The Earl Who Knew Too Much – Prologue and First Chapter

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London, November 1812

Hawk poked at the embers in the fireplace. A servant had added a log to the burning pile, and soft crackling filled the otherwise silent study. Orange and red and redolent of oak, the fire warmed the room, but not him. He was always cold nowadays. Rain pelted the window overlooking the gloomy and colorless garden. The sight matched his thoughts.

The memories from the carnage never left him alone. His mind retained details of the battle with such sharp clarity, when he closed his eyes, he was transported back to Salamanca and that torrid day of July.

The stench of blood and gunpowder hit his nostrils. Bile rose to his throat. He pressed a hand against his chest as he shivered. Breathing came in shallow gulps.

“Hawk!” A hand grabbed his elbow. “Wake up!”

He gasped, fighting for breath.

“You had another episode.” The voice belonged to his brother Alexander.

Hawk hadn’t heard the door opening or the steps hitting the parquet. “It was just a spell.” He passed the back of his hand over his mouth. “Nothing to be concerned with.” Alexander didn’t know the “spells” assailed him several times a day, and Hawk meant to keep it that way.

“Take this.” Alexander handed him a glass filled with brandy.

Again, Hawk hadn’t seen his brother moving across the study to reach the Tantalus on the mahogany desk. He accepted the proffered beverage and gulped it in one take. Only then did he notice the letter lying by the bottles, which wasn’t there before his brother’s arrival.

“Is it from Spain?” His hand shook as he lowered the glass to the desk and reached for the weathered piece of paper.

“It just arrived.” Alexander lowered himself on the chair in front of the fireplace, giving his back to Hawk.

Hawk balled his hands into tight fists. “Is it…?”

“It is.” Alexander’s voice didn’t betray any emotion. His body didn’t move.

Hawk shook his head. He knew his desire could never reconcile with reality but needed to express his fear. “I can’t lose you, too.”

Turning slowly, Alexander looked at him from over his shoulder. “Wellington’s retreat has turned into a desperate march across Spain. The autumn weather has soaked the troops to their bones. The supply system has collapsed. The soldiers are starving and have turned to looting. Madrid has been abandoned—”

Raising his hand, Hawk stopped his brother’s lecture. “I receive reports as well.”

“William,” Alexander said—he was the only one who still called him by his given name, but only sometimes. “You know I need to do my part.”

“You are the heir apparent now!” Hawk slammed his hand against the desk, and the Tantalus rattled. Burning the letter in the fire wouldn’t change the reality of his younger brother leaving the comfort of their home to join the British Army in the fight against Napoleon.

“I bought the commission as soon as the letter arrived with the news that you had been wounded,” Alexander said, keeping his voice down. His brother never lost his composure. “You knew this day would come.”

“The situation has changed.” Hawk instinctively raised his right hand to caress the black band on his left arm. He had come back from Salamanca not because of his wounds, but because his older brother had died of a fever, making him the next in line to inherit the prestigious title of Earl of Hawkshead. A month earlier, the unexpected had happened again. His father had died.

“The fight against the emperor has only intensified.” Alexander finally stood and faced him. “I am leaving tomorrow morning.” He walked past Hawk and grabbed the letter from the desk. “I came to invite you to dine at White’s. Selkirk and Wentworth are waiting for us.”

“I won’t be good company,” Hawk said.

Alexander raised his brow. “It is my send-off.”

Hawk looked at his brother and memorized the patrician features that made him look like a younger, more innocent version of himself. He wanted to preserve the memory for the next time he saw Alexander, hoping the atrocities of war wouldn’t erase the easy-going smile and the hopeful light in his eyes.

He forced himself to smile and motioned for the door, steeling himself for a long day of feigning everything was normal.

At the front door, a chilly wind rattled the hatchment suspended over the architrave. The footman guarding the entrance stepped forward to steady the diamond-shaped panel, but Alexander was faster, touching the mourning emblem with his gloved fingers.

A long shiver ran across Hawk’s back and his heart skipped a beat as a sudden and unwelcome thought crossed his mind.

Was that an omen?

Chapter One

Caister on Sea, Merriweather house party – December 1815

It was unfashionably early in the morning, and Hawk needed a distraction. His nights lately weren’t conducive to restful slumber but were plagued by hours filled with memories and regrets, and when he finally fell asleep, the nightmares started.

He had never visited Roncesvalles, but in his vivid dreams, he rode Sultan across a field, the dusty road red from the blood of the fallen. Alexander always called his name, screaming in agony, but Hawk could never reach him in time. A dark shadow would blanket the valley, spreading its malevolent net over the dying and dead.

Hawk shook. Even thinking about those dreams evoked a strong sense of dread in him, making him pace the large bedroom the Countess of Merriweather had reserved for him. The liquor cabinet called to him, but he knew it wouldn’t lighten his current mood.

The conversation he had recently had with his friend Selkirk awoke many demons he thought were dormant.

“For the last two months, someone has been corresponding with Mistral.” Selkirk said. “That person might be the Marquis of Camber.”

