October Revenge – Merry Farmer

Lord Mark Gatwick was alone. Where once his sprawling, Hampshire estate, Blackmoor Close, overflowed with guests—all of whom had been invited, hosted, and beholden to Lord Theodore Shayles—the halls were now empty and the stretching lawns contained nothing but manicured grass. Where once the rooms echoed with ribald laughter and the sounds of carnal pursuit, now everything was quiet, still. Mark turned away from the window in the morning parlor, away from the view of rain pouring down over the small, oval garden that marked the approach to Blackmoor Close’s front door. The rain obscured the full path of the lane that wound half a mile from the door to the gate that marked the entrance to his estate, but he had stood by the window studying the approach for a good half hour after breakfast. It was a blessed relief that the lane had remained empty. He crossed the parlor slowly, placing one foot carefully in front of the other, his hands clasped behind his back. The ticking of the clock on the mantle above the cold fireplace and the rain beating against the windows were the only sounds in the room, and he intended to keep it that way. He deliberately walked without making a sound as he crossed into the hall. He wasn’t the only one. Baxter, his butler, strode out of the hall opposite where Mark walked and immediately slowed his steps. The man’s face betrayed only a slight hint of surprise and concern as he studied Mark, then bowed. “Good morning, my lord,” he said in a voice so hushed one would have thought someone had died. “Good morning, Baxter.” Mark nodded to him and walked on at his measured pace.

“Can I be of some assistance, my lord?” Baxter asked. Mark shook his head. “No, Baxter, no.” He walked on, conscious of Baxter watching him as he slipped into the conservatory. One of the upstairs maids, Lucy, was busy in the room, shaking out the curtains and brushing them. Mark managed to get halfway across the room before a board creaked under his foot, alerting Lucy to his presence. The poor maid jumped and gasped and looked as though she might have soiled herself at the sight of him. It wouldn’t have been the first time a woman blanched when he walked into the room. “I’m sorry, my lord,” she whispered, dipping into a curtsy, her face flushing. “Forgive me, my lord.

” She looked as though she might burst into tears. “It’s all right, Lucy,” Mark said, barely above a murmur. “I didn’t know you would…I’ll come back later, my lord.” Lucy bobbed another curtsy and fled from the room. Mark sighed, lowering his head. He hadn’t meant to chase the poor girl away. He simply wanted to…he wasn’t certain what he wanted. He walked to the ancient harpsicord that had belonged to his mother and ran a hand along the inlaid wood design across the top. There wasn’t a speck of dust on the instrument, even though no one had played it in over fifty years. He crossed to the ivory music stand his uncle had used while playing the violin.

That too was as perfectly preserved and cared for as a museum piece. He glanced up at the paintings on the walls—his contribution to the décor. Works of Gainsborough and Reynolds stared silently back at him. They were priceless. Any of the dozens of paintings that filled the walls of his house were worth a fortune. Museums had petitioned him to borrow them for special exhibits. He didn’t mind lending them either. But not one of the masterpieces he owned was the painting. Mark would have given everything he possessed to get the painting back. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t high art, that its subject wasn’t lofty or important.

The painting meant everything to him. It was his heart and his soul. It was his punishment and his penance. He hadn’t laid eyes on it in twenty-five years. He didn’t know where it was, but he certainly knew who had it. With a sigh, he turned to leave the conservatory. A soft thump sounded from one of the cushioned window seats at the other end of the room. Mark turned to find a sleek, grey tabby cat stretching where he had landed after jumping from the seat, then following him out of the room. “Making sure I don’t get into trouble, Styx?” he asked the cat as they continued into the hall together. Styx didn’t look up at him, but he seemed to know exactly what Mark was about.

They headed down the hall, then walked into the ballroom, which doubled as a gallery for his art acquisitions. Styx marched straight to one of the French doors, stopping to sit and look out at the rain. Mark caught up and stood looking out the window as well. As far as he was concerned, he’d earned the silence he stood in now—in good ways and bad ways. After over twenty-five years of tailing Theodore Shayles, like some pathetic puppy that didn’t know what else to do, he deserved peace. Shayles was in prison, convicted for operating a brothel—but not for the numerous deaths that had taken place in that brothel. Some were saying the conviction in the House of Lords that spring had come about because Mark had spoken up, declaring Shayles guilty, but Mark refused to give himself that kind of credit. He chose to focus instead on the brief reprieve he now had. The silence was a relief after over two decades of living in the heart of a maelstrom. But the silence was also oppressive.

He moved away from the window, walking slowly down the length of the ballroom while staring at the floor. Styx followed at his side. The silence was temporary. It was the calm before another storm. It was rife with tension and with dread. Shayles was in prison, yes, but within a month he would be released. The villain’s sentence had only been for six months. Six measly months in exchange for the loss or destruction of a hundred lives or more. But the lives of a hundred women apparently weren’t equal to the life of one evil man. It rankled Mark’s nerves.

More so than Shayles’s furiously shouted promise on the floor of the House of Lords as he was taken into custody: “I’ll murder you in your sleep, you filthy, back-stabbing bastard. I’ll kill you for this.” Mark—and Styx—left the ballroom and headed on toward the back of the house, toward the library. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Shayles intended to make good on his promise of murder. It didn’t matter how distant Blackmoor Close was from London. It didn’t matter that he’d given orders for no man to be allowed past the gate half a mile away. Shayles would be released from prison within a month. He was coming. “My lord.” Baxter cleared his throat in the library’s doorway.

Mark turned, hiding his moment of alarm at being caught lost in thought, then marched across the room. “Yes?” “The morning post has arrived.” Baxter presented a small stack of envelopes. “Thank you, Baxter.” Mark took the mail with a nod. Baxter turned to go as Mark shuffled through the envelopes, walking back to the window where Styx had jumped onto the sill. Most of the letters were business. One was from Lady Lavinia, his cousin’s wife who was very possibly the only person in the world who still considered Mark a friend. He slipped that letter into his jacket pocket, set most of the mail on the table beside the window, but focused on the last letter in his hand. It was from a Mr.

Lloyd, Shayles’s solicitor. Heart in his throat, Mark tore the letter open. “Lord Gatwick,” it began without preamble or politeness. “In regards to your repeated inquiries about a certain painting belonging to my client, once again, I must inform you that the art in question is the sole possession of my client. As owner, he is under no obligation to return said painting to you or to apprise you of its whereabouts or condition. Kindly cease your pursuit on this matter.” Mark gritted his teeth, tempted to crush the letter into a ball and throw it out the window into the rain. Shayles did not own the painting. Mark had neither sold nor gifted it to the bastard. As with everything else, Shayles had taken it because it suited his fancy, because he knew taking it would wound Mark.

But the letter went on. “As regards my client’s impending release, Lord Shayles wishes to remind you of the financial obligations you have toward him. He expects the sum of twenty thousand pounds to be deposited in his bank account before his release. If such a sum is not deposited, he will bring suit against you and cause the numerous secrets of your past to spill across the scandal sheets of London’s most prominent newspapers.” Mark scoffed and shook his head, scanning the rest of the letter before mashing it into a ball. He had no financial obligations toward Shayles. He had no obligations at all. Shayles was mad if he thought he could strong-arm him into bolstering his squandered fortune. And as for the threat of selling his secrets to London’s newspapers, it was a threat without teeth. One didn’t spend more than two decades by the side of a murderous villain like Shayles, watching him blackmail half the peerage, without protecting oneself.

That and, unlike half the peerage, Mark didn’t have a scandal to his name. His financial dealings were all above-board, he hadn’t had a lover since university, he’d never set a foot out of line, and other than his association with Shayles, he’d lived a perfectly bland, uninteresting life. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Mark hadn’t really lived for the past twenty-five years. And yet, it was entirely possible that Shayles would manufacture a mountain of lies about him to give his threat substance. The bastard thought he could grab him by the balls and squeeze until he capitulated to whatever insane demands Shayles made. He could, and likely would, drag Mark’s name through the mud just to prove a point. And then he’d make good on his promise to murder him. But it was the audacity of the claim of ownership over the painting that stuck in Mark’s craw. Filled with renewed energy brought on by anger, Mark stomped out of the room, Styx watching him with disapproval. He clenched his jaw and balled his fists at his sides as he climbed the grand staircase at the front of the house and strode along the smaller of the two halls that led to the first-floor rooms, heading to the back of the house.

There was only one place he wanted to be when emotion got the better of him, as it had just then, and only one thing that he wanted to do. He threw open the door to the suite of rooms at the back of the house, but as soon as he was in the first of the rooms, he let out a breath and forced his shoulders to drop and his jaw to unclench. The rich, sharp scent of oil paint and turpentine filled his nose, soothing him. He closed the door gently behind him and stepped farther into the room. A tall easel stood near the row of windows that looked out to the south side of the estate. A half-finished painting waited for him there. Several other paintings in various stages of completion stood around the room. He’d hung some, but most of them rested against the walls, either drying or just sitting there, as restless and undecided as their creator. A glass-fronted cabinet filled with paints, solvents, brushes, and the like stood against the wall facing the windows. The floor, carpet, and even the walls were stained and splattered with paint—partially from decades’ worth of accidents and partially from some of the more experimental methods of painting he’d tried over the years.

