Authors: Gaelen Foley
Table of Contents
“Look at you. Drunk again. You are pathetic,” Lord Hubert said to his younger brother.
Major Jason Sherbrooke merely let out a low, insolent laugh in response. Staring into the fire, he sank more deeply into his tattered armchair and took another swig from his bottle of blue ruin.
Picking his way through the clutter of the major’s seedy bachelor lodgings, Algernon Sherbrooke, Viscount Hubert, pulled out a fastidiously pressed and monogrammed handkerchief, veiling his nostrils from the dirt that hung in the air. “Heav'n preserve us, this room smells of rotted cheese or piss or some foul thing. Don’t you ever clean up after yourself?”
“To be sure, I am the soul of industry,” Jason slurred.
Algernon pursed his lips. The cause of his brother’s malaise was obvious. He flicked a downward glance to the empty sleeve of Jason’s disheveled, red uniform coat. The major had lost his right arm during the vicious cavalry charge at the Battle of Albuera. He had been lucky to escape with his life. Pulling a coarse wooden chair over to the fire, Algernon gingerly lowered himself onto it. “Perhaps you should hire a maid rather than sitting around here feeling sorry for yourself.”
“The devil I will. The last one stole from me,” he grumbled.
“It is no wonder, considering your address.” Indeed, Jason’s lodging house was so ill-situated that it was not far from the slum tenements that Algernon owned—very secretly—in a treacherous quarter of the East End. Alas, that investment had not yet yielded the returns he had hoped, though he had raised his tenants’ rents again last month. He did not care if Christmas was a fortnight away. He’d evict anyone who did not pay in full. “Why do you stay in this rat’s hole? We both know you can afford better.”
Jason looked at him dully. “What does it matter?”
“Have you no pride?”
“What the hell do you want, Algy? I rather doubt I owe this visit to a sudden rush of fraternal affection in your breast. Have you been infected with the bloody holiday spirit, or is there a reason you’re here?”
Warily, Algernon scanned Jason’s sun-weathered face with its scraggly copper mustache. He would have to proceed with caution. Even drunk, his sharp-witted younger brother was not a man to be trifled with, hardened as he was by his years of war. “Perhaps I came to stop you from drinking yourself to death.”
“Waste of time.” Raising his bottle again, Jason cast him a sidelong glance. “But somehow I doubt that was your motive.”
Algernon held him in a penetrating stare for a long moment, then sighed, giving it over. “No. It was not.”
“In the army, we respect a man that comes straight to the point.”
“Very well.” Algernon’s narrow face tautened as he paused, his hazel eyes turning even colder. “I must have Miranda’s dowry.”
Jason’s bleary eyes cleared with astonishment.
“My situation is grave—”
“Oh, no. No, you don’t. Stop right there. Absolutely not.”
“Hear me out—”
“There is nothing to discuss.”
“That money is not mine to give, Algy, and it is certainly not yours to spend. Richard left it for his daughter—”
“His by-blow! Damn it, Jason, it’s not as though she’s one of us.”
“Miranda may be illegitimate, but that does not change the fact that she is our brother’s child.”
Their eldest brother, Richard, had been Viscount Hubert before the title had passed to Algernon, the second-born. An unmarried rake, Richard had died without legal issue, only a beautiful little daughter by his beloved mistress, the famed actress Fanny Blair. But Fanny had died with him on the lake that summer day when their pleasure boat had sunk. Only their then-eight-year-old daughter, Miranda, had survived, rescued by a fisherman.
“She is your niece and mine,” Jason finished staunchly.
“Not by law,” he said coldly.
“We owe her nothing. Let her find her own way in the world!”
“God, listen to yourself, Algy. You’ve always been such a coldhearted prick.”
“How can you be sentimental about this girl? Her mother was little better than a whore!”
“Well, I happen to like whores,” Jason said with a smirk, crossing his booted heels before the fire.
Biting back words he knew he’d regret, Algernon shot up out of his chair and paced across the cramped, filthy room, stepping over a broken footstool, empty bottles, and piles of soiled clothes in his path. He kicked a book out of his way and stopped by the far wall, blinking hard as he struggled to bring his vexation under control. Damn it, how was he to make this drunkard see reason? Within the folds of his lace cuff, his hand curled into a fist. “If I am ruined, the whole family will be disgraced, including you.”
“There, there, Algy, you won’t be ruined,” Jason said, chuckling. “You’ve got the wits of a fox and the morals of a snake. I have faith in you. You’ll find a way. But I will not hear you speak more against Miranda. It so happens I am very fond of that child.”
“Oh?” Algernon pivoted. “Then when was the last time you went to visit her at school? A year ago? Two? Five?” he pushed on as Jason blinked, clearly taken aback. “Before Albuera, I warrant!”
Jason flashed him a warning look. “Miranda is being well cared for at school until she is ready for her debut.”
“Debut?” he cried. “Firstly, she is a bastard and shall have nothing of the kind—”
“Yes, she will. That’s what the money’s for.”
“Well, she’ll get no help from me,” he snarled. “I will make damned certain that neither my wife nor my girls acknowledge her in Society. Secondly, do you even realize that the time for this grand
you envision is already passing? Miranda is nineteen years old. If you were so concerned about her welfare, you’d have realized that the appropriate age for her coming-out was a year or two ago.”
Jason stared at him, looking rather aghast. “She’s not nineteen!”
