Beckman: Lord of Sins

Lonely Lords - 4


Grace Burrowes

To those of us who’ve been prodigals. May we know when it’s time to come home, and recognize in what direction to travel.


“He insisted on seeing you off.”

Beckman Haddonfield heard his sister Nita clearly, though she’d whispered. The Earl of Bellefonte, glowering at his grown children from the foot of Belle Maison’s front steps likely heard her too.

“Your lordship.” Beck stepped away from his gelding and sketched a bow to his father. Even at this early hour, the earl was attired in morning dress that hung loosely on his stooped frame. His valet and the underbutler were flanking him, each holding a bony arm and trying to look as if they weren’t touching their employer.

“Leave us.” His lordship didn’t look at his servants as he gave that command. “You too, Nita. I won’t perish from the cold, though it might be a welcome relief all around if I did.”

Nita’s blue eyes turned mutinous, though she gathered her shawl more tightly around herself and ascended to the wide front porch.

The earl watched her go then turned to regard his son.

He stabbed his cane in the general direction of the mounting block where Beck’s horse waited. “Get me to the damned mounting block before I fall over.”

Beck took his father’s arm and assisted him to shuffle along until the earl was propped against the top step of the ladies’ mounting block.

His lordship rested both gnarled hands on the top of his cane. “No dignity left whatsoever. Soon I won’t be able to wipe my own arse.”

The truth of this brought a lump to Beck’s throat. “One shudders to consider the fuss you’ll make then. If you’re about to tell me how to find Three Springs, save your breath. I have directions.”

“I’m about to tell you I love you,” the earl groused. “Though such maudlin tripe hardly makes a difference.”

Beck went still, hearing a death knell in his father’s blessing. “One has suspected this is the case,” Beck said slowly. “One hopes the suspicions have been mutual.”

The earl’s slight grin appeared. “Couldn’t have danced around a tender sentiment better myself. You really should have been my heir.”

“Stop disrespecting my brother,” Beck retorted, but inside, oh, inside, he was feeling as decrepit and tired as the earl looked. His father loved him, something he had known without realizing it, but his father had also said the words aloud. More than the earl’s frail appearance, this indicated the man was indeed making his final arrangements.

“I’ve said my piece, now get you off to Three Springs and put the place to rights. I’ve every confidence the solicitors have let it go to wrack and ruin.” The earl made as if to rise, something Beck suspected he couldn’t accomplish on his own. Beck drew him up, but not just to his feet. With Nita trying not to cry on the porch, the underbutler blinking furiously, and the footman staring resolutely down the drive, Beck gently hugged his father.

“Papa.” He barely whispered his words past his father’s shoulder. “I don’t want to leave you.”

He had never wanted to be sent away, but each time, he’d known his banishments were earned. This time, try as he might, the only fault he could find with himself was that he loved his father.

The earl said nothing for a moment then patted his son’s back. “You’ll be fine, Beckman. I’ve always been proud of you, you know.”

“Proud of me?” Beck stepped back, depositing his father gently on the mounting block. “I’m nothing more than a frivolous younger son, and that is the plain truth.”

A flattering version of the plain truth, too.

“Bah. You should have gone to London with Nicholas and selected yourself another bride, though I suppose you’ve been trailing him long enough to be ready for a change in scenery.”

He’s sending me away, Beck thought, his self-discipline barely equal to the task of maintaining his composure. He’s sending me away, and we’re discussing my possible marriage to some twit hungering for Nick’s title.

“When Nick is in the room, the ladies do not see me.”

The earl thumped his cane weakly. “Balderdash! Nick is a good time. You are a good man.”

“Nick is a good man,” Beck said, a note of steel creeping into his voice.

“He’ll be a better man and a happier man for finding the right countess. It is the besetting sorrow of my dotage that my sons have not provided me with grandchildren to dandle upon my knee.”

His lordship loved a good scrap. Heart breaking, Beck obliged.

“You would not know how to dandle if the regent commanded it of you.”

“That prancing idiot.” The earl snorted. “I am glad I will be dead before the full extent of his silly imitation of a monarch can damage the country further than it has.”

