Heart's Desire

Heart's Desire

Three little lost lords, cast to the winds of fate…

CHERYL HOLT continues to dazzle readers with the second book in her new trilogy, The Lost Lords of Radcliffe…

MATTHEW HARLOW is England’s hero. After almost single-handedly rescuing passengers from a foundering ship—including a trio of royal cousins—he’s being lauded throughout the kingdom. But at heart, he’s just a soldier, a captain in the King’s army, and he finds the spotlight a great nuisance. Yet he’s dashing and dynamic, a natural leader of men, and heroics rest well on his broad shoulders. As an orphan, with no memory of his parents or past, he often wonders where he came by his penchant for fearlessness and daring. What is to account for his extraordinary courage and valor?

CLARISSA MERRICK is a poor relative and spinster who lives with her cruel cousins at their bucolic Greystone estate. Even in her small corner of rural England, everyone has heard of brave, remarkable Captain Harlow. When he arrives at Greystone, he shoots through her world like a blazing comet, and nothing will ever be the same. Who is Matthew Harlow? What is his true history? How could a lowly orphan be possessed of such a forceful character and potent charisma? Can Clarissa help him find the answers to the mystery that has plagued him all his life?

Cheryl Holt delivers another dramatic story of love, family, heartbreak, and betrayal. As the truth about the “lost” lords is gradually revealed, readers will be breathlessly turning the pages and cheering all the way to the stunning, thrilling conclusion…

Cheryl Holt…a New York Times Bestselling Author…

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CHAPTER ONE

“Wake up!”

Matthew Harlow heard the curt summons, but he was dreaming fitfully and couldn’t rouse himself.

It was a beautiful summer day in August, and he was napping on the ground, the grass providing a welcome cushion.  The prior evening, he’d over imbibed in a manner he normally never would, so he had a ghastly hangover.  As they’d galloped down the country road, his head had been pounding so fiercely he’d finally had to stop.

He’d found a shady spot under the bows of a huge oak tree and dozed off.

“Wake up!”

The voice came again, and he swatted with his hand and sank back into his dream.  Or perhaps he should call it a nightmare.  When he was a little boy, he’d nearly died in a fire at a coaching inn, and the memory had plagued him all his life.  It seemed to represent a great loss, the final time he’d been truly happy—though why that would be so, he couldn’t imagine.

He was trying, as usual, to escape the flames.  The halls were chaotic, people running and crying.  He reached out to someone who was hidden from view, and he stretched farther and farther, never quite able to grasp the person who was waiting for him out there in the dark.

His nostrils filled with smoke.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t…

“Matthew!”

He jolted to a sitting position, the details vivid enough that he expected to be three years old again and racing down the burning stairs.

But no, he was nestled under the oak.  His annoying, dashing younger brother, Rafe Harlow, was seated next to him, their horses hobbled down by the creek and munching on the grass.

“What time is it?” Matthew asked.

“I’m not a clock,” Rafe replied.  “How would I know?”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Too bloody long, and I’m sick of dawdling here, listening to you wail like a baby.  Was it the fire dream or the ship dream?”

“The fire.”

Matthew had always had bad dreams, but they generally alternated between two subjects:  a fire and a departing ship.  He and Rafe had shared a bed when they were children, so Rafe had had plenty of opportunities to witness Matthew moaning with dismay and thrashing around.

“Let’s get going,” Rafe said.  “I want this over with.”

“I don’t.”

“So you’ve claimed on a hundred different occasions.  You’re the most ungrateful lout.”

“I’m not ungrateful,” Matthew said.  “I’m…exhausted.”

“Whose fault is that?  You’ve been reveling like a man on his way to the gallows.”

“This will be difficult—the whole affair.  Our arrival.  The transfer of ownership.  I don’t have the energy, and with this hangover, I’ll probably make a mash of it.”

“You always make a mash of it.  You’re too stubborn and inflexible, so you simply bluster in and piss everyone off.”

“I wish I’d never saved a single soul.”

“You’d have rather they all drowned?”

“No,” Matthew grumbled, “but if I’d been a tad less noble, we’d still be in Europe, tending to the sort of business we understand.”

