Will was still grinning when he tromped back to his home. He made sure to approach from the west side, all other pathways being too dangerous, especially at night. The Crowle Castle was literally falling down, and he had no wish to be brained by a crumbling stone or trip over something that had fallen during the day.
As he walked, part of his mind began tallying the repairs to the castle that needed to be done. He’d thought to make the most urgent of them this summer when the weather was clear, but with the increase in the canal work, he would not have time. He could hire someone to do it, but more likely, he would take a day to invite all the neighboring men to help. They would come as would their wives, bringing food to eat and children to watch. It would be a proper festival day at the Crowle Castle as hadn’t happened… well, since the last time he needed roof repairs. It would be a fun day, but it would be a far cry from what had happened generations ago when the Crowle lord had celebrated May Day with a huge bounty or All Saints Day with the summer’s harvest. And wouldn’t Josephine make a pretty Lady of the Harvest or a May Queen? He could see her now…
His thoughts trailed away as guilt assailed him. What he was doing was dishonest. He wanted to court Josephine honestly as a good man courted the woman he wanted. But her father had blocked that path, and much as he tried to prove his worth to Lord Lawton, he’d made no headway when it came to a respectable courtship of the man’s daughter. Which meant he had no other choice if he wanted the girl. Midnight seductions were his only choice.
Still, he spent the rest of his walk trying to think of a better way. He got nowhere, and when he saw the light on inside his home, his eyes narrowed in concern. Was his mother still awake? Impossible at this hour. And yet as he pushed through the warped door, he crossed quickly to their only habitable parlor. There she was, sitting in her rocking chair near the cold fire. A candle flickered on a table beside her and in her lap lay a folded piece of paper. A letter, he realized, but from whom?
“Mama?” he asked softly. If she were asleep, he would carry her to bed. She didn’t weigh much more than a bushel of hay.
Her eyes opened and she smiled, stretching in her chair. “You’re home. My, what time is it?”
“Late,” he said, not wanting her to know it was nearly two. It would only make her worry as he had to be up with the sun. He didn’t even want to think of his tasks on the morrow, but he couldn’t regret what he’d done this night. “Why aren’t you abed?”
“Because I was waiting for you.” She frowned as she judged the tiny stub, all that remained of her candle. “Goodness, Will, what were you doing?”
He would not answer that to anyone, and certainly not his mother. “The time got away from me.”
“Poppycock,” his mother returned, her face coming alive as she roused. “Only one thing keeps a man to these hours. Gambling or a woman. Have you been gambling, my son?”
“Dice,” he lied with a completely straight face. “I have won enough to set you up as a queen.”
She laughed, the sound a little too throaty to be musical, but beautiful nonetheless. “I doubt you even know the rules of the game.”
He snorted as he sat down on a hard bench. What were the rules except to throw the dice, curse, and lose money?
“So who is she?” his mother continued. “Have you gone courting Louisa from the tavern? She is a smart girl, you know. And she’s sweet on you.” She sniffed the air. “Hmmm,” she said with disappointment. “No smell of the inn on you.”
“You cannot scent anything but the mud from the canal.”
“Don’t tell me what I can and cannot deduce, young man! You were with a woman and it was outdoors. By water, given the state of your boots. And you were whistling as you came home, so the courting is going well.”
He frowned. “You were asleep. And I wasn’t whistling.” Or had he been? He didn’t remember.
“A mother hears everything, especially when drowsing by the fire. What is her name, Will?”
He looked down at his hands, rubbing absently at an ache he had at the base of his thumb. How could he tell his mother any of this? What he was doing was wrong on so many levels. He always thought he’d court a woman openly, bringing flowers and the like as an honest man. But he wasn’t doing that. He was seducing a woman meant for someone else. And he was doing it for her dowry. “Cad” was the kindest word for him, and he was ashamed.
“Mama,” he said slowly. Then he shook his head, choosing to distract himself by looking around the sparse parlor. “I was thinking of having a work day to repair the roof. In a month. The walls on the east side need reinforcing, the roof is none too stable, and—”
“Who is she, Will?”
“Who is the letter from, Mama?”
Now it was her turn to look away. She didn’t touch the letter that lay in her lap, but twisted her fingers in her skirt. “Do you know what I was dreaming, Will?”
“I thought it was of me whistling.”
She smiled, her face softening. She’d been a beautiful girl once, with bright eyes, soft skin, and a smile that captured the hearts of dozens of men. At least that’s what his father had said often enough. But now poverty had made her hands rough. Her eyes might still be bright, but there were dark smudges and wrinkles surrounding them. And her hair that had been bright as a copper penny was now gray and thin.
“I was thinking of one winter when I went to get you from school for Christmas. You were twelve or thirteen, I think. Your brother had gone to London to round up your father while I had gone to find you.”
“That was a long time ago, Mama.”
