Divots of earth flew from Thunder’s hooves as Zachary Sheridan, Duke of Winchester, took advantage of his brothers’ preoccupation and pushed his stallion into a flat-out gallop. A chill wind whistled past his ears and bit into his face, but determined to make the most of this rare opportunity, Zach ignored the discomfort. The ground shook as Amos and Vincent broke off their conversation and chased after him on equally spirited mounts. ‘Nice try, big brother,’ Amos said, laughing as his stallion Falcon forged past him. Zach drew rein, looking back to see his young dogs, Marley and Mungo, loping up to them. With boundless energy to burn, even they couldn’t keep pace with galloping horses. ‘You’ll have to be more devious than that if you think you can outpace Falcon.’ ‘He has a point,’ Vince said. ‘Stealing a head start is about the only way any of us can get the better of you and that damned steed. Any time you feel like selling the beast…’ ‘Not in this lifetime,’ Amos replied, patting the animal’s sweaty neck. ‘It’s a bit like old times,’ Zach said, as the three of them gave their mounts long reins and the opportunity to recover their breath. ‘Before we became responsible members of society, we used to chase one another around this estate like lunatics. I still don’t know how we all came through it in one piece.’ ‘And Anna chased us,’ Vince added, smiling at the memory of their sister who so desperately wanted to be one of the boys. ‘Don’t remind me,’ Zach said, rolling his eyes.
‘She was like a shadow—and we were the ones who got thrashed for not taking care of her if she was reckless and hurt herself, which happened frequently.’ Vince grinned. ‘Our sons will be following that family tradition before you know it.’ ‘True enough. Frankie is already fretting about Leo having to go off to preparatory school, and that won’t be until the autumn of next year.’ ‘At least he and Josh will be able to go together, and Michael will be there ahead of them,’ Amos said, referring to Anna’s son. ‘If that boy proves to be even half as intelligent as his father then he’ll leave our lot in the shade.’ ‘You had to face the ordeal alone, Zach, but you were there to ease the path for the rest of us, much as Michael will be for his cousins.’ ‘Ah, the responsibilities of rank,’ Vince said, grinning at Amos. ‘No wonder his shoulders are so broad.
’ ‘They need to be, carrying you lot the way I have all these years.’ Zach laughed when his brothers shared a raised-eyebrow look. ‘It’s going to snow soon, I reckon, and we’ll be stuck indoors for days if it settles.’ Zach tilted back his head and sniffed the air. ‘It’s coming. I can smell it. Let’s head into Shawford and have a tankard of ale while the path’s still clear.’ ‘You see, Amos, despite all the people running around taking on his responsibilities and leaving him with nothing to do, our big brother’s brain hasn’t completely seized up, and he still comes up with the occasional inspired suggestion,’ Vince replied, turning his horse in the direction of the village. The brothers rode into the mews at the Crown and Anchor in Shawford, one of the two villages that were equal distance from Winchester Park, Zach’s sprawling country estate. Grooms came running, ignoring other customers the moment they recognised their aristocratic visitors.
Surrendering their mounts, Zach led the way into the taproom with his panting dogs at his heels. The inn was frequented at that time of day by merchants and local traders. The farm workers would come later, and likely seize the excuse to remain if the snow set in. The landlord, Jeggins, greeted them with offhand deference. Zach suffered more than enough flummery on a daily basis and both Jeggins and Clark, the landlord of the Ploughman in Compton, were aware that the Sheridan males came to their establishments for recreational purposes. Woe betide anyone who attempted to accost them with complaints or demands for arbitration. The locals knew it, accepted their presence amongst them and largely ignored them. ‘Good afternoon to you, Jeggins,’ Zach said, rubbing his gloved hands together to restore some feeling into his fingers. ‘Three tankards of your finest ale, if you please.’ ‘Coming right up, your grace.
Cold as a witch’s tit out there, I’m thinking.’ ‘You’re not wrong, Jeggins,’ Amos replied, joining his brothers at a table close to the fire before removing his hat and pulling off his gloves. The dogs shook themselves vigorously and fell onto their sides in front of the fire. ‘She’s ageing gracefully,’ Vince remarked, watching the departing figure of Martha, the inn’s long-serving barmaid and the woman responsible for educating each of the Sheridan males in amatory affairs—a responsibility that she viewed as a rite of passage. She was a comely lass and knew it. Presumably overhearing Vince’s comment, she wagged her backside at them as she walked away, making them all smile. ‘And she clearly hasn’t changed her ways,’ he added, chuckling as he watched her return to the bar and lean over it to give a stuttering young buck who’d obviously stumbled upon the tavern and taken refuge from the impending storm an unimpeded view of the goods on offer. ‘The poor sap doesn’t stand a chance.’ ‘There are worse ways to idle the time away,’ Amos replied. Zach lifted his tankard to his lips, enjoying this rare respite with two of his three brothers.
