Summer’s Distant Heart – Laura Landon

Hunter Montclaire knelt at his brother’s bedside and reached for his hand. His brother’s palm was damp, his skin hot and clammy. He’d been in the throes of a violent fever for more than a week, and the physician who had just left gave him little chance of recovery. “Hunt?” his brother whispered. “Yes, Evan. I’m right here.” Hunter took a wet cloth from the bedside table and wiped his brother’s brow. “You must fight to get better, Evan.” He struggled to keep the desperation from his voice. But it was close to impossible. “I’m afraid the choice is out of my hands, Hunt. I’m afraid only God knows how long I have left on this earth.” Hunter stood to rinse the cloth in the fresh cool water a maid had arrived with a short while ago. It was important that his brother didn’t see the worry on his face. It was hard enough to keep the terror from his voice.

Hunter wrung out the cloth and placed it on Evan’s forehead. “Is Father gone, Hunt?” “Yes. He went down to his study. I think he could not bear to watch you struggle to catch your breath any longer.” “Good. It’s you I need to speak with.” “Don’t get maudlin on me, Evan. I refuse to let you speak as though you won’t see morning.” “Perhaps I won’t,” Evan said, then struggled to pull in enough air to fill his lungs. He failed.

“I refuse to listen to you talk like that, Evan. I won’t allow it.” “I have something to tell you, Hunt. It’s important.” Hunter pulled up a chair and sat at Evan’s bedside. “Very well. What is it you need to say to me?” “First, I want you to know how much…I love you. How very important you have always been…to me. How much I regret…the way things have always been…between you and Father.” Hunter’s throat thickened with emotion.

He couldn’t speak. “I know Father has always favored me…over you, Hunt, and I know why. He blamed you…for every bit of trouble…I got into. Even when he knew I was at fault. But don’t let his words…or his actions…get the better of you. You have…nothing…to fear…from him. Stand up to him…as you have always done, and be your…own man.” Hunter tried to smile. “You know how he hates it when I do that. It always infuriates him.

” “Then you must continue to do it. It will keep him on his guard. Never allow him to…think he has the upper hand over you. He’ll destroy you…if he thinks he can…master you.” Hunter could see how parched his brother was and rose to get him something to drink. “You might be the next Earl of Atherton.” “Stop talking like that. I don’t want to be the next earl. I have never wanted the title.” Evan ignored his demand and continued.

“I know you’ve never wanted it…but it will be yours, brother. And you must take over…the duties at which I have…failed.” “You’re the epitome of successful earldom, Evan. You’ve never failed at anything.” “Yes. I have.” His brother gasped for air, then reached for Hunter’s hand and pulled him closer. “I grieve that you’ve never met the woman with whom I’ve fallen in love, Hunt. Janice Halloway. Professor Halloway’s daughter.

I love her with my whole being, Hunt, and we were…married.” “What?” Hunter couldn’t believe Evan’s words. “We married in secret because…Father proved he would never…accept her. And I could not live without her.” Evan stopped to catch his breath. “Find her, Hunt. Promise me that you will…take care of her. She may be carrying…my heir. The future Earl of Atherton. If the babe is a girl…Father will not lift a finger to help my wife or the child.

You know that. He would rather see them starve…than provide for them.” Evan clutched Hunter’s hand harder. “Don’t let Father find out…about the babe. He will not accept it. His anger could well put the babe in danger.” Hunter couldn’t find his voice. He couldn’t answer his brother because he knew Evan’s words were true. Their father would never accept a child whose mother was a commoner. He’d treat her and the babe as he would an unwanted pest.

Or a litter of kittens for which he had no use. “Promise me you’ll…find her and…take care of her…and the child, Hunt.” “I will, Evan. I promise.” His brother’s head sank deeper into the pile of pillows that allowed him to sit almost upright. It was the only way he could breathe. “Where is this lass you married, Evan?” Evan shook his head slightly. “I…I can’t be sure. I doubt…she’s with her family…any longer. She said she had some…relative she could stay with until…until she knew if she was with child, but I don’t know…who that…relative is…or where they…live.

We arranged to meet. At Christmastime. Once I recovered. But now—” Evan’s voice dissolved into a painful bout of coughing. “Don’t worry, Evan. I’ll find her.” “And promise you will not…let Father…know of her.” “I promise.” Hunter watched his brother and saw the tears that filled his eyes, then trickled down his cheeks. Before his illness, he’d been a handsome man, so hale and hearty.

