Ashton Laytham was a happy little boy until, at the age of seven, he lost his parents. Sent to Fayerweather to be brought up by his uncle and his uncle’s wife, he was perceived to be an unhappy, unlovable child. Shunned by family and servants and permitted no friends to visit, he grows to adulthood alone and aloof, with only an occasional illicit rendezvous to lighten his days.
When his uncle dies, leaving the estate virtually bankrupt, it’s left to Ashton to make good on his uncle’s gaming debts and save Fayerweather. But how? The family talisman, worth thousands of pounds, has been stolen and the suspects vanished in the night, leaving Ashton to face the loss of the home he’s come to love.
Geo Stephenson, who works in His Majesty’s civil service, has ghosts of his own. The product of a marriage of convenience, Geo has known all his life his father never loved his mother, and he vows that will never happen to him. Marked by a physical scar earned in battle, none of his previous lovers could bear looking at it without shuddering; his mental scars are due to the many friends lost in useless battles. Geo arrives with a fistful of Sir Eustace Laytham’s IOUs and a solution: Ashton accommodating him in bed, thereby paying off the debt.
Attracted to Geo in spite of himself and desperate for any human kindness, Ashton agrees ... never expecting to lose his heart to a man who has sworn he’ll never give his. Can these two men find a measure of happiness together?
William nodded in satisfaction, then said, “Chin up, stout fellow,” and began to dig out the splinter.
Arabella clutched Arthur’s hand. “You are being so brave, Friar Tuck!”
“It ... it does not hurt very much. Honestly, Belle. I mean Maid Marian.” He bit down hard on the wood, his complexion turning green.
“Got the bugger!” William exclaimed triumphantly. Arabella clapped her hands over her ears, but she giggled.
The blood flowed freely, and I sat down abruptly, feeling lightheaded.
Arabella tore off a strip of her petticoat, dabbed at the wound, and then bound it. “Are you feeling better, Arthur?” She petted his arm.
Robin Hood gave a dramatic moan. “No! Too late! We were too late. The arrowhead must have been dipped in poison. You’ll pay for this treachery, Sheriff, you and your dastardly Prince John.” He shook his fist at me, then turned back to his youngest brother. “But for now -- Friar Tuck died an honourable death. We must give him a hero’s funeral.”
“Dying from a wound gone putrid isn’t heroic,” I grumbled.
“None of that, Sheriff. It was through your actions ... Hold on a tick. John, we need -- No, you already risked all to fetch the knife for the field surgery. I shall go in search of the valiant warrior. You lot dig the grave.”
“I don’t see why I should have to.” I kicked at a tussock of grass.
But William raced off, and as usual, the others paid me no heed, instead scraping out a shallow hole in the ground near the pond’s edge.
It seemed William was gone a good three quarters of an hour, but perhaps I had that wrong. I grew bored and wanted to visit the stable, where at least the grooms treated me well and one of the stable boys was friendly to me, but I was shouted down.
Eventually William came jogging out of the Hall.
“Sorry, chaps. Had to go ... er ... searching. See what I found.” It was a lead soldier with the Tarleton helmet of the Light Dragoons, his coat painted madder red and his collar royal blue.
“I say, that’s ... That belongs to me!” A friend of Aunt Cecily had given the set to me one Christmas, before the Scarlett brothers arrived and he realised he preferred them to me.
William sneered, not a pleasant expression, and he placed the soldier into the “grave” and tossed a handful of dirt into it. “I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord ...” He intoned with righteous zeal. His eyes took on a faraway look, and I curled my lip in disdain, but he was so wrapped in his visions of nobility that he didn’t see. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...”
Arabella sniffled. Being unable to stand, Arthur sat to attention. John stood beside him, his bugle in hand.
I sulked. It was my soldier, after all, and it had been commandeered without even a by your leave.
At Arthur’s other side stood William, his eyes lit with almost militant fervour. “Wouldn’t it be wizard to fight a final, desperate battle against overwhelming odds, chaps?”
“As Father did, Robin?”
“Yes, just as Father did!” His expression became wistful. “Father ... He lies buried in a mass grave at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras. When I fall ...”
“I shall see to it you have a hero’s send-off, Robin.” John rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“I, also,” Arthur chimed in.
“And I imagine you’ll visit his grave each year on the anniversary of when he fell and leave flowers?” I scowled, hunched a shoulder, and turned away. “What rot.”
But it would have been as well if I’d spared my breath.
“Thank you, chaps.” William cleared his throat. “Now, bugler, if you will?”
John raised his bugle to his lips and began to play “Last Post,” and I came to a reluctant halt, taken by the haunting notes in spite of myself. He drew in a breath and blew, drew in a breath and blew, and he did it so earnestly, never once hitting a sour note.
He had toyed with that bugle often and often, but this time ... It occurred to me how very beautiful he was, with his thick brown hair falling haphazardly into astonishingly blue eyes, and it was then that I tumbled helplessly, hopelessly in love with him.
But it was not until six years later, on my seventeenth birthday, when we were all down from school, that I made lo -- had John Scarlett the first time.