October 20, 1863
"Unfortunately, my dear Mr. Garrett, our courtship is at an end. We just don't suit after all."
The matter-of-fact announcement from Miss Hattie Terrance caused Franklin's gut to clench. He lost his appetite to finish the remainder of his supper. "I beg your pardon?" He dabbed at lips with a snowy linen napkin and then laid it over his lap. All around him, the dining room of the Carlisle Hotel buzzed with genteel activity. From the low ebb of conversation to the flicker of candlelight on the tables to the faint ring of silverware against bone china, the scene gave off a romantic air, one that apparently was lost on Hattie. He slid his wire-rimmed spectacles up the bridge his nose to better regard his female dining companion. "We don't suit?"
"Not in the least." Her easy smile, the one that used to put him at ease, now displaced his enjoyment of the evening with a heavy sense of foreboding.
"Perhaps you should explain. When did you come to this decision?"
She efficiently cut into her chicken breast, balanced the knife on the edge of her china plate, and then transferred the fork to her left hand. "Precisely at the moment you kissed me when you collected me for dinner this evening. It was the last straw, after all."
"The last straw?" Yet when he'd done so, she'd simpered and returned his kiss without a word. Troubling indeed. "Why would my kiss tonight be any different than the other embraces I've given you?" He took a sip from his water goblet and set it aside with a frown. He and Hattie had been more or less courting for the better part of two months, having become friends during his cousin Grey's ill-fated house party, and they had been in each other's company since. He'd assumed they'd been compatible. She'd never complained before.
But then, women were fickle creatures.
Hattie tucked a stray tendril of blonde hair into the bun it had escaped from. "That is exactly the problem." She slipped the bite of chicken into her mouth, chewed, and swallowed before continuing. "Your embraces are uninspired, Franklin. Your kisses lack zest or heat. In short, you've become predictable, and that is a disappointing turn of events."
"My dear, this is hardly a conversation to have over dinner, let alone surrounded by the general populace." A slow burn of indignation crept up the back of his neck. "And even if it were, why didn't you bring the problem to my attention earlier?" Despite the high impropriety of the conversation, his curiosity wouldn't be denied.
"I believe I did. You simply refused to listen."
"I would have remembered such an announcement." For the first time in his life, he had no idea what to do with his hands or where to look while in her company. How did a man behave when presented with such a dismal assessment of his romantic prowess?
With a sigh, she gently laid her fork on her near-empty plate. "For the past week, I've tried to direct your amorous attention to the various places on my person I like to be touched, but you have a backward notion in your head that women aspire to gentleness and respect while kissing or performing other tasks. At times, this isn't so."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
One of her eyebrows arched. "It's with a fair amount of thankfulness our relationship never progressed very far in the bedroom; otherwise, this evening might have been more awkward than it is."
Franklin's fork clattered against the delicate china, but none of the diners in the immediate area paused in their conversation to pay him any mind. "Hattie, I really must protest the content of this conversation." Did she intend to give him an in-depth critique of his performance during lovemaking, where anyone in the city could overhear? Granted, he'd bedded Hattie only once, but still, receiving the news in such surroundings increased his ire.
"Protest it or not, these are the facts. Perhaps it was unwise of us to attempt coupling for the mere fact we are both werewolves and therefore seemingly compatible."
"Hattie, for the love of God, keep your voice down!" He'd do well to follow his own advice, but the woman was apparently uninhibited by their shared organic secret. Franklin nodded at a few diners who happened to glance his way. "Pardon me."
The last thing he needed was a revival of the interest that had brought reporters from the Indianapolis Journal sniffing around Rutledge Estates two months ago. Damn fool people.
"I apologize, on all counts." She cleared her throat. "Also, there is the real possibility, though we might have been compatible on a base level, we're simply not fated to be together."
"What drivel. You know I don't believe in fate." Now she wanted to talk about soul mate hogwash?
"Perhaps that is the problem." She retrieved a wide-brimmed straw hat from an empty chair next to her and fitted the beribboned confection on her head. "Please escort me outside, Franklin. I don't wish to make good-byes in the dining room. Crying in public doesn't appeal to me."
