“Wherein the devil is in a dark place.”
Mr Phillip Ogden had served the Devlin family all his adult life. He had worked his way up to his position as steward, the pinnacle of his career. The previous viscount had been an admirable man, the kind it made you proud to work for. He’d been politically active and well respected throughout England. A voice of reason in the House of Lords.
Mr Ogden looked up to regard the current viscount and gave an inward sigh. He pasted a smile to his face and hoped his expression remained one of sympathy, though sympathy was not an emotion that came to mind.
“I understand your predicament, my lord. However, as I’ve explained, the Kendall family live at Brasted Farm.” Mr Ogden looked down at the papers in his hand, noting the fact he had crumpled them in his agitation. “They are excellent tenants and the family have lived there for close to a century.”
He remembered the lovely Miss Kendall’s devastation as he’d outlined the viscount’s intentions when he’d first realised them, two weeks earlier. He’d rather enjoyed being a comfort to her. It had been all he could do, though, to give them a little warning of the fate in store for them.
“They have nowhere else to go and—”
“What of it?” The words were cold, callous, devoid of interest in the plight of a family who had already experienced their fair share of suffering. “I need the funds and that fat old squire has been nosing after that farm since I was a boy. It will be a quick sale—you said so yourself—and I’ll be out from Blackehart’s grasp once and for all.”
Until next time. Mr Ogden bit back the words with difficulty. Luke Linton, the sixth Viscount Devlin had a devil of a temper. He would not welcome such observations. Not for the first time Ogden wondered if the old viscount’s wife had taken the fellow for a fool, for there were not two more different men in the whole of England than the present and the late viscount. While his father had been prudent, serious and the model of propriety, his son….
Ogden gritted his teeth. He’d worked every second of his whole damn life for what he could claim now, while circumstance had handed this man everything on a gilded plate… and he’d thrown it all in his father’s face.
Devlin turned to him and Ogden had to fight to hold his gaze. It was unnerving: crystalline blue, cold, and cruel.
“They’ll have a little over two months to vacate,” Devlin said, the words clipped, indicating that further observations on the welfare of the inhabitants of Brasted Farm would not be met with pleasure. “I leave first thing in the morning. I’ll ride the first stage and stop off with Lord Jenson, before accompanying him into town. My valet went to London this morning and you may also send my belongings direct. Jenson’s man will see to me for a day or two. I’ll return in eight weeks, by which time I expect this affair to be in order. Is that clear?”
Mr Ogden inclined his head to acknowledge that it was indeed clear. The less he said the better at this point. At least he could tell Miss Kendall that he had done his best to help her with a clear conscience. He hoped she’d be grateful to him for his efforts and sighed, remembering her lovely face.
The viscount had turned away to stare out of his study window, giving Mr Ogden a view of a coat from the finest tailor in the country clinging to broad shoulders and a lean, muscular frame. Jealousy stirred, and Ogden fought it back with difficulty. Lord Devlin had everything: money, title, and looks that made women sigh with longing, and what had he done with it? The fool had run through his fortune in little more than a decade, whoring and drinking and gambling. Sometimes Ogden believed he’d done it on purpose, out of spite for the old man, knowing it would have him turning in his grave, but even Devlin wasn’t that vindictive… was he?
The viscount turned back, an amused curl to his cruel mouth suggesting he knew exactly what Ogden was thinking. Ogden fought the flush that rose to his cheeks and wished that Devlin, thirteen years his junior, couldn’t unnerve him with quite such ease.
“What are you waiting for?” Devlin challenged, irritation threading his precise, sharp edged voice. “You have your instructions, now get out.”
Ogden swallowed his anger and his pride, bowed, and retreated to brood in private.
Lord Devlin snorted as Ogden closed the study door behind him. Poor Ogden, trying so hard to give good advice and wringing his hands as everything fell apart. His father’s man. Loyal to his last breath and still trying to pass on the old bastard’s advice from beyond the grave. Dev wondered why he kept him on. Some masochistic tendency, perhaps, or perhaps he just enjoyed watching the man’s distress as he descended further into the dark. His father had missed that; he’d died just as Dev was getting into his stride, though most people had blamed his excesses for the old viscount’s demise. Pity. He’d loved to have seen the horror and distress in his father’s eyes as he saw what little was left of the great fortune he’d worked so hard to amass.
Dev poured himself a drink. He lifted the fine crystal to his lips and savoured the quality of the liquor. How long before he was finding oblivion in cheap liquor in some seedy gin palace He almost welcomed it. Almost. A run-in with Mr Blackehart had made him question his own quest for self-destruction. Perhaps he valued his life a little more than he’d imagined. Blackehart was not a man to be taken lightly. The truth was he’d made Dev’s blood run cold, and that was no easy task, hence the sudden need to divest himself of property. The man had demanded payment in full and Dev had to make good on it, or he might fulfil his father’s prophecy about his inevitable demise sooner than anyone had anticipated. The only way to meet such a sum quickly was to sell land and property, with the added advantage that his father would have despised him for it.
Brasted Farm wasn’t large, but it had good soil. Good enough for growing wheat and barley, something which was rare around Dartmoor which was only fit for grazing.
Tomorrow, Dev was meeting the dreadful Blackehart himself, to show him the papers that had been drawn up between him and the squire. While the idea occurred to him, Dev removed the heavy gold signet ring which bore the Devlin seal and put it in his desk drawer. He wouldn’t put it past Blackehart to have the shirt from his back in lieu of payment, but he’d not be able to take what wasn’t there. He only hoped that the proof of the sale being set in motion would be enough to make the man wait a little longer, knowing payment would be made in full.
Freeing himself of the man’s grasp on his throat was tantalising. He’d been looking over his shoulder for weeks now. Perhaps after this meeting he’d be able to breathe again. He snorted. Perhaps not. He wasn’t fool enough to believe his debts alone had caused his misery. They were merely symptoms of it.
He still wasn’t sure what he hoped to achieve, or what left the hollow ache gaping in his chest. A desire to grind his father’s hopes and dreams into the dirt? Oh, yes. He wanted that. Yet it had been more than that, once at least.
A knock at the door sounded and had Dev turning on his heel. He barked at whoever was fool enough to disturb him to come in. To his irritation, Ogden entered once more. There was an uncharacteristic, challenging look in the fellow’s eyes that Dev could almost admire.
“A letter for you, my lord,” he said evenly. “I thought perhaps you should see it before you left in the morning.”
“Leave it on my desk,” Dev muttered, pouring himself another drink. He suspected he knew who the letter was from and he knew damn well Ogden would recognise the precise lettering of the woman in question. It wouldn’t be the first he’d received. No doubt Miss Kendall had thought of another colourful stream of invective with which to assassinate his character. One had to admire her vocabulary if nothing else. She’d even come to the house herself on more than one occasion. Dev had refused to see her. The last thing he needed was some overwrought female vacillating between fury and tears. Besides, it would change nothing. Dev’s heart was a dead thing, blackened and shrivelled from lack of use. No feminine tears had the power to move him, as many had discovered to their cost.
He sat brooding for hours. The tray brought to him for dinner sat untouched while the decanter at his elbow emptied. His mind turned, going over the past as it often did and fuelling his despair. By the time the first glimmers of daylight lightened the skies, his mood was as bleak and pitiless as a frozen sea.
More from boredom than interest, Dev reached for Miss Kendall’s letter. The last one had made him laugh out loud at her audacity, and entertainment of any variety would be welcome at this moment. He picked up the missive, sliding his finger beneath the seal and settling down to read the dreadful creature’s words. He wondered what she looked like. As Dev’s experience of women was of the perfumed and pampered variety, a woman who would live in isolation and run a small farm was outside his experience. He conjured the image of a short, dumpy figure with large, capable hands, a squint, and a moustache. Mr Ogden knew her, but he’d never commented on her outside of expressing sympathy for her and her family’s predicament. If she’d been pretty, the fellow would have married her himself, wouldn’t he? He must be pushing forty. It wasn’t as if there were many options for a fellow in this backwater, either.
Dev scanned the missive in his hand and any amusement he might have felt fell away as Miss Kendall dissected his character with a surgeon’s dexterity. Something like fury fired in his blood. How dare she? How dare she write such… such….
Dev took a breath, getting himself under control. As he got to his feet, he swayed a little as the contents of the decanter made its presence known. The insolent baggage. Well, enough was enough. She’d wanted to see him, to put her case to him in person and he would damn well give her the opportunity. This time, however, he’d have a few choice words of his own.
He sent the stables into chaos, yelling with fury for someone to ready his horse even though it was not yet daylight. Men stumbled into the yard, bleary eyed as they pulled on breeches and boots and scurried to do his bidding.
Dev had not been to Brasted Farm since he was a boy, dragged about by his father to show him the responsibilities he would one day face. He had a vague recollection of a handsome stone building and thought he remembered where it was. It had been a long while, but he’d ridden the moors as a young man and had a good sense of direction. It was at least two hours ride from here, taking the road. If he cut across the wild moors, then he might do it in an hour. He’d arrive early enough to give the woman the shock of her life. She’d still be in her nightgown at such an early hour, and if she thought he’d wait for her to dress and prettify herself to face him she’d be sorely disappointed. The thought satisfied him.
With fury and indignation still burning in his blood, alongside a skin-full of cognac, Dev rode off to meet his nemesis.
