London – June 1815
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After all his years spent on one side of the war-torn continent or the other, with only a slight respite the previous year from all the death and destruction, Lieutenant Tristan Avery was finally home. Home, with all of London’s once familiar sights, sounds and, of course, the smell that could only be the Thames.
He glanced across the hired hack at his brother and shook his head. “I wish Philip was here.”
Captain Russell Avery agreed with a nod. “Me too. But the surgeon promised Philip would be fine. He won’t be too far behind us.” Then he smirked. “So, I suppose we’ll simply have to make do without his preaching for the next while or so.”
Preaching. Russell’s euphemism for their childhood friend’s stoic, moral nature. “If you’d only behave, he’d have no reason to suggest you do otherwise.”
Russell laughed. “And what a boring life that would be. No, no, no. I intend to enjoy my return to civilization one pretty woman at a time.”
As though Russell had gone without female companionship the last few years. The last few nights was more like it. Still Tristan couldn’t help but needle his brother. “So relieved to hear you’ve decided to end things with the Greywood chit. I lamented having to look upon her during all of our future family gatherings.”
Russell’s smile faded and he heaved a sigh. “Don’t start again. Phoebe is perfectly fine.”
“I wouldn’t think perfectly fine would be all one wanted in a wife,” Tristan replied, then he shrugged. “But then I’m not the one getting married.” Or the one who’d had his way with more women than he could count all across the continent the last half dozen years either. Well, Tristan had enjoyed his fair share of women, but he wasn’t betrothed. Though in all honesty, Russell hadn’t been either until last year.
“Well, I’m not married yet.” Russell leaned forwards on his bench. “Why don’t we stop of at Madam Palmer’s for old time’s sake?”
Whores so early in the day? Tristan gaped at his brother as though he’d lost his mind. “I would like to see our sister.”
Russell dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. “We can see her any time.”
“And our nephew,” Tristan continued. “I would like to see little Julian. Clayworth probably has him reciting lines from the Magna Carta by now.”
Russell rolled his eyes. “We were gone less than four months. I’m sure the little imp isn’t even out of his bassinet, yet.”
Four months, but it felt like four lifetimes. Tristan frowned at his brother, hating that Russell had a point. Still, they had yet to lay eyes on the infant, born during this last campaign. He’d missed so much in his absence. He missed London. He missed his dear sister. He missed… everything. “Do what you like,” he muttered. After all, Russell would do what he wanted anyway, no matter what Tristan thought about it. “But I am heading to Clayworth House, and I’m not going to let Cordie or her little bundle out of my sight all day.”
“Well, that sounds perfectly dreadful.” Russell yawned as though the subject bored him immensely. “But you can take my bag with you, I’ll be otherwise occupied.” He closed his eyes and leaned against the shabby squabs. “I plan to be welcomed home in an altogether different fashion.”
“Madam Palmer’s?” Tristan asked, even though he knew the answer.
A rakish grin settled on Russell’s lips. “I have missed English girls.”
Yet they’d only been gone less than four months, and he’d had plenty of foreign girls to tide him over in the meantime. Before Tristan could say as much, the hack jerked to a stop. Tristan smiled as the familiar sight of their sister’s home on Hertford Street appeared through the window. He tossed open the door and bounded out onto the walk.
“Toss me both bags, will you?” he called to the driver.
“What about the captain?”
Tristan shook his head. “He’ll get your fare. He’s headed to Covent Garden.”
The driver’s brow lifted in surprise, then he snorted as though the situation was no matter to him. A moment later he tossed both bags to Tristan, tipped his hat in farewell, and urged his pair of bays back towards Park Lane.
Tristan slung both bags over his left shoulder and climbed the steps to Clayworth House. The door opened before he could knock and Higgins, his sister’s usually stoic butler, beamed at him.
“Lieutenant, you’re home!” the servant gushed as he held the door wide. “Lady Clayworth will be so relieved to see you!”
Tristan stepped over the threshold and lowered both bags to the marble floor. “I will be happy to see her too, Higgins. Do tell me she’s here.”
“Of course, sir, of course. Right in there.” The butler gestured to the formal green parlor, directly to Tristan’s right. “Shall I announce you?”
“No.” Tristan shook his head. “I think I’ll surprise her.”
