Rachel Winterbottom, seated in the family parlor reading a romance novel and thinking about how two of her friends had recently become betrothed to each other, looked up as the nursery maid poked her head in the room.
"Begging your pardon, miss, but the twins are missing."
"Again?" Rachel frowned. Her brother and sister, at ten years of age, were an adventurous pair, but lacked sense, as they often slipped out of the house to explore London on their own.
"They asked for tea after their lessons, Miss Rachel, but when I came up to the nursery with a tray, Miss Calvert said they had gone downstairs with me."
Rachel wanted to be angry with the twins, but she knew the restrictions her mother had placed on the children. She, at eighteen, had more freedom, but even she was limited in where she could go.
"Get your hat and cloak, Katie," she said in resignation, "and meet me in five minutes at the kitchen door."
It would have to be the rear of the house, Rachel thought as she went upstairs to retrieve her own outerwear. If either of her parents returned home as she and Katie were leaving, there would have to be explanations, and then there would be the devil to pay.
There were several reasons Katie brought her concerns to Rachel. One, Miss Calvert was a good educator, but she had less notion of how to get along in the city than the twins combined. Second, Katie did not like seeing Elizabeth and Michael in trouble, and Rachel was an understanding sister, not prone to tattling on the children to their parents. Third, however, was the most important reason of all. Rachel was good at tracking the twins. She seemed to have some sixth sense when it came to their direction, and twice this week, already, she had found them.
Once, they were outside the British Museum, pooling their money for admission. Another time, they had gone to Gunter's for ices. The first time, Rachel had calmly purchased tickets for them all, let them tour the museum and then acted later as if the outing had been planned for days. No one seemed to have missed any of them and had accepted Rachel's explanation without question. But she refused to buy ices for the reprobates during the second incident. They had to learn sometime that they could not just wander about on their own.
Evidently, they had not yet learned that lesson.
After she and Katie left the house, Rachel stopped, sniffed the air, and turned left into the mews behind the Winterbottom townhouse. From there, her senses led her to a main Mayfair thoroughfare, where she hailed a hansom cab.
"Where to, miss?"
"South, sir, and I shall tell you when to stop." As Rachel gave the driver a tip in advance, he doffed his hat, grinned at Katie and told the ladies they were in charge.
Rachel wondered about that twenty minutes later when their trek took them into a seedy part of the city. As they neared the river, the neighborhood appeared even more sordid, and Katie began to fret.
"Hush! They are nearby." Rachel asked the driver to stop in front of a dilapidated little church with the illustrious name of St. Natalis.
"Shall I wait here, miss?" The cab driver shifted nervously in his seat.
"Katie, you stay with the cab. I will only be a few minutes." Rachel paid part of their shot for good measure and went inside the drab building. The interior was as shabby as its outside appearance, but to her relief, she heard a familiar voice coming from the small sanctuary.
"You would like our sister, Rachel," Elizabeth was saying. She was sitting on the front-row pew, her legs dangling. Michael was on her left, munching happily on sugar biscuits. A gentleman - presumably the vicar - faced his current congregation of two, looked up and smiled at her.
Rachel stopped short just behind the twins, and she could not recall meeting a more handsome gentleman. He had dark hair that was longer than was fashionable, and it curled around the nape of his neck. Because of the dimly lit room, she could not determine eye color, but his smile was bright.
"Is this sister dark-haired, with a heart-shaped face and a blue bonnet?" he asked.
"Yes! And she took us to the museum on Tuesday!"
"How do you know what she looks like?" Michael wondered.
"Because she is standing right behind you, about to wring your scrawny little necks!" Rachel exclaimed.
Instead of being cowed, as she might have hoped, the twins clambered to their feet and ran around the pew to embrace their sister.
"We knew you would find us!"
"I have sugar biscuits!"
Rachel nodded, brushing crumbs from her cloak, and sighed. "It is a miracle I did find you! How in the world did you end up in this..." She struggled for something nice to say.
"Pitiful excuse for a church?" the clergyman offered. "It is true," he added before she could protest. "There is not much to say about this place, except to recommend my housekeeper's biscuits." He sneezed, suddenly, and patted down his coat for a handkerchief, to no avail.
"Bless you. It is a perfectly lovely little church, and I thank you for keeping the children safe, but it is time for us to go. My maid is waiting in a cab," she explained to the vicar, even as she fished in her reticule, found a square of linen and handed it over.
"The vicar was just about to arrange a ride home for us," Elizabeth said.
"How thoughtful." Rachel looked into a pair of light-colored eyes she was sure were either green or gray, and smiled. "I appreciate all you have done, sir, more than you can imagine." Her mother would kill them all if she discovered the reason for so many outings this week.
"It has been my pleasure." He tried to hand back the handkerchief, and when Rachel indicated he should keep it, he bowed instead to the children, and then to Rachel. "Mr. Winterbottom, Miss Elizabeth. Your servant, Miss Winterbottom."
"Thank you." Rachel could have stood there longer, trying to determine the man's eyes, but Elizabeth nudged her.
"Katie is outside, waiting," she was reminded.
"Oh, yes! Yes, she is." Taking her truants by the hands, she nodded to the vicar and left the building, bustling the twins into the cab, even though it meant taking Elizabeth onto her lap. Rachel looked out the window toward the small church and saw the vicar standing in the doorway, watching them leave. She almost raised a hand, and thought better of it. It would not do to be too forward with a gentleman she was never going to see again.
"You wished to see us, Father?" Twin mountains by the names of Marric and Ulric Hartwell stood with military precision in front of their parent in his office, an imposing room with intimidation, not comfort, in mind. The two elder sons of Maximilian Hartwell, however, were very much at home in this space, as their father was their leader, as well as their progenitor.
"Sit, men," the older Hartwell invited them, indicating the two grand chairs that faced his wide, mahogany desk. They did as they were bid and he sat there a moment, regarding his offspring.
"I have found a girl," he finally said.
His sons did not speak.
"She will be for one of you, and whomever she chooses will marry her."
"Yes, sir," they said as one, not questioning their father's command. And it was a command.
"Neither of you will ask it, but I will tell you why I have discovered this girl, and what she means to the family. I want you to understand my plan, so that you do not interfere."
