When the Bow Breaks: Chapter Two
About When the Bow Breaks
One horrible night changed everything for Lady Sophia Iverson and Dante Warren, forcing Sophia to wed the Duke of Griffin and prompting Dante to flee from England. But when a horrible tragedy claims the life of Sophia's infant daughter, the lovers are brought back together. Two years has changed so much for both of them, but Dante will do anything to bring Sophia back from the grief slowly killing her... even if that means opening his home to the orphaned children England's New Poor Laws have abandoned to starvation and worse. If saving their lives reminds Lady Sophia why she ever loved him in the first place... well, Dante wouldn't object to that, either.
He's always loved Sophia. He always will.
He just has to convince her that the terrible secret she's hiding won't send him running again. It won't, will it?
to bend the knee or body or incline the head, as in submission, shame, recognition, or acknowledgment.
2. to yield; submit
When the wind blows The cradle will rock When the bough breaks The cradle will fall And down will come baby... Cradle and all
France: December, 1841
The Earl of Seabrooke was doomed. Completely and utterly sunk. All of his wealth, all of his power, and all of his charm were nigh on useless to him. He needed a nurse. Or a governess. Or someone who took care of tiny pink infants and made them stop crying.
Unfortunately, none were to be had at the moment, and little Arabella kicked and screamed as if her world were ending. Had Seabrooke taken the advice given him instead of adamantly refusing to hire anyone until he figured out what to do, all would have been well. But alas, he had not.
With a heavy sigh he reached down and plucked the screaming infant from the crib, bringing her to his chest, one hand instinctively cradling her head even though she did well enough holding it up on her own.
"Shh, love," he crooned, patting her on the back to comfort her. It didn't work, of course. She merely flailed her arms and screamed as if he had not spoken at all. "Shh, Arabella, Uncle Dante is here. Why are you so unhappy, little one?"
As with four-month-old infants the world over, his niece did not answer him. She simply continued to wail, the sound much too loud for such a tiny baby.
He sighed again and crossed the chamber to the bell-pull, maneuvering the child in his arms to give it a sharp tug. Hopefully one of the maids would know what his niece wanted. He certainly didn't…although he was beginning to suspect she needed to be fed and changed yet again.
In the six weeks since he had taken over caring for her, that seemed to be what she required more often than not in moments such as these. In truth, what she really needed was a mother, but hers was gone, laid to rest beside her husband.
That reminder almost drove Dante to his knees there in the middle of his chamber.
Little by little, his world eroded at the foundations.
His elder brother, Michael, was but dust now, laid to rest two years prior. Arabella's mother and father, Catherine and Simon, had followed in a carriage accident six weeks ago, leaving Dante utterly alone save for Arabella.
His decision to raise the child on his own had been rash and ill thought out. He did not know how to care for an infant. Good Gad! She was the first babe he had ever spent any significant amount of time around. He adored her, true, but adoring someone and being adept at caring for that someone were two completely different things. If the last weeks had taught him anything, it was that. But he had not been able to bring himself to fob her off on a governess or a nurse, either.
When he'd arrived in France so long ago, he'd been lost. Without Catherine and Simon to occupy his time, the loneliness threatened to consume him. Arabella kept him moving forward, kept him from falling to pieces as he had begun to suspect he might do without her cradled in his arms. He was no good at falling apart, nor could he afford to do so.
He was the Earl of Seabrooke now, a title he neither wanted nor particularly appreciated. It should have been Michael's. Hell and damnation, it had been Michael's. For two years his brother had held the family title, and Dante had left him happily to it. What need had he of a title to which he had never measured up?
As his father had told him so often in the year before he died, Dante would never bring anything but shame to the family name. Dante had finally made his peace with that, or so he'd thought. And then Michael died, leaving no heir save for Dante. For good or ill, the Earldom was now his to hold.
And so was little Arabella.