Amos lived permanently at Winchester Park with his children, and had overall responsibility for Zach’s thriving stud. His wife Crista had been tragically killed in an attack intended to claim the life of Zach’s beloved duchess, Frankie, almost two years previously. Vince and his wife had their own establishment adjacent to the Park. Only Nate, the youngest of the four, lived some distance away in Surrey with his growing family, preventing Zach from seeing as much of him as he would like. ‘We were none of us ever quite the same again once Martha had had her way with us,’ Vince remarked, taking a healthy sip of his ale. ‘Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing.’ ‘She made men of us,’ Amos agreed. ‘Or so she insisted afterwards.’ They all laughed. ‘When are you expecting your visitor, Vince?’ Zach asked.
‘Imminently. Rather depends upon the weather and the tides, of course, although the Irish are a hardy lot and won’t allow a gale to keep them in harbour for long.’ ‘I’ve only just heard about this visit from Frankie,’ Zach said, putting his half-empty tankard down. ‘And obviously, she gets her information from Nia.’ ‘Doran Conroy is quite a character. Charming, infectiously good-humoured and very much his own man. You’ll like him. He and I became close friends when Nia and I were spending so much time in Dublin. He was a familiar face in Irish society and very difficult to overlook.’ Zach nodded, aware that Nia still felt the loss of her grandfather, the famous portraitist Patrick Trafford, who had lived out his final years quietly in his native Ireland.
‘I am glad you found men with whom you had something in common.’ ‘Doran inherited his father’s estate in County Wicklow, which happens to be rich in oak.’ Zach raised a brow. ‘You said he had a proposition for me. You imagine that’s what it might be?’ ‘I think so. I had a letter from him out of the blue, taking up Nia’s standing invitation to visit us for as long as he wishes. He said he’d appreciate an introduction to you.’ ‘Timber.’ Zach rubbed his jaw. ‘Don’t know much about it.
I’ve never dipped a toe into that particular market—but you know me, I always keep an eye open for fresh opportunities.’ ‘Oak will always be in demand,’ Amos said. ‘Not so much for shipbuilding nowadays, more for houses and furniture. Didn’t I hear somewhere that the roof of Salisbury Cathedral was originally constructed from Irish oak?’ ‘Probably still is,’ Vince replied. ‘It can take a lot of punishment.’ Zach caught Martha’s eye and raised his empty tankard. Three new ones full to the brim were delivered to their table with alacrity. ‘Thank you, Martha,’ Zach said. ‘Anything for you gentlemen,’ she replied with a sassy smile. Amos laughed, and Zach was glad to see his brother’s easy manner gradually re-emerging from the fog of misery that had crushed his spirit.
He would never be the same man that he’d been before his wife was so brutally taken from him, as attested by the despair that never seemed to completely leave his eyes. He laughed less readily and often fell into long silences, but at least he was recovering. Every day there were small signs that encouraged Zach to believe he would soon have his favourite brother fully restored to him. ‘Anyway,’ Vince said, leaning back in his chair and stretching his legs out in front of him, nudging Marley with the toe of his boot, ‘Doran will likely…’ His words trailed off when a commotion in the passageway—a loud male voice issuing all manner of threats and cultured female tones responding with icy disdain—caused a hiatus in all conversations in the taproom. Every man looked towards the door when it was thrust open and a tall woman wearing a fur-lined cloak and a thunderous expression burst into the room. Zach and his brothers all stood up, sensing that she was in some sort of danger from the man who’d been doing all the shouting. A lady of quality would never deign to set foot in this largely male preserve through choice. ‘Come on out here, you doxy.’ The man entered the taproom and loomed over the woman, who gave him a contemptuous glare as Zach and his brothers instinctively formed a protective semi-circle around her. ‘We have business to attend to.
’ ‘Is this person bothering you?’ Zach asked. ‘Hey, it ain’t nothing to do with you.’ ‘I beg to differ.’ Zach turned on the hapless individual, pulling himself up to his full height and fixing the man with a ducal glower that caused the woman’s aggressor to instinctively flinch. ‘I am Winchester,’ he said, returning his attention to the woman and softening his tone. ‘Jeggins, a private parlour for the lady.’ ‘At once, your grace.’ ‘You are the duke?’ The man who moments before had seemed so aggressive now backed away, palms pushed forward in a gesture of appeasement. ‘I don’t want no trouble.’ Zach ignored him and kept his attention upon the woman, whose eyes had widened when he gave his name.