Yet telling him he lacked in the bedroom while in public didn't bother her? Franklin reined in the annoyance and anger that vied for attention. Always the gentleman, and determined to follow proper conventions as well as he could, he stood, not caring when his napkin fell to the floor. "Of course." He pulled out her chair, waiting patiently as she rose, and then he just as patiently stood by while she gathered her small handbag and fringed, ivory shawl. Pent-up energy raced through his body. If he allowed it power, he'd shift right there in full view of everyone.
At times, holding himself in check was tiring.
A black-and-white clad waiter rushed to the table. "Mr. Garrett, is there an issue with your dinner?"
"No. I need to escort the lady outside, then I'll return to finish."
"Very good, sir. I'll refill your wine glass."
Franklin nodded. "Excellent, and if you don't mind, please leave the bottle." He had a feeling seeking solace in the alcohol would be a welcome relief, yet he returned his attention to Hattie with a tight smile. "After you." His jaw clenched. "Please."
"No need for the growl. These things happen." Hattie wound through the tables, her hips swishing. Two days ago, that subtle, feminine wile would have had his ardor soaring. Now, after her revelation, her petite frame did nothing except send bile rising into his throat. Franklin swallowed, determined to make the parting as painless as possible, without a scene, without the drama he'd been accustomed to since Grey's party.
Damn it all. This current snag could be laid on his cousin's doorstep.
Once outside, on the hard-packed dirt walkway, Hattie put a gloved hand on his forearm. "I feel terrible I'm putting an end to our romance in this manner." She stared up at him, her lips forming a frown. Soft blonde curls framed her face beneath the hat. "But isn't it better to cut ties now than later when we were farther along in the courtship or our hearts were engaged?"
"How astute of you to think of my feelings." As he gazed at her, some of the tension left his body. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time." In a few days, he would realize she'd been right. The initial passion they'd shared had burned quickly. In recent days, he'd come to think of her more as a companion instead of a potential mate. Such a base couldn't sustain a relationship.
"You didn't. Think of it instead as an experience." Hattie's smile gave her heart-shaped face an angelic light. "Fate has other plans for you and me, it would seem."
Franklin snorted. Fate. It's what people used as a scapegoat when things didn't go the way they'd planned. "Spare me the false platitudes. We didn't suit. There is nothing else to say regarding our romantic future."
"You were never one to mince words." She stood on tiptoe and pressed a kiss to his cheek. "For what it's worth, you were nothing but giving toward my needs."
"But I had no staying power. Beyond that, the thrill between us died. What does that say about my masculinity?" He gently set her away from him.
She twisted the ends of her shawl in her fingers. "Promise me you won't do something rash. People with our ... afflictions tend to lose control on our emotional bearings during times of conflict."
"I promise." Though there'd be a good chance he lied to her. At the moment, all he wanted to do was tear into something--human, animal, or vegetable. Sinking in with his claws and teeth, ripping objects apart would go a long way into returning him to his natural frame of mind.
"I don't believe you."
Franklin shoved his hands into the pockets of his trousers. "Quite frankly, I'm beyond worrying about what you think of me at the moment." He narrowed his eyes, unmoved by her quivering bottom lip. "You've caught me unaware, Hattie. You embarrassed me in public. You belittled me to my core. I'll forgive you for it in time, but at this moment, I'm afraid I need to be alone."
Tears shimmered in her dark eyes. "I understand. I only hope this won't damage our friendship as I'm very fond of Lyndal."
"Of course." His shoulders slumped. He didn't even have the luxury of demanding she never set foot on Rutledge land again. She and Lyndal--Grey's wife--had become the best of friends. Who was he to demand she break all ties?
No one. He would always be the second best. Leftovers. The responsible man who'd pick up the pieces of everyone else's life to ensure things ran like they should. After all, wasn't he the one who followed the rules and never tolerated scandal?
He shoved existential feelings to the back of his mind and pulled his hands from the pockets. "Rutledge Estates will welcome you with open arms any time you want to visit."
"Thank you." She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. "Again, I apologize our relationship didn't end as you had hoped."
He bowed slightly from the waist. "Think nothing of it. I will survive." Without another word, he turned and entered the restaurant, determined to lose himself in the hotel's best wine.