"We're quite a pair, aren't we, little one?" Dante settled into the deep burgundy chair in front of the fireplace, holding his niece gently to his chest. He felt helpless. His life had changed irrevocably over the course of the last several years. Nothing familiar to him remained, and loathe though he was to admit it, he rather resented that. Before his actions had torn his family asunder, he'd been secure in his place in the world. He had been carefree and happy.
Now he hadn't a clue which way was up, which way was down, or which way he headed. That was a most uncomfortable and foreign state in which to live, and he'd lived it for two years. He had no one to blame but himself, of course.
His decisions had torn his life apart. His…and hers.
But by God, he was finished blaming Lady Sophia Iverson, Duchess of Griffin, only daughter of the late Viscount Adaire and adored sister to the new Viscount, for the sad state of his life. Finished thinking of her and finished wanting her. Finished trying to convince himself that he didn't love her still, too. He did. He'd never stopped loving her. But Gad, how he resented her! She had spurned his affection in favor of the Duke, leaving him to suffer alone.
Arabella snuggled deeper into his chest with a snort, her cries finally quieting as he murmured nonsensical words to her. She was a beautiful babe, so small and perfect with her tiny hands and little feet. She had a shocking amount of hair curling every which way upon her crown. He had no doubt that hair would one day look just like her mother's had: long, blonde curls cascading to her waist.
The babe would be a lovely child, and a beautiful woman, just as Catherine had been. She had already lost that squished newborn look, growing into a wide-eyed, innocent little beauty. Her eyes were bright blue trusting pools and she smiled shamelessly at him when she felt like it. She was a fat little thing, with rolls at her knees and an adorable double chin.
He did not know if babies were supposed to be fat, though the cook and maids kept assuring him that they were. He supposed he just had to take their word for it. Being chubby certainly did not appear to be doing her any harm, and she was always hungry. She ate every four hours. Thank God, they'd been able to find her a wet nurse to sustain her during the days. And at night, well….
Dante wasn't sure what to call the little contraption the cook sent up with one of the maids to feed Arabella when the wet nurse retired for the evening. It looked like a blind man's sculpture of a breast, done up in pewter with a funny little nipple screwed on top of a long neck. He was afraid to ask just what they put in it to nourish her, but whatever it was seemed to do the trick. She ate happily.
Truthfully, it took little to please his niece. So long as she was fed and dry, she was content to lie in her crib or across his chest. Still…it would be good to get her home to England where he could find her a proper governess.
Dante blinked, surprised at the thought.
Was he truly thinking of England as home again?
It had stopped seeming so to him the moment the Earldom had come to rest on his shoulders. Like a terrified boy, he'd run from the title and everything that tied him to it. As soon as reality had sunk in, whispering to him that upholding the family name would be his duty until the day he died, he'd fled to Catherine and the comfort and wisdom she provided.
There had been nowhere else to go.
Oh, he could have gone to one other place to hide out for a while, but that had been part of his problem, hadn't it? The late Viscount Adaire had always welcomed Dante, even after Jonathan sailed for the Indies. But the way Dante felt about Sophia had terrified him then. Men like him did not wed women like Sophia.
She was a fiery thing with the pluck and determination to match her spirit. And she was brilliant, though she would never claim as much. That polite society received her brother at all was confirmation of her abilities to charm the ton and smooth things over. God knew she'd had to do enough of both for Jonathan far too often since her coming out. Hell, she'd even done as much for Dante more times than he could count.
What had started as friendship between them had bloomed once Jonathan sailed. Dante had fallen in love with Sophia quickly and completely. He would have given her anything and had intended to do exactly that. Then Michael died, leaving him a title he did not want, and he'd handled it all wrong. The thought that he would fail Sophia, that she would grow to hate him as his own father did, had been a bigger torment than even the title.
Before he could sort out the mess and return to claim her as his wife, she moved on, shattering his heart once and for all. He'd loved her beyond reason, and she had not even blinked at his disappearance. Less than three months after he fled to France, she had wed the Duke.
