Wedded to the Duke of Scandal – Olivia T. Bennet

The sound of the belt striking unprotected flesh echoed around the farmyard. It was followed by the plaintive wail of the boy struck and the grunting rage of the man wielding the belt. He was large, red-faced and wearing the plain clothes of a farmer. The boy was barefoot and had a dirty face. The man raised the belt to deliver another blow to the boy cowered on the ground. The yard was a sea of mud, surrounded on three sides by mossy, stone outbuildings and a simple, thatched cottage. His second blow never landed. A hand grabbed the man’s meaty wrist. It was a delicate hand, clad in a black glove and emerging from the sleeve of a finely cut dress. He looked around, startled. “You will not,” Joanna Lewis said in an implacable tone. Her round cheeks were red from the slap of the wind and her full lips compressed into a thin line. Her brown eyes were wide with anger. She had no strength to match the burly farmer if he wished to continue beating the boy. But her rank held him firmer than a strong arm could.

“My Lady!” he spluttered, stepping back and lowering his arm hurriedly. “I—” “Be quiet and stand still,” Joanna ordered as she crouched beside the terrified boy. “Are you hurt?” she asked. “Are you from the village?” “Yes, My Lady,” he replied in a small voice. “He offered me money to help clean out the cowshed.” Joanna shot a glare at the farmer. “Master Hollen. Do you think beating your farmhands is a good way of getting work out of them?” “He was idling, My Lady,” he protested. “I was hungry,” the boy retorted. Joanna helped the boy to his feet and put her hand into a purse tied to a belt around her waist.

She produced a coin which she gave to the boy. “Go and get yourself something to eat and then go and see the Minister about attending school.” The boy grinned broadly as he made the coin disappear into the ragged clothing he wore. “My Da says I need to go out and earn, My Lady,” he replied. “And on behalf of Lord Horenwall, my Father, I say you need to be in school. I will be checking. What is your name?” Joanna asked, planting her fists on her hips. “William Weaver, My Lady,” he replied. “Off with you,” Joanna said, turning to the farmer as the boy scampered from the yard. “I came here because I had received reports of your brutal treatment of your farmhands.

I see now that Master Drake was not exaggerating.” “It’s my coin, begging your pardon. I have to get a day’s work out of the idling, little—” “Master Hollen,” Joanna interrupted with a raised hand and a glare. “I will not have it said that Lord Horenwall encourages such behavior. I am aware of the terms of your lease and you are in breach of it. I will evict you if I have to.” “You…you can’t do that—” “I can and I will,” Joanna replied. “Do not force my hand. I will be keeping a close eye on you. There are men in the village in need of a fair day’s pay.

” “Men are expensive.” “And they have mouths to feed. I will be checking up on you. If you can’t run this farm properly and treat your workers well, I will replace you.” Master Hollen gaped, mouth opening and closing like a fish. Joanna strode from the yard with a satisfied nod. Her horse was tied to a fence just beyond the cottage, which she noticed needed some attention paid to its thatch. She mounted sidesaddle and the animal bore her away down the lane at a brisk trot. Joanna smiled to herself as she rode. Freed from the shackles of anger, her lips curved into their natural full shape.

She enjoyed the feel of the air on her face, bringing more color to her already rosy cheeks. Her face felt warm from the blush and she was warm from within by what she had achieved today. It was high time that brute was put in his place. She felt excited by the danger she had put herself in, though she was confident there had been no real threat. Hollen owed his living to her family and would not dare raise his hand to her. But there was still the flash of excitement, the thrill of daring. The lane wound between mossy, drystone walls, down the hillside toward the valley of the Horen River. Trees dotted the valley floor and farmhouses at the center of fields and meadows. Ahead, atop a shoulder of land jutting out into the valley lay Horenwall Hall. It was screened from her view by trees but as the road wound up through the Well Wood, she caught glimpses of the grounds.

As she reached the tall gateposts that marked the entrance to the Horenwall Park, she met a man riding in the opposite direction. He was in his late thirties, face pinched and serious, wearing a plain buff coat and scuffed, knee-high boots. He pulled up his horse sharply at her appearance. “My Lady! By Heaven, I have just received the message you left for me at Daleside Farm. I pray you have not yet gone to confront that blackguard Hollen?” Joanna raised her chin in defiance. “I have. I know precisely how busy you are, Master Drake, and regarded this as a matter of some urgency.” Drake looked exasperated. “You mean you’ve been there? To Brookview? But My Lady. It is my job to manage the estate for his Lordship.

And my job to deal with men such as…such as—” Drake’s Methodist upbringing would not supply a suitable epithet for the man they were discussing. Joanna talked over him. “Your suspicions were correct, Master Drake. He seeks to exploit children to do his manual labor while men in the villages go to the poorhouse for want of paid work. It will not do.” “You’ll get no argument from me on that, My Lady. But, it…it just isn’t proper—” “Well, it is done now. I will leave it to you to keep an eye on the fellow. I’m sure my Father would not like that sort as a tenant.” She softened her words with a smile.

“I know I can rely on you, Master Drake, you are a splendid fellow.” She rode on, leaving the man tugging the brim of his hat to her and going his own way muttering. As Joanna rode up the main path toward the hall she considered her behavior. What would Mama have done? Let’s face it, she would not have ridden halfway across the county to have words with a tenant farmer. Oh, will I never learn? The house was an imposing edifice which dominated the surrounding landscape. But the park was falling into disrepair and, as she got closer, she could see the shuttered windows where Papa had closed off a wing of the house. The bright sun that had so invigorated her earlier was being buried behind gray clouds. She walked her mare to the stables and handed her to a groom, before entering the house through the kitchen. “Good afternoon to you, My Lady,” Bethany, the cook greeted her, her Welsh accent still strong after all the years she had lived in Horenshire. Joanna greeted her as she strode through.