The brothers looked at each other. It was true that one or both of them did not often follow through with their father's orders, or would do something to foul his schemes. It was not planned that way. Indeed, they were more loyal to the older man than any other members of the pack. Things just had a way of going awry. This, however, was personal. One of them would be required to take this girl to wife.
"Excellent. The girl, Miss Rachel Winterbottom, has the potential to produce lycan children."
That was important, as there had not been a lycan child born in the pack since the arrival of Ulric, twenty six years before. Hartwell had a third son, but that child was not a shape shifter, and as such did not count. The family must be preserved, but more importantly, the pack must not be allowed to die out.
"I want you two to attend a social function, get to know the lady, let her know she may have her choice of you. Do this, and you will be greatly rewarded. Fail, and I will have to resort to more desperate measures. Do not force me to do so."
"Excellent. You are dismissed. Check with Donald regarding Miss Winterbottom's social calendar. I want you wherever she will be, and I want you to insinuate yourselves in her life. She must be made aware that there is a choice, but only between you."
The paperskulls would probably mess this up, as well, Hartwell thought as he watched his sons leave, but he had another plan. As he said, he preferred not to use it. Just because he was in a leadership position did not mean he liked using force. Much, at any rate. Still, Miss Winterbottom must be made to heel. She was desperately needed, and she must not discover why. Just because one had the potential to pass on the lycan gene did not mean one could access it themselves. And he did not wish the mother of his grandchildren to be frightened. Yet.
Once out of the office, the two Hartwell brothers left the house and went down to the local pub for a pint. Or two. An audience with their father tended to intimidate, as the older man intended, and alcohol was needed immediately afterward.
"Married, hmmm?" Marric said.
"So it seems." Ulric held two fingers up to the barmaid and she rushed to bring them ale.
"Shall you do the pretty first, or shall I?"
"Do you not question this need to marry soon?"
"No. Do you?"
Ulric shrugged. "Not particularly. I just always hoped I could choose my own bride."
"Perhaps she will like me better than you, and that will not be a problem."
"Until the next time Father finds a girl he wants in the family. He will run out of sons eventually."
"Even Alex will be forced to bend to Father's will."
"I doubt he will." Marric was rather proud of the way their younger brother stood up to their leader. Not that Alex was a member of the pack. He had renounced them all in favor of a profession.
"So do I, but one never knows. I wonder what his parishioners would think if they knew he had lycan blood?"
"Do you think any of them can even spell that?"
"There is the chance. After all, you did not even realize, Marric, that lycan had a y in it until last year."
Marric frowned and pushed his brother off the bench, sending Ulric tumbling backwards into the pretty barmaid, who sent the drinks flying. Fortunately, his reflexes were excellent, and Marric's brother caught the tankards before they could hit the floor. Some was spilled, a waste of good ale, but Ulric earned a few kisses from the barmaid in the process, and she quickly promised more ale and kisses if they would just be patient. They might have to spend the next fortnight or so wooing a chit they did not even know yet, but at least the day was not a total loss.
Rachel was too short to see over most of the people at the rout she was attending, but that did not stop her from searching for one of her dearest friends, Lady Arabella Pryce. The recently betrothed Arabella would want to hear the story about the twins and their visit to a poverty-stricken church in a lower class part of town. Arabella's own sister-in-law, Samantha, another of Rachel's friends, had helped her father serve in one very similar to St. Natalis. It was where she had first met Arabella's brother, Lord Ryder. Arabella, too, would appreciate that Rachel had found not only the twins, but a handsome vicar, as well.
Truth was, Rachel could not get the gentleman out of her mind. She did not even know his name, and yet thoughts of him would creep into her head at the oddest times. She secretly held out hope that he would find them and call, asking how the twins fared after their escapade. So far, that hope had not yet materialized.
Tonight, there seemed no hope of running into Arabella, either. Unfortunately, her own godmother, and hostess of this rout, Lady Durand, was even now barreling down on her, two of the largest, most brutish men Rachel had ever seen at a ton party, in tow. If they were not dressed in such finely fashioned clothing, she would have sworn they were teamsters.
"There you are, my dear Rachel. I must make you known to the Hartwell brothers. They asked about you specifically, you know."
Rachel did not know, and glancing over at the loutish men, she was not even sure she cared.
"I am honored," she replied, trying to be polite. All she needed was word to get back to her mother that she was being rude to gentlemen, although with these two, she used the term rather loosely.
"You should be! The Hartwells are one of our oldest families, and have a fortune! You could do a lot worse than either of these two gentlemen."
Rachel was certain she could do a lot better, too, even as she wished to sink into the floor and disappear. How embarrassing to hear her godmother speak this way, especially as Lady Durand's voice had a tendency to carry.
"Now, my dearest Rachel, I would like to introduce you to Mr. Marric Hartwell, and Mr. Ulric Hartwell. Gentlemen, I give you Miss Winterbottom." And with that, Lady Durand disappeared into the crowd.
Rachel stood staring at the two men, who stared back. Both of them. Without blinking. It was unnerving the way they held her gaze as she looked at first one and then the other. None of them spoke. She finally turned around and walked off, but was aware that all the Neanderthal brothers did was fall in step with her.
"We would be pleased to get you a drink, Miss Winterbottom," one of them offered. She could not recall which one asked.
"That would be pleasant. You could both go,"she suggested. "One to carry his own drink, the other to carry one for himself and one for me."
The gentlemen glanced at each other, bowed to her and headed off to the punch bowl. Rachel took the opportunity to make herself scarce. She slipped through a side door into a hallway that led to Lady Durand's smaller family parlor. It was empty and she sat down on the sofa before sliding her feet out of their slippers. Ever since she was small, Rachel had not cared much for shoes, to the despair of her mother, nanny and governess.
"Here is your punch, Miss Winterbottom."
One of the cavemen held a cup out to her, and she was so startled, she almost knocked it out of his hand. Fortunately for them all, he moved it out of harm's way before that could happen.
"You did not have to bring my punch in here," Rachel faintly replied. "Honest."
"But you wished for a drink and you cannot drink it if you and the punch are not in the same room," one of the Hartwells said.
"That is a logical assumption." Rachel took the cup and sipped it politely. The three of them stared at each other once more.