The same face glanced back at him from every single canvas in the room. The same frightened, panicked, wide-eyed, tormented face. Her face. He would never forget her face, no matter how hard he tried. Unable to stand the way she looked at him from every direction, condemning him with her terror, he marched through the front room and into the old bedroom that made up the other half of the suite. The tall, antique bed was as solid as four oaks growing close together in the forest. It was as solid as his father had been before illness set in. Every bit of the furnishings of the bedroom reminded Mark of the wise, caring, honorable man his father had been. The wardrobe in the corner—made of the same oak as the bed—still held his father’s clothes, untouched for almost thirty years. The washstand was still laid out with his father’s shaving things.

The hairbrush still held strands of his father’s hair. And while Mark did allow his servants to clean the room and change the bedsheets now and then, he demanded that every detail remain precisely the way it was. He crossed to the bed and sat, his heart feeling as heavy as it had the day he’d sat by his father’s side, holding his hand as life slipped away from him. He’d only been eighteen when his father had died. He’d been at the end of his first semester at Oxford, mere months after Mark had fallen accidentally in with Shayles and his lot. He’d sat in the same spot where he sat now, weeping and clutching his father’s hand, telling him he didn’t like Shayles, didn’t trust him, but couldn’t figure out how to break from him. He’d begged his father for advice, but it was too late. Mark swallowed hard and pulled Lavinia’s letter from his jacket. He tore into it as though it were the stiff drink he needed to chase away the gloom that surrounded him. “Dear Cousin Mark,” it began in Lavinia’s light, curling hand.

“As it turned out, the picnic at the Tavistock’s was a terrible idea, just as you said it would be. Lord Tavistock is unwell, Lady Tavistock seemed beside herself with worry for him, and just as you suggested, it appeared as though the whole thing was orchestrated by Lord Tavistock’s cousin as a way for him to stake a claim to the estate, should Lord Tavistock die.” Mark’s shoulders relaxed as he read on. If not for Lavinia, he would know nothing at all of the goings-on of the peerage. He’d left London shortly after Shayles’s trial and had barely set foot outside of his estate since then. He and Lavinia corresponded several times a week, however, and though some might think there was nothing of any importance in their letters, they were the only lifeline he had to the rest of the world. And if he was honest with himself, he preferred it that way. Over twenty years at Shayles’s side and he knew nothing at all about how to conduct himself in polite company. Lavinia was his tutor in life and society, even if it was only a correspondence course. “The baby continues to be a delight,” her letter went on, winding its way to a close.

“He really is a darling. I think motherhood suits me. I know it isn’t proper for a countess, but nothing gives me more joy than playing with dear little Arthur and holding him close. I believe Armand is becoming quite jealous of his heir. You simply must come and see Arthur soon, while he’s still in this sweet stage. Please say you will. Your friend, Lavinia.” Something that was close to a smile pulled at Mark’s lips. He’d never given babies or children any thought. He’d always harbored the suspicion that they knew how broken and black his soul was.

But he might have to take Lavinia up on her offer at some point. Perhaps. He refolded her letter and tucked it back into the envelope, taking it to his father’s bureau. He opened a drawer that contained old handkerchiefs, a few moth-eaten socks, and the rest of the letters Lavinia had sent him, nestling the new one carefully on the top of the pile. Then he headed back to the front room and picked up his sketch pad. He sat in a chair near one of the windows, taking a pencil from the side table. He began to sketch, recalling the few babies he’d been privileged to see in his life. He wouldn’t be able to draw Lavinia’s baby, not without seeing him, but at least he could— Her eyes stared out at him from the paper, killing his smile. They were supposed to be the eyes of an innocent baby, but his hand could only form one set of eyes. His smile vanished as his hand moved on.

Her weeping face began to emerge from the page. No matter what he tried to conjure from his memory, it was always her face that appeared. His heart ached like a sick thing in his chest as he sketched on. Her twisted, pleading mouth appeared on the page, her wild hair, her bruised cheek. He couldn’t take it. With a grunt of disgust at himself, he threw the sketchpad down and buried his face in his hands. His memories grew fierce and hot—the scent of tobacco smoke and mildew, the dark laughter, her screams as she pleaded for mercy. He would never get them out of his head, never be able to escape. Never— A resonant chime sounded somewhere far away in the house. It was quiet but distinct.

He hadn’t heard the sound of the bell at the front door for months, but there it was. It reverberated through the silent house with a strength Mark would never have guessed was possible. He shouldn’t be hearing something so distant, but there it was. It rang a second time, and he sat up. Of all God-forsaken things, someone was at his front door.

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