The Countess Conspiracy

Page 7

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Benedict let out a long, slow breath, but he still didn’t glance Sebastian’s way. He simply picked up the kettle and poured a little water into the pail. He mixed the hot and cold waters with his hand, testing the temperature as if Sebastian hadn’t spoken. But Sebastian could see the expression on his face. His brother looked like he’d been mounted and stuffed. As if Sebastian had just made a dreadful faux pas.

“Harry needs someone solid,” his brother finally said to his pail of water. “Someone respectable.” He twisted his lips into a smile, but still didn’t meet Sebastian’s eyes. “You’re an amazing godfather, Sebastian. The best uncle Harry could hope for. You’ll buy Harry his first horse and take him to his first gentleman’s club. But a godfather is not a parent. And you…”

He spread his hands as if to sketch the dimensions of a widening gulf.

“Yes?” Sebastian said. “What about me?”

That stuffed look became more pained. “Don’t make me say it, Sebastian.”

“Come, Benedict. I’m not that bad. I’ve never outspent my income, nor drunk to excess—at least, not since I was fifteen, and that was at your wedding. I’ve fathered no children outside of wedlock.”

“Not for lack of trying,” his brother muttered.

Now was not the time to educate his brother on the ways to avoid that particular risk.

“I do not use opium,” Sebastian continued. “Nor do I despoil my servants. I have never killed a man. I haven’t even wounded anyone seriously. And I love Harry. You know that. I want him.”

His brother shook his head. “We’ll both be happier if we don’t have this conversation, Sebastian. Don’t force it.” He stood, picked up the bucket, and trudged into the stable.

Sebastian jumped to his feet and followed after.

“I’m not without faults, I know, but—”

His brother straightened and turned to him. “It was a very nice list you made just now. You’re right about one thing: As scoundrels go, you’re relatively benign. But did you notice that every item on your list was something you had not done? You haven’t drunk to excess. You don’t have creditors. Tell me, what have you accomplished?”

Sebastian stared at Benedict. It had been so long since anyone had said that to him—so long since his dearest relations lectured him to make something of himself that at first, Sebastian thought he’d misunderstood.

“I beg your pardon?” he asked. And that’s when he remembered: His greatest accomplishment was a lie, too.

But Benedict didn’t know that. “Oh, yes.” His brother’s lips thinned. “You’ve championed those odd theories of yours. Three-quarters of respectable England hates you.”

“Half,” Sebastian replied with a smile. “It’s really only half. Judging by my correspondence, it may be as little as forty-eight percent. And of those, only a small number want to cause me bodily harm. The rest just wish to have me gagged or thrown in prison.”

Benedict frowned, as if he didn’t realize the last comments were a joke. “There’s no point in splitting hairs over the precise percentage. What portion of the country even mildly dislikes Harry’s grandmother?”

“Most of the country has never heard of her.”

“Your infamy,” Benedict said sharply, “hardly recommends you. Years ago, I told you it would cause problems for you, but you didn’t listen then.”

Sebastian hadn’t thought it relevant. What did it matter, if people he didn’t give one fig about didn’t care for him? He’d never realized that his brother stood among the ranks of those who disliked him. Benedict had made a few offhand remarks, but what older brother worth his salt would pass up the chance to make snide comments? But then, Benedict hardly knew the man Sebastian had become. Was it any surprise that he’d been taken in by the role Sebastian played for everyone else?

“Maybe that’s so,” Sebastian said with a nod, “but I love Harry.”

“So do I,” Benedict said. “But look at the facts of the matter. Your grandfather was a duke. Your father was a wealthy industrialist; you inherited a sizable portion when he passed away. You haven’t gone into trade or governmental service or the army. You were born with every advantage, and what have you done? You’ve made yourself the biggest scoundrel in all of England.”

Sebastian felt his fist clench at his side, but he refused to let his anger show. He tried for a lazy smile instead. “But at least I’ve been superlative about it. That’s worth something.”

Benedict winced. “Yes, Sebastian,” he said quietly. “You have been superlative.”

That’s when Sebastian realized precisely how high a price he’d paid. Benedict himself had followed in their father’s footsteps, taking over the factories and the machinery of trade that Sebastian had ignored. He was quiet, responsible, and competent. They’d grown as far apart as two brothers could be. Oh, he’d known that his brother despaired of him—but he’d always thought it was a loving, brotherly sort of despair, the kind where he clapped his hand on Sebastian’s shoulder and called him incorrigible.

But this was disapproval with a bite, a vicious reproof that would rob him of his brother and his nephew all in one blow.

“You’re wrong,” Sebastian said quietly. “I’m much more than you’ve credited me with.”

“Hmm.”

“I understand,” Sebastian continued, before his brother could launch into a second list of complaints, “why you’d think that way. Over the last years, I’ve hardly given you the chance to know me.”

“I know you,” Benedict contradicted. “I know you very well.”

“I’m not like you,” Sebastian said, “but I think we have more in common than you think.”

“Oh?” Benedict raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

“My choices have meant that you haven’t had an opportunity to see that,” Sebastian continued, “so I should be the one to bridge the gap. You want me to do something that you’ll understand? Very well. Trade, it is.”

His brother snorted. “Sebastian, you can’t just announce that you’re going to take up trade. It takes years.”

“Mmm.” He had no intention of dedicating his life to trade—but he did have an idea, one that had tickled his fancy the other day as he was reading an account in the newspaper. His idea was a little thing, but it would be something they could talk about. They might have a conversation based on something other than lies or Benedict’s disapproval.

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