‘I came here hoping to gain an audience with you,’ she said softly. Zach tilted his head towards the man who had been threatening her. ‘See this person leaves the area, Jeggins,’ he said. ‘I cannot abide men who threaten to use force against helpless females.’ ‘Ha! You wouldn’t call her helpless if you knew her better. She’s a thieving, unscrupulous strumpet, that’s what she is. All right, all right, I’m going.’ He shook off the hands of the two men who stepped forward at Jeggins’ bidding to evict him. Marley and Mungo had been roused from their slumbers by the ruckus and barked their encouragement, their hackles raised. The man took one look at them and fled for the door.
‘But she ain’t heard the last of this,’ he added, turning when he reached the comparative safety of the corridor to issue his empty threat. ‘My master will have what’s legally his and there’s an end to the matter.’ He stomped off, grumbling under his breath. In the meantime, the lady had been conducted from the taproom by Mrs Jeggins. Zach suppressed a smile, aware that the landlady would be bursting with curiosity, and that exaggerated tales of the lady’s misfortunes and Jeggins’ part in saving the day would be all over Shawford and Compton before evening. ‘So much for a few minutes’ peace and quiet,’ Zach said, sighing. ‘Right, let’s go and find out who this lady is and why she came here in search of my help.’ The conversations returned to normal as Zach led his brothers from the room, the dogs at their heels. The lady and her maid had been brought to a small parlour at the rear of the inn, and she was warming her hands in front of the fire. ‘You are safe now,’ Zach said, smiling at her.
‘He’s gone. These are my brothers, Amos and Vince.’ Both men swept bows. ‘May I know your name?’ ‘Certainly you may.’ The lady stood, her regal bearing belying her agitation. Her pale blue eyes still shot daggers, presumably because the altercation had frightened her so much. ‘I am Lady George Marlowe—Leona Marlowe—and I am very grateful for your intervention. Yaris’s man was intoxicated, and as you saw, very aggressive. He followed me here and made sure I knew he was on my heels, but he hadn’t addressed me before then.’ ‘Yaris?’ Zach and his brothers sat once Lady Marlowe had resumed her chair.
‘My late husband’s cousin on his mother’s side,’ she said, twitching her nose. ‘He seems to think that he is entitled to a share of my estate. He hasn’t stopped harassing me since George’s death a year ago. He must be aware that he has no legal claim, but that doesn’t prevent him from making my life unbearable.’ ‘Surely you have the right of redress through the law,’ Amos suggested. Lady Marlowe rippled her shoulders. ‘Perhaps I didn’t explain myself properly. Excuse me, I am distraught.’ She took a moment to fold her hands neatly in her lap, clearly struggling to regain her composure. ‘Yaris is the law.
He is a solicitor, and he has managed to tie up my husband’s estate by refuting my lawyer’s legitimate claims to my own property. When we refused to cave in to his demands, Yaris made his crusade personal and my life a misery by turning up everywhere I went. At first he tried charm, then gentle coercion. When neither tactic worked and I pointed out to him that I would not accede to his demands, he became unpleasant.’ She shuddered. ‘Very unpleasant. But today is the first time that he has followed me into a public place. Well, his man did. While Yaris is intimidating yet unfailingly polite, that creature is quite the opposite, as you observed.’ Zach thought there was something not quite right about the entire affair.
If Lady Marlowe was so sure of her situation, the law must be on her side and she should have resolved the matter by now if her husband had been dead for a year. ‘Why exactly did you wish to see me, Lady Marlowe?’ Zach asked, sharing a glance with his brothers, both of whom looked equally sceptical. ‘Like all things, it isn’t that straightforward.’ She paused, but if she had hoped that Zach or one of his brothers would ease the palpable tension by breaking the awkward silence that ensued, they disappointed her. ‘To be frank, I am at my wits’ end. My late mother was quite well acquainted with your duchess, your grace. I recall her being very kind to me and…’ ‘Your father was a diplomat?’ Zach asked, assuming that Frankie must have known them during the course of her first marriage. ‘He was, your grace, in a minor capacity. Sir Owen Moorcroft.’ ‘I recognise the name.
’ ‘The duchess read of my husband’s death in the newspapers and was kind enough to send a note of sympathy. She remembered me, you see. I have heard of your reputation for fair mindedness and thought that if anyone could give me helpful advice…’ ‘You have no male relatives who can shoulder the burden?’ She shook her head. ‘I am an only child, my father is dead and he too was an only child.’ ‘In that case, I shall do what I can,’ Zach replied. ‘The snow is starting, Zach,’ Vince said, nodding towards the window. The sky had darkened, fat flakes splattered the glass and a strong wind rattled the pane. ‘Where were you intending to spend the night?’ Zach asked. She lifted one shoulder. ‘I set out at first light with the intention of calling upon you and then returning to London.