Dante resented how that fact still bothered him, resented that he still wanted her so much when she had so easily replaced him in her affections. He had never particularly liked France, but exile here was far preferable to watching her live out her life with Griffin, so he had remained with Catherine and Simon, hiding out like a coward for nigh on two years.
He had Arabella to think of now, though. He couldn't remain here, licking his wounds forever. Whether he liked it or not, 'twas time to return and face the mess he'd left behind two years ago. It was time to go home and face Sophia.
"Do you want to go to England, little one? You'll like it, you know." He held Arabella up to look into her eyes as he spoke to her. She sniffled and blinked at him before smiling crookedly. He smiled in return and tucked her against his chest again, rubbing her back. "You can wrap everyone there around your little fingers, just like you have Uncle Dante."
He murmured to her of England and all she would see there. Of her new home, her place in life, and the doors that would open for her, in part because of the title he now held and in part because of Catherine and Simon. Even if the ton had no place for Dante Warren, scandalous youngest son to an earl, they would not dare slam doors in the face of Dante Warren, Earl of Seabrooke. Nor would they slam them in the face of the late Comte and Countess Robichaud's orphaned daughter.
Little Arabella would want for nothing.
"You'll be a true lady, little one," he told his niece, bouncing her gently on his knees. "The whole of England will fall at your feet."
Arabella listened quietly as he talked, one little fist pressed to her mouth.
A light tap sounded on the door to his chamber.
"Come," he called.
One of the downstairs maids stepped into the room, balancing a tray with the little feeding contraption on one round hip. A sense of relief flooded Dante at the sight of the girl. She had six younger siblings at home and knew just how to soothe Arabella. Maybe that was why Arabella seemed to like her so well. Anyone who could survive six siblings had to seem like heaven to one tiny infant.
"Good morning, my lord." Marie curtsied, juggling the tray. "Is Lady Arabella hungry again?"
"Aye." Dante rose from the chair as Marie set the tray on the table. "When do they stop eating so often?"
Marie laughed and held her arms out for the babe. He handed Arabella over, smoothing a hand over her hair as she snuggled into the maid's embrace. "She will be ready to eat different foods in another month or so. Finely smashed vegetables and fruits will be good for her. She will not need as many bottle feedings by then, but she will eat often for many more months, my lord."
"Oh. Babies can eat fruit?" That was news to him.
"Yes, my lord, but only finely mashed." Marie repositioned Arabella with a towel beneath her tiny chin before picking up the bottle contraption. Arabella latched onto it with a little grunt of pleasure. "I believe you have a visitor downstairs, my lord."
"A visitor?" Dante blinked, surprised. "Good Gad, it's barely come six o'clock."
"He looks English, my lord."
No doubt Dursley, his estate manager, had finally come to track him down. The man had threatened to do so more than a few times in the last months, demanding Dante do his duty and return to England. Had Dante had any desire to return, he would have sacked the man for his insolence. But had he done so, Dante truly would have had to return sooner, if only to hire someone else to run the Seabrooke estate. No matter though. If the man was here now, perhaps Dante would have the satisfaction of firing him after all.
"Will you remain with her until the wet nurse arrives from the village?"
"Of course, my lord." Marie smiled at him kindly.
"If you need me, send one of the other maids to fetch me." Dante watched Arabella a moment longer, smiling at the little grunting noises of pleasure coming from her throat as she sucked down whatever was in the bottle, and then he exited the room to go see about this English visitor.
Perhaps something had gone wrong with his shipping ventures and needed his immediate attention. God knew he could use something less challenging than an infant right now. His estate more or less ran itself, thanks to the estate manager he truly couldn't fire—the man was too bloody competent even if he was insolent, dash it all. Simon and Catherine's estate was in order, as well. All told, Dante had far too much time on his hands and he'd grown tired of thinking himself in circles.
Catherine and Simon's butler, Vanderhousen, met him at the top of the wide staircase, already dressed for the day. Everyone in the household had taken to existing on Arabella's schedule. Up, dressed, and ready for whatever new dilemma happened upon them at the unheard-of hour of five in the morning.
