About the book
She stole his heart, but he let her keep it...
Irish-born and still mourning the loss of her brother, Alicia Price’s dislike for the English reaches a new high when the new Duke of Woodworth sets foot on Irish soil. When her father orders her to enter his employ to spy on him, she has no choice but to obey.
After an eventful first day, Jacob Norton is already wary of his new title. Not only his family but also his staff are acting strangely. And it all seems to have been triggered by the arrival of one peculiar maid.
But sometimes the devil wears a friendly face. The secrets that reside within Ravencliff Manor are greater than any could ever imagine.
And when the attack finally happens, Alicia and Jacob are unprepared to face the truth: this is not the first time they meet…
Grim and unsmiling, he rode down the road slowly, allowing his horse to pick its own way between the well-traveled ruts. Every step he’d traveled, he’d felt it—an invisible noose of responsibility hanging around his neck. He was positively choking from it now, his expression growing more and more somber as he entered the town.
The road winding down to the village was long and zigzagged down the hill, past pasture and field until it reached the village proper. Ballycrainn was much the same as a hundred other Irish villages he’d seen. A gathering of whitewashed houses, a handful of shops and businesses lined the roads. This was maybe a little bigger than the rest, with a crossroads at the center. To the left he saw a church, the right led to a public house. Saints to sinners in the space of several feet. With a drama unfolding in the center.
A woman stood at the side of the road, her blue skirts tugged by the wind. A modest cap upon her head was not enough to contain the startling red of her hair, bright against the porcelain of her skin. She was a small thing, seemingly frail, and most definitely not wishing to go with the man who had her arm.
The gentleman in question was a good twenty years older than her, wisps of hair the same red as the girl’s chasing across his forehead beneath his cap. His face was grizzled, badly in want of a shave, his clothing untidy and patched. He shouted at the girl, mindless of the attention he was drawing or the way she pulled away from him.
Jacob was not the only one interested enough in the drama to stop. A man with a cart stood uneasily to the side, a pair of women with baskets watched from the door of a shop of some kind.
None made a move to help her.
The girl pulled away suddenly from the man, the basket on her arm coming up between them as though to strike at the man, though she drew back at the last minute. “I will not be having you manhandling me, Robert Price. I told you this morning, I willna go to your precious meeting, and I mean it.”
“You will. You will tell them your answer is yes and be done with it!” the man responded with a growl. In a blur, his hand shot out and smacked the woman across the face so hard that the sound ricocheted through the street like a musket shot.
A gasp of horror went up from the crowd of villagers, the women shaking their heads and muttering amongst themselves, while the men clicked their tongues in disapproval. Yet not a single soul made a motion to intercede as a livid handprint began to emerge against the pale of her cheek.
Jacob’s jaw tightened as he swung down from his horse and stepped forward where no one else would. “I think the lady has made her position rather clear, sir. I would thank you to unhand her and go on your way.”
The man answered without taking his eyes from the girl. “And I would thank you to mind your own bloody business,” he shot back, his voice thick. “How I handle me daughter is of no concern of yours, fancy Lord or no.”
“Daughter or not, to strike a woman on a public street is an act of effrontery that should—” he emphasized this word, with a contemptuous look at the bystanders who shuffled awkwardly under his gaze, “—should outrage even the most hardhearted of men. The fact that there seems to be none willing to stand up to you tells me you are a known bully, and a disgrace to the village.”
“Eff-front-ery!” the man mocked him. “His Lordship speaks awfully high-blown for a man with no business here.”
“I rather think it is my business,” Jacob said quietly. “Given that I am the new Duke of Woodworth. The village and those within it are my responsibility, one you will find that I take very seriously.”
He stepped forward, the horse’s reins loosely twisted about his wrist. “Though I will have you know that even were I not the Duke of this district, I would take offense at your actions, for I find them despicable. A man who strikes a woman is not a man at all, but a useless cur.”
At this, the stranger’s eyes narrowed. He stepped forward, his hand moving to his belt where it was plain to see he wore a sheathed knife. The girl shrieked and darted forward, placing one hand upon her father’s arm, the other outstretched against Jacob’s approach.