Two hours later, Franklin loitered at Union Station on the platform for the No. 4 train to Noblesville by way of the small town of Fishers. As it was the last of the night, few pedestrians filled the benches or occupied the ticketing windows. A knot of men in Union blue uniforms talked quietly among themselves across the way. Why were they headed north when the rest of their brothers were fighting in various theaters to the south? He shook his head. The reasons and faults behind the War Between the States had always escaped him. As a transplant from England, he'd never been interested in learning the intricacies of American politics.
He scowled at a young boy hawking the morning's newspaper. By this time of evening, all the articles that were fresh hours ago were now stale.
Such was life. Popular and in demand one minute, thrown away and forgotten the next.
He leaned a shoulder against a wooden column while he watched his fellow passengers. When his gaze landed on a pair of men in dark, European-cut suits standing in profile outside the telegraph office, Franklin straightened. His heartbeat accelerated. Snatches of remembered horrors crowded his mind. The metallic scent of blood wafted into his nostrils, the taste of it thick on his tongue. He staggered backward a few steps as if he'd been physically assaulted.
Surely his eyes played tricks. One of the men strongly resembled Grey's brother-in-law, the man who'd decimated the Rutledge family, the man who'd riled up the villagers on Grey's ancestral estate in Surrey, England all those years ago. The man who'd ultimately killed Franklin's first wife and crushed his dreams of having a family of his own.
Michael Ravenswood, the bane of his existence, and the man he'd tried so hard to forget, stood as alive as he was.
Franklin darted behind a wooden column in the attempt to remain hidden from the men for as long as possible. He sneaked another peek. This time, identification was positive. He'd recognize the strong, dark, Roman features and scar on the left cheek anywhere. Franklin himself had given Michael that scar in retribution for killing his wife, shortly before Michael had ordered the villagers to protect him. His stomach churned. Damnation. What the hell was he doing alive, let alone in America, on Grey's very doorstep?
The floor beneath his feet vibrated as the No. 4 rumbled into the station. He needed to get to Grey before Michael did, for why else would the man be in the country? Again his gaze went to the telegraph office. The men were at the window, talking animatedly with the operator. Of course, the distance between him and them provided no clue as to what the conversation covered.
Franklin paced in a tight line while the train lurched to a stop. Steam billowed. The iron giant shuddered once, and then uniformed men with flattop caps and brass-buttoned red uniforms hopped from a few cars to assist passengers onto the platform. When he looked back at Michael, he and his companion had moved to the opposite side of the station, for all intents and purposes waiting for a different train.
A breath of relief whooshed from Franklin's chest. At least for the moment, the danger was headed to a different part of the state. Still, he had to get home as soon as the train would allow.
By the time Franklin arrived at Rutledge Estates, the apple orchards were shrouded in darkness, their fruit-laden branches lifted up to the sky. With a thick cloud deck obscuring the moon, he had little chance of determining if someone prowled the bushes. Sure, he could easily shift into his animal form, but he'd lose precious minutes scouting the wide acreage. It'd be best just to scour the manor house and seek Grey out. Later, they could talk of security issues.
"Grey? Lyndal?" He ignored the fact the hour was nearly ten o'clock and they were probably in bed. "It's urgent I speak with you." He ducked into the front parlor and came to a skidding halt. His cousin and Lyndal were in a state of half dress on a chaise lounge, their bodies twisted together while Grey's hands were at Lyndal's bared breasts. "Good Lord, Grey, must you take advantage of your wife every day? She's already pregnant. Having sex is moot at this point."
As if the night couldn't get worse, he now was an unwilling witness to the obvious affection between the two. He shoved a hand through his hair and his annoyance continued to climb.
"I must. Pregnancy has only enhanced her natural curves and her enthusiasm. I'm afraid I can't resist." Grey took his time untangling his limbs from Lyndal's. Both of them wore sheepish grins. "Married life is still a novelty for us, and we're enjoying it. That isn't a crime, and I would thank you not to stare at my wife's body."
Franklin rolled his eyes. "I beg your pardon." He turned away, giving them privacy. Clothes rustled as they presumably put themselves to rights.
"I thought you'd be similarly occupied with the fair Hattie this evening. If I had known you'd be home early, I would have taken care to bed my wife behind closed doors instead of letting passion dictate the location."
