Sequel to Duty to the Crown
The Crofton Chronicles: Book Three
Sebastian Hewel has never been happier. But his life playing the role of his twin sister Bronwyn, the wife of Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, is about to change. Rumors abound that Bronwyn is using witchcraft to enthrall her husband, and false evidence has been found. Practicing witchcraft is a crime that could have Bronwyn brought in for questioning by the sheriff, and that would reveal Sebastian and Anthony’s secret.
Together they must decide whether it is time to lay Bronwyn to rest. Anthony intends to ensure that whoever implicated Bronwyn pays for the treacherous deed. Whatever happens, Sebastian and Anthony must prepare to face an unknown future together.
THE DANCING shadows of the undergrowth provided excellent cover. Sebastian moved quietly, placing each foot with care and avoiding the dry twigs whose treacherous snaps would give him away in an instant. He headed deeper into the woods and crouched down. The summer warmth didn’t penetrate this far, and he paid no attention to the gnats as they flew around his head or the earthy smell of the damp ground. His ears pricked at what he thought were footsteps, and he fought to keep his breathing shallow so not to disclose his hiding place. The sunshine dappled through the canopy of the trees, the pockets of light catching something and making it glint. Grinning to himself, he picked up a stone and threw it to the right, expecting it to draw out his quarry.
A flash of dark green, just visible in the shadows, coupled with a rustle of leaves only inches from where he hid had Sebastian ready to attack. He balanced himself, curled up like a frog about to leap to a lily pad, and sprung out of the undergrowth. But no one was there. He whipped around, convinced his prey should be here, but saw only trees and the mossy covering of the forest floor.
His instincts told him he should get back undercover, head to the safety of the trees before he became the hunted and not the hunter. He turned to dive back into his hiding place, but the weight of something hitting him hard sent him to the ground. With the air knocked out of him, Sebastian lifted his head and peered over his shoulder. Rolling backward, he stared up into Anthony’s grinning face.
Anthony sat astride him, grabbed his wrists, and held Sebastian’s arms above his head. “Not bad.”
“I thought I had you that time.”
“Oh, you’re a long way from being able to catch me in these woods, Sebastian. I’ve been causing mayhem in here since I was a boy.”
Sebastian tried to wriggle out of Anthony’s grasp. “Well played, my lord. Now may I be so bold as to ask you to let me get up?”
“And if I were to do that, how would I claim my prize?”
Sebastian struggled again but not with any real effort, and from Anthony’s wolfish smile, he could see his lover knew he was not really trying to escape. “But surely getting the better of me is good enough? There cannot be many men of your age who could claim they have beaten a man of mine.”
“I’ll give you ‘man of my age,’ you insolent whelp!”
Anthony’s kiss was hot and insisting, and Sebastian moaned greedily into it. The weight of Anthony holding him down excited Sebastian. As Anthony used his lower body to keep Sebastian in place, Sebastian felt the undeniable urgency of Anthony’s ardor in the press of his hard cock.
The sound of hooves in the distance made Anthony stop and pull back.
Sebastian tried to see what Anthony was looking at and was disappointed when Anthony rolled away. “What’s going on?” he asked as Anthony helped him to his feet.
“There’s someone on the other side of the trees.”
Sebastian tried to brush away the evidence of his adventure on the forest floor. He hoped he’d been successful and worried his appearance would make it all too clear what he was really doing with his brother-in-law.
“My lord!” came the cry.
The anxiety dissipated with the voice of Wallace, the steward of Crofton Hall. And although disappointed they had been disturbed, at least it was by a trusted member of Anthony’s household.
Anthony led the way through the thicket, and they emerged where they had tethered their horses to see Wallace waiting for them.
“Apologies, my lord, for disturbing you when you are hunting,” said Wallace, and by the way the man averted his eyes, Sebastian could tell he was a little ill at ease. “But the gentleman insisted that he speak to you.”
“The Duke of Marchent, my lord.”