“I beg of you, to leave this matter here. What my father does is of no business of yours. He has hardly hurt me. The slap stung only a moment and was well-deserved for I had defied him most publically. It is I who owe him an apology, and you also, Your Grace, for causing such a stir.”
A muscle twitched in Jacob’s jaw as she spoke, for he could still clearly see the handprint upon her face. “A lady does not apologize for being beaten.”
“I am not a lady, Your Grace. Only a simple girl who does not always think. I would thank you to be on your way, and consider this matter solved. I am sure they are expecting you at the manor. What goes on in this village is very little of your concern. Your title and your fine blue coat notwithstanding, you have no say here. Leave your interfering to your own lands, and leave us to manage ours.”
He studied her up-tilted face, seeing in the sunlight the faint scattered freckles across her nose, the eyes of amber that flashed fire and held no small amount of scorn. She had a sharp tongue for such a frail form, and he found himself admiring her for that, even if she was decidedly wrong.
“On the contrary, I have found that my fine blue coat,” he paused to spread his arms as though examining his uniform, with special attention to the epaulettes that decorated his shoulders, “has given me quite a lot of say wherever I go. And a title holds quite a bit of weight when it comes to local matters.”
“Faugh! You will find differently, Your Grace,” the man sneered from behind the girl, turning away from the conversation in disgust, looking for all the world like the coward he was, slinking toward the public house. “I have no time for the likes of you.” He disappeared through the door, the girl hesitating a moment on the threshold before hurrying after.
Jacob stood there, stunned by the flagrant disrespect as much as by the girl’s own defense of the situation. To have both father and daughter walk away from him went well beyond a slight. Coupled with the words, it might well have been a challenge.
But Jacob had not risen to the rank of Captain by being a fool. The crowd around him was waiting on his response, and there were a good many spoiling for a fight, if the looks on their faces was any indicator. He was a lone man who had chosen to ride without retinue—foolishly, perhaps. But he had wanted the time alone, to prepare himself for what he would have to do next.
He regretted that now, realizing that he truly was little more than a man standing alone in a growing mob looking for an excuse at trouble. Title would not matter in a riot, nor would a uniform, fine or otherwise.
“I will remember this,” he said to the crowd, his voice quiet and deadly calm as he took the reins of his horse from the boy, taking the time to give him a coin for his trouble. “You will find I am not a harsh man. But I am fair. And I will not tolerate bullies.”
With that he mounted and followed the road out of the town, glad that he remembered this route at least, for it would have spoiled the exit to have had to ask for directions. Not that he would have trusted that anyone would have sent him on the right path, had he inquired.
This was not the welcome home he had expected.
The stallion snorted and plunged under him. Miles of hard riding behind us and the horse still has spirit enough to dislike the way the wind tears at clothing drying on a line next to a house. Jacob shook his head and reined in the animal, growing weary of the constant battle of wills that man and horse had indulged in for the past two weeks.
The horse snorted but stood as commanded. The two of them had finally come to an understanding of sorts. Jacob shook his head and used the pause as an excuse to take his bearings. The narrow Irish roads cut through the hills without markings, signposts few and far between. There was a crossroads here, and right now he was unsure which turning to take.
Beside him, a figure came out a farmhouse door—a woman with a ruddy face and a half dozen children clinging to her skirts. She shouted something to him, something impossible to make out between her thick accent and the squalling of the baby in her arms.
He thought the word with a world of contempt behind it. This was not the journey he would have chosen, and he longed again for a solid deck under his feet, the wind and the waves his to command.
“Ravencliff?” he shouted, making the name of the manor a question, hoping such would suffice in gaining him a direction—at least before he rode miles out of his way like he had twice already, since setting out from the docks of Belfast after his arrival from Liverpool.
The woman smiled and nodded, one arm pointing to the left of the branching road. What she shouted with the gesture was anybody’s guess. Likely further directions, that were of no consequence. He could always ask again at the next crossroads if it, too, proved to be unmarked. He reached into his pouch to fling her a coin, thanking her profusely before nudging the horse back into motion.
