Jago crawled out onto the roof of the pile of crap that masqueraded as his home and a national treasure and was instantly soaked in the ferocious downpour. He gritted his teeth, brushed wet hair from his eyes, and slithered down the tiles to where the turret roof was attached to the building. The weather vane on the peak, topped by an arrow, spun in the wind looking as if it was about to rise in the air like a child’s toy. The damn thing would probably spin his way and stab him in the chest.
He scanned the roof, and his gaze snagged on a lighter-colored section that revealed the reason water currently leaked through the ceiling of the hexagonal room below. He crawled over to retrieve three slate tiles that had slipped, relieved to find none broken, and dragged himself up to jam them back into place. Only a temporary measure because this part of the roof needed restoration. Well, get into bloody line.
Leaning back against the slope he’d slid down, he wedged his feet on the turret, looked up into a relentlessly gray sky, and blinked water from his lashes. When distant thunder rumbled, he stiffened. Up on a roof wasn’t the best place to be in a storm. But maybe he ought to wish for a bolt of lightning to finish him off. He was as crazy as Canute, the long-dead king of Anglo-Saxon times, who thought he could command the sea to retreat, because Sharwood Hall crumbled beneath him as predictably as a sand castle overrun by an incoming tide.
This place had been continuously occupied by his family for four hundred years. It had withstood civil war, idiot ancestors, two fires, two world wars, but it seemed unlikely to outlast Jago’s tenure. Throughout his childhood, his father had made him promise that he’d never sell Sharwood. It wasn’t a promise he could keep without a miracle. A lottery win, except he couldn’t afford to buy a ticket. Divine intervention, except he didn’t believe. A rich woman, except he wasn’t much of a catch. He had a title but no money, responsibility for a stately home that was no longer stately, and his career was a distant dream.
He looked down to the bottom of the drive and the gatehouse where Henry lived. The guy had been head gardener for as long as Jago could remember and was quite simply his lifeline. After Jago’s parents died, somehow, and he still didn’t understand how, Henry had paid the huge inheritance tax bill. It was an extraordinarily generous thing to do, because if he hadn’t, the government would have taken the house. Yet perversely, if Henry hadn’t paid it, he wouldn’t be in this mess. Everything in his life seemed to be a case of double-edged swords. Ironic that crossed swords were part of the family crest.
Jago stared through the rain at the gray fields rolling away into the horizon. All that land had once supported Sharwood. Now the only income was from four lodgers. If he sold, he’d wipe away most of his problems in one fell swoop, but not all. His parents had bequeathed the gatehouse to Henry for as long as he wanted to look after the garden. There was no way Jago would turn him out even after he couldn’t do the job, but would a new owner want him?
Henry probably expected to die here. He loved this place more than Jago’s father ever had. His father had seen it as his duty to care for Sharwood, but never loved it. At times, he’d actively hated it, so why he had been so insistent Jago never sell it? An outmoded sense of family honor? Jago hated and loved Sharwood in equal measure and depending on how the balance shifted, he was determined to keep it or determined to sell it. But the feeling of being trapped, the constant creeping misery that consumed him, the weight of the unyielding shackle on his life and choices could only push him harder in one direction. I have to sell.
There was a flash of lightning, and as he pushed himself up, he spotted a red figure dart in and out of the line of yew trees before disappearing. He stretched to see where the person had gone, and both feet slipped. His backside hit the tiles, and as he continued to slide, he grabbed fistfuls of air, trying to find something to hang on to. When his boots landed in the gutter and stopped his descent, he gasped in relief, his heart thumping wildly. Shit
. He wasn’t ready to die quite yet. But as he tried to pull himself up, the guttering shifted with a crack louder than the thunder. Jago scrambled backward like a crab with a speed that surprised him until he straddled the ridge. From there he edged his way to the window and threw himself inside.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He lay groaning on his back on the bare wooden floor. That had been close. He didn’t like going on the roof at all, let alone when it was raining, but the wetter the plaster became, the more chance the ceiling would come down, and the more expensive it would be to fix. Hard not to wish the whole building would come down in a way that left him blameless. He pushed himself to his feet, closed the window, and headed for the turret room.
