Ethan: Lord of Scandals
Lonely Lords - 3
To those of us to whom Bad Things have happened.
“Where in the bloody, benighted, perishing hell are my sons?”
Rage and fear drove the exhaustion from Ethan Grey’s bones as he tore open closets and peered under beds in what had become the boys’ dormitory at Belle Maison.
“Jeremiah! Joshua!” He tried to keep the panic from his voice, but he’d just ridden through a gale-force storm, and it was no kind of night for two little boys to be abroad alone. A long, deafening crack of thunder drowned out Ethan’s bellows, and lightning illuminated the room.
All four little beds were empty, the sheets rumpled.
God in heaven, could his sons have taken off with John and Ford and decided to sleep in a tree house tonight of all nights? Ethan had seen a tree hit by lightning before his very eyes not an hour past, and the idea of his sons wandering around at this hour, in this weather…
“I thought I heard you,” came a pleasant baritone from the doorway.
Ethan crossed the room in three strides and glared at his younger brother. “I leave my children here with you, Nicholas, so they can get to know their uncle, and I come back to find it’s damned near midnight, they’re nowhere to be found, and you’ve lost not one but four little boys. Well?”
More thickly muscled and even taller than Ethan, Nick yet managed to project a benevolence Ethan would never possess. “The children are safe. Come, I’ll show you.”
Safe… The word registered, but the empty beds had registered first.
“The storm has all the children awake,” Nick went on easily, but he cast a curious glance over his shoulder at his older brother. “I’m surprised you decided to travel tonight.”
“I told you I’d be here tonight.” In truth, Ethan had told his sons he’d be back to Belle Maison on this specific date. At five and six, Joshua and Jeremiah were literalists with faultless memories. If Ethan expected them to keep their word—and he did—then he was hell-bent on keeping his word to them.
“You said you’d be back.” Nick paused outside another door on the third floor. He signaled Ethan to wait, conferred momentarily with the footman at the end of the corridor, then returned to the door. “But unless I miss my guess, you’ve ruined a fine pair of boots, put yourself in a foul humor, and are likely courting lung fever as well.”
Ethan’s retort was cut off by Nick’s motion for silence. Slowly, Nick opened the door then gestured for Ethan to peek through.
He saw a bedroom apparently used for nannies and governesses, but a well-appointed room nonetheless. The fire had been built up, and there on the hearth rug were his two sons, one on each side of some governess-type female. She sported a gray dress, a book in her lap, glasses on her nose, and a bunned-up coiffure that did not countenance disorder from a single dark hair.
Two more little boys flanked Joshua and Jeremiah. Nick’s wife sat across the rug from the governess, an arm around the Belmonts’ daughter, Priscilla.
“And the big, nasty wolf,” the governess said, “who had very malodorous breath from eating a deal of onions with his supper, said, ‘I shall bite off your toes and bite off your noses…’”
“Wolves don’t eat onions,” Jeremiah interjected.
“On their steaks, they do, and this wolf liked them in his lamb and mutton sandwiches too.”
“What was his name?” Joshua asked. “The wolf. He has to have a name.”
“We shall call him…” The governess—a drab creature with an unaccountably pretty voice—glanced up from her book at Ethan and Nick in the doorway. “Mr. Grey. Good evening.”
“Papa?” Joshua and Jeremiah were on their feet, and Joshua had even taken a few running steps toward Ethan when Jeremiah’s hand shot out and grabbed his little brother’s nightshirt.
“Hello, Papa,” Jeremiah said, his voice quavering. “Uncle Nick said we might have more stories because of the storm. Priscilla was frightened.”
“Of course you must have more stories tonight.” Nick ambled into the room and lowered himself to sit beside his countess. “Your aunt Leah wasn’t frightened, but I was a little nervous. She decided if she was going to read me stories, you children should have a few extra as well.”
Ethan realized his sons were watching him warily, as were the other boys, and the girl; even Nick and Leah seemed to be regarding him with some caution. The governess, however, merely blinked at him through her spectacles and bent her head to the book.
She ran her finger down the page. “This wolf with the predilection for onions, he might like us to get on with the story. We were reaching the part he likes best.”
“Papa?” Jeremiah stood before his father, back more militarily straight than any six-year-old should stand, his hand still clutching his brother’s nightshirt.
