BRAYTON MANOR, CUMBRIA, JULY 1810
Richard Cavendish, Marquess of Heatherbrook, sat in his family home in his father's one-time study, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities. He wasn't sure it was acceptable for a marquess to be overwhelmed. But there was no getting away from it, he was. Papers cluttered his desk, whilst before him stood his slight, balding, and rather harried-looking lawyer, Mr. Forshaw. The man was reciting a long list of Richard's duties.
Just six months ago, none of these things had been a worry for Richard. He had been able to sail through polite society, playing the part of the feckless, but rather charming, younger brother of the Marquess of Heatherbrook. It had been a good life, filled with ton parties, balls, races, either on horses or by boat, with far too many hours idled away with his dear friends, the Oxford Set as they had been christened. It hadn't been chosen, more of a nickname that had stuck to the lot of them, the Marquess of Heatherbrook, Duke of Woolwich, Lord Lynde, Mr. Trawler, Viscount Silverton, and Baronet Verne, as well as Richard himself. Of course, they had enjoyed the notoriety that came with their arrival into the ton. Each of them was good looking, from well-connected families, and never long out of each other's company. They had gone to the races, the palace balls, to Almack's, too, but no more than once a month. On occasion, they had been mentioned in the scandal sheets or in the betting book at White's. In short, they had set London ablaze.
Richard had been a late addition to the Set, allowed in because of his older brother, but he nevertheless felt a great affinity with them. It had been a great deal of fun, "a lark," like life had been paused so that Richard could enjoy himself. But all that had changed with the death of his brother, the Marquess of Heatherbrook. Dear, dear George. Then all the responsibility had fallen to Richard.
"My lord?" Mr. Forshaw spoke with more volume, drawing Richard's attention back to the study. Mr. Forshaw stretched out his gloved hand and passed yet another sheet to Richard.
"And this is?" Richard asked. He had only had six months to adjust to being the marquess. To being Heatherbrook. George had had his whole life to prepare, had been raised to assume the title. Richard had not. There had been some talk of the law, or possibly setting up business with one of the other members of the Set. But Richard had fallen into the habit of putting it off. Looking back at his earlier self, Richard felt a curl of disgust at his own laziness.
Duty bound, he followed the lawyer's instructions and dropped his head to start looking through the new pages. The numbers and letters pooled this way and that, but Richard knew the estate needed to economise. The important thing now was protecting the Heatherbrook name and his numerous tenants.
"The Mayfair house. It's costing more than £800 a year, with everything included," Mr. Forshaw said. "I thought that might be unnecessary if you were to stay up here..."
Perhaps, Richard thought as he flicked through the pages, wondering how anyone sane ever tolerated a Season. Perhaps, he would have been able to manage this new role had he not been robbed of his family. George was all he had had left. His father and mother were gone. In this whole world, there remained only his grandmother whom he loved. Still, he told himself, self-pity wouldn't help. He had been an idle man, and there were people who depended on him to be more than that. He needed to rise to the occasion; it was expected of him. He could at least make his family proud. Going forward, that would be his aim.
"Close the place down, except for a skeleton staff. I will discuss with the dowager if she would like to visit in the next year."
"Very good, my lord," Mr. Forshaw said with great primness. He was at least twice Richard's twenty-four years. Richard had known the man since infancy and was grateful for his many years of loyal service, since he had worked for both of the last marquesses.
Getting to his feet, Richard moved across to a nearby dresser, sliding open one of the drawers. "I should have said earlier, but I wanted you to have this. It belonged to my brother. He valued you, as did my father." He handed Mr. Forshaw a bible, which had belonged to George and had a handwritten inscription in it.
Mr. Forshaw's pale eyes bulged in surprise, and he swallowed audibly. Richard turned away and looked to the mirror, giving Mr. Forshaw time to compose himself. Intense expressions of grief made Richard sure he, too, would break down. He glanced at his own appearance, one which had once been a matter of immense pride and a lot of time and care. Previously, he had spent hours every day with his valet, perfecting his look. The break from the city had brought a collection of youthful freckles over his nose and left his dark, curled hair too long, but other‐ wise he remained the same, a quirk to his lips, green-brown eyes, and the same haughty look he had learnt, despite how its everyday use gained him nothing.
Turning, Richard found Mr. Forshaw standing close by. "It might not be my place to say it, but I think both of the late Heatherbrooks would have been proud of what you're doing. I believe you are setting their plans in motion."