“Soldiering…”  Rafe uttered the term like an endearment, like a caress.

They were soldiers, with Rafe a lowly private and Matthew a tough, hardened captain.  He had years of valorous combat under his belt.  He wasn’t afraid of anything, never quailed or dithered, never cowered or retreated, and Rafe was learning his worst habits.

Soldiering they comprehended.  Soldiering was where they excelled.  They’d been raised in a world of men, thrived in a world of men.  It’s what they knew, what they enjoyed.  Diplomacy and tact were what eluded Matthew.  He said what he thought, spoke his mind, and deftly carried out every order and promise.

People who assumed he wouldn’t, who misjudged or underestimated him, did so at their peril.  He was too used to having his own way.

He had all the traits necessary to be a good leader, to convince men to follow him.  With his bold strength and unfailing courage, men yearned to imitate him, to be like him, but none of them could ever hope to muster his brave daring.

As to women…?

He had limited experience with women, other than the rough and tumble types in army camps and port towns.  He’d never spent much time around females, unless it was to have them perform salacious services.  His only variation had been his recent decision to keep a mistress.

Penelope Bernard was British, and he’d met her in Belgium at an officers’ soiree.  She was the daughter of an important government official, but he couldn’t see that her behavior was much different from any other trollop.

She had several scandals in her past, which was why she’d been hiding in Belgium, having been banished there by her father.  Her illicit path was widely recognized, so marriage for her wasn’t likely, and she was happy to find an idiot like Matthew to pay her bills.

He’d involved himself in a manner he’d never intended, and already, he was wondering what had possessed him.  But then, she was extremely proficient on a mattress, and a man could never discount such a boon.

“How far is it to Greystone?” he asked.

“I’m not a map either,” Rafe snapped.

“You’re a ray of sunshine today, aren’t you?”

“My hangover is worse than yours, but you don’t hear me complaining every two seconds.”

“No, you just bite my head off at every turn.”

“Well, I’m tired of you.”

“I’m tired of me too.”

Rafe pushed himself to his feet.  “Get a move on, you bloody hero.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What, hero?”

“Yes.  You know I hate all the fuss.”

“You didn’t seem to when we were standing in that cocked-up salon at the palace and everyone was cheering your name.”

Matthew rolled his eyes.  “It was pointless folderol.”

“You had every beauty in the room hanging on your arm.”

“There is that.”

“It put Penelope’s nose out of joint to see that gaggle drooling over you.”

“She needs to have her nose tweaked every so often.”

“That she does,” Rafe agreed.

For all of the life Matthew remembered, it had been just him and Rafe.  Matthew was thirty and Rafe twenty-two, with Matthew the older, wiser, tougher brother who’d watched over Rafe, protected him, and never left him behind.

With them being the only siblings in the Harlow family, Rafe had never had to share Matthew with anyone or compete for Matthew’s attention.  Rafe loathed Penelope and was jealous of Matthew’s relationship with her, but it was silly for him to fret.

She was stunningly pretty, but acted like a whore.  She was also vain and greedy, so there was much about her that was unlikable.  He suspected—if Greystone turned out to be magnificent—she’d attempt to finagle a marriage proposal out of him.

But Matthew wasn’t a fool and—should he ever wed—he’d never pick such a spoiled, immoral brat.  He’d marry for love and affection, which were things he thought he might have once had, but had lost somewhere along the way.

Rafe oozed appeal and charisma, his bravery and boldness indisputable, but he was a child at heart, and Matthew would never choose Penelope over Rafe.  Matthew’s bond with Rafe was unbreakable and eternal.

“Let’s go,” Rafe urged again.  “Since we’re unsure of how far we still have to travel, I’d rather not arrive in the dark.”

“Neither would I.”

Head pounding, Matthew stood and brushed off his clothes while Rafe readied the horses.  They mounted and rode on, the name of his new estate—Greystone—echoing with each clop of hooves.

After another hour or so, they found the front gate, a pretentious arch over the entrance, with Greystone chiseled into the stone.  They reined in and studied the lane that wound into the woods, the house not yet visible.