Yes, a governess was definitely in order.
"There is a man to see you, my lord. I tried to explain that he should return at a decent hour, but he insisted upon seeing you immediately." Vanderhousen bowed low as he delivered the news.
"Did he give a card?"
"No, my lord," Vanderhousen sniffed, obviously put upon by the lack of formality. "But he says his name is Sebastian Stone and he brings urgent news from Viscount Adaire."
"Stone? Good Gad, I wonder what he wants?"
Dante hadn't seen Stone or Adaire since they stopped in months ago on the way back to England after receiving news that Adaire's father had passed. They had rather lost touch since. With Adaire now back in England, Dante had been hesitant to reestablish their connection, loathe to hear of Sophia's life with the Duke from his oldest friend.
"He would not say, my lord. I put him in the study."
Dante nodded his thanks to Vanderhousen and started down the stairs to Simon's old study, striding quickly. If Adaire had sent Stone to track him down, it had to be serious. As Dante well knew, Adaire did not bother anyone but Sophia with his problems.
Dante's feet stalled as a worrisome thought struck.
What if something had happened to her?
His heart began to pound, dread coursing through him at the thought of her injured or worse. That Adaire had sent Stone did not bode well. Stone was…well, Dante wasn't sure what one would call Stone. A friend? An advisor? A drinking companion? An employee? They were all apt descriptors for the man. He was the third son of a baron and took care of…of everything, really. He had done so since long before Adaire and Dante had both had the misfortune of inheriting fancy titles and the dilemmas that went along with them.
If something adverse had happened to Sophia, Dante didn't know what he'd do. The thought alone made his stomach churn uncomfortably. Sending up a quick prayer, he hurried the rest of the way to the study before slipping inside and closing the door behind him.
"Stone," Dante greeted the familiar man standing at the window across the room.
Stone turned to Dante, letting the curtain fall. His cravat was loosened, his trousers dusty. Mud still caked his boots as if he hadn't cleaned them properly after handing his horse over to the groom. He hadn't changed at all since Dante last saw him.
"Seabrooke, my condolences," he said. "I was damn sorry to hear about Lady Catherine and Simon. I don't believe Adaire knew of your loss when he sent me."
"Thank you," Dante murmured, gritting his teeth against the grief bubbling in his chest. He motioned to one of the chairs grouped near the fireplace, urging Stone to sit, unable to wait patiently through unhelpful platitudes for whatever news the man brought. "Vanderhousen said you had urgent news?"
"Aye." Stone fished around in the pocket of his coat and retrieved a slightly rumpled envelope, holding it out to Dante before taking a seat.
Dante crossed the room and took it from him before claiming a chair for himself. "A note?" he asked, stalling. Now that the moment had come, dread kept him frozen, the missive unopened.
"Aye. From Adaire," Stone said, his expression giving away nothing. "He requests that you read it without delay."
Dante reluctantly tore the envelope open, his eyebrows climbing as he read.
Sophia has declared that she's leaving me for a life on her own. I owe it to her. You know that as much as I. She is miserable and I cannot pull her out of it. I daresay that is my fault, too. She needs space. She needs…something. And I do not know how to give it to her. You owe me nothing, but I am begging you. Help me, please? Help her. I will be eternally in your debt.
Dante stared at the hastily scrawled note in stunned silence for a long moment before pinning Stone with a look. His heart hammered, hope and fear waving through him in tandem. "What is this? What happened to the Duke?"
"I have orders to beg if I must," Stone murmured dryly, avoiding the question.
Dante blinked. "To beg? Good Gad, Jonathan never begged for anything in his life."
"He's desperate, Seabrooke. I daresay Lady Sophia's worth a fortune now. She doesn't stand a chance in London on her own."
Aye, that was true enough. As soon as she set foot outside her door, every eligible man in London would flock to her. And Sophia, for all her competence in staring down crisis and catastrophe, was not at all prepared to deal with fortune hunters and the chaos they would inevitably throw into her path. She was too trusting, too good.
