Callum Montgomery, Duke of Vernon, had not always possessed a habit of perching on Lord McIntyre’s roof, but everything had changed since the incident.
Before the incident, Callum had still been able to sleep.
Before the incident, Callum’s parents had been alive. Callum might be only seven, but he knew parents should be alive. They were supposed to wave him off when he went to Eton for the first time, and his father was supposed to teach him cards.
Before the incident, Callum had lived in a castle with steep roofs. Lord McIntyre’s manor home was flat. Callum’s twin brother Hamish said that made the manor home less artistic, but Callum thought it made the roof better for climbing, even though the earl shouted at him whenever he caught him. Lord McIntyre said he cared about Callum’s health, but the earl’s interest did not extend to anything other than that Callum should remain alive.
Snowflakes fell, even though their shapes were not visible in the dark night, and Callum shivered. No matter. Outside was still the nicest place to be, even if the icy breeze shaped the waves below into tall, violent forms. Lord McIntyre was unlikely to spot him here. Most likely, his guardian was sleeping. Even Hamish slept.
Callum crept along the roof, crunching over the occasional slab of snow. Stars glowed above him, and in the distance he could see the outline of Montgomery Castle.
Lord McIntyre had told Callum that one day when he was older he might live in the castle again, but that Callum’s parents had been very bad and had spent all their money. He said it made sense that his parents had been bad, because Callum was a very naughty boy. He said Callum should be grateful he’d taken over Callum’s parents’ mortgage, and that one day, if Callum married his daughter Isla, Callum would be able to live in the castle again. Callum didn’t understand why the earl wanted his daughter to marry someone he hated, but adults could be strange.
A vague noise sounded in the distance, growing louder and more recognizable over the waves.
Callum wrinkled his brow. It can’t be. Carriages don’t normally drive here. The closest town was miles away, and this was winter. Patches of ice and snow still covered some parts of the roads. The cliffs were steep, and the servants said if a carriage ran off the road anyone inside would die.
And yet the sound of wheels grinding over gravel and of horses trotting seemed distinctly carriage-like.
Callum inched toward the edge of his perch and held onto one of the scary looking gables. The gable was decorated with tiny steps, even though the steps didn’t lead anywhere. Hamish said the steps didn’t need to lead anywhere to be pretty, but Callum thought decorating windows with steps was confusing.
The carriage looked more elegant than the ones servants traveled in. Servants traveled in black carriages, but this one had cheerful yellow wheels.
The horses stopped, and the great door opened. Someone hurried over the gravel and snow to greet the visitor. A lavender coat flashed in lantern light, and Callum drew back. Normally the butler greeted visitors, but no butler wore lavender and so much lace. Callum knew. He liked observing the household.
It’s the earl.
Lord McIntyre glanced around, and Callum drew in his breath quickly and pressed his body against the edge of the gable.
The earl opened the carriage door, and a lady stepped out. She wore a long dark coat trimmed with fur. Isla would have loved her coat, but Callum’s attention was drawn to her blond hair.
Other women were also slender, and other women also wore nice attire.
Lord McIntyre always said selecting clothes was the only thing which women were good at.
Callum stilled, keeping his gaze on the woman. His heartbeat quickened, like musicians had taken hold of it and were drumming a celebratory tune, even though Callum was still unsure whether there was anything to celebrate.
The woman strode closer to the earl and stepped into the glow of the man’s lantern. The faint light flashed over the woman’s face, shaped like a heart, shaped exactly like Aunt Edwina’s.
His heartbeat continued to quicken, and this time, he knew her appearance was only something to celebrate.
My only relative besides Hamish.
He hadn’t seen her since before the incident. Lord McIntyre had told him she was angry at him, and that only Lord McIntyre cared about him, even though Lord McIntyre frequently scolded him.
“Good evening.” The earl lowered his torso in an appropriate manner at odds with his icy tone.
“My lord.” She curtsied, though less deeply than the servants. Perhaps she didn’t want to put her dress too deeply into the snow. “I’m sorry to come at this hour.”
“You should be,” Lord McIntyre grumbled.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
“It’s my manor house.”
“Indeed,” she said smoothly, and turned her head, as if half-expecting to see some servants.
Servants always greeted Callum when he arrived in a carriage. They should greet Aunt Edwina. She was an adult, and she’d been the sister-in-law of a duke. Even though he was a duke, and his friend Wolfe was a viscount and would be an earl one day, everyone else seemed to think their ranks most impressive and unusual.
Callum slid farther down the roof. Perhaps he should announce his presence to Aunt Edwina. But might she worry? Adults seemed to worry whenever he was up a tree. Adults didn’t seem very brave, even though they were the ones who went to war.
One day Callum would go to war, and he wouldn’t be scared.
“Your letter surprised me,” Lord McIntyre said.
“It shouldn’t have,” Aunt Edwina said.
“I assure you of my capabilities in looking after your nephews,” Lord McIntyre said, retaining that same silky tone which Callum had grown to despise.
“That will not be necessary, my lord,” Aunt Edwina said.
Joy sprang through Callum’s heart. Was it possible he would not need to stay with Lord and Lady McIntyre? He liked playing with Wolfe and Isla, but he didn’t want to live with them forever.
“How are my nephews?”
“Their limbs are all intact, and they have not succumbed to any fever. The young duke’s temperament, however—” Lord McIntyre broke off, as if he could not bear to utter Callum’s instances of disobedience.
Callum’s cheeks heated, despite the consistent fall of snowflakes.
I’m not bad. I’m not bad. I’m not bad.
“I would like to see them,” Aunt Edwina said.
Lord McIntyre hesitated. “You can see them in the morning.”
“Very well,” Aunt Edwina said. “They will soon be living with me.”
“In Edinburgh? With no husband?” Lord McIntyre laughed, but it sounded forced.
Jolliness wasn’t a trait Callum associated with the earl.
“Foolish woman,” Lord McIntyre said. “What sort of life is that for them? They’re two rowdy boys. Cities are dangerous places.”
“Then I’ll move here.” Aunt Edwina lifted her chin. “To Montgomery Castle.”
Excitement coursed through Callum. Maybe they could go back. They could live like before. It wouldn’t be the same, but he’d always liked his aunt.
“Balderdash. You have no claim on the castle,” Lord McIntyre said.
“More than you,” Aunt Edwina retorted. “Besides, I don’t require a claim. Callum is the duke.”
“My dear woman,” Lord McIntyre said. “I am afraid that you do not know all the details. The complexity of the law is rather beyond you.”
“I doubt that,” Aunt Edwina said in an equally icy manner.
The tone seemed to work, for Lord McIntyre stiffened. “Please come inside. We can discuss things in the morning.”
“I suppose that will do,” Aunt Edwina said.
“Good, good,” Lord McIntyre said.
Callum had never heard Lord McIntyre sound so nice before. Perhaps he was grateful he would no longer need to look after Callum. Perhaps the man was relieved.
Callum leaned over the roof. Possibly Hamish would be able to contain his excitement, but not Callum. He had to greet her. She wanted to see him. “Aunt Edwina! I’m here.”
Lord McIntyre and Aunt Edwina tilted their heads.
“What on earth are you doing there?” Lord McIntyre said.
Normally his guardian might have shouted, but maybe because it was late and he didn’t want to wake anyone up, or maybe because he was happy Callum’s aunt was going to take him away, he maintained a low volume.
“I heard the carriage,” Callum lied. Lord McIntyre was not required to know that Callum had developed a passion for illicit roof perching.
“Dear boy.” Aunt Edwina beamed. “How nice to see you. You’re going to live with me. Just how it’s supposed to be.”
Callum had heard her tell that to Lord McIntyre, but hearing her tell him directly caused energy to surge through him. He grinned and clapped his hands.
“Don’t topple down,” Lord McIntyre said hastily. “Go to bed.”
“We’ll speak tomorrow,” Aunt Edwina promised.
Callum beamed and then walked easily over the roof and opened the window. He glanced at Hamish, but his brother still slept. There would be plenty of time to tell him about Aunt Edwina’s arrival in the morning. They’d see her soon.
The next morning, Callum ran downstairs with excitement he could scarcely contain. Aunt Edwina would be there.
But only Lady McIntyre occupied the dining room, and she knew nothing about Aunt Edwina’s arrival. Lord McIntyre wasn’t present, and so Callum went to eat in the nursery with Wolfe and Isla.
Aunt Edwina still wasn’t there when he finished breakfast.
“The servants didn’t mention her arrival,” Lady McIntyre said after he asked her, “but it’s possible she’s sleeping.”
That made sense.
“She arrived late,” Callum said.
Lady McIntyre gave him a patient smile, the same smile, he realized, that she gave when Isla made up stories of being a princess and having fought dragons herself. Never mind. She would see. They all would. Callum was going to return to Montgomery Castle with Hamish, and they would never need to live with their neighbors again.
But when Aunt Edwina didn’t appear for the evening meal, Callum knew something was wrong. No one slept that long.
He grabbed his wooden sword and marched through all the rooms, even though Lord McIntyre had told him he should remain in the nursery.
She wasn’t in the nicest bedroom with the blue curtains, and she wasn’t in the smallest bedroom that had no curtains.
His heart beat loudly, as if it were a drum and he were really at war and carrying a real sword.
The earl will know.
Lord McIntyre hadn’t been here earlier, which was strange, but maybe he would be here now.
Callum stopped before Lord McIntyre’s study.
Lord McIntyre’s study was the scariest place in the manor house. It smelled of cigar smoke, and all the furniture was old and heavy and dark. Hamish said the furniture was medieval and that it was very special, but Callum knew the only way it was special was at being scary.
Lord McIntyre was at his desk when Callum opened the door, and Callum firmed his grip on his sword.
Lord McIntyre lifted his quizzing glass and peered at Callum. He placed it down abruptly. “Of course it’s you. Your brother has too much sense to disturb a busy man.”
“You’d rather Hamish were the duke,” Callum said.
Lord McIntyre shrugged. “He’s more suited to the role.”
Heat soared up Callum’s face.
“I’ve yet to see your brother come barging into my office carrying a toy sword,” Lord McIntyre continued and he steepled his fingers. “He’s a child of far more propriety. You would do well to observe him.”
Callum’s knuckles tightened around his wooden sword. “Where is Aunt Edwina?”
The man’s gaze moved to the side, and he tapped his fingers against a glass of caramel colored liquid. “Your aunt? Oh, dear me. Why would you ask me about her?”
“Because she was here. Last night.”
“That’s impossible.” The man’s face remained placid, devoid of any emotion, though his gaze darted again to his side.
“You spoke with her. I spoke to her.” Callum’s voice shook.
Why doesn’t he remember?
Callum knew adults sometimes forgot things. His grandfather had always been forgetting things before he died, but somehow he hadn’t expected it of the earl.
“Perhaps you had a dream,” Lord McIntyre said gently, even though gentle was hardly a common occurrence.
“I-I didn’t.” Callum despised his stammer. He jutted his chin out and widened his shoulders, like the poses his tin soldiers had. Unlike one of the soldier’s enemies, the earl didn’t look frightened.
“Dreams are natural.” Lord McIntyre maintained a soothing tone, as if he were reading a bedtime story, even though the earl never read to them. He didn’t even read to Wolfe or Isla. The earl tapped his fingers together. “I suppose if you were very young and very unfamiliar with the world, you might confuse them with reality. Naturally, my children would never do that. Wolfe and Isla, and yes, even Hamish, are far too clever. But you... I could see you being confused.”
Callum stiffened. It hadn’t been a dream. He remembered the sound of the carriage, the appearance of his aunt, the discussion with Lord McIntyre.
