That Perfect Someone Page 32

Charles had joined them. As Julia and Mathew walked ahead of them hand in hand, Charles explained to Richard, “He"s afraid of the water, so don"t be surprised if you can"t coax him in, even where it"s shallow. One of the gardener"s boys was drowning a few years back. He could swim well enough, but had cramped up or something, and Mathew, who had been playing on the back lawn, heard the boy"s screams and thought he could save him, when he couldn"t swim either! Father actually rescued them. He"d been on his way to speak with Mathew and was the only one near enough at the time to help. Mathew has declined all my attempts to teach him to swim since then. I blame myself, for not teaching him sooner.” Richard was determined to teach the boy after hearing that, but Charles was right. Even though Richard had showed Mathew how much fun could be had in the water, and Julia had been a good sport to participate in that, he couldn"t lure Mathew in to try it. But in the end, Julia succeeded! She"d merely had to promise to hold him all the while, until he got the knack of it.

Watching how patient and gentle Julia was with the boy, Charles remarked, “She seems to have a way with children, doesn"t she?”

Richard had been thinking the same thing. But then Mathew had taken to her right away, while he was still quite reserved with Richard, not seeming to know what to make of an uncle he"d never before met. God, Richard thought, he"d missed so much in the nine years he"d been away.

“Give Mathew time,” Charles continued when he noticed Richard"s pensive look. “I"ve told him so many stories about you, all good, and I made sure Father never said a bad word about you in front of him. It might be your hair, since he"s never seen a man wear it so long. But it"s more likely your height that makes him a bit uncomfortable. He"s very self-conscious right now that he"s a bit short for his age. But with Julia, well, he doesn"t get much exposure to young women who aren"t servants. And I wouldn"t be a bit surprised if he"s smitten!” Charles didn"t need to make excuses for the boy. Richard knew you had to be around to gain trust and love, and he hadn"t been here, nor would he be in the future. And yet, this was the family he"d always wanted for himself, he realized with a profound sense of sadness. Woman and child frolicking, brothers sitting on the side watching, fun, laughter, a sense of togetherness, and it probably wouldn"t happen again. He and Julia would soon be leaving.

He hadn"t had a chance yet to explain to Charles what they were doing there. Milton had called them into the parlor when they entered the house, then they"d all gone into the dining room for luncheon. Milton had continued to amaze Richard because not once while the boy was present did Milton"s manner turn caustic or nasty.

Richard and Charles were far enough away from the activity in the water to speak privately, so he wasn"t surprised when Charles said, “Rich, what"s going on between you and Julia, and why are you really here at Willow Woods? Your behavior contradicts everything you told me at the inn.”

Now that the subject was at hand, Richard almost decided to give Charles the same account they"d given to Milton. It wasn"t that he didn"t trust his brother, but the charade had to be kept secret and Charles wasn"t good at keeping secrets. But this was his brother, and Charles might even be able to assist them in finding the contract more quickly. At least he could shed some light on their father"s daily routine, which would aid Richard in his search.

Richard shook his head and gave his brother a brief account of the truth, ending with “He"s not exactly displaying any happiness over our upcoming wedding, and you"d think he"d be ecstatic, finally to be getting what he wants.”

“Then he simply doesn"t believe you, which doesn"t surprise me. Skeptical might as well be his middle name. But then he"s always been suspicious about anything out of the ordinary, and this is about as unexpected as it gets. You don"t remember that?”

“I"d gathered as much, though it means we just have to „perform" more convincingly—or get the damn job done. Do you know where he keeps that contract?”

“I"m sorry, I haven"t a clue. All these years, he wouldn"t talk about you, and whenever I tried, he"d just get furious. I even brought up the contract after you first showed up and told me what Julia was going to do.”

Richard was given pause. “You told him you saw me?”

“No, of course not. But her plan didn"t sit well with me a"tall. I"m too superstitious, you know. Her declaring you dead would be like jinxing you so you really would die. I had to at least try to stop that by convincing him to release her from the contract. Of course, he fobbed off my reasoning.”

And with Milton"s suspicious nature, he guessed that Richard might be in the neighborhood to have prompted that plea? But Richard was not going to mention the trip to Australia that Milton had arranged, in case Charles was indirectly responsible for Milton"s finding Richard.

Richard still needed to know his father"s current habits and mentioned, “Father was out rather late last night. Is that typical for him not to be at home for most of the evening?”

“He spends time with a widow nearby.”

Richard raised a brow. “A mistress? Him?”

Charles shook his head. “Don"t think he"s keeping her, not that he could afford to. She lives comfortably on a small pittance and, apparently, enjoys his company.” The idea that any woman could enjoy Milton"s company was ludicrous. “Must be something wrong with her, then.”

Charles chuckled. “Not really. She"s his age or thereabouts, and untitled gentry.”

“So she"s hoping for his title?”

“Possibly, or it could simply be she"s lonely. She frequently invites him to dinner, so a few times a week, Mathew and I eat alone. And every week or so he"ll come home late, so while you can"t really say she"s his mistress, they do probably share a bed occasionally.”

“You think he would marry her?”

“No,” Charles said, then added bluntly, “If she were rich, maybe, but she"s not.”

“Not enough money for him, how pathetic. You realize he"s always been obsessed with money?”

“Rather hard to miss, that. But do you know why? Yours wasn"t the first debt he was forced to pay. Our maternal grandparents were heavily in debt, and when they died soon after our parents married, every one of their creditors came knocking at Father"s door. Mother"s family actually thought Father was rich, so they wouldn"t let him out of that arranged marriage any more than he would let us out of ours. And actually, this estate has enough tenants that it would do very well if so much old debt hadn"t piled up. Mother ran up extreme debts, too. And Candice didn"t come with a dowry. Her father figured that marrying a duke"s daughter was dowry enough, and it was. That connection was all my marriage was about. You were supposed to fill the coffers again and pay off all the old debts.”