"Do you gentlemen have professions?" Rachel finally wondered, "or are you just men of leisure?"
"We work for our father."
"And what does he do?" she asked after another long moment of silence.
The brothers glanced at each other. Rachel was beginning to be annoyed by their silent communication.
"He dabbles in this and that."
"Ah, an entrepreneur."
"A businessman," she explained.
"Yes," they agreed as one.
"I see." She did not, really, but what else could she say? The Hartwells were not what she would call forthcoming.
"What do you do when you are not dabbling in this and that with your father?"
"Oh? I like to ride to the hounds, myself, although I tend to avoid being in on the kill. What about you?"
"We..." They hesitated.
The brothers were definitely strange, and they had an odd scent about them she could not identify, even though it was vaguely familiar, as if she had come across a similar scent in the recent past.
Fortunately, she was saved from further boredom by the appearance of her mother. Perhaps it was the fact that Rachel sat in a room alone with two men - despite the door being open - that brought such a sour expression to Mrs. Winterbottom's face. Or it could have been the way the men looked as if they should be driving ox carts, not sipping punch in a parlor.
Rachel, knowing her mother disapproved of something, if not everything concerning this situation, smiled at the prehistoric brothers and got to her feet. They followed suit and she had to revise some of her opinions. It appeared they had some semblance of manners.
"Thank you so much for the punch and the scintillating conversation," she told them.
"We will meet again," they promised.
Not if she could help it said the expression on Mrs. Winterbottom's face as she hustled Rachel out the door.
"What was that?" she whispered in her daughter's ear once they were in the front hall of Lady Durand's town house.
"Whatever do you mean? Do you not like my new acquaintances? I wonder which one of the Hartwell gentlemen I shall marry?" Rachel mused. Her mother's face turned a dangerous shade of puce.
"I will not allow it!"
Rachel let out a small sigh of relief and wisely said nothing.
Aware that the twins might not run away so often if she organized their outings, Rachel earned some faint praise from her parents over the next few weeks as she made certain there was no repeat of their adventure to the poor area surrounding St. Natalis. Not that she did not wish to meet that vicar once more, but if something happened to any of them in such a neighborhood, she would never hear the end of it.
This day's adventure was rather tame - a bookstore and a walk in a park - but the twins were agreeable, so Rachel and Katie took them to Hookhams. Once there, the nursery maid took the children to look over travel books while Rachel happily perused Gothic romances.
"Looking to improve your mind, Miss Winterbottom?" a male voice asked over her shoulder.
"I read nothing else," she said, turning with a smile. The vicar from St. Natalis smiled back at her. "I hope you will not tell my mother."
"I will hold your confession to be sacred," he promised.
"You do that. Do you come here often?" Rachel wished she could take back such an inane question the moment she asked. The man probably did not even make enough to buy books. He was not holding any, either, the way a buyer might. She was an idiot.
"On occasion. I am rather partial to Gothics, myself, if the truth were known."
"There is just something about dreary castles, dank crypts and full moons that appeals to my soul."
"Mine, too. Horrific tales are not exactly lacking in the Bible, either," he pointed out.
"There are giants, wars, plagues and gruesome deaths," she agreed. "But one should not substitute Mrs. Radcliffe for the Good Book."
"Of course not. They all have their place in the scheme of things. Speaking of schemes, how fare your brother and sister?"
"They are none the worse for wear, sir, and are here with me today. I took their adventures as a plea for help and we have been exploring the city together. Today it is books and the park. Next week, we are going to Madame Tussauds."
"Where you will all enjoy the chamber of horrors, no doubt."
"No doubt. Michael and Elizabeth would, for certain, the bloodthirsty little scamps." She wondered if she should add a visit to the Tower of London to their upcoming outings.
There were voices coming from the other side of the shelves and the vicar gave her a wink. "I will pay my respects to the twins before I go. It has been a pleasure to see you once more, Miss Winterbottom." With a bow, he was gone.
Rachel sighed, as the pleasure had been all hers. Who wanted a caveman when one could have a refined gentleman like the vicar. It only occurred to her much later that she still did not know his name.
Alex did not like the fact that his father had summoned - nay, commanded him - to call, but even though he no longer considered himself a member of the pack, he still had a deep-seated need to connect with family.
Neither his father nor his older brothers understood him, he thought as he was let into the house by an old retainer pleased to see him. To them, the pack was everything. To him, who had not inherited the ability to shift his shape, it was a nuisance. While the family lycans required numbers for support, he could function just fine on his own. An inheritance from his late mother also made it possible to leave, as she had intended it to, to live independently of his father's rule. Which made today's audience with the old wolf all the more confusing.
Wilfred, the butler, settled Alex in the study with a small whiskey and informed him that Mr. Hartwell would join him shortly.
Twenty minutes later, his tall, autocratic father strode into the room. He was smiling.
"Good news?" Alex prompted, even as he rose to shake his father's outstretched hand. The fact that his father had extended a hand in the first place told Alex that the old wolf was not going to give out any lectures today. Good.
"The very best! I should say, the very best, Reverend Hartwell!"
Alex shook his head in bemusement. His father was never this jovial around the one son who most resembled a beloved late wife. And one who did not have the family talent.
"You may." They took seats, his father choosing one next to his son, not the chair behind the desk.
"I have found a mate for one of your brothers."
Alex was about to take a sip if whiskey, but stopped himself. On second thought, he might need that drink and he tossed back half of it in one gulp.
"How... interesting. You understand that I cannot condone this, but neither will I condemn you."
"Yes, yes, I know where you stand when it comes to perpetuating the pack. But I want to keep this in the family, and I do not think you could condemn my wish for them to be wed by a man of the cloth." The old man sniffed the air for a moment, frowned, and then smiled at his son.
"You want me to perform the wedding ceremony?" He was surprised once again. Although it made sense. The service would be performed, most likely, under a red Hunter's Moon, and only in the presence of the pack. A shifted pack. There were no other lycan-related vicars that he knew who would be able to keep his wits about him in the midst of a pack of wolves.
"You will be discreet." The old man was sure of that, and he would be correct. Alex would never betray those closest to him, even if he did not approve of their lifestyle.
"I assume this will be at Hartwell in October?"
"Naturally. Miss Winterbottom and her family will have been invited by then, and..."
