The Blood of a Baron – K. J. Jackson

Squawk. Laney jumped from the stone bench, her book flying from her lap, the spine of it wedging like an arrow into the wet dirt at the base of the rosebushes that had been watered this morning. He’d snuck up on her from behind. Stealthy even. Not very gentlemanly at all. Not like the men she’d been reading about in the books her father didn’t know she had. Gallant, honorable. Never sinking so low as to sneak up from behind upon a lady in the gardens. And then to squawk. Squawk at her. As if he had any right to scare her like that. Except he had every right. She’d just learned it this morning, and in her twelve years on this earth she’d never imagined a fate quite like this. He was short. Wes was a year older—Morty’s age—and shorter than her, not that achieving that detriment was hard to do.

Her brother had just barely kept an inch on her this last year and Morty never let her forget it. Though she knew her brother was just taking pity on her—reminding her that she wasn’t the overgrown ostrich that she was sure she was. He’d never cared for how she slumped, trying to make herself shorter, and he’d been attempting for years to convince her that her height was normal. But Wes of all people—Wes had never even come near to her eyeballs—even when she was five she’d towered over him. Laney spun, her hands on her hips, her head tilting down to look at him. Not just short, a good head shorter than her. “What do you think to be doing?” Weston Jacobson, the future Baron Platford, bit into the half-eaten apple he had in his hand, looking her up and down. “You weren’t moving, not a twitch. I wasn’t exactly quiet walking over here.” “So you squawked?” “It was better than nudging your shoulder and having you slump over dead.

” He gave an exaggerated shiver. “No, thank you.” She looked down at his white shirt and breeches. Mud was splattered about him from toe to shoulder. “You’ve been out with Morty?” Wes shrugged. “The fox hunt is later today.” Her right eyebrow lifted. “And?” “And he wanted to drive the foxes out of the fields where the huntsman blocked the burrows. We chased them off of Gruggin land.” “The huntsman is going to have his head.

The last time Morty did this he threatened to set the hounds after him instead.” Wes took another bite of his apple, looking at her as he chewed. “You know how Morty feels about foxes.” Her eyes rolled to the sky. “They are his favorite animal—he’s sure he was reincarnated from one.” A slight chuckle and her gaze dropped to him. “So you helped him?” Wes’s head tilted to the side and he nodded. “Sure. The foxes never did anything to me.” He held out his half-eaten apple to her.

“Bite?” She shook her head. Manners were still not his strength. Gallant, in his own way, she supposed. “I’m glad.” “Glad for what?” “Glad you helped him—glad you saved the foxes.” Her eyes slightly cringed. “I hate to think of them, scared, desperate, frantic to escape the hounds.” He stared at her for a long moment, a look in his dark hazel eyes she’d never seen before. Just as she was about to squirm, the look disappeared from his eyes and the edges of his mouth curled in a slight smile. “Did your father tell you this morning?” He took a bite of the apple, the juice of it dripping down his chin that he wiped away with the back of his hand.

Her lips pulled back into a line that she hoped looked like a smile. Wes had nothing to do with this decision and she didn’t want to offend him. As short and uncouth as he was, there was something about him she couldn’t quite describe that she had always liked. “The betrothal? He did. But you will not like me. I am gangly, uncoordinated.” He took a bite, his hazel eyes that had recently started to darken travelling down her long bare arms. She should have been out with a parasol but wasn’t and the sun was already tingeing the color of her skin. She resisted the urge to wrap her arms around her middle, to cover them from his gaze. His look lifted to her face.

“What if I like gangly and uncoordinated?” “And I’m far taller than you.” He shrugged. “You won’t be.” “Because you will somehow grow? I’ve been taller than you since we first met.” “Yes, but that will be in the past soon enough. I’ll soar above you one of these days. No matter how tall you get, I will always be a shadow looming over you.” She laughed. If confidence were height, Wes would be a giant. “So the betrothal does not upset you?” “The betrothal?” He shook his head.

“No. How it will get in the way of going off to war is what I worry about.” He ruefully shook his head. “But they’ll be done with the whole business of Bony before I get to him.” “Why would you want to go to war?” “Why not?” The grin on his face was almost contagious. Almost. “Death.” “Glory.” “Amputations.” “Sacrifice.

” “Fear.” “Courage.” “Fine.” She fluttered her hand in between them. “Go to war. I shall wave a kerchief in your direction as you march off to death.” His eyebrows lifted. “And not shed a tear?” “Not a one.” “I would like a tear from you, Laney. One.

” Her head cocked to the side, a smile finally cracking her face. “I don’t produce tears for fools. And you, my future husband, may just be a fool.” { Chapter 1 } Gruggin Manor, May 1826 Yorkshire, England Laney stood outside the front of Gruggin Manor, the perfectly folded white handkerchief clutched in her hand. There, just in case. Though she didn’t think it likely. Laney had cried the entire Irish Sea full of tears during the past week, waiting for this moment. But this morning she’d woken up, not a single tear to tip her eyelashes. She was dry. Done.