The drip of water into the saucepan had slowed, but the patch of ceiling bowed slightly. Good thing there was no furniture or paintings in here to ruin. He’d moved everything he could into secure rooms that lay under the restored roof.
He dripped his way to one of few habitable rooms in the forty-five-room, fifteen-bedroom house. The solar, the hall’s formal dining room, now served as his place to sulk, eat, sleep, and wank. Every time he entered it, his depression worsened. It was like student accommodation, and at thirty, he was long past being a student. His friends wouldn’t recognize the angry guy he’d become. It was this damned house. It had already cost him too much.
It was only when his gaze settled on his father’s red sailing jacket that he remembered why he’d slipped, apart from the fact that he’d been thinking about selling, and this house seemed to find a way to threaten him or someone else whenever he dared consider it. Had there been someone messing around by the yew trees? He didn’t recall Henry having a red jacket. He ought to go and look. He could hardly get any wetter, but there was little to steal in the garden.
Middle of bloody June, and it was cold and pouring. The house was freezing, but he couldn’t afford to put the heating on until November. Maybe December. Jago stripped and left his clothes where they lay. He wrapped a towel around his waist in case he met one of his lodgers, not that they’d care, but he didn’t want to give any of them ideas, especially Charles, who definitely fancied him. He shivered as he padded along the corridor to the bathroom, his fingers mentally crossed for hot water.
Jago stood under the shower and turned it on. He was out of luck. Nothing new there. He suspected some family curse ensured luck never crossed the threshold. Certainly, his ancestors hadn’t been known for their happy smiling faces. He’d joined the club. While he didn’t believe in the supernatural or in curses, there was something weird about Sharwood. Yesterday, he’d discussed selling the place with a developer, and today he’d nearly fallen off the roof. Then there’d been that time when the floor gave way in the bedroom when he was showing a guy round, and they’d both ended up in the hospital. The occasion the window broke as he opened it, and he’d almost bled to death all over a potential purchaser who unsurprisingly changed his mind.
It wasn’t just him either. Two potential buyers had pulled out. One suffered a heart attack on the steps of Sharwood. The other had required stitches after a piece of decorative molding had hit him on the head. There had been no reason for that molding to fall. But that hadn’t been the worst thing that happened. He blanked his mind. Not going to think about Marianne.
He soaped himself as fast as he could, using inexpensive shower gel to wash his hair. Everything he bought was cheap or reduced. He’d become an expert in household economy. He knew the cheapest places to shop, the best times to pick up reduced items. He’d perfected the art of existing on as little as possible.
Thoughts of losing his mind in a leisurely wank shriveled as fast as his cock in the arctic flow. The moment he’d rinsed his hair, he turned off the water and reached for his towel. His chest tightened. He was sick to death of this place, his life, his bleak future.
So sell it
. He braced for some creature bursting through the wall to scare him into taking the thought back. Then laughed at himself, although the sound was hollow. “Promise me you won’t sell,”
his father had said. Had the same sorts of accidents
happened to him?
The offer the developer had made yesterday had been insulting, yet still tempting. Preston wasn’t the only property developer interested in Sharwood. They hovered like bloody vultures over a dying corpse, swooping down to take a peck every now and again, the amounts offered falling rather than rising, as if they sensed he and the building were in extremis
. Preston was more persistent than the rest and currently offering the most. Maybe he should discuss it again with his brother before something happened to put Preston off. At least they’d walk away with something.
But Jago would also walk away with a mountain of guilt that after four hundred years, he’d
been the one to let the place go. Amazing that family honor still had such a strong hold even in these modern times. The responsibility of preserving the hall for future generations and for the country was ingrained in him. As the eldest son, it was simply his duty, and he knew most people wouldn’t understand. He wanted to walk away, yet he couldn’t. Either way, sell or not, this place was going to kill him.
He stomped back to his room and searched through untidy piles of clothing for something clean. The pants he uncovered appeared badly creased rather than dirty, but when he put them on, they hung loose on his hips. He knew he’d lost weight but hadn’t realized it was that much. Survival largely depended on vegetables from Sharwood’s garden left on the doorstep by Henry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten meat.
