Chapter Thirteen: Hawthorne Blood

"Well, here goes."

Clay gazed up at the manor house, his heart in his throat. "Time to see what big bad Daddy makes of my scandalous elopement."

"Whatever he thinks of it, Clay, I have no regrets." Marissa wound her hand into his, squeezing it tightly. "Last night was a night I will always remember, and that's the truth. Even if it isn't how I always pictured getting married...I wouldn't go back and change it. I'm Mrs Clayton Blake now...and people are just going to have to deal with it."

"So they are." A glimmer of a smile touched Clay's lips. "Including my father. Come on. Let's get this over with. We have to be at the concert venue by eight, and Sophie's already on the rampage. I don't care what she does to me, but I don't want you to get in trouble too. It wouldn't be a good start to our married life."

"In for a penny, in for a pound." Marissa dimpled. "Isn't that the saying you guys have?"

"Guess so." Clay laughed. "And with that thought in mind..."

He trailed off, leading the way up the steps and knocking purposefully on the door. There was no answer, and, as he went to knock again, the door swung eerily open at his touch. He frowned, casting Marissa a confused look.

"Security ain't up to much." He remarked.

"Well, it's open." Marissa shrugged. "I guess that means we go in. Your father's probably bogged down in work or something."

"Probably." Clay agreed. "All right then, we'll...holy crap!"

He stopped dead, almost causing his companion to walk right into him. "No, Mari, I don't think you should come in here. Someone has already been here, and..."

He faltered, and despite his warning, Marissa took a couple of steps into the hall. She let out an exclamation, her hand flying to her mouth.

"Oh God." She whispered. "Is...he dead?"

Clay crouched at the man's side, reaching for a pulse. Blood had spilled out across his uniform, staining it red, and from the glassy, unresponsive look in his eyes, the drummer knew that it was too late. He bit his lip, shaking his head.

"No pulse." He said grimly. "I think he's been shot. Mari, you need to go and call the police. Now. It's eerie quiet in here, but I can't help but think what my father said...about Trevor. Looks like someone has been here...someone who meant business."

"I can't leave you here on your own!" Marissa protested. "What if whoever it is is still here?"

"Then I won't have you anywhere near this place." Clay said firmly. "This is my family's mess, Mari, and I'm damn well going to find out what's going on. If my father is still alive, I need to find him. And if he isn't..."

"Then you may well be Earl of Wissex." Marissa paled. "Oh God..."

"Just go call the police." Clay bent to kiss her. "Go outside, and call them. Please. I'll be all right - I'll be careful, I promise. And call an ambulance, too. Just in case there are others...more lucky than this guy."

"All right." Marissa looked uneasy. "But don't do anything crazy, Clay...please. I won't lose you."

"I promise I'll be fine." Clay told her gently. "Now go. The sooner you do, the sooner this poor guy can find some justice, and the less danger I'll be in stalking around this place."

Marissa cast him a lingering glance, as if still doubting his wisdom, but she made no further demur, heading out of the house and onto the front forecourt. As she did so, Clay saw her fumbling in her pocket for her phone, and he drew a deep breath of air into his lungs. Despite what he had told Marissa, he was not as confident of his safety, and yet he knew that he had to find out his father's fate.

"I hope he got away." He murmured. "And I hope that whoever it was is long gone from this place. If you can kill one man, you can kill more...and if you have a gun, then you're obviously better placed than me. Lord, what have I done getting myself messed up with this family? And yet I can't just turn my back, dammit. Maybe Dad was right all along. Trevor is a threat."

He crept along the hallway, aware of banging from the kitchen and he hurried to the end of the hall, but the door was locked firm.

"Let us out!" A woman's voice called. "Please! Someone! Oh God, let us out!"

Clay fumbled in his pocket for anything that he could use to release the lock but, as he did so, he heard the sound of raised voices from the parlour. Frowning, he turned his back on the locked door as he recognised his father's voice.

Ignoring the cries of the locked in house staff, he made his way down the hall to the parlour door, pausing outside it as he listened. A woman was speaking, and, much to his surprise, he found he recognised her voice.

"Jetta?" He murmured. "Christ, this gets more surreal by the second!"