Though her eyes were still puffy, red. And permanent mottled pink splotches had morphed onto her face that refused to ease no matter how many warm washcloths she draped over her cheeks. Everything would be easier after today. Everything had to be easier after today. Her toes shifted on the grey gravel of the drive, the grinding of the flecks of stone the only sound save for the slight swish of skirts behind her. Mrs. Hosler the head housekeeper, Mary the maid, Mr. Flanders the butler, Mrs. Jones the cook, and the two footmen, Larry and Cory, stood behind her, lined along the entrance to Gruggin Manor. That was it.

That was all. She’d never trusted the jarring turnabout of her brother’s fortune—the money he’d sent from London to support Gruggin Manor during the last six months. The only deference she’d given to their family’s increased fortunes was to hire the two footmen and the maid. She’d gotten by with just Mrs. Hosler, Cook, and Mr. Flanders for years and had never trusted that she wouldn’t have to do it again, no matter how her brother had implored her to hire more staff. What did he care? He hadn’t been back to Gruggin Manor but five times since they had buried their father years ago. The far-off sound of crunching gravel reached her ears just before the noses of two black horses appeared over the steep hill that led to the wide expanse unfurling out from the front of the manor. The house was hugged tight by the forest on the other three sides and she’d always taken comfort in the embrace of nature around the manor. The open expanse before her made her fidget.

Too exposed. Nowhere to hide. The team of horses strained up the last incline of the drive, the dark, long wagon behind it crunching hard through the gravel. Two men sat on the front bench of the wagon, a driver and another man. A huge man. They drew closer. A man she recognized. Her legs quivered, jelly replacing her bones. It couldn’t be. Not here.

Not now. The wagon still a few furlongs away, her breathing shifted into panting that she hoped the staff couldn’t hear. Panic snaked about her chest and she had to dig her heels into the gravel in an attempt to remain upright. Breathe. Control yourself. But what in the almighty hell was that man doing? Here? Now? Of all the cursed minutes and seconds and days and years since she’d last seen him. Why now? The horses drew closer. Closer. Snorted breaths heaving from their nostrils in the cool morning air. Even with the distance between them, the man’s look was trained on her, his dark eyes skewering her as they had long ago.

Just enough distance she could pretend she hadn’t seen him yet, didn’t recognize him. Vital seconds she needed in order to calm her breathing. Set in place a mask of indifference. Stiffen her spine. The long black wagon pulled into the circular courtyard of Gruggin Manor. The crunching of the gravel steady until the horses stopped in front of her. Silence. Her look avoided the wide bench along the front of the wagon and she turned around to the staff. “Thank you. I will need a solitary moment, please.

” Mrs. Hosler nodded and shifted to the line of servants, ushering them into the manor. She paused at the doorway, waving to the driver of the carriage. “Please, good sirs, accompany us inside. Lady Helena desires a solitary respite.” Bless her heart. Mrs. Hosler would always save her. It gave Laney enough margin to avoid what was in front of the wagon and concentrate on the back of the wagon—where all of her attention should be. Needed to be.

And this was something she had to do alone. Her look dipped down to the grey gravel just beyond the worn leather tips of her boots, staring at a particularly large chunk of the granite. Too big, lounging about where it didn’t belong. Just like the man that alighted from the opposite side of the wagon. Laney didn’t lift her gaze as the driver and the man moved past her and stepped beyond where Mrs. Hosler held the front door open. The skin on the back of her neck prickled as he passed, but she managed to override instinct and keep her gaze on the ground until the door clicked closed behind her. It took her another breath—another five breaths—before she could lift her gaze to the wagon. To the top of the long black box sitting in the bed of the wagon. Another breath quivered past her parted lips and she took a step forward.

Steady. Almost. Five more steps and she would be there. She forced her wooden legs forward, rounding the back of the wagon. His coffin. Black, shiny, rich. Who would have picked it out? Paid for it? She would have to find out and make sure they were recompensed. Her tongue went dry as her stomach started to roll. She shook her head. No.

No weakness. Not now. One last thing to do. Laney tucked the white handkerchief into the top of her black bodice and hiked her skirt up. Lifting her leg, she set her foot onto the bed of the wagon next to the coffin. Her heart thundering in her ears, she grabbed a hold of a wooden slat on the side of the wagon and hauled herself upward. She shuffled along the coffin, stopping at the part where it narrowed. The head. For a long held breath, she looked across the open expanse unfurling from the front of Gruggin Manor, staring at the forest that lined the edges of the lawn, wanting to hide in the shadows the trees afforded. But that thought was for the weak.

