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December, 1814

Hampshire

              

The wind whipped past him, brisk and bracing, sending fallen leaves and twigs whirling like a dervish along the road as he traveled towards the town of Greywell. Travel in December could always prove problematic, but the chill in the air today was the sort that grabbed hold of one’s bones and launched an assault on the body from the inside out.

If David Hounslow, Marquess of Preston could have made the journey to visit his sister and brother-in-law at Padmore Glen immediately after the close of the Little Season as he’d initially intended, the traveling conditions would have been far more agreeable…and he wouldn’t be shivering to within an inch of his life. For that matter, if he’d been able to leave as planned, he could have traveled with them in Upton Grey’s carriage.

Granted, he could have hired a carriage. Or, if he wanted to travel in something more expertly equipped, he could have sent word to Preston Hill and had one of his own carriages brought to Cambridgeshire for the journey. But he had done neither of those things, and now he was reaping what he’d sown. Or not reaping what he’d neglected to sow. Something like that.

Damn Arrington and his philandering hide. And damn Lady Arrington and her affinity for fire pokers.

A new series of shivers raced along Preston’s spine which had nothing whatsoever to do with the bite of the air. How could anyone possess the wherewithal to savagely beat someone with such an implement until they died? But then, Preston had seen similar cold-blooded attacks before. He’d never understood them, nor the mindset required to perpetrate them, but he had certainly seen them.

Thank the heavens those attacks had not resulted in death.

The anger he felt from those memories had never fully faded, though he’d funneled it into something more positive at least. Arrington’s recent death and the violent manner in which it had come about only added to Preston’s fervor to protect as many as he possibly could from such a fate.

He didn’t want to think on such unpleasantness now, though. It was nearly Christmas. He would be spending the holiday with his sisters and their husbands and children and, despite the horrifying events that had recently taken place, Preston had every intention of enjoying every moment he had with them. This ought to be a time of celebration; he would make it so.

He couldn’t stop the sigh of relief that fled from his lips when he turned the final corner from the main road through town and the Palladian columns of Padmore Glen came into view. His mount had hardly gone ten paces down the lane, however, before another sight passed before his eyes: a series of hired carriages had come to a stop at the end of the drive just in front of the doors, while dozens of footmen rushed about, unloading trunks and parcels and other paraphernalia such as one would require for an extended visit away from one’s home.

Were Rachel and Upton Grey expecting other guests?

Preston was aware, of course, that Mary and Lord Ellingham were to be present, as would their children. The second of his sisters and her husband ought to have arrived a fortnight or more ago, so these carriages couldn’t possibly have anything to do with their arrival.

The Dowager Countess of Upton Grey lived on the Padmore Glen estate in the dower house. There was no need to send more than a single carriage to bring her to the main house, and she would not require any trunks at all as she preferred to return to her solitude each evening.

Rachel had informed him it was to be a family affair, just as their holidays so often were. That was what he’d prepared himself for. Apparently now, he must put on a brave face for whoever Upton Grey’s other guests might be.

Preston said a brief prayer that, if he must be subjected to others who were not his kin, there might at least be no unmarried young misses in search of a husband among the guests. Let it be men gathered together for some cards. Or perhaps married couples. He would be fine as long as any guests of the female sex were well and truly married to someone other than him. The very thought of fending off marriage-minded debutantes all through the Christmas season when he’d rather be bouncing a niece or nephew upon his knee sent a fresh course of goose flesh racing down his arms.

He made his way to the front of the lane and dismounted, tossing the reins to a groom who rushed up to meet him and then indicating the saddle bag. “My man should have already arrived with my trunks. See to it that this last piece gets to him.”

“Yes, milord.”

Brushing through the frenzy of servants unloading trunk after trunk, Preston climbed the steps and handed his hat to Goddard, the new butler Upton Grey had hired less than a year before. It was the first time Preston had really gotten a good look at the man. He was younger than one would normally expect for a butler, but age could never tell the whole story about a man. Goddard had an air of passive intimidation about him, as well. One look would be all that was required to convince most to think a second time before going against him in any endeavor.

“It is a pleasure to have you at Padmore Glen as always, Lord Preston.” Goddard took Preston’s gloves and greatcoat, passing them off to a footman and closing the doors to block out the cold with a deft and singular effortlessness. “Her ladyship requested we put you in the Wolfe bedroom. Will that be to your satisfaction, my lord?”

Preston moved closer to the hearth and its roaring fire, putting more distance between himself and the chill that seemed to follow him at every turn. “Yes, of course.”

All around him, servants rushed through the halls, speaking quietly amongst themselves and accomplishing their tasks in as efficient and expedient a manner as Preston had ever seen. When compared to the cacophony and discord so readily apparent in the workings of Padmore Glen in the not so distant past, the difference was nothing short of remarkable.

He’d never been one to envy another man (in particular, not either of his brothers-in-law), and he certainly was not one to poach someone else’s servants—but if Goddard was responsible for the efficiency with which this house was being run, then Goddard was likely the very man Preston needed to preside over matters at Darlingshire House.

Goddard gave a brief inclination of his head. “Very good, my lord. I’ll inform Lord and Lady Upton Grey of your safe arrival. Shall I order a bath sent up before you join the family for supper?”

A chorus of feminine titters and giggles echoed from overhead. Preston looked up to the top of the stairs, where two very lovely, very unmarried-looking (if there could be such a thing) young ladies were making their way down. Damnation. He didn’t recognize them, not either one of them, but they were exactly what he did not want to encounter on his holiday.

It wasn’t their fault that he’d suddenly developed an all-encompassing and innate fear of the female sex, or at least of those with which he wasn’t already intimately familiar; nevertheless that fear was very much a reality.

The fear grew quite keen when his attention fell momentarily to the ornate iron poker nestled in a wrought-iron stand near the fire.

Devil take it, he couldn’t think like this all the time. His life would be nothing more than a shambles in less than the span of a heartbeat.

Preston gritted his teeth and returned his attention to the butler. A bath would be just the thing. “Piping hot, if you would, please.” He rubbed his hands together, trying to allow a bit more warmth from the fire to seep into his bones before he must leave it.

The butler nodded and backed away to do his bidding.

A feminine titter came from one of the ladies on the stairs, causing a renewed bolt of terror to shoot straight to Preston’s gut.

“Goddard?” he said just before the butler left the entryway. “Do you think Lord Upton Grey would mind if I helped myself to his whiskey?”

With a look in the young ladies’ direction, Goddard gave a knowing smile. “I rather imagine he would understand entirely. The credenza in his lordship’s library should be more than adequately equipped for your needs.”

Moments later, Preston had poured himself a double before making his way up the stairs to the Wolfe bedroom and his bath. Gibbs, his valet, was waiting for him with a large fire roaring in the hearth. The cast iron tub had already been brought up, great billows of steam rising up over the rim.

As soon as the door closed, Gibbs moved to the closet and started fiddling with Preston’s trunks. “I’ve set out your green coat for this afternoon, milord. Will that be acceptable?”

Preston set to work undressing, his jaw tensed tight against the chill that would not release its grip upon him. “Yes, of course,” he grumbled. “But Gibbs? If I see a fire poker anywhere near me, I’ll use it to gouge out your eyes. Understood?”

“Perfectly well, milord,” the valet said in his well-practiced and heavily guarded tone.

A brief glance in the cheval mirror, however, revealed Gibbs’s astute smirk.