Her thanks were lost in the pounding of hooves. His mount loved to run and seemed near tireless, though he could not say the same for himself. Surely I must be near, he thought, as they traveled between emerald green fields dotted with sheep. I remember so little from the last time I was here.
But he’d been a boy then, and the trip had been made by carriage. He didn’t remember paying attention to the surroundings after the quiet monotony of several days on the road. The hills, though, seemed vaguely familiar, and the way the road rose between a copse of woods, the forest the town had been named for.
Ballycrainn. Place of Trees.
The name was the extent of his Irish, despite having had several Irish sailors under his command at sea. But then he’d been a Captain in the Royal British Navy—of course he would expect his crew to speak to him in the tongue of the country they fought for.
He reached the top of the hill and took a breath, turning to look back, and there before him lay the town, in the shallow bowl of the valley, a place carved out of the forest. For the second time in the last hour, he drew his horse to a halt. This time not to ask questions but to look first behind, then once again ahead.
Beyond lay the forest. In the distance, over the tops of the trees, he saw the ocean. Somewhere that way lay the old castle, and the manor house that was to be his home henceforth. Ravencliff.
The setting was idyllic. Beautiful even, in its dress of summer green, the color so intense as to seemingly burn his eyes to look upon it for too long.
He hated it. Every bit of it.
She was still shaking. Alicia came through the door and set her basket down hard enough on the table it was a wonder the eggs didn’t break. This wasn’t how she’d intended the day to happen. If she’d had her druthers, she’d be at the market now, trying to keep Crichton true to his word about the agreed upon price for these eggs. She was counting on that money for a bit of lace to freshen her dress.
Instead, she was here at the Broken Tankard with her father, the one place that she had sworn upon waking she would not go today. That black-haired dandy had spoiled everything with his sudden heroics. Even now, she half-expected him to be following her father through the door.
But the door swung shut behind Robert Price and those in the shadowy reaches of the room shifted anxiously, their greetings quiet. Alicia looked around in surprise, seeing the worried, wan faces around her and realized they had likely heard all, and expected, same as she, some manner of repercussion.
The fool. The green-eyed fool! What had he been thinking to challenge her father in the village like that? Robert Price held court in this pub with as much authority here as a king did in his castle. One word from him and the men in this room would have devoured such as that blue-coated Duke.
She fussed with the cloth covering the basket, removing it, ostensibly to check the eggs before tucking it back securely again. Around her the room came to life, quiet chuckles giving way to relieved laughter as the man at the window reported the Duke had mounted his fine horse and ridden away.
“I daresay our Duke is very much put out,” called Colin, who fancied himself funny with the exaggerated English accent he placed on the last four words, his thick brogue disappearing entirely. He loved mocking their British landlords, and had practiced the accent a long time to good effect. The group roared now, with the confidence of those who knew they’d gotten the better of someone over them.
Alicia sat down hard on the bench in front of her and glared crossly around the room. There were few enough women in the gathering. The exceptions were old Maggie, who was busy pouring ale, and Kathleen, whose laughter was loud and coarse as she leaned over her lover, Connor O’Larendon. Connor blushed, which of course was why she was so blatant in her possessiveness. Kathleen was one who thrived on attention.
Her father chose that moment to join her, setting a mug of ale down so hard on the table in front of her that the contents sloshed over the edge. Alicia shifted her basket hastily away from the spreading puddle, having no wish to visit the market reeking of the stuff. This fact her father well knew, though he insisted on bringing her drinks anyway, then drinking them himself.
“Right proud of you for the way you stood up to him, my gal,” he rumbled, taking a long drink from his own mug before sitting down across from her. “Though had you listened in the first place, none of this would have happened.”
There it was, the backhanded compliments that would be the closest thing to praise she would ever be given by her father. She wanted to tell him the fault was his own, that had he not insisted on dragging her to the inn in the first place, none of this would have happened.
“I only ‘stood up to him’ as you so eloquently put it, because he is a Duke and a man such as that could have you horsewhipped if he so chose. Whatever made you challenge him like that?” Alicia asked, slapping her palms down on the table hard enough to make the mug jump. “A Duke!”
