“‘Dear Sir, it has come to my attention, by way of a most distressing yet undeniable order, that we are to be married. As I find arranged marriages to be both archaic and tantamount to a glorified stud service—’ ”
Eamon broke off with a choked laugh. “ ‘Glorified stud service’? This must be in jest,” he said to his brother.
Aidan was less amused. His mouth flattened into a grimace. “I fear it is not.”
Still gaping, Eamon turned the letter over to read the address once more. It had come in the morning’s post, addressed to Aidan. And Aidan had brought it directly to him with the usual order to “read it.”
The sender was Lady Luella Jane Moran, the name written in childish and rather florid script. Luella? She sounded like a nightmare.
“You are really to be married to this girl?” Eamon asked. “How old is the chit?”
Aidan sighed and ran a hand through his yellow curls. “Sixteen. And yes. Father told me a fortnight ago.” He scowled and paced over to the fire. At nineteen, Aidan was still shorter than Eamon, who was seventeen, but his body moved with quick assurance whereas Eamon bumbled about, still trying to adjust to his overly large frame.
“Apparently, when Father went down to London a few months back, Lord Edward Moran, Earl of Ballyloch, saved Father’s life during a gaming brawl. In return, Father offered him a boon. Ballyloch took it in the form of an arranged marriage between his firstborn and father’s.”
Eamon fingered the edge of the fine linen paper. It smelled vaguely of lavender and horse. “Rather odd, considering Ballyloch is a lord. I’d reckon he’d rather marry his daughter off to a titled gentleman, no offense.”
Aidan gave a small smile at that, but tension still had hold of him. “None taken.”
“Not to mention that we’re Irish. I realize that the Scots probably hold us in higher regard than they do the English, but not by much. They tend to stick to their own.” As did the Irish, for that matter.
“We’re half Irish. Half Scottish too,” Aidan pointed out.
That was true. Their mother’s family was Scots, from which Eamon had gained his red hair. And if he believed the tales, which he did, they were just as strange as he was.
“However, Father’s massive fortune appeared to be the deciding factor for the titled but cash-poor earl.” Aidan gave a careless shrug. “The contract stipulates a rather large bride-price.”
“Ah. Still, is she ugly or defective? I’d be wary if I were you.”
Aidan snorted. “Says the boy with ginger hair.”
Eamon grimaced. He knew his brother was in jest, but the quip stung just the same. Red hair, particularly on a male, was not only unfashionable, but most people—the English in particular—viewed it as a defect or, in the case of zealots, a mark of the devil. Lord knew his own father believed as much. Redheaded Devil’s child is what he called Eamon.
“Aye, well,” Eamon said, “I’m not the one having to marry her, now am I?”
Aidan’s expression grew more sour. “Just finish reading the blasted thing, will you?”
Eamon picked up the letter once more. “Let’s see… Stud service… Ah, ‘I am most unwilling for this union to come to fruition. Therefore it is my hope that we might join forces against this tyranny’ ”—Eamon snorted—“ ‘and fight our oppressors by way of refusal to comply.’ ” Eamon shook his head. “Lord above, but this is painful to read. Can you imagine the dinner conversations? She’ll drive you mad!”
“Yes, thank you, that’s quite helpful, Eamon.”
Aidan made another circuit around Eamon’s room while Eamon stared off, considering.
“You know,” he said after a moment, “the silly chit might be on to something here, Aid.”
When his brother stopped short, Eamon continued, “Why not join forces, as she says, and simply refuse?”
“No.” Aidan made a slashing motion with his hand. “That is out of the question.”
“You want to marry this, this, wee blowhard in pinafores?”
“It is done. Bloody Father has already paid half the price upon signing the contract. Ten thousand pounds, E.”
Eamon gave a long, low whistle of surprise, and Aidan nodded. “You see? It no longer matters what I want. I will not impugn the family honor.” He let out a long sigh. “The marriage shall take place one year after I reach my majority.” Aidan’s mouth pinched in a sneer. “Apparently Father believes he’s doing me a service by giving me a ‘year of proper manhood in which to sow my wild oats.’ ”
Eamon could only gape at his brother. If ever there was a moment in which he absolutely hated his father, it was now. The bloody, arrogant tyrant. “Bollocks to that,” he finally got out. “Do you want to marry her?” He might be the black sheep of the family who never did a thing right, but Eamon loved his brother. He couldn’t stand by and watch him suffer.
