Chapter 64: The Sting of Grief
The rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock melded into the dimly somber rays of morning light that crept along the lustrous sheen of the well-maintained mahogany floorboards of the late Prime Minister’s private home study. Before the bookshelves of carefully curated covers of historical and biographical accounts, political and legal treatises, scientific and philosophical works, and the usual assortment of literature and poetry, lay the stately open black coffin with its silver handles, fittings, and ornamental decorations, upon a large white oak table.
Attwood Hargreve lay upon purple and silver silk and velvet lining dressed in his official garments of state, minus the medallion and ring of office he had been granted the day he became Prime Minister. His silver-tinged brows and brown hair were carefully combed and groomed away from his closed, unmoving eyelids. His expression was neither peaceful nor tormented but absent of any emotion, though the natural downward turn of the corners of his mouth implied a certain dissatisfaction.
Vases of flowers of every color, primarily white lilies, roses, and chrysanthemums, overflowed the floor beneath and around the coffin’s table. More than one of the floral arrangements had begun to wilt, their petals scattered by the faintest breeze of the cracked bay window that carried them toward the eastern end of the room where Acheron sat in the quiet shadows of dawn. The Rogue’s vacant gaze hovered over the faintly ticking pocket watch in his hand that was one minute slower than the grandfather clock behind his father’s coffin.
Acheron had lost all sense of time somewhere in the hours, days, and seemingly immeasurable intervals of empty space that had followed his father’s sudden death. His mind seemed deliberately unable to acknowledge the rise and fall of each sunrise and sunset that served only as a harsh reminder of the unknown and his painful loss.
As the grandfather clock chimed with the sixth hour of dawn, the Rogue corrected the minute hand of his pocket watch and then tucked it inside his black mourning jacket. The scent of death, flowers, and unwashed fatigue clung to him like a second skin as he stared at the casket and the man within, the politician, state leader, nobleman, husband, and father—who could no longer criticize his wayward son, smoke from his favorite pipe, or sit on the piano bench by Lucy, his wife, while she played their favorite ballad or operatic arias.
Aside from the bookshelves themselves, most of the office furniture had been carefully blanketed beneath white sheets for protection. Even the regal office chair upon which Acheron sat and the study desk between the Rogue and his father was covered from view. It was as if the room itself could no longer function or breathe as it mourned the man who had labored, laughed, and languished within its walls.
“What are we to do without you,” Acheron whispered hoarsely. His hooded, shadowed eyes turned absently toward the bay windows where the lark had begun its morning song. “What am I—supposed to do now?”
As if on cue, the study room door opened as the house butler, Vernen, appeared with four members of staff who busied themselves removing wilted flowers while their supervisor turned to address the young Viscount in the corner.
“Will you require breakfast this morning, Master Acheron?”
“No.” The Rogue placed his hands gingerly against the fabric-covered desk as he rose stiffly. “How is Mother?”
“Her Ladyship is still asleep. The physician recommended she remain in bed as long as possible given—”
“Understood. See to it that she’s not disturbed,” Acheron replied quickly as he watched the three maids carry in fresh bouquets of lilies and roses. “More flowers?”
“There is a mountain of flowers left by passing mourners growing outside the estate gate,” Vernen replied. “I thought it best to select the freshest blooms from the offerings there to avoid waste.”
“How prudent of you.” The Rogue covered a yawn with his hand and then rubbed absently against the stubble growing along his jaw and neck. ‘How long has it been since I last shaved?’ The thought quickly flickered out of focus as two footmen moved through the blanketed furniture to open the large bay window curtains that faced the manor’s main gate. “How many are waiting outside this morning?”
“Roughly fifty, though more keep arriving by the hour,” Vernen answered with a note of weariness. “These daily visitors are making a mess of the manor hallways and dining room.”
“Nevertheless, it is our duty to host them and allow them access to the Prime Minister to grieve,” Acheron observed through clenched teeth. “Have my father’s valet and two footmen remain in the office throughout visiting hours to keep watch. And ensure the rest of the house remains roped off and secured. I don’t want my mother disturbed or any more of my father’s prized collections wandering off. And let’s lower the number of those admitted inside to two or three at a time.”
“I shall have it arranged. But what of the mourning banquet that her Ladyship requested?”
“Move a spare table and some chairs to the back garden. We can offer a light breakfast for the morning visitors and a modest dinner and supper for those who arrive at midday and later. Soup should suffice. No alcohol of any kind. Keep the drinks to either water, apple cider, or lemonade.”