"Wait. Winterbottom?" Alex frowned. How many Winterbottoms were there that this was not the same lady he had recently met and could not get out of his mind?
"Yes. Miss Winterbottom, it seems, carries the ability to breed lycans. I only tell you this so that you may have no objections to her marrying one of your brothers."
Hell, yes, he had objections. But now was not the time to think of them. He was going to agree now, so he could ensure his presence at Hartwell during the full moon next month. And he was curious. Since his parent was in a gregarious mood, he pressed him for information.
"Miss Winterbottom has agreed to the marriage?" That was a reasonable question - no minister would ever marry a couple where one of the parties objected to the union. That was against church law.
"Not yet, but she shall. After all, your brothers are wealthy, with the promise of more money in the future, ruggedly handsome and appealing in an olfactory way."
Alex was of two minds considering the olfactory comment, but he wisely held his tongue. "She knows what she is?"
"No, and no one is going to tell her, either. Not yet. I may tell her close to the wedding, but I plan to announce it to the rest of the pack at the party after the ceremony."
"Naturally. After all, we cannot expect the wedding to take place in the morning. Not the real ceremony, at any rate."
Of course, Alex thought a bit sarcastically. It had to be during the full moon.
"What if she refuses?"
"She will not dare."
Alex shrugged, glad his parent was more optimistic about this endeavor than he was. Besides, he planned on exposing everything to the lady beforehand, in case she was actually considering one of his barbaric brothers. He hoped not, and he dared think she would be as offended by the entire situation as he was, even though he barely knew her himself.
"But what if she does?" he pressed.
"I will exact a promise from you now that you will say nothing to the lady, even though you have not yet met her."
"I do not want you tracking her down, telling her everything we know, spoiling my plans. Do I have your word, as a Hartwell, that you will not?"
Alex hesitated. Although he wished to protect Miss Winterbottom, there were ways around a promise if he gave it. He might not be a member of the pack, but he did wish to have his father's approval. Who did not?
"Yes, I promise," he finally said, even as he wondered how much such an agreement would cost him. He would worry about that later.
For a couple of weeks, wherever she went, Rachel was forced into the company of the Hartwell brothers. Her mother continued to be displeased, at least until someone pointed out the Hartwell wealth and lineage. After that, she was less watchful of her daughter. Rachel felt betrayed. And she continued to be bored to tears.
Most of her time with the Hartwells was spent in silence. Both of the gentlemen seemed content with that, but Rachel often wished to run screaming from their presence.
One day, however, at a Venetian breakfast, only one of the Hartwell brothers, Marric, was present. Rachel did not think much of it, as Mr. Hartwell was close mouthed, as usual, until he suggested they take a walk in their hostess' gardens.
Already inattentive to the entire event, Rachel was more than willing for a change of scenery, even though she found her companion lacking any semblance of intelligence.
They were soon out of sight of the crowd, and Rachel stopped to survey a flower bed that had already been prepared for winter. When she turned back to Mr. Hartwell, he was actually on one knee and reaching for her hand. She put both hands quickly behind her back.
"What are you doing?"
"I am going to ask for your hand in marriage. Please be quiet, Miss Winterbottom, so I do not forget what I am supposed to say."
"You memorized what you want to say? This is rehearsed?"
Yes, now, please, Miss Winterbottom, be quiet."
"Shhh!" It was the most he had ever said to her. "I know we have not known each other for long, but I have a warm regard for you."
"Warm..." Of all the cheek!
"Yes, warm regard for you. I think we would rub along tolerably well, and I am asking you to be my wife."
"You had to rehearse this?" she all but shouted. "Of all the.... 'Rub along tolerably well...' I have never heard such a terrible proposal in all my life!" Even the betrothal of Arabella and Cosmo had not come off this badly.
"Does that mean yes?"
"It means no. I could never accept someone who only holds me in warm regard, sir, and thinks we would rub along tolerably well. I want something more out of life, and I am sorry to say that you could never provide it."
"I have money!"
Rachel turned red. "I do not measure the worth of a husband by his money!" She stormed off, but as she turned a corner in the garden, she heard him speak again.
"I have money."
If that was not bad enough, Mr. Ulric Hartwell cornered her at a ball the very next evening.
"May I have this dance, Miss Winterbottom?"
"I..." She hesitated, in case his brother was not too far away, but there was no sign of the other Mr. Hartwell, and she did not give a second thought to spending time with Ulric. After all, if she had turned down one Hartwell, the other must assume that he was no longer in the running, either.
She was wrong.
"How have you been?" she asked as they performed a country dance.
"I have been miserable," he confessed as they met at one point.
"Oh? I am sorry to hear that. Do you wish to tell me about it?" Rachel was not exactly enamored of the Hartwell brothers, but she was not unkind, either. She suggested they sit out the next dance in the set. He agreed and said he would be more comfortable out of doors. Rachel agreed and they adjourned to the garden when they were able to leave the dance floor without comment.
"Now, tell me why you are miserable?" she prompted once they were outside.
"You have refused my brother."
"But... Are you that close that you are in such sympathy?"
"You broke his heart."
"I sincerely doubt that, Mr. Hartwell. He never showed that his heart was engaged, and for that matter, neither have I, because it is not so. You might support his disappointment, but I doubt you feel miserable because of a broken heart."
"But we want you to marry one of us, so if you will not have Marric, perhaps you will have me?"
Rachel was not going to leave without hearing the entire proposal, unless he mentioned money, in which case she was going back into the house.
"Perhaps. What have you to offer?" she wondered.
"A house. I have a house."
Rachel leaned against a marble column, one of the more pretentious pieces in their hostess' garden. "Oh? A house is good. What else?"
"I have a position with my father, and I can support a wife. And a family."
At least he didn't say money out loud, she thought.
"Those are all very nice things," she agreed, "and one day, I want them, as well. But I do not want all those things with either you or your brother." A pair of green-gray eyes came to mind, instead. "It is nothing personal, Mr. Hartwell, truly. But I cannot be your wife any more than I can marry your brother."
"Rachel, a moment of your time, please?"
Mr. Winterbottom rarely interacted with his daughter, especially now that she was of an age to marry, preferring to leave most of her life in his wife's hands. When he asked to speak to her, Rachel was curious and followed him into his study.
