,” the footman said, causing Andrew to nearly drop his jam knife.
“Thank you,” he said, exchanging a worried look with Hallie. Why ever would Cumberbatch have followed them all the way to London? “Offer him some tea, would you please?”
“Very good, sir,” the footman said and bowed his way out.
“Do you think something’s happened to Jesse?” Hallie demanded immediately, which was exactly what Andrew had been worrying about as well.
“No, of course not,” Andrew assured her. “Why ever would they send Cumberbatch to tell us that?” Except they might have done, if a letter had come to Ewell Priory. “Stay here. I’ll call for you if anything’s happened.”
Hallie nodded, her jaw tight.
Andrew wanted to linger over his breakfast – he had a vague memory that his father had never leapt up to attend to visitors – but he simply couldn’t wait.
Mr Cumberbatch was sitting in front of the fire in the drawing room, sipping from a cup of tea and regarding a pile of papers sitting on the table in front of himself.
“My Lord,” he said, starting to rise when he saw Andrew.
Andrew waved him back down. “Mr Cumberbatch,” he said. “Is anything amiss?”
“No, no,” Cumberbatch assured him, watching Andrew closely while he took a seat across from him. “Your family is quite well. I’m here with a message from Mr Eisenberg.”
There was something very slightly questioning in his tone, but he was too good at his job to just come out and ask. Andrew thought he had a perfect right to ask, considering he’d come to the wedding.
“Is Jesse – is Mr Eisenberg well?” Andrew asked eagerly, leaning forward. “Have you seen him?”
“Yes,” Cumberbatch said, simply. “I visited him in his rooms in Cambridge just this week.”
Andrew bit his lip. It wasn’t Cumberbatch’s job to give Andrew detailed information on his husband’s life.
“He seemed very well,” Cumberbatch added, voice gentler than normal.
Andrew nodded, grateful. “He has a message for me?” he asked, hands starting to shake. Jesse couldn’t be asking for a divorce; Andrew hadn’t done anything that terrible, he was sure.
“Yes,” Cumberbatch passed over a few sheets of paper. “Mr Eisenberg wishes to finalise certain financial details. Since he has returned to Cambridge, he has asked me to make sure that and Miss Eisenberg are provided for.”
“Provided for?” Andrew echoed. That sounded very final. “But he is coming back, isn’t he?” The Easter break would begin in a few weeks; Andrew had been counting down the minutes.
Cumberbatch didn’t answer. “He proposes that you should have free access to his account with the bank for household expenditure as well as a small stipend for each of you every month.”
“He’s not coming back,” Andrew concluded, heart sinking. “I don’t care about the money. Does he know that?”
“If you’ll forgive me, you do care about the money,” Cumberbatch said gently. “If you’ll remember, the money was the reason for your marriage in the first place.”
Andrew groaned, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. He didn’t care about looking pathetic in front of Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch had already seen him at his worst, when it looked as though they might lose the Priory.
“I know,” he said unsteadily. “Thank you.”
There was a click as Cumberbatch set a quill pen down on the table. “The paperwork requires your signature,” he prompted.
Andrew shook his head, picking up the pen. He scanned his eyes over the top page, but didn’t take it in. None of the words made any sense right now.
“If I don’t sign this,” he asked, “What will happen? Will he have to come home?”
“No,” Cumberbatch told him. “But Miss Eisenberg will be worse off financially and so will you.”
“All right,” Andrew said. He could take a hint. “Where do I sign?”
Once the paperwork was complete, Andrew walked Cumberbatch to the front door himself.
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to conjure up some of his usual good humour. “We only ever seem to meet when I’m in the doldrums. I hope you don’t dread visiting me too much.”
Cumberbatch smiled obligingly. “Not at all, My Lord,” he assured him. They’d reached the door now and his eyes flicked left and right before saying, his voice almost too soft to hear, “Mr Eisenberg is equally as troubled. He’s certainly taking no pleasure in your estrangement.”
Andrew’s heart did something complicated. It tried to squeeze at the awful thought of Jesse upset and also to leap with something like hope. The result was rather painful.
Still leaning forward slightly, Cumberbatch added, “My family tried to stop me marrying Tom.” He said it quickly, as though he hadn’t meant to confess anything of the sort. “The best marriages are worth fighting for.”
Andrew nodded, swallowing. “And sometimes it’s best to know when to give up.” As much as he loved Jesse and wanted to be with him, he wasn’t going to upset Jesse any further by trying to pursue it. He’d much rather break his own heart than Jesse’s.
Cumberbatch tipped his head, looking sad for Andrew, but he left without any more helpful comments. Andrew closed the door behind him then leant against it for a moment, composing himself.
“Andrew?” Hallie called from the breakfast room.
Andrew pasted on a smile before turning toward her. “Everything’s fine,” he called out brightly. “It was just some boring paperwork. Jesse sends his love; maybe you can go up and visit him soon.”