Anthony swung himself into the saddle of his horse, Zeus. “What is His Grace doing here?”
“He did not say, my lord. Just said that he needed to speak to you urgently.”
Sebastian blushed as Anthony bent down to pull a leaf out of Sebastian’s hair. “Come on, Sebastian. I need to get back to the hall.”
Sebastian mounted Star. “It is probably time for young William’s reading lesson. I hope he’s finished the work I set him.”
“If that son of mine hasn’t, you send him to me. He knows what he should be doing. Don’t let those big blue eyes of his fool you otherwise.”
Sebastian decided not to comment on how much five-year-old William Crofton was like his father in that respect, and instead he encouraged Star to walk on with a kick of his heels. Wallace rode on ahead, and Sebastian spent much of the ride back to the hall picking bits of dried foliage out of his hair and from his doublet, much to Anthony’s amusement.
“Who is the Duke of Marchent?” asked Sebastian.
“An old friend. Stephen’s been busy overseas after a rather delicate altercation with the daughter of the Spanish ambassador. I’ve not seen him for several years.”
“So you weren’t expecting him?”
Anthony ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch. “No. I knew he was back in the country, but I thought I’d catch up with him when we’re at court later in the week. I doubt he’s here to chat about old times and drink my wine.”
“Why not? Seems to be the case with most of your friends.”
“Because Stephen, when he’s not been imbibing the claret, is generally of a serious disposition. He wouldn’t turn up here claiming urgency where there was none.”
Sebastian laughed. “Then how in the heavens have you managed to stay friends for so long?”
“He also happens to be William’s uncle.”
Sebastian almost fell out of his saddle. “Did you not think it might be prudent to mention that he was your first wife’s brother?”
“And what will he say when he meets your new wife?”
Anthony chuckled. “You trouble yourself far too much. I am sure he will be charmed by Bronwyn.”
Sebastian’s hope of an evening of reading and having Anthony to himself vanished. He’d grown to cherish the rare occasions when there weren’t guests at the hall and they could be alone. Instead, he readied the lie to cover Sebastian’s absence in order for Bronwyn to attend supper.
“Then it is fortunate that my sister is in good health for once.”
Anthony’s dry chuckle accompanied a friendly pat to Sebastian’s arm. Not the type of touch he’d hoped to receive from Anthony that afternoon, but he supposed, as Crofton Hall’s entrance came into view, it was better than nothing.
They dismounted at the front of the hall and handed the reins to Wallace to take the horses to the stables at the back. Anthony had only gone a few steps when a man about Sebastian’s height, with a slim frame, darted out of the hall. His eyes were wide, and his mouth set in a grim line extenuated by his ginger moustache. His wiry ginger hair stuck out in all directions, as if he’d dragged his fingers repeatedly through it.
“Anthony, thank the Lord you’re back!”
Anthony clapped his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Stephen, whatever is the matter?”
“I need to speak to you alone,” he insisted.
Marchent’s gaze lingered on Sebastian, and Anthony moved to answer his friend’s curious stare. “Allow me to introduce you to my brother-in-law, Mr. Sebastian Hewel. A trusted member of the family.”
Stephen nodded curtly and turned to Anthony. “Alone, Anthony. This is not the subject for a stranger’s ears.”
Deciding to ignore the dismissive tone of Marchent’s words, Sebastian excused himself. “Please excuse me, gentlemen, but the future Earl of Crofton requires his reading lesson.”
“You will join us for supper?” asked Anthony, giving Sebastian his cue to provide his excuse.
“Alas, no. I leave for Stratford midafternoon and won’t be back before you depart for London.”
“Travel safe,” said Anthony.
Sebastian took Anthony’s words as the excuse he needed to leave and headed inside to find William, even though he burned with curiosity about what Anthony’s friend had to say.
SEBASTIAN WINCED as Miriam laced him into another new gown. He could never accuse Anthony of being a miser; it was fair to say Anthony was overly generous at times. Sebastian conceded needing the new stockings, having ruined several pairs with his less-than-ladylike feet, but the rest of the attire was there to show Anthony’s wealth by dressing his wife in the latest fashions.
