FATHER, PLEASE BE reasonable. If you continue down this path, Thomas might never come home.” James knew that trying to reason with his father was likely a lost cause. But he would try nonetheless. Because his mother would have wanted him to. Because his grandmother had asked him to. And James always did what was asked of him. “Your brother is a spoilt, selfish scoundrel, James. And he needs to be taught a lesson.” The Marquess of Avondale was unyielding. His youngest son was out of line, and if he didn’t get back into it, he’d be cut off. It was as simple as that. James often tried desperately to get his father and Thomas to understand each other, to make the marquess see that Thomas believed his father couldn’t care less about him. James was the heir. That made Thomas the spare, and he felt it keenly.
And Thomas acted out accordingly, always desperate to get their stern sire’s attention. Thus far, the only attention he had managed to garner was negative. But something was better than nothing, Thomas had told James. They looked alike, he and Thomas. But looks were where the similarities ended. Since boyhood, James had taken his role as heir seriously. And he’d done so with good humour and grace. He was always pleasant and kind. Always willing to help when he could, wherever he could. His friends at Eton had called him the Golden Boy.
It helped the moniker stick, he supposed, that he had a mop of bright golden hair. Thomas was a study in opposites. Irresponsible, dissolute, debauched. He spent his life flitting from gaming hells, to mistresses, and back again. Tales of his scandals regularly made the Society pages, earning his father’s constant disapproval and his grandmother’s shame. It didn’t help matters that when they wrote about Thomas and his evil ways, they inevitably compared him to James, painting the latter as a paragon of all that was good and right in the world. This tended to upset Thomas even more, causing him to act out in even wilder ways. And James was always expected to clean up his messes. Which is how he came to be in his father’s study this morning, a study that would one day be his, begging clemency for his younger brother yet again. “Let me talk to him,” James said now.
“Give him a chance to – to grow up. He’s still young.” “As are you, James, yet you do not bring shame upon our family name every time you leave the house.” No, James thought bitterly. He never acted out. He was always good. Always well behaved. Always…staid and dependable. Boring. “Just give him one more chance,” James begged.
His father studied him for a moment or two before sighing and leaning back in his leather desk chair. “Fine,” he conceded. “One more chance. If Thomas can keep his bib clean for the rest of the Season, I’ll continue to pay his allowance. If not, he’s cut off.” “Thank you, Father,” James said, jumping up before his father could change his mind. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate your generosity.” He slipped from his father’s study, into the corridor beyond – and straight into his brother. “Pleading my case to dear old Papa, were you?” Thomas slurred. Immediately, James realised his brother was in his cups.
Again. “A little early for whiskey, is it not, brother?” he asked, trying to move Thomas away from the door of the study, lest his father realise what state he was in. “Not if you haven’t been to bed yet,” Thomas drawled. The brothers entered a small sitting room, and Thomas pulled his arm from James’s steadying hand. “Thomas, I’ve spoken to Father and –” “And saved the day, just like always.” The sneer in Thomas’s tone, the hatred in his expression, took James by surprise. He’d always fought Thomas’s corner, always defended him as best he could. James felt a spurt of anger at Thomas’s ungrateful attitude. He’d spent the morning arguing against the marquess cutting Thomas off without so much as a guinea to his name, and this was how he’d repay him? With derision and sarcasm? Just once, James would have liked to be the son who didn’t walk the straight and narrow. His friend Simon, the Earl of Dashford, was perpetually encouraging James to be a rogue, just once.
Alas, with Thomas having painted himself firmly as the black sheep, that left only responsibility and familial duty for James. “Don’t blame me for your poor decisions,” James bit out, his patience fraying. “Clean up your act or you’ll be penniless by month’s end. I managed to buy you some time, but Father’s tolerance won’t last forever.” His younger brother studied him closely, and James began to feel slightly uncomfortable with the scrutiny. “Let me guess,” Thomas finally spat, his eyes the same shade of deep blue as James’s glinting with icy fire. “Father offered to give me some time as a favour to you, the Paragon.” James resisted the urge to pull at his cravat. For Thomas spoke the truth. Father wasn’t doing this for Thomas.
He was doing it because James had asked it of him. “I never asked for the disparity in our treatment,” James whispered. He wouldn’t insult Thomas’s intelligence by pretending it didn’t exist. Time and again he’d spoken to the marquess about it but to no avail. Thomas’s lips twisted in a sardonic impression of a smile, but James saw the hurt flash in his eyes. “You’re a good elder brother, James,” he finally relented, and the derision was gone from his tone. Replaced by something akin to desolation. “But even you can’t make the old man love me.” “He loves you,” James argued at once, even though he wasn’t entirely sure that it was true. “He just –” “He just doesn’t need or particularly want me,” Thomas finished.
