“We were in bed, then we heard the patter of little feet—even over the thunder. Leah thought she heard Priscilla get out of bed. When we went to investigate, we found the boys were all awake, two to a bed, so Miss Portman hailed them across the hall for a story.”

None of which explained why a belted earl had troubled himself with the doings in the nursery.

“Doesn’t Leah need her rest?” Ethan asked, tugging his shirt over his head and glancing around for somewhere dry to hang it.

“Give it to me.” Nick hung the shirt over a bedpost, like a wet flag of surrender. “Your breeches too, and those stockings.”

“The stockings are beyond repair.” Ethan paused to yawn then stepped out of his remaining clothes and considered the tub. “I thought I was too tired to soak. I was wrong—you will note the occasion, it being a rarity.” He crossed the room and lowered himself into the steaming water with a grateful sigh.

Now if only Nicholas would take himself off.

“When did you get so cynical?” Nick asked, going to the wardrobe and extracting towels and a bar of hard- milled soap.

“When I was fourteen.”

Nick frowned but said nothing, passing Ethan the soap, which Ethan sniffed.

“Clove. This has to be expensive.”

“Not particularly.” Nick resumed his seat on the stool. “It lasts quite a while. So how is our dear brother Beckman?”

“This cannot wait until morning?” One very large male foot emerged from the water, was lathered, and subsided like a retreating sea monster.

“Morning.” Nick crossed his arms over his chest. “At the breakfast table we have my houseguests, the Belmonts, all three delightful people, but Priscilla’s voice when she’s trying to get attention would cut frozen glass. Then we have the real entertainment, as our nephew Ford and Leah’s brother John, both being five, still sport the peculiarly shrill voices of the very young. Your own two are models of decorum, of course, but often inspired by their confreres. Then we have Nita, Kirsten, and Suzannah, our sisters, whom we love to distraction even first thing in the morning, and let us not forget little sister Della, whose dramatics can be counted on to get the day off to a rollicking start.”

Ethan regarded his brother with a slight smile, comforted to know not all the local miseries were born of wet boots and an aching back.

“Other than the assault to your ears at breakfast, does all go well for you?” With their father’s death less than three months previous, Nick had inherited the earldom of Bellefonte. He’d married mere days before the old earl’s passing, and had taken up residence at Belle Maison with his family only at the start of the summer.

“Well enough. There is a great deal to be done, of course, and Papa’s affairs are not yet entirely settled. You saw Beckman?”

“I did.” Ethan dunked and scrubbed his hair clean to give himself time to fashion a report. “Our brother is as brown as a savage and roundly displeased with Lady Warne for letting Three Springs get into such a sorry condition, but he’s doing a nice job with the place. He hasn’t entirely gotten things sorted out with the housekeeper, though.”

That should be enough of a hint without violating fraternal confidences.

“Oh?” Nick passed Ethan a glass of brandy, then rose to answer a knock at the bedroom door. When he returned, he was carrying a tray with meat, cheese, buttered bread, a bowl of strawberries, and a steaming bowl of soup.

Ethan regarded the tray and found the strength to dunk again and rise from the warmth and comfort of the tub. “Towel?”

“A moment.” Nick set the tray down and picked up one of the two ewers of rinse water. “Eyes closed.” With his superior height, Nick could pour the water directly over his brother’s head, sluicing Ethan clean from the crown downward.

“Your towel.” Nick passed Ethan a bath sheet and stepped back, taking both drinks and the tray over to the hearth while Ethan dried off. He stepped into the dressing gown Nick held for him and settled into a chair.

“You would make somebody a good wife, Nicholas.”

“Valeting my brother is hardly a difficult skill.” Nick passed Ethan the bowl of soup. “Finish this, or I will tattle to our sisters.”

“Beck sends them his love,” Ethan said after several spoonfuls of soup. He made and then devoured a sandwich, while Nick sipped his drink and watched the fire.

“Is there something you’re not telling me, Nicholas?” Ethan asked when the sandwich had also disappeared.

“I want you to think about something,” Nick said, still staring at the fire. “But just think about it. I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with it myself.”

“Think about what?” Growing up, the most harebrained schemes—also the most fun—were always Nick’s, but Nick’s tone was serious now.

“How would you feel about leaving your boys here, with me and Leah? We’ve offered to take her brother Trent’s children for the nonce, and all four boys are of an age. They’ve had great fun these past few weeks, and we’ve enjoyed having them.”

What the hell? “Leave Joshua and Jeremiah here? With you? You just met them, Nick, and why are you taking in Leah’s brother’s children? Belle Maison is large enough, I know, but it isn’t as if the place is empty. What makes you think you can have my sons too?”

Ethan was on his feet by the time he finished, and pacing in a rising temper. A throbbing started up at the base of his skull; an old rage at Nicholas and his high-handed notions throbbed along with it.

“When Ford goes back to his father’s house,” Nick said, “Leah’s brother John will have no company here his own age. I’m not asking that Josh and Jeremiah bide here permanently, but it might make sense in the near term.”

Ethan scowled at him. “You aren’t thinking. Of course they’re having a romping good time here this summer, of course the little boys are becoming fast friends, but what then? What about when Trent Lindsey recalls he has an heir, and Ford is whisked away? What about when they have a falling out, and Joshua and Jeremiah aren’t such good companions for John anymore? What about when we have to separate them again, when they’ve already grown as close as brothers?”

Old, old wounds—wounds that should have long since healed—lurked beneath Ethan’s volley of questions.

“I am only asking that you consider it,” Nick said mildly as he rose, “and it is an offer, not a request. I would not have raised it now, but my impression was you intended to repair to Tydings fairly soon.”

“Fairly.” Ethan made an effort to rein in his temper. “We can discuss this later, but I am their only parent, Nick. I have to decide what is best for them.”

Nick smiled at Ethan, all amiability, while Ethan wanted to wallop his brother, regardless of fatigue, headache, or backache. “Of course you do. Whether you want to or not. Good night, Ethan, and I’m glad you’re here, safe and sound.”

“Good night, Nicholas. You aren’t too afraid of the storm to walk back to your rooms alone?”

“Go to hell, Ethan.” Nick turned to leave but not before Ethan saw his smile. “And sweet dreams.”

“Scream if you see the wolf,” Ethan rejoined. Nick blew him a kiss and left, closing the door softly behind him.

Ethan sat by the fire, running a hand through his damp hair. He made himself another sandwich and lounged back, realizing part of his headache—not all—had been derived from hunger.

And some from fatigue. Ethan’s mind, however, was still slogging through storms, including the hail of correspondence he’d picked up at Tydings after his visit with Beck. There were all manner of memoranda, letters, and reports from his factors and agents, but there was also a letter of resignation from the boys’ latest tutor, who had been ostensibly holidaying with his sister in Bath.

Of course he was. Ethan gave a mental snort. More likely, Mr. Harold had been looking for a new position, somewhere far from Ethan Grey, bastard firstborn of the late Earl of Bellefonte, and his hellion offspring. It was a pity, too, because Harold had been making some progress with the boys academically.

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