“Ready?” Rafe asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“I’ll race you.”

“We’re not racing,” Matthew scolded.  “I have no desire to gallop in like a pair of bandits bent on robbery.”

“Do you think the servants know we’re coming?”

“The place is empty.  It’s what I was told, anyway.”

“What will we do for help?”

“Rafe, we’ve lived in army camps for…what?  Fifteen years?  Twenty years?”

“Yes.”

“We can fend for ourselves for a few days.”

“I guess we’ll survive.”

“Plus, I imagine they’re all in the village, waiting to hear if I’ll keep them on.”

“Will you?”

“It depends if I like their looks or not.”

“That’s what you say about soldiers under your command.”

“It’s the same animal.”  He nodded up the lane.  “You first.”

“No, you first,” Rafe insisted.  “It’s your property.  You should lead us.”

Matthew might have presumed Rafe was being courteous, except that his words dripped with sarcasm.

Ever since the night of his alleged heroics, they’d viewed the entire brouhaha as a hilarious nuisance.  He’d been on that deserted beach by accident, watching as a ship had foundered in heavy seas, then been impaled on the sharp rocks of the coastline.  It sank quickly, water sweeping over the deck.

Passengers had started jumping into the surf and almost all of them had been women and children.  He’d always been a strong swimmer and had the courage of a lion, so he’d dove in and began rescuing people.  He’d done a fine job of it too, saving nearly everyone, with only a handful of the crew and some toddlers lost to the tempest.

Later, he learned that the ship was filled with the families of high-ranking British officers.  They’d been on their way to visit their husbands and fathers in Belgium.  And of course, three of them had turned out to be favored royal cousins.  After that discovery, Matthew’s intention to ignore the incident had evaporated.

He’d been decorated and praised and lauded until the clamor had grown embarrassing.  The last straw had been his receipt of Greystone as a reward for his valor to the Crown and the citizens of Britain.  It all seemed too much, and he’d planned to decline the gesture, but Rafe had yanked Matthew to his senses before he could make such a recklessly stupid decision.

Though no one would listen, Matthew kept insisting he’d simply behaved as any other man would have, but the honors had been foisted on him despite his protests.  His acclaim had become so pronounced that he’d finally shrugged and opted to revel in the moment.  It was interesting to have something different happen for a change, something that didn’t involve fighting and maiming and killing.

They rode into the woods, Matthew’s eyes alert, checking out the trees, the blue sky above.  The woods opened to orchards, then meadows of grass where horses grazed and frolicked.

Eventually, they rounded a bend, and it loomed in front of them.  Greystone Abbey.  It was huge, solid, constructed of grey brick and shaped like an ancient castle, with turrets—turrets!—on the corners, ivy clinging to the walls.

“There it is,” Rafe said.  “What do you think?”

Matthew struggled to exhibit nonchalance.  “It’ll do, I suppose.”

“Bloody right, you lucky bastard.”

Jaws agape, they stared and stared, taken aback by the grandeur, by the majesty.  He’d expected a sturdy house, perhaps a few fields and a manicured garden.  Not a castle fit for a king.  Not orchards and herds of cattle and horses running in the pasture.

Matthew whistled and shook his head.  “Sweet Jesu…”

“How could you have ever thought to refuse all this, Matthew?” Rafe asked.  “Are you sure this is the correct place?”

“I’m pretty sure.  We can both read.  The sign at the entrance said Greystone.  I doubt there are two such estates in this part of the country.”

“Probably not.”  Rafe glanced over at him, his impish grin infectious.  “Are you ready for this?”

“Give me a minute.”  Matthew studied the Abbey, the barns behind, the rolling hills beyond.  Clearly, the servants were still in residence.  He could see people going about their chores.

Rafe noticed the same.  “Nobody’s left.”

“No, it doesn’t appear they have.”

“If the servants are here, the Merricks are likely here too.  If they are, this could get tricky.”

“It definitely could,” Matthew agreed.

Greystone Abbey had previously been owned by a man named Harold Merrick who’d concocted a massive financial swindle.  The deceit had ultimately defrauded several of the kingdom’s most notable aristocrats, as well as the Prince Regent and Duke of York.