However, when it became obvious that I was being followed, I feared for my safety and had my coachman take a longer route here in the hope of losing Yaris’s man. Unfortunately he kept pace with us.’ She shuddered. ‘He had a pistol and made sure that I knew it. Frankly, I was terrified.’ ‘Do you think he intended to shoot you?’ Vince asked. ‘No, Lord Vincent. I think he intended to frighten me, and he succeeded better than he could know.’ She elevated her chin, looking pale and discomposed, yet regal and determined. ‘All this pressure over so many months is starting to take its toll.
If I were not so stubborn I would have given in before now, but I fail to see why I should surrender what is rightfully mine.’ ‘Well, regardless of your personal circumstances, you cannot get back to London in this weather,’ Zach said. ‘You had best return to Winchester Park with us. I dare say Frankie will be pleased to see you, and if there is anything I can do to help with your difficulties, you can be sure that I will intercede.’ ‘Thank you.’ Lady Marlowe let out a long sigh, evidently relieved. ‘You are very gracious, but I cannot permit you to put yourself out. I am sure the landlord can accommodate us here overnight.’ ‘Which will not keep you safe from the man who seemed so determined to pursue you. Besides, you came to the district in the hope of seeing me.
’ ‘That’s true.’ Lady Marlowe took a moment to reflect and quickly came to the only decision available to her. ‘If you are sure, then I shall indeed impose upon your hospitality.’ She stood, collecting up her possessions with a hand that remained unsteady, indicating just how discomfited she had been. ‘Come along, Ethel. We have already inconvenienced his grace quite enough.’ ‘Extraordinary,’ Amos said as the three brothers reclaimed their horses and Lady Marlowe’s carriage followed them from the mews. ‘What do you make of it, Zach?’ ‘Not sure yet.’ Zach took a moment to reflect. ‘There was something not quite right about her explanation.
But presumably Frankie will remember the family and be able to cast some light on their history.’ By the time they arrived at the Park the snow had become heavier and started to settle. ‘The boys will love this,’ Amos said as he dismounted. ‘I recall that the four of us always made the most of it,’ Vince agreed. ‘And Anna,’ Zach and Amos said together, laughing. Lady Marlowe’s coachman had driven directly to the stable yard. Zach helped his guest from her conveyance and hurried her towards the house, her maid scurrying along to keep up. Faraday, butler at the Park since Zach’s father’s day, materialised when the small party entered the house by the side door. ‘This is Lady Marlowe, Faraday,’ Zach said. ‘We rescued her from the storm.
She will be staying with us for at least one night. Show her upstairs so that she can get settled.’ ‘At once, your grace.’ ‘Come down when you are ready, Lady Marlowe,’ Zach added, turning to their guest, ‘and we shall be at leisure to discuss your situation.’ ‘Thank you,’ she said softly. ‘You are very considerate.’ ‘You did that on purpose,’ Amos said, watching her go. ‘Certainly I did. I want to quiz Frankie before we take matters further, see what she recalls about her.’ ‘Very wise,’ Vince agreed.
‘She wouldn’t be the first to use underhand tactics to recruit you to her cause.’ ‘Her situation sounds extraordinary,’ Zach replied. ‘But she cannot have known that we intended to be at the Crown this afternoon, and seemed genuinely terrified of the man who threatened her.’ The brothers made their way towards the drawing room as they continued to discuss the matter. They found Frankie there, along with Vince’s wife Nia and Sara, who was married to their cousin Max. ‘Ah, there you all are.’ Frankie looked up and smiled. Zach estimated that he would have to reach the age of at least a hundred before that smile lost its power to captivate him. ‘We began to think that you must have become snowed in at the Crown.’ ‘I won’t ask how you know that’s where we were,’ Zach replied, taking the chair beside his wife and watching his dogs fighting one another for the warmest space in front of the fire.
Nia smiled. ‘Very sensible of you,’ she said. ‘You know how gossip spreads like wildfire around these parts, and anything that the great duke and his brothers get up to is of immense interest to all and sundry.’ ‘Then you will already be aware that we have inflicted a visitor upon you who will be staying the night,’ Zach said, addressing this last comment exclusively to Frankie. All three ladies sat forward expectantly. ‘Actually no,’ Frankie frowned. ‘That interesting snippet had not reached our ears. Who is he?’ ‘He is Lady Leona Marlowe. I believe you are acquainted with her.’