“Very good, Lieutenant. I’ll have you put in your usual room.” Higgins glanced at the pair of bags at Tristan’s feet. “Is Captain Avery with you as well?”
“He’ll be along soon, I’m sure,” Tristan replied as he made his way to the parlor entrance. Just as he stepped over the threshold, a stream of giggles reached his ears. Damn it, Cordie wasn’t alone. Even worse, he knew that giggle.
But before he had time to think on it, Cordie spotted him. She squealed, leapt off the settee, and raced across the parlor, throwing her arms around his neck. “Oh, Tris!” Her hold tightened around him. “I’ve never been so glad to see anyone,” she whispered, just for his ears.
Tristan held her close, so very relieved to be home. He kissed Cordie’s cheek, then set her away from him so he could look her over. “Motherhood agrees with you.” And truly she did look more radiant than ever.
“Oh!” Cordie beamed at him. “Julian is sleeping, but I can’t wait for you to see him.”
“I could peek in the nursery,” Tristan suggested.
But his sister shook her head, her dark brown curls swaying with the movement. “You’ll wake him and then he’ll be fussy. And I want you to see him at his most charming.”
Tristan was certain the child could scream his lungs out and he’d still find the tiny baron charming. He glanced over his sister’s shoulder and found Miss Phoebe Greywood, her hands folded in front of her, standing beside a high-back chair. “Miss Greywood,” he said curtly, because he had to say something.
A forced smile settled on her face as she met his gaze. “Lieutenant,” she returned. “So glad you’ve returned home safely.”
The little liar. She’d have been just as happy if Tristan had fallen to his death in Belgium. They’d never cared for each other, but she seemed to be making an effort at least. “Thank you. You are looking lovely.”
That, at least, was the truth. Phoebe Greywood might annoy him at every turn, but she was lovely. Rich auburn hair piled high on her head with delicate tendrils framing her heart-shaped face. Pretty azure eyes that twinkled when she was happy, not that she was generally happy in Tristan’s presence, but he’d seen her often enough with Russell. And an enchanting smile that lit her countenance, making her seem the cheeriest of girls.
“Thank you, sir. Is…” Miss Greywood cleared her throat. “Is Captain Avery with you?”
Tristan shook his head. “Not at the present.”
“Where is Russell?” Cordie asked, a slight tone of petulance to her voice.
Presently? About to get his knob polished, if Tristan had to wager a guess, not that he could say as much to his sister or his brother’s intended. His eyes flashed again to Phoebe Greywood. She looked so hopeful, so… innocent. Poor girl. She had no idea what she was truly in for after she married Russell. Her days of wondering where the scoundrel captain was were just beginning. “He had something to attend to. I’m certain he’ll be along as soon as he can.” Then he turned his attention back to his sister. “But Philip…”
The color drained from Cordie’s face. “Oh, no, Tris! Tell me he’s all right.”
Tristan winced a bit. “He’ll live,” he stressed the word. “He took a ball and a bayonet. His leg is bad, I won’t lie to you, but he’s getting stronger everyday.”
“Oh, good heavens.” Cordie touched a hand to her heart. “They didn’t take his leg?”
“No,” Tristan assured her. “The surgeon says he’ll have to use a cane the rest of his days, but he’ll walk again.”
Relief settled across Cordie’s features, but she still looked slightly pained. “The poor man.”
Indeed. Tristan agreed with a nod. “I still don’t think it comes close to the pain in his heart though.”
His sister heaved a sigh. “Let’s not dredge that back up. Livvie never meant to hurt him and what’s done is done.”
Tristan shrugged. “I’m not dredging anything up. I’m just worried about him. If you get the chance to see him when he returns, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.”
Cordie nodded, then her face lit up with a smile once again. “Oh, Tris. I’m so glad to see you whole and hale.”
And though Tristan would like to spend the afternoon reminiscing with his dear sister, he’d really rather not spend anymore time than was necessary in Phoebe Greywood’s presence. He felt slightly dirty lying to her about his brother’s whereabouts, and he’d rather not suffer the feeling the rest of the day. “Is Clayworth in? Or is he at his club?”
Cordie gestured to the corridor. “He’s in his study. Do you want me to find you when Julian awakes?”
Tristan flashed her a grin. “I would be quite sore with you if you didn’t.”