Aidan sighed, his slight shoulders sagging. “In truth, brother, I don’t want to marry. Ever. I don’t fancy…” He bit his lip and glared at the letter. “Now that I think on it, I do want to marry her.”
“You do,” Eamon repeated with ripe skepticism.
“I do.” Aidan nodded brusquely. “In fact, she is perfect, for she will never fall in love with me. If I must marry, I want it to be an arrangement and nothing more.”
His brother had gone mad. Assuredly. What of love? Passion? Eamon was young, but still he craved that sort of bond, that sort of lasting affection, with all that he was. The worst of it was, he feared he’d never get it. He was shy around strangers, especially girls, and people distrusted him on sight. “Aidan—”
“Write to her, Eamon,” he said with a bit of urgency. “Please.” He strode over and clutched Eamon’s hand. “Persuade her to change her mind, that marriage to me will not be a burden to her.”
“All right,” Eamon said slowly, “I reckon I could tell her that you—”
“No!” Aidan’s grip became painful. “Be me. She mustn’t know that I can’t—” He pressed his lips together. “Just be me. Persuade her.”
Eamon glanced at the letter. His chest constricted at the idea of lying. But he’d been hiding his brother’s inability for years. What was one more deception in the scheme of things? But he wasn’t a fool; his brother needed his help more than he realized. And Eamon would be the one to set things to rights. But he’d have to do it delicately. He couldn’t defy Father. Eamon’s back still ached from the last time he’d felt the force of Father’s cane across it. For there was one rule in Evernight Hall that Father enforced with iron clad tenacity: Eamon was not allowed to speak in his presence. “Yes, Father” or “No, Father” was the extent of his allotted vocabulary, or he’d feel the cane and be banished to his smithy. Eamon preferred the smithy, at any rate. It was his refuge. The one thing he loved other than his brother. Only with Aidan was he able to speak up. Not that it was doing any good now. Bloody stubborn Aidan.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it. But I’m none too happy about it, brother.”
Aidan simply grinned wide as Eamon turned back to his writing desk and began to sharpen his quill.
* * *
Dear Lady Luella,
If you truly are whom you claim to be, for no sixteen-year-old girl in my acquaintance uses such florid and pretentious language. Young ladies are more apt to study water coloring or play the pianoforte.
Therefore, I’m rather inclined to believe that you are an impostor, determined to trap me into saying something that I oughtn’t. If so, kindly desist in this course of action. It will do you no good. I am too wily to succumb to such antics.
If this truly is Lady Luella, kindly cease this nonsense and devote yourself to practical matters. Such as how to run my household when we are wed.
Dear Mr. Evernight,
I do believe you are making fun at my expense. I am quite serious in my intent. Patronizing your future wife is, in my estimation, not the most intelligent course of action, sir.
—Lady Luella Moran
Postscriptum—You’re one to talk. Never in my life have I read a more turgid note such as yours.
Are you then acknowledging our impending nuptials as fact? I thought as much.
Turgid, was I? You should realize that, in an effort to make you feel comfortable, I purposely matched my tone to complement yours. So, really, you are only pointing the finger toward yourself.
Postscriptum—Flower? Dog? Horse?
Dear Mr. Evernight,
I am becoming quite cross with you. And am beginning to suspect that you suffer from a character weakness in the form of monumental conceit. To use your words, I really do think it best that “we cease this nonsense” and work together to end this impending disaster. You cannot expect me to waste my time and attention on one so flippant as you.
—L. L. M.
P.S. Horse, obviously. Would there be any other answer?
* * *
Eamon grinned wide as he set down little Miss Luella’s last letter. He ought not get so much enjoyment from baiting her, but he did. And he really ought not to have asked her if she preferred a flower to a dog or a horse. But he couldn’t help himself. He wanted to give her a little bit of him and see what she’d make of it.
Rising from his stool by the worktable, he went to the loosened wedge of masonry in the far corner of his smithy. There, he carefully set the letter inside the secret compartment to rest on top of the other one he’d received from her. Then he selected a length of iron. His forge blew hot, the heat making the skin of his cheeks tight. And as he heated the metal, he imagined the shape of a running horse. Then he began to work.