“What was wrong with the blue one?” he asked of the skirt Miriam had whisked away. “It was lighter than most of the others I have.”
“Because it was out of date. Really, Sebastian, you know what it’s like at court—it’s important to his lordship that he shows his love for his wife with extravagant gifts.”
Sebastian tugged at the bodice, trying to make it sit in such a way that it didn’t restrict his breathing.
Miriam smacked his hands away and pulled up the linen of his shift from under his bodice to give him the illusion of womanly breasts. “It’s hard enough as it is trying to give you a proper shape. You playing with it isn’t helping.”
“Don’t know why you care. No one’s going to look at my flat chest with what some of the ladies of the court have on display. I hardly know where to look at times.”
“You should be grateful you needn’t be troubled by that particular fashion. It’s a good job you’re married and so must keep yourself covered. Otherwise we’d have to explain your lack of bosom.”
Sebastian winced at a particularly sharp tug. “You don’t make me cover my hair.”
“And I bet you get all sorts of spiteful remarks because of it,” said Miriam. “But the periwig makes you look like Lady Crofton, and not just Sebastian Hewel in a dress.”
Sebastian dusted his face with white powder, thankful he didn’t wear the ceruse at home by Anthony’s insistence, and took care not to smudge the vermilion he applied to his lips and cheeks. He turned his back on the mirror to see Miriam holding a new ruff. The lace monstrosity was several inches bigger than the one he usually wore. His throat constricted involuntarily at the thought of wearing it. “That’s enormous.”
“I’m afraid the fashion has moved on again.”
She tied it in place and Sebastian pouted. “Can’t I wear the old one?”
Miriam sighed and untied the ruff. “You’ll need to wear this one at court,” she warned.
“It won’t be the only thing I wear solely for court. It can be added to the ceruse and the really uncomfortable shoes.”
Miriam pinned his periwig in place, checked all his layers once more, and chased him out of his room. “If his lordship mentions the ruff, make sure you tell him I tried.”
Sebastian swept through the halls of the manor and arrived in the great hall to find Anthony and Marchent already there. They rose as he entered.
Anthony, smiling broadly, came to greet him and held out his hands, which Sebastian accepted with a shallow curtsey. “Stephen, it is my pleasure to introduce you to my wife, Bronwyn, Lady Crofton. My lady, this is Stephen Winters, Duke of Marchent.”
Sebastian curtseyed, lower this time, and Marchent bowed. Sebastian wasn’t sure what response he would draw from the former Lady Crofton’s brother, but Marchent didn’t appear to be holding any sort of grudge that Anthony had taken a new wife.
“My lady. I feel I should offer my apologies that this is the first time we meet. Alas, my business interests in Venice and Naples have kept me away from my home, but I am relieved to see Anthony has finally found someone to tame him.”
Perhaps, thought Sebastian, Marchent had not been fond of Anthony’s old ways. Sebastian took his seat. “What was it that drew you to those cities, Your Grace?”
“I am a patron of the arts, so naturally I found my way there when I wanted to spend some time overseas.”
Seeing Anthony’s smirk, Sebastian realized Marchent must be the source of Anthony’s pamphlet collection, the ones with the lewd drawings and exciting prose. “It sounds wonderful, Your Grace. But how did you come to choose where you did?”
“I traveled for a while but couldn’t force myself to settle in one place, so divided my time between the great cities of Venice and Naples—both lively and bewitching.” Marchent seemed to disappear into his own thoughts for a moment. “I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but soon one longs for home.”
Anthony snorted. “And which cuckolded husband caught you this time?”
Marchent looked part scandalized, part awkward. “Anthony, must you say such things in front of a lady?”
“I have heard much worse about my lord and his other accomplices,” said Sebastian to keep the peace. “I am sure that compared to their stories, you would be considered the most gentlemanly of Lord Crofton’s friends.”
