Tobin Scott has not been back to Hadley Green since Lily Boudine’s childhood testimony helped send his father to the gallows for stealing the valuable Ashwood jewels. Now a wealthy man, he intends to exact his revenge by destroying Ashwood and its lady. He offers Lily a choice between her life and the livelihoods of the people who depend on the estate. She chooses the former, certain she can hold his dangerous plans at bay.
Lily and Tobin’s game of one-upmanship quickly becomes a delicate dance of seduction, and she realizes he is not the cold, heartless man he tries to seem. In fact, she is certain he is right—his father was innocent. Together, they set out to find the jewels that will restore his family’s honor, and soon their unbridled passion uncovers a shocking secret that will change their lives forever.
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Hadley Green, West Sussex
Count Eberlin left London like a man with the world firmly in his grasp. His town home was in the fashionable Mayfair district and his horse was a sturdy gray Arabian he’d had delivered from Spain. He wore a coat of the finest Belgian wool, a silk shirt and neckcloth made by a renowned Italian tailor, Scottish buckskins, and Hessian boots fashioned in soft French leather. Confident and wealthy, he sat his horse like a king commanding an army.
Five hours later, he crested the hill on the main road through West Sussex. The village of Hadley Green nestled prettily in the valley below, with her thatched roof cottages, vibrantly colorful gardens, and a High Street bustling with commerce. And, very clearly, a village green.
His chest tightened painfully. He suddenly felt clammy, his skin flushed and damp, and he was strangely light-headed. Fearing he would topple right off his horse, he reigned up hard.
He’d believed the memory of what had happened there to be dead to him, but now he struggled to catch his breath as he watched children play on the green where his father had been hanged for thievery fifteen years ago.
Count Eberlin—or Tobin Scott as he’d been known then, son of Joseph Scott, the wood-carver—hadn’t traveled this road since his father’s death. He’d forgotten the lay of it and had not expected to see the green like this. He certainly hadn’t expected such a visceral reaction. He could feel the crank of rusted and disintegrated feelings awakening, though he’d believed himself to be dead inside, incapable of any sort of passion, dark or light.
As he stared at the green he was amazed that his head and his heart could trick him so. He could almost see the scaffold, could nearly smell the mutton and ale that had been sold the morning his father was executed. It was as if the carts still lined the streets beside the gallows.
A child raced across the green into the arms of a man who lifted her up and swung her high overhead.
There had been children at his father’s execution, too, playing around the edges of the green. The adults had been the spectators, come early to drink their ale and eat their mutton. Only thirteen years old at the time, Tobin hadn’t known how absurdly festive an execution could be. When his father was led across the green, the crowd, warmed by their ale, had cheerfully shouted, “Thief, bloody thief!” before taking another swig from their tankards.
He thought he’d buried the image of his father standing on that scaffold with his gaze turned toward the heavens and resigned to his fate; buried it deep in the black mud inside him, from which nothing could grow. But he saw the image again this summer day with vivid clarity. He pulled at his neckcloth, seeking relief from his sudden breathlessness.
He wasn’t supposed to have seen his father hang, naturally, for who would subject a man’s son to such horror? But precisely because he’d been thirteen, he’d disguised himself and gone to see it. Nothing could have kept him from his father’s last moments on this earth—not his grieving mother, not his despondent younger siblings. Not the reverend, who’d sought in vain to assure him that Joseph Scott would receive his forgiveness and comfort in heaven. A boy standing on the cusp of manhood, impotent in his rage, Tobin had been propelled by a primal need to be there, to witness the injustice, to have it scored into his mind’s eye and into his soul so that he would never forget, never forgive.
But until this moment, he’d thought he was irrevocably numb to it.
He dismounted and crouched down, and concentrated on finding the breath that had been snatched from his lungs. He closed his eyes and tried desperately not to replay the events of that horrific day, or to envision his father twisting all over again …
Yet the images came at him hard and fast. The day had been bright, warm, and cloudless, much like this day. Tobin had stood on a horse trough so that he could see over the heads of the onlookers, his hat pulled low over his eyes. His heart had beat out of his chest as the clergyman had offered his father a last word. His father had declined, and Tobin had been furious with him. Furious! That was his moment to shout that he’d not stolen the countess’s jewels, that he’d been unjustly accused and convicted! It was the moment he should have condemned them all for their stupidity and prejudice! But his father had remained intolerably silent.