Not a muscle twitched on Hawk’s face, but he gripped the armrest until his knuckles turned white. “Do you have proof?”

“I most recently saw a letter sent by the marquis.” Selkirk massaged his jaw. “The missive had a watermark, which happens to match the one on the correspondence between Mistral and his interlocutor. The first time I saw the intercepted letters, I couldn’t help but notice the heaviness of the paper—a quality not easily found for sale.”

“We must have substantial proof before accusing a peer of exchanging information with a French spy.” Hawk brought a hand to his temple. A megrim was already forming. “But I sure hope Camber isn’t involved.” He extended a leg in front of him. “I don’t want another Kensington on our hands.”

His contact at the Home Office had informed him a new dispatch regarding Mistral would arrive soon, but knowing the French spy was within his reach and that he might have had an ally amidst Hawk’s social circle made him restless. Mistral had never been as close to being apprehended as he was now. And yet, he remained free to plot against England, condemning more innocent soldiers to die. Every minute the bastard was alive, was time he plotted to reinstate Napoleon.

How many families would mourn the loss of a father, a son… a brother because the Home Office hadn’t acted fast enough?

Hawk knew he was being unfair, that everybody working for the ministry wanted nothing more than to neutralize all threats against Crown and Country. But not everybody had suffered a loss as devastating as his. He didn’t have the luxury to think waiting for the perfect moment would benefit England. He had a personal vendetta to exact and had waited far too long to see the head of the person responsible for Alexander’s death on a spike.

He was of a mind to wake Andrew, Lord Selkirk, and go over all the information they had gathered, once again. Maybe they had overlooked something important…

Once at Andrew’s bedroom door, Hawk reversed his decision and let his friend sleep instead. He then marched down to the ground floor. A spot of bitter coffee would clear his thoughts and he could wait for his friend to join him at a more congenial time for him—after all, a sleep-deprived mind didn’t produce great insight.

Walking toward the breakfast room, he noticed Lady Cooper. They had been introduced the day before and he had meant to discreetly enquire about the reserved widow. The combination of silvery flaxen—almost white—hair, eyes the color of bluebell flowers, a small, upturned nose, and a heart-shaped face had immediately drawn him in. Her exotic features evoked images of midsummer night’s dreams and whimsical creatures of the forest.

Maybe he didn’t have to look for a distraction any longer. The perfect opportunity had just presented itself. A widow would be perfect entertainment that didn’t carry the risk of getting caught in the matrimonial trap. Since joining the house party, several mamas, including the Countess of Merriweather, had been shamelessly peddling their nubile daughters, angling to unite estates through the institution of holy matrimony. Upon becoming the heir apparent, decent and indecent proposals had started flocking his way, but it was when he inherited the title that the hunt for the earl had begun in earnest.

Yes, a widow with no expectations to marry would do just fine.  

“Lady Cooper.” His modulated voice sounded indifferent, almost bored even to his own ears. It had taken a long time to master his reactions, but more than two years had come and gone since the last time Hawk showed the world his true feelings.

The woman turned, and her polite half smile transformed into a bright one when she saw him. “Lord Hawkshead.”

Pleased by her reaction, he smiled back and leisurely strolled toward her, greeting the other guests with the light conversation expected this early in the morning. The weather was fine. It hadn’t further snowed during the night, but a downfall was to be expected soon. Would the countess postpone the outside games for another day?

Lady Cooper nodded at the guests, adding to the chat, but waited for him to reach her. She looked like a statue, a serene representation of a pixie. When he finally stopped at her side, she accepted his proffered arm and rested her gloved hand on his sleeve. The sight of her ivory lace against the dark brown of his superfine coat pleased his eye.

“Looking forward to today’s entertainments?” Hawk liked the subtle scent of violet surrounding her and wondered what her rose-pink lips would taste like.

It was time to send Ludovica her congé. Although recently his mind had been occupied with thoughts of Mistral, he hadn’t thought about his mistress once in the last few weeks, and the saucy brunette deserved a more attentive patron. He hadn’t promised exclusivity to the Neapolitan opera singer, but he had never been careless with other people’s feelings in the past and wouldn’t start now.

“The countess sure knows how to keep her guests busy.” Lady Cooper’s bluebell eyes shone, mesmerizing his senses. Would she dance by moonlight when the pale orb filled the sky with its magical light?

He couldn’t help but lean closer to the woman. “I heard rumors about a visit to the village, maybe as soon as this afternoon.”

“I look forward to it.” She patted his arm.

The innocuous gesture initiated a cascade of sensations in him. While her flowery perfume filled his nostrils, the taste of marzipan candy formed in his mouth as she looked at him with those impossibly blue eyes of hers.

“Grant me the pleasure of being your escort.” He placed his free hand on hers, wishing for the gloves to disappear. “I know the village by heart and can tell you all its secrets.” It would give him an excuse to deviate from the planned excursion—or so he told himself.

Lady Cooper’s chest rose and fell fast. “Are those dark secrets?”

“Would you wish them to be such?” He leaned closer yet.

“Hawk. Lady Cooper.” Selkirk’s low baritone startled Hawk, whose senses were devoted to the woman at his side.