"You want to speak to me, Papa?"
"Yes." He invited her to sit, and she readily complied. "I understand you have received offers from the Hartwell gentlemen."
"I... Yes, I have, and I have refused them, as well."
Her father shook his head. "I feared that. Do you know what trouble that has caused?"
"Trouble? Papa, I do not love either of them and I cannot foresee a future with the one. His brother, either, if you wish the truth."
She was beginning to get worried. "What is it, Papa?"
"Do you know how much money I owe Hartwell?"
"What?" As far as Rachel knew, the Winterbottoms were well-off. At least all of her needs had always been met. There had never been any conversations on economizing, as far as she recalled, and if that is what they had been required to do, she would have heard of it before now. "How can this be?"
"I had to borrow money recently, and did not realize that it was Hartwell's funds I was getting. Now he is demanding that I pay them all back at once. Unless you marry one of his sons."
A hand flew to Rachel's mouth. "Oh, no! Papa, I cannot!"
"But you must! Otherwise, we shall we ruined."
"Ruined!" Tears streamed down Rachel's cheeks. "But I do not want to be a Hartwell!"
"That is too bad. I have met with Mr. Hartwell and we have decided that you have until the Red Moon in a fortnight's time to choose which young man you will marry. You may have any one you like, as long as he is a Hartwell."
"Papa!" Rachel wailed once more, but her father was past hearing, and he swiftly left the room.
Rachel spent the week with red eyes and nose, feeling as if she could not catch her breath. Not normally a weepy female, she just could not quite get herself under control. Her mother tried to get her to contain her grief, even at the wedding of her dearest friends, Arabella and Cosmo, but the fact that they were marrying for love made Rachel cry even harder.
Back in town, she continued to mope and weep, and even the twins began to avoid her. Try as she might, she was unable to find a way out of her predicament with the Hartwells. Pray as she might, there was no one to talk to, no one who might be able to confer some advice... And then she knew in whom she could confide. Why had she not thought of this before?
Rachel ran to her room to collect her wraps and bonnet before stopping to consider the propriety of her plan. But she knew something that would add respectability to her scheme. Or someone. Two someones, to be exact. She skipped off to the nursery and told the twins to get their coats.
"We are going out," she told Katie. "We will not be overly long, but I do believe now would be a good time to take the afternoon off." She gave the nursery maid a broad wink.
The twins whooped and ran for their outerwear, and they all went out of the house together, catching a hansom on the corner.
"Where are we going?" Michael finally asked.
"It is a surprise." But first, Rachel had the driver stop at Fortnum and Mason to buy a small hamper of treats with her pin money. All for a good cause, she reasoned, and the money be damned.
Only later, after the cab let them out in front of a shabby little church in a disreputable neighborhood did Rachel wonder if she was right to come. When the vicar answered her knock at a side door, and gave her a bright smile of welcome, she knew her instinct had been correct.
"We hate to intrude, sir..." She let out a little laugh. "Indeed, we do not even know your name."
"Call me Alex," he invited, and indicated that they should all step inside. Rachel and her siblings followed him to a small parlor with a warm fire and she held out the basket.
"We came to share tea with you, and could not arrive empty-handed."
"It is all most welcome. My housekeeper made a pot of tea and jam sandwiches before she went home for the day. With your offerings, we should have a merry tea."
"Jam sandwiches!" Michael exclaimed. He plopped himself down in the chair closest to the fire and sighed.
"Michael!" Rachel admonished, but the vicar just shook his head and made a quiet comment about young men and their comforts.
Later, after most of the goods had been consumed and the tea had grown cold, Rachel got the children interested in a game of chess before settling down near the fire.
"I dare not hope you are merely here for the company, Miss Winterbottom, especially when I know you do not lack for companionship and activity elsewhere."
"It is true that I could find something else to occupy my time. However, I lack a sympathetic ear and it was my hope that I may find one here."
The vicar held his hands out sideways. "I am here for you."
"Thank you. I fear I have had bad news, but for the sake of the children, I shall try not to cry any more. Indeed, I feel as if I have already filled a lake with my tears. And they have done me no good."
"So, you are in some distress? How may I assist you?"
"By listening to my woes. Believe me, if there were a way out of this, sir, I like to think I could have figured it out by now."
"You do not appear to be a slowtop."
"Exactly. I have to marry, sir, and it is to a gentleman not of my choosing. Actually, I have a choice, but as it is one brother over another for a husband, that is not much of a consolation."
"Let me get this correct: You are choosing to be married, or you are being forced to marry?"
"They are one and the same at the moment, sir. My father, it appears, is indebted to another man, and if I do not choose to wed one of his sons, we are ruined."
The vicar made a strange, choking sound.
"Are you all right?"
"Hard to swallow, is it not?" Rachel shook her head.
"What, if I may ask, was the exact wording of the agreement?"
She feared the gentleman might have apoplexy, he was so red in the face, and she watched him carefully, even as she lowered her voice to keep the twins from overhearing their conversation.
"Let me see... Something about having to marry one of the Hartwell brothers or see my family in financial ruin."
"Ah." Alex seemed to relax at that, and his skin color cleared as he settled back into his chair and smiled. "You may not like my advice, Miss Winterbottom, but I do believe you should follow your family's wishes."
"I should?" She frowned. "I should. After all, I cannot let my family down."
"No, indeed. And, as I am a man of faith, may I say that I will be praying for you."
"I appreciate that. After all, I did not come here today for any reason but to unload my cares." What had she hoped to accomplish today, anyway? "I suppose I just needed the support."
"You have my support, Miss Winterbottom. You always will."
"Check!" Elizabeth cried. Michael groaned and conceded the game. "I win again!"
"The natives are restless, sir, and our time grows short." Rachel indicated that the children should put away their game board and pieces, and got to her feet. "I do hope that one day we shall meet again," she said in a soft voice. "I will be so bold as to say that I wish things might have been different." She would gladly have given up all her privilege if he would but declare himself.
"So do I. Please do not be discouraged, Miss Winterbottom. God knows our dilemmas and often provides a way out that we cannot foresee." He daringly took her hand and brought it to his lips. "I will pray for strength. And hope."
Rachel smiled, glad she had come to confide in this man. She had the strange sensation that he would yet be her salvation.