“I shall go inform the cook then,” Vernen replied with a nod of approval before moving off with the last of the maids, leaving the Rogue in silence once more. The light breeze from the open bay window carried with it the scent of autumn and the faint conversations of nobles and commoners who waited beyond the estate’s locked front gate to mourn their fallen Prime Minister.
‘Vultures—every last one of them,’ Acheron thought bitterly before his gaze returned to his father’s pale visage. The blemishes of death were meticulously concealed beneath a fine layer of white powder and cosmetic enhancement provided by the embalmers who had bathed, prepared, and dressed his father on the evening of their return from the Royal Hunt. ‘How many days has it been since then?’
The Rogue blinked slowly, then turned and left the office to find a downstairs bathroom where a prepared shaving kit lay ready for use. After tidying up his appearance and downing a shot of brandy to sharpen his focus, Acheron moved to the manor’s foyer, where Vernen waited patiently. The butler stepped in to adjust his Young Master’s cravat and then, with the Rogue’s nod of approval, opened the manor’s front doors as the swarm of mourners waiting outside fell silent before falling in line behind their shameless veils and masks of grief to enter the Hargreve mansion.
“Thank you all for coming,” Acheron greeted, his voice clear and steady as he met their expectant smiles with a political one of his own. “Due to the number of visitors we’ve received, you will all be escorted inside to view the Prime Minister in pairs of two or three. Please form up now in those numbers, and we shall begin shortly.”
A few mourners grumbled, but most were already paired up in suitable numbers anyway. However, their smiles quickly faded when Acheron escorted the two old noblewomen and their rather young male escort inside while the butler and several waiting footmen moved quickly to block the rest of the mourners from barging in behind them.
“But—this is going to take forever,” one of the noblemen protested.
“We understand that and appreciate your patience and understanding for the family in this time of grief,” Vernen replied pointedly, noting the familiar faces that had visited the day before. “A light breakfast has been prepared in the back garden and shall be made available to each of you after you’ve paid your respects to the Prime Minister.”
“Is that all?” a ridiculously dressed commoner in vibrant blue and red grumbled. “I heard the widow was giving out coins as a token of gratitude to those who came to grieve her husband?”
The butler’s jaw clenched as his gaze darted to where the Young Master and his guests had only just reached the library door.
The Rogue paused with his hand on the door and then turned sharply, leaving the three startled mourners where they stood as he stormed back toward the Manor entrance. “If you’ve come looking for a handout or to pinch something under the guise of mourning, then you’ve wasted your time and mine,” Acheron snarled as his glare cut through the crowd of lower nobles and commoners. “I won’t bother the magistrate with arresting and condemning you for theft either—I’ll take the hand of any man, woman, or child who dares to steal so much as a slip of paper. Is that understood!?”
Vernen grimaced silently while the crowd fell into an almost fearful silence beneath the Rogue’s enraged declaration.
“And if my bluntness or threats have offended any of you, you’re free to leave now. You may pay your respect at the gate as thousands of others have without feeling the need to push their way into my grieving mother’s home.”
The mourners the butler had recognized quickly dropped their gaze as Acheron spun around and returned to his waiting guests. A few moments later, the greedy nobles and commoners quietly exited the line and headed for the gate, muttering as they left.
“Good riddance,” Vernen commented coldly as he left the footmen guarding the door to shadow his immature, heartbroken master.
The day ended with little incident as word spread through the arriving mourners of Acheron’s threats. After the last of the weeping visitors were escorted out and the main gate locked for the night, the Rogue visited his mother’s room, where he encouraged the frail Viscountess to eat while assuring her their guests were well looked after.
“I’m so sorry, Archie. I can’t believe I slept the day away like that,” Lucy murmured apologetically as she pressed a hand to his cheek. “This is just as hard on you as it is on me.”
“I’m younger,” Acheron quickly retorted. “Stronger and handsome to boot. I can manage.”
“You’re certainly cheeky enough,” she snorted, smiling even as a tear fell silently down her cheek. “I don’t know what to do, Archie. I’ve been so lost since…Your father was always the one to—plan our way through any difficult hurdles.”
“We’ll be fine. We just have to make it to the funeral. And then—we’ll travel to the coast. Absorb some sun while we collect seashells, walk barefoot in the waves, and leave all of this behind until our spirits have been lifted.”
“That does sound—wonderful,” Lucy murmured as she patted his hand. “But I’ve yet to receive any word from the palace. And we can’t hold a funeral for the Prime Minister without approval from the crown.”