"Are you really goin' to just let him die?" Her voice pierced his thoughts again, jerking him to alertness. "And kill me, and then what? Kill the whole house staff an' pretend you were somewhere else? The police are already on to you, Trevor. They're looking for you. They'll know who did it and bang you up for the rest of your miserable life. You'll never be Earl. The convicted can't inherit the property of those they slaughtered."

"Why not?" The voice was unfamiliar, and Clay was chilled at the note of calm madness in his tone. "I killed my brothers. I would have held this place too, if not for Regina and her stupid, stupid plans to produce a son!"

"My mother was never stupid." Mason sounded weak, Clay decided, but his voice was still rich with derision. "She warned me that you were mad before I even left Yorkshire. She knew what you were, and what you'd done to my father. Even if the world didn't believe her."

"Then maybe, when I've finished with you here, I'll travel north and pay a visit to the Lady Regina. Renew my acquaintance." Trevor said darkly.

"You leave her alone!"

"You're not exactly in a position to argue with me, Mason." Trevor's voice became hard. "In a few moments, neither of you will be in a position to do anything much, ever again."

Clay bit his lip, swallowing hard. It was fairly clear, even from the little he had overheard that his great uncle was not only completely mad, but armed and dangerous.

"Going in there would be crazy." He muttered to himself. "But not going in there...would make me an accessory to murder. And my father might be an ass, and Jetta one of the old crones who cause us grief in the business, but I don't want either death on my hands. Not really."

He took a deep breath, glancing down at himself.

"No weapon." He murmured. "But the element of surprise. And God knows I hope it'll be enough."

He closed his eyes briefly, then reached for the door handle, wrenching the door open. At his entrance Jetta glanced up and, distracted, Trevor turned his head towards the sound. Not giving himself any time to think and take fright, Clay flung himself at the attacker with a yell, knocking him off guard and almost causing him to drop his gun.

"Clayton! No!" Mason's exclamation was full of both anxiety and fear, as Clay grappled with his great uncle, struggling to get the better of the man and dislodge the gun from his grip. For a moment the two men fought, and then Trevor's grip closed around the gun. He reached a finger for the trigger, but Clay had registered the movement and delivered a swift kick to his knee, causing the old man to cry out in pain. His grip loosened once more and for the first time Clay touched cold steel between his fingers. From somewhere, there was the crack of a pistol shot, then, just as suddenly, everything went still.

For a moment, Clay was unsure if he had been hit or if it had been his companion, so thick was the adrenalin coursing his veins. Then, as Trevor's body fell heavily against him, he realised that the bullet had pierced his opponant's chest at close range, his blood mingling with the gunpowder on his shirt. Feeling sick, he reeled away from the dying man as Trevor fell to the floor, gasping his last. His eyes rolled back into his head, and everything was still.

It was then that Clay realised that he was still grasping the gun and, with a yelp of horror he dropped it as if it was scalding hot, registering as he did so the blood and gunshot residue that tainted his fingers. He swore deeply, drawing shaky air into his lungs as he stared at his fingers.

"What have I done?" He whispered.

"Clay!" Jetta's sharp tones broke through his daze and he turned, staring at her without comprehension.

"Pull yourself together! You're father's 'urt an' I need your 'elp." Jetta snapped, and, more automatically than anything, Clay dropped to his knees, shuffling to Mason's side. Numbness still claimed his soul, as his brain struggled to work out exactly what had happened. Trevor's body lay still, blood pooling on the floor around him, and as he caught a further glimpse of his great uncle's motionless form, Clay felt a wave of nausea rise within him.

"...And an ambulance." Jetta was speaking again, and he fought to focus on her words.

"Marissa." He murmured faintly. "When we came...I sent call for help."

"I'll be all right." Mason said firmly, though his pallor belied his words. "It's just a flesh wound. His aim was lousy."

"Shut your face." Jetta told him sharply. "And save your strength. You shouldn't 'ave dived in front of me like could've got yourself killed."

"Guess I owed you something." Mason offered a weak smile, then grimaced. "Damn, it hurts though."