That was neither here nor there at the moment, though.
"Griffin is dead?" he asked, his gaze firmly on the parchment in his hands.
"Aye. The scoundrel died nine months ago. Poachers."
"You sound pleased."
Dante waited for Stone to say more, but he did not, leaving Dante's head spinning. He thought Sophia and Griffin had been happy together. God knew, she had married the man quickly enough. But maybe things were not what he'd always believed?
Had the Duke hurt her?
Jesu, if the man had laid a hand on Sophia….
"And Adaire? Is he equally as pleased?" he asked calmly. He wanted to ask if she was pleased by the Duke's death, but he could not force the words out. If Stone said she grieved, it would kill him. And if he said she did not miss the ma…well, that would kill him, too. Dante had never wished for her to live in misery with the Duke.
"Aye, he is," Stone said.
"And Sophia is moving out?"
"It would appear so," Stone said.
Dante didn't know what to make of that. Sophia had always been more independent than society deemed proper, but she loved Adaire to distraction. She would not leave him to his own devices unless something was truly wrong.
"What happened, Sebastian?" he asked.
Stone hesitated for a moment and then sighed. "She's not well, Seabrooke. She wanders around the house, sometimes not speaking for days. When she does talk, it is not the same. Jonathan doesn't know what to do. Hell," Stone snorted, "I do not know what to do, Dante. She's not the same girl you knew. I daresay she's not the same girl any of us knew."
Sophia had always been so confident, so certain. She'd always been rather oblivious to how beautiful she was, how charming and clever others found her. To how bloody much Dante had always wanted her. But oblivious of what was going on around her, not speaking for days? Sophia had never lived with her head in the clouds, ignorant of reality.
Dante had not seen her in two years. Had not heard a word from her in all of that time and had vowed often to never speak to her again. When it came right down to it, those vows meant little. Adaire didn't worry about Sophia needlessly. That he was worried enough to plead for help now did not bode well at all. She was hurting, and that thought wounded Dante just as much now as it always had.
Aye, he still loved her. More than was good for him or rational.
"Arabella isn't strong enough for the journey," he said carefully, unsure what to do. He did not wish to see Sophia in pain, but it was not his place to care for her any longer.
"Your butler mentioned that you had assumed guardianship of your niece."
"I will not sail for England until she's strong enough," Dante said, ignoring the question in Stone's gaze. He could not even explain to himself why he had decided to raise his niece on his own. He had no intention of trying to explain to anyone else.
"How long?" Stone asked, letting the subject drop.
Dante thought about it for a moment. Truthfully, babes younger than Arabella had made the journey safely across the Channel, but Dante needed time to make arrangements. "Two months, give or take a fortnight," he decided.
Stone pushed off from his chair, standing. "I shall let Jonathan know to expect you then. It was good to see you, Seabrooke."
"You're leaving now?" Dante quirked a brow, surprised. "Why don't you stay a few days and recover? I daresay we have plenty of room."
Stone shook his head before Dante even finished speaking. "I cannot. Adaire has never been so miserable in his life. Not even after…well, never mind that. God knows what he'll do without someone there to rein him in."
Dante cringed at the thought. Adaire had always been rather hot-headed. When he did not find trouble on his own, trouble found him. "Sometimes I think Sophia is the only thing holding his life together."
"Aye, well, the tables have turned now. I've never seen her like this before, Seabrooke. It's a bloody mess."
"What's going on, Stone? What happened to her?" he demanded, frustrated that he did not already know.
"That's a question I cannot answer for you. It is not my place, not my story, and not my right. I will say this much though: if you still care about her, you have to help her, Dante. She might not survive if you can't."
Dante had seen a lot in his life, but he had never seen Stone look so worried before. Genuine fear for Sophia burned in the depths of his dark eyes. And that told Dante everything he needed to know.
Sophia needed him. Nothing would keep him away from her now.