Charity Kendall stared at her bedroom ceiling. It was the same ceiling she’d stared at as a little girl, dreaming of all the things of which little girls dreamed. At least, she assumed she’d dreamed like that. It was hard to remember. It seemed a long time ago she’d been a girl at all. She knew she should be up and about already, but she felt worn down. The weight of her worries seemed heavier at his hour of the morning, filling the room in the hours before the daylight crept in. Worries snuck under the curtains ahead of the first fingers of daylight, stealing the air from the room, smothering her in its suffocating grasp, pressing down on her. She took a breath, forcing the air into her lungs even though her chest protested, unwilling to expand. Such wallowing was beneath her. Dramatics and hysteria had never been her style. She left that to her twin, Kit. He was the dramatic one in the family, full of romance and fire and dark musings. Charity had little enough energy to consider what they ought to have for dinner, let alone find anger enough that her ‘art’ was misunderstood. Not that she had any art. She hadn’t a creative bone in her body.
In her spare moments, such as they were between running a farm and raising a family, she had been considering their options. There were two abandoned farms in the region. Charity had hoped to move the family to whichever one of them suited best. On visiting however they’d discovered the buildings in a state of decay, the land sick from neglect, and a raft of jobs so overwhelming it would take years to turn them around. Years and a great deal of money they didn’t have.
The only solution was to go to Bristol as their Uncle implored them to do. He lived there with his own his family but was fond of his nieces and nephews. The man worried for them she knew. As a doctor he could keep a closer eye on Kit’s poor health too. Yet living in a city, leaving the moors and this place which had been her home since birth … it cut her heart to ribbons.
Charity’s fist hit the pillow as she pummelled it into a more comfortable shape and turned onto her side with a huff. There was one thing she could get angry about, no matter how exhausted she was. Anger was a hopeless, fragile description for the fury which filled her veins. Far more than mere anger. It was just possible she might even do the hateful man bodily harm, should the two of them ever be in a room together. Lord Devlin must know that too, as he’d refused to see her, despite the many times she’d called.
Frustration had burned so hard that it had reduced her to writing vitriolic letters to let off steam. Her last letter was keeping her awake. She suspected she may have gone a little too far.
Just a little.
She swallowed, unable to move the heavy bricklike sensation that seemed to lie somewhere in her throat. Well, all right then, more than a little. She pressed her hands to her cheeks. They were scalding beneath her rather sweaty palms. Oh, dear Lord. What had she done? It wasn’t as if the wretched man cared a jot for what happened to her and those she loved. No amount of rage or tears or begging or screaming would have changed his mind. She’d known that, yet the impotence of being able to do nothing as he tossed her family onto the street like rubbish… well, it had unbalanced her mind. Temporarily of course, Charity added, imagining putting her case before a magistrate. Which was all too likely if Devlin ever saw that letter. Nausea roiled as her stomach clenched and twisted, but before she could indulge in a rare display of self-pity and bawl her eyes out, her bedroom door flew open.
“Charity, oh, Charity!”
Charity started and flung back the covers as her seven-year-old sister flew into her arms, clutching her about the waist. Their brother, John, three years’ Jane’s senior, hung back, white faced and solemn as the little girl sobbed her heart out.
“Whatever is all this?” Charity demanded “What’s happened?”
“Oh, oh, don’t let them take him away, Charity,” Jane pleaded, fisting Charity’s nightdress in her hands. “It was an accident! He didn’t mean to kill him.”
“What?” Charity gasped, noting with horror that John just swallowed instead of leaping in and telling Jane not to be such a silly goose as she might have expected. “Killed who? Whatever has happened?”
“It was an accident, Charity,” John said, his voice trembling with the effort of keeping calm. “I swear it.”
“Well, of course it was,” Charity murmured. “There’s no question of that.”
She sat up, her mind working overtime as she swung her legs out of bed and grabbed a faded pelisse to pull on over her night rail.
“What were you doing out at this time Wait… no. Don’t tell me.”
She lifted her hand to halt his reply and groaned. She could see it now. John was determined to be the man of the family as Kit spent most of his time with his head in the clouds and his mind on poetry. She could see it now. The boy had crept out to go hunting rabbits and his devoted little sister had foisted her company upon him despite his protests.
“I got two,” John replied, a little defiant despite the circumstances and the fact that she had expressly forbidden him to leave the farm before daylight and never, ever, alone.
Charity sighed and sat down again as Jane returned her arms to her waist, clinging like a limpet and sobbing. She stroked her little sister’s hair. “You’d best tell me, and quick.”
“He came out of nowhere,” John said, looking like he might be sick at any moment. “I was just lining up a shot and suddenly this huge horse came out from behind the tor. It gave us such a fright that my finger squeezed the trigger.”
Jane sobbed harder as John recounted the sorry tale. “The horse reared up, screaming and the fellow tried to hold him, but he couldn’t. He fell a-and h-h-hit his head on a rock and there was blood everywhere and h-he was s-s-so still, Charity.” John swallowed, tears in his eyes, his narrow chest heaving.
Charity got to her feet and gave John a reassuring hug, her expression calm. “Don’t fret. Head wounds can bleed prodigiously, it doesn’t mean the fellow is dead. Jane, fetch Kit, tell him to get Mr Baxter and bring the cart, and then go finish your chores, everything will be all right. John, you’d best show me.”
John nodded, looking a little braver as he led her out of the room and down the stairs.