As a result, Mr. Merrick had forfeited everything and been jailed, having had the good sense to hang himself in his cell before he could be shipped off to the penal colonies in Australia.  His downfall had provided Matthew’s rise to prosperity, and while Matthew hated to consider Mr. Merrick’s loss, Merrick had obviously been an idiot, so no sympathy was warranted.

Yet…what about his family?  If they were skulking about, feeling aggrieved and robbed of their heritage, they wouldn’t be happy to have Matthew riding in.

“Let’s switch coats.”  Matthew said.

“What?”

“For the moment, you’ll be Captain Harlow.”

“A promotion!  Wonderful!  Will I receive an increase in wages?”

“No.”

“But I’m to be your superior?”

“You’ll never be my superior, you wise buck.  We’ll just play a game on the occupants until we learn the lay of the land.”

“They’ll think I’m you, but who will you be?”

“I’ll be Private Rafe Harlow, your trusted advisor and friend.”

“If we’re using the same surname, we have to admit we’re brothers.”

“All right, but no one ever believes we are.”

And they weren’t, actually.  Matthew had been raised by Rafe’s parents, taken in by them after the fire when Matthew was a little boy.  Matthew’s parents had died in the tragedy, and in the chaotic aftermath, Rafe’s mother—who’d also been staying at the inn—had brought him home for what was to have been a short hiatus.

Yet no kin had ever searched for Matthew, and Mrs. Harlow had never been able to find a relative to claim him.  Or so she’d said.  She’d assumed herself to be barren, so she’d kept Matthew and reared him as her own.  Then Rafe had come along and killed her during the birthing.  Matters had gone downhill from there.

But they declared themselves to be brothers, though they were nothing alike.  They were both six feet tall, with the tough, honed stature of soldiers, but Rafe was golden blond, charming, and dashing.  Women studied him with keen interest whenever he passed by.

Matthew was handsome too, but his looks were more mature, more rough and tumble.  His hair was dark, his eyes very, very blue, and with his dangerous air of menace and daring, he was more highwayman than gentleman.  When he and Rafe stood side by side, they might have been an angel and a devil, the perfect pair for an artist to paint on a church ceiling.

“How long do I get to be a captain?” Rafe inquired.

“Probably for a day or two.  I’ll have a better feel for the place if no one’s certain of my status.”

“Can I act all arrogant and officious?”

“Yes, but if you grow too obnoxious, I’ll let you know.”

“I could never be too obnoxious.  I’m marvelous.  Ask any of the ladies.”

Matthew snorted with disgust.  “Give me your coat.”

Rafe grinned.  “Once I have, can I order you around—as you’ve always ordered me?”

“No.  Now shut up and give me your coat.

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CHAPTER ONE

“Wake up!”

Matthew Harlow heard the curt summons, but he was dreaming fitfully and couldn’t rouse himself.

It was a beautiful summer day in August, and he was napping on the ground, the grass providing a welcome cushion.  The prior evening, he’d over imbibed in a manner he normally never would, so he had a ghastly hangover.  As they’d galloped down the country road, his head had been pounding so fiercely he’d finally had to stop.

He’d found a shady spot under the bows of a huge oak tree and dozed off.

“Wake up!”

The voice came again, and he swatted with his hand and sank back into his dream.  Or perhaps he should call it a nightmare.  When he was a little boy, he’d nearly died in a fire at a coaching inn, and the memory had plagued him all his life.  It seemed to represent a great loss, the final time he’d been truly happy—though why that would be so, he couldn’t imagine.

He was trying, as usual, to escape the flames.  The halls were chaotic, people running and crying.  He reached out to someone who was hidden from view, and he stretched farther and farther, never quite able to grasp the person who was waiting for him out there in the dark.

His nostrils filled with smoke.  He couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.  He couldn’t…

“Matthew!”

He jolted to a sitting position, the details vivid enough that he expected to be three years old again and racing down the burning stairs.

But no, he was nestled under the oak.  His annoying, dashing younger brother, Rafe Harlow, was seated next to him, their horses hobbled down by the creek and munching on the grass.