“Haaa…” Acheron sighed heavily as he rubbed a hand against his tired eyes. “I’ll write to the Duke. Last I heard, he returned to the capital to hand-pick the next royal bodyguard to replace Beaumont. Lord Stryker should be able to bend the Crown Prince’s ear for us—I doubt Nicholas wants to postpone it for much longer, given his approaching coronation.”
“And they can’t pick a new Prime Minister until your father has been properly laid to rest, so the entire House of Lords should be pretty motivated to get this done,” Lucy added with the ghost of a smile as she brushed back her pale blonde hair. “As his wife—I feel guilty for rushing a burial—but if we wait until after the coronation….”
“You’re only being logical,” Acheron reassured her quickly. “Father would approve.” He leaned in to press his lips against the pale blonde bangs along her forehead and then stood. “I’ll leave you to rest then. I have some organizing to finish and plans to make for our getaway.”
“Archie, have Vernen tell the cook to make your favorite oyster porridge. You need your strength as well.”
“Alright, I will.”
“Come see me before you go to bed.”
“You’ll be asleep by then—but I’ll drop by Mother,” he promised with a faint smile before shutting the door between them.
At the mid-landing of the stairwell, the Rogue paused to look out into the back garden where the household staff were busy cleaning up after the day-long banquet of meals for visiting mourners. The thought of having to feed, smile, and watch over these invasive strangers for even one more day set Acheron’s teeth on edge as he quickly descended the remaining stairs and returned to his father’s study.
After flinging aside the white sheet to uncover his father’s desk and papers, then rummaging through the drawers for a quill and inkwell, Acheron hastily composed two letters, each addressed to Duke Stryker Hargreve at both his estate to the south and the royal palace to the north-east.
‘Just in case.’
He pulled the Prime Minister’s signet ring of office from his trouser pocket and sealed each letter before staring at the ornamental jewel that had passed from one great advisor to the next. “I wonder if Uncle has already picked a candidate to replace you, Father. It seems more likely that the Duke returned to ensure the Royal Faction maintains its grip on the Prime Minister’s seat rather than any rush to find a replacement for Beaumont as the next King’s bodyguard.”
‘If they have a candidate picked out, there will be no reason to delay Father’s funeral. But if a candidate of the Noble Faction stands a better chance of winning….’
Acheron sighed as he tucked the ring back inside his pocket, then put away the ink well and quill before covering the desk beneath the white sheet, returning the room to its stagnant state. He passed the letters over to Vernen with instructions that they be sent out by evening post, then resumed his sleepless nights, sitting in the corner of the study, watching over his father’s corpse, half-dreading, half-hoping that Attwood’s spirit might return to offer words of encouragement to his lost and grieving son.
Morning came with glaring brightness and the same numb, indistinguishable routine of a quick shave, a shot of brandy, and another—less threatening—speech to the waiting mourners. The pile of flowers by the gate had grown significantly overnight, so much so that the blooms obscured the arrival of a grand carriage bearing the Duke of Hargreve’s coat of arms. Acheron’s initial surprise quickly turned to dread as he watched Duchess Verity Hargreve dismount from the carriage, accompanied by the detestable Viscount Norley.
‘What the fuck are they doing here?’
The Rogue quickly turned to the family butler and whispered. “Inform my Mother about our guests. Then remind her that since they’ve arrived without notice, she’s under no obligation to rush to meet them. And if you would, please advise her attendants to take all the time they need in preparing her.”
“Understood,” Vernen murmured with a placid expression that suggested he was just as displeased by the unexpected arrival.
Duchess Verity sailed across the cobblestone pathway in a stunning black silk gown and veil adorned by onyx gemstones, escorted by four of Hargreve’s knights who quickly parted the line of nobles and commoners waiting ahead of her.
‘That’s right—she’s in mourning too.’
Lady Verity shared the same chartreuse-green eyes as her treacherous brother, the late Rupert Borghese. Their venomous gaze fixated on Acheron through the black veil over lips pressed together with a sneer of disapproval before the Duchess turned to survey the curious crowd around them.
“I’m afraid that today’s viewing is over,” Verity declared in the quiet voice of someone used to giving orders that were rarely refuted. “If you still need to say your goodbyes, you are welcome to join us in two days at the great cathedral in the Capital for the Prime Minister’s funeral.”
“But we’ve been waiting hours already,” a commoner woman with two small children retorted. “The least you can do is give us a meal before sending us on our way! My boys are hungry.”