"I never wanted it," Richard said. He needed Mr. Forshaw to know that. The older man nodded, wet his lips, and opened his mouth to speak but was stopped when there was a loud shriek of sound that retched through the halls of Brayton.
"Are the French coming—" Mr. Forshaw's sentence was cut off when the door of the study flung open.
On instinct. Richard went for the pistol but stopped short at the sight of the man in the doorway. It was Woolwich. He had always been the tallest of the Set, but today, he seemed to have grown even larger. His blue eyes were icy, and he resembled more of a marauder from centuries back than a dignified duke. Richard gazed back at the man, his brother's closest companion, his supposed friend, and from Woolwich's face, Richard knew. Knew with absolute certainty that his shameful secret had been discovered. Richard looked away in embarrassment.
"God, you dog," Woolwich grunted and started across the study.
"Sir!" Mr. Forshaw was in his way and had not got out a word before he was shoved aside and thrown unceremoniously to the floor.
"Really," Richard began to say; it was fair that Woolwich try to take him apart, but it wasn't permissible for Forshaw to be attacked. No one else should suffer for his mistake.
Woolwich strode forward, his face livid, looking fully capable of murder. It wasn't normal for him to be like this; he was, or had always been, a good, generous man. A touch cynical but nevertheless thoughtful, kind... it was gone.
Behind him, the door was pushed wider, and Richard saw his grandmother and Silverton, Verne, and Lynde, enter the study. Before he saw anyone else, Woolwich slammed his fist in Richard's jaw. The sheer force of it knocked Richard back, but he managed to stay on his feet. He looked away from the door, back to the furious man before him. His grandmother shrieked, and one of the Set held her back.
"You know why I'm here, don't you?" Woolwich asked, his voice low.
It only took the raising of Richard's eyes up to Woolwich's for the duke to make a furious noise at the back of his throat and raise his fist again. This time Richard didn't try to stay up. He let his body relax, and the hit sent him to the floor. Woolwich was here for blood; he may as well let the man have it. Sprawled down on the carpet, Richard reflected that he deserved this. His mouth filled with the taste of iron.
"Get up," Woolwich said, and with great reluctance, Richard rolled onto his side to view the rest of the inhabitants of his study. It would have been bad enough if it had just been them, but it was all the Set. His friends, whose eyes were on him. Which meant Woolwich must have told them what Richard had done.
"Woolwich," Verne's voice was calm and measured, his slight French accent peeking out, "If you kill him, it will cause a scan‐ dal. Aren't we here to ensure that doesn't happen?"
"If this is a matter of honour, have a duel," Richard's grand‐ mother said. She looked almost as angry as Woolwich. The dowager had pulled herself out of Lynde's hold and moved over to help Forshaw up. Her grey hair was piled high on her head, and it wobbled as she moved, her cap at a rakish angle. Richard could not resist the idea that she would probably have to serve as his second, as no one else in the room would. He forced himself to his knees.
"This..." Woolwich's eyes travelled back to Richard. "This cur has no honour."
"I would like to know. I am entitled to know what you accuse my grandson of."
Richard braced himself for the revelation. Woolwich would say Richard was a seducer, a damned blaggard, for taking advantage of the angel-like, beautiful Annabelle, Duchess of Woolwich. He would be named and shamed; that was inevitable. How Woolwich had discovered their brief affair, or terrible mistake, as Richard thought of it, he had no idea. Annabelle's flowery romantic letters had been hidden away, stuffed into a drawer in his desk. Had she been fool enough to send another one that had been intercepted?
"He tricked my wife to bed."
Richard, who had gotten to his feet in order to best face the embarrassment, turned in bewilderment to Woolwich. "That isn't true," he said, his voice hoarse. The accusation was even worse than he could have imagined. The humiliation more acute. But even to his own ears, he sounded childish.
He turned to his grandmother and grasped her hands. "I swear to you."
She nodded, although she was very pale. Richard looked past his grandmother, to his assorted friends who were watching the proceedings. None of them would meet his eye. It was a solid confirmation he had only ever belonged to the Set as an obligation to George, and now they cut him.
"Are you going to claim it was love?" Woolwich asked, scorn dripping off every word. He looked like he wanted to murder Richard and barely kept himself in check.
In his mind's eye, Richard saw himself go to the cabinet and withdraw Annabelle's letters. There were five in total, sent to him after their one fateful night together. Why he'd kept them, he couldn't even say. It wasn't supposed to be a way of holding something over Annabelle's head. More that he wanted to hold on to a reminder of the mistake. He could use them now to excuse himself, but then he would be throwing Annabelle into the path of Woolwich's fury. She would be ostracised if he did that.
