Luke Crittenden looked over the crush of men and women dressed in their finery. All attending a ball in his honor, celebrating his triumph return from India. He had very little to celebrate in connection with India, he had lost many friends including his best, the man he could count on in the world. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass and tried to push down the memory of that day. He let out a long breath and downed the fiery fluid, reveling in the burning sensations as it slid down his throat. His eyes caught a glimpse of her over the rim of his glass, dressed severely in a dark brown dress and her hair pulled into a functioning knot at the nape of her neck, Mark's widow. It had been a full year and yet she still looked to be in mourning. He watched her move to the side of the room, dashing any hopes of any of the socially inclined males in the room. His mind slid back to that day.

"Luke, we need to move our position." Mark called over the crack of gunfire and cannon booms. Both were on their haunches, along with 60 other men, in a trench hastily dug not but a mere 30 minutes earlier when they realized they were being flanked and there was no where to retreat. Luke surveyed the their options, spotting their only possible exit, a bank of trees that were some forty feet away and had a troop of armed men between. He was going to loose men…

"Lord Crittenden," a woman's voice brought him to reality. Luke eyes refocused on the woman before him. She was beautiful; he could see why Mark had nearly lost his entire inheritance over her.

"Lady Stansgate, it is nice to see you about." Luke forced a smile on his face. He couldn't help seeing her grief and hearing her wail when he had brought Marks body home.

"Will you be so kind as to escort me onto the terrace for a bit of fresh air."

Luke held up his arm and set his glass down on a nearby windowsill. They wove their way through the crowd of fancily dressed members of the ton, both knowing that by tomorrow the English nobility would be set on its ear.

Wynne knew that she was an outsider from the day that she met Mark Stansgate first and only son of Baron Harry Stansgate. Wynne had no peerage in her ancestry, she was the daughter of a merchant, a hard workingman that until the day he died gave everything to his wife and children. Mark and her met quite by accident literally, his carriage nearly ran her over. The instant Wynne saw him she knew that she loved him, but she also knew that he was a titled man and that it would never be allowed. Mark pursued her and Wynne let him chase her finding it all very exciting, all the while keeping it from her parents. When he finally was able to catch her, he took full advantage. He asked her to marry him, when his father found out he threatened to strip Mark of his birthright. Mark cared a jot about the title or the estate and so much as told his father, marrying Wynne anyway. Almost nine months to the day, she gave birth to their first child, a boy Stephen and then twelve months later a girl, Constance, Connie for short. The old Baron could not harden himself to his grandchildren and Mark was once again firmly seated in the family.

Both walked in silence deep in their own thought. Luke's mind wandered back to the day he gave the order to charge ahead. Mark at his side as he had always been since the day they had become friends in school over twenty-five years ago. They had weathered many storms together and the one steadfast thing was their friendship that never wavered. Luke remembered the hearing Mark call out his name and turning to see Mark hit twice more, a bullet ripping through him knocking Mark to his knees. Luke heedless rushed forward, slung Mark over his shoulder, and carried him to safety.

"Luke you have got to take care of Wynne and my children."

"Mark, you're gonna make it."

"No, I'm not, promise me."

Luke unable to form a coherent word nodded and watched as Marks life slipped away.

Wynne looked up at Luke and saw the torment of Marks death written all over his face. She had not helped when he returned with Marks body; she did all but accused him of murder. She stopped him with a slight touch on his arm. When he looked down at her, the pain was evident in his eyes, which he quickly masked. "I have wanted…I should have…I shouldn't have wait so long to tell you that I'm sorry for my behavior when you returned."

"Wynne I understand."

"You are being chivalrous and I was anything but gracious to you."

"Would you prefer I hold it against you for the rest of your life and never forgive you?" He asked smiling down at her.

Wynne could not help but return the smile. "No, of course not."

"Well then it tis all water under the bridge now."

"You should stop to see Stephen, I know he and Connie both miss you."

"How are you doing?" He asked leaning against the stone banister that surrounded the terrace.

"I have my good days, and I have bad days. As time passes the good days come more frequently."

"How are things in the Barons home?"

Wynne humphed before she answered. "They tolerate me, with the exception of you and the Duchess of Kent I have no one else. I have invaded their sacred circle and without Mark, they see no need to even feign any civility."

"The Duchess of Kent is a influential ally."

"She is the only reason I'm invited to any of the social events." Wynne looked into the ballroom, seeing the looks that were being cast towards then. She drew in a deep breath before she spoke. "You should get back in there before you become the subject of their sharps tongues."

"You know well enough that I care little about what the ton has to say about me."

"Even so, we should get back." He offered her his arm.

"Will you stop to see the children?" She asked as they returned into the ballroom.

"I will." For the first time in a year, he felt the dark cloud that had been hanging over his head was lightening.

"Uncle Luke," Stephen said in a most grown-up tone, holding out his hand to shake which Luke accepted, noticing that Stephen was a replica of his father and suspected that if given the chance would be as free and easy to laugh as his mother once was. He heard his name called in a girlish squeal he looked up to see Connie bounding down the stairs. The baroness came from her drawing room and gave the girl a look that could only be described as cold and threatening. Instantly, Connie slowed her pace and came down the in a lady-like fashion. Luke clenched his jaw in an effort to keep his tongue in his mouth; it was not his place to interfere in the Baroness' home. He smiled gently at the girl that looked so much like her mother but had the spirit of her father.

The Baroness observed the children closely and both children were very aware of their grandmother's presence. Marquess of Ravensdale, how good of you to call," Connie said with a curtsey.

"Miss Constance, you are as pretty as ever," he said with a bow.

Wynne swept in through the front door breathless and disheveled, closing the door, she fell with her back against it, eyes closed.

