When Edmund returned at lunchtime, Casmin flagged him upstairs and into his room.
“What did you find?” He stopped short when he saw Willamina still studying the neckband, quietly talking to her twin. “I hope you haven’t been making a pest of yourself, Willamina.” She stood and blushed before stammering her apologies and leaving.
“It’s a good thing she was,” Rafe said, glaring at his brother. “Otherwise we’d be amputating my hand right about now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I found this in Harrison’s room. It’s what our mystery man gave him and the other Alphas last night.”
Casmin briefly explained what they had learned about the torc in the meantime.
“So he’s convinced them that wearing these will make them more powerful, when in reality, he’s turning them into slaves?” Edmund asked.
“And their packs with them,” Casmin said. “They could theoretically challenge their Alphas once they realized they were locked into service, but with the boost this collar would give I’m not sure it would do any good.”
“This is good, though,” Stian said. “If Harrison was genuinely unaware that this was a trap…”
“We can turn him,” Edmund finished. “And get an inside man. Is there any way to remove the enchantment?”
Stian nodded. “Andre and I can do it, yes.”
“Good,” said Edmund. “I’ll speak to Harrison this evening, then, and see if I can persuade him.”
“You could ask him if he’s single while you’re at it,” Stephen said. “Can’t let an opportunity just pass us by, can we?”
Edmund looked at Stian and Casmin. “Could you excuse us for a moment?” Edmund waved his brothers over into his own room, and asked, “Do you have something to say to me, little brother?”
“Nothing,” Stephen responded tersely.
“That nothing has been screaming at me all morning,” Edmund said. Stephen clenched his jaw, glaring at Edmund. “Do you want to tell me what else I should have done, Stephen?”
Stephen worked his mouth before he spat out, “You could have used your fucking brain, you arrogant, pompous ass.”
“I would have gone with ‘insensitive’ over ‘pompous’,” Rafe interjected.
Edmund was stunned by the outburst, and Stephen took the opportunity to plow on. “Did you even think, for one second, how she would react? How blindsided she would be? She’s known Thomas since we were seven. She couldn’t possibly have had any idea what was going to happen. Of course she panicked. It’s what she does, Edmund.”
Edmund was indignant. “And again, what was I supposed to do about it?”
“You could have at least told her what was coming. You could have told Thomas no, or told him to wait until you had spoken to her yourself. You’re supposed to be looking after her, and—”
Edmund slammed the table with his fist. “Do you really think I don’t know that? For that matter, do you think I ever think about anything else? You were only fourteen when Father died, Rafe was off God only knows where. I have spent every waking hour since then making sure this family was held together and safe. So don’t you dare sit there and lecture me on my responsibilities. Tell Thomas no? Are you out of your mind? Why in God’s name would I have done that?”
“Because he’s not good enough for her,” Rafe said quietly.
“Thank you,” Stephen said.
“Are you both out of your god damned minds? Not good enough for her? What kind of fairy tale do you think we’re living in? Thanks to our parents’ estates her dowry is generous enough but we have no name and no title. Thomas…”
Stephen shook his head. “You’re completely missing the point, Edmund. You say you want what’s best for her. But the truth is you have no idea who she is. You see her as just another burden, like the roof on the country house or the monthly accounts. You don’t see her at all. That’s bad enough, but you don’t see what it’s going to cost us if you keep treating her as if she’s just another silly debutante.”
“Do you have anything else to add, Rafe?” Edmund asked, glaring.
“No, I think Stephen covered it admirably.”
“Good. Then you can both get the fuck out of my room.”
After Edmund had slammed the door behind them, Stephen said, “Well, that could have gone better.”
Rafe laughed. “What did you expect, that he’d admit he was wrong?”
“No, that would have been terrifying.” He grimaced and looked back at the door.
“Leave him be,” Rafe said, “and let him stew on it a while.”
Stephen seemed to deflate, shoving his hands in his pockets and frowning. “You think he’ll come around?”
“It could take years, but yes. Eventually.”
Later in the evening, John Harrison came up to his room to change for dinner. He froze for an instant when he realized that his door was unlocked, and entered cautiously. Inside, he found Edmund sitting in a large wing-backed chair facing the door. His feet were propped up on the bed, and he was carelessly twirling the torc in his right hand while holding a glass of scotch in the other.
“Here’s what we have yet to determine, John,” Edmund said easily. “Did the man who gave you this play you for a fool, or are you really that stupid?”