Excerpt – The Greatest of Sins

Sam was coming home!

They were such simple words to have such an effect upon her. Evelyn Thorne put a hand over her heart, feeling the frenzied beat of it at the thought of his name. How long had she been waiting for his return? Very nearly six years. He had gone off to Edinburgh when she was still in the schoolroom and she had been planning for this day ever since.

She had been sure that, following his education, he would come back for

her. Some day, she would hear his light, running step on the boards of

the front hallway. He would shout a welcome to Jenks, the butler, and

make a joyful enquiry about her father. There would be an answering

welcome call from the office at the head of the stairs, for certainly Father would be as eager to hear what his ward had made of himself as she was.

After the greetings were done with, things would return to the way they had been. They would sit in the parlor together and in the garden. She would force him to accompany her to balls and routs, which would all be less tedious with Sam there to talk to, to dance with and to protect from the marital ambitions of other girls.

At the end of the Season, he would return with them to the country. There, they would walk in the orchard and run down the path to the little pond to watch the birds and animals, lying on the rugs that he would carry, eating a picnic from a basket that she would pack with her own hands, not trusting the cook to reserve the choicest morsels for a man who was not ‘truly a Thorne’.

As if to reinforce the thought, Mrs Abbott cleared her throat, from the doorway behind her. ‘Lady Evelyn, would you not be more comfortable in the morning room? There is a chill in the hall. If there are guests…’

‘It would be more seemly to be found there?’ Eve completed with a sigh.

‘If his Grace were to come…’

‘But he is not the one expected, Abbott, as you know full well.’

The housekeeper gave a slight sniff of disapproval.

Evelyn turned to her, putting aside her girlish excitement. Though only one and twenty, she was mistress of the house and would be obeyed. ‘I will hear none of that, from you or any other member of the staff. Doctor Hastings is as much a member of the family as I am. Perhaps more so. Father took him from the foundling home a full three years before I was even born. He has been a part of this house since my first memory and is the only brother I shall ever have.’

Of course, it had been quite some time since she had considered Sam her brother. Without thinking, she touched her lips.

Abbott’s eyes narrowed slightly as she noticed the gesture.

For a moment, Eve considered making a diplomatic retreat to a receiving room. Her behaviour would be less obvious to the servants. But what message would it send to Sam if she made him come to her like an ordinary guest?

She bowed her head, as though she had considered the wisdom of Abbott’s suggestion and said, ‘You are right. There is a draught. If you could but bring me a shawl, I will be fine. And I shall not pace about before the window, for it will be much more comfortable on the bench beneath the stairs.’ From there, she could see the front door quite well, yet be invisible to the one who entered. Her appearance would be sudden and a pleasant surprise.

As she passed it, she glanced in the hallway mirror, straightening her hair and gown, smoothing curls and fluffing ruffles. Would Sam find her pretty, now that she had grown? The Duke of St Aldric had proclaimed her the handsomest girl at Almack’s and a diamond of the first water. But he was so easy in his compliments that she quite wondered if he was sincere. His manners would have required him to say such, once he had set his sights upon her.

In the same situation, Sam would have offered no false flattery. He might have pronounced her attractive.

If she had begged for more, wishing to be called beautiful, he would have accused her of vanity and named several girls that he found prettier.

Then he would have eased the sting by reminding her that she was fair enough for the average man. He would say that, for a humble man like himself, she was like a vision from heaven. Then he would smile at her, to prove that they understood each other. And his comment would make all other suitors seem unworthy.

But he’d had no chance to make such observations, because he had not come back for her first Season. He had gone straight from university, into the navy. It had been several years since. She had spent it scouring the papers for news of his ship and taking care to become the sort of woman he might hope to find when he returned. She had crossed days off the calendar and told herself each December that, next year, the wait would be over. He would come home and she would be ready for him.

But the only contact from Sam was a terse letter to Father that had outlined his plans to take a position on the Matilda.

And he had written not a word to her since the day he had left. She had not even heard of his appointment as a ship’s surgeon until after he had set sail. There had been no chance to reason him into a safer plan. He was gone and that was that.

Three years of dragging her feet had kept her in the marriage mart. She could not possibly make a match until she had seen him again. People thought it quite odd that she had not accepted an offer already. If she refused St Aldric, she would be properly on the shelf, too high in the instep for any man. Any save one, of course.

The knock came at the door, sharp and sudden, and she started in her chair. It had not sounded the way she’d imagined it would. Although how much personality could be conveyed with a door knocker, she was not sure. All the same, it startled her.

Instead of rushing forwards to open it for him, she drew back into the little space beneath the curve of the stairs. It was cowardly of her. But the secrecy meant that she would catch the first glimpse of him without his knowing and keep the moment all to herself. She would not need to guard her expression from the servants. She could devour the sight of him, thinking of things that had nothing to do with walks in the garden and picnics by the stream.

Jenks came forwards and opened the door, his tall, straight body hiding the man on the steps. The request for entrance was firm and had a polite warmth, but it was not as impulsive or raucous as she had imagined. She had been thinking of the boy who had left, she reminded herself, not the man he had become. He would still be Sam, of course. But he was changed, just as she was.

The person who appeared in the doorway was a strange combination of novelty and familiarity. He walked with the upright gait of a military man, but was free of the scars and disabilities she had seen in so many returning officers. Of course, he had spent his time well away from the battle proper, below decks, tending to the injuries that resulted from it.

He was still blond, although the reddish highlights in his hair had gone dark, almost brown. The boyish softness had left his cheeks, replaced by a firm jaw line scraped clean of stubble. His eyes were still blue, of course, and as sharp and inquisitive as ever. They took in the hall at a glance, looking at it much the same as she was looking at him, noting changes and similarities. He completed the survey with a brief nod before enquiring if her father was at home to visitors.

