An Enchanting Madness
“Our tale begins with a lordly fellow who thinks he owns the world, and the lady who got in his way.”
~Lady Ruin, April 1815
The first thing Lady Norah Macalister thought as the dark-haired man walked through her front door was, He doesn’t look insane.
Major Trevor Hayward did not notice her as he dropped his hat and gloves to the butler, giving Norah a moment to contemplate his arrival and what to do next. His appearance was untimely, as her companion was not someone Major Hayward would want to see. He looked ragged, Norah admitted silently, with dark circles under his deep brown eyes, and his hair needed a trim. It was not long to his shoulders, or cropped short, but a length in between, hanging over his ears and rather unkempt. His clothes were slightly ill fitting, the brown of his coat drooping over his shoulders. He appeared to have lost a stone or two in weight since she had seen him eight months prior, not that he’d remember seeing her then. The last time she had laid eyes on Major Hayward, he had gone quite mad; it was not a sight she would soon to forget.
The sharp intake of breath from Norah’s companion standing directly behind her drew his attention, and his gaze snapped to where the two ladies stood on the staircase.
For a long moment, Major Hayward stared at Norah, his gaze cold, before flickering to the person behind her. If possible, his gaze grew even colder, harder, his eyes narrowing as he recognized the woman standing behind Norah.
“What are you doing here?” Lady Laura Pythe demanded, exuding disdain.
Major Hayward seemed to share her disgust. “I should ask you the same thing, cousin.” His gaze darted to Norah again, his brows rising in question.
“I was invited,” Laura sneered. “And do not call me ‘cousin.’ We are barely related.”
“We are cousins as anyone is cousins.”
Laura grimaced. “We share a common grandfather. That hardly makes us related.”
He planted his feet a shoulder width apart and crossed his arms over his chest, glaring up at them. “That is what being related means.”
“What are you doing here?” Laura asked again.
“I was invited.”
This was getting to be silly, Norah decided, and continued down the stairs. They would squabble like toddlers for the next hour if she did not intervene. As she neared the bottom, Norah turned her nose up at the Major, not commenting on his arrival as she passed.
“Which one are you?” he asked as she came to the bottom step.
Norah’s eyes widened in mock outrage. “I beg your pardon?” She hated acting. But as she turned to face the Major directly, she sucked in her breath as she saw him closely.
He was handsome, she would give him that, in a dark way that made every nerve in her body sting with alertness. He was a nearly a whole head taller than she was, and she had to tip her head back to see the brown depths of his eyes. Despite his gaunt appearance, she could not deny his attractiveness.
“Which Macalister sister?”
Norah turned away from the Major, though he had good reason to wonder which sister she was. She had an indecent number of siblings. “I am Lady Norah Macalister.”
He nodded. “The younger one then. The unmarried one.”
“I have another sister, younger than I, who has yet to marry. So, I am not the only unmarried Macalister sister.”
“Yes, but you are the only one of marriageable age.” His gaze darted to Laura. “Understandable why you have yet to find a husband, with the company you keep.”
Major Hayward turned on his heel and strode determinedly into the depths of the house, not bothering to apologize or acknowledge his rudeness.
Norah didn’t blame him. For what Laura had done to him, Norah understood his hatred towards her, and likely anyone who associated with her. Norah despised Laura as well, just for her own reasons.
Laura stomped down the stairs. “Well, I have never! He has grown even more unpleasant in his time abroad.”
Norah did not look at her friend, fearful Laura would see her thoughts reverberate through her gaze. Laura referred to the Major’s absence from England like he had taken a long holiday, when it was much, much worse, and Laura was to blame.
Not now, Norah told herself, pulling on her gloves. The Major’s appearance would not derail anything, though he was a variable she had not foreseen. Perhaps, he might even be able to help.
She glanced down the hallway along which the Major had disappeared, realizing their mutual stake in her scheme. If she could persuade him to help her, he would benefit more than she, truthfully. And she needed help.
“Come, Laura,” Norah said as Howards, the butler, opened the door for her, his face clear of opinion, but Norah knew there was one lurking beneath the surface.