“What time is it?” Matthew asked.

“I’m not a clock,” Rafe replied.  “How would I know?”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Too bloody long, and I’m sick of dawdling here, listening to you wail like a baby.  Was it the fire dream or the ship dream?”

“The fire.”

Matthew had always had bad dreams, but they generally alternated between two subjects:  a fire and a departing ship.  He and Rafe had shared a bed when they were children, so Rafe had had plenty of opportunities to witness Matthew moaning with dismay and thrashing around.

“Let’s get going,” Rafe said.  “I want this over with.”

“I don’t.”

“So you’ve claimed on a hundred different occasions.  You’re the most ungrateful lout.”

“I’m not ungrateful,” Matthew said.  “I’m…exhausted.”

“Whose fault is that?  You’ve been reveling like a man on his way to the gallows.”

“This will be difficult—the whole affair.  Our arrival.  The transfer of ownership.  I don’t have the energy, and with this hangover, I’ll probably make a mash of it.”

“You always make a mash of it.  You’re too stubborn and inflexible, so you simply bluster in and piss everyone off.”

“I wish I’d never saved a single soul.”

“You’d have rather they all drowned?”

“No,” Matthew grumbled, “but if I’d been a tad less noble, we’d still be in Europe, tending to the sort of business we understand.”

“Soldiering…”  Rafe uttered the term like an endearment, like a caress.

They were soldiers, with Rafe a lowly private and Matthew a tough, hardened captain.  He had years of valorous combat under his belt.  He wasn’t afraid of anything, never quailed or dithered, never cowered or retreated, and Rafe was learning his worst habits.

Soldiering they comprehended.  Soldiering was where they excelled.  They’d been raised in a world of men, thrived in a world of men.  It’s what they knew, what they enjoyed.  Diplomacy and tact were what eluded Matthew.  He said what he thought, spoke his mind, and deftly carried out every order and promise.

People who assumed he wouldn’t, who misjudged or underestimated him, did so at their peril.  He was too used to having his own way.

He had all the traits necessary to be a good leader, to convince men to follow him.  With his bold strength and unfailing courage, men yearned to imitate him, to be like him, but none of them could ever hope to muster his brave daring.

As to women…?

He had limited experience with women, other than the rough and tumble types in army camps and port towns.  He’d never spent much time around females, unless it was to have them perform salacious services.  His only variation had been his recent decision to keep a mistress.

Penelope Bernard was British, and he’d met her in Belgium at an officers’ soiree.  She was the daughter of an important government official, but he couldn’t see that her behavior was much different from any other trollop.

She had several scandals in her past, which was why she’d been hiding in Belgium, having been banished there by her father.  Her illicit path was widely recognized, so marriage for her wasn’t likely, and she was happy to find an idiot like Matthew to pay her bills.

He’d involved himself in a manner he’d never intended, and already, he was wondering what had possessed him.  But then, she was extremely proficient on a mattress, and a man could never discount such a boon.

“How far is it to Greystone?” he asked.

“I’m not a map either,” Rafe snapped.

“You’re a ray of sunshine today, aren’t you?”

“My hangover is worse than yours, but you don’t hear me complaining every two seconds.”

“No, you just bite my head off at every turn.”

“Well, I’m tired of you.”

“I’m tired of me too.”

Rafe pushed himself to his feet.  “Get a move on, you bloody hero.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What, hero?”

“Yes.  You know I hate all the fuss.”

“You didn’t seem to when we were standing in that cocked-up salon at the palace and everyone was cheering your name.”

Matthew rolled his eyes.  “It was pointless folderol.”

“You had every beauty in the room hanging on your arm.”

“There is that.”

“It put Penelope’s nose out of joint to see that gaggle drooling over you.”

“She needs to have her nose tweaked every so often.”

“That she does,” Rafe agreed.

For all of the life Matthew remembered, it had been just him and Rafe.  Matthew was thirty and Rafe twenty-two, with Matthew the older, wiser, tougher brother who’d watched over Rafe, protected him, and never left him behind.

With them being the only siblings in the Harlow family, Rafe had never had to share Matthew with anyone or compete for Matthew’s attention.  Rafe loathed Penelope and was jealous of Matthew’s relationship with her, but it was silly for him to fret.

She was stunningly pretty, but acted like a whore.  She was also vain and greedy, so there was much about her that was unlikable.  He suspected—if Greystone turned out to be magnificent—she’d attempt to finagle a marriage proposal out of him.

But Matthew wasn’t a fool and—should he ever wed—he’d never pick such a spoiled, immoral brat.  He’d marry for love and affection, which were things he thought he might have once had, but had lost somewhere along the way.

Rafe oozed appeal and charisma, his bravery and boldness indisputable, but he was a child at heart, and Matthew would never choose Penelope over Rafe.  Matthew’s bond with Rafe was unbreakable and eternal.

“Let’s go,” Rafe urged again.  “Since we’re unsure of how far we still have to travel, I’d rather not arrive in the dark.”

“Neither would I.”

Head pounding, Matthew stood and brushed off his clothes while Rafe readied the horses.  They mounted and rode on, the name of his new estate—Greystone—echoing with each clop of hooves.

After another hour or so, they found the front gate, a pretentious arch over the entrance, with Greystone chiseled into the stone.  They reined in and studied the lane that wound into the woods, the house not yet visible.

“Ready?” Rafe asked.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“I’ll race you.”

“We’re not racing,” Matthew scolded.  “I have no desire to gallop in like a pair of bandits bent on robbery.”

“Do you think the servants know we’re coming?”

“The place is empty.  It’s what I was told, anyway.”

“What will we do for help?”

“Rafe, we’ve lived in army camps for…what?  Fifteen years?  Twenty years?”

“Yes.”

“We can fend for ourselves for a few days.”

“I guess we’ll survive.”

“Plus, I imagine they’re all in the village, waiting to hear if I’ll keep them on.”

“Will you?”

“It depends if I like their looks or not.”

“That’s what you say about soldiers under your command.”

“It’s the same animal.”  He nodded up the lane.  “You first.”

“No, you first,” Rafe insisted.  “It’s your property.  You should lead us.”

Matthew might have presumed Rafe was being courteous, except that his words dripped with sarcasm.

Ever since the night of his alleged heroics, they’d viewed the entire brouhaha as a hilarious nuisance.  He’d been on that deserted beach by accident, watching as a ship had foundered in heavy seas, then been impaled on the sharp rocks of the coastline.  It sank quickly, water sweeping over the deck.

Passengers had started jumping into the surf and almost all of them had been women and children.  He’d always been a strong swimmer and had the courage of a lion, so he’d dove in and began rescuing people.  He’d done a fine job of it too, saving nearly everyone, with only a handful of the crew and some toddlers lost to the tempest.

Later, he learned that the ship was filled with the families of high-ranking British officers.  They’d been on their way to visit their husbands and fathers in Belgium.  And of course, three of them had turned out to be favored royal cousins.  After that discovery, Matthew’s intention to ignore the incident had evaporated.

He’d been decorated and praised and lauded until the clamor had grown embarrassing.  The last straw had been his receipt of Greystone as a reward for his valor to the Crown and the citizens of Britain.  It all seemed too much, and he’d planned to decline the gesture, but Rafe had yanked Matthew to his senses before he could make such a recklessly stupid decision.

Though no one would listen, Matthew kept insisting he’d simply behaved as any other man would have, but the honors had been foisted on him despite his protests.  His acclaim had become so pronounced that he’d finally shrugged and opted to revel in the moment.  It was interesting to have something different happen for a change, something that didn’t involve fighting and maiming and killing.

They rode into the woods, Matthew’s eyes alert, checking out the trees, the blue sky above.  The woods opened to orchards, then meadows of grass where horses grazed and frolicked.

Eventually, they rounded a bend, and it loomed in front of them.  Greystone Abbey.  It was huge, solid, constructed of grey brick and shaped like an ancient castle, with turrets—turrets!—on the corners, ivy clinging to the walls.

“There it is,” Rafe said.  “What do you think?”

Matthew struggled to exhibit nonchalance.  “It’ll do, I suppose.”

“Bloody right, you lucky bastard.”

Jaws agape, they stared and stared, taken aback by the grandeur, by the majesty.  He’d expected a sturdy house, perhaps a few fields and a manicured garden.  Not a castle fit for a king.  Not orchards and herds of cattle and horses running in the pasture.

Matthew whistled and shook his head.  “Sweet Jesu…”

“How could you have ever thought to refuse all this, Matthew?” Rafe asked.  “Are you sure this is the correct place?”

“I’m pretty sure.  We can both read.  The sign at the entrance said Greystone.  I doubt there are two such estates in this part of the country.”

“Probably not.”  Rafe glanced over at him, his impish grin infectious.  “Are you ready for this?”

“Give me a minute.”  Matthew studied the Abbey, the barns behind, the rolling hills beyond.  Clearly, the servants were still in residence.  He could see people going about their chores.

Rafe noticed the same.  “Nobody’s left.”

“No, it doesn’t appear they have.”

“If the servants are here, the Merricks are likely here too.  If they are, this could get tricky.”

“It definitely could,” Matthew agreed.

Greystone Abbey had previously been owned by a man named Harold Merrick who’d concocted a massive financial swindle.  The deceit had ultimately defrauded several of the kingdom’s most notable aristocrats, as well as the Prince Regent and Duke of York.

As a result, Mr. Merrick had forfeited everything and been jailed, having had the good sense to hang himself in his cell before he could be shipped off to the penal colonies in Australia.  His downfall had provided Matthew’s rise to prosperity, and while Matthew hated to consider Mr. Merrick’s loss, Merrick had obviously been an idiot, so no sympathy was warranted.

Yet…what about his family?  If they were skulking about, feeling aggrieved and robbed of their heritage, they wouldn’t be happy to have Matthew riding in.

“Let’s switch coats.”  Matthew said.

“What?”

“For the moment, you’ll be Captain Harlow.”

“A promotion!  Wonderful!  Will I receive an increase in wages?”

“No.”

“But I’m to be your superior?”

“You’ll never be my superior, you wise buck.  We’ll just play a game on the occupants until we learn the lay of the land.”

“They’ll think I’m you, but who will you be?”

“I’ll be Private Rafe Harlow, your trusted advisor and friend.”

“If we’re using the same surname, we have to admit we’re brothers.”

“All right, but no one ever believes we are.”

And they weren’t, actually.  Matthew had been raised by Rafe’s parents, taken in by them after the fire when Matthew was a little boy.  Matthew’s parents had died in the tragedy, and in the chaotic aftermath, Rafe’s mother—who’d also been staying at the inn—had brought him home for what was to have been a short hiatus.

Yet no kin had ever searched for Matthew, and Mrs. Harlow had never been able to find a relative to claim him.  Or so she’d said.  She’d assumed herself to be barren, so she’d kept Matthew and reared him as her own.  Then Rafe had come along and killed her during the birthing.  Matters had gone downhill from there.

But they declared themselves to be brothers, though they were nothing alike.  They were both six feet tall, with the tough, honed stature of soldiers, but Rafe was golden blond, charming, and dashing.  Women studied him with keen interest whenever he passed by.

Matthew was handsome too, but his looks were more mature, more rough and tumble.  His hair was dark, his eyes very, very blue, and with his dangerous air of menace and daring, he was more highwayman than gentleman.  When he and Rafe stood side by side, they might have been an angel and a devil, the perfect pair for an artist to paint on a church ceiling.

“How long do I get to be a captain?” Rafe inquired.

“Probably for a day or two.  I’ll have a better feel for the place if no one’s certain of my status.”

“Can I act all arrogant and officious?”

“Yes, but if you grow too obnoxious, I’ll let you know.”

“I could never be too obnoxious.  I’m marvelous.  Ask any of the ladies.”

Matthew snorted with disgust.  “Give me your coat.”

Rafe grinned.  “Once I have, can I order you around—as you’ve always ordered me?”

“No.  Now shut up and give me your coat.

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