“Ah, my gal, Duke or no, he is travelling along on unfamiliar roads. Do you really think that had he pushed the matter he would have made it safely to Ravencliff? ‘Tis such a remote place, few would look hard at a tragedy…”
Alicia’s mouth dropped open as those around her chorused their agreement with no small amount of laughter. She shot to her feet, and grabbed her basket in one hand, gathering her shawl about her shoulders with the other. “Then you are all fools! You plot treason—”
Robert shook his head, making a clucking sound with his tongue against his teeth. “We seek only that which is right for Ireland, and for her people, colleen. You know that better than many of us here. Your own brother…”
“You would not be bringing Adam into this now…” Alicia’s voice wavered as she said her brother’s name, the pain still raw after four years.
“…and him not just your brother but your very own twin. I should think that you would have no love lost for the English crown and whatever Duke sees fit to live at Ravencliff. I had thought, truly, you were a genuine patriot, a lover of the cause. Have I not heard myself, you say that the English should go home?” Her father took out his pipe and filled it with tobacco as he spoke.
“I have but—”
Her father got up and went to the fire to light his pipe, paying her no mind at all as he did so, as if everything he said was a foregone conclusion. “I should think that you would be willing to at least do us the courtesy of giving us a true answer before you attend to your shopping. For I would no keep you from your work, gal. Especially if you was intendin’ on going out to the castle tomorrow.”
“I…” Alicia clutched the handle of the basket so tight that it was a wonder it didn’t snap.
Kathleen barked a laugh. “She is right feared, I should think,” she called. “If you would have asked me, I could be there now to welcome His Grace home properly,” she called, rising and bobbing in a mocking curtsey.
“As if you would fit in such fine surroundings as that,” a man shouted and Kathleen laughed with them, for she knew as well as anyone there that her coarse manners and impatient, even brash speech would never get past the steward of that esteemed household.
Alicia lifted her chin. She was not afraid, nor was she any less of a patriot than anyone there. It was true that her brother had died at the hands of the British, or as good as. “Only to watch. To see what he does?” she asked, turning her attention to the man in the shadows who had so far not spoken.
Until now Patrick Hurley had stayed silent. He stood, unfolding his long limbs and rising to his full height—near six feet tall, it was said. As he stepped from the corner, the room fell silent. There was none there who did not fear him at least a little.
A shock of dark hair fell over his forehead, not quite obscuring the long scar that started near the hairline and traveled down his left cheek, tugging at his eyelid, giving him a strange, drooping expression. That face was somber now as he surveyed the group, each in turn, his gaze finally coming to rest on Alicia and her father.
“You should already have been in place,” he said, his dark eyes coming to rest on her. “The Duke has returned, and we do not have an individual within his household we can trust.”
“We did not expect him so early,” Robert said, putting his hands up in a placating gesture. “She was going to the manor early tomorrow to see about the job. You have my word on it that I will see that she gets there.”
Alicia shot her father a glance. “I have not—”
“Hush, gal, you are not understanding the situation,” Robert spoke out of the side of his mouth, the words little more than a whisper. He nudged her now toward the door. “In fact, she is leaving to take care of a few small matters. In preparation for her going.”
A moment ago, Alicia had urgently wanted to leave. Now she had no desire to. She looked around the room, feeling heavy suspicion toward these men settle in the pit of her stomach. The somber and somewhat furtive expressions on their faces, alongside the contempt and hatred that her father had shown for the new Duke had left her uneasy, and more than a little unsettled.
I thought I knew what this is about. But to risk so much. To speak so…
Alicia shuddered. Her father had talked casually about causing the Duke an accident. Surely, he must have been speaking in jest.
“You wish me to work in the manor and report back what I observe the English doing. The way Elspeth had,” Alicia said, her voice firm. Elspeth had been a friend of hers, and her job had been relatively simple. Her duties had been fairly small, minor things. She’d listened to the family, letting the members of the Ribbonmen know their comings and goings and little else.
Her father started to answer, but Patrick raised a hand to silence him. “We do,” he said, studying her intently.