She shook her head. “Not so long for me. I remember it clearly. You were putting your satchel in the carriage boot when one of your teachers found me. He showed me an essay you had written—”
“About the responsibilities of the aristocracy to the people they ruled. How England would fail if those in power did not care for the land and the people who tilled it.”
Will leaned back against the table he used as a desk. It was littered with papers and plans, but he didn’t care at the moment if he scattered them all to the wind. “I was a boy, Mama. It wasn’t important.”
“But it was, Will. You gave specific examples of things that needed to be done. Ways that the livestock needed to be maintained, how the crops should be watched, and how fields needed to lie fallow for a season to come back stronger. You even mentioned canals.”
“You have done it all, Will. Everything you wrote when you were twelve.”
“You have done everything you planned from that early date. And you have done it well.”
And what good had it done him? The Crowle land had been sold out from under him, his mother lived in a home that could collapse in the first hard storm, and he had to seduce the woman he wanted rather than approach her and her father openly. What good was daily hard labor if at the end of five years, he still had nothing? And his mother had nothing.
“You have become a fine man, Will,” she said when he just glared at the cold grate. “I am so proud of you, some days I am bursting with it.”
His gaze turned to his mother. She was smiling at him, her love shining in her eyes even in the flickering candlelight. And his chest tightened in response. “I have not done enough, Mama. For you or for the village.”
“You have done more than any man can. And of the Crowles, my son, it was worth all the heartache to sire you.”
“Never that, Mama. Never that.” He knew what she had suffered with their drunken, gambling lech of a father. He knew how she had struggled to raise her three children when the money dwindled and the husband who should have supported her abandoned her for the whores in London. He knew, and he daily wondered how she’d survived it at all.
“Every day, my son, I thank God for you. And now…” She gently traced the edge of the letter. “Now I can thank God for my other son too.”
His head snapped up. “You have heard from Grant?”
She nodded and handed over the missive. It was written in elegant script on paper that must have cost dearly. Will read it once quickly, then a dozen times more. It wasn’t hard. There were but three lines. And even as he read the short missive, she told him exactly what it said.
“He wishes us well. He hopes to come visit for my birthday at the end of the summer. And he hopes that it will be a happy reunion.” Then before he could ask, she held out the envelope. “It came by way of the solicitor.”
He stared at the nearly blank page, barely stopping himself from crushing the damned thing in his fist. There was nothing in here about buying back the land. Nothing about funds or partial purchases. Not a word! “He doesn’t even remember.”
His mother knew exactly what he was referring to. He had told her about Grant’s bargain with Lawton nearly five years ago. And she—unlike Will—had held out such hope. And true to her nature, she clung stubbornly to the idea that both her sons were worthy gentlemen.
“We don’t know what he has done these last five years,” she said.
“Of course we do!” he snapped, waving the damned letter in the air. “If he had the money, he would be crowing it from the trees. Mama, you know him! Grant was never humble.”
“Maybe he changed—”
“Mama!” He threw up his arms in his exasperation. But then he pulled back on his temper. After all this woman had suffered, after all the disappointments from her husband and now eldest son, how could she still cling to hope? How could she possibly believe that Grant had changed from the reckless London dandy he’d been? Father hadn’t changed and neither had Grant.
But who was he to dash a mother’s hope? He was simply the one son who remained. The one who saw to the roof and the food. The one who had not abandoned her.
“He has been sending me money, Will. Not much at first, but some. Every quarter.”
“I didn’t tell you because I knew you would refuse it.”
He shook his head. He might have, five years ago. He had been that angry at the man. But it only took that first winter for him to realize that they needed whatever money they could get from whatever source. He frowned. “I thought it came from Diane.” After all, his sister was now Lady Brawley. In truth it had been her marriage that had kept them fed that first year. Lavish holiday gifts that came by banker’s cheque.
“I thought so too, but do you recall when I visited her two years ago? She told me then that it wasn’t her. Not even in the beginning, except for the holiday gifts. It was then that I realized it must be from your brother.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know that.”
“Who else would send us money?”
He had no answer to that. His mother’s side of the family was as financially restricted as they were. And that family had double the number of children. The rest of the Crowles were gone, thank God. He could think of no other benefactor.
He spun around in his seat to face his table, then leaned down to pull out the ledger he kept at the foot of his desk. All their financial records were written there, and he began flipping through the pages looking at the entries that he’d recorded as gifts from his sister. He’d kept careful track, intending someday, somehow to pay her back.
But it would take some time for him to sort through it. Right then his mother was his best source of information. “Did it look like gambling money?” he asked as he still scanned the pages. She more than anyone else would know what that looked like: sporadic funds in odd amounts. A windfall one day, then nothing for months.
But she shook her head. “Perhaps at first, but it has been steady for the last three years. The money comes soon after quarter day in slowly increasing amounts.”
He thought about it, grudgingly forced to admit that she had deduced things clearly, or at least as clearly as possible given the limited amount of information they had.
