The Captain and His Innocent(10)

By: Lucy Ashford

 ‘That’s true.’ Luke paused in eating his meal. ‘Their family lines are guarded as thoroughly as their fortunes, to prevent interlopers from getting any of their money.’

 ‘That’s exactly what I thought. Has the girl taken his fancy, do you think?’

 Luke let out a bark of laughter at that. ‘Highly improbable. They say Lord Franklin hasn’t touched a woman since his wife died ten years ago—and he wasn’t overfond of her, by all accounts.’

 Jacques smiled. ‘So a liaison of some sort is out of the question. But why did he go to the trouble of bringing her to England? And why—having claimed her as his responsibility—would he banish her to Bircham Hall?’

 ‘When I have the answers, I’ll be glad to share them with you.’

 ‘Indeed,’ the Frenchman said. ‘So you’re going to make enquiries, are you? Should I perhaps begin to wonder if this French demoiselle of Lord Franklin’s is more interesting than you say?’

 Luke savoured his wine before putting the glass down. ‘Totally uninteresting,’ he said. ‘Too young and too proud, I imagine. Besides, I have more than enough to deal with at the moment.’

 ‘With your estate and your farms? I hope I sense optimism?’

 Just then Mrs Bartlett came bustling in to clear away the used dishes, and Tom and the Wattersons stated their intention of carrying out their usual evening tasks. Luke sat back in his chair and took his time answering Jacques’s question. ‘I’m not sure if it’s optimism, or foolishness. I’ve found some new tenants for the farms—but do you know how much the price of English grain has dropped in the last year? I’ll be keeping the men busy, it’s true, but it might all be for nothing.’

 ‘You’re not wishing you’d married your heiress?’

 ‘Hardly. That ended almost three years ago. She’s marrying someone else in spring—someone her father considers far more suitable—although my tenants might wish I had her money to throw around.’

 Jacques shook his head. ‘You’re giving them something better than money, Luke. You’re giving them hope, and you’ve got to remember that.’

 Luke looked around bleakly. ‘I’m postponing bankruptcy, that’s all. I must by now have sold off everything of value that’s ever belonged to my family.’

 ‘You can still fight for your family’s honour. Not with sword or pistol, it’s true—but you know as well as I there are other ways. I’m going back to France tomorrow—and if your brother’s still alive, I will find him, I swear.’

 Tom Bartlett came in, with more logs for the fire. ‘You’re talking about the captain’s brother?’ he said eagerly. ‘Who knows—he might even turn up here one day, right out of the blue. I can just see it, Captain Luke—he’ll ride up the track, bold as ever, and tell us all his adventures, just like he used to.’

 Jacques nodded approvingly. ‘That’s the spirit. Let’s raise our glasses to the captain’s brother. Let’s wish him a safe journey home!’

 ‘To Anthony,’ they echoed. ‘A safe return.’

 * * *

 Gradually, the fire died down. Midnight came and went; they talked of battles they’d fought and comrades they’d known until at last, knowing they must rise well before dawn, they went off to their beds.

 All of them except Luke.

 The big house was quiet enough now for him to hear the whisper of the wind in the trees outside and the faint hiss of the waves breaking on the long shingle beach below the cliffs. Somewhere in the distance a nightbird called.

 He went to stir the embers of the fire, lifting the metal poker with his maimed right hand by mistake. Fool. Fool. The heavy implement clattered on the hearth. He picked the poker up almost savagely with his left hand and jabbed at the logs until they roared into life.

 Damn it. He was of no use to anyone, least of all to himself. He ripped off the black leather glove and stared at the two stumps where his fingers had been. The scars had almost healed, and as for the ache of the missing joints—well, he was used to it.

 What he could not grow used to was the feeling that his younger brother—who’d relied on him, who’d trusted him—was lost for good. Was dead, like the others. By hoping that Anthony had somehow survived, he’d made the final blow ten times as bad for himself.

 Again and again during these last few months, he’d cursed his injured hand, because it had stopped him sailing to France with Jacques and hunting the coast for clues or answers. He couldn’t use a pistol, or a sword; wasn’t even much use at helping sail a ship. But perhaps Fate was telling him that he should turn his mind to other matters.

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