With the crowd jeering, the clergyman had recited the Lord’s Prayer while the hangman had covered his father’s face with a black hood, then fitted the noose around his neck. He’d helped his father, as if he’d been infirm, onto the block. And then he’d kicked the block out from under his feet at the same moment that two men had hauled his father up by his neck. His father had twisted at the end of that rope, his legs kicking madly, desperately seeking purchase and finding nothing there to save him.
Thankfully, Tobin had been spared the actual end of his father because he’d fainted, and when he’d come to, the crowds had dispersed and his father had been cut down. Tobin had found himself lying on the walk, his nose bloodied from his fall, collapsed under the weight of horrific grief.
The unconscionable crime that had been committed against his family had indelibly marked his soul. He’d lost all his innocence and hopefulness. He’d been made completely immovable, blind to common emotion, incapable of sentimental feelings. If someone were to open him up, they’d see nothing but black rot oozing inside of him.
The only emotion Tobin felt anymore was revenge. And it was the reason why he’d finally returned to Hadley Green.
Tobin mounted his horse and turned onto an old, rutted road that, if memory served, skirted the village and avoided the green. As he rode along the seldom-used road beneath gnarled tree limbs and past weedy undergrowth, he recalled how the trial and his father’s execution had ruined the Scott family. Tobin, his mother, his sister, Charity, and his brother, Ruben, had become pariahs. They were the offspring of the man who’d been was accused of stealing priceless jewels from the beloved, alluring countess of Ashwood—jewels that had never been recovered, of course, because Tobin’s father had not taken them and had not been able to say where they’d gone.
Joseph Scott was a good, honest man. He’d been a master wood-carver, and with his death, his family had been left with no income. They’d become wards of the church, living on the charity of the parishioners. A proud woman, Tobin’s mother had not been able to abide the censure of a society in which she’d once been a respected member. Nor could she abide charity. So she’d decided to move her family to London a few weeks after her husband’s death.
On the day they’d carried their bags to the center of town and awaited the London coach, the Ashwood coach, with its red plumes and gold scrolls, had rolled down High Street and come to a stop outside a cluster of shops. As the Scotts had watched, a liveried coachman had opened the door, and out hopped Miss Lily Boudine in a pale blue frock. Her black shoes were polished to a sheen, and her hair was held up with the sort of velvet ribbons that Charity had coveted through the window of Mrs. Langley’s Dress Shop. Lily Boudine had waited for the coachman to hand down a woman who Tobin knew to be her governess, then she eagerly took the woman’s hand, bouncing a little as she’d tugged her along, smiling and pointing at the confectioner’s shop.
His heart had beat painfully at the sight of the girl, fueled by his rage and hatred. She was the ward of the countess, the lone witness who’d claimed to see his father at Ashwood the night the jewels went missing. Liar. To think of all the days he’d spent in that girl’s company while his father had built a staircase at Ashwood so grand that people came from miles about to see it. Tobin had been his father’s assistant, but there were days when his father had sent him out with the girl with strict instructions for Tobin to occupy her. Lily was five years younger than he, younger than even Charity, and Tobin had chafed at being made to play games with her. But he’d done it, had been her playmate, her companion, her servant.
In return, she’d told the magistrate she’d seen his father riding away from Ashwood the night of the theft—in the dark, in the rain, but she was certain it was Joseph Scott because of the horse. The moment she’d uttered the words, there’d been no hope for his father.
And then Lily Boudine had come to the village for a sweetmeat while he and his family had waited for the public coach that would take them from the only home they’d ever known.
She’d lived in luxury while his family had lived in two rooms near the notorious crime-ridden area of St. Giles. His mother had taken in sewing, squinting through the smoky haze of burning peat to see her tiny stitches. It was a mean existence for a family that had once enjoyed a good standard of living, and the change in their circumstance had soon taken its toll. Tobin’s young brother Ruben had died their first spring in London, when the filth of the rookery had spread through the streets in the form of a wasting fever. His mother had followed soon after.
Tobin was just fourteen and his sister eleven when their mother had died. Even now, he could recall the panic he’d felt at what would become of them. The worry had made him ill; he’d been unable to keep what little food they’d had in his belly. “You cannot die!” Charity had shrieked as she’d clung to his arm. “If you die, what will happen to me, Tobin? If you die, I shall die, too!”
Her frantic plea had given him the strength he’d needed to rise up, to press on. He’d thought of everyone in Hadley Green, warm in their beds with enough food to eat, with fuel for their hearths and candles to light their way, and he’d decided then that one day, he would avenge his family.