“Have you seen the latest on dit from Lady Ruin?” Laura asked as they climbed into the open carriage, bound for Bond Street, their maids settling in silently beside them. Laura pulled the newsprint from her reticule and handed it over.
“This bit about Revolting Vivian?”
“No, flip the paper over. Just there.” She pointed to the desired section for emphasis.
Norah glanced at it, her eyes drifting over the black block letters set against the graying white of the paper.
“And?” Norah handed the sheet back to her companion as the carriage rolled through Mayfair, a warm, light breeze ruffling along the back of her neck. The morning was clouded and gray, but most of the days in London were the same, and Norah longed for the warmth of a pleasant summer the warm spring air seemed to promise was eminent.
“Her tale is scandalizing.” Laura glanced down at the paper again. “Listen to this:
Our tale begins with a lordly fellow who thinks he owns the world, and the lady who got in his way. What the haute ton failed to realize, as did said lord, is this particular lady was not to be underestimated. She came from a good family and a good background, was a dutiful daughter and had never insinuated she wished for any sort of lewd advances. Society may now think her a fallen woman, but who is truly to blame? The young woman for doing what she was told, or the lord who forced himself upon her, without her permission? Why is the woman to blame for her own ruination when the man was the one who ruined her?
Norah waited patiently, wondering where Laura was going with this. She held her breath, ready to deter Laura from wandering too closely to who the author could possibly be.
“You have to admit this is fascinating,” Laura sputtered. “It says she is going to ruin him, like he ruined her. Who do you think it could be?”
Norah pursed her lips, turning her head to watch the serenity of the park as they passed. Minor crisis averted.
“I have not given it much thought,” she said with a light shrug of her shoulder. “Sounds like a bunch of hyperbole to me. The author did not even cite the deviant’s name. How can you ruin someone without spilling who the evil deeds are about?”
Laura glanced down at the newspaper again, her blonde brows furrowed. She was a beautiful young woman, but the self-centered type who thought her beauty gave her an advantage over other people. She thought her beauty owed her things, and people around her should bow down to her beauty and wealth and titled position in life. To Laura, privilege meant she wouldn’t have anything unpleasant happen to her.
Norah knew better. She knew her title, beauty, and wealth did not mean a damned thing to the universe. What good did her beauty do her when her father and brother were gunned down by highway men? What good was her wealth when her mother died in childbirth six months later? And what did having a title matter when...
Norah straightened her spine a fraction, pushing down the anger, using it to refuel her determination. She had a goal, a plan. Things were moving along, sliding into place.
Keep your nose clean, Norah, she chided herself. Even tone, stiff posture, pleasant smile and no one will ever suspect a thing.
Major Trevor Hayward had been summoned.
It seemed ominous, and he knew he should have felt the weight of the implication of the summoning, but lately, he was just done caring.
About most things.
Trevor did not have a title and wasn’t hoping to inherit one.
He did not have a wife or children, thank god. Fewer peoples’ lives he could destroy.
And he did not have any responsibilities. No way to fail at doing nothing.
Six men were scattered about the plush study, strewn about in various chairs, some sitting, and some standing. Trevor took in the sight of each of them, his best friends from his Eton and Oxford days. The good days.
Andrew Macalister, the Duke of Bradstone, was Trevor’s oldest friend, from their first few minutes at Eton. Rheneas Warren, the Earl of Bexley, sat in a chair across from Trevor, eyeing him carefully. Jeremiah Aster, Viscount Halcourt, sat in the chair beside Bexley, a bored look on his long face.
“Well, its damned good to see you, Hayward,” said Emmett Connolly, who had just inherited the Newport dukedom from a fifth great uncle or something ridiculous. “I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you since you returned. Bit of business in Wales keeping me busy.”
“Newport,” Trevor said with a nod, both as an address and in understanding. “Congratulations?”
“It’s a mess,” was all the newly minted duke replied.
“Has anyone else inherited a dukedom while I have been away?” Trevor asked, glancing at his friends. “Redley? Still a viscount?”
Redley Ralston shook his head.