“It’s too cold to be discussing politics in the drive,” Beck said, ready to have this most painful parting over. “Particularly when you’ve had nothing different to say since the man had his father’s kingdom imposed on him several years ago.”

“You’re right. It’s been the same damned nonsense all along. Pavilions and parks, while the working man can’t afford his bread, and the yeoman’s pasture is fenced away from him at the whim and pleasure of the local baron. Pathetic. Absolutely damned pathetic.”

Utterly. “Good-bye, Papa.”

The earl leaned forward again, signaling Beck to get him on his feet. “You will be fine, Beckman. Keep an eye on Nick for me, as you always have, and think again of remarrying. Good wives have their endearing qualities.”

“Yes, Papa.” Beck mustered a smile, hugged his father again, and waved the underbutler and the footmen down the stairs. “God keep you, sir.” He resisted the urge to cling to his father, knowing he’d embarrass them both if he stayed one moment longer.

“I wish to hell the Lord would see fit to take me rather than keep me,” the earl muttered. “Perhaps patience is the last lesson He has reserved for me. Safe journeys, Beckman. You are a son to make a father proud.”

“My thanks.” Beck swung up, nodded to his sister where she stood clutching her handkerchief at the top of the stairs. He touched his crop to his hat brim then nudged his horse into a rocking canter.

He did not look back. It was all he could do to see the road for the chill wind making his eyes water.

* * *

Sara Hunt took a final swallow of weak, unsweetened, tepid tea, looked out at the miserable day, and decided before the last of the light faded, she’d poke through the contents of Mr. Haddonfield’s enormous wagon.

Lady Warne had written instructing the household to make her grandson welcome as he came to “take Three Springs in hand,” but she hadn’t said exactly when he’d arrive. If Sara was to make a proper inventory of the goods sent ahead of their guest, she’d best do it before the mincing Honorable was underfoot making a nuisance of himself.

She grabbed her heavy wool cloak, traded her house mules for a pair of wooden sabots, took up a lantern, and slipped out the back door. On the stoop she paused, listening to the peculiar sibilance of sleet changing to snow as darkness fell. If the sun came out in the morning, they’d have a fairy-tale landscape of sparkling ice and snow, the last of the season if they were lucky.

The barn bore the comforting scent of horses and hay on a raw day. The four great beasts that had pulled the loaded wagon into the yard the previous day contentedly inhaled great piles of fodder, while the wagon stood in the barn’s high, arching center aisle.

Sara had just hung up the lantern when she realized something wasn’t right. A shuffling sound came from the far side of the wagon where little light penetrated. The sound was too big to be Heifer investigating under the tarps, not big enough to be a horse shifting in its stall.

She shrank into the shadows. Damn and blast if a vagrant hadn’t spotted the laden wagon and decided to follow it to its destination in hopes of some lucrative larceny. The country roads were not heavily traveled, and such a load would be easily remarked. Silently, Sara directed her footsteps to the saddle room, sending up a prayer for Polly and Allie—may her sister and daughter remain in the house, or anywhere but this barn.

She chose a long-handled training whip from the saddle room wall, then retraced her steps and heard muttering from the far side of the wagon.

“And what in blazes is this doing here?” a man asked no one in particular. “As if one needs to fiddle while rusticating. Spices, too, so we might not want for fashionable cuisine in the hinterlands.”

A daft vagrant, then. Sara paused in her slow, silent progress around the wagon. Maybe he was harmless, and simply brandishing the whip would suffice to chase him off, but in this weather… She considered putting the whip down.

A man could catch his death in this miserable wet and cold. Times were hard and getting harder, and there were so many veterans of the Corsican’s foolishness still wandering the land, many of them ailing in both body and spirit. Shouldn’t she offer the man a little Christian charity before she attacked him for merely being curious?

An arm clamped around her neck; another snaked around her waist.

“One move,” said a voice directly behind her, “and you will be the first thing planted this spring.”

Without seeing him, Sara knew many things about whoever owned the rumbling baritone voice at her ear.

First, he was broad, strong, and quite, quite tall. The angle of the arm at her throat told her so, as did the heat radiating from the muscular chest to which she’d been snugly anchored.