The boy she remembered had had a sunny disposition, an easy smile and a hand always reaching out to help or to comfort, but the man who stood before her now, in a navy-blue coat, was sombre. One might call him grave. She supposed it was a necessity of his profession. One did not want a doctor delivering bad news with a smile upon his face. But it was more than that. Though his eyes held great compassion, they were bleak, as though he suffered along with the suffering.

She wanted to ask if his life in the navy had been as horrible as she’d imagined. Had it troubled him to see so many mangled bodies and to do so little for them? Were the successes he had won from death enough to compensate for the brutality of war? Had it really changed him so much? Or did anything remain of the boy who had left her?

Now that he was back, she wanted to ask so many things. Where had he been? What had he done there? And, most importantly, why had he left her? She had thought, as they had grown past the age of playmates, that they were likely to become something much more.

His current disposition, as he passed her hiding place and followed Jenks up the stairs, was a stark contrast to St Aldric, who always seemed to be smiling. Though the duke had many responsibilities, his face was not as careworn, or marked, as Sam’s. He greeted obstacles with optimism. But he had a right to do so. There seemed little that he could not accomplish.

In looks, she could see many similarities between the two men. Both were fair and blue eyed. But St Al-dric was the taller of the two and the handsomer as well. In all things physical, he was the superior. He had more power, more money, rank and title.

And yet he was not Sam. She sighed. No amount of common sense would sway her heart from its choice. If she accepted the inevitable offer, she would be quite happy with St Aldric, but she would never love him.

But if the person one truly loved above all others was not interested, what was one to do?

Just now, he had gone straight to her father, without enquiring of Lady Evelyn’s location. Perhaps he did not care. In his silent absence, Samuel Hastings seemed to be saying that he did not remember her in the same way she did him. Perhaps he still thought of her as a childhood friend and not a young lady of marriageable age who might have formed an attachment to him.

Did he not remember the kiss? When it had happened, she had been sure of her feelings.

Apparently, he had not. After, he’d grown cold and distant. She could not believe that he was the sort of youth who would steal a kiss just to prove that he could. Had she done something to offend? Perhaps she had been too eager. Or not enthusiastic enough. But how could he have expected her to know what to do? It had been her first kiss.

It had changed everything between them. Overnight, his smile had disappeared. And, shortly thereafter, he had been gone in body as well as spirit.

Even if she had misunderstood, she would have thought that he might have written a note of farewell. Or he could have answered at least one of the letters she’d sent to him, dutifully, every week. Perhaps he had not received them. On one of his brief visits home from school, she had enquired of them. He had admitted, with a curt nod and a frozen smile, that he had read them. But he’d added nothing to indicate that the messages provided any comfort or pleasure.

It was a moot point now, of course. When one had captured the attention of a duke, who was not only powerful and rich, but handsome, polite and charming, one should not lament over a snub from a physician of no real birth.

She sighed again. All the same, it had been much on her mind of late. Even if he did not love her, Sam had been her friend. Her dearest, closest companion. She wanted his opinion of St Aldric: of the man, and of her decision. If there was any reason that he disapproved…

Of course, there could not be. He would bring no last-minute reprieve with an offer of his own. And she must remind herself that it was not exactly a march to the gallows, becoming Her Grace, the Duchess of St Aldric.

But if he did not want her, the least Dr Samuel Hastings could do was give his congratulations. And that might make it possible for her to move forwards.

‘A ship’s surgeon.’ Lord Thorne’s tone was flat with disapproval. ‘Is that not a job that can be done by a carpenter? Surely a university-trained physician could have done better.’

Sam Hastings faced his benefactor’s dark look with military posture and an emotionless stare. He could remember a time when his actions had met with nothing but approval from this man. In response, Sam had been eager to please and desperately afraid of disappointing him. But it seemed that his best efforts to abide by Thorne’s final instructions to ‘make something of yourself’ were to be met with argument and doubt.

So be it. His need to prove himself had cooled when Thorne’s affection had. ‘On the contrary, sir. On most ships, they are forced by a scarcity of skill to make do with any willing man. While they often employ the carpenter’s mate for the job, no one wants to be the man’s first patient. I am sure both captain and crew appreciated my help. I saved more limbs than I took. I gained experience with many diseases that I might never have seen had I remained ashore. There were some tropical fevers that were quite challenging. The time not spent in action was spent in study. There are many hours in the normal running of the ship that can be devoted to education.’

‘Hmmmpf.’ His guardian’s foul mood turned to resignation, when presented with reasonable opposition. ‘If you could find no other way to get sufficient experience, then I suppose it had to do.’

‘And it was quite far away,’ Sam added, subtly colouring the words. ‘When I left, you encouraged me to travel.’

‘That is true.’ Now Thorne was circumspect, which might be as close as Sam could get to approval. ‘And you have made no plans towards marriage? I encouraged you to that as well.’

‘Not as yet, sir. There was little opportunity, when so totally in the company of men. But I have ample prize money in the bank and a plan to set up practice.’

‘In London?’ Thorne said, brows furrowing.

‘In the north,’ Sam assured him. ‘I can certainly afford wife and family. I am sure there will be some woman not averse…’ He left the ending open, not wanting to lie outright. Let Thorne think what he liked. There would be no marriage, no children, no future of that sort at all.

‘Evelyn, of course, is on the cusp of a great match,’ Thorne said, as though relieved to change the subject. He smiled with obvious pride of his only daughter. For Sam’s sake, the words were delivered with an air of finality.

Sam nodded. ‘So I was given to understand by your letters. She is to marry a duke?’

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