Authors: Lynn Kerstan
A Regency Holiday (Anthology)
The Golden Leopard (The Big Cat Trilogy)
Heart of the Tiger (The Big Cat Trilogy)
The Silver Lion (The Big Cat Trilogy)
A Midnight Clear
Lord Dragoner’s Wife
Bell Bridge Books
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), events or locations is entirely coincidental.
Bell Bridge Books
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Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61194-395-5
Print ISBN: 978-1-61194-340-5
Bell Bridge Books is an Imprint of BelleBooks, Inc.
Copyright © 1995 by Lynn Kerstan Horobetz
Printed and bound in the United States of America.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review.
A mass market edition of this book was published by HarperPaperbacks A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers in 1995
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Interior design: Hank Smith
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For Alicia Rasley—superb writer, perceptive critiquer, sometimes collaborator, always friend.
The howling broke into his sleep just after midnight.
Bryn clutched a blanket around his shoulders and buried his head in the pillows, but the sound persisted, ever louder and more tormented. He knew from experience there would be no end to it this night. Nor any other, until his father died.
With a low moan, he swung his feet to the cold floor and lit a branch of candles from the single taper on the bedside table. Sundown to dawn, all responsibility for the earl was his.
Two servants remained at the castle, an elderly couple with nowhere else to go. During the day they attended the sick man as best they could, with Bryn’s help. The other staff had fled when there was no money to pay them. Only Mr. and Mrs. Dafydd remained at the once-flourishing estate of the Earl of Caradoc, along with the earl himself and the boy who would be heir to the ruins and the debts—if the end ever came.
After stuffing his feet into worn hose and slippers, Bryn shrugged into a threadbare robe. He picked up the brace of candles and padded grimly down the long dark hall.
The howling grew louder, echoing against the stone of the fortress that had stood for centuries between England and Wales. Like a great wounded mastiff, the Earl of Caradoc cried his desolation into the night.
As he opened the door to his father’s bedchamber, Bryn was assailed by the stench of putrefying sores and excrement. He took a moment to breathe heavily, knowing he’d soon become accustomed to the smell. After a while, almost anything became tolerable when there was no choice.
He lifted the candleholder. Across the room, the earl rolled back and forth across the bed. He’d flung off the covers, and his skinny, naked body gleamed ghostly in the light. The room was icy cold.
Bryn closed his eyes briefly, gathering strength, and crossed to the fireplace. Wood was stacked, awaiting his arrival. It wasn’t safe to leave the earl alone with a fire, not since the night he had stuck his hand into the flames, seeking warmth, and burned his numb fingers to stubs. Laudanum gave him peace for a few hours, but always, near midnight, he came to life with a vengeance.
Methodically, Bryn stuffed kindling under the logs and lit it with a taper. A stack of linens was set nearby, along with a basin and a kettle of water. He hung the kettle over the hearth and broke the ice that had crusted on top. Moving from habit, he spread towels across the flagstones to warm before lighting a lamp on the mantelpiece and another on a sideboard. It would be several minutes before he could bring himself to approach the bed. Pulling up a footstool, he sat down to wait for the water to heat.
The nightly exercise had become a ritual, no less terrifying for its familiarity. As always, he turned first to the enormous portrait of the earl that hung above the sideboard. In the dancing light of the fire, the Earl of Caradoc was a glorious apparition. Elegant in rich blue velvet, Dresden lace at his throat and wrists, the tall handsome man he had been mocked the shell of a man he’d become.
Bryn had adored his father, the rare times he saw him. Owen Talgarth swept in from his travels for the hunting season, usually with a horde of friends, always with boxes of presents for his lonely wife and child. Between the hunting parties and revelries, he took his son fishing and taught him to tickle trout and tie exotic lures. He told wonderful stories, too, about his exploits, and promised that they would share those adventures when the boy was old enough. Bryn lived for these visits from the man he idolized, but they ceased when he was ten years old.
That year his father had come home alone and ill. He stayed a few months, seemed to recover, and disappeared again. Soon after, his wife drowned in what everyone politely called an accident.
The earl did not return for her funeral. He was in Italy, some said, or Paris. Bryn, left to fend off his father’s creditors, told the estate manager to sell one after another of the castle’s treasures to pay the debts. But there was no money to keep servants, and within a short time even the kindly manager took his leave. In spite of his youth and scanty education, Bryn learned to keep the accounts and strike deals with tradesmen and tenants.
When Caradoc finally returned, his face marked with sores, his mind uncertain, it was to die. So far the process had taken three years. Bryn had begun to expect his blind, maddened father would outlast him.
He dipped his hand into the kettle, found the water acceptably warm, and with a sigh of resignation came to his feet. The earl had begun to sing, his voice remarkably strong and the words of the bawdy ballad clear as daylight. Now and again he spoke, words of flattery and courtship or a challenge, as if he were playing at dice for high stakes.
At such times, Bryn imagined his father’s mind had separated from his body and was living again the glories of the past. He profoundly hoped that was true. No doubt the old man merited hell, but surely he was enduring that now. If there was an afterlife, perhaps he’d be admitted to paradise, all his sins paid for with this terrible agony.
Bryn glanced again at the portrait across the room. It had been painted when Owen was thirty, a vibrant, lusty, devil-may-care rake. His gaze lowered to what was left of his father. A few straggles of hair sprouted from the blotched scalp. His glazed eyes were sunken above high cheekbones red with fever. He looked eighty years old. He was thirty-four.