Clay made a final determined effort to bring his thoughts back into focus, turning his gaze away from Trevor as he glanced at his father's wound. Mason's shirt was thick with red now, and he bit his lip.

"It looks nasty." He acknowledged.

"Did you say Marissa was 'ere?" Jetta asked. Clay nodded.

"I made her wait outside." He agreed. "And call for help. When we found the man dead in the hall..."

"Dead in the hall?" Mason echoed. "But...?"

"One of your house staff." Clay said gravely. "I forget his name, but he waited on us the night Diablo ate here. He was beyond help when I found him, Dad. I sent Marissa to call the police and an ambulance...and I came looking for you."

"Bloody good thing you did, too." Jetta glanced across the carpet to the discarded gun. "No prizes for guessin' what 'e would've done with that, given 'alf a chance."

"You called me Dad." Mason's voice was slightly blurry, as if it was a fight just to stay conscious. Clay frowned, meeting Jetta's gaze.

"He's lost a lot of blood." He observed. Jetta nodded.

"That's what you get for tryin' to play the 'ero." She said frankly, but her expression belied the harshness of her words. "An' I think I 'ear sirens. Clay, go an' tell them where to come. Where to find your father. I'll stay with 'im."

Clay hesitated, glancing at her as if unsure what to do.

"I should probably speak to the police myself." He said dubiously. "I mean...if I..."

"The gun went off while you were fighting with him." Jetta said firmly.

"But...did I shoot him? Or..." Clay moistened his lips. "Or did he shoot himself? I honestly don't know...I just...I remember touching the gun and then..."

"Doesn't matter to the poor sod now." Jetta said matter of factly. "Whatever 'appened, Clay, he got what was comin' to 'im. And I'll tell the police that, an' all. I don't know who pulled the trigger - I couldn't see from down 'ere who it was. But if it was you, well, he would as soon 'ave killed you, me an' your father given 'alf a chance. So get a grip on yourself an' go an' tell the paramedics where to come, all right? It ain't worth losin' time over."

Clay stared at her for a moment. Then, without a word, he turned on his heel, heading out slowly into the hall and towards the front forecourt where squad cars and an ambulance were already pulling on to the scene. Marissa stood to one side of the drive, her face pale and her eyes wide with worry. At the sight of her husband, she ran forward, stopping dead as she saw the blood on his hands. Her hand flew to her mouth.

"What happened?" She whispered.

"Trevor is dead." Clay said carefully. "And my father is hurt. I need to speak to the medics."

"What's the alarm? Someone said something about gunshots and a murder." At that moment a police officer hurried up to them, and Clay grimly outlined what they had found, telling them where to find the Earl. The medics were not far behind and, once they were gone inside, he cast Marissa a troubled glance.

"Is Mason very bad?" Marissa shot him an anxious look. Clay shrugged.

"I hope not." He owned. "He has lost blood, but he was conscious when I was there. Jetta said he dove in front of her...or something. I admit, I wasn't quite taking it in."

"Jetta?" Marissa frowned. "As in Jewel's Jetta? What's she doing here?" As Clay nodded. He spread his hands.

"No idea, and it didn't seem like the time to ask." He replied. He glanced down at his fingers, a shadow touching his eyes.

"I need to wash these." He murmured. "I feel dirty."

Marissa bit her lip, then,

" said Trevor was dead." She hazarded slowly. "Did Mason...?"

"No." Clay said abruptly. Marissa's expression became even more troubled.

"Did you...?" She whispered. Clay sighed heavily.

"I don't know." He admitted. "It was all a blur. One minute we were fighting...the next the gun had gone off and he was dead. That's the truth of it, Mari, I swear to you. I don't know who pulled the trigger...him or me. I don't remember."

"Oh Clay." Marissa hugged him tightly, mindful of the blood still staining his hands. "I never thought you'd fight the guy!"

"Well, it was kinda the only plan I had." Clay said ruefully. He pursed his lips, then, "I'd better go inside. The police will want to talk to me, and God only knows what I'm going to tell them."

"Whatever you do, I'll stand by you." Marissa reached up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Because whatever happened in there, Clay, you're not a killer. If the gun went off in your hand, well, it was an accident. And that's all there is to it."