“He’s the Earl of Longfield now,” Andrew interjected. Trevor had known Andrew before he was the duke, when he was not supposed to be the duke. If Trevor had a list of people he wouldn’t want to disappoint-- he didn’t have such a list, but if he ever did, these men would be the few names listed, with Andrew at the very top.
There was one gentleman in the room who Trevor did not recognize, though the other men in the room seemed familiar with him.
“You know why you have been called?” asked the gentleman he didn’t know.
“It is more of a summoning, really,” Trevor drawled.
“There is more truth to that then you know.” Leaning casually against the bookcase, the stranger was a tall blond-haired man, and despite his casual airs, Trevor recognized a darkness in him. Perhaps darkness recognizes its own. Despite his half-turned smile, Trevor knew this man was not to be trifled with.
“Trevor, this is Ian Carlisle, Earl of Westcott,” Andrew said as introduction. “Westcott works for the Home Office and is married to my sister, Susanna.”
Bexley smirked, brushing at his bright red hair. “And he’s my cousin.”
“I think I saw Lady Norah in the hall on my way in,” Trevor said, though he did not want to think about the treacherous chit.
Lady Norah had grown from a mischievous nine-year-old last he saw her to a remarkable beauty, and his attraction to her annoyed him. Chestnut brown hair, bright blue-green eyes beneath dark lashes. Curves where all young women should have curves, and where men such as himself should not take notice. Lusting after his oldest friend’s sister was not something that was done. Especially when said sister was in the company of the treacherous bitch he had the misfortune to call a cousin. Trevor didn’t tend to hate people often, but he hated Lady Laura Pythe. And with good reason: she had ruined his life.
“You have been summoned here to submit testimony about your whereabouts during the past month.” Westcott’s statement brought his attention back into the room.
Trevor’s frown deepened. “I have been at Clifton Hall in Cornwall where Andrew deposited me last August.”
Westcott scribbled onto a small notepad. “Can anyone verify this?”
The gentlemen exchanged uneasy glances. Despite being away fighting Napoleon for the better part of a decade, none of his schoolboy chums had been to see him during his exile in Cornwall. Trevor didn’t begrudge any of them for this, he was not fit company these days, but with five good friends suddenly not a world away, Trevor had thought they might have made more of an effort instead of just shipping him off again. Proof he no longer belonged here.
Trevor shook his head and Westcott continued.
“Can anyone verify your whereabouts between March twentieth and twenty fifth?”
Trevor knew exactly where he was on March twentieth. That was the day he’d read about Napoleon’s escape from his island prison on Elba. It had not been a good day. Neither had March twenty fifth, the day his cousin was murdered.
“I suppose the caretaker might have seen me,” Trevor drawled dryly, not appreciating the interrogation. “And the housekeeper came by once a day.”
More scribbling. “Were you at Pathmore Manor anytime during that time?”
“Can anyone substantiate this?”
“I imagine my cousin could tell you, were he not dead.”
Six sets of eyes snapped to him sharply.
Trevor continued. “And before you ask, no, I did not kill him.”
Snapping his notepad shut, Westcott slipped it into his jacket pocket, and leaned against the bookcase again. “Unfortunately, that is what I am here to determine.”
“You’re investigating me for the murder of my cousin?”
“Westcott holds a unique position within the government that deals with such things,” Andrew explained. “He has been asked to oversee this personally. He will be fair and just.”
Trevor was doubtful. His entire life people thought the worst of him. It had followed him since his mother died birthing him, through his adolescence when his uncle, the Earl of Pathmore, paid for his education at Eton. But, when Trevor had been falsely accused of a terrible transgression, his uncle gave him the option of deportation or the army. Trevor had chosen the army, working his way up through his regiment, and bought his own commission. His uncle had never offered to purchase him one.
His uncle was dead now, as was his uncle’s son, Wyatt. Wyatt never thought the worst of Trevor or called him a murderer behind his back. Wyatt never regarded him with fear or distrust until one night last August when Trevor had made a terrible mistake. Wyatt had forgiven Trevor for his momentary lapse into madness, but Trevor could not forgive himself for what he had almost done to his cousin. It was only natural everyone now suspected Trevor killed Wyatt. He suspected Julia did, at the very least.