As Bryn gently bathed the skeletal body, careful of the open sores, he murmured meaningless words of encouragement. It helped to concentrate on better times. Two years ago, the Earl had still possessed most of his faculties, though by then he had gone blind. Bryn became his father’s eyes, leading him on walks through the overgrown gardens, sometimes coaxing him all the way to the river. They sat in the sweet grass, talking about fishing and the future. About the countess.
The earl never accepted that his wife was dead, even when he was lucid. He spoke of his beloved Mary as though she’d gone away for a time, as he’d so often gone away. Even now he talked to her, long speeches of love and fidelity.
But he’d never been faithful. And that had destroyed them both.
Bryn had long since learned to shut his ears to the ceaseless babble, but suddenly he heard his name.
“Brynmore?” croaked the earl. “Is that you, boy?”
Startled, Bryn dropped the basin. It shattered on the stone floor, and lukewarm water soaked into his slippers. “Yes, Papa.” He stroked the fevered forehead. It had been months since the earl knew who he was.
“Where’s your mama?” His voice sounded oddly strong. “Where’s Mary?”
“She’s . . . paying calls in the village,” Bryn improvised.
An emaciated hand seized his shoulder. “You’re getting big, son. Like me. What are you now? Nine years old? Ten?”
Bryn swallowed hard. “I’ve fifteen years, sir.”
“All that.” The hand let go. “How did I miss your growing up?”
“You were in Vienna, Papa. And Paris. And Rome. You sent letters.”
“Ah, yes. I met the pope last week. Did I tell you? We drank cognac. Or was that the Duke of Brunswick?”
“It was Brunswick,” Bryn replied, not sure if popes drank spirits other than sacramental wine.
“Let’s go fishing tomorrow, boy. Long time since we’ve cast for salmon, eh? Mayhap your mother will come along with a picnic lunch. Like the old days.”
“I’d like that, Papa.” Bryn felt tears streaming down his cheeks, although he’d thought it impossible to cry any more. “We can catch our dinner.”
The earl frowned. “Too late. We should go to London if you are fifteen. Had a woman already, boy? One of the housemaids?”
Bryn gulped. “Not yet, sir.”
“Past time, then. See to the carriage and pack up your best clothes. I know just the place. Lucinda will still be there. Pretty Lucinda. Not so beautiful as my Mary, but she knows all the French ways.”
Bryn shuddered and took a moment to calm his voice before responding. “Whatever you wish, sir. But you should sleep now.” He tugged the sheet over his father and plumped the pillow under his head. The earl closed his eyes, and for a few moments it appeared that he’d drifted off.
Suddenly he sat upright, jabbing a finger at Bryn’s chest. “Don’t listen to ’em, boy. Do what you want. They tell you not to enjoy yourself, damn their eyes. What do they know?”
“Nothing, Papa.” Bryn gripped his father by the shoulders and lowered him gently to the bed.
The earl released a long sigh. “Be a little careful, though. Careful. Careful. Careful . . .”
Bryn gritted his teeth. Often the earl fixed on a word and muttered it for hours. Tonight it was the same.
Careful careful careful
echoed in his ears as he tugged nearer to the hearth the pallet that was kept ready for him. He extinguished all but one of the lamps, unfolded the blanket, and wrapped it around him, settling his long body on the thin mattress. Then he reached into the pocket of his robe and drew out lumps of wax, rolling them between his fingers until they were soft enough to stuff in his ears.
The wax dulled the sound, but he could still hear his father singsonging
careful careful careful.
Damn right he’d be careful. If ever he escaped from this nightmare, he would make sure it did not repeat itself. Dully, Bryn gazed into the dying fire, remaking the promises that sustained him. The promises that kept him from despair.
THAT NIGHT THE earl sank into a restless sleep from which he never emerged. Two weeks later he died.
Shrouded in fog, the bleak funeral was attended only by Brynmore Talgarth, now Earl of Caradoc, and the Laceys, a neighboring family. Bryn gazed at them across the open grave as the vicar muttered insincere prayers for the repose of a soul he obviously considered beyond salvation.
The Laceys had sustained him all his life. Robert, his best and only friend, was away at school, but the others were there. The viscount and his wife had provided food and clean linens the last few months. They’d have done more if he’d let them, but the Laceys were not wealthy. Isabella, only ten years of age but wild as an eagle, grinned at him. She knew how relieved he was to be free of his burden.
Even Aunt Ernestine, the most eccentric of the Laceys and the only one with money, had come up from London. It was she who paid for the coffin and the burial. Ernestine Fitzwalter was impervious to protests and did exactly what she wanted. Bryn envied her for that.
They expected him to move into their home because the castle was all but unlivable, and Ernestine had offered to provide for his delayed schooling. He’d refused her offer, with the same pride that had characterized his father, but expected he’d stay with the Laceys long enough to settle what he could of his father’s debts and discover if there was anything remaining of his inheritance to sell.
To keep his vows, he’d need a stake. His wits and determination would do the rest. One day he would be rich, independent, and true heir to the centuries-old name he bore. From almost nothing he would create a legacy for his children and restore the family reputation.
At the vicar’s impatient gesture, he picked up a handful of damp earth and tossed it into the open grave. “I loved you, Papa,” he murmured under his breath, “and I fear that I’m too much like you. But I swear this will never happen to me.”