Clay did not reply as, at that moment, the paramedics re-emerged with his father on a stretcher. He took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. One of the medics approached him.

"You're the Earl's son?" He asked. Clay nodded.

"We're taking your father to Wissex General." The medic told him. "The police asked me to tell you to stay behind. They want to talk to you about what happened...the coroner's been called in."

"All right." Clay nodded his head again. "Is he...I mean, he will be all right?"

"Sooner we get him to hospital and patch him up, I should think so." The medic replied cheerfully. "It's a nasty wound, but I don't think it'll be fatal."

"Then I'll come see him later, when the police are done with me." Clay made up his mind. "Meantime, I'd better go see what they want."

He glanced at Marissa, then headed purposefully for the front entrance of the mansion. He paused at the door, and felt a gentle hand on his arm.

"I'm coming with you." She said softy. "Dead uncles or not...I'm coming."

"I'm glad you are." Clay admitted. "This wasn't at all how I intended this afternoon to go."

"Sophie!" Marissa's eyes became big. "And the show!"

"Well, she'll just have to wait." Clay said flatly. "Not much I can do about it if the police want to talk to me."

"It's half past three." Marissa glanced at her watch. "Maybe we've time yet."

"Maybe we do, but honestly, I don't know how primed I am to play a big arena show after all this." Clay said frankly. "I still have his blood on my hands, Mari. It's gonna stay with me for a while...even if it was, well, just an accident."

"Mr Blake?" At that moment they were once more accosted by an officer. "I understand you were a witness to events here this afternoon?"

"In a manner of speaking." Clay nodded his head. "What do you want to know?"

"Your father's cousin told me there was a struggle, and that in the commotion Trevor shot himself." The officer pulled out his notepad and pen. "We're just trying to work out what went on - it seems to me like your father had a lucky escape."

"Trevor shot himself?" Clay echoed, almost disbelieving, then, "My father's cousin?"

"Mrs Pelligrini." The officer shot him an odd look. "And we'll need a full statement from you, of course, for our records. It seems an open and shut case, though - we've been aware that Trevor Hawthorne has made an attempt once on the lady's life, and that he has a history of hostile behaviour towards your father. No doubt the coroner will tie it all up for us when he does the post mortem - do you think you can accompany us to the station and fill in a form?"

"Oh!" Clay got to grips with himself. "Yes. Of course. Whatever you need."

"May I come with him?" Marissa asked at that juncture, sliding an arm into Clay's as she did so. "I'm his wife."

"Of course." The officer agreed. "This way, if you wouldn't mind."

Clay allowed himself to be led back outside onto the driveway, inwardly glad that he had not been forced to see his great uncle's dead body again. Jetta was already outside, talking to one of the officers, but at the sight of him, she made an excuse, coming to join them.

"Whether you remember what 'appened or not makes no difference to me." She said quietly. "Your Pa an' I are both agreed that your interruption saved our lives today. At best he fired the shot, at worst it was self-defence an' an accident. Nothin' else, so don't go tellin' them stupid stories about 'ow you killed him, all right?"

"You told the officers Trevor shot himself." Clay stared at her. "But you told me you didn't see...?"

"Didn't see anything." Jetta agreed. "But either way, it's the truth. Trevor came in with the gun, tried to fire the tried to get it off 'im. If it went off, stands to reason that it were 'im that done it. Even if your fingers were on the trigger. It was 'is gun an' 'e intended murder with it. So pull yourself together an' stick with what I told them. Your father will do the same thing. All right?"

Clay bit his lip.

"The officer called you my father's cousin." He said slowly. "Is that...true? Or another convenience for the police?"

"Well, I'm certainly not 'is lover." Jetta said acerbically. "Yes. It's true. Though the less people who know of it, the better. I've no intention of bein' tied to the Hawthorne family for the rest of eternity."

"I know how you feel." Despite himself, Clay smiled. He glanced at Marissa. "What do you think? I mean, about what Jetta said? The statement?"

"I think you should do what she told you." Marissa said quietly. "Because whatever did happen in there, Trevor brought it on himself. You were brave, Clay. Not a killer. And I won't have you in trouble because you think you did something you probably didn't do at all. Your instinct wasn't to kill anyone, after all. Why would you have reached for the trigger?"