Would it be so terrible to agree to this? Elspeth had not minded. She’d quit a fortnight back, very suddenly, when Carey had proposed rather unexpectedly. Elspeth was back home, planning for her wedding even now, else she would have stayed to continue the work.
Maybe it would not be so bad. Sure, the work would likely be hard, but there was a certain pleasure to be had in looking after fine things, and was it so very difficult to report on the comings and goings of a handful of people?
The Ribbonmen were all watching her carefully now. So named for the green ribbon that each wore, some more noticeably than others, the Ribbonmen were true sons of Ireland, fighting the English landowners, for their rights. She well remembered the day her brother had come home with a bright green ribbon in his buttonhole. The English had taken him from her. Was it not her turn to finish the work her brother had started?
Oddly enough, it was the eyes of the Duke she remembered as she took a breath and answered, “I will do it.”
A cheer met her words, but Patrick stared at her with a solemn expression. There was something darker there in his gaze that caused her to shudder. She had never liked him much, nor trusted him, though her father did. She glanced over at her father now, seeing the look of heavy satisfaction upon his face.
So he is proud of me now, when I agree to risk life and limb for a cause that is as likely as not doomed to fail? For she knew well that the entirety of their cause was within these four walls. There was very little that two dozen Irishmen could do to a Duke or his estate.
It was an unsettling thought, one that had preyed upon her ever since they’d asked for her to act as their spy, and to do their bidding. Sure, although she knew there were other such groups across Ireland, they’d grown more cautious of taking action. Perhaps that was why the likes of Patrick thought this village needed to be the one to take the first step, to strengthen a waned resolve. Maybe then, with that fire reignited, it was possible that someday they could be rid of the English invaders who had taken their land, along with their rights, so many years before.
I was seven, she remembered. Seven since she was truly Gaeilge. Irish. Seven when Great Britain had made themselves their masters. Had life truly been so different then? There had been a different Lord at Ravencliff then but hadn’t life in the village been very much the same as it was now?
Had Adam not been so fierce in his beliefs, she would have thought the whole thing foolish. Her brother had dreamed of a free Ireland. Enough so that he had joined the Ribbonmen in a battle for it.
As though reading her thoughts, someone began singing what had fast become their anthem, a ballad telling of the great Battle of Garvagh. Though it had hardly been great, or even a battle. Truth be told, the whole thing had been a rout, with a man dead, and the others of the uprising sent to the penal colony in Australia. Her brother had died on board ship. He had only been ten-and-five at the time.
In the meantime, it was well past time for her to go. The inn was too noisy, and there was a loud desperation to this particular celebration, as though what she was doing would matter in some way that she did not understand. Alicia looked for her father and saw him drinking with his friends, talking expansively, foolishly, about how life would be different someday.
She shook her head and gathered her basket close that she might escape the confines of the taproom, back out into the sun. There would be much to do if she were leaving tomorrow.
Alicia paused in the doorway, looking back at those who reveled so foolishly in the middle of the afternoon, when there was work to be done. She had the uneasy feeling that these men would feel the wrath of the new Duke for their insolence, that her father would be punished somehow. His actions in the street would not be forgotten.
She raised one hand to her cheek, remembering that ringing slap.
I will not forget either. The Duke called Da’s behavior despicable, and he was right. Anger spiked through her breast, as sharp and fierce as that strike had been.
Although she had made a show of accepting her father’s hurtful actions and his humiliation of her, and had pleaded with the Duke not to bother himself over it, it had been exactly that… a show. It had been a necessary performance to prevent further chaos—a defensive tactic to calm rising tempers. But that did not mean she had taken it lightly. Never in her life had she taken one of his slaps lightly, nor did she truly blame herself for being on the receiving end of his ire. Instead, each strike burned in her chest, with the same fury as the very first. A tally of pain, to mark out her sentence as a bitterly obedient daughter.
She turned to go, not quite able to hide the look of distaste upon her face before Patrick saw it.
And smiled in reply, as though it pleased him to see her upset.
So be it. Maybe a day clapped in irons would do her father good. Would do all of them good.
Let the Duke come and punish as he will.