Another problem Trevor did not want to care about: Wyatt’s pregnant widow, Trevor’s older half-sister, Julia.
Growing up in the vicarage near Pathmore Manor in Cornwall, Wyatt, Trevor, and Julia had the run of the land. It made sense when Julia and Wyatt fell in love and married, though Trevor had been on the Continent, knee deep in war and missed the whole thing.
Julia might be carrying the next Earl of Pathmore. If she was not, the title would then fall to Trevor.
Which made Westcott’s next proclamation completely predictable.
“You have the most to gain from your cousin’s death, as his heir apparent.”
Trevor’s jaw clenched, knowing the truth to that statement.
Westcott continued. “In the effort to keep Lady Pathmore from further harm, you are required to remain here, under constant supervision. Until we have concluded you were not responsible for your cousin’s death, and you bear no ill towards his widow--”
“My sister,” Trevor interjected.
“--and their unborn child, you shall remain in the custody of Bradstone House.”
“You’re putting me under house arrest?” Trevor asked, annoyed, but not surprised. When he’d heard of his cousin’s passing, he knew this would be the ultimate conclusion. Everyone was bound to blame him. Trevor had heard it his entire life: as the son of a vicar, he was unworthy of the Pathmore title. He’d killed his mother as his first act on the earth, and war had made him unhinged. A scoundrel. A madman. His actions on the Continent only made it true.
He’d known he could inherit his cousin’s title from the moment he learned of Wyatt’s death. No one understood he didn’t want it.
“Napoleon has escaped Elba and is amassing his army in France. I intend to return to my regiment.”
Wescott shook his head. “You are to remain here until the investigation has concluded. Do not attempt to flee the country.”
Bexley crossed his arms over his chest, his voice heavy with concern. “Please, Trevor. It’s merely for a few weeks until Lady Pathmore delivers a bouncing babe and Westcott clears all this up.”
“What am I to do here for those few weeks?”
Connolly answered with a shrug. “It’s the Season. London does not lack entertainments.”
Trevor chuckled, though his mood was dark. “You cannot expect me to go out and about with society’s haute ton. I won’t do it.”
“You will do it,” Halcourt replied. “Everyone thinks you a deranged war monger, broken by warfare. Public opinion rules this town. If society sees you are healthy and adjusted, and touting their rules, they would never believe you capable of murdering your kin.”
Redley nodded in agreement.
Trevor eyed them with heavy skepticism. “You may have forgotten, but I have never been the ton’s favorite son. The haute ton does not look well upon those accused of rape and murder.”
Westcott pushed off the wall. “Nonetheless. Remain within the confines of Bradstone House. If you go out, take a reputable companion. Preferably a person with a spotless reputation.”
Trevor surged to his feet and moved towards Westcott. “What gives you the authority to issue such orders?” Anger at the injustice bore down on him and he longed to hit something. Westcott looked like a likely candidate.
Redley jumped to his feet also, as did Bexley, both moving to intercept Trevor, but Westcott put his hand up to stop them.
Westcott’s eyes narrowed, his brows furrowed as he stared Trevor down, not flinching or wavering. “I am the Inspector General of the Home Secretary. I have been instructed to find those responsible, and the order came from the highest authority.”
“And whose authority would that be?”
“The Prince Regent,” Westcott stated. “You forget; you and Lady Pathmore are cousins to the crown.”
“Our relation stems from an ill-advised affair between my grandmother and King George’s brother. I can’t imagine The Prince Regent is overly concerned.”
Westcott shrugged. “The Prince Regent insists Pathmore’s killer be brought to justice and he does not want one of his white knights of the war against Napoleon to be sullied in such a way. We are working on your behalf, Major Hayward, not against you. In this respect, I speak for the King and his Regent when I say, sit tight, be a good boy, and let me do my job.”
Westcott turned and quit the room, the sound of the door echoing with a soft click.
Andrew rose from his seat behind the desk. “Are you all hungry? Shall we go in for luncheon?”
From one hell to another, Trevor thought and followed his friends out of the room.