The brothers faced each other, a world of differences in the feet separating them. “You know,” Thomas said after an age, “I don’t think England is for me anymore. I think it’s about time I found pastures new.” “You’re taking a Grand Tour?” James asked. It mightn’t be a bad idea, at that. Thomas wasn’t long out of Oxford, and plenty of young gentlemen made the trip before settling down to whatever role had been pre-ordained for them. James and his friends weren’t back long from their own Tour. Only Robert, the Duke of Montvale, had refused to join them. Robert’s father had only recently passed when the friends had decided to travel, and besides, Robert would never dream of doing anything that resembled fun. But he, Simon, and their friend Nicholas, the future Duke of Barnbury, had all spent months travelling around the Continent and were all the more well-rounded for it.
It could be just the thing for Thomas. Something to help him mature and settle. Get all the wildness out of his system. “I think that’s a splendid idea, Thomas. You’ll benefit enormously from it, I’m sure. And once you’re back, you can decide what you want to do with your life.” Thomas smiled at his older brother, but there was an odd sadness in the expression. “Thank you, James,” he said. “Sincerely. I am well aware that I’ve always had my big brother watching over me.
” He left quietly, and James couldn’t help but feel unsettled at the odd sense of finality in his brother’s words. Little did he know that when Thomas left the room that day, he’d left for good. Chapter One Eight Years Later JAMES RESİSTED THE urge to drive his horse any harder than he was already doing. The last thing he needed was for the stallion to come up lame. Besides, he was more than a little fond of the mount, having had him these past years, and he didn’t want to hurt the creature. But, damn it, he had to get back to Avondale. The mysterious note that he’d received at the wedding of his cousin to his oldest friend, the Duke of Montvale, was burning a hole in his pocket. It was the reason he’d rushed from their wedding reception with barely a word. My Lord, I regret to inform you that your brother Thomas is dead. I cannot say more in a letter, but there is something precious that needs your protection.
I will travel to Avondale Abbey as soon as it is safe to do so. Please expect my arrival any day. Do not involve anyone else in this, at least until we’ve spoken face to face. That was it. He knew the words by heart. He’d studied them over and over. There was no name. No secret message he could decipher. No clue as to what the hell was going on. All he knew was that his brother was dead, and something that needed protecting was on its way to him.
James felt a pang of useless anger, followed swiftly by a wave of sadness. He had thought of nothing other than his erratic, irresponsible sibling during the long journey from Northumberland to Shropshire, the home of his seat Avondale Abbey. When Thomas had decided to leave England almost eight years ago, James hadn’t thought it would be the last time he’d ever see his younger brother. Thomas wrote infrequently, and James tried to write back, but it seemed every time Thomas wrote from one place, by the time the letter reached them he was on his way somewhere else. And when their father had died five years ago, Thomas had been nowhere to be found. James had tried to get him home, of course. Now that James was the marquess, perhaps Thomas could return and be a part of their family once more, James had suggested when he’d written Thomas to inform him of the news. He’d received no response. That had been five years ago. And James never heard from him.
He had no idea what his brother had been doing, or when he had died. Or even if he had received his last letter begging his return. All he knew for sure was that he had gone from having a little brother, to not. And even though he hadn’t heard from Thomas in years, even though none of the investigators he’d sent all over the world searching for his younger brother had ever been able to find a trace of him, at least he could imagine that he was alive. Now James knew with a dreadful certainty that he was alone in the world. Sure, he had his aunt in America, Abigail’s mother. And now that Abigail was making her home in England with Robert, he had his cousin here, instead of across the Atlantic. And Robert, Simon, and Nicholas had been more like brothers than friends since childhood. But the fact remained that as lucky as James was to have those people in his life, he had no immediate family left. And on this long, arduous journey back to Shropshire, James felt that keenly.
James had never been one to wallow in self-pity or any sort of negativity. He prided himself on not allowing trying situations to bring him down. When Robert’s little sister, Georgina, had drowned as a child, James had been the one to try and rally Robert’s spirits. When his father had died suddenly, leaving a young James as the Marquess of Avondale, he hadn’t crumbled under the pressure and grief, but had instead tried to remain optimistic and positive. But knowing that his little brother was no longer in the world, knowing that he had failed Thomas, had allowed him to be treated as less important… Perhaps if he’d tried harder to get through to their implacable father. Perhaps if he’d expended more effort on tracking down Thomas. But what good were what ifs now? Thinking of all the many ways he could have done things better wouldn’t bring Thomas back from the dead. With a sigh borne of so many emotions, James pulled out his timepiece and checked the time. He would reach Avondale Abbey by nightfall. It had actually been over a year since he’d been back at the Abbey.