Her lady’s maid, Lenora, emerged from the washroom as Joanna headed for the stairs. She dropped to a curtsy, her long dark hair tied up behind a headscarf, her pretty oval face turned down to the floor as Joanna passed. “My Lady, you’re back. You do look serious. Did you perhaps not enjoy your ride?” She was French and a believer in speaking her mind, no matter how many times she was scolded for it by Bethany. Joanna found it refreshing. “I did and I did not, Lenora. I thought I had done the right thing. But now I have my doubts.” “My Mother always told me to trust my instincts.

Your head will lead you twelve different ways, but your stomach always knows the right path, she would say.” Lenora was the same age as Joanna. And yet she came out with a new pearl of wisdom each day it seemed. Joanna laughed as she emerged from the servant’s staircase into the hallway that connected the private family rooms to the rear of the house with the public rooms at the front. “In that case I should have listened to my stomach today, Lenora. It told me all along I was making a mistake. Please lay the fire in my room and heat some water for a bath.” “At once, My Lady.” Lenora bobbed another curtsy and hurried away. “Joanna! There you are,” came the voice of Tristan Lewis, Earl of Horenwall.

“I’m here, Papa,” Joanna replied. Tristan stood in the doorway at the end of the hall. He leaned heavily on a cane. His clothes were the kind that had been fashionable for gentlemen twenty years before and his sparse hair was white. She hurried to his side, taking his arm gently and guiding him across the high-ceilinged receiving hall toward the sitting room. “I thought I heard you. Where ever have you been? Louisa gave me some nonsense about you inspecting the farms.” Tristan sounded gruff, his voice hale, despite the obvious infirmity of his body. Joanna sighed. “I was, Papa—” As she reached for the door to the sitting room he put a hand on hers, holding her in place.

“We have a visitor, Child. A man I wish you to give every attention to. He has it within his power to take away our home and everything we hold dear.” T C H A P T E R 2 he air filled with the scrape of steel on steel. Asher danced out of range as Barnabas attacked, blade flicking for his opponent’s throat, then diverting in mid-thrust to slash for his thigh. Asher deflected the attack at the last second, recognizing it in the momentary flicker of his enemy’s ice-blue eyes. The windows of Ranharth Manor’s great hall were shattered, wind and rain pelting into the once majestic room. Curtains billowed and Asher made use of the cover, darting aside from another lightning attack, using the ragged but still thick material as a screen. Barnabas snarled, slashing and thrusting wildly. “You can’t hide from me, Tradegrove.

My family has ruled this land for three centuries. It is my right!” Asher tossed his head to clear his unruly brown curls from his eyes. His skin was shaded by the sun, testimony to the long hours of working outdoors that he had spent in rebuilding his own estate. His eyes were dark and implacable. “You have no right to the life of my Sister, Blackguard!” he rasped. “And you shall not have her!” With a roar, Barnabas attacked again, his anger overcoming him. Asher had planned for it. As he fell back, feet skipping over the polished floor, now treacherously slick from the rain cascading in through the broken windows, he steered his opponent in the direction he wished. The questing blade cut at his shoulder. He did not feel it.

It pricked at his chest. There was no pain. “She will never love you, Cur!” Asher taunted, knowing his opponent’s anger would be his undoing. Barnabas advanced with another roar of rage and Asher feigned a slip, stumbling and ducking as though about to fall. Barnabas came fast across the wet floor, thrusting with his rapier and in his haste, neglecting his footing. As his opponent staggered, feet slipping from beneath him, Asher shrugged off his act and lunged. Blade striking with the speed of a viper, he knocked aside the other man’s rapier and with a cry of victory, struck home with a lunge that carried his blade through Barnabas’ heart. It was over, finally. “Asher!” came Penelope’s voice. “Brother!” He turned to the young woman with curling brown hair and hazel eyes who ran toward him.

At last she is safe from him. She never reached his arms. Asher awoke. He felt the night air chill on his sweat-soaked forehead, and on the moisture which stood on his cheek. Not safe. Not in this world. Pray that in the next she is happy. He lay in his bed staring at the canopy above him and remembering the joy he had felt. The waking world was not so joyful. Such a cruel thing these dreams.

Can they not allow a man peace, just for night? “Penelope is dead,” he said aloud, voice hard. “Penelope was murdered by Barnabas Harrington. And I cannot prove it. I am powerless to avenge her.” It was the rote response to the feelings that dream always engendered in him. The response that repaired the damage done to the wall he had built around himself. The response that dried tears and hardened his heart. Life went on. Fair or unfair. There was still work to be done.

He looked to the window, curtains never drawn. He had grown used to waking with the sunrise and had forbidden the servants from drawing them at night. Throwing back the bedclothes, he crossed the cold, hardwood floor of his bedchamber to the window, leaning on the bare stone sill and looking out over Tradegrove. The grounds were as still as a picture, not yet fully tamed after the disrepair they had been allowed to fall into. Beyond them were the wild woods that had threatened to overwhelm the Manor and Park both when he had returned from America to claim his inheritance. He knew there would be no more sleep for him. The day called. Already his mind was journeying along the paths of the tasks to be completed with the dawn. There was one that he was avoiding. And that realization made him determined to confront it.

He walked to his writing table, in the corner of the room. With an ember from the fire burning low in the grate he lit a lamp and took out materials for writing. My Dear Friend Homebury, The time has come.

.

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