Doubts returned however, on the ride home, and Rachel was torn between the warmth in the vicar's eyes and his advice that she do what she needed to save her family. Part of her wished to throw herself in his arms and declare that she could live the life of a poor vicar's wife, if he would have her. And then she looked over at the twins, sleeping propped up against each other, and knew she would protect their way of life. After all, their eldest sister, Lady Renquist, would take in their parents and the children, and between Ellen and her pompous husband, they would make everyone absolutely miserable.
No, the vicar was far more correct than he ever knew. She had to go through with this farce of a marriage. There were too many people depending on her decision. But which brother?
They were rather the same person. What one knew, the other certainly did. Which did not seem to amount to much. On the other hand, Rachel was smarter than either of them - or both together. She could basically do whatever she pleased. It occurred to her that being a married woman with a large income could be to her advantage. Until Hartwell senior stepped in at some point, of course, but she was certain she could deal with him, as well. So, which Hartwell to choose?
Fortunately, a solution presented itself upon their return home. An invitation from the elder Mr. Hartwell had arrived in Rachel's absence and the Winterbottoms had been asked to the Hartwell estate in Surrey. The Hartwells wished the Winterbottoms to be pampered and feted a week before the wedding, culminating in a special ceremony.
Rachel had a week with the Hartwell brothers and she was determined to use the time to make her choice.
The Hartwell estate in Surrey was a rambling old building in no one particular style. For some reason, Rachel would have guessed it was Gothic, considering the way she was being forced to make a decision that would affect the rest of her life. And there were Gothic elements in the old pile, but there were other schools of design represented, as well: Jacobean, Greek Revival and even Palladian all had their share of the architectural conversation. The result was chaos, but Rachel rather liked the jumble, and she shrugged it all off as the Winterbottom coach made its ascent up the main drive.
What she saw around the odd house was a well-groomed park, few ornaments on the lawn, no formal garden visible from the front, and then deep woodlands surrounding the area. Something in her longed to walk in the woods, and she hoped she would get her wish. It was a time such as this that she realized the city was stunting her senses. She would have to make certain her chosen Hartwell knew she much preferred the country.
They were greeted at the door by a dour, shaggy old man. He must be the butler, but to Rachel he more resembled a dog. Or a wolf. The twins seemed to think so, as well, if their giggles were any indication. Rachel put on a pleasant smile as the Hartwell brothers appeared and offered to show her the gardens while everyone else settled into their rooms. She would have liked to have seen her room first, to freshen up, but Mr. Hartwell senior appeared, encouraged his sons to spirit Rachel away and she allowed herself to be escorted out.
Not that she planned on complaining, especially after deciding earlier that she always wanted to live here, and not London. Even the brothers seemed more relaxed, and they made decent small talk that surprised her. This was more than either had ever said to her, even counting their proposals. Rachel still could not decide which brother she preferred - they were quite equal in her estimation - but she was warming to the thought of becoming Mrs. Hartwell. She would have this jumbled old house to order as she pleased, she could easily travel to and from town and back, and eventually there would be children, and this would not be a bad place for them to be raised.
Smiling at the brothers, she linked arms with them both and asked questions about the house and estate as they strolled the grounds.
If Rachel thought she could do as she pleased once she was married, however, she was sadly mistaken. The maid assigned to her by Mr. Hartwell had a few rules that she insisted had to be followed, with no exceptions. The older woman, Sally, was as dour as the butler, without the doggy appearance, and Rachel vowed to replace her as a personal maid as soon as she was lady of the manor.
Not only did Sally sniff - literally - all of Rachel's clothing as she unpacked the trunks, but she let Rachel know in no uncertain terms that no one was allowed out of the house between eleven at night and five in the morning. The doors were locked and no one could go in or out.
"What if a doctor is required or there are late guests?" she asked, confused.
"We do not need a physician here, miss. Ever. And anyone fortunate enough to be a guest knows to arrive on time, or spend the night elsewhere." Sally picked up a hat box and gave it a good sniff.
"Breakfast is served in your room, tea is at three in the formal drawing room and dinner begins at eight thirty sharp and lasts until ten."
"Merciful heavens!" Rachel exclaimed. "So regimented!"
Sally's answering smile was not kind. "You will learn to adjust. Mr. and Mrs. Sims run a tight ship."
Rachel doubted she would conform to the status quo and she added the Simses to her mental list of servants to replace.
But if she thought the rules and regulations too much to be borne, her biggest surprise that day was a meeting before dinner with her host and future father-in-law, Mr. Hartwell.
"You wished to see me, sir?" she asked after being announced in that man's study by a sour-faced Mr. Sims.
The senior Hartwell was tall and solid like his sons, with green-gray eyes and silver at his temples. Rachel thought him quite distinguished and was unable to look away as she was invited to take a chair by the fire, even as she resented the position he had placed her in by calling in her father's debt.
"I do hope you are not too alarmed by the strictures laid out by your new maid," he said kindly. "There are reasons for the rules. I know you will not be alarmed or even frightened by that reason as you are an honorable lady and will not renege on the agreement to marry one of my sons."
"Oh?" Rachel was curious now, and not truly alarmed. Not yet.
"There is no easy way to say this, so I am just going to get to the point. You are descended from a great family of lycans on your father's side." Mr. Hartwell sounded as if it were a great honor, but Rachel was clueless as to what that honor might be.
"What exactly is a lycan, sir?"
He stared at her for a moment, as if incapable of finding a suitable reply. "Lycans," he finally replied, "are shape shifters of a specific sort. We become wolves, Miss Winterbottom." He leaned forward. "Does that scare you?"
Rachel did not even realize she had recoiled from her host. "Should it?" she finally wondered.
"We are quite dangerous, and not just because we are wild beasts. There are no true wolves in England, not anymore. They have been hunted to the point of extinction. It is a risk to change even here, Miss Winterbottom, hence the rules. Almost everyone who visits is a shifter, and therefore not bound by the house rules. But they must be careful just the same. It is not safe to go near the village, for fear of being hunted. We are a dying breed."