Jago tried not to look in the mirror anymore. He’d once been vain enough to consider himself attractive to the opposite sex; now he’d scare off any decent woman. He tugged a blue shirt from inside a discarded sweater, sniffed under the arms, and pulled it over his head.
When he looked around at his stacked and heaped possessions, odd pieces of furniture, unmade bed, surfboard, CDs and no player, DVDs and no TV, and the pile of dirty mugs and plates, misery settled on him like a thick woolen blanket, heavy to the point of suffocating. What’s the fucking point?
Sharwood was his prison, not his home. He was stuck here out of an outmoded sense of duty and responsibility driven deep into his psyche by his father. Jago wasn’t sure how much longer he could carry on before he was as worn down as the building.
He’d spent the day rubbing at stone mullions in the turret room, actually thinking he was making progress, and now the ceiling might collapse. The four people he’d kept on as lodgers after he’d thrown out his brother’s so-called friends were supposed to work on the hall in return for paying less. Yeah, that worked out well. He had to badger them to do anything. But at least they paid on time, which allowed him to heat the water and buy essentials. Though not pay for a decent haircut. He dragged his fingers through his hair.
Jago hunted for socks, tugged them on, and shoved his feet into his boots. He didn’t want to stay inside this house a moment longer. He needed to cheer himself up before he slid so far down the rabbit hole he couldn’t find a way out. He zipped up his father’s old jacket, grabbed his wallet and keys, and went downstairs.
The mail had been left on the table in the hall, and Jago walked past but then stopped and went into reverse. If, by some miracle, he managed to cheer himself up this evening, returning to a pile of bills would just depress him again. He might as well open the letters, sink as low as he could go, and then the only way was up. Ha
. All five items were for him.
An offer he apparently couldn’t refuse from a double glazing company, which he ripped up; a water bill that made him wince; a request from some historical society wanting to look around the house, which wasn’t going to happen until there was something worthwhile to show them; a letter from Peru from his younger brother, Denzel; and an envelope from Dacre’s Auction House. Jago ripped the latter open.
He pulled out the check and sighed. Just under four and half thousand pounds. His lips curved in a smile. Thank you, Henry. Again
. Henry had found an unusual gold ring in the garden, given it to him, and it had been sold a couple of weeks ago. The money was already spent. Rather aggravating that so much went to the auction house and
he had to pay tax, but there were few other options to sell it quickly and anonymously.
Jago opened the letter from his brother.
Writing as well as e-mailing to make sure you get this because you’ve not responded to my last two e-mails. Why not? I hope you haven’t sold that ring.
Guilt sank its claws into his heart, and Jago gritted his teeth. He wished he hadn’t told Denzel about the ring, because by return of e-mail, his brother had asked him to hang on to it.
Finished work on the orphanage and we’re off traveling for the next six weeks. The kids love the place, and the staff cried when we left. Thanks for the crayons and coloring books. Wish we could bring a few children home.
Jago had lost count of the times he’d had to bail out his brother. Packing Denzel off to set up an orphanage in Peru had seemed like a good idea. Drugs might be easily available there, but the guy was too lazy to go looking. Denzel’s real problem was that he was easily influenced by the wrong sort of people, which was why he’d fallen into trouble at university. Jago had hoped his brother would throw himself wholeheartedly into building the orphanage, just as he did everything else in his life, and he had. Even better, he’d met Liz on a trip to Cusco, and they’d been together ever since. Without even having met her, Jago knew she’d been a leveling influence on his brother in a way he’d never managed.
Good news! I took Liz on a llama trek yesterday, persuaded one of the llamas to hold an envelope in its mouth without eating it, and in it was a note saying—will you marry me? Romantic or what?
Er…no. And not a surprise. His brother was besotted.
So, the ring? Please!!!!
She said yes after I convinced her it was me who wanted to marry her, and not the llama, which then promptly spat on her. I assured her llama spit was good luck. We’ll marry at Sharwood. August the 20th. We can accommodate her family, can’t we? Plenty of bedrooms. Not sure when you’ll get this, but you should have a couple of months to arrange everything.