Richard winced. “And instead I added to them. Do you feel pinched with your home in such a deplorable state—due to lack of funds?”

“I have funds,” Charles said surprisingly. “The allowance that Candice continued to receive from her father after we married was doubled when Mathew was born and now comes to me, to make sure he never lacks for anything. The duke would spoil Mathew horribly if I let him, but I won"t let him.”

“Then you could have refurbished this place?”

“Yes. Easily. But then father would know I have money and consider it his. That"s not going to happen.”

Richard laughed. “Good for you. But Jewels is going to fix up the place—if we"re here that long.” Considering the subject, he was reminded of his conversation with Julia when they"d wondered why Milton hadn"t put Charles forward to fulfill the contract. Richard brought it up now. “Did Father ever ask you to marry Julia? After you became a widower?” Charles chuckled. “Actually, he did about three years ago, when Julia was about to turn eighteen and you still hadn"t returned to marry her. He even tried to pull out the big guns, pointing out that Mathew, at the tender age of five, needed a mother.”

“You disagreed with that point?”

“Mathew had a nurse as well as a governess that I employed, two very motherly women who got so attached to him that they won"t leave now that he"s older! So he"s never lacked for women doting on him. But Father brought it up a few more times, carefully. Remember, he treats me with kid gloves now, so he never insisted I marry her.”

“You obviously refused.” Richard stared at Julia as he said it, and the beautiful smile on her lips as she spoke to Mathew. Richard couldn"t tear his eyes away from her, even as he added,

“I take it you didn"t know what a beauty she"d turned into?”

“Oh, I did.”

That made Richard turn his attention back to his brother. “And you still told him no?” Charles grinned. “He rarely asks anything of me these days, and never orders, so I don"t get to tell him no often, now that I have the guts to. I rather enjoyed it.” Then in a more sober tone Charles added, “Besides, I know why you didn"t want her. How many times you railed that you wouldn"t reward him for the hell he"d put us both through. I wasn"t about to give him the very thing you left home to deny him.”

“Thank you,” Richard said with a half grin. “It would have been quite a shock to come home to find her in the family. But enough about that. Tell me, why do you even still live here?” Charles chuckled. “Well, one reason is because I do have a mistress nearby.”

“Leave with her.”

“I can"t. She has a husband, an old chap who pretty much became an invalid not long after they married. She"s a good, kindhearted woman. She won"t abandon him.”

“You love her?”

Charles"s warm smile was answer enough, but he said, “She"s grown on me—yes, I"m more than a little attached to her. It was just sex to begin with, but it"s been six years now that I"ve been seeing her. She"s not gentry, but I don"t care. I intend to marry her once her husband passes on. I love her enough to wait.”

Now that’s the sort of love Richard had always been looking for, enduring, defying obstacles, reciprocated. He found himself staring at Julia again.

“But you saw the other reason I"m still here when we returned,” Charles continued.

“Mathew loves his grandfather. I"m not going to deny him this opportunity to know what a family is like.”

“You"re never going to tell him what Milton is really like, are you?” Richard guessed.

“Probably not.”

Chapter Forty-two

JULIA HADN"T INTENDED TO put on her bedclothes until she was ready to get under the covers, but by the time she entered her room that night, she didn"t think she"d last for her nightly rituals, even though she had a mirror now that had been brought in from Manchester that afternoon.

She couldn"t remember ever being this tired, but then two vigorous days in the lake and so little sleep last night had definitely caught up to her. And the dinner she"d just had with the Allens, minus the earl, had been so relaxed she"d almost fallen asleep there at the table!

Milton"s absence at dinner twice in a row would have concerned her if Richard hadn"t leaned next to her at the table and whispered, “He visits a lady friend.” Those were the only private words they"d exchanged since the morning, prior to his brother"s return. The work crews had arrived and she"d taken them to the music room and explained the improvements she wanted made, then she and Richard had spent the rest of the day with Charles and Mathew. After the swimming lesson at the lake they"d played a few hours of croquet on one of the side lawns that was level. Without discussing it, all of the adults had wanted to make sure Mathew won those games. Julia found that rather funny, particularly the groans of the two men as they deliberately missed their shots.

She didn"t begrudge Richard his day with the two members of his family that he loved. But she hoped that would be enough for him and that he"d focus on locating the contract. It was nerve-racking to be in that house with the earl, who was so unpredictable. Look at his behavior with his grandson today! He"d behaved like a completely different man from the one who had sent his son on a trip to hell. Without a qualm. Without remorse.

She groaned when the knock came at the door only minutes after she"d closed it. She didn"t doubt it was Richard and was glad now that she hadn"t changed out of her clothes yet. While she was afraid he was going to suggest another night of “fun” in his bedroom, even though his father wasn"t home yet, the thought did manage to wake her up a little.

But when she opened the door, Richard grabbed her hand and started leading her down the corridor as he said, “Come on, I need you to keep an eye out for me. With father out of the house again, now"s our chance.”

Finally! She was wide-awake now! But halfway down the stairs he stopped. They could see the footman stationed at the beginning of the narrower hallway on the left that went on beyond the stairs and led to the earl"s study. Richard was going to have to go outside and enter through the window if he was going to get into that room tonight.

She thought of mentioning a reason for them to go outside, loud enough for the footman to hear her, but she held her tongue when Richard"s hold on her hand tightened. She could almost feel the rage suddenly coming from him, the kind that his father could easily inspire, but when she leaned to the left to see what had caused it, she saw it wasn"t Milton he was staring at.

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