At the last second, Franklin prevented himself from making a derisive snort. "Spare me the commentary and censure. There are more important things we need to discuss." He spun around. Thank goodness both Rutledges were more or less fully dressed; Grey in dark trousers and shirtsleeves while Lyndal was covered, though she'd not done the buttons up the back of her evening gown. It sagged around her shoulders. "Good evening, Lyndal." He nodded at the brown-haired woman he'd first gotten to know as a friend.
"Good evening, Franklin. How is Hattie?" She smoothed a hand over her slightly swollen stomach. A mysterious smile played about her mouth.
"As far as I know, Hattie is quite content, at least she is now. She and I have decided to part romantic ways." He held but a hand when Lyndal would have protested. "I apologize for my abruptness, but explanations will be given at another time." He transferred his attention back to his cousin. "We need to talk."
"Very well." Grey ushered him into the hall. "What ails you, man? Surely the break with Hattie can't have you this agitated. You didn't seem overly fond of her in that way, in my opinion."
"Oh, because you're such an expert at love now that you're married?" Franklin stared at the back of Grey's head as they followed the hallway to the study.
"That was low, even for you." Grey ushered him into one of the heavy leather chairs that faced the desk while he sat behind that massive piece of furniture. "Tell me."
"At Union Station, I had the unfortunate luck to spy Michael Ravenswood in the crowd."
"Impossible." Grey's hands curled into fists on the desktop. "I saw his dead body myself shortly before we fled the fire."
"As did I, but I'm sure it was him." Franklin rested an ankle on his knee. "He stopped at the telegraph office. He and another male boarded a different train than mine. I waited until I knew for certain."
"Damn. This couldn't have happened at a worst time." Grey's stormy eyes blazed. He rapped a knuckle on his desk. "Half the apple crop has been harvested. The remainder will be in within a week or so. We're having laborers in to fit up the nursery and--"
"Grey, stop." Franklin stood and planted his palms on the edge of the desk. "Forget about the estate. I'll take care of everything. That is my job after all. Your priority is getting Lyndal to a safe place. If Michael's in the area, it's only a matter of time before he shows his face here, to challenge you."
"It makes no sense, not after all these years. More than a quarter of a century has passed, and now he's here?" Grey rose to his feet, his face a dark mask of worry. "I refuse to leave. It's not in my nature to run from trouble."
Franklin bit back the short retort sitting on his tongue. Instead, he leaned over the desk and said, "You have a future to think of now, where you didn't before. The Rutledge line will continue in your child. You can't put the future in jeopardy due to stubborn pride."
"I agree with my husband." Lyndal entered the study, crossed the room, and stood at Grey's side. "I'm not leaving."
"Why am I not shocked?" Franklin pulled back and encompassed them in his glare. "You both survived big odds not long ago. Why would you willingly put yourselves in danger if you didn't need to?"
"You know us better than that, Franklin." Grey pressed a kiss to the top of Lyndal's head. "This is our home. Why should we let events that may not happen drive us from it?"
Did these two care nothing for the potential danger? Michael Ravenwood was seemingly back from the dead, yet Grey and his wife refused to make arrangements to keep themselves safe.
The stress of the evening exploded past Franklin's resolve to hold it back. "Goddamn it, Grey, don't be an idiot. I would think if you love Lyndal as much as you say, you'd hide her away, protect her and your unborn child. You have no idea what this man will do."
"Neither do you."
"True, but if it were me, I'd plan for my future in a responsible manner."
Grey murmured something into his wife's ear. He waited while she exited the room, her face pale and her lips set in a thin line, before he rounded on Franklin. "You've overstepped the line, cousin."
"And you've ignored common sense." He strode to the door then swung around to regard Grey. "I never thought you'd be so irresponsible, Grey."
"I'm not. I'm choosing not to run like a coward. We fought them once; we can do it again."
"At what cost this time?" Franklin clenched a hand into a fist. "Michael killed my first wife, or do you not remember? What good will your posturing do you if he does the same to yours?"
Did his cousin not understand that he had everything Franklin himself wanted--a wife, a family, a future to look forward to, or that no matter how hard he'd tried, he--Franklin--couldn't retain those very things? Grey put them in jeopardy unnecessarily due to stubborn pride. "When you break your intelligence from your lust-filled haze, find me. I'll assist you in packing. Until then, leave me the hell alone. I have no patience for your mulish attitude. This evening has been beyond trying already."