"The kid's got a good point." Jetta nodded approvingly. "Take that with you, when you write your statement. It will be filed an' documented an' put away an' that will be the last of it."

She put a hand on his shoulder.

"Your father an' I are grateful you were there." She added. "Now come on. We'd better go an' keep the pigs 'appy, give them what they want to know!"

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *


Grace hurried into the hospital room, her expression a mixture of fright and anxiety as she dropped down at her husband's bedside, reaching to take his hand in hers. "Oh God, Mason, what in Hell happened? I got home and there were police waiting for me, telling me you'd been shot and...Oh God..."

"Grace?" A voice startled her and she turned, taking in the features of Mason's son. Despite herself, relief flooded her senses.

"Oh, but you're both all right?" She asked softly. "Clay, tell me, is he? Is he...will he be...?"

"He'll be fine." Clay nodded his head, coming to sit beside her. "He's been in and out of consciousness since he got out of surgery, but they don't think he's in any danger. The bullet passed straight through and missed most of his vital structures. Nicked a vessel, hence so much blood...but they've dealt with that. He's stable. He'll be okay."

Grace closed her eyes briefly, gripping the edge of the chair as giddiness washed over her.

"Thank God for that." She whispered. "I was so afraid..."

She glanced at him.

"And you're here." She observed. "Does that mean you're reconciled to your family, then?"

"Not in the way you and he want me to be, Grace." Clay shook his head. "I can't be Earl of Wissex...the only thing that even made me think about it was the risk posed by Trevor and what he'd do if he inherited the estate. But...Trevor is dead. There was a struggle and he...he shot himself. It's over. And you and Mason no longer need me to play pretend."

" dead?" Grace digested this with some difficulty. Then, "Perhaps Mason is finally safe, then."

"Grace?" A voice came from the bed, and the Countess turned her attention to her husband, squeezing his hand tightly.

"I'm here." She murmured. "It's all right. Clay's told me...he says everything is going to be fine."

"Trevor is gone." Mason's voice was faint, but he struggled to bring himself into a more upright position. "Wissex is safe."

"So I understand." Grace agreed gently. "Oh Mason, I was so frightened when I got home and there was all that commotion. Men with yellow tape, police cars...I was terrified at the thought of what might have happened to you. I was scared to lose you...scared like you wouldn't believe."

"Well, I'll be fine." Mason assured her, squeezing her fingers slightly in reassurance. "Thanks to Clay's interruption, we're all fine."

Clay looked uncomfortable.

"The less I think about that, the happier I'll be." He said abruptly. "Dad, I'll cut to the chase. I came to your house this afternoon because I wanted to tell you something. Marissa and I both did. I didn't know I'd be walking in on a blood-bath or a hostage situation...but now the chaos has died down, you still need to know. I can't be your puppet. I can't live the life you tell me to live or marry the person you want me to marry. Marissa and I are...we're already married. I already made my choice and it's the only one I'd ever be happy with, because I love her. And I'm not cut out to be an Earl. I only considered it because of the threat to your estate and the people who depend on it - because of Trevor. But I'm not from your world, and I could never adjust. I've had time to think about that and I realise it's the truth. I'm Clayton Blake...I'm Diablo's songwriter and drummer and my home is with Marissa in Los Angeles. Not in an English country manor. I'm sorry...but that's how it is."

Mason was silent for a moment, digesting this. At length he nodded his head.

"And as my son?" He asked softly. "What of that, Clay?"

Clay pursed his lips.

"I'm not sorry to have met my father this trip." He acknowledged at length. "I thought I would be, but I guess I'm not. I mean, Luca told me that I had to make up my own mind about you sooner or later, and I have done. I'm prepared to believe that what happened between you and my mother was misunderstanding on both sides. But this just isn't my life. Can you accept that?"

"I think I already had, when you walked out on me at lunch the other day." Mason admitted. "I didn't know you were promised to Marissa, my boy - you could at least have told me that, before I started talking to you about marrying into the Hawthorne family."

"Would you have disowned me, if I had?"