"It was a mistake—right after George's death," Richard said. He could feel everyone's eyes on him. Part of him wished the rest of them would leave, let him confess to how drunk he'd been, how vulnerable, without everyone judging him. "I can only apologise for the grave error on my part."
Able to read his desperation, the dowager strode away from the recovering Mr. Forshaw and opened the study doors that looked over the stone steps and led down into the peaceful gardens to the rear of Brayton. The cool summer air rushed in, and the dowager grabbed the two of the men nearest to her, Silverton, and Trawler. "Out," she said. "This is a serious accusation between His Grace and my grandson. I don't see why this involves the rest of you." Her tone was firm, fully that of a dowager marchioness. The Set followed her out, with only Lynde lingering behind.
Lynde shot Richard a strained look of hurt disbelief. Nicholas Lynde was Richard's dearest friend amongst the Set. His clear-sighted and azure eyes were filled with disappointment. With a betrayed sigh, Lynde shook his head at Richard. He followed the rest of the Set out.
Woolwich had likewise watched the others leave. He sank into one of the armchairs close to the desk. He was still angry, but Richard could also see there was something else there too, an element of smug satisfaction. This had been part of his plan. Humiliate me, cut me off from the Set. It is what I deserve, Richard thought.
Letting out a sigh, Richard looked back at Woolwich. "Do you want to call me out?"
"I want no one beyond the Set to know of this." Woolwich leant forward in his seat, fixing Richard with his cold, hypnotic eyes. "I wish to avoid a scandal."
"I cannot go abroad."
In response to this, Woolwich smirked. "The idea of you, a useless wastrel, taking on George's mantel—" He cut himself off. "Enough. I tell you; you will stay away from London. You will never speak to my wife again."
"Are you going to divorce her?" The scandalous note that this added to the room made the guilt in his stomach writhe.
"Would you like that? So you could wed her?"
It would be the honourable thing to do in a terrible situation, Richard knew that. He knew, too, that whilst he cared for Annabelle, he was never going to fall in love with her. "If that is what you need me to do."
"No." Woolwich was on his feet. Once more, there was a furious glint behind his eyes. "You don't get to come in and destroy a marriage. She is to go into the countryside and remain secluded."
"If Annabelle—" "Don't you dare use her name." "I never tricked her." The duke made a small tutting noise, and Richard leapt on it.
"You know I didn't. You know she's in love with me." A shadow passed over Woolwich's face. "It is my word against yours, the untried, unprepared son, nothing more than a wastrel. All the Set knows the story I have told them. If you try anything, you will be ruined by those in the aristocracy, those in trade, and those in the military. Don't our friends fill some important roles?" His joke was bitter, and Richard had no reply. Woolwich was right, the Set members had found powerful roles. They had influence and were prepared to blacken his name should Richard do anything to reveal the truth. "Annabelle was given a choice," Woolwich continued. "A man who didn't want her or to stay with a duke whom she had fought so hard to win."
"You lied to them," Richard said, indicating the Set with a nod of his head towards the gardens, "so that you would not be labelled a cuckold."
"Do not think there was any advantage in this for me. I did this to protect my wife and her reputation."
"And in doing so, you get your revenge. You get to destroy me."
"You cannot..." The gleam vanished, and Woolwich smirked. He almost seemed to be enjoying the confrontation. "Come now, you must know how I discovered it."
Richard's brain had slowed down, so that everything he thought seemed to be laden down with treacle, until it finally clicked. "She is with child."
"It cannot be mine," Woolwich said.
His slow-moving mind whizzed forward, alive with the ideas, calculating it all and realising what had happened. Annabelle and he were together only one night. In January. The night George had died. A drunken night which he thought had been consigned to the past. Woolwich had been in Paris, unable to make it back, not even for George's funeral. It had been many weeks before the duke had returned to England. "You must divorce her, and I will wed her."
"That is not for you to demand. She will deliver the child." Here, the harsh, strict elements that Richard had suspected but never witnessed, poked out from beneath the duke's façade. "And you will forever wonder where your child is. Where I might have placed it and with whom. That will be your punishment. Shall I send your son off to some gambling hell? Your daughter to a brothel? What I have done with the baby... that can be the only fit punishment for you. It will not bear my name."
He had moved closer to Richard, and when he was finished, he spat in Richard's face before turning and leaving the study to stand outside in the fresh, cool air amongst decent men. His words burrowed into Richard's skull, chiming, and hurting with the implