One year later
My dearest Wesley,
I know I once said there was nothing more beautiful than a blue, cloud-filled sky. I was wrong. There is something far more magnificent . . . knowing I share that sky with you. Whenever I wish to feel closer to you, I just look up.
Perched on the window seat, her knees drawn up to her chest, Ellie shifted her focus from the rain slanting in sideways sheets upon the pavement, a deluge that left her stuck indoors, to the couple curled up beside one another on the green button-back velvet-upholstered Chesterfield sofa.
Cailin lay with her head on Courtland's lap and her legs flung over the rolled arm, reading from a letter, while Courtland remained with one hand stroking the top of his wife's head, and the other holding whatever title it was on fossils that so fascinated him and Cailin.
Ellie forced her gaze away from the bucolic tableau they presented: a happily married couple, with the young wife's belly gently rounded from where their first babe rested.
Courtland and Cailin had been gracious. Certainly more gracious than she deserved, or than her machinations had merited.
But Ellie had been obliged to acknowledge one sad truth-her relationship with the pair had been forever altered. Following his marriage, and the pained lecture he'd doled out after he'd learned the truth about Ellie's involvement in his ruination, he'd stopped joining her in her gameplay, and instructed her to cease looking at the world as a battlefield plan there for Ellie to arrange.
And that proved the greatest regret of her life.
It shouldn't matter. Ultimately, in the end, all children were forced to hang up their scabbards and put away their wood pistols and swords and swap those pretend games for all that came with real life.
Absently, Ellie traced a fingertip over the window.
". . . what is it, love? You've those frown lines you get here," Courtland was saying as he touched the place between Cailin's eyebrows. "When you are upset." With those quiet murmurings, his words revealed an intimate knowing of the woman he'd wed, and Ellie found herself more than half longing for that.
Alas, she lifted the book from her lap and raised it to her face, giving the couple the privacy she ought, feeling like the worst sort of interloper.
A streak of lightning lit up a dark sky which would have better suited the night.
". . . my brother . . ." Cailin was saying. ". . . Wesley . . ."
A sharp crack of thunder rumbled the foundations of the house, shaking the windowpanes.
Ellie lost her grip on the book.
It landed on the floor with a less-than-subtle thwack that briefly interrupted her brother and his wife's conversation as two sets of eyes swung her way.
"Dropped my book," she explained, unnecessarily. "Lost my hold on the pages. The storm, of course. That sounded as if the lightning strike was close."
Her brother and Cailin stared at her.
"Not that I'm afraid of storms," she blurted. "I'm not." Except that was a lie. "That scared. I-" You are rambling. Stop rambling. You are not a rambler. Anything but. Ellie cleared her throat noisily and, leaning down, rescued her book. "I haave it!" she exclaimed needlessly, and then promptly cringed inside. Snapping the pages open, she quickly brought the volume back into place before her face.
"I see that," Courtland called over. "You . . . uh . . . may wish to turn it ar-" Ellie promptly flipped it right side up. "-ound," her brother completed that word and droll response.
Dedicating all her attentions and energies on her book, Ellie made a show at reading; all the while, her ears remained keenly focused on the parts and pieces of the discussion her brother and Cailin had resumed.
". . . heartbreaking . . . not so much as a word from her . . ." Cailin said, her voice catching with tears, and Ellie flipped the unread page noisily. ". . . she will not write him. She will not answer his notes. What am I to say when he asks?" Ellie's sister-in-law was saying. "That according to our brother Hunter, the woman you are in love with is the darling of Staffordshire?"
Ellie went completely motionless.
The woman he . . . loved? Her organ in her chest forgot its job was to beat. As in, Wesley Audley was in love with-
". . . that she's enjoying herself at all the local soirees while you are risking life and limb to keep England safe from that French frog?"
As in Wesley Audley was in love with a woman wholly undeserving of him and his love.
Hatred and jealousy mingled, and together, soured her tongue like the vinegar rag her father had advised her nursemaid to stuff in Ellie's mouth for using words he'd deemed inappropriate for a lady to utter.