"And you want the line to continue. Which makes me little more than a brood mare. I thought perhaps that was the reason for your threats to my family, and now I know why." Rachel stood, lifting her head proudly. "I have plenty of questions, Mr. Hartwell, as you may well imagine. For now, however, I need to digest what information you have already given me." She gave him a brief curtsy. "Good day."
Once out of the study, Rachel ran to the library, her head spinning. But she was not scared. She probably should be. She was to be mother to a new generation of shape changers. Werewolves! She briefly wondered if they were born in litters, and that thought caused her to laugh a little hysterically. No, she was certain were children were born one at a time, like regular babies. They just grew up learning how to shift between a human and an animal. That certainly would make life interesting.
Scanning the shelves, she searched for books concerning lycanthrope, and finally found a small section in a dark corner of the library that contained what she hoped would be answers to her questions. She did not wish to trust Mr. Hartwell to have any other than the ones he thought she would want to hear.
Grabbing a small book for starters, she lit a candle, found a chair and began to read.
An hour and three books later, Rachel sat with a smug smile on her face. She would be giving birth to potential shape shifters, she had learned. Not all the children would become wolves. Just as she was only a carrier, so could some of her offspring be normal. That relieved her on one level, but the best part of her research was her role in the entire family, one Mr. Hartwell either forgot or deliberately did not mention: Lycans were a matriarchal society. She would be the head of the family. Especially if she married the eldest son, in this case, Marric. If she were in charge, at least of the household, she could replace some of these mean, eerie servants with those of her choosing. She understood that some of the rules were for safety, and those would have to remain. Otherwise, she could rearrange the house and her life to her liking. The thought made her smile, and be less fearful of the future.
Two days before the wedding, she announced that she would marry Marric, the elder brother, but other than some small applause at the dinner table, life went on as usual. Guests began to arrive, and she spent a lot of time trying to decide who was a lycan and who was not. Most of them, she decided, were weres. Sometimes, late at night, she would stand by her window and watch as more and more wild canines loped off into the woods. A part of her wondered what it would be like to be able to change your shape at will, and part of her was repelled by the thought that she would help create more of these strange, dangerous creatures. At least her research, and further questions to Mr. Hartwell, assured her that the wolves were not demons, nor were they man-eating creatures, as some of the legends proclaimed.
And another part of her thought of Alex, the kind vicar with the pretty eyes. What would he think of all this? Were they truly an abomination if they did not harm humans and merely wished to survive with a talent that was hardly a gift, and more like a curse?
The night before her wedding day, she stood at the window and watched with horror as two small humans raced across the yard, seemingly in pursuit of one of the wolves.
Michael and Elizabeth! How had they gotten past the locked doors? What if they were attacked? Yes, the wolves were not evil creatures, but they were still wild animals. Couldn't have guests wandering the grounds at night while animals were abroad.
Throwing a cloak over her nightgown and pulling sturdy shoes out of her wardrobe, Rachel went as quickly and as quietly through the house as she could, finally finding a side door that was unlocked. She went out, allowing the light of the moon to mark her way as she ran around the side of the house in the direction she had seen the twins heading into the woods.
Rachel had not gone several feet into the trees, however, when a man blocked her path. She stared in amazement as the vicar put his hands on her shoulders.
"What are you doing out here, Miss Winterbottom?"
"What are you doing here at all, sir?"
"Long story. You cannot be out here like this. Did no one tell you the rules?"
Rachel snorted. "I know the rules. I have been following the rules. My brother and sister do not think the rules apply to them. I saw them run off and I am trying to find them before they are harmed."
"You go back indoors," he pleaded. "I will find them."
"But the rules!"
"I know the rules, as well, Miss Winterbottom. Go inside. I know I can find them for you. Please, do as I say." He ran his hands down her arms and took both of her hands in his. "I want you to be safe."
Rachel nodded, turned and ran back toward the house. She wasn't going to get any sleep until the twins were safe, and she had to mull over the reasons why Alex was here. And why he seemed to know the rules and why it might be safe for him out there, and not her. It was going to be a long night.
Rachel did not go upstairs after Alex sent her indoors. She was too worried about the twins. It meant hiding from gruff old Sims a couple of times as he made his rounds, and she sighed with relief every time he walked past the door without checking it, until she realized he was leaving that specific door unlocked for a reason.
Finally, Alex came in, bringing her brother and sister with him, and she rushed forward to gather the children in her arms.
"Rachel!" Michael exclaimed. "You should see the wolves!"
"They did not scare me at all!" Elizabeth said stoutly, glancing up at Alex. "And the vicar says I am quite brave."
"Thank you, sir! I have to get these two upstairs before anyone else realizes they are down here."
"Of course. And Miss Winterbottom, a word in the library after you have dealt with your siblings?"
Rachel blushed. "Yes, of course, sir. I will meet you there shortly."
After getting the twins settled, a sleeping Katie none the wiser, she went back downstairs to the library. Alex was pouring out two brandies and he handed her the smaller glass. "I think you might need a few sips to settle your nerves. Goodness knows I need something."
Rachel had never had strong spirits before and she was cautious, letting the veriest trickle make its way down her throat, and still coughing, like a green girl. Alex smiled in sympathy.
"I assume you are here to perform the marriage ceremony?" she asked, having figured that out while she waited for the twins to come indoors.
There was something in his voice that made Rachel look up from her drink. "You disapprove?"
"I disapprove of several things, but not what you might think. I admire you for going through with this - we discussed this before, if you recall."
"I do. You said I should do it for my family."
"Do you remember the exact wording? If you marry one of Hartwell's sons, your family debts will be forgiven."
"I am Hartwell's third and youngest son."
"What?" Rachel would have dropped her glass, except that Alex - no, Mr. Hartwell - was standing close enough that he caught it without spilling a drop. "Why did not you not say anything earlier?" she demanded.
"My father made me promise not to impede this marriage in any way. I realized that a confession of my place in this family is not an impediment to marriage. Especially since his demand did not say which brother."
Rachel's expression turned thoughtful. "No, there was no specification as to which son I should marry. I have already announced my choice, however. I choose to be the matriarch," she added, grinning.
"Good for you." He moved in closer. "But if you would rather be the wife of a lowly vicar in a bad section of London, especially a vicar who happens to be in love with you..."
