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by Stephanie Laurens
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"How the devil did they break the mill?" Gervase Tregarth, 6th Earl of Crowhurst, paced before the hearth in the elegant drawing room of Crowhurst Castle. The exasperation of a man driven to the limits of frustration colored his face, tone and every long-legged stride. "And am I to surmise that they were also behind all the rest? The broken fences, the damaged boats, the mix-up with the grain, the unexplained ringing of the church bells at midnight?"
Swinging around, he pinned his stepmother, Sybil, with a sharply interrogatory, hard hazel gaze.
Seated on the chaise, a silk shawl about her shoulders, Sybil returned his stare with a blank look, as if she hadn't fully comprehended his meaning.
Gervase knew better. Sybil was wondering how to answer. She knew he was one step away from losing his temper, and would much rather he didn't. He narrowed his eyes even further. "They were, weren't they? Of course they were."
His voice had lowered to a growl; the past months of futile traveling to London only to be summoned back within a few days to deal with some inexplicable calamity flashed across his mind—and frayed the reins of his temper even more. "What in all creation do they think they're about?"
He wasn't shouting, but the force behind his words was enough to overset a more robust female than Sybil; he drew in a breath and tamped down his welling fury. The "they" he and she were discussing were her daughters—his three halfsisters—currently featuring as the bane of his life.
Belinda, Annabel and Jane took after their father, as did he, which was why Sybil, mild, sweet Sybil, fair-haired and gentle, was entirely unable to control them. Or comprehend them; all three were more intelligent, clever and quick than she. They were also more vigorous, bold and outgoing, altogether more confident.
He, on the other hand, shared with the three the affinity of character. They'd always been close; as their adored older and only brother, he'd grown accustomed to them being on his side.
Or at least operating on some form of Tregarth logic he could understand.
Instead, over the past six months they'd apparently transformed from lovable if mischievous hoydens of whom he was deeply fond to secretive, demon-inspired harpies whose primary focus in life was to drive him demented.
His last question had thus been rhetorical; if he couldn't fathom what had possessed his dear sisters to stage what amounted to six months of guerrilla mayhem designed to overthrow his sanity, he didn't imagine Sybil would.
Yet to his surprise she looked down, and picked at her shawl's fringe. "Actually . . ." She strung the word out, then glanced up at him. "I think it's because of what happened to the Hardesty girls."
"The Hardesty girls?" He halted, frowned, struggling to place them. "The Hardestys of Helston Grange?"
Sybil nodded. "Robert Hardesty—Lord Hardesty now his father is dead—went to London last September, and came home with a wife."
Gervase's recollection of Robert Hardesty was of a wet-behind-the-ears whelp, but that memory was more than twelve years old. "Robert must be . . . what? Twenty-five?"
"Twenty-six, I believe."
"A trifle young for marriage perhaps, yet if, as I suppose, he has his sisters to establish, a wife seems a sensible addition to his household." His sisters' futures rated as one of the many reasons he himself felt compelled to wed. Gervase tried to recall the Hardesty girls, but drew a blank. "His sisters are about Belinda's age, aren't they?"
"A year or two older—eighteen and seventeen. Everyone thought Melissa and Katherine would be presented this past Season, and with Robert marrying . . . well, we all imagined that the new Lady Hardesty—a young widow said to have been a London beauty—would, naturally, take the girls under her wing."
From Sybil's tone it was clear the generally held expectations hadn't been met. "What happened?"
"Robert brought his lady home just before Christmas." Sybil's rosebud lips tightened into an expression of severe disapprobation. "In January, with the snows still blocking the roads, Robert dispatched Melissa and Katherine to visit their aunt in York. It seemed his new wife wanted time to settle into her new life without the distraction of having to deal with the girls. However, it's now July and the girls are still in York. Meanwhile, Lady Hardesty spent the Season in London, then returned to the Grange a week ago with a bevy of London friends in tow. I understand she's told Robert that it would not be wise to have the girls return home while they have so many London gentlemen under their roof."
Gervase stood before the fireplace staring at Sybil while he grappled with the implied connection. Then he blinked. "Am I to understand . . ." Lifting his head, he looked past Sybil, trying to see the Hardesty story from his sisters' perspective. "They can't possibly be equating me with Robert Hardesty."
His tone made it clear he found the notion inconceivable. He refocused on Sybil's face in time to meet her widening eyes.
"Well, of course they are, dear. The parallels are rather obvious."
He felt his face harden. "No. They're not." He paused, then growled, "Good God! They can't seriously imagine—"
He broke off and looked toward the main door as it opened to admit his halfsisters. He'd sent for them the instant he'd stalked into his front hall, having been met in the castle forecourt by Gregson, the local bailiff, with the news that the three had been discovered creeping away from the mill just after midnight. Subsequently, it had been discovered that the mill was no longer functional.
Despite the best efforts of the miller, it still wasn't.
In the wake of the string of strange accidents that had plagued the estate for the past six months, Gervase and Gregson had set up a secret watch. But the very last culprits they'd expected to catch were the three schoolgirls who marched into the room.