"Mother," Constance and Stephen said in unison.

"Wynne," Luke said stepping forward.

Wynne opened her eyes and hesitantly smiled, stepping away from Luke's hand. "I lost track of time at the clothiers. You all know my sense of time," she said pushing away from the door. "Marquess, I had not expected you to call so quickly," she said taking a steadying breath.

Luke had not seen Wynne in almost a year but he had never known her to lose track of anything. It was one of the few things that Mark and Wynne fought over, his inability to be on time. Luke also knew that the clothier was not a place that Wynne frequented. "Wynne, are you positive you are all right?"

"Mother, you look flushed," Connie said looking up at her mother.

"Oh for pity sake, I'm fine."

"Marquess, Mother bought me a new pony, would you like to see?" Stephen asked all in one breath.

"Absolutely, lead the way," Luke answered quickly sensing that the Baroness was about to interfere. When Wynne and Connie did not immediately follow, he stopped and turned to them. "Will you not join us?" Connie bounded forward and Wynne looked quickly to the Baroness, and then joined them.

Stephen led them through the house and to the stable; Luke noticed that they were all quiet until they were at the stables. Connie reached up and felt Luke's coat pocket. "It's there," he said smiling that she remembered the ritual that he started with the two children when they were young. She reached in his pocket and found two gold coins. "I thought that perhaps you were getting a bit old for candy and would prefer to buy something on your own, one is for Stephen," he said squatting down in front of her.

"Luke, they can not take that, candy it one thing…" Wynne protested.

"Wynne, I have not been here for them please allow me to make up my desertion," he said standing and facing her.

Wynne had not realized how handsome Luke was, and how different from Mark he was. His eyes that always seemed to hold a secret were brown but not just plain brown they were a golden brown and sultry. Did she just think that? Wynne blinked and turned towards the stable to hide the blush that appeared.

"Wynne are you sure that you are all right?" He asked coming around to face her.

Wynne tried to step around him, but Luke touched her arm stopping her dead in her tracks as a feeling shot through her that she never thought she would ever feel again.

"Wynne, if you don't want me here…"

"No, Luke, no, I want you here." She answered that too quickly Wynne thought and again hid a blush by turning away from him. "I want you to be here for the children," she said smiling up at him hoping she was hiding the conflict of emotions she was feeling.

"Stephen, why don't you go saddle up this pony of yours and we will get a good look at him. Connie will you go with your brother."

"Of course Marquess," she said starting to skip away.

"Connie, please do not use my title."

"But the Grandmother will be quite cross if I do not."

"Then when she is around you may use it."

Connie ran back to him and grabbed him around the wait, hugging him with all her might. "I'm so glad you returned, now maybe things will be like they were and Mummy can be happy again."

Wynne shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest walking towards the corral. It didn't take long for Luke to catch her.

"Wynne don't be angry with her."

"She needs to learn to keep a few things to herself."

"I knew the moment I saw you at the ball you were not happy, but I also know how much you cared for Mark. Why don't you take Mark's annuity and fine a small place of your own."

"There isn't any annuity," Wynne breathed and a tear slipped down her cheek. "Mark, could not mange money, Luke, he knew that I would never be accepted in the ton so he tried to compensate by making sure that everything we had was the latest fashion. He…we lived like the King and Queen instead of Baron and Baroness. There is nothing I had to sell everything we had to pay off most of debts."

"Surely the Baron would have…"

"No he wouldn't, he said that the debt was my fault."

Luke saw her bring up her hand and caress the finger her betrothal ring once was. His own guilt rose to his throat and then anger that parents would be so cold and unfeeling.

"I will help you, it is my duty," he started but was cut short by her next words.

"No, Luke you can't, if you try the baron will take the children from me. I will die without my children," she said bluntly turning from him. "What you can do is to be here for them, the Baron is not the type of man that I want Stephen to grow up to be. You can share your stories of Mark, of your childhood. Do the things with them that Mark would have done."

"Uncle Luke, here he is," Stephen called as he trotted from the stables.

Luke drew his eyes away from Wynne to see the little black pony that Stephen rode like he was born to the saddle. "What's his name?"

Stephen rolled his eyes and ignored the question but Connie always willing to inflict pain on her brother chimed in.

"Muffin," Connie laughed.

Luke stifled a laugh knowing the boy would never be caught dead around his mates on a horse named Muffin. "Why haven't you changed the name?" He called to Stephen but it was Connie that spoke up.

"He will not respond to anything else," Connie giggled.

"Perhaps we can retrain him."

"Will you Uncle Luke, will you help me train him like Titan?"

"Titan, where is he?" Luke asked Wynne.

"Kent, he is too powerful for us to ride and he was the one thing that I could not bear to sell."

"Want a pony," Connie said stepping up on the railing of the fence.

"I told you that I would get you one when you are ten just like your brother."

Connie jumped from the railing and crossed her arms over her chest. "Drats! I will always get Stephens cast offs."

"Constance Rebecca Stansgate, you will watch your language and your attitude with me or you will never get a pony. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Mother, I'm sorry," she said meekly and uncrossing her arms.

"Forgiven," Wynne said stroking the side of her face.

She looked up in time to see Luke open his mouth; she knew he was about to offer to buy the pony for Connie. "Don't you dare," she warned him in the same tone she had used on Connie.

"You've gotten that Mother tone down." He winked at Connie who smiled.

"Lady Gwendolyn, the Baroness requests to see you immediately and that the children return to their lessons."

Wynne nodded and told Stephen to give 'Muffin back to Johnson, one of the stablemen."

"I'll stop by tomorrow and start retraining…Muffin." he choked out the pony's name.

"That will be fine."