Hiding. She wasn’t weak. Not anymore. She was the last of the Gruggin line, and she would see it to its very end with dignity and grace. Not weakness. One more ragged breath and she bent at the waist, her fingers curling under the top edge of the coffin, pulling, lifting. Heavy under her fingertips. Just as the wood creaked open, she flew into the air, a massive arm at her waist yanking her backward and sending her legs flying about in front of her. The coffin slammed shut, the crack echoing as she was dragged over the side of the wagon and flung to the gravel drive. Her arms flailing, her long legs jabbing at the ground for balance, she spun, attempting to stay upright.

“I’ll not let you see it—see him—Laney.” The roar of his voice hit her before she could find stability and look to him. Wes. Weston Jacobson, Lord Platford. No. Not Lord Platford. Not for a very long time. Her lip curled in a screech, her words flying as she spun to him. “What in the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Wes?” Her feet solid under her, she found him, her first true look at him since she recognized who was coming up the drive. Standing at the side of the wagon, his chest lifted with a heaved breath.

He was bigger, if it was even possible. Wider and not with fat. Shoulders that could plow a field. Arms under his smartly cut coat that could lift boulders. A crook interrupted his straight nose—that was new. Her look locked onto his glare. Onto those dark hazel eyes—darker than they once were— that sliced her in two, quite clearly already plotting her demise. His arms crossed against his chest. “So you did see me.” Her left hand flew up in the air.

“Of course I saw you—how could anyone ever miss an ogre like you? And what do you think you’re doing—manhandling me as you just did? You have no blasted right to me or to setting your meaty paws upon my body.” His head shook, the barbs not setting the slightest dent in the rock-hard set of his jaw. “You’re not looking at him, Laney.” With a snort of breath she charged to the back of the wagon. “He’s my brother, Wes, and I don’t care what he looks like—I have to see him. I have to or I’ll never believe it. Not for real.” She flipped her foot onto the back of the wagon and hauled herself up again. “Laney.” Standing tall on the bed of the wagon, her look whipped down to him, the edges of her mouth turning into a snarl.

“You haven’t cared for me in years—no, strike that—you never cared for me so don’t you dare start to pretend at this juncture.” She moved along the side of the coffin again, her fingers reaching for the lid. Wes thrust his steel arm in and over the side of the wagon, wrapping it around her waist and wrenching her from the side of the casket once more. Her fingernails went to his arm, scratching the back of his hand, trying to wedge herself free. “Put me down, you bloody oaf.” He set her down gently this time, her boots crunching solidly into the gravel. His arm stayed in place around her waist, the back of her body tight to the length of him. Tight to the body of the man that curdled her tongue. Her lips pulled back, words seething. “Let me go.

” “No.” “No?” She twisted in his arm with a screech, clawing at him, trying to get an angle to look at his face. He yanked her hard into his body, the soft of her hitting the iron mass of him and taking the breath out of her. His mouth dropped to her ear, his voice a rumble of thunder and lightning and destruction. “You’re not going to see him. I’m not letting you go until you agree to that fact.” “You bloody beast—he’s my brother and I need to see him.” “No, you don’t.” His lips lifted away from her ear, but the clamp across her waist was stronger than ever. “And I can—will—hold you here all day if that’s what it takes.

” “Of all the odious, tyrannical edicts, this is far above them all.” He didn’t budge. A growl of frustration left Laney’s lips. “Fine.” His fingers slowly peeled away from her side and he released her. The second she was free of his arm, she darted toward the back of the wagon. He could hold her all day. It wouldn’t stop her from trying to get to the casket all day. He snatched her wrist, jerking her to a stop just as she rounded the back of the wagon. How in the blasted hell did a man so big move so fast? Her glare met his.

“I need to see my brother, Wes. You have no right to keep me away from him.” For a long breath—a torture of time—he said nothing, his dark eyes crushing her. He blinked and shook his head. “It was his face, Laney—you’ll not recognize him.” Her head snapped back. “What?” “I saw it—it’s him. I swear it. But I’ll not allow you to look into that casket.” “You’re lying.

You’re just being cruel because that’s what you are.” His mouth clamped shut, his jaw shifting back and forth. Patience had never been his forte— especially with her. “Have I ever lied to you?” A bitter guffaw left her mouth. “No. No, you’ve always been painfully truthful with me, telling me exactly what you thought. What you thought of me. Down to every last vicious word you’ve ever uttered to me.” His cheek twitched. “So I’m not lying now.

It’s Morton. I swear it.” It was there. In his dark hazel eyes. The truth. Truth that she didn’t want to hear. Truth that she didn’t want coming from his mouth. Of all people, why should he be the last person to see her brother? What gave him that right? He didn’t deserve it. No right at all. Tears suddenly welled in her eyes.

Not now. Damn her blubbering. Her look dropped from his face and she hiccupped a breath, twisting her wrist in the clamp of his hand. He dropped her arm. She looked to the black casket, staring at it. Deciding. What little fight she still possessed quickly draining away.

.

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