Rachel sighed with mock indecision. "Ladies can be rather fickle, or so I have heard." She took a step forward and decided, finally, that this Mr. Hartwell's eyes were definitely green and gray. "Especially when they are in love with someone else. We cannot stay here.."
"I was hoping you would say that. We will have to leave soon, however. It is a long way to Gretna and I would rather us leave tonight, or rather, this morning, well before anyone can make you go through with a farce of a wedding."
"There is a special license..."
"And my father has it."
"Oh. Will we make it out of here without any trouble?"
"I am not sure." Alex pulled Rachel close and kissed her. "But we have to try."
"Yes, try..." was her dizzy reply. The man had just made her head spin and he wanted them to leave for somewhere, but now she was not sure where she was and what she had to do.
"Go pack a few things, my dear. We can purchase other items along the way."
"Will they pursue us far?" She tried to regain some of her composure.
"Only as far as the edge of the property. It is a large estate, but if we can make it to the village, we will be safe. The pack will not risk unnecessary exposure."
"All right. Shall we meet back here in half an hour?"
"I will be right here, waiting." With another kiss, this one slower than the first, they finally parted and Rachel went upstairs. Smiling.
Packing a small valise and slipping back downstairs was easier than she imagined, and before she knew it, Rachel was in the stables with Alex. He was quickly and expertly hitching a horse to a gig. The other horses placidly munched hay, as if it were every day the woods around the estate harbored shape-shifting wolves. She was much more nervous than any of the cattle stabled here.
"How do they keep it together?" she wondered, hefting her valise into the gig.
Alex shrugged. "I suppose they are just used to the scents."
"I can smell them," Rachel said, in surprise. "I did not realize it until now."
"Latent talent. I can, as well."
"I think that is how I always knew where the twins had run off to," she said, climbing into the vehicle.
"Makes sense to me, even if no one else may ever understand it. I have the same ability."
"But you do not shift."
"No." Alex leaned over and gave her a light kiss. "Now, let us get out of here."
They went quietly out of the stables, not even stopping to close the door behind them, and headed toward the village. Everything was quiet for about ten minutes, and then the howling began.
"What are you doing?" Rachel demanded when Alex slowed long enough to pull a pistol out of his coat pocket.
"I do not want to use this, but I will, if forced."
"Oh." The thought made her nervous, and secure, all at the same time. "Yes." Although she did not want him killing anyone, just keeping them from being stopped.
It was not meant to be, however, when a large, frost-tipped wolf stopped them in their tracks. The horse paused, but did not rear up, the scent of the wolf possibly familiar enough not to cause alarm.
"Out of our way, old man," Alex insisted. "You should not have put Miss Winterbottom in this untenable position."
The wolf shifted into Mr. Hartwell, sans clothing. Rachel averted her head. "I must have my dynasty preserved. Goodness knows you are unable to help with that."
"You do not know that. If I marry Miss Winterbottom, which I have every intention of doing, it will be with the knowledge that some of our children may be like you."
"I cannot take the chance. At least with your brothers I know I will have shifter grandchildren."
Alex got to his feet in the gig, no mean feat with the top pulled down. He showed the pistol. "There is no guarantee there, either. Let us pass."
"No. I must say, I am not surprised you are being so stubborn. You were always thus, and always a great disappointment to me."
Alex began to lower the pistol, but Rachel put a hand on his arm. "Do not let him upset you," she pleaded.
"No, you could never be a disappointment to anyone who truly loves you," Rachel said.
"You are right." Alex raised the pistol once more. "I have lived with this old wolf's comments and disapproval for my entire life. Who cares if the lycan line stops here?" he asked his father. "I do not want a family that has to hide what they are just for the sake of a dynasty."
The older gentleman shifted back into a wolf. He snarled once, crouched back on his haunches and was about to launch himself at the gig when a shot rang out. Rachel looked over at Alex in surprise, but he was as shocked as she was, and his pistol was still unfired.
Marric came out of the woods in human form, a smoking gun in his hand. The grizzled wolf in front of them shifted back to a man - injured, but not dead. He could not stand, his son having shot him in the hind quarter.
"He is wrong. You should be allowed to marry as you please, Miss Winterbottom. As should you, brother."
"As should you, Mr. Hartwell." Rachel's voice was soft.
To her amazement, Marric grinned. "And so I shall. In the meantime..." He walked over, reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a paper, handing it over to her. "Less scandal all the way around if you take this along, and forget Gretna."
Rachel opened the note to find it was the special license, the name of the bridegroom thankfully blank. "Thank you. But..." She indicated where Mr. Hartwell now lay moaning in the middle of the road.
"Father will be stepping down as head of the pack, whether he likes it or not," he said. "As of tonight, I will be head of the family. You both have my blessing. And if you do find yourself with a nursery full of shifters..."
Rachel laughed, even as she felt Alex put an arm around her waist. "We will make certain their uncles are ever ready to help them adjust. We will return the favor if you end up with children who are like their Uncle Alex and Aunt Rachel."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Just different."
He nodded. "Run along, you two. Get married, have a good life. I will deal with the guests and get Father back to the house."
"Thank you. I will not forget this. If you ever need anything..."
"Such as a vicar to perform a wedding ceremony?"
"What? Up until a moment ago you were betrothed to me!" Rachel exclaimed in mock indignation. Marric had the grace to blush.
"I was going to back out," he admitted. "Miss Hillier came for the wedding."
Rachel and Alex looked at each other in some confusion, neither of them recalling a Miss Hillier among the guests.
"She is a shifter. Her family just returned from Italy."
"Ah. That explains a lot. We will write when we get back to London," Alex said, picking up the reins. "And you let me know when you need someone to perform a ceremony."
"Next full moon."
Alex laughed, let the horse know he could move forward, and then guided the animal around his father, still lying in the road.
As they drove into the village, Rachel looked up and stared at the moon.
"Your family members are the experts - is the moon really a piece of cheese?" she asked of her future husband. They were going to spend the night at the nearest inn and find another vicar to perform their marriage ceremony in the morning. She might even send word to her parents, so the twins could attend. After all, she owed them everything.
"I have never wondered," Alex replied, smiling at her whimsy, "but then, I have never felt attached to that particular celestial being. I'd much rather concentrate on you."
Rachel leaned over and kissed his cheek. "Good answer."
© 2015 Copyright held by the author.