I do hope you’re well and enjoying Cambridge
I am not so busy. There seems little point going out and being happy when all I do is remember how much happier I was when you were here.
I love you. I’m so glad you married me. I…
Andrew swore, pushing back from his writing desk and crumpling the half-finished, much-edited letter between his fists. He couldn’t send it, of course he couldn’t send it, and even the act of writing it hadn’t helped him to feel any better.
He wished he were a better writer, more able to explain to Jesse not just how he felt but in a way that might make a difference to how Jesse felt.
Sighing and beginning to feel utterly fed up with himself and his inability to shake off this funk, Andrew dropped the letter into the bin and let himself out of the library.
The sound of voices filtered along from the drawing room, which was a surprise since he hadn’t been told they had guests.
“I honestly fail to see why this is so difficult for you to grasp,” Hallie was saying. She sounded frustrated and a little angry, so Andrew sped up his steps.
“Hallie?” he called, reaching for the door and pushing it fully open.
To his surprise, Hallie was in the room alone with Emma’s brother-in-law Justin. He and Hallie were sitting opposite each other, leaning closer together than was strictly appropriate.
The colour was high on Hallie’s cheeks, but not as high as it was on Justin’s. They both looked flustered by Andrew’s arrival, and he narrowed his eyes, wondering what he could possibly have walked into the middle of. Men of Justin’s age shouldn’t be having private conversations with girls of Hallie’s.
“Hello,” Andrew said, smiling blandly from one to the other of them. “This is a surprise.” He let his voice rise up at the end, a gentle question.
“Yes, um,” Justin surged to his feet, clasping Andrew’s hand before quickly releasing it. “I was just passing by. Emma asked me to drop some lady things off with Miss Eisenberg and – ”
Hallie made a sound, pressing her hand to her mouth and rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said firmly, “that was very kind of you. Please thank Emma for the lady things.”
Justin bowed low. “Always a pleasure,” he said, arm twitching as though he was planning to kiss her hand but had then thought better of it. “Will I see you tonight?”
Hallie nodded. “Of course,” she said, looking up at him from under her eyelashes.
Wait, Andrew thought, staring at them. Was she - ? No, they couldn’t possibly be flirting. Hallie was too young to know how to flirt. At least, Andrew certainly hadn’t been very good at it at seventeen. He wasn’t even very good at it now.
“Tonight?” he prompted, because they seemed to have forgotten he was there, staring at each other, their eyes blinking at odd intervals.
“Miss Eisenberg is doing Emma and me the great pleasure of accompanying us to the opera,” Justin said smoothly. He glanced at Hallie then back at Andrew. “You’re welcome to join us, of course.”
It couldn’t have been more obvious that Andrew was anything but welcome. He considered taking Justin up on his offer anyway, since Hallie was his responsibility, but the fact of the matter was that he trusted her. She might be enjoying Justin’s attentions, but she wasn’t going to do anything indiscreet with as obvious a flirt as Justin. And as much as Andrew might privately worry about Emma’s friendship with Jesse, he knew she’d look after Hallie.
“No,” he said, and pretended not to see the relief on both their faces. “I have already made plans, but thank you. We’ll be seeing you later, then?”
“Yes.” Justin brought his hand up in a weak pretence at a salute and nodded at Hallie. “Miss Eisenberg.”
Hallie smiled and they both watched him take his leave. As soon as the door had closed behind him, Andrew rounded on Hallie, eyebrows as high as his incredulity.
“Really?” he asked. “You’re encouraging Justin?”
Hallie sniffed. “I’m doing nothing of the sort. I simply…” She trailed off, glancing away. She was blushing again.
Andrew sighed. “I suppose he is very handsome.”
“Oh?” Hallie asked innocently. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Of course not,” Andrew agreed, not believing a word. It was amusing to see her a little bit flustered and uncertain and, he thought, one of them should be happy about something. He supposed he could wait a little while before putting a stop to it.
“Where are you going tonight?” Hallie asked, apparently having regained her composure enough to quiz Andrew. “You told Just- Mr Timberlake that you had plans.”
That had been a spontaneous lie, but now that Andrew thought about it, Matt had invited him to dine at Haymarket tonight. “I’m having dinner with some friends,” he told her. He hadn’t told her about Matt’s current living arrangements, not sure how to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t lead to her asking far more questions than he could answer.
“Good,” Hallie said decisively. “You’ve been so sad.”
“What? Hallie.” Andrew forced himself to laugh. “I’m fine. A little lonely, but perfectly happy.”
“Hmm,” Hallie said, sounding unconvinced. She bit her lip, looking guilty. “I don’t have to go out tonight, if you’d rather we stayed at home together?”
Andrew shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood to be relentlessly chipper – which was the only sort of behaviour that would completely reassure her. “You go out, enjoy yourself.” He narrowed his eyes, hoping he looked at least a little paternal. “But don’t enjoy yourself too much.”
Hallie smiled. He was a little surprised that she didn’t scold him for worrying, and even more surprised when instead, she crossed the room to him, wrapping her arms around him and standing on tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
“I love you,” she said.