“And why exactly are your brats of any concern to me?” Verity responded with an inquisitive brow before smirking as she handed her purse to Norely. “Deal with them.”
“Yes, your Grace,” Norely responded as he plucked the purse from her fingers and shook it. The sound of crescents clinking heavily against each other quickly caught the crowd’s attention as the Viscount nodded to the gate. “Three crescents to the first ten of you standing outside the gate. Anyone who lags behind will be thrown out by the Hargreve Knights.”
The shocked mourners glanced from the grim-faced knights, with their red tabards bearing the Duke’s emblem of the dancing ferocious bear, to the purse of wealth held in the Viscount’s hand. Most moved swiftly towards the open gate while the rest shuffled in behind them, muttering quietly.
“Archie!” Verity called out with a forced smile as she continued up the steps of the manor to greet him. “Look at you—have you been drinking? You look terrible.”
“Hello, Aunt,” Acheron forced out through clenched teeth. “You didn’t tell us you were coming.”
“Yes, I know. Things have been—rather hectic for our side.”
“Where is your mother?” Verity demanded, sweeping past him into the foyer, where she quickly tossed her veiled hat, gloves, and shawl to a waiting footman. “Still dealing with other mourners?”
“Mother is resting upstairs. I only just informed her of your unexpected visit. She has not been well of late. The doctors recommended bedrest and quiet for the time being.”
“Goodness? Resting when there is a wake to handle, guests to feed, and a funeral to plan. Tsk.” Verity’s sharp eyes moved up the stairs as if hoping to spot the frail widow. “Well then, I suppose it’s a good thing I came in person to answer your letter.”
“Yes, the one you sent to our estate in Hargreve.”
Acheron scoffed in disbelief, even as his eyes narrowed in understanding. “That letter was addressed to the Duke, and I only sent it to your estate because I wasn’t certain if he had left the Capital or not.”
“Yes, and as his wife, I handle all correspondence while the Duke is away,” Verity affirmed with a faint frown as she crossed her arms. “And you did not mention a second letter in your message.”
“Must have slipped my mind,” Acheron muttered, his tone edged with exasperation. “So why did you come all this way to answer a letter?”
“Well, obviously, to inform you of your father’s funeral arrangements.” The Duchess shook her head as she examined him critically. “You know—you do look incredibly awful. Have you been sleeping?”
“I shut my eyes now and then.”
“Are you using again?”
Acheron raised his gaze to the ceiling before offering her a sardonic smile. “I have never used drugs of any nature, Aunt. You know that.”
“That you’re aware of, at least,” Verity countered with a snort.
‘What the hell is that supposed to mean?’
The Rogue blinked as the Duchess stepped towards him suddenly before leaning in to sniff his chest. “Saint’s Mercy. You need a bath desperately. You smell like a commoner.”
“Perhaps we could return to the funeral arrangements you mentioned,” he retorted with a faint growl.
“Yes, as I already said, the funeral will take place in two days, plenty of time for you to grab a proper bath and change of clothes, get a haircut, and quit drinking,” Verity replied, her gaze moving to where the Viscount had returned with her purse. “Norely, show him the plans.”
“Yes, your Grace.”
Acheron’s eyes narrowed as Duke Stryker’s faithful dog rolled out a sketched map detailing the roads between the capital and Hargreve territory. “We’ve prepared a glass viewing casket and funeral carriage to convey your father from here to the great cathedral in the capital. There will be a morning service led by Bishop Murdoch commemorating the late Prime Minister on his faith, notable public services, and literary achievements. The Crown Prince and Princess will also be there. Nicholas has expressed his wish to give a speech. You will have the opportunity to say a few words after the Crown Prince if you can prepare something suitable in time. Then, a choir will play Cradle of Mercy before the Bishop closes the service with a prayer.
“Once the morning service has concluded, the public procession will begin on foot from the cathedral to the Hargreve Family Cemetery. A list of selective guests will be allowed to enter the family crypt where the Prime Minister shall be returned to his permanent coffin, which shall then be sealed and blessed by the Bishop.”
“You expect my mother and I to walk from the capital all the way back to the Hargreve Family Cemetery?” Acheron interjected incredulously.
“Well, if your mother is physically unable to do so, we can prepare a horse for her to ride with you, holding onto the reins behind the funeral carriage,” Verity replied with a faint shrug.
“What? Behind? Not in front?”
“No. The Duke will lead the procession as the Prime Minister’s older brother,” Norley replied.
“Bullshit! I’m his son!”
“This funeral is about so much more than your grief, Archie,” Verity interjected sternly with a raised hand as if calming a petulant child. “Your father was a public figure of significant importance to this kingdom and the Royal Faction. And since you lack any significant achievements by which to claim your father’s position at court, the Duke will lead this family as its rightful patriarch.”
“Honestly,” Acheron chortled. “The nerve of you…” His steel-blue eyes fixed on the Duchess with a look that made Norely step cautiously between them. “Your snake of a brother is the reason my father is dead, and you think that you can waltz in here and tell me what my rights are in this family?” He barked out a scornful laugh as he took in the luxuries Verity refused to go without, even while dressed in mourning. “Last I checked, you don’t possess a single drop of Hargreve blood, much less have a child by which to claim any authority!”
“Says the rake who doesn’t even know how many bastards he’s fathered before getting trapped in marriage by the penniless daughter of a Viscount,” Verity retorted coldly as she brushed Norley aside with her fan. “I am the Duchess of Hargreve! That is all the authority I need to speak on behalf of the Duke about this unfortunate family matter.” She tapped her fan sharply against the Rogue’s chin before whispering, “And only a fool would believe my brother had anything to gain by assassinating either the Crown Prince or your father.”
“It’s true,” Norely interjected calmly as his gaze shifted between them. “The Borghese family had already accomplished everything they needed from the Royal Hunt. Rather than furthering Lord Borghese’s ambitions, the attack only ensured his demise and the unfortunate disfigurement of his daughter, Lady Priscilla. The Royal Faction could have recovered from the Marquess’s arrest, but his death—coupled with the loss of your father? It’s far more likely that this assassination was orchestrated by someone with something to gain from the Borgheses’ downfall and the Prime Minister’s empty seat.”
“Like who?” Acheron demanded swiftly.
“Earl Percy Hawthorne,” Verity replied with swift venom. “Your father’s not even in the ground, and that blue-blooded witch is gathering votes to secure his election as next Prime Minister.”
“And why not?” Acheron retorted with a scoff. “The Hargreves didn’t hesitate to play the same game when the previous Prime Minister, Lord Eustice Hawthorne, was brutally assassinated. Of course, Percy would jump at the chance to reclaim his father’s seat—that doesn’t make him a murderer!”
“Who else benefits from the aftermath of the attack?” Norely pressed with a shake of his head. “Who benefited when you found yourself drunk and in bed with Lady Evelynn Hendrix? Don’t you find it strange how such an unexplained phenomenon washed Earl Percy clean of all scandal related to the young lady?”
“It’s hardly a phenomenon,” Verity retorted with an amused chortle. “It wouldn’t be the first time Archie found himself in bed with the wrong woman after a night of drinking.”
“Says the sister of the man who sold children to sexual predators,” Acheron cut back just as quickly. “Tell me, how much of your dowry was paid for from child slavery? How unfortunate for the Duke that of all the eligible noblewomen he could have chosen to turn into a Duchess, he had to go and pick a barren old sow with plenty of family baggage.”
The Rogue wasn’t exactly surprised when the Duchess slapped him. In fact, he hardly felt the blow. He was more surprised by his own violent reaction, though thankfully, Norely stepped in to grab his wrist before Acheron could return the slap in kind.
“Have you completely lost your mind?!” Verity hissed even as she backed cautiously away. “If you cannot control yourself, then I will have no choice but to lock you in your room until you can see sense.”
“Hahahaha!” Acheron cackled with unmasked incredulity. “You can try, Bitch!”
She stepped towards him again to administer her usual form of physical punishment, but the Viscount quickly intervened. “I think we should take a break to calm ourselves and focus only on what needs to be done. My Lord—” Norely turned and gave the Duchess a cautioning glare, “—Your Grace.”
Verity shot the Viscount an annoyed frown but surprisingly stepped back, though the tight grip on her fan suggested she was far from satisfied.
“We’ll leave the details here with you to go over with Lady Lucy,” Norely continued quickly as he handed the map and a paper of names and times to the Rogue. “You should know that the Duke intends to hold a meeting for all members of the Royal Faction at his estate after the funeral. Your attendance would be appreciated—”
“You left out Duchess Kirsi’s name on the list of guests,” Acheron interjected, still studying the documents.
The Viscount blinked in surprise while the Duchess stared at him incredulously.
“Are you actually suggesting we invite that witch—my brother’s murderer—to the funeral?” Verity demanded through clenched teeth.
“Why not?” The Rogue tilted his head with a cynical smile. “You’re inviting Nicholas, who ordered the Duchess to behead the traitor. It would be rather hypocritical, not to mention rude, to exclude her. Besides, my father and mother are rather fond of Lady Kirsi, as am I.”
“Your cousin still hovers between life and death after surviving a witch attack, and you would go out of your way to invite the witch who killed her father?” Verity demanded, trembling with rage.
“Why not?” Acheron echoed with a malicious smile. “It’s not as if Priscilla will be there. And you invited Earl Hawthorn, who you just declared as the mastermind behind my father’s murder, not to mention the rest of the Noble Faction, which we all know is primarily composed of witches. Oh, but wait—” the Rogue crumpled the documents in his hand as he raised a single finger to his lips, “—that’s a state secret, isn’t it?”
“Well, your friend, Lady Kirsi, is publicly acknowledged as a witch, not to mention my brother’s executioner!”
“All the more reason she should come!” Acheron retorted flippantly.
“I think we shall take our leave now,” Norley interjected again as the Duchess took another threatening step toward the Rogue. “Shall I tell the Duke to count on you for the Royal Faction Meeting?”
“Tell him it depends on my mood—and sobriety,” Acheron replied with a shrug. “I might not be in the best mental state after burying my murdered father.”
“Oh, suck it up,” Verity snapped with an exasperated eye roll. “My brother is dead, and I’m still perfectly capable of functioning without being such a sad, pathetic embarrassment to the family. I suppose you inherited this weakness from that lazy mother of yours who has yet to show her face and greet me properly!”
The last strand of Acheron’s patience snapped as he glared at the shockingly still-breathing Duchess. “I think it’s past time I asked you both to leave.”
“We will,” Norely replied hastily. “We have other business to attend to.”
“I’m not leaving without an apology from you and your mother for this disgraceful reception.”
“Go fuck a horse, Verity,” Acheron growled.
“My lord,” Norley whispered, practically restraining the Duchess at this point, with a cautioning glance to the knights waiting just outside.
“What? Are my uncle’s knights going to kill his grieving nephew because of her?” The Rogue folded his arms with a dismissive snort. “Killing the only legitimate heir to the Hargreve Dukedom won’t exactly do our sides any favors. Wouldn’t you agree, Viscount?”
Despite Lady Verity’s rather shrill protests, the Viscount managed to guide the Duchess back outside to her waiting knights and carriage. Acheron quickly tiptoed to the nearest window to watch them depart with the Hargreve knights in tow. Only after the front gates closed behind them did he exhale in relief before sinking slowly to the floorboards, where he laughed and clenched his fists in silent frustration before bowing his head to his knees.
The Rogue’s gaze quickly snapped towards the stairs where a very pale Lucy, dressed in her black mourning gown, stared at him worriedly as the Rouge rushed to his feet. “Mother, you didn’t need to get up. Our guests have already left.”
“Had other business to attend to. She only stopped by to drop off some documents detailing the funeral that the Duke and Crown Prince have arranged.”
“Oh. I see….” His mother nodded absently and sighed. “Lady Verity will be angry that I didn’t come down to greet her.”
“She’ll get over it,” Acheron snorted as he joined her on the step and placed his arm around her waist. “Why don’t I see you back to bed and read some of your favorite poetry to help you fall asleep?”
Lucy laughed as she leaned into his shoulder with a faint smile. “You should save your poetry for Lady Evelynn. Poor dear, we’ll have to postpone the wedding since you’ll be in black for at least six months.”
“Perhaps in a year, the Hendrix’s will be more inclined to accept a payment settlement in lieu of a marriage. We might even offer them enough to find a more suitable husband for Lady Evelynn.”
The Rogue turned his befuddled expression to his mother as they reached the top step. “But—why?”
“Life’s too short for two people to be miserable just because they’re stuck with each other,” Lucy replied as she gently touched the red mark on his cheek. “I want you to enjoy the same blissful marriage your father gifted me. You’re all I have left, Archie. Is it selfish of me to break Attwood’s promise to ensure your happiness?”
“I—don’t think so—” Acheron whispered before pulling her into a firm but gentle hug. “Thank you—Mother.”
“It will take some convincing,” Lucy murmured against his chest before raising her eyes to meet her son’s haggard but adoring gaze. “But it’s a fight I’m prepared to win—if you promise that from now on, you’ll only share the company of women you intend to pursue for marriage.”
“Understood,” he responded gruffly, offering her a smile of relief tinged by the shadow of guilt. “I promise.”