What the hell was Denzel thinking? Even August next year would be too soon to have this place ready. Hard as it was to be angry with his idealistic brother when he’d finally managed to do something selfless, fury bubbled inside him. A year ago Jago had to give up his dreams to rescue Denzel and Sharwood from quicksand. He’d lost Marianne, lost his job, and he was fucking sick of everything.
Here’s some really good news involving MONEY. Liz had an e-mail from an independent documentary maker who wants to make a program about Sharwood weddings over the ages. A TV special. You’ll have put the portraits back on the walls and do a bit of dusting. The producer will give you a call.
Over his dead body. The letter crinkled in his fist as he tightened his fingers. Yet even as thoughts of strangling his brother surged into his head, he was already wondering how much they’d pay.
We’ll be back mid-August. We’re sending the invites from Peru, and I’ll contact the vicar, but I need you to set up the baron’s hall for the wedding and arrange the catering. Sixty guests. Ten of them vegetarians. Be grateful. We whittled it down from a hundred and sixty.
Liz would like a faerie theme. (Only kidding.) Though I think she would really. And if you could arrange for a llama to come, that would be great.
Jago’s temper built like lava under a volcanic plug. While his brother was off having the time of his life in South America, he’d been wrecking his hands and his heart on Sharwood. Denzel had e-mailed pictures of him and Liz looking happy doing all sorts of interesting things, fun things, things Jago would have liked to try, and then Jago’s laptop died, and he’d almost been relieved not to be regularly confronted by images of his brother’s happiness.
Do a bit of dusting? Arrange a wedding in less than six weeks? Was Denzel insane?
Looking forward to seeing you. Oh, you’ll be my best man, won’t you?
Jago screwed the letter into a ball, dropped it to kick it, but missed and kicked the table. He grabbed a vase wobbling on the top, but steaming with fury, he threw it at the wall, where it shattered. How the hell was he supposed to turn Sharwood into an acceptable wedding venue in a matter of weeks? More to the point, where was the money going to come from? He stared at the check, but it had already been spent on hiring scaffolding, buying paint, repairing the stained glass window. Fucking hell, Denzel, couldn’t you have just waited?
He launched a kick at the largest shard of the vase, and it hit the door and broke again. He’d always hated the bloody thing. It had sat in the same spot all his life. His mother had—
Oh God, I shouldn’t have broken it. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
He started at a loud knock, stuffed the check in his wallet, grabbed the crumpled letter from the floor, and pushed it in his pocket. The knocking persisted, and he yanked open the door to see a tall, slim figure in jeans and a red hooded jacket, fingertips poking out the ends of the sleeves. Jago glanced at the bag on the step and huffed out a sigh of aggravation. Over the last couple of days, he’d been plagued by doorstep callers.
“No, I don’t want to look through your collection of reasonably priced household cleaning items despite the fact that you’re out of work, just released from a young offenders institute, and homeless. Nor do I wish to talk about the imminent arrival of Armageddon. I know I’m going to hell, and I don’t fucking care. I don’t need double glazing, aerial shots of the house, or my windows cleaned with some superslick dirt-off solution. I’m not going to sign a petition against a traveler’s site. I don’t wish to buy organic meat nor do have any items to donate to a charity auction.”
Dark green eyes stared steadily at him.
“Are you the butler?” the woman asked. “I think you need to go back to butlering school.” She glanced at the floor behind him. “You should take more care dusting precious objects. Would you give the master my card?” She held out a business card in slender fingers.
“I’m Lord Carlyle, not the bloody butler,” he all but snarled.
When she showed no surprise, he realized she’d been teasing. The bloody cheek of it.
She put her card back in her pocket and curtsied. “Ellie Norwood. Nice to meet you.”
“What do you want?” he asked abruptly.
“I’m looking for somewhere to stay in return—”
“You have any money?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly, but I wanted to talk about—”
“Then find somewhere else.” Jago locked the door and hurried down the steps. By habit, he patted the head of the stone griffin on the right. He usually kicked the one on the left that Denzel rode as a child, but knowing his luck today, he’d break his foot.