“Oh, yes, she is. Wake up, man! Put your bottle down and think! She is a grown woman—one you cannot mean to bring into our circles. Society will never accept her. Don’t you see it would be cruel to thrust her into a situation where she cannot possibly succeed?”
“Oh, she’ll succeed, Algy. You don’t know Miranda. She’s fearless. Besides, she’s always shown the promise of her mother’s beauty. A fair face can take a woman far in 'our circles.' “
Algernon forced himself to remain calm. “Listen to me. If it is indeed a good school, then Miranda will have been prepared for a position as a governess or some other respectable ladies’ work befitting her station. I ask you—why must we be responsible for Richard’s by-blow?”
am.” Jason shook his head in disgust. “Richard knew you’d treat her like dirt if he left her in your care.”
“Where is your loyalty, damn it? I am your brother and I am facing ruin! Last year’s harvest was poor. The 'Change is down—”
“And let me guess—you had to cover your darling Crispin’s losses again at the gaming tables.”
Algernon narrowed his eyes at him. “Crispin is my son, my heir. Am I to leave him at the mercy of cutthroat moneylenders?”
“I see. So, you’d rather take Miranda’s dowry—her very future—away from her so that your fool boy won’t lose face at the club. No, Algy. You and your son can both go to hell.”
“Algy, it’s only five thousand pounds anyway. Crispin can lose that in ten minutes. This money will make the difference for Miranda’s entire future.”
.” Algernon paced over and eased back down onto the chair beside him, intensely searching his brother’s haggard face. “Five thousand pounds? Don’t you put that bottle aside long enough to pay attention to your own accounts?”
Jason shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “What do you mean?”
“Before you went off to war, you invested the bulk of her inheritance money in a little company called Waring Iron Foundries. Do you remember?”
“Yes, what of it?”
“Jason.” Algernon shook his head at him. “Waring Foundries landed so many war contracts that the company’s become an empire. That five thousand is now worth fifty.”
Jason’s jaw dropped. He set his bottle down and stared at him in shock.
Algernon succumbed to a wry smile at his brother’s stunned expression. Perhaps now the fool would listen to reason. There was a long silence, broken only by the whistling of the winter wind at the eaves and the popping of the hearth fire.
“Fifty thousand pounds?”
Jason cried abruptly, regaining his tongue.
“Yes! You did it, Jason!” Algernon whispered feverishly. “You’re the one who deserves that money. You see what you are capable of when your brain isn’t soaked in spirits?”
“Damn me, fifty thousand pounds!” Tilting his head back, Jason slapped his thigh and began laughing drunkenly. He climbed out of his armchair, picked up his bottle again, and lifted it merrily. “Ho, Miranda, my lass! Fifty thousand pounds! By God, my girl, you’ll buy yourself a duke!” He stumbled past Algernon, his face flushed with excitement. “Damn me, it’s a bloody miracle.” He pulled out his army haversack and, awkward with the use of his left hand, began packing a few articles of clothing.
“What do you think you are doing?”
“I’m going to Warwickshire to fetch the lass from school, that’s what! If she’s nineteen—is she really nineteen?” he asked, looking up from his task.
Algernon did not answer the question. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Jason straightened up warily, abandoning his task. “I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t be absurd. There is no way in this world or the next that we are placing that kind of fortune in the hands of a nobody.”
“She is not
, Algy. Not anymore.” His mustache tilted with his crooked grin. “She’s Miss Miranda FitzHubert, heiress. You’d best remember that lest she cut you when she’s a duchess.”
Algernon rose from his chair, his expression turning dangerous. “Now, listen here, brother. You will hand that money over to me. I will not stand publicly disgraced over your misguided chivalry toward our bastard niece. Sign the account over to me. When I am on my feet again, I will replace the money, if you wish. Miranda will never be the wiser.”
“Bugger yourself, Algy. Try the bank.” Jason’s laughter stopped abruptly as Algernon coolly pulled out a pistol and leveled it between his eyes.
“My dear brother, you do not seem to grasp the seriousness of my situation. I must have that money, Jason. And I shall. Bring me the documents and sign over the account. Now.”
Jason stared incredulously at the pistol, then at him. “Have you lost your bloody mind?”
“We are kin. She is nothing.”
“You son of a bitch,” he whispered. “You’d do it, too, wouldn’t you?”
Algernon cocked the gun with his thumb. “Just do as I ask, Jason. You’re drunk. You’re not thinking clearly. Indeed, you’re not fit to manage the money or the girl. As head of the family, I will take charge from here.”
“You would blow my brains out as I stand here for fifty thousand pounds, wouldn’t you, Algy? Of course you would. You’d do it in a heartbeat! After all—” Jason paused, his face tautening with growing rage. “—you killed Richard to get your hands on the title, didn’t you?
” he bellowed as Algernon’s eyes flared with anger. “I don’t know how you did it, but you caused Richard’s boat to sink on the lake that day. You treacherous worm! I’ve always suspected it, but not until this moment was I sure.”
“I fear you have drunk yourself into lunacy, Jason,” Algernon said in cold, deadly quiet. “Now be a good lad and get me the documents.”
“The hell I will! Do you think I’m afraid of that gun? I’ve been looking down the barrels of French muskets these past five years. What the hell do I care? Go on, pull the trigger, Algy, you coward! I haven’t got a damned thing left to lose.”
“Don’t tempt me, Jason,” he whispered. “It would be such a waste. I am your next of kin, and I know you made a will before you went to war. Killing you would only make Miranda
ward; then her fortune would come under my control, in any case.”