With only a few coins to his name, Tobin had taken Charity to a dress shop and bought her a good, serviceable gown. He’d then taken her to church. The rector, a wizened old man with tufts of silver hair in his ears, had squeezed Tobin’s shoulder with his liver-spotted hand. “We’ll find a place for her as a chambermaid, have no doubt,” he’d said. “The Ladies Beneficent Society is quite taken with orphans.”
Tobin hadn’t known what that meant, precisely, and his fists had curled as the vicar led Charity away. She’d looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes wide with fear. He’d promised his sister he would return for her as soon as he could, but that day, standing in the narthex, he’d had no idea how or when he would come for her.
As thin as a beanstalk, as dumb as a blade of grass, he’d risen up and pressed on, striking out on his own and surviving by sheer luck.
Naturally, he’d made his way to the docks, for what would a boy with no prospects do but dream of a different life in a different land? He’d had his size—tall with broad shoulders—and the fact that he could read and write and figure sums to recommend him. He’d planned to hire onto one of the three-masted merchant ships, but he’d been robbed and beaten almost senseless by some sailors who’d spotted an easy target. He’d come to when someone had hauled him up by the scruff of his collar, and a florid, fleshy face had danced before him. Tobin had swung out, connecting with nothing, and the man had chuckled. He’d examined Tobin with small, dark eyes. “Calm yourself, lad. You’ve been soundly beaten, but not by me.”
That had been painfully obvious to Tobin. His hat was gone, his jaw ached, and his pockets turned inside out.
“Can you cook?” the man had asked.
“No,” Tobin had said, his voice breaking.
Tobin had been confused. Why would he say aye when it wasn’t true?
“Come now, say aye,” the man had said again, giving Tobin a good shake.
“Aye,” Tobin had said, bewildered.
“Very good. You’ll be my helper in exchange for a berth and food and five pounds at the end of the voyage.”
Only then had Tobin realized he was in a ship’s galley.
“Ethan Bolger’s me name,” the man had said. “I’m the cook on this ship. Most calls me Bolge. And what be your name, young man?”
“Tobin. Tobin Scott.”
“Ah, Scottie, you’ll make a fine apprentice, you will,” Bolge had declared as he’d dropped Tobin to the floor. “You can start with chopping the carrots.”
That was how Tobin had begun his life at sea. For two years he’d sailed the seas with Ethan Bolger, chopping carrots and stirring big vats of ship’s stew. For two years, he’d stood by the tables of officers and poured their wine, absorbing everything he could about the English merchant trade.
He’d seen dozens of ports. He’d walked through crowded markets, past snake charmers and silk merchants, spice traders and hashish pipes. He’d seen people unlike any he’d ever seen before, people whose skin was as black as night, whose eyes were round or angled, who dressed in clothing as colorful as rainbows, and spoke in languages that had sometimes sounded lyrical and other times harsh.
He’d seen women, beautiful women! Redheads, brunettes, and golden-haired. Women with big bosoms, small bosoms, and generous bottoms, thin and tall, women with blue eyes, green eyes, brown eyes, black eyes. All of them intriguing, all of them enticing, all of them beckoning a young man.
Tobin had learned that men valued power above all else, and he’d learned about muskets in Cairo. A small melee had broken out when French sailors had come running to the aid of their countryman in the souk one day. The Frenchman had been trying to trade two crates of guns. A thought had occurred to Tobin: there had been war on the Continent for as long as he could recall. He’d never thought of the armaments that must be needed to wage war, and it had seemed to him a brilliant sort of trade. There’d always be a need for it.
He’d purchased his first crate of guns there in Cairo with the money he’d saved from his meager wages. He’d sold the crate to a French mercenary a month later and had agreed to bring more.
That was ten years ago, yet it seemed an entire lifetime now. He’d survived seasickness, survived men who’d wanted his purse. He’d survived being chased by pirates, being fired upon by the French navy, and weather that had been stirred up by Satan himself. He’d survived, and he’d learned how to trade.
He’d also learned that men who made their living from war were seldom loyal to country or women, but they were loyal to conflict and guns. He’d made a bloody fortune and now owned five frigates that ran guns between Europe and North Africa. He’d led an exciting life full of danger and intrigue, beautiful women, and fine living.
Yet it was not enough. Nothing seemed to fill the hole that his father’s hanging had burned in his heart. Nothing could redress the suffering of his family from that false accusation.
In the spring of 1802, Tobin had rescued Charity from a life of cleaning the piss from rich people’s pots. She was now mistress of his grand Mayfair town home. He lavished her with gowns and jewels, and while Charity appreciated his efforts, they’d come too late for her. She’d borne a daughter out of wedlock, and society discounted her because of her humble beginnings, her mean occupation, and her bastard child. There was no amount of money that could remove the censure society heaped on women like Charity.
The only thing that might have redeemed his sister had been to lend her some legitimacy. If Tobin had had a title, he’d believed it would have given her entry into at least some quarter of society. Obtaining a title might have seemed impossible to any other man, but he’d been determined that society would never dictate the course of their future again.
So he’d gone out and bought a title.
In truth, it had fallen into his lap. A minor Danish count, Lord Eberlin, had arranged for Tobin to bring him enough guns to equip a small army but had not been able to pay. Tobin had been infuriated. He’d delivered the arms at considerable risk to himself and his company, and he would not be hoodwinked.
As it had happened, the people of Denmark had been in the throes of internal turmoil. Old acts of entitlement had been giving way to the popular will of the people and a desire for serfs to be landowners in their own right—just like the French had done a generation before. Tobin had seized on that knowledge and had assured Eberlin he could make his life quite difficult. And then he’d made him an offer he hadn’t possibly been able to refuse—a generous payment for his estate and his title.
The former Count Eberlin had taken what money he’d had and decamped to Barbados. It had taken only a generous endowment to the courts in Copenhagen to turn a blind eye to the deal and transfer Count Eberlin’s small estate and title to Tobin. He’d kept dissension among the tenants to a minimum by giving arable parcels outright to the serfs who had tilled the count’s land for decades. As a result, the estate was now little more than forest and manor.
Tobin didn’t care about the estate; what mattered to him was England. He was now a count in an English society that was rather sensitive to titles and entitlements. He’d accomplished the impossible—he’d become one of them.
In the winter of 1807, the newly minted Count Eberlin had returned to London to spend Christmas with his sister. Over dinner one evening, she’d told him that the old earl of Ashwood had died.
“Good riddance,” Tobin had scoffed, and gestured for a liveried footman to fill his wineglass.
“He left no heir, you know,” Charity had said.
Tobin had shrugged.
“Miss Lily Boudine is now his closest kin, so she has been named countess and inherits the whole of Ashwood.”
That had gained Tobin’s undivided attention. He’d looked up from the goose that graced the Limoges china plates.
“Imagine,” Charity had said as she’d picked up her wineglass, “that she, of all people, should find herself a countess after all these years.”
The news had made Tobin’s blood run cold. He’d thought of the injustices she’d heaped on him with her lie, a lie that still festered in him like a septic wound. And he’d come back to Hadley Green to right that wrong, once and for all.
The memories kept Tobin so lost in thought that he didn’t realize where he was until Tiber Park rose up majestically before him. He reined up for a long look at the place. It was as he recalled it—a monolith, too big for anyone but a king to maintain, abandoned for the want of cash.
Sometimes it seemed to Tobin that God had all but divined him here. It was a fluke that he should have remembered this place at all, but quite by coincidence, Tobin had hired an Irishman to breed a premier racehorse for him. When his agent had told him that the Irishman would breed the mare at Kitridge Lodge in West Sussex, it had almost been as if the heavens had set the stage for him. Of course Tobin knew of Kitridge Lodge; his father had worked there when Tobin was a boy. It had reminded Tobin that there were several mansions in West Sussex, and he’d wondered …
As soon as he’d completed the purchase of Tiber Park, work had begun on the estate. He was pleased to see the progress thus far. The white stone had been cleaned of grime and soot, and construction was under way on two new wings that, appended to the existing house, would form a square around the lush gardens. He’d ordered European rugs and furnishings for it, had bought generations of art collections from estate auctions. He’d bartered for SÈvres porcelain fixtures and Gobelins tapestries, and even eighteenth-century French furnishings from a displaced member of the French aristocracy trying desperately to maintain his life of privilege in England. Tobin had ordered orange trees from Spain to fill the orangery, and had retained a head gardener who subscribed to the philosophy and techniques of the late but notable Capability Brown. No expense would be spared in building Tiber Park into the jewel of West Sussex.
As the power of the Ashwood wealth and name had destroyed his family fifteen years ago, Tobin would use the power of his wealth and name to destroy Ashwood and its new countess, Lily Boudine.
© 2012 Dinah Dinwiddie