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Again
a gasp broke from Margaret's lips, but this time it was followed by angry
words. "I'll not listen to any more of this rubbish, John!" she
snapped, striding toward the door. "Do with the child as you like. I wash
my hands of the matter!" And with a swish of skirts, she was gone.

The
duke stared momentarily at the door she had shut in her wake, then turned his
attention back to his grandson. "You see, Brett? As I've said,
women
—they're
a bad lot, always breeding strife and trouble. Latch onto this, boy—" the
old man leaned forward almost conspiratorially "—women are good for only
one thing, and that's breeding
sons!"

He
took a moment to search Brett's unwavering gaze, satisfying himself that he
still had his undivided attention. "I particularly fault your grandmother,
my own duchess. She managed to interfere in the rearing of your father, Edward,
to such an extent and in such a manner, that he was a spoiled weakling from the
outset. Coddled him, she did, despite my protests, and what were the results? First,
he went off and wed that, that foreigner, and an unsuitable bluestocking to
boot—a female whose subsequent behavior speaks for itself. A love match, they
told me when the pair of them were found at Gretna Green after my weeks of
searching!"

The
duke pushed himself back from the desk and let his eyes roam carefully over the
still figure of his grandson. "Believe me, boy, you were the only
worthwhile thing to come out of that union," he said quietly.

Suddenly
he turned his head sharply and focused on the door through which his twin had
gone. "But
she
could not allow matters to rest there, could she?
Oh, no,
she
had to interfere and arrange a second marriage, this time
with one of her beloved Hastingses! 'Lady Caroline has the best of
credentials,' " he mimicked. "'She will at last make a proper match
for Edward.'
Bah!"
He took a backward step and fell into the chair
behind the desk, suddenly looking, Brett thought, every minute of his
fifty-nine years. "A proper enough match, that is, to lead him to an early
grave!" he muttered. Then his voice grew faintly tremulous, and Brett
caught a slight quivering of the old man's lower lip.

Grandfather's
hurting, just like me!
young Brett suddenly realized.
He merely pretends
he is unaffected—also like me!

"And,"
the duke was saying, "I find it difficult to forgive Edward for having the
monstrous indecency to take the life of an innocent two year's child along with
his own and that of his worthless wife!"

In
an unsafe carriage that was intended for me!
thought Brett, a shiver running
through him as he recalled, not for the first time during the past two days,
that the vehicle was to take him to Eton to begin his first term at the public
school where he'd been registered since birth.

As
if reading his thoughts, the duke's expression suddenly changed to one of
speculative assessment. "I suggest you cease troubling yourself with the
kind of debilitating guilt that comes of thinking your family died in your
place, my boy. As one who has lived enough years to gain some wisdom, I tell
you it is all a matter of accepting what was meant to be. Clearly, your death
was not in the present scheme of things, while
theirs
was. Think no more
on it. Do you understand me, Brett?"

The
boy's turquoise eyes regarded the now tired-looking blue ones for several
silent seconds before he responded in a voice that rang of stoical resignation.
"Yes, Grandfather."

"Good.
Then all that remains is for me to tell you of the changes these unfortunate
events have wrought in my future plans for you."

Watching
a flicker of interest enter the boy's eyes, John paused for a moment.
He's
sharp as a whip,
he mused,
and mature beyond his years... and almost too
beautiful for a boy, with that sculpted face, and thick chestnut hair... Well,
all the more reason to arm him well against... them!

"Brett,
I have decided not to send you away to school after all." Pausing again to
make sure the statement had sunk in, and perceiving no reaction beyond alert
interest on the boy's part, John continued. "Public schools like Eton and
Harrow do well enough in turning boys into men, I suppose, but after watching
the muddle your father made of his life despite such an education, I've decided
to modify yours somewhat. You have, of course, the advantage of the absence of
meddling females, your Great-Aunt Margaret aside. She's never liked you much,
has she, boy? Ah, well, more to the better! No loss there, believe me!

"Now,
as I was saying, I've changed my plans. You see, I wish to take no chances on
preparing you, my only heir... now... to take your place at the helm of the
powerful dukedom you will one day inherit. My priority in this is to make a
formidable man of you, Brett—a man whom no one will dare take charge of, least
of all, a
woman!

"The
education you are about to receive will afford you every advantage in a world
where advantage is everything. And, by advantage, I do not merely mean that of
birth or wealth. These things you already have, and although they will serve
you well,
you must be carefully armed against the pitfalls and weaknesses
that can attend them!

"It
has long been my belief that a man is off to a good start if he is brought up
on a regime of Spartan living and strenuous training in the manly arts,
enhanced by an assiduously followed academic program that tests the limits of
his intelligence. If this is coupled with unrelenting instruction in the almost
forgotten art of being a gentleman of high moral fiber, and accompanied by an
inquiring mind never given to swallowing things whole simply because others put
them forth as true, then a man cannot help but succeed in this life...."
Here the duke leaned forward in his chair, his blue eyes keen as they searched
his grandson's face. "At least," he continued, "given the high
native intelligence and inherent nobility of character I have already observed
in you, Brett.

"Therefore
I have decided to begin you on this course by sending you to sea for the next
two years."

The
duke noticed Brett's eyes widen slightly at this news, but, seeing no further
reaction, he hurried on. "You will serve as cabin boy on one of my
friends' oceangoing vessels, under the guidance of Captain Joshua Stockton, a
fair but exacting master. In that position you'll be given no privilege or
special treatment because of your title. Indeed, other than Captain Stockton,
no one on board will have any inkling of your status, and you will be known
simply as Brett Westmont, cabin boy. You will be expected to work hard and to
earn your keep by that labor. Over the course of your two-year stint, I shall
be receiving regular reports from Captain Stockton as to your progress, and I
expect them to be excellent. Is that clear?"