For some strange reason, Andrew’s throat became instantly choked. “I, I, I love you too,” he said. “Obviously.”
Hallie pulled back, her smile a little wobbly. “Obviously,” she agreed. She squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right again soon.”
“Everything’s fine now,” Andrew said automatically because he hated people to know when he wasn’t happy and he especially hated that he’d apparently truly worried Hallie. “How could it not be? I have you.”
To his surprise, Hallie didn’t smile back, just nodded firmly. “That’s right,” she agreed, with a decisive little bounce of her head. “You do.”
Dinner with Matt and the Darvills was as enjoyable as ever. Matt had finished the first draft of his new manuscript and seemed to be in a celebratory mood, forever pulling the ends of Karen’s long, red hair or attempting to make Arthur dance with him.
“No one loves me,” Matt sighed to Andrew when Arthur laughingly rebuffed him for the tenth time.
Andrew stared at him. “Everyone loves you,” he contradicted, since that was certainly true in this house at least.
Matt wrapped his gangly arms around Andrew’s waist from behind and propped his chin on Andrew’s shoulder. “Did you hear about Carey?” he asked.
Karen and Arthur stilled for a moment then busily got to work talking very loudly and clattering wine glasses around with unnecessary force.
“No?” Andrew asked warily. “Is she well?”
“She’s engaged,” Matt said simply then tightened his arms around Andrew as though he expected Andrew to fly into a jealous rage or succumb to the vapours or something.
“Oh,” Andrew breathed, feeling a smile start to spread across his face. He turned around, forcing Matt to let go of him. “Really? To whom?”
Matt was watching him carefully. “A Mr Marcus Mumford. Don’t know him myself but I hear he’s a decent sort of fellow. You aren’t upset, are you?”
Andrew laughed. The last thing he was was upset. “I’m delighted for her,” he said honestly. “Why, did you imagine I was pining for her? You know who I miss.”
Matt made a face “True enough, but I thought with Jesse gone, you might have been considering – ”
“No,” Andrew said firmly, more harshly than he’d intended. “Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.”
Matt waved the apology away. “No matter, it was me and my big – ”
He broke off, looking around in confusion as the sudden sound of urgent banging filled the room. “Whatever is that?”
“Someone at the front door,” Arthur said, rising to his feet. Karen followed him, drawing her shawl around her shoulders and picking up the poker from the fireplace.
Matt and Andrew glanced at each other then followed them.
Of all the people who could be at the door, Mr Cumberbatch’s husband Mr Hardy would never even have occurred to Andrew.
“There you are,” Hardy said, eyes roving around the hallway before narrowing in on Andrew. “We’ve been scouring half of London looking for you.”
He walked straight into the house, barely sparing a nod for Arthur and Karen, who were staring at him in justifiable confusion. Mr Hardy was a big man and he nearly filled their little entranceway.
“What are you doing here?” Andrew demanded, shaking himself out of his shock. “I don’t – ”
“Your driver said he’d dropped you around here so Benedict and me have been knocking on every door in the area.”
A cold feeling of dread started to settle over Andrew. “Why?” he asked. “What’s happened?”
Hardy started to look uncomfortable. “Benedict should probably be the one to – ”
“No,” Andrew said quickly, “tell me now.” He felt a hand slip into his, squeezing reassuringly.
Hardy blew out a breath then squared his shoulders. “It’s Miss Eisenberg,” he said plainly. “She’s eloped.”
“What?” Andrew breathed faintly. “Hallie?” He stopped, forced himself to focus. “With Justin?”
Hardy nodded. “Benedict thinks there’s a good chance you can catch up to them if you leave now.” He looked closely at Andrew. “Are you sober enough to make the journey?”
“Yes,” Andrew said quickly. He was feeling shaky but that wasn’t due to any alcohol. How could he have been so stupid as to let this happen? How could he have let Jesse’s baby sister try to ruin herself like this? He turned to Matt, who was still holding his hand. “I have to – ”
Matt gave him a little push toward Hardy and the door. “Go. Send word if we can help in any way.”
Andrew nodded and followed Hardy out of the house, mind caught up in a daze. “I can’t believe she’d be so foolish,” he mumbled, mostly talking to himself since he barely knew Hardy and there was no reason for Hardy to care.
“Young people in love do stupid things,” Hardy told him, shrugging. He put a hand on Andrew’s arm, turning him toward a side street. “Come on, I left Benedict knocking on doors up this way; he should still be – Aha, there he is.”
Cumberbatch was bounding down a flight of front steps, waving at them. “Oh thank god,” he said, clasping Andrew’s wrist, his voice and gestures more emphatic than Andrew had ever before seen them. “Did Tom tell you what happened?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, voice coming out gravelly. “Thank you for, for coming to find me, I’m not sure what... I don’t...” He broke off, clearing his throat. “What do you think I should do?”
Cumberbatch looked grave. “First thing’s first, we need to find them. We can’t make any more plans until then. If we can catch up to them quickly enough, we may be able to avoid a scandal. If not, marriage will be the only thing for it.”
Andrew swallowed; he felt sick. Hallie was so young, he didn’t want her married off to someone she barely knew. “Are they gone to Gretna Green?” So long a journey would require at least two overnight stops. If Andrew couldn’t reach Hallie before that, she’d be as good as ruined.
“So Mrs Timberlake believes.” Cumberbatch started hurrying along the pavement toward a waiting carriage and Andrew and Hardy fell into step behind him.
“Emma?” Andrew asked. “She knew?”
“No, not at all.” Cumberbatch held the carriage door open for Andrew, then followed him inside while Hardy spoke to the driver. “She became suspicious this evening and questioned Timberlake’s valet, who was unhappy about the plan to begin with and willingly told her everything.”
“We should ask her to come with us,” Andrew said, thinking quickly. “Hallie will need a chaperone, if they’re not already married, and – ”
“Mrs Timberlake has already offered her services,” Cumberbatch assured him. “We’re to pick her up en route.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said again. “You’ve thought of everything.”
Hardy joined them in the carriage and it lurched away into the street. “Did you tell him about the horses?” he asked Cumberbatch. To Andrew, he explained, “I’ve a friend who raises horses in Kent. It’ll mean a detour to pick them up, but we’ll stand a much better chance of catching them on horseback than travelling by carriage.”
That sounded like a fantastic plan to Andrew. He wished that he could clear the fog of shock from his brain long enough to think of other things they might reasonably be doing. “Has anyone sent word to Jesse?” At Cumberbatch’s denial, Andrew nodded, relieved. “Let’s not. It would break his heart to think of Hallie in any kind of trouble.”
“As you wish,” Cumberbatch agreed. He hesitated and then added, “Although it might provide him with a reason to return to London for a time...”
“No,” Andrew said, vehemently. “No, let’s not... I don’t... It can’t be like that.” Andrew couldn’t use his poor guardianship skills as an excuse to lure Jesse back home. He wasn’t selfish enough to risk worrying Jesse just for a chance to see him again.
The carriage pulled up outside Emma’s London residence before Cumberbatch could say anything further. She was waiting on the pavement and jumped into the carriage before any of them could stand or offer her a hand up.
“Oh my god, Andrew,” she said, throwing herself at him. “I’m so sorry. Oh god, can you ever forgive me?”
Andrew squeezed her hands, moving over so she could sit beside him. “I can only thank you,” he said sincerely. “If you hadn’t been so quick on the uptake, we still might not have known anything was amiss.”
“But I encouraged them,” Emma said wretchedly. “I thought it was sweet how taken Justin was with Hallie. He’s never shown much interest in so sensible a girl before; I thought she’d be good for him.” She curled her hands over her knees, knuckles turning white. “If it’s any help, I fully intend to wring his damn neck three times over when we find them.”
Hardy laughed, trying and failing to look abashed when Cumberbatch glared at him. “Let’s catch them first, ma’am,” he said, still grinning. “I was just telling Lord Epsom that we’ll be riding. You all right with that?”
“Yes,” Emma said firmly. “If someone can lend me a pair of britches, I can outride the lot of you.”
Cumberbatch coughed. “I’m not sure that would be – ”
Emma raised a hand. “If you say ‘seemly’, so help me, I’ll...” She coughed. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just so angry with Justin. I can’t believe he’s done this to me.”
Andrew patted her hand. “I’m sure it was at least half Hallie’s idea. She’s very unlikely to have been persuaded to do anything she didn’t already want to do.” And that was the hardest thing to bear; she’d deliberately planned to do this, knowing how much it would hurt him and Jesse and her own reputation.
“Maybe,” Emma sighed. She sagged back against the cushioned seat. “Maybe I’ll only murder him once if that’s the case.”
The journey to Hardy’s friend’s estate took longer than Andrew was comfortable with, but once they were on horseback, eating up the countryside under the horses’ hooves, he had to admit that it had been a good plan.
True to her word, Emma easily kept pace with them: outriding Cumberbatch, who didn’t seem particularly experienced, and Hardy who was keeping pace with him; bending low over her horse’s head to keep level with Andrew.
They stopped to water the horses in Barnet, but didn’t wait to eat or drink themselves. The owner of the coaching inn remembered having seen a couple matching Justin and Hallie’s descriptions just an hour earlier.
It was full-dark by now, just a few confused birds beginning to sing as they continued on along the Great North Road. Andrew’s hip was aching by the time they approached Hatfield, pain shooting down into his thigh with each bump in the road. He hadn’t ridden this long or this hard since before he was wounded, but he wasn’t about to let anything slow him down now.
“Are you well?” Emma called across to him, frowning when he couldn’t hold back a grunt of pain.
Andrew waved away her concern. “Fine,” he shouted back, the wind whipping away his words.
She didn’t look convinced, but didn’t argue, and soon they were stabling the horses at another inn. They were met at the door by a harassed-looking woman in an apron and widow’s bonnet.
“Are you here after the girl?” she asked, sounding anxious. At their nods, she sighed, pressing a hand to her heart. “Thank the lord. I knew something wasn’t right but they were both so very adamant. They’re in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, first on the right.”
Andrew’s heart sank. “Come on,” he said to Emma, grabbing her hand to pull her along. Emma didn’t need any encouragement, racing after Andrew up the stairs.
Andrew took a deep breath, terrified at what he might find, then flung open the door the landlady had indicated.
Hallie cried out in alarm when she saw the door open but Andrew didn’t care about that, scanning his eyes quickly around the room. Thank god, they were both still dressed. Hallie was standing by the window and Justin was sitting on the bed, although he jumped to his feet when he saw Andrew and Emma.
“How did you find us?” he asked, looking startled and alarmed but not nearly guilty enough.
Relief and fear and an unaccustomed anger made Andrew reckless. Pulling off his gloves, he stalked across the room and threw one at Justin’s feet. “Name your weapons, sir.”
“Andrew!” Hallie gasped. “What are you doing? You can’t – ”
Andrew ignored her. He was too angry to listen to her right now, scared he might say something horrible that he’d soon regret.
Justin, too, was gaping at him. “No,” he said, sounding horrified. “I won’t fight you.” He cast a wide-eyed look at Hallie who stared back at him. “You really need to let Hallie – ”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Andrew snapped crossly. He’d had a horrible month and this was genuinely the icing on the cake. If there was one more thing he could possibly do for Hallie and Jesse, it was demand that this not go unanswered. “Friends of mine are downstairs, I’m sure one of them will be your second, now, damn it, will you name your weapons?”
Justin looked shocked and, to be honest, so was Andrew; he was usually dreadful at being forceful. “Pistols,” he stammered out. “But honestly, you really – ”
“Good.” Andrew turned to Emma, who was blinking at him but not, Andrew noticed, telling him that he was wrong to have called Justin out. “Will you take care of Hallie, please? Justin, I’ll see you at dawn.”
“Andrew,” Hallie called again, sounding wretched, but Andrew didn’t stop. His heart felt like it was ripping in two. He knew he should be worried about the duel, but he wasn’t. The only thing Andrew had ever really been good at was serving in the army, and he was a damn good shot.
Hardy was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. “Need a second?” he asked knowingly.
Andrew nodded, grateful. “Yes, please.” He sat down heavily on the stairs, dropping his head into his hands. “Am I wrong to have called him out?”
“Nah.” Hardy lent against the wall, arms folded. “Although, where I’m from, a round or two in the boxing ring would have been more the style.”
Andrew looked up at him, offering a wobbly smile. “Then I’m glad I never lived there; I don’t think I’d be any good at boxing.”
“Are you any good at shooting?” Hardy asked.
“Yes,” Andrew said, insides twinging with guilt; he didn’t want to hurt Justin, not really. “Yes, I am.”
Andrew’s eyes were gritty by the time dawn rolled around, and the pain in his hip had escalated to a constant ache. Neither of these were good conditions to fight a duel, and Hallie’s constant attempts to catch his attention from where she watched him on the other side of the field didn’t help any.
“She shouldn’t be here,” he murmured to Hardy who was handing him his pistols.
Hardy shrugged. “Emma wanted to be here, so there was no keeping her away.”
Andrew swallowed. “If I’m... If anything happens, will you make sure Hallie doesn’t see too much.” Not that he was worried that Justin would deliberately try to kill him, but accidents happened. “And would you – ”
Hardy clapped him soundly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, if the bounder kills you, I’ll make sure Benedict spins a touching tale of love and devotion to your Mr Eisenberg. Quite a way with words, my husband.”
For some reason, that made Andrew’s throat sting. “Mine too,” he said, nodding and trying not to think about how angry Jesse would be if he knew Andrew was putting himself in harm’s way like his. That was, if he cared at all, of course.
“Ready?” Cumberbatch called. He was acting as Justin’s second, but he wasn’t happy about it.
“Ready,” Hardy called back and gave Andrew a reassuring pat on the back. “Aim for the pelvis,” he said, “really painful, won’t kill him.”
Andrew nodded sharply, and deliberately didn’t point out that he knew from experience exactly how much it hurt to receive a bullet there. He took the first pistol from Hardy and stepped forward.
Justin’s hands were clearly shaking where he stood waiting for Andrew. “I could apologise?” he offered as they met, back to back, but Andrew shook his head. He wanted to accept, he really did, but he had to do this; what Justin had done was too serious to atone for any other way.
“Ten paces, gentleman, one shot,” Cumberbatch reminded them, and they set off.
Andrew’s hand was steady on his pistol, but his mind was starting to rebel. He should have left Jesse a note, he thought, not just trusted Cumberbatch to make something up. If he died and Jesse never knew...
He reached ten paces and turned. He brought his pistol up, slipping his finger onto the trigger, and took a steadying breath.
He locked eyes with Justin, who stared back fixedly and then aimed his pistol into the air, high above Andrew’s head. Andrew stared in shock for half a heartbeat, then called out, “Wait!”
Justin waited, pistol still cocked but as yet unfired.
“What are you doing?” Andrew demanded, taking a step forward. “You can’t do that.”
“Technically he can,” Cumberbatch said apologetically. “If he chooses to delope, the duel’s over. That’s simply how it’s done.”
“To hell with what’s done, Benedict, the boy deserves some satisfaction,” Hardy argued.
Andrew ignored them both, striding across the twenty paces between him and Justin, handing his still-loaded pistol back to Hardy in passing.
“What are you doing?” he asked again. Justin was a little bit taller than Andrew and Andrew wasn’t normally very good at confrontation but neither of those things stopped him from going almost nose-to-nose with Justin now.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” Justin told him, spreading his hands helplessly. “Listen, there are things you don’t know. I promised I wouldn’t break a confidence, but I’m sure Hallie – ”
Andrew clasped Justin’s arm, just above the elbow. “I intend to have my duel, Mr Timerblake,” he said firmly. Something wide and trapped filled the edges of Justin’s expression and Andrew took a little pity on him. Lowering his voice, he added, “I have no plans to kill you, you don’t have to be afraid.”
Before Justin could reply, there was a sharp sound from the treeline and then Hallie was running toward them, apparently able to hold back no longer. Behind her, Andrew saw Emma throw up her hands and then give chase.
“Andrew,” Hallie said, skidding to a halt on the wet ground, one hand clutching Andrew’s sleeve. “You’re not to duel any more. I’m sorry, this was all my idea, Justin didn’t want any part in it.”
“That’s not the point,” Andrew told her. “I can hardly call you out and if I do nothing and society gets wind of this, which they will, then you’ll be ruined forever.” He hated the heartbroken look on her face, but there was no helping it.
“For goodness’ sake,” Emma panted, interrupting their standoff. She was slip-sliding through the grass, her slippers clearly getting no grip in the early-morning dew. “Are we having a duel or not? And if not, can we please go inside, it’s freezing out here.”
She’d almost reached them when her foot landed on an unstable piece of turf, causing her to slip. Andrew reached for her automatically, steadying her with his right arm and ending up supporting all her weight for the time it took her to regain her feet. A shock of pain rolled out from his hip, but he ignored it as he always did.
“No,” Justin said firmly, “We’re not duelling. Come on, Garfield, we’ll have tea and then Hallie is going to explain some things to you. Aren’t you?” That last was said very pointedly to Hallie who sighed and nodded.
“Yes.” She reached out for Andrew. “Please?”
Andrew had never been very good at getting angry and he was worse at staying angry. He sighed. “Fine,” he agreed, “but I reserve the right to reconvene if whatever you have to say isn’t very, very convincing.”
Hallie flashed him a smile, all innocence and relief. “It will be,” she promised.
“Thank god for that,” Justin said with feeling and threw his duelling pistol down onto the ground.
There was a moment while the pistol was still falling where everything hung, neatly poised, and then the pistol landed, hammer first on the hard, frosty ground. Andrew used the grip he still had on Emma to push her out of the way, and then there was a flash at the end of the barrel, a horribly familiar bang and –
– and then Andrew wasn’t aware of anything but shouts and pain and encroaching darkness.
Sunlight was shining brightly into his eyes the next time that Andrew was aware enough to take in his surroundings. His eyelids were heavy and his leg ached, but his head felt clear for the first time in what he suspected was a long time.
He tried to sit up, but his arms refused to hold him, so he flopped back down against the pillows.
“Hello?” he called, staring up at the ceiling. It was a very familiar ceiling. It was, in fact, the ceiling of his bedroom back at Ewell Priory. That was a surprise, but actually, rather a lovely one; it was nice to be home.
There was a sound from the corner of the room and Andrew turned toward it, feeling his eyes widen when he took in Jesse, sleepily uncurling from an armchair in a shadowed corner of the room.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, reaching out for him.
A book fell from Jesse’s lap onto the floor but he didn’t stop to pick it up, just crossed the room in a handful of hasty steps and clutched Andrew’s outstretched hand. “How are you feeling?” he asked, squeezing Andrew’s fingers hard. “Do you feel better? Please tell me you feel better.”
“I feel better,” Andrew promised. He wasn’t sure how he’d been feeling before, but Jesse was here and holding his hand so he certainly felt very well indeed.
Jesse closed his eyes, breathing loud and fast. “You were shot in the thigh,” he said roughly. “Do you remember?”
For a moment, Andrew didn’t remember anything but how much he’d missed Jesse. Then it all came flooding back. “Hallie!” he said, trying again to sit up, this time putting more energy into it and nearly succeeding.
Jesse braced him, one hand on his back, supporting him until he could lean against the wall. “Hallie’s fine,” he said quickly. “Well, she’s absolutely miserable but it’s no more than she deserves, so.”
“Oh no,” Andrew said, biting his lip. “Not too miserable, I hope?”
Jesse sighed. “I’m going to pretend that your ridiculous soft-heartedness is due to blood loss and not a complete lack of sense.”
Hearing that made Andrew wince, feeling guilty. “I was horrible to Justin,” he confessed. “I shouted at him and everything.”
“Yes, and then he shot you,” Jesse reminded him. “Not to mention, he did run off with our little sister. Do you remember that part?”
Andrew’s insides warmed at the idea that Jesse considered Hallie their sister, not just Jesse’s alone. He’d missed their little family terribly. Instead of answering, he just smiled helplessly at Jesse. “It’s so lovely to see you.”
Jesse coughed. “Yes, well, I’m. I’m, um, you were. What else could I do but come home when you went and got yourself shot. I had to make sure they were looking after you properly. I wouldn’t make a very attractive widower.”
“Of course you would,” Andrew said staunchly. “You make an attractive everything.” He was sure he was allowed to flirt with Jesse now, even if Jesse was still cross with him. Getting shot had to have some perks.
Jesse blushed and started to stand up, looking suddenly awkward when he released Andrew’s hands, clearly only just realising he was still holding them. Andrew hadn’t thought of anything else, to be perfectly honest.
“I should let you go back to sleep,” Jesse said awkwardly. “The doctor said you need a lot of rest.”
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, catching Jesse’s sleeve. “You’re not going to go away again, are you?”
Jesse stared at him, wide-eyed, then shook his head. “Not for the moment,” he said softly, making Andrew’s chest relax with relief. “Aunt Susan and Hallie have asked me to stay until you’re back on your feet.”
Andrew nodded, dropping Jesse’s sleeve and refusing to feel disappointed that Jesse wasn’t staying for him. He was staying and that was the important thing.
Jesse hovered by the side of the bed for another moment then bent quickly and kissed the centre of Andrew’s forehead. “I’m glad you’re all right,” he said roughly.
Andrew smiled up at him, skin feeling tingly where Jesse’s lips had been. He leant his head back, pillows soft behind his neck and closed his eyes. Despite the pain from his newest bullet wound, he felt calmer than he had for a long while.
Once Andrew was able to stay awake for more than a few minutes at time, he insisted on Hallie coming to see him.
She lurked in the doorway, a pale, uncertain shadow of her usually bouncy self until Andrew frowned at her, asking, “Are you sure you’re my Hallie Kate? Where’s my hug?”
Hallie made a choked sound and threw herself at him, tumbling onto the bed the way she had when she was a child, crawling up the duvet and pressing her face into his shoulder. He couldn’t make out much from between the hiccuping sobs that tugged at his heart but he thought she was saying, “Sorry, sorry,” over and over again.
“Hallie,” Andrew said, upset to see her so upset. He shifted as carefully as he could, putting his arms around her and kissing the top of her head. “Darling, whatever’s the matter?”
Hallie pulled back, sniffing hard and glaring up at him like he was stupid. Which perhaps he was, since he had no idea why she was crying. “You nearly died,” she said, eyes brimming over again, although she brushed those tears away angrily. “I nearly got you killed.”
“Well, hardly,” Andrew said, as reasonably as he knew how. “Justin should have known not to throw pistols around as though they were toys, but I’m the one who insisted on the duel.”
“Because I ran away. Stop being so forgiving.” She did look genuinely annoyed that he wasn’t cross with her. “Especially as we weren’t even… That is…” She pulled out of his arms and sat up straight, ringing her hands together. “Oh, you’re going to hate me so much.”
“Never,” Andrew promised, meaning it. “You’re, you’re my, you’re my little sister, remember?” Jesse had said it first, after all; Andrew was fairly certain that meant he could say it now too.
Hallie stared at him, eyes wide and surprised. Then she started sniffling again, which hadn’t been Andrew’s intention at all. “Justin and I were never eloping,” she confessed in one broken, breathless rush.
Andrew blinked at her. “No,” he said slowly, “I’m sure you were. I found you, remember?”
“No,” Hallie said, “Well, yes, but we weren’t really – We weren’t…” She rubbed her face, took a deep breath and said clearly, “We never intended to be married. I thought it would be a grand scheme to run away so that you would worry and call Jesse home from Cambridge so the two of you could reconcile. I didn’t think you’d find us so quickly.”
Andrew could only stare. “You ran away because Jesse and I, because we were on the outs? Hallie-Kate.”
“I know,” Hallie told him, holding up a hand. “Jesse has already shouted at me and Aunt Susan and Emma are cross with me and Emma slapped Justin and, and, and I was only trying to help. You were so unhappy.”
Andrew reached out and pulled her back into his arms. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and breathed wetly into his ear.
“My happiness is no reason to risk yours,” he told her sternly. “If we hadn’t found you, you would have had to marry Justin, whether you loved him or not.”
Hallie shrugged, shoulders moving against his. “I know. I was prepared to risk it. He’s not a bad match, not really. And I rather fancy being a married woman; Emma says there’s much more freedom in it.”
“Does she?” asked Andrew, who hadn’t noticed his own freedoms much changed by marriage. Although he wasn’t a woman; he already had all the freedoms he could possibly want.
“I never meant for you to get hurt,” Hallie said softly. She paused then added, “Although it did get Jesse home, didn’t it?”
Andrew couldn’t help laughing. “Excuse me, I think you’ll find that I got Jesse to come home, by cunningly getting myself shot and then nearly bleeding death.”
Hallie laughed with him then stopped herself abruptly. “I’m not sure if that’s allowed to be funny yet,” she said uncertainly.
“It is, if I say it is,” Andrew assured her, kissing her softly on the cheek. “And I do.”
Hallie sighed, curling up against him. After a while, when she no longer sounded on the brink of tears, she picked up the book that he’d been pretending to read and flicked through the pages. “I don’t like this one,” she declared, “is it one of Jesse’s?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, refusing to feel embarrassed. Jesse had taken to reading in here while Andrew napped but he never stayed long after Andrew woke up. Andrew had hoped that by reading the same book, they might have something to talk about, but he really hadn’t been able to enjoy this one at all so far.
“It’s boring,” Hallie told him blandly. “I’ve read it. You should read this new novel that Emma leant me. It’s called Sense and Sensibility and it’s by an anonymous lady; it’s very good.”
To be honest, that did sound much more to Andrew’s taste than all this Greek nonsense. “You’ll have to lend it to me,” he said. “In fact, why don’t you go and get it? You could read me some before dinner.”
That had been a good idea, he thought, when her face lit up and she sped off to her own room; she was enough Jesse’s sister that books almost always improved her mood.
When his door opened a few minutes later, he looked up, expecting it to be Hallie returning. Instead, Jesse was standing in the doorway, watching him with a strangely soft expression on his face.
“Apparently the finest works of Homer are boring?” he asked, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
Andrew blushed, even though it would hardly be a surprise to Jesse to learn that he was much cleverer than Andrew. “There are no pictures,” he complained, “How am I supposed to properly understand poor Helen’s plight without pictures?”
“Poor Helen?” Jesse asked, sounding curious and, oh dear, Andrew really hadn’t meant to start a literary discussion. “Two people love her enough to go to war over her; that doesn’t sound too bad.”
“You’d hate it,” Andrew said then thought that perhaps he shouldn’t be so familiar anymore, perhaps he should have pretended to know Jesse less well than he did.
Jesse didn’t seem to mind though. “I would,” he agreed, nodding.
“And Helen’s always being pulled away from the person she loves,” Andrew pointed out, warming to his topic. “It’s terrible to be away from the person you love.” He felt his cheeks get hot because, damn, apparently he couldn’t even say the word love around Jesse anymore.
Jesse looked away sharply. “Yes,” he said, sounding much less warm than he had a moment before.
Andrew sucked in a breath, feeling an old, familiar pain that was nothing to do with the bullet wound. Somehow, in all the excitement with Hallie and Justin, he’d forgotten his suspicions about Jesse and Emma.
“What’s wrong?” Hallie asked in a small voice a moment later. “Are you fighting?”
“No,” Andrew said too quickly at the same time that Jesse said, “Of course not.”
Hallie didn’t look convinced. She held the book out to Andrew, looking uncertain. “I could just leave this with you?” she offered. “If the two of you need to not-fight some more?”
“No.” Jesse shook his head. “You’re going to read to Andrew, aren’t you? I’ll leave you to do that.”
“Stay.” The words came out of Andrew’s mouth before he’d thought about them. When both Jesse and Hallie turned to look at him, he had to plough on. “Hallie could read to us both. It would do you good to read something that was written after the Old Testament was finished.”
Jesse shook his head. “I need to talk to Aunt Susan about – ”
“Later,” Andrew said, with a meaningful look at Hallie, who was pulling a chair over to the side of Andrew’s bed and didn’t notice. She thinks you’re cross, he mouthed, which was perfectly true and also a little bit emotionally manipulative. Andrew felt guilty, but not guilty enough to take it back.
Jesse sighed, clearly aware that he was being tricked, which made Andrew feel better about having done it. He pulled another chair up alongside Hallie’s, which was disappointing since Andrew had been secretly hoping he’d sit on the bed with him.
“All right, Hallie Kate, thrill me,” Jesse said, turning all his attention on her.
Hallie straightened her back, clearly intending to do just that. “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex…”
Andrew glanced over at Jesse. His eyes were fixed on Hallie, clearly listening closely. His eyelashes cast shadows across his cheeks and his lips were slightly parted.
It was possible that Andrew didn’t listen to much of that first chapter, but he did spend a wonderful afternoon, just looking at Jesse’s much-loved face.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven