Soldiering came easily. He was an excellent rider and quite handy with both swords and firearms. He took some risks that he knew he should have avoided, but amidst the horrors of war, it became apparent that there was no way he could possibly survive the carnage. And if by some stroke of fate he managed to come through the conflict with his body intact, he knew that his soul would not be so lucky.
Four years passed, and still John managed to surprise himself by escaping death. And then he took a bullet in his knee and found himself on a boat back to England. Sweet, green, peaceful England. It somehow didn't seem real to him. Time passed quickly as his leg healed, but truth be told, he remembered very little of his recuperation. He spent much of the time drunk, unable to deal with the thought of being a cripple.
Then, much to his surprise, he was made a baron for his valor, ironic after all those years of his family reminding him that he was not a titled gentleman. That was a turning point for him, and he realized that he now had something substantial to pass on to a future generation. With a renewed sense of purpose, he decided to get his life in order.
Four years after that he was still limping, but at least he was limping on his own land. The end of the war for him had come a little sooner than expected, and he'd taken the price of his commission and begun investing. His choices proved extremely profitable, and after only five years, he'd saved enough money to purchase a small country estate.
He had finally taken it on himself to walk the perimeter of his property the day before when he'd run into Lady Arabella Blydon. He had been thinking about his encounter with her for quite some time. He probably should go over to Westonbirt and apologize to her for his rude behavior. Lord knew she wouldn't come over to Bletchford Manor after the way he'd treated her.
John winced. He was definitely going to have to come up with a new name for the place.
It was a nice house. Comfortable. Gracious but not palatial, and easily served by a small staff, which was fortunate, as he couldn't afford to employ a fleet of servants.
So there he was. He had a home-one that was his alone, not some place that he knew would never be his owing to the existence of five elder siblings. He had a nice income-a trifle depleted now that he'd bought a house, but he was fairly confident of his financial abilities after his earlier successes.
John checked his pocket watch. It was half past two in the afternoon, a good time to examine some of his fields to the west to see about farming. He wanted to make the soon-to-be-renamed Bletchford Manor as profitable as possible. A quick glance out the window told him that there wouldn't be a repeat of the previous day's downpour and he left his study, heading upstairs to fetch his hat.
He didn't get very far before Buxton, the aged butler who'd come with the house, stopped him.
"You have a caller, my lord," he intoned.
Surprised, John halted in his tracks. "Who is it, Buxton?"
"The Duke of Ashbourne, my lord. I took the liberty of showing him the blue salon."
John broke into a smile. "Ashbourne's here. Splendid." He hadn't realized that his old army friend lived so close when he'd bought Bletchford Manor, but it was an added bonus. He turned around and headed back down the stairs before coming to a bewildered halt in the hall. "Hell, Buxton," he groaned. "Which one is the blue salon?"
"Second door on your left, my lord."
John made his way down the hall and opened the door. Just as he thought, there wasn't a single piece of blue furniture in the room. Alex stood by the window, looking out over the fields which bordered his own property.
"Trying to figure out how you can convince me that the apple orchard is on your side of the border?" John joked.
Alex turned around. "Blackwood. It's damned good to see you. And the apple orchard is on my side of the border."
John quirked a brow. "Maybe I've been trying to figure out how to fleece you out of it."
Alex smiled. "How have you been? And why haven't you stopped by to say hello? I didn't even know you'd bought this place until Belle told me yesterday afternoon."
So they called her Belle. It suited her. And she'd been talking about him. John felt absurdly pleased about that even though he rather doubted she'd had anything nice to say. "You seem to forget that one is not supposed to call upon a duke unless the duke has done so first."
"Really, Blackwood, I would think we'd be beyond the trivialities of etiquette at this point. Any man who has saved my life is welcome to call upon me any time he likes."
John flushed slightly, remembering the time he had shot a man who had a knife poised to plunge into Alex's back. "Anyone would have done the same," he said softly.
One corner of Alex's mouth tilted up as he remembered the men who had lunged at John as he took his aim. John had taken a knife wound in his arm for his bravery. "No," Alex said finally. "I don't think that anyone would have done the same." He straightened. "But enough talk of war. I prefer not to dwell upon it myself. How have you been?"
John motioned to a chair, and Alex sat down. "The same as anyone else, I suppose. Would you like a drink?"