"No." Mason looked rueful. "I'm hardly in a position to disown a son I barely know. I'm sorry for the reasons we were brought together, Clay...but like you, I'm glad that the gap has finally been breached. That I know my son...I suppose that is more important than a title, anyway."

He reached out a hand.

"If you wouldn't mind, I'd like us to stay in touch."

"That I can agree to." Clay nodded his head. "Even after everything that's happened."

Grace smiled.

"I knew you boys could make peace, if only you tried." She murmured. "So stubborn, both of you. Hawthornes to the core."

She sighed, tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear.

"Whilst we're making confessions, too, Mason...I have one." She admitted. "I mean, I've had my suspicions...but I haven't said anything. I resisted your attempts to make me go to the doctor, because I didn't want it to be...well...I had my hopes up, and I didn't want them dashed. But now, after today...I think I have to be straight with you. You could have died - both of you - and you wouldn't have known. And if affects both of you."

She glanced at Clay.

"My stepson and my husband."

Clay opened his mouth as if to object to the label, then thought better of it, falling silent. Mason shot his wife a confused look.

"What are you talking about?" He demanded.

"I'm afraid you'll be angry with me." Grace bit her lip. "Mason, I've deceived you for...well...for quite some time now, in truth."

"Deceived me?" Mason looked alarmed. "About what, woman? Tell me?"

Grace swallowed hard.

"I stopped taking my pill six months ago." She admitted. "I didn't tell you, because I knew how you'd feel and that you'd worry and fuss and...and all of that. But I took the decision anyway. I'm getting older...we both are. But I didn't know how much time we still had left and...and I was fed up with being told what to do by you and Dr Allison. So I didn't tell anyone. I just stopped taking them."

Mason's eyes widened, but she put a finger to his lips.

"I'm not done." She chided. "These last few weeks, I've felt...unlike myself. You know I've had bouts of sickness, and I've been tired and dizzy on other occasions, too. So I hoped...and I kept quiet. Till this morning, when you made me go to the doctor. He told me what I hoped to hear, Mason. I'm pregnant. Twelve weeks, at the very least. You will be a father again. There will be a Hawthorne heir, after all."

Mason stared at her, and she laughed.

"Your face." She said, amused. "Are you very cross with me?"

"Are you sure that you can handle it?" Mason asked. "Gracie, I'm not cross...not about this. But..."

"I'm not as feeble as you think I am." Grace dismissed this with a wave of her hand. "Even that fusspot Dr Allison had to admit that I was in good shape and that he couldn't find any reason why the pregnancy should be a threat to my health. I'll take life easily and do as he tells me, don't worry about me. I'll be fine. We both will. And now Trevor is out of the way, I know my baby can grow up safe and secure as heir to the Wissex estate."

There was silence for a moment, then Clay held out his hand.

"Congratulations." he said, a smile touching his lips. "I'm glad."

"I'm stunned." Mason admitted. "Grace, you could have told me..."

"You know full well that I couldn't." Grace shook her head. "I'm sorry I had to trick you, but Mason, I think it was worth it. And I didn't want to get your hopes up, either. It's never certain whether a woman my age can conceive easily or not, and we were running out of time. I didn't want it to be a bone of contention between us if I failed."

"It never could be." Mason assured her.

"Clay?" At that moment Marissa poked her head around the door of the hospital ward, casting Clay a smile. "Sophie's on the phone. I've told her what's happened...she wants to know if you'll be at the arena for tonight or if we're putting out a cancellation. It's just on half seven now."

Clay glanced at his watch, then at his wife.

"I think we can make it." He said softly. "It would be a shame to deny Wissex their last Diablo performance, after all."

Prologue: London, England
Chapter One: England's Rose
Chapter Two: Delving
Chapter Three: Wissex
Chapter Four: Grace
Chapter Five: Revelations
Chapter Six: Facing Shadows
Chapter Seven: A Change In Plans
Chapter Eight: County Show
Chapter Nine: Trevor Hawthorne
Chapter Ten: A Sea Chest
Chapter Eleven: Binding
Chapter Twelve: Homecoming
Chapter Thirteen: Hawthorne Blood
Chapter Fourteen: Mayfair

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