“I’m not a baby,” Callum mumbled.
“I should hope not.” Lord McIntyre exhaled and discomfort seemed to move over him. “Still, since you are here now, I may as well tell you something. I am afraid it is bad news.”
“Oh?” Callum shifted his legs. He wanted to run and tell Hamish that Lord McIntyre was lying, and that he was unworthy of Hamish’s admiration.
“It concerns your Aunt Edwina.” Lord McIntyre gestured to a seat. “Please, have a seat.”
Callum swallowed hard and approached the tall wooden chair. He’d never sat in it before. He climbed onto it and slid back. The carvings dug into his clothes, but he returned his gaze to the earl.
“I am afraid your aunt is dead,” Lord McIntyre said abruptly.
Callum blinked. “She can’t be. I just saw her—”
“You had a dream,” Lord McIntyre said sternly.
Callum was silent. Had he dreamed about her?
“She died near here,” the earl said. “She was evidently making her way to this manor house when her carriage fell over the cliff.”
“Impossible,” Callum said.
But she wasn’t here.
He’d checked all the bedrooms.
Lord McIntyre was the only other person who’d seen her, and he was lying.
Why was he lying? Unless...
“You murdered her!” Callum shouted.
Lord McIntyre looked away. “Balderdash.”
“I don’t know how, but you must have.”
“Let me be clear,” Lord McIntyre said. “I am an earl and a valued member of the community. You are a boy.”
“I know things,” Callum said.
“Would you like me to tell your brother about the truth about your parents’ deaths?” Lord McIntyre asked.
“What do you mean?”
“About how you caused them to die?” Lord McIntyre continued, smiling.
“I-I didn’t,” Callum said, shifting in his seat.
“Your mother told you not to play with the village children,” Lord McIntyre said. “But you didn’t listen, did you? You were naughty.”
Callum swallowed hard.
“And then you got sick.”
“I’m fine now,” Callum insisted.
“But you made your parents sick. And they died.”
“That wasn’t because of me,” Callum said softly, but he wasn’t certain.
Had he made them sick? Was it because of him?
Lord McIntyre cleaned his quizzing glass and placed it back on. Light shone on the glass, and the earl’s face appeared distorted. “If you had only listened to them, they would still be here.”
Callum’s heart didn’t drum any sort of tune. It hardly drummed at all. The world got too hot, as if it had decided to thrust Callum into the hellfire some of the servants whispered about. Callum forced himself to take a breath, forced himself to direct his gaze at the earl. “I-I didn’t know.”
“Now whom do you think people will believe?” Lord McIntyre mused. “A respected earl, given to bettering the lives of others to such an extent he’s taken in the impoverished sons of his neighbors after their most tragic deaths? Or you—a seven-year-old boy who always misbehaves?”
Normally Callum might have clenched his fists, but the action seemed too demanding. His fingers felt numb, and even breathing seemed to have entered an athletic category. And unlike cricket, a sport Callum enjoyed, simple inhalation and exhalation seemed almost impossible.
“Do you think Hamish would like to hear about how you are the reason your parents died?”
Callum shrank back into the uncomfortable chair. “N-no.”
He despised how small he felt.
I didn’t mean to kill them.
Lord McIntyre smirked, like a hunter already imagining the taste of his prey. “Then you will be silent.”
Callum flinched. He wanted to tell Hamish. He wanted to tell Lady McIntyre. Instead, they would just think he’d imagined his aunt’s presence.
But Hamish was his twin brother, and now Callum’s only relative in the world. How could Callum tell him he was behind their parents’ deaths? Hamish was always telling Callum to behave, and now he would know just how horrible Callum was.
Callum stiffened. But Lord McIntyre killed Aunt Edwina on purpose. He hadn’t killed his parents on purpose. He hadn’t known they would get sick and die if he played with the other children.
He wanted everyone to know Lord McIntyre was terrible.
But Lord McIntyre was right. He was just a boy. What could he do?
One day I will be an adult.
One day I’ll get revenge.