Alex nodded, and John brought him a glass of whiskey. "Obviously not quite the same, Lord Blackwood."
"Oh, that. Got made a baron. Baron Blackwood." John shot Alex a jaunty grin. "Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
"A very nice ring."
"And how has your life changed in the last four years?"
"Hadn't changed much at all, I suppose, until the last six months."
"I went and got myself married," Alex said with a sheepish smile.
"Did you now?" John raised his glass of whiskey in a silent toast.
"Her name is Emma. She's Belle's cousin."
John wondered if Alex's wife looked anything like her cousin. If so, he could easily see how she would have caught the duke's attention. "I don't suppose she has also read the entire works of Shakespeare?"
Alex let out a short laugh. "Actually she started to, but I've been keeping her busy lately."
John raised his eyebrows over the double meaning of that comment.
Alex caught his expression immediately. "I've got her managing my estates. She has quite a head for figures, actually. She can add and subtract much faster than I can."
"Brains run in the family, I see."
Alex wondered how John had learned so much about Belle in such a short time but didn't say anything. "Yes, well, that may be the only thing the two of them have in common, besides their uncanny ability to get exactly what they want without your even realizing it."
"Emma's quite headstrong," Alex said with a sigh. But it was a comfortable, happy sigh.
"And her cousin isn't?" John asked. "She struck me as quite formidable."
"No, no, Belle has quite a strong will, don't get me wrong. But it's not quite the same as Emma. My wife is so stubborn she'll often plunge herself into situations without quite thinking about it first. Belle isn't like that. She's very practical. Very pragmatic. She's got this insatiable curiosity. It's damned difficult to keep a secret around her, but I must say, I quite like her. After seeing some of the hellish situations of my friends, I consider myself quite fortunate in my in-laws."
Alex realized that he was speaking far more openly than he normally would with a friend whom he hadn't seen in years, but he supposed that there was something about war that forges an indestructible bond between men, and it was probably for that reason that he was talking with John as if the last four years had never passed.
Or it also could have been that John was a very good listener. He always had been, Alex remembered. "But enough about my new family," he said suddenly. "You'll meet them soon enough. How are you? You managed to avoid my questions rather neatly."
John chuckled. "Same as ever, I suppose, except now I've got a title."
"And a home."
"And a home. I bought this place by investing and reinvesting the price of my commission."
Alex let out a low whistle. "You must have quite the golden touch in financial matters. We should talk about it someday. I could probably learn a thing or two from you."
"The secret to financial success is not difficult, actually."
"Really? Pray tell, what is it?"
Alex let out a laugh. "Something I fear I've been lacking these last few months, but I'm afraid that's what love does to a man. Listen, why don't you come over to dine soon? I told my wife about you, and she's very eager to meet you. And of course you already know Belle."
"I'd like that," John said. And in a rare show of emotion, he added, "I think it will be very nice to have some friends in the district. Thank you for stopping by."
Alex looked at his old friend intently, and in a flash he saw just how lonely John really was. But a second later, John shuttered his gaze, and his expression adopted its usual inscrutability. "Very well, then," Alex said courteously. "How about in two days' time? We don't keep town hours out here, so we'll probably dine around seven."
John nodded his head.
"Excellent. We'll see you then." Alex stood up and shook John's hand. "I'm glad our paths crossed again."
"As am I." John escorted Alex out of the house to the stables where his horse was waiting. With a friendly nod, Alex mounted and rode away.
John walked slowly back into the house, smiling to himself as he looked up at his new home. When he reached the hall, however, Buxton intercepted him.
"This arrived for you, my lord, while you were conversing with his grace." He handed John an envelope on a silver tray.
John raised his eyebrows as he unfolded the note.
I am in England.
How strange. John turned the envelope over in his hand. His name was not written on it anywhere. "Buxton?" he called out.
The butler, who had been on his way to the kitchen, turned around and returned to John's side.
"When this arrived, what did the messenger say?"
"Just that he had a note for the master of the house."
"He didn't mention my name specifically?"
"No, my lord, I don't think so. It was a child who delivered it, actually. I don't think he was more than eight or nine."
John gave the paper one last speculative glance and then shrugged. "It's probably for the previous owners." He crumpled it in his hand and tossed it aside. "I certainly have no idea what it's about."