“Good morning.” He acknowledged his friend with a nod.

“Have you had breakfast yet?” Selkirk asked.

“We were about to.” Lady Cooper’s smile was rehearsed.

Hawk took a step forward, but the sudden appearance of the butler stopped him.

“Lord Hawkshead,” the austere man pointedly looked at the salver he held in front of him, “a letter just arrived for you.”

Hawk thanked him and grabbed the ivory parchment. He knew right away the identity of the sender. The blood-red sigil with its melted edges looked like a wound. For a moment, words evaded him. Reality folded into itself. Time and space ceased to exist as the letter weighed his hand down, as if it were made of lead.

It only lasted a moment. “Lady Cooper, if you’ll excuse me.” He then nodded at his friend and left.

His heavy steps resonated against Aubusson carpets, marble, and parquet as he moved through the house, heading to his suite of rooms. He barely acknowledged people along the way but remembered to smile when needed.

Once in his bedroom, he dismissed the chambermaid restocking the fire. Only when he was finally alone with his thoughts did he look at the letter in his hand. He shook from head to toe, and it looked like he had twenty fingers—clumsy, all of them. The name of his father’s friend, the Duke of Wellington, had been written in bold letters over the sigil, which broke under pressure, crumbling, the red pieces falling to the floor like drops of blood.

Needing liquid courage, he poured a good measure of brandy and swallowed it whole before serving himself another dram. He would need more than two glasses to swallow the bile forming in his mouth, but when the low buzz of the spirit began to warm him, he started reading.

Carefully written words formed neat rows on the yellowed paper. The rock wedged on his heart settled lower, pressing painfully. The field marshal had penned the letter himself. It was a form of respect due the late Earl of Hawkshead, but it didn’t lessen the blow. The report he had been anticipating for the last two years had finally arrived, and he didn’t know what to do with himself now.

He had just finished reading the letter a fourth time when a hard knock on the door echoed in his bedroom.  He ignored the first two knocks but knew he wouldn’t be able to keep reality at bay much longer. “Come in,” he whispered, closing his hand around the letter only to let it fall soon after.

Selkirk hesitantly entered a moment later.

“It’s you.” Hawk sagged lower into his chair, the empty glass dangling in his hand. He passed his free hand over his waistcoat. When did he discard his coat? And cravat?

“Is something amiss?” Andrew took a good look at him before taking in the room.

“Nothing is amiss.” Hawk couldn’t help but laugh at the irony. “The contrary is in fact true.”

After closing the door, Selkirk walked to Hawk’s corner. He pointed his chin at the crumpled letter on the floor. “It would seem like we all received upsetting news.”

Hawk raised the glass to his lips but had forgotten it was empty. “Do me a favor, will you?” He tilted his head toward the liquor cabinet.

Selkirk didn’t comply. “A tad early to start drinking.”

“It is one of those days one wants to forget.” Hawk reached down to grab the letter, but his hand didn’t cooperate. How many glasses had he downed? He thought he had stopped at two. Finally, he retrieved the piece of paper, but it felt like scalding embers in his hand, and he tossed it toward Selkirk. “I can’t stand to read it out loud.”

His friend caught the letter in midair and gently flattened the paper. “The Duke himself.”  After reading the first few sentences, he said, “Maybe you are right. This is one of those days when starting to drink early in the morning could prove beneficial.” He collapsed into a chair.

Hawk knew the official report of his brother’s death would have been as painful to read for Selkirk as it had been for him. Alexander and the baron had been the best of friends, almost brothers. At least he had someone to share his pain with.

After the ambush in Roncesvalles, Alexander’s body had never been recovered. Finally, his remains could be laid to rest.

In the letter, Alexander’s valor took central place amidst a smattering of bureaucratic details concerning his remains. Wellington had meant to assuage the family’s pain with his kind words, but they had only reopened a wound never fully healed.

“He was left in an unmarked mass grave for three years.” Hawk couldn’t help but imagine Alexander’s body decaying in the foreign soil. “My intrepid, courageous, pig-headed little brother.” The ever-present pain he had been carrying since knowing Alexander had died in an ambush at Roncesvalles Pass intensified.

Selkirk kept his eyes fixed on the letter, as if he, too, couldn’t come to terms with the truth.

Hawk understood the feeling. “As much as I swore to avenge his death, there remained this tiny, never-ending spark of hope he was still alive somewhere.” He pressed his fist against his chest. “I never spoke about it, of course. All the evidence pointed to the contrary, but I couldn’t accept it. Not in here.” He beat himself softly on the chest. “I have a recurrent dream where Alexander is in a field in the north of Spain, tending to crops. He’s married and has three children, and he’s happy. Happier than I have ever seen him.” He had never confessed that to anyone before.

“He will finally rest with Father and Nathan.” Hawk opened his fist and covered his face with his hand. “I should feel relief at knowing.” He shook his head. “Instead, there’s only rage mounting inside me—”  The agony of broken dreams was too much to bear. He stood and threw the glass against the wall, then stormed out of the room.

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