May 10, 1819
London, Old Bailey Courthouse
Honorable Barnard Bathwell, presiding
“You’re a bastard by birth. How could you inherit anything?”
“Me father wanted me to ’ave it,” Pumpkin O’Dool explained.
“So you just broke into your stepmother’s home and took this?” Prosecutor Abrams strode forward, a gold pocket watch dangling from his fingers.
“Well, I knocked first, I did,” Pumpkin claimed. “She peeked through the curtains and saw me and never opened the door.”
“And yet you still took the watch. Your illegitimacy prevents you from inheriting property from your father,” Abrams argued.
James Devlin jumped to his feet from behind the defense table. “Objection, my lord. Mr. O’Dool’s illegitimacy is
in question. What is in question, however, is the missing will. If the prosecution had exerted as much effort in locating the will as it did in prosecuting a grieving son, we wouldn’t be in court today.”
Judge Bathwell, a squat fellow whose bewigged head barely cleared the top of his perch, drew his lips in thoughtfully and looked to Abrams. “Has the prosecution any idea where the will is?”
Prosecutor Abrams shook his head. “No, my lord. The solicitor that drafted the will is deceased. The original was given to Mr. O’Dool’s stepmother. It has not been found.”
“No doubt stuffed under her mattress,” James drawled.
“Objection!” the prosecutor shouted.
Six of the twelve members of the jury guffawed; two others eyed the prosecutor with a critical squint.
And that’s when James Devlin knew he had them.
Juries disliked overaggressive prosecutors more than thieves. Pumpkin O’Dool was an impoverished bastard and without a written will saying otherwise, he was entitled to nothing.
No one understood this more than James.
But at least Pumpkin O’Dool wouldn’t be sentenced to death today.
Sunlight poured in from the windows and heated the crowded courtroom. The spectators’ gallery was packed with observers seated on wooden benches, and the air thrummed with excitement. Commoners in worn dresses and patched corduroy jackets sat beside wealthy merchants and nobility in fine gowns and tightly tied cravats. Women avidly fanned themselves as the temperature in the room rose with each passing minute, and perspiration formed on the men’s foreheads, like water beads on good butter.
All were drawn to the Old Bailey. They had come to witness a man sentenced to hang, only to now champion his cause. Court, like the theater, contained the extremes of man’s behavior.
James turned his attention to the twelve members of the jury. A mostly rough lot, he had initially thought. One of the jurors had a battlefield of wrinkles, none of which were laugh lines. Another juror had hands dyed the color of dark coffee and an unkempt beard. A tanner, no doubt. And yet another was barely twenty, with golden curls and the face of a cherub.
A trill of feminine laughter and a shout turned his head. Pumpkin’s stepmother, a heavyset woman with dyed red hair and painted lips like a thread of scarlet, sneered at Pumpkin O’Dool from the front row. A balding man with a drinker’s veined face sat beside her, his thigh brushing her skirts.
Hardly the grieving widow. She wasted no time in finding a lover,
The stepmother’s features twisted into a maddening leer. Raising a finger, she pointed at Pumpkin and shouted out, “Thief! Cur!” She then turned to stare at James and eyed his black barrister’s gown and wig with disdain.
James cocked an eyebrow, and his lips twitched in amusement.
The remainder of the trial consisted of Prosecutor Abrams arguing the deficiency of a will and James emphasizing the stepmother’s motive for the will not to be found followed by three witnesses who testified as to Pumpkin’s “upstanding” character.
In the middle of Prosecutor Abrams’s closing, a shadow of annoyance crossed the judge’s face. “That will be enough from both barristers. As it is time for luncheon and all relevant evidence presented, I ask for the gentlemen of the jury to consider their verdict.”
It was the jury’s fifth verdict of the morning with a half a dozen more trials to conclude before the end of the day. They gathered in the corner, their faces animated as they gestured wildly at one another. They whispered, yet every few words could be heard across the courtroom from “guilty” to “bastard” to “harsh sentence.”
Three minutes later, the foreman, a middle-aged alchemist with eager brown eyes behind thick spectacles and a stained shirtfront, stood. “We the jury find Pumpkin O’Dool not guilty of housebreaking and theft.”
Pumpkin O’Dool cried out with joy; his grin reached from ear to ear as he shook James’s hand. Spectators shouted encouragement at the verdict and jeered at Pumpkin’s stepmother.
The woman rose and departed the courtroom in a huff, her lover rushing to keep up with her.
A court clerk passed the pocket watch to James, who in turn handed it to his client. “The jury believed your story that your father wanted you to have this,” James said. “Now stay out of trouble, Pumpkin. And don’t get caught selling that watch or ‘walking’ into any other dwellings.”
Pumpkin winked. “The watch is the least my old man could do fer me. Ye understand, don’t ye?”
Yes, I do. Only I won’t even get a bloody watch from my father,
Judge Bathwell’s gavel rapped as a prisoner in shackles was led forward by two guards. James nodded at Abrams, whose vexation at losing was quite evident by the prosecutor’s unfriendly, thin-lipped stare. Abrams turned away, pressed to prepare for the next case. Not a second was wasted at the Old Bailey.
James gathered his papers and made to leave the courtroom, aware of every eye in the spectators’ gallery following him. It was rare for a criminal defendant to be represented by a barrister, let alone to win against the Crown’s prosecution.
James reached the double doors when a voice stopped him.
“A word, Mr. Devlin.”
He turned and looked down into the eyes of an old woman who sat in the last row. Dressed in a gray gown with a large onyx brooch that resembled an enormous spider pinned to her shoulder, she sat stiffly on the wooden bench, her hands folded in her lap.
It can’t be,
Yet the unmistakable scent of her perfume—a cloying floral fragrance—wafted to him.
The Dowager Duchess of Blackwood.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Is that any way to greet your grandmother?”
He chuckled a dry and cynical sound. “It’s been years since I’ve seen you, so yes.”
Her expression was one of pained tolerance. “You always were rudely straightforward.”
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I’ve come with grave news. Your father is dead.”
James stiffened. He shouldn’t care, and yet he felt a sharp jab in his gut as the knowledge twisted inside him.
Bitterness spilled over into his voice. “You needn’t have delivered the news personally, Your Grace. A note would have sufficed.”
She glanced around the courtroom, her lips tight and grim, before returning to look at him. “We need to speak privately. Is there a quiet place in this circus?”
James regarded her with a speculative gaze. There was a client consultation room, but damned if he would cloister himself in the small room with her until he knew what she was after.
“Is that necessary?” he asked.
“My carriage then?”
The consultation room suddenly held more appeal. He could walk away when he chose. “Follow me.” He inclined his head, and she stood to her full height of five feet.
She was a formidable woman, with noble bloodlines and the bearing of a queen. With her shrewd eyes, her steel-gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, and the ramrod posture of a British brigadier, James had witnessed both debutantes and titled lords cowering at her aura of respectability and propriety.
They walked side by side out of the courtroom, James’s tall frame towering beside hers. The hallway of the Old Bailey was bustling with activity, barristers dressed in black gowns ushering witnesses to and from courtrooms. Clerks carrying stacks of briefs and litigation documents scurried to their assigned judge’s chambers.
Halfway down the hall James stopped before a door with a brass nameplate labeled
He opened the door and held it as the dowager duchess marched inside.
The room was lined with bookshelves containing well-used law books. A battered desk sat in a corner and wooden chairs occupied the rest of the space. Unlike the crowded, overheated courtroom ripe with the odor of unwashed bodies, the air in the small consultation room was stale and dusty. She glanced at her surroundings with haughty distaste before choosing a chair. James seated himself opposite her.
“Is there not a cushioned chair in this place?” she asked.
He ignored her and took off his barrister’s wig. He ran his fingers through his dark hair and exhaled before looking in her indigo-blue eyes, the exact shade of his own. “What is so imperative that you visit me in person and request to speak privately?”
“I told you, your father is dead.”
“And I’m sorry for that, Your Grace. I assume my half brother, Gregory, is busy dealing with the responsibilities of inheriting the dukedom.”
“Gregory is not the new duke.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You are the new Duke of Blackwood.”
For a heart-stopping moment he stared and wondered if he had heard her correctly. Then the truth dawned, and he laughed bitterly. “What joke do you play?”
“This is no joke.”
“May I remind you, Your Grace, that I am a bastard by birth.”
Her aristocratic nose rose an inch higher—a feat he would have previously believed impossible—at his choice of words. “So we had all believed. But circumstances have come to my attention. Your parents were legally wed before you were born.”
Again he merely stared, at a loss for words. James prided himself on his composure. Very little shocked him whether in the courtroom, in his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, or in the bedroom. But this woman had managed to render him speechless twice in one minute.
What game did she play?
She sat forward in her chair and looked at him intently. “It’s true. Your father confessed to me on his death bed. I’ve always known that your mother was a parlor maid and she had run off with your father when he was seventeen. I had accounted it to drunken stupidity on your father’s part after coming home on holiday from Oxford. Only days ago did I learn he had legally wed the girl at Gretna Green. Your mother died four months later, birthing you. Your father returned home and dutifully did as I bid and married your stepmother. She birthed Gregory before she too died. So you see you are the legitimate son, the new Duke of Blackwood.”
He knew his mother had been a maid, of course. His grandmother and half brother, Gregory, had cruelly and repeatedly reminded him of that fact in his youth.
“You need to take over your responsibilities at once,” she said, her tone authoritative.
“After years of being shunned by the family as the bastard, you now tell me it has all been an inaccuracy, and I am to step up to my responsibilities?” he asked incredulously.
“It was an unfortunate mistake.”
An unfortunate mistake? Could she truly be even colder than he had believed?
“Don’t be so ungrateful, James,” she said tersely. “I saw to your every financial need. Your clothes, your tutors, the best education at Eton.”
James sat very still, his eyes narrow. “How did he die?”
“It is of no consequence now.”
She gave an impatient shrug. “He was leaving his solicitor’s office after selling off one of his country properties when he collapsed. He died a week later when his heart gave out.”
“Which country estate?”
“Why would he sell Wyndmoor?”
A hint of exasperation flickered across her face. “Why does it matter?”
It mattered to him. Wyndmoor Manor was the only safe haven he had known as a boy, the only place the old duke had ever treated him as a true son. But he refused to explain himself to the woman sitting before him.
James rose in one fluid motion, intent on leaving and putting as much distance between himself and his grandmother as possible. The collar of his barrister’s gown felt as if it was cutting off his supply of air, and he needed time to digest the shocking news. His hand touched the doorknob.
“Well? As my grandson and the legitimate Duke of Blackwood, what do you plan to do first?” she demanded.