His hair was golden blond in color and his eyes a vibrant midnight blue, very much like their father’s. It was quite the opposite of the coloring that Hunter was blessed with, thanks to their mother. Hunter’s hair was as dark as roasted chestnuts and his eyes were a brown so rich they were almost black. His coloring did not help disguise the anger he wore like a shield to protect him from appearing overly friendly. Tonight the frown that deepened across his forehead make him appear even less approachable. His father had taught him to wear the scowl as a badge of honor. Hunter was not allowed to appear weak, and a smile gave him too gentle an appearance. It had been his father’s mission to erase it from his son’s face. In short, Hunter had been reared to be the brutal dragon who protected the favored son and stayed out of his father’s way. Altogether, it gave him an aloofness that females found intriguing.

Something that drew them to him the same as a moth is drawn to the flame. “Would you…sit with me…for a while, Hunt? Talk to me…like you did…when we were younger. Tell me the latest…scrape you’ve managed to get yourself into.” Hunter couldn’t stop a smile from lifting the corners of his mouth. “I’m afraid I’ve outgrown the scrapes of our youth, Evan, and have turned to other indulgences.” “Do you…still have…your mistress?” Hunt chuckled. “I still have a mistress, Evan. It’s just not the same one.” “Is she a…redhead like you…prefer?” “I’m afraid my tastes have gone from ginger to raven.” “How…revealing,” Evan whispered.

His voice was losing strength and his words slurred more than they had earlier. “My wife Janice…has hair the color of…ripened wheat…and eyes…as blue and mesmerizing as the…sky after a summer…rain.” “She sounds lovely.” “She is.” Evan turned his head and locked his gaze with Hunter’s. “There’s a…letter for her in the top drawer…of my desk. Will you give it to her…when you find her? I want her to know…how much I… loved her and how…deeply I’ll regret not living my life…at her side.” “Don’t talk like that, Evan. I won’t allow it. I can’t let you leave me alone with Father.

You’ve always been the buffer that saved us from doing each other harm.” “Now that…duty will…fall to you…Hunt. You’ll have to…devote less time…to your estate…and help Father manage…Trentridge Park.” “Do you honestly believe Father will allow me to have anything to do with Trentridge Park? Don’t you know that’s why I spent all my inheritance from Mother in purchasing Rainwood? I was not assured of a place here even with you as his heir. If you abandon me like you’re threatening to do, there’s not a chance I will be allowed to darken Trentridge Park’s door ever again.” “You must…take an interest…in the running of…the estate, Hunt. For your sake…as well as…my child’s…should it be a…boy.” “Don’t worry, Evan. I will see to your child and raise him as if he were my own.” “Yes,” Evan sighed.

“Now…get the letter from my desk,” Evan demanded as his eyes threatened to close. Hunter rose to retrieve the letter from Evan’s desk and put it carefully in the pocket of his waistcoat. “Will you take…Janice and the babe to your estate…then?” Hunter sat down again and reached for his brother’s hand. “Yes. They’ll be safe at Rainwood. Father doesn’t know it exists. Or that I even own it, for that matter.” “Thank you…Hunt. I knew I could…count on you.” “You can, Evan.

Always.” “Don’t let…Father ever…have my child, Hunt. Promise…me.” “I promise, Evan. Father will never lay hands on him.” Hunter sat at Evan’s bedside and watched his brother’s breathing become more shallow with each breath. The candles at the bedside burned down until there was nothing left of them but small stubs. But Hunter couldn’t bear to leave his brother’s side. His father looked in on Evan once, but didn’t stay for any length of time. Nor did he speak.

After a few moments, he left the room and didn’t return. Hunter wasn’t sure when Evan took his last breath. It was sometime before the sun rose in the sky. Sometime before the dark of night had lightened to gray. Evan’s breathing had become so shallow and quiet that Hunter didn’t hear his final breath, but he somehow knew that his brother was gone. A blackness unlike anything he’d ever felt consumed him with a painful emptiness that would have brought him to his knees had he been standing. Tears he’d never before allowed to spill from his eyes fell like rivers down his cheeks. If Hunter knew anything for sure, it was that he would never be the same again. The only kind thing that had kept him balanced had just left this world. The day they buried Evan was damp and dreary.

Hunter thought how appropriate it was that even the heavens were weeping. But Hunter didn’t weep. He didn’t want to show such weakness in front of his father. He stood at Evan’s graveside with a stoic expression on his face and a rigid stiffness to his shoulders. It took every ounce of composure to keep from releasing the pent up tears that threatened to fall. He knew if the first tear fell it would be impossible to stop the river from bursting through the dam he’d erected to prevent himself from falling apart. His father’s face was colorless and his eyes had a haunting depth to them as if he was intent upon ignoring any sign of what was going on around him. Hunter understood the source of his anguish. The man had, after all, placed all his hopes in his golden-haired son. And though he had been blessed with the coveted ‘heir and a spare’, he had never really recognized Hunter as such.

The crowd of mourners that had gathered was large. The Marquess of Trentridge was an influential member of the House of Lords, and as his firstborn son and Earl of Atherton, Evan had been considered one of the finest catches of the Season. In sitting rooms far removed from Trentridge Park, many a damsel mourned him. None of them knew that his heart as well as his name had already been taken by another. Hunter stole a glance at the mourners to notice that several of them were evaluating him, probably comparing him to his brother. Where Evan had been jovial and popular with both male and female alike, Hunter was considered moody and lacking approachability. Hunter had also been thought of as lacking a business head on his shoulders. Little did they know. Little did his father know. Nor would anyone here ever know if he could help it.

Hunter had more of his father’s business acumen than he let on. He was already a wealthy man with several profitable investments and an enviable estate of his own. As Hunter pondered the dismal state of affairs, the graveside service ended at the doors of Trentridge Park’s impressive stone mausoleum. After quietly greeting the mourners who had remained to pay their respects, Hunter and his father led their guests to the mansion for luncheon. Hunter would be glad when this was over. He looked forward to the moment he could escort the last of the guests from the house. And yet, he also dreaded that moment. It meant that he and his father would be alone together. It meant that he could no longer avoid the serious conversation he needed to have with his father to decide what exactly was expected of him. If anything.

Hunter entered his father’s study after the last of the guests were gone and poured himself a glass of brandy. “I would like to discuss a few matters with you before I leave, Father.” “You intend to leave yet today?” “Yes. I thought I might return to London. Unless you have need of me here?” “God, no. The sooner you are gone the sooner I can put things to right.” Hunter threw the contents of his glass to the back of his throat and filled his glass again. “I thought that’s what you would want.” The Marquess of Trentridge sat in the chair behind his desk and feigned interest in some papers before him. “So,” he said, shuffling the papers closest to him.

“How does it feel to wear your brother’s title?” It was the first time anyone had mentioned the title that had fallen to him upon his brother’s death. Earl of Atherton. Hunter couldn’t ease the pain from the fist that clenched inside his chest. “Like a weight around my neck. I have never desired Evan’s title, nor wanted it.” “You expect me to believe that?” “Believe what you want, Father. You have always thought the worst of me.” “You have always shown me your worst side, as well as your lack of what it will take to assume your brother’s title.” “Well, Father,” Hunter said, draining the brandy from his glass and setting it down on a nearby table. “You can always take solace in the fact that there is your younger brother’s son, Winston, standing in the wings to replace me.

You have always treated him more like a son than you treated me.” “That’s because he has always been more of a son to me than you have.” “And whose fault is that?” “Don’t lay the responsibility for that at my feet, blast you. I am not to blame. You are.” Hunter’s temper rose to a dangerous peak. “The only thing for which I am to blame is that I lived and my mother did not.” “Don’t you dare speak of her!” “Why? Isn’t that what you’ve repeatedly told me? Well, with Evan gone, I give you permission to call on Winston to serve as your heir. I have no doubt that in the end you will leave everything not entailed to him.” “You can be assured that I will.

” “It’s a pity that Trentridge Park is entailed and you cannot leave that to him as well.” His father’s glare turned dark and deadly. “Oh, how I hate having to call you my son. Would that you had died instead of Evan.” “I know, Father. More’s the pity.” Hunter turned to leave. He couldn’t escape his father’s bitter hatred quickly enough. “If there’s any need to reach me,” he said as he stepped to the door, “you may contact me through my solicitor. Although I doubt you’ll have need to reach out to me for any reason.

” “No, I doubt that I will,” his father said looking back to the papers on his desk. “Nor do I anticipate you coming to me when you find yourself lacking funds. You will get nothing from me. Do you hear? Nothing.” “What will be different then, I wonder? Since I have never asked anything of you, nor received it.” “And you never will. All you can ever expect from me is that when I am gone there will be a small amount in trust to keep Trentridge Park solvent.” “You lack faith in my ability to keep the estate profitable?” “I have faith in nothing but my ability to keep Trentridge Park in the Montclaire name. Without the amount I intend to leave in trust for the upkeep of Trentridge Park, I fear all will be lost of the wealth that generations of Montclaires before you have worked so hard to amass.” “I’m overwhelmed by your confidence in me,” Hunter said as a rebuff.

He actually relished hearing his father admit that he had not one shred of faith in Hunter’s ability to manage Trentridge Park. “You expect me to tell you I believe you will be as prepared and able to run the estate as your brother was? I am not that blind to your incapabilities.” “I expected as much. But, when have you shown me anything different?” “You had no need. Your mother’s trust has allowed you to live the wastrel lifestyle you’re accustomed to living. But even that much wealth will run out eventually and you’ll be forced to fall back on what I’ve earned. I only hope I’m alive to refuse you.” “Then you will wait in vain. That day will never come, my lord. I would rather starve to death than have to rely on you for a crust of bread.

” Hunter gathered his cloak, hat, and cane and stormed from the mansion. It would be the last time he would darken its doorway while his father was still alive.

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