After having spent a year in the Americas, building his shipping empire and visiting with his aunt, James had returned to England only a short while ago with an unexpected Abigail in tow. His little cousin had insisted on a London Season and had manipulated James into bringing her back with him. James had relented but he couldn’t very well have a young woman living at the Abbey with him. And so he’d made a brief stop at Simon’s estate in Liverpool before moving on to Robert’s in Northumberland. He had planned on having the dowager duchess, Robert’s mother, sponsor Abigail for the Season. As things had turned out, Abigail and Robert had fallen in love before they’d managed their first Society event. Their wedding was a source of incalculable joy for James, Simon, and Nicholas. None of them had ever imagined that Robert would marry, let alone fall desperately in love. The accident that had claimed the life of Georgina, Robert’s little sister, when they’d all been children had changed the men irrevocably. But none more so than Robert, of course.
Robert had existed in darkness and despair until the arrival of the incorrigible Abby had brought him back to the land of the living. And James couldn’t be happier. Robert deserved to forgive himself and move on from the events of the past. The past and forgiveness were themes that had run constantly through James’s head these past weeks as he’d made the slow, arduous journey from Northumberland to Shropshire. Along the way he encountered more acquaintances than he could count. Being a well-known and well-liked Peer was both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, James envied Robert his reputation as a monster, or Simon’s as a devil. Nicholas could escape to rusticate in his Irish estate. But James – Since childhood, James had been the good one. The well-behaved one.
The affable, jovial, kind, and considerate one. Simon had labelled him the Golden Boy, and the moniker had stuck. Why only recently, Abigail had informed him that he’d also earned the nickname The Angel of Avondale. She seemed to think he’d enjoy the name, even be flattered by it. How to explain to his innocent cousin that the last thing a man wanted to be known as was an angel? He had no problem attracting the affections of a woman, that was true. But he also attracted an inordinate amount of Society matrons desperate for him to marry their daughters, and that he didn’t like. James was the ultimate Society prize, Simon had laughingly informed him at Robert’s wedding. Good-looking, rich as Croesus, a powerful Peer, with a spotless reputation to boot. There wasn’t a mother or father alive who didn’t want him for a son-in-law. And his looks didn’t help, James knew.
With bright, golden hair and almost ice blue eyes, he even looked like a bloody innocent. It was decidedly infuriating to be always considered the good one, the one who would do right, the happy one. It made him feel tedious and boring. And truth be told, he found his whole life boring and tedious. His recent visit to Montvale and his oldest friend Robert had proven that. Watching Abby and Robert fall in love, seeing Robert fight the demons of the past that still affected them all – it served to highlight just how staid James’s own life was. So different to that of Robert or Simon. So different to that of Thomas. James’s heart twisted painfully as he thought for the thousandth time of his flighty younger brother. Thomas had lived a life filled with mystery and adventure.
Nobody ever knew quite where he was or what he was doing. His letters, few and far between as they were, were uniformly scant on information. James had always vowed to get closer to his brother, to learn more about his life. And now it was too late. As evening fell, the chill in the air grew. Though the weather wasn’t as wild in Shropshire as it had been in the rugged north, there was a definite end to the spring feel in the air. It wouldn’t be long before the grounds of his estate began to show signs of autumn. The tree-lined avenue leading to the Abbey would turn to hues of brown and red. The tenant fields would be harvested, with bales of golden hay scattered as far as the eye could see. And suddenly, James was fiercely glad to be back.
He had mourned his father here. He would mourn his brother here, too. Simon, Nicholas, and even Robert had tried to accompany him. But James was determined to return alone. Not least because he had no idea what he was returning to. As James’s stallion crested the hill that gave him his first glimpse of the Abbey, James pulled to a halt. The evening sun was glinting off the sand-coloured brick of the Abbey, bouncing off the many mullioned windows. This pile of bricks had been his father’s pride and joy. The main holding of the vast Avondale marquessate. Nothing and nobody had come before the title and familial duty.
It was that which had sent his younger son fleeing. Being treated like an unnecessary spare, instead of a beloved child, had meant that Thomas had no interest in his family or a life with them in England. James pulled out the letter, crumpled now from weeks of being read over and over then stuffed into his greatcoat. It gave him no answers. No clues, even, about what had happened. He couldn’t even begin to guess who had sent it. And he certainly couldn’t guess what this precious commodity that needed his protection could be. Was it the thing that Thomas had died for? Had he stolen some precious artefact and lost his life for it? Swallowing a wave of grief and useless guilt, James urged his horse forward toward the Abbey. He might not have any answers right now, but he was determined to get them.