The rain came down harder as he strode along the drive to the gatehouse, stepped from side to side to avoid the numerous puddles. He was furious with his brother. How the hell was he supposed to host a wedding? And with a fucking llama, because he suspected that wasn’t a joke. Bloody Denzel had conveniently gone traveling, so he couldn’t tell him no.
“I wouldn’t be any trouble,” said a voice behind him. “In fact, I can—”
“I said no.” He walked faster, splashed the bottom of his pants in a puddle he’d not seen, and huffed with annoyance. The drive needed repair. It was on the list and not near the top.
He didn’t want TV people here, tsking about the state of the place, but Denzel had left him little choice. It would help pay for the wedding. His burst of fury dissipating, he began to plan.
The baron’s hall would work for the reception. They could use the ancient trestle tables already in there, but how much would the food and alcohol cost? He had
to serve champagne. They needed flowers. Were there enough in the garden? Oh God, and a cake. He knew how much those things cost. A thousand pounds for the cake, a thousand for the food, two for the photographer. Cars to get from the village church to Sharwood. Fuck, fuck, fuck
. Would Liz’s parents contribute? Would a TV company pay in advance? Could he rent beds? Somehow make the rooms fit to sleep in? Oh fuck.
“I can help you with the house,” said the woman.
“Fuck off.” He winced as the words came out. There was no reason to be rude, but he didn’t need another leech using the hot water and doing bugger all, particularly one who couldn’t pay. If he could have afforded to, he’d have told the lodgers to leave.
He spotted Henry’s old Land Rover parked in the yard of the gatehouse and hesitated. It was a long, wet walk to the village. He wanted to go to a place where no one would recognize him, because it wasn’t a drink he needed. There was no bus for another hour. Henry’s vehicle would take him to Harrogate for nothing because even if Jago offered money for fuel, Henry wouldn’t take it. Jago knocked on the door.
“Jago! Come in.” Henry beamed and stepped back.
Henry looked genuinely pleased to see him. The only person who ever did. Jago stayed where he was, his hands buried in his pockets, one fist clamped around Denzel’s letter. He caught the aroma of freshly baked bread, and his stomach growled.
“I received the check. Just under four and half thousand. Thanks, Henry. I appreciate it.”
“Every little bit helps, right?”
“Yep. Can I borrow the Land Rover?”
“Where do you need to go? Rather I give you a lift?”
Jago bit his cheeks. Henry always made him feel like an awkward teenager. “Harrogate. Someone I have to see. I can drive.”
Henry sighed, reached into his pocket, and handed over the keys. “We made good progress on the herb garden before the rain started. You should come and look.”
“Yeah. Great,” Jago muttered and turned away. He glared when he saw the woman.
She looked at Henry over Jago’s shoulder. “He wouldn’t listen.”
“It takes a while to get through to him,” Henry said. “You can stay with me, Ellie, and try again tomorrow. He might be in a better mood.”
Jago’s jaw dropped. Henry was the one always nagging him to make his lodgers pay more. Plus the guy had lived on his own forever. He’d never married, never had a girlfriend. He’d laughed when Denzel asked if he was gay.
“Jago, come in and have some supper,” Henry said. “I’ve made vegetable soup and granary bread. I’ll open a bottle of wine. We can have a chat. You can hear—”
“No, thanks. I’ve already eaten.”
The thunderclap was so loud it made all three of them jump. Jago suspected both Henry and the God he didn’t believe in knew he’d lied.
“Drive carefully,” Henry said.
“Actually I thought I’d drive on the wrong side of the road and practice a few handbrake turns.” Jago instantly regretted his childishness.
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Well, try not to scratch the paint.”
The woman pulled down her hood as she moved under the cover of Henry’s porch and then turned to look at Jago. Oh shit
, this is the lightning strike finally hitting me
. His knees trembled, and his lungs locked. She had the sweetest face he’d ever seen. Huge sparkling eyes, cute nose, and dimples in her cheeks. Her long silky fair hair was pinned up in an untidy knot, and wet tendrils stuck to her cheeks and forehead, curling like letters of an ancient language. Blood rushed south, and he spun round and headed for the Land Rover.
No to letting her stay. No to the meal. What else was he going to fuck up tonight? Better say yes to everything from now on.