He clenched his hands and stood, turning away.
That sense of his own worthlessness had wormed its way under his skin until he believed it. In his mind’s eye, he saw the silhouette of his father looming over him. He felt the solid weight of the broom smashing into his ribs.
You’ll never make anything of yourself, you useless bloody bastard.
“There,” Clermont was saying behind him, “I’m the better person. I’ll forgive you for that unkind remark, and you’ll forgive me for my little falsehood—and we’ll be even, won’t we?”
He’d never been able to get those words out of his head; his mother’s intervention had driven them deep into his flesh, buried them where he couldn’t touch them.
You’ll never amount to anything.
And because of that, he was…what, going to walk away from the woman he loved?
All the logic in the world could not stand up to one fact: He simply could not stomach Clermont’s presence any longer.
“We’re not even,” he said in a surprisingly calm voice. He turned back around.
Clermont was watching him with those ice-blue eyes of his—clear, and yet all too confused.
“We are not anywhere near even. Tell me what you did to her—admit it aloud, you coward.”
Clermont licked his lips in confusion. “She wanted it.”
Hugo reached out and grabbed the other man by the collar.
“The truth, Clermont.”
“She was a hot little—”
He hit the man in the stomach. He didn’t bother to pull the punch, and Clermont, who had likely never been struck before in his life, went green. There was a time for subtlety. There was a time to hold back his anger. But right now, he couldn’t see the point of it.
“The truth, Clermont, or next time, I’ll rip your stones out with my bare hands.”
The duke whimpered. “I was so bored, and she was the closest thing to a woman around. What would it hurt?”
Hugo struck him again.
“What was that for? I’m telling the truth, now!”
“That wasn’t for what you said. It was for what you did.” Hugo let the man go, but only long enough to grab a piece of paper and a pen and set it in front of him. “I want you to admit that on paper.”
“On paper? But—”
“On paper,” Hugo said. “I want you to write on paper that you forced her to it, and that in reparation for your crime, you agree that you will send your son to Eton—or sponsor your daughter for a Season.”
“Do it,” Hugo said, with every ounce of menace he could muster. “And stop sniveling about it, you worthless buffoon. Think for one second about what I know about you—what I could do to you. You more than anyone know what I’m capable of. This lets you off rather easily. If you keep your end of the bargain, the paper need never be made public. If you don’t…”
He could see the duke making his sordid calculation. If the duchess found out… There were, after all, forty thousand pounds on the line. Perhaps, Hugo imagined the duke thinking with his typical cowardice, he might keep the whole thing quiet long enough to fool his wife and guarantee himself funds for years to come.
With a nod, the other man reached for the paper and wrote his confession. When he was done, Hugo sanded it carefully and folded it in half.
“If you think that I’ll honor our wager after this...” the duke threatened.
Hugo walked to the door. “I have no doubts about that,” he said frostily. “But then, you’ll have no need to honor the wager.”
“Why would that be?”
Hugo gave him one last wolfish smile and brandished the paper. “Because you’d have to be in funds for me to win. I promised I wouldn’t make this paper public. I didn’t promise not to show Her Grace. I think you’ve lied to quite enough women.”
Fear shot into the duke’s eyes. “Oh, God. Wait. Marshall!”
But Hugo was already through the door.
IN THE END, HUGO COULDN’T bring himself to go directly to New Shaling. It added almost a week to his journey, but first he went north to the place of his birth and tracked down the parish records.
His father had passed away almost a decade ago, but Hugo didn’t bother to find where he had been laid. Better to let him pass out of memory. He’d let the man linger on too long as it was.
He visited the park where he’d buried his jar. But fifteen years later, there was nothing to be found—only shards of glass and tree roots. Fitting.
Instead, he tracked down an unmarked stone outside a tiny church and pulled the weeds off his mother’s grave. She’d had the right of it, all those years ago. You buried the dead and cared for the living.
As for the living… Three of his sisters had survived to adulthood. Of those, two had left for America; the third had simply disappeared. Out of sixteen children, Hugo was the only one who remained. All these years, he’d hefted his ambition like a heavy burden. He’d been wrong. He had been given a tremendous gift, one that he didn’t plan to squander. Even though the trees had lost all their leaves and frost was beginning to nip at the fields, it felt like spring had come.
The coach that took him to Cambridge was advertised as swift, but it seemed to dawdle endlessly along the way. A cart took him the rest of the way to Serena’s land.
The farm was small—scarcely two acres in size. He’d seen the maps and the markings when he’d helped Serena finalize the lease, but this was the first time that Hugo had seen the property in person. He stood back on the road a ways, wondering about his welcome. There was a single field off to the side, planted for now with winter wheat. But he could sketch in the improvements that she’d talked about building—a shed, where she might isolate and extract the essence of lavender, a coop with a gaggle of chickens, and a kitchen-garden, over by that patch of weeds just behind the house.
As he watched, the door opened, and she walked swiftly out to the well that stood on the right side of the property. He could see her pregnancy now—it was all too obvious in the way that she moved, in the slight curve of her stomach. He caught his breath.
God, he’d missed her.
She tossed the bucket in the well and then began to draw it up. She was wearing a sky-blue shawl—a familiar sky-blue shawl. The ends flapped in the breeze.
Hugo found himself crossing the road slowly, coming up behind her. “Nice shawl,” he remarked.