Later that night as John was eating dinner, he thought about Belle. As he nursed a glass of whiskey over the pages of The Winter's Tale, he thought about her. He crawled into bed, and he thought about her.
She was beautiful. That much was irrefutable, but he didn't think that was the reason she pervaded his thoughts. There had been a gleam in those bright blue eyes. A gleam of intelligence, and… compassion. She'd tried to befriend him before he'd gone and completely foiled her attempt. He shook his head, as if to banish her from his thoughts. He knew better than to think about women before bed. Closing his eyes, he sent up a prayer for dreamless sleep.
He was in Spain. It was a hot day, but his company was in good spirits; no fighting for the last week.
They had settled into a small town, nearly a month ago. The locals were, for the most part, glad to have them. The soldiers brought money, mostly to the tavern, but everyone felt a little more prosperous when the English were in town.
As usual, John was drunk. Anything to wipe out the screams that rang in his ears and the blood that he always felt on his hands, no matter how often he washed them. Another few drinks, he judged, and he'd be well on his way to oblivion.
He looked up and nodded at the man settling across the table from him. "Spencer."
George Spencer picked up the bottle. "Do you mind?"
Spencer splashed some of the liquid into the glass he'd brought over with him. "Do you have any idea when we're getting out of this hellhole?"
"I prefer this hellhole, as you call it, to the deeper one on the battlefield."
Spencer glanced at a serving girl across the room and licked his lips before turning back to John and saying, "Never would have took you for a coward, Blackwood."
John shot back another glass of whiskey. "Not a coward, Spencer. Just a man."
"Aren't we all." Spencer's attention was still focused on the girl, who couldn't have been more than thirteen. "What do you think of that one, eh?"
]ohn just shrugged again, not feeling especially communicative.
The girl, whose name he had learned during this past month was Ana, came over and set a plate of food in front of him. He thanked her in Spanish. She nodded and smiled, but before she could leave, Spencer had pulled her onto his lap.
"Aren't you a nice piece?" he drawled, his hand creeping up and covering her barely mature breast.
"No," she said in broken English. "I-"
"Leave her alone," John said sharply.
"Christ, Blackwood, she's just a-"
"Leave her alone."
"You're an ass sometimes, did you know that?" Spencer pushed Ana off of his lap, but not before giving her backside a vicious pinch.
John forked a bite of rice into his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and said, "She's a child, Spencer."
Spencer flexed his hand. "Not the way I felt it."
John just shook his head, not wanting to have to deal with him. "Just leave her alone."
Spencer stood up abruptly. "I gotta go piss."
John watched him leave and turned back to his supper. He'd not taken more than three bites before Ana's mother appeared at the table.
"Señor Blackwood," she said, speaking in a mix of English and Spanish she knew he understood. "That man-he touch my Ana. It must stop."
John blinked a few times, trying to rid his mind of its alcoholic haze. "Has he been bothering her for long?"
"All week, Señor. All week. She no like it. She frightened. "
John felt disgust roiling the contents of his stomach.
"Don't worry, Señora," he assured her. "I'll make sure he leaves her alone. She'll be safe from my company."
The woman bowed her head. "Thank you, Señor Blackwood. Your word comforts me." She returned to the kitchen where, John presumed, she would spend the rest of the evening cooking.
He went back to work on his meal, downing another glass of whiskey along with it. Closer and closer to oblivion. He craved it these days. Anything to wipe his mind free of the death and the dying.
Spencer returned, wiping his hands on a towel as he entered. "Still eating, Blackwood?" he asked.
"You always did have a penchant for stating the obvious. "
Spencer scowled. "Eat your slop then, if that's what you want. I'm going off in search of entertainment."
John raised a brow as if to say, "Here?"
"This place is ripe, I think." Spencer's eyes gleamed as he swaggered up the stairs and out of sight.
John sighed, glad to be rid of this man who had always been such an annoyance in his company. He'd never liked Spencer, but he was a decent soldier, and England needed all of those she could get her hands on.
He finished his meal and pushed the plate across the table. The food had been tasty, but nothing seemed to satisfy him anymore. Perhaps another glass of whiskey.
Oh, now he was drunk. Really drunk. There were, he supposed, still a few things for which to thank the Lord.