He was . . . in love.
In all this time since they'd met lakeside, she'd thought of him. And more, she'd thought of him-and her-together.
Granted, he was more than a dozen years her senior, but she was no longer a child, and with every passing day where he was gone, she'd become a young lady, and he was to return and notice that she was no longer a gangly child.
Just . . . a gangly woman.
But neither would that matter, because he'd said that day at the lake she'd spirit and strength, and a skill with a sword that he'd admired, and-
Ellie gripped her book hard, her fingernails digging sharply into the soft leather and leaving crescent marks upon the cover and back.
The housekeeper appeared and dipped a curtsy to Cailin. "If I might speak to you, Your Grace, about the latest changes to the menu."
The latest changes, because with Cailin increasing in pregnancy and queasy from it, every meal was constantly changing.
As Cailin came to her feet, she offered a wave and smile to Ellie, which she quickly returned.
"I'll return shortly, love," the duchess said to her husband. She tipped her head up to receive Courtland's kiss.
Ellie hurriedly averted her attention from that intimate exchange.
The moment Cailin had followed Mrs. Dumfrees, Courtland returned to his book.
"Who was Cailin speaking about?" Ellie asked after her sister-in-law had gone, and she and Courtland remained alone.
Her eldest brother glanced over the top of his pages and looked confusedly her way.
Be breezy. You are breezy. "The woman who is not writing the lieutenant."
Courtland scrubbed a hand over his mouth.
For an instant, she thought he would not answer. For an instant, she thought he'd rightly point out her past actions barred her from possession of intimate details that did not explicitly involve her.
Though, in this case . . . they did. Her brother just did not know it.
"She also happens to be the young woman who urged him to go to his father, the Duke of Bentley, so he could make a better life for himself." Her brother's jaw hardened. "A better life, which in her mind included wealth and land, and attaining everything she could through his commission in the army."
The reason he'd joined the military, and risked his life even now, was a woman?
Ellie's chest tightened in an odd way, in a way she'd never believed it would or could because of a man, and yet now it did at the thought of the dashing Lieutenant Audley courting another woman who was decidedly not Ellie.
Courtland started to rise.
Ellie quickly stayed him with another question. "Do you know her?"
He stared confusedly at her.
"The young woman," she clarified.
Her brother shook his head. "Only that her name is Claire Sparrow. Her father is a part owner of the Cheadle mines with Hunter."
The second-eldest Audley sibling, following Rafe. Wesley and Cailin were the youngest.
"She has not bothered to write Wesley in all the time he's been off fighting."
Pain knifed away at Ellie's heart this time for unselfish reasons: because of the hurt he knew, and all for a woman who couldn't appreciate Wesley for the man he was.
There came a flurry of footfalls, and they both looked up. Cailin's lady's maid, Sara, rushed into the room, breathless.
Ashen, Courtland jumped up. "The duchess-?"
"Is fine," the young woman hurried to reassure him. "Her Grace was accompanying Mrs. Dumfrees, who was discussing the menu, and the duchess . . ."-Sara's cheeks pinkened-"fell ill in the hallway."
Ellie grimaced. Tossed her biscuits, Cailin had done. As the poor expecting mother was always doing, everywhere, these days.
"She told me I should not send for you, Your Grace, but I thought you should-"
"I am glad you did," Courtland interrupted, hastening to the door, leaving Ellie alone with only the silence of the room . . . and-her gaze inched over to the hastily abandoned area her brother and his wife had occupied-Wesley's letters.
She dampened her mouth.
It is none of your affair . . .
It is absolutely none of your affair.
Not even a bit.
That was, aside from the fact that Ellie was head over heels in love with the lieutenant.
Her book forgotten, Ellie absently set it down beside her, and came slowly to her feet.
Keeping her eyes on the doorway, she inched over and stopped beside the note.
None of your affair. None of your affair. None . . .
Of its own volition, her gaze slid down, landing on that folded note.
Good, a person could not read a folded note. The only way to do so would be to pick it up, and open it, and well, Ellie certainly had more than enough restraint.
Or . . . she thought she did.
Just not where matters of Wesley Audley were concerned.
With a silent curse, her fingers dove for the page, and she quickly snapped it open and proceeded to read.
My dear sister,
I write this missive hoping to find you and Courtland
and your unborn babe are each faring well. I am eager for the day I return, and hope it is one day soon where I am able to see your expanded family.
Ellie finished and turned the note over.
There was no mention of Ellie.
He did not so much as ask after her.
Not that she expected he should or would. Ellie was, after all, just another one of Courtland's many siblings.
She snapped the note shut and returned the letter to where Cailin had left it.
That, however, didn't mean Ellie didn't . . . hope that he thought of her in some way.
Though, knowing his heart was otherwise engaged-and by a woman so completely unworthy of him-it made sense why he should not.
And she was stunned to discover, she wasn't so very selfish as to want him at any cost. She wanted him alive and happy. Even if it meant, when he returned from war, he would belong to another woman.
Balling her hands into tight fists, Ellie squeezed and un-squeezed them; all the while she waged a silent war with herself. "Bloody hell," she exclaimed into the quiet of the parlor, and then, sitting down at Cailin's writing station, Ellie availed herself of a sheet of parchment and a pen.
Dipping it into an inkwell pot, she proceeded to write.
My dearest Wesley,
You must forgive me for the delay in my writing. My father discovered your notes. My only course, our only course, is to send our correspondences through a location where they're sure to not be discovered.
North bank of the Thames
Two Years Later
I do not want you to worry after me or about me, or my undying love or regard for you. My only want, my only wish, is for you to focus on the battles you are fighting, so that one day, you may come back to me.
Captain Wesley Audley hadn't died on the mud-soaked battlefields of Belgium.
He was one of the lucky ones.
Or that was what they said, anyway. That was what they thought.
The docked ship that had carried Wesley back to England rocked gently on the channel.
He clenched his eyes tightly.
Nobody knew a goddamned thing about anything. Especially people who'd never set foot upon a battlefield.
But Wesley knew.
Just like every other man who'd ever been lanced with the blade of a bayonet, or taken a bullet through his flesh, Wesley knew death was easy.
It was living after sustaining those injuries that truly challenged a man.
One might as well be dead. For people didn't speak to you. They spoke about you and over you. It mattered not that Wesley had risen from mere lieutenant to captain, commander of his own forces. Or that he'd placed himself between Wellington, saving the great commander in chief's life.
When a man fell in battle, and lost the use of his limbs, he became useless to society. Those downed warriors became broken objects people either ignored, or worse, sought to fix. Never once did those people bother to seek the soldier's input.
Nay, men marched to war as powerful warriors and returned-in the eyes of all-nothing more than a feeble child.
Perhaps that was because they knew if they asked every man wounded in battle, they'd order you to let them die, instead of facing . . . this.
Lying flat on his back on a litter, his eyes closed, Wesley waited for the men he now relied upon to get him . . . anywhere. Waiting for them to carry him. Waiting for them to speak about him, and this time clinging to those voices to distract himself from the fiery pain that racked his body.
". . . I have been sent by His Grace," someone was saying.
It was an unfamiliar voice.
A somber, commanding one.
His father had sent someone to retrieve him.
What did you expect? You are a duke's by-blow and now a broken by-blow at that. Did you think he would have rushed to collect you?
No, but he had expected at the very least, Rafe would come to collect him. In his mind, Wesley had braced himself for the reunion with his eldest brother.
And he'd dreaded it.
Because he didn't want to be presented with the evidence of his brother's virility and intactness when he himself was so broken and battered-his leg mangled.
But his brother had a life of his own now. One that didn't even involve the Cheadle mining village where they'd grown up and worked. Rather, Rafe had since married and had a family of his own and a life . . . in London. Why should he abandon all that to come and gather up his crippled brother?
Copyright © 2024 by Christi Caldwell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.