The money was probably from Grant, and whatever he was doing was probably going well. Or at least not horrendously badly. But Will knew the amount that his mother received. Even if every penny came from Grant, it wasn’t huge. It had paid for some repairs to the castle, clothing, and a treat or two. They’d spent a large portion of it on that holiday two years ago when Mama had gone to visit Diane. Certainly not enough money to suggest Grant could buy back the Crowle land.
No, all in all, it would appear that Grant had done what he could to support his mother, nothing more. If his brother remembered his agreement with Lawton at all—which Will sincerely doubted—then he didn’t have the funds to do anything about it. If he did, Will would have heard by now. Mama would have heard. Someone would know something, their solicitor if no one else.
And so it was with a heavy sigh that he closed the ledger. “I’m glad he has been faithful to you, Mama,” he said softly.
“Do not count him out yet, Will.”
“Out, Mama? He has never been in.” Will sighed. “I must make my plans as I have always done: without Grant’s input or assistance.” He leaned forward. “Lord Lawton has promised me something, Mama. You know the acreage right next to the entailed land? The Russells and the Hembecks till the land right now.”
“Of course I do. Those children will be the death of—”
Will cut her off, not wanting her distracted into a discussion of the village children. “Lawton has promised it to me if I finish the canal by September. To me. Free and clear, if only I—”
“Finish the canal!” she gasped, sitting up. Her eyes narrowed and he could tell she was thinking hard. “But… but you have been saying how difficult it’s been. The missing supplies, the broken—”
“I think I can do it. With the extra men Lawton has provided and if the weather holds.” He allowed himself a hopeful smile. “I think it can be done.”
His mother pursed her lips. “But so many people are against it, Will. You know they don’t like all these strangers about.”
He knew, but like Lawton, he didn’t truly care. So long as the new workers did their jobs and didn’t cause any mischief, everything would be fine. Logically, he knew it was a long shot. There were problems daily, and even with the new foreman he’d hired, people had started grumbling in the village. But if the weather held fair, they could do it. He could see it done and get his reward.
“Think on it, Mama. I could start rebuilding the Crowle fortune again. It’s a good piece of land. It makes good money.”
She eyed him, her expression tight, her eyes narrowed. But in the end, she simply shrugged. “It’s good to see you hopeful about something, Will.”
He grinned. It was good. And maybe luck was with him. So with a sudden burst of energy, he stood and held out his hand to his mother as if he were a courtier in the King’s palace. “Shall I escort you upstairs, Mama?”
She smiled, her cheeks dimpling in a sweet display. “That would be a great pleasure, my son.”
“Then let us to bed.” He grabbed the tiny stub of a candle. Mentally he calculated how many more candles they had in the larder. Meanwhile, his mother was like a dog with a bone on some topics, no matter how much he tried to distract her.
“Tell me her name, Will. Let me dream of grandchildren tonight.”
The idea of grandchildren shouldn’t have surprised him. In truth, she talked about it often enough. But never before had he been startled by the idea of Josephine’s child. He could just imagine a little girl running pell-mell through the woods, her laughter filling the forest with joy. Or perhaps they would have a little boy with eyes that danced because he had mischief on his mind. Any child of Josephine would be a handful, and the thought made his belly clench with a hunger beyond anything he’d ever experienced.
Certainly, he longed to rebuild the Crowle name. He worked day and night to try and regain their lands. But this desire for a child—for Josephine’s child—knocked him flat with the need. And the idea that she would grow round with his child made him stumble as they walked. If it were not for his mother, he likely would have fallen flat on his face.
“Will? Are you all right?”
He swallowed. “I… Uh, yes. I’m fine,” he said as he righted himself and turned toward her bedroom. “It’s just late and I am very tired.”
“And you were thinking of children with your woman.”
“She is not my woman. Not by a long stretch.”
“But there is someone?”
“Of course there is,” he said as he patted her arm. “There is my lovely mother whom I have kept up too late.”
“But who will be my daughter-in-law?”
He shook his head, his throat abruptly too tight to say Josephine’s name. Sadly, his mother did not suffer from any such ailment.
“She is leading you on a merry dance, isn’t she?”
“No, she is not.” No, it was he who was leading her, right now. Straight into his bed and from there, to the altar.
“Poppycock,” his mother stated firmly. “No man stumbles on the stairs over an easy woman.”
Well, as to “easy”—that word had never applied to Josephine. Fortunately, they had arrived at his mother’s door. “Sleep well, Mama.”
“Dream of grandchildren if you must,” he said, “but I will not give you her name. Not yet.”
Naturally, the woman latched on to his hesitation. “If not now, then when?”
He sighed, then finally gave her an answer of sorts. “By summer’s end. If it goes well, by summer’s end.”
“And if it does not?”
“Then I will go visit Louisa at the tavern and begin courting her.”