What did she care? She would not be there to see it.
He saw the castle first. The old one. This Jacob remembered from coming here as a boy. The towering ruins, built back in the days of druids and St. Patrick himself, had burned in some war or another and not been rebuilt, which was a shame. He rather liked the old ruins.
After such an unsettling encounter in the village, Jacob needed a moment to breathe and gather himself again before riding the rest of the way up to the house. The estate was set back from the road, through a forested area. At some point the castle must have been glorious. Even now the old building seemed dark and mysterious as seen through the trees.
It stood at the top of the hill. The old road diverged from the new, still faintly visible through the trees. Not for the first time, Jacob wondered at the whispered stories about luck and leprechauns. What mysterious thing would await him if he took a detour here and rode up to the top?
Such a thought was a tempting one. He was not in the hurry to get home that he’d been only an hour before. That little conflict had left him wondering just what life would be like as the Duke in such a remote place. Would he be as unwelcome by the inhabitants of Ravencliff?
Beneath him the horse pranced a little, impatient to be on his way. The trees came in close here, leaving little room for even a carriage to pass easily. Jacob glanced back the way he had come, seeing how quickly the road had been swallowed by the greenery. The entire road held a neglected air, as though haunted by things he did not understand.
Feeling chilled suddenly, Jacob gave the command for the horse to walk on. The horse obeyed, a little skittish. It was dark here under the trees, the woods shadowy and deep.
Ballycrainn. Place of Trees. He had not remembered them being this dense.
Then, just like that, they were free of the forest. The trees ended abruptly at a stone wall as though the fields themselves held back the forest from encroaching further. This was more familiar territory, the pastures that seemed to go on forever, and the massive house right at the cliff’s edge, with the sea beyond. The newer manor had been built in the last hundred years, was less castle and more country house.
Ravencliff. His father’s home.
For a moment, he had the urge to allow the horse its head. Let the animal run like the wind and bring them to the front door in a thunder of hooves, with a mighty declaration that the Duke had finally returned. It was a silly fantasy, and one that would probably not be appreciated by his mother or brother. Had they not been taking care of the estate since his father died?
I would do well to remember Owen’s hard work. He has had to bear this burden for several months now.
The forest behind him now, Jacob allowed his horse to move forward at a trot, a pace fast enough to see him to the manor quickly, but that would still allow him a glance at what was now to be his home. There was much that seemed new, or at least were things he had not remembered. Had there always been so many fields cleared?
He noted each new barn, each building that had been added to the place. The estate was a small village unto itself. Like many a castle, it had its own trades—blacksmith, cooper, plowmen, shepherds, and every manner of industry that the estate could supply itself without needing to rely on Ballycrainn for anything at all.
They must have heard him coming, for the door of the manor opened as he approached. A handful of people waited for him on the cobblestoned drive in front of the house, a group that included both brother and mother. He caught his breath when he saw them, for it had been years since he had seen his family and Jacob had not guessed how much he’d missed them until now.
He flung himself down from his horse almost before it had stopped. In moments he had his mother—his dear mother in his arms. When had she grown so frail? She seemed so small. It took him a moment to realize that he hadn’t been fully grown when he’d seen her last. They had been much the same height when he’d left.
“Jacob! I had scarcely hoped you would be here so soon!” she cried, taking him in her arms, that were still strong despite the years. This was a strength born of long hours of weaving. He caught her hands in his as she stepped back, feeling the callouses in her fingertips.
“You still weave?” he asked, tilting his head to examine her, seeing the brightness of her eyes, and the silver strands worked into the gold of her hair.
“Constantly!” It was his brother who answered. Owen had grown, too, though he’d seen him in London only two years past when he’d come down for a trip with Father and they’d chanced to see each other before Jacob’s ship set sail the following day.
“Owen!” Jacob threw an arm around his brother and laughed when he realized that his little brother had actually grown beyond him, towering over him by a good inch or two. No mean feat, given that Jacob was already rather tall himself.
“’Tis good to see you, Brother! But you came alone? The military has surely changed you then, for last I saw you, you were surrounded by several trunks and crates that you claimed were things you could not live without. Along with retinue enough to carry them all.”
Jacob laughed. “That was before we sailed for Africa, and I daresay I could not. There is a certain requirement for a ship’s officer, to have a certain amount of dress uniforms for every occasion. We are all quite civilized, after all, regardless of what part of the English Empire we might find ourselves in.”
“I am then doubly surprised, for is not Northern Ireland as wild a place as any stronghold in Africa? Truly, Brother, you do not know how uncivilized this place can be,” Owen said, his dark eyes surveying him with much seriousness.
There was that uneasy feeling again. He’d been quite aware that there had been more than one unfriendly set of eyes upon him in that village. The tension he’d felt had not been entirely due to one blustering fool, or even his spitfire daughter. Something else lurked there. Something dark and sinister.
“Pish tosh, what nonsense. Ireland is every bit as civilized as anyplace in England, though you would not know it the way we are keeping you standing here upon the cobbles. Owen, let Constance know to prepare the west chamber, I think. I imagine Jacob will want to rest. After some tea, of course,” Harriet Norton, the Duchess of Woodworth said, hooking her arm through his and leading him into the house.
“I expect she already knows, as I am sure you have told her at least three times in my hearing that you intended that space for him,” Owen remarked, then chuckled as Harriet held up a hand as if to shoo him away. “Yes, yes, I am going. But do save your tales of your journey until I rejoin you.”
“I will not speak a word regarding anything even remotely interesting until you rejoin us,” Jacob promised, putting an arm around his mother, though she was the one guiding him.
The house seemed dark after the bright sun outside. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did, he looked about him in surprise, for he saw that many things had, in fact, changed considerably. Gone were the dour portraits that had graced this particular hallway, and in their place were beautiful landscapes, in bold greens that had to be Ireland itself.
“Your brother has discovered several talented artists among the locals,” his mother said, following his gaze. “Quite lovely, are they not? You will find many such things within the manor.”
“Though I expect you will still serve a good English tea,” Jacob said, as he led her through the door that she indicated.
“Of course! We have not forgotten our solid British roots.” Her face took on a troubled look. “Not entirely, at any rate.”
Stepping through the doorway was stepping back in time. This room had not changed at all, with the exception of the drapes which he suspected were new, for he could not remember such a rich brocade from his last visit. The settees and chairs were the same, though, as were the small ornaments scattered around the room. Here, too, were the portraits of his grandparents and their parents before them.
“I could not bear to have them relegated to the attic. This room has always been my own,” his mother said, taking her place in a chair next to a table that held a massive bouquet of peonies. “This and my workroom.”
Jacob took the chair next to hers, “Things have changed elsewhere, then, outside of the landscapes in the foyer? I was unaware that Father had taken such a liking to all things Irish.” He smiled as he said the last, hoping to tease a smile from her, but Harriet only frowned.
“Your father made his desires quite clear on that count,” she said, and the eyes she raised to him were somber. “He was very insistent that every stick of furniture in this house would be only things he had himself brought with him when he was appointed Duke here. There was not a thing of Ireland between these walls so long as he drew breath.”
It was no less than Jacob had expected. The former Duke had cared very little for the remoteness of the location despite the prestigious title that came with the lands. He had been very insistent on maintaining a very British manner in everything from landscaping to education, which had led to Jacob being sent away to school nearly the moment they had arrived.
“I am sorry I was not here when he passed, Mother,” Jacob said quietly, though he had not felt close to his father. But then, how could he?
“No son of mine will grow up Irish!” the Duke had proclaimed when he’d found that Jacob had gone fishing with a local boy and come home with a string of trout and the beginnings of a brogue. This decision had held through every school holiday when young Jacob had been denied time and again the chance to come home. He’d gone from Eton to Cambridge and from there into the Navy, never once coming home again.
Oddly enough, the same strictures had not pertained to Owen. Born sickly and even frail, he had stayed at home while Jacob had been away. Though to look at him now, one would not have guessed it. Owen’s shoulders had grown broad, and the hand that had grasped his had held a certain strength that had been lacking when Owen had been young.
“He was always very proud of you,” Harriet dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. “He said it many times in his final illness. Not that he regretted sending you away. You have seemed to thrive in the years since we saw you last.”
What was there to say to this? In some sense, he had. He had done well at school, and won many promotions and recognitions already in his short time as a Captain of the Royal Navy. But those honors had been hard won, and he had had enough of wars.
“So, then the change in décor is recent,” Jacob said, to change the topic of conversation though he knew well it was awkwardly done. He gave a significant glance around the room, as though wondering what else had changed.
But this failed to entice his mother into more casual gossip. Harriet’s eyes were troubled “Owen holds a great love for Ireland,” his mother said finally.
Jacob gave her a sharp look. “You do not feel the same?”
“It is not Britain,” she said simply, then brightened as she looked beyond him, an expression of relief crossing her face. Perhaps she too was finding it difficult to know what to say. They were strangers after so long. “Oh, the tea is here. I imagine you might well be in the need of a good cup after that ride. Was it dreadful?”
She rose to pour tea for them both from the cart, pausing to offer him a variety of small tarts from a porcelain plate herself, despite the fact that a maid stood by who could have served them both.
The gesture was not lost on him. Jacob selected a tart and smiled, truly regretful that he’d allowed so many years to fall between them without more than the occasional letter.
I should have written more often. I am glad I have come to stay. I have been separated from my family for too long.
Jacob took a breath and smiled gently, wanting badly to connect with this lady he barely knew despite the fact that she was his mother. “On the contrary. I found the countryside to be beautiful, much like your landscapes, though a touch more lively. The village, especially…”
“Are you speaking of Ballycrainn?” Owen asked from the doorway. “I am surprised you did not take the coastal road instead.”
He had considered it. But the desire to approach from land and not sea had been a nostalgic decision, hearkening back to his only trip to Ireland as a boy. He had wished to see if it was as green as he’d remembered. All this he could not find words to express, so he only smiled and said, “I am. I came overland. I wanted to see what the country was like, as it had been so long.”
His mother had settled back in her seat with her tea, looking more put out the longer this conversation continued. “It is a dreadful place,” she said, setting her cup so hard in her saucer that the tea sloshed over the edge. She set it down on the table next to her with a look of distaste. “They treat us as though we have no right here.”
“Some would say we do not,” Owen said, helping himself to several tarts and sitting on the settee opposite. “This is their country, after all.”
Jacob stared. “Some would call that statement treasonous,” he said with a frown. “Ireland is a part of Great Britain and has been for some time. For better or for worse, the inhabitants should have come to accept that by now.”
The look in Owen’s eyes when he looked at his brother was less friendly than it had been outside. “There is much you do not understand about Ballycrainn, or even Ravencliff, my brother.”
There was some warning there, though what, Jacob could not tell. “I look forward to learning.”
Owen’s laconic reply seemed to startle Harriet who set down her cup for a second time, though with no less force. “No. You will not spoil this homecoming with a squabble so soon. Owen, apologize to your brother. Jacob, pay him no mind. I expect he is jealous, as he has been tending to the estate since your father died. He is glad to have you here, I know this for a fact!”
“Of course I am,” Owen said, rising so that he might kiss his mother on the cheek. “I will be good. In fact, I will take Jacob out on the morrow and show him the entire estate from top to bottom. We will examine minutely every person here from chimney sweep to chamber maid.”
Harriet flushed crimson. “Owen! Such talk!”
Owen laughed and turned toward the door. “Fear not, Mother, I will scandalize you no further. I must meet a man about some sheep. They were beginning sheering today down in the lower pens and I wish to see how things have gone. Brother, I look forward to hearing your adventures at dinner tonight. I am truly sorry I cannot stay.”
In a moment, he was gone. Jacob might have been mistaken, but he sensed his mother was relieved this was so. She relaxed now, taking up her tea again, looking for all the world as if they had been talking about nothing more important than the weather.
“So,” she said finally, offering him the plate with the tarts again, and smiling as he took one. “Have you had the opportunity to meet many young ladies in London? Now that you are a Duke, I should think you would want to marry. Someone English, of course.”
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