Marchent raised his pewter goblet. “You are no doubt right, my lady. Anthony was a wild spirit at times. Although it appears that has changed.”
Sebastian was amazed that Marchent appeared not to care about Anthony’s reputation, one he had started building even before he was married to his first wife, Marchent’s sister, the former Lady Jane Winters.
Anthony reached over and took Sebastian’s hand. “And for that you can thank my dear Bronwyn.”
“Some would say you were either a miracle worker or an enchantress to have managed to do such a thing to Anthony.”
“I wish it were so. It is more a fortunate timing, and my uncle ensuring me the match.”
“Uncle? Do I know this Cupid?” asked Marchent.
“I would hardly call Sir Francis Haven a god of love. More an old devil at times,” said Anthony sourly. “His estates are in Northumberland, which, quite frankly, is too close for my liking.”
“I would’ve thought you would be singing his praises for delivering you his niece.”
“For that he has my eternal gratitude. But he can be a little harsh at times.”
Marchent drank deeply from his wine and signaled a servant to bring more. “We all have family members like that. I had an elderly aunt who could melt gold with her wicked words and leave marks on the skin from a lash of her tongue. Her funeral feast was more a celebration than a dirge.”
Sebastian was a little surprised at Anthony’s frankness with Marchent. Before today, Anthony had never spoken of the man, let alone as the close friends they appeared as they traded stories and bandied insults and slurs on other members of the nobility. Anthony treated Marchent almost like a brother, but considering Anthony had known his first wife since they were children, Marchent was probably the closest thing Anthony had to a brother.
“Dartley is an idiot,” said Marchent, on his fifth goblet of wine. “If his father wasn’t the Duke of Malbac, he’d be dead in a ditch somewhere.”
“Surely that’s something that could be said of most of the nobility,” said Sebastian before he could hold his tongue. He might speak his mind as a man, but while playing his sister, he was supposed to be demure and circumspect with his words, and he took a drink of wine to cover his error.
“Oh, Anthony, you have a woman to match your spirit! If I had doubted the match before, then I would be completely convinced now.” He waved his wine in Sebastian’s direction. “Feel free to speak your mind with me, my lady. What has caused the disdain I hear?”
“I should not have spoken out of turn,” said Sebastian, shooting a look in Anthony’s direction to try to gather what his best course of action would be.
“Nonsense!” called Marchent with an exaggerated sweep of his arm. A large measure of wine slopped out of the goblet.
Anthony leaned away from the spilt wine running across the tabletop. “Lady Crofton has fallen foul, on occasion, of the whispers at court. It is not a surprise that it has colored her opinions.”
“The tongues at court are some of the most wicked in the land. With hair like this, I have suffered through many jibes myself.”
Sebastian laughed as Marchent tugged at his ginger curls. He was a very likable man, and there was no trace of what had troubled him when he had arrived at Crofton Hall. Whether due to the relaxing effects of the wine or Anthony managing to calm him down remained to be seen. And when Anthony went to bed, Sebastian intended to find out.
With the final set of plates cleared away, Sebastian got ready to make his excuses to leave. Anthony and Marchent were embroiled in a tale that involved a countess and her stolen jewels, hand-to-hand combat with a Venetian dueling master, and a race across the country on the back of a donkey. Sebastian expected it would be several hours before they were through. He made to stand, but Marchent suddenly stopped midsentence, burped loudly, and collapsed forward. The sound of Marchent’s head hitting the table made Sebastian wince.
“Is he well?” asked Sebastian.
“Yes, perfectly fine. He has never been able to hold his drink. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t carried to bed when he visited.”
Sebastian stared at Marchent, the duke’s loud snores making the hair of his moustache quiver. “Not quite what I expected when you said he was one of your sensible friends.”
“He is when he’s sober. You go on up. I’ll have someone carry him to bed, and then I’ll join you.”