Brett's
young voice answered without wavering. "Yes, Grandfather."

"The
only exception to what would be the normal routine for a cabin boy is that a
private tutor will accompany you on board, and any free time you have will be
taken up with an intensified program of studies such as you might have
encountered at Eton. To put the crew and officers off the scent, Captain
Stockton has agreed to hire another cabin boy from hereabouts, and it will be
given out that
he
is the younger son of some nobleman, or perhaps a
wealthy merchant, who wishes his son's experience at sea to be enhanced by
academic studies, and that
you
are merely being included because you
will be sharing quarters with him. We wish no hint of special privilege to
attend
you!

"When
you return from sea, your education will continue here at Ravensford Hall. You
will receive further academic tutoring as well as training in the things with
which you already have experience—riding, shooting, fencing and the like—but
you will also receive intensive instruction in estate management, commerce and
the law.

"Eventually
you will attend university—Cambridge, surely—and by the time you come down, I
shall expect you will have read both history and law, for your present tutor
seems to think you have a genuine natural aptitude for those, and having sat in
on some of your sessions with him, I'm inclined to agree."

There
was a moment's pause, and then the duke added, "Finally, I wish to
reiterate the main goal of this plan. It will free you temporarily from one of
the most contaminating aspects of our society, that weight on man's shoulders—
woman!"

At
last the duke fell silent, and for the first time since he had begun this
discourse, Brett saw him relax his posture; his face softened, bearing that
hint of a smile.

He
continued speaking in a somewhat subdued tone. "I fear I have come across
rather harshly, boy, and that has not been my intent. Rather, it is precisely
because I have inordinately high hopes for you, and because I—" the duke's
voice faltered and grew yet softer, and Brett beheld a rare infusion of warmth
fill the blue eyes "—because I love you, dear Brett. Can you comprehend that,
and will you accept what I have planned, courageously and with good
grace?"

The
boy's eyes met those of his grandfather with a look of understanding that went
far beyond his years. Whether he did indeed at that moment comprehend the
entirety of what was in store for him, he would many times ponder it in the
years to come. But what he did understand was that this gruff, severe old man
had always
loved him
—deeply and without reserve.

Brett
reached deep within himself for the strength he knew he would need and resolved
to put grief aside. His beloved yet weak father was gone; weeping would not
bring him back. The mother he had yearned for was equally lost and apparently
not worth seeking out, for he would no longer dare to question his grandfather's
words about her; to do so would risk losing him as well—the last person on
earth who truly cared about him.

And
so, with a resolute forward thrust of his chin and a shake of his chestnut
curls, he answered the duke. "Yes, Grandfather... I understand, and I
accept."

 

CHAPTER
ONE

London,
April 26, 1814

 

Wiping
the perspiration from her brow with her forearm, Ashleigh Sinclair bent again
to her task. Sweeping out the cinders from the hearth in the drawing room was
one of her earliest chores—one that had to be done at dawn, even before she'd
be allowed to have breakfast; Madame detested the lingering scent of a dead
fire, one that could soon permeate the room in this kind of damp weather. But
the task always made her feel so dirty! Straightening for a moment over her
char broom, Ashleigh moved her slim, delicate hand unthinkingly to the small of
her back before she whisked it away at the last moment, thankful she'd
remembered in time to avoid soiling her plain gray servant's dress, patched
though it was. Then, heaving a brief sigh, she reached for the dustpan and
prepared to scoop the last of the cinders and ashes into the dustbin at her
feet.

Suddenly
she heard a shuffling sound out in the hallway and whirled around to see what
it might be. She knew it was rare to encounter any of Madame's girls about at
this hour, but the nastiest among them, Monica, occasionally prowled about in
the early morning, usually in search of a powder for one of her fearsome
headaches, especially if she'd been drinking too much wine with one of her "gentlemen"
the night before.

But
then the appearance of a great shaggy head in the doorway prompted Ashleigh's
sigh of relief as she recognized Finn, "the huge wolf dog of
Ireland," as Megan termed him, and whom Ashleigh loved perhaps better than
any creature on earth.

"Finn!
What are you doing out here?" she gently chided as the great beast made
his way toward her with a glad wagging of his long, slightly curved tail.
"Don't you know they'll have both our hides if they catch you?"

But
as Ashleigh spoke to the dog, her deep sapphire-blue eyes shone with delight,
giving the lie to her scolding, and she accepted a loving lick of the dog's
tongue on her cheek. Dropping her broom on the hearth, she encircled the big
beast's neck with a pair of slender arms and gave him a fond hug. The embrace
required little bending on her part, owing not only to Finn's majestic size but
to Ashleigh's own diminutive stature. She was nearly nineteen years of age and
had long ago given up hope of adding any height to her present five feet and
almost
two inches.

Now,
as she fondly scratched the shaggy gray head of the dog she had rescued from
the cruelties of a gang of street toughs almost a year ago, Ashleigh smiled as
she considered how Finn had grown since that rainy night. Her thoughts flew
back to the scene she'd encountered in the alleyway behind Madame's town house,
where she'd surreptitiously set out a pan of milk for some of the stray,
starveling neighborhood cats.

A
series of half-muffled guffaws and then a burst of malicious laughter had drawn
her attention to the far end of the alley where she spotted four shabbily
clothed youths bent over a dark form on the ground, busily attending to it in
some manner. As it had been dark in the alley, with only the dim light of some
upper windows from an adjacent building affording any visibility, she had
cautiously stepped closer to try to see what was afoot. She hadn't liked the
nasty sound of that laughter!

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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