Ethan tried for a smile, telling himself he was glad they were safe, glad there’d been an innocent explanation for his sons wandering the house at a late hour. “Of course you may finish the story. I’ll see you both in the morning. My regards to the wolf.” He nodded in the general direction of the women and children, then at Nick, and turned to leave.
“I’ll walk with you,” Nick said, rising in one smooth movement. “I am still afraid of the storm and require company on my way to my bed. Children, let Miss Portman get her rest; Leah, I will wait up for you, and I have sworn off onions for life.”
He blew his wife a kiss, growled at the boys, bowed to Priscilla, and waved to the governess. Had there been a dog in the room, Nick would likely have scratched its cheerfully proffered belly before he took his leave.
“My apologies for interrupting the fairy-tale festival,” Ethan said as they traversed the house to the second floor. His boots—a pair he’d just broken in to his satisfaction—were squishing. Walking the last two miles rather than riding a panicked horse was likely to ruin one’s footwear.
“You reassured your sons you were safely home,” Nick said, “and you would have been welcome to join us, you know. Miss Portman does the best job with the old standards. Makes me wish I were a little boy.”
“You are a little boy. You’re just the largest little boy in the realm.” He eyed Nick’s great golden length as they approached his bedroom, and got a complacent nod for his comment.
“Was there something you wanted, Nicholas?” Ethan asked, opening the door. He saw a footman setting up screens by the fire, indicating Nick had ordered him a bath.
“Some time with my brother, perhaps?” Nick suggested, following Ethan into the room uninvited. “There’s food on the way up, too, and you don’t need to tell me the roads were horrible.”
“A tree was hit by lightning not fifty feet from the road.” Ethan squished over to the fireplace and settled into a cushioned chair, which would no doubt bear stains from where his damp fundament came to rest. “Argus nearly tossed me in the ditch, and I walked him in hand from that point.”
He started tugging on his boots, only to feel a stabbing ache in his back brought on by walking in the mud, being cold and wet for hours, and having gone without decent sleep for more nights than he could count.
“Allow me.” Nick grasped the heel and toe of one boot and gave a stout tug. The boot barely moved, so Nick turned around, stepped over Ethan’s calf, and tugged more firmly. By degrees, the wet boot gave up its hold on Ethan’s equally soaked foot. The second boot was no easier, and in truth, Ethan wasn’t sure he could have gotten them off himself.
“My thanks.” Ethan rose—carefully—and hung his wet waistcoat over the back of a chair. “Shouldn’t you be in bed with your wife?”
“We were in bed, then we heard the patter of little feet—even over the thunder. Leah thought she heard Priscilla get out of bed. When we went to investigate, we found the boys were all awake, two to a bed, so Miss Portman hailed them across the hall for a story.”
None of which explained why a belted earl had troubled himself with the doings in the nursery.
“Doesn’t Leah need her rest?” Ethan asked, tugging his shirt over his head and glancing around for somewhere dry to hang it.
“Give it to me.” Nick hung the shirt over a bedpost, like a wet flag of surrender. “Your breeches too, and those stockings.”
“The stockings are beyond repair.” Ethan paused to yawn then stepped out of his remaining clothes and considered the tub. “I thought I was too tired to soak. I was wrong—you will note the occasion, it being a rarity.” He crossed the room and lowered himself into the steaming water with a grateful sigh.
Now if only Nicholas would take himself off.
“When did you get so cynical?” Nick asked, going to the wardrobe and extracting towels and a bar of hard-milled soap.
“When I was fourteen.”
Nick frowned but said nothing, passing Ethan the soap, which Ethan sniffed.
“Clove. This has to be expensive.”
“Not particularly.” Nick resumed his seat on the stool. “It lasts quite a while. So how is our dear brother Beckman?”
“This cannot wait until morning?” One very large male foot emerged from the water, was lathered, and subsided like a retreating sea monster.
“Morning.” Nick crossed his arms over his chest. “At the breakfast table we have my houseguests, the Belmonts, all three delightful people, but Priscilla’s voice when she’s trying to get attention would cut frozen glass. Then we have the real entertainment, as our nephew Ford and Leah’s brother John, both being five, still sport the peculiarly shrill voices of the very young. Your own two are models of decorum, of course, but often inspired by their confreres. Then we have Nita, Kirsten, and Suzannah, our sisters, whom we love to distraction even first thing in the morning, and let us not forget little sister Della, whose dramatics can be counted on to get the day off to a rollicking start.”
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