Sebastian left the great hall and took the stairs back to his room. Halfway up the stairs, he looked back to see the still-snoring Duke of Marchent being carted across the entrance hall by two male servants. He smiled to himself and carried on.
Miriam was waiting to undress him, and having made short work of Bronwyn’s wardrobe, he let himself into Anthony’s bedchamber and made himself comfortable in Anthony’s bed, wearing just his shift.
It took longer than he had expected for Anthony to join him. “Is His Grace safely in his bed?”
Anthony locked the door and checked the bolt of the connecting door to Lady Crofton’s room. “I’m surprised we can’t hear him from here.”
“I thought you’d be here sooner. Is there something wrong?”
Anthony removed his boots and began to undress. “No, I had to send a couple of messages. I didn’t get the chance before supper.”
Sebastian pulled back the bedclothes in invitation. “What was so urgent it couldn’t wait until morning?”
Anthony climbed into bed. “Stephen brought with him some disturbing news about someone we both consider a good friend.”
“How good a friend?” asked Sebastian suspiciously, knowing full well he was sounding jealous and a little petulant.
Anthony kissed his forehead. “Not that kind of friend,” he said with a laugh. “Someone I can count on to watch my back, and to keep his ears open for useful information.”
“Someone I know?”
“You’ve met him, but I introduce you to so many people both here and at court, I doubt you’d place him. Jacob Galway—he’s the Marquis of Denmouth.”
“And the problem?”
“Earlier this year he narrowly avoided being connected to Robert Devereux and charged with treason, but unlike the Earl of Essex, he kept his head and his reputation intact. Now Stephen has learnt that Denmouth is up to something else… possibly to do with King James VI of Scotland.”
“God’s teeth, Anthony! What are you getting embroiled in now?”
“Hush, it may be nothing. Or indeed it might be something he has been instructed to do, but Stephen is fretful that Jacob has become infatuated with a young lady, and she may sway his judgment.”
“And the letter you’ve sent is to find out more?”
“Among other things.”
Anthony pulled Sebastian close and leaned him back so he was lying flat. He pressed a kiss to the side of Sebastian’s neck. Sebastian tilted his head to give Anthony access and opened his legs so Anthony could slide between them. Anthony sucked gently below his ear—a spot he knew drove Sebastian wild.
“I have a small favor to ask.”
Anthony played with his nipples, licking and sucking at them as if they were a marzipan treat. Sebastian gasped. “You reprehensible swine, Crofton! Asking me now of all times.”
Anthony chuckled. “That wasn’t a no.”
Sebastian squirmed as Anthony moved down his body and nuzzled into his groin. “What do you want?”
Anthony ran his ran hand over Sebastian’s thigh. “When we’re at court, I want you to ask a few questions. See if you can get some of the ladies to tell you their gossip.”
Sebastian was about to argue that most of the women at court were more likely to speak about him than to him, but Anthony’s mouth closed around his already-aching cock. He groaned happily as the hot, wet heat engulfed him. He arched upward only for Anthony to pull back.
“You louse!” Sebastian pushed Anthony back to his cock. “Let’s see if you can convince me.”
Sebastian let his head roll back as Anthony continued what he’d started. Anthony was extremely talented with his mouth, knowing exactly how much pressure to apply with his tongue and how much to suck to make Sebastian scream. Sebastian didn’t know whether to buck or bear down as Anthony worked his fingers inside him. He loved Anthony filling him, and along with the delicious antics of Anthony’s mouth, Sebastian was barely coherent as he tumbled through his climax, Anthony drinking down his release.
Anthony trailed kisses over his belly and his chest as he worked his way up Sebastian’s body. “So,” he said, grinning, “did I convince you?”
“If you promise to do that again, I’ll do whatever you want.”
“You really shouldn’t say such things. It gives me terrible notions.”
Sebastian stretched languidly, his body warm and pliable and his eyelids fluttering shut. “You don’t need any encouragement.”
“You’re not allowed to fall asleep on me, Sebastian. I’m far from finished with you yet.”