Lord Sebastian's Secret

By: Jane Ashford

One


Lord Sebastian Gresham pulled up at the top of a steep ridge and leaned back in the saddle, giving Whitefoot a rest from the long climb. The view from this Herefordshire height was extensive. Before him, the land fell away in folds to a swift river at the base of the ridge. Green fields and pastures rolled out north and east, and mountains loomed to the west, the edge of the Welsh Marches. Straight ahead he could see his destination—Stane Castle, still a distant gray pile.

Thoroughly at home on horseback, Sebastian felt only pleasantly tired, even after the long cross-country ride. With a smile, he remembered a story his father the duke liked to tell, of how Sebastian’s three-year-old self had clambered onto the largest hunter in the Langford stable and clung like a burr as he hurtled over a five-barred gate. It had taken two grooms to remove him, squirming and kicking and protesting that he would ride Thunderer, he would. Sebastian almost thought he remembered the incident. But perhaps it was just from hearing the tale.

He signaled Whitefoot with his knees, and they started slowly down the path toward the river. Sebastian took in a deep breath of the soft summer air, so different from the reek of London. The scents were unlike those around his childhood home of Langford as well. Crisper, somehow, with hints of cold stone and evergreen. Georgina had said that her family’s estate was at the “back of beyond.” Certainly the country hereabouts seemed sparsely populated.

Sebastian fell into a daydream of his lively, golden-haired fiancée. Surely there would be many more opportunities for them to be alone out here. During the London season just past, they’d barely managed a few kisses, even though they were officially betrothed. Now, he had an extended leave from his military duties in town. A castle would have gardens, surely, perhaps even a maze to get lost in. With their wedding coming up in a few weeks, they ought to be allowed some freedom. Sebastian relished the possibilities this thought roused.

Whitefoot’s hoof sent a shower of pebbles over the edge of a narrow slant of path, and Sebastian brought his attention back to the present. First of all, he had to meet Georgina’s parents. Indeed, it was odd that he’d never encountered them, but apparently the marquess and his wife never came to London, or even Bath, which was nearer their home. That was why her grandmother had brought her out, Georgina had explained. She’d seemed uneasy, if not positively evasive, when she mentioned her parents’ distaste for society. Still, Sebastian wasn’t worried. The family that had produced a charming woman like Georgina must be all right. And, without false modesty, he knew himself to be a convivial fellow. He was confident the meeting would go well. If they didn’t care for society, well, he’d be happy to let them be and spend more time alone with Georgina.

The zigzag path down the ridge came out at a ford. Sebastian guided Whitefoot across the river and found a lane that seemed to lead toward the castle, perched across the valley on a spur of hill. Another half hour, and he’d be there, he estimated. There was no sign of Sykes with the carriage and his luggage, but Sebastian wasn’t the least surprised. Even though he’d lingered after Nathaniel’s wedding and taken his time on the ride, it would probably be a day or two before his valet arrived. The roads in this part of the country were wretched. Sebastian would make do with the contents of the portmanteau lashed to the back of the saddle until then.

The road up to Stane Castle angled across the hill under a towering stone wall. As a military man, Sebastian appreciated the opportunities it provided to rain shots down on invaders. These days, tufts of wildflowers and weeds sprouted from between the great blocks. It had been years since Stane faced hordes of Welsh tribesmen boiling out of the hills to ravage the English countryside.

He rode through an open gate and into a tunnel of stone lined with arrow slits. On the other side of the wall was a cobbled courtyard, also enclosed. Sebastian dismounted as a competent-looking groom came out to take Whitefoot. “House that way?” Sebastian asked, nodding toward an arch in the inner wall as he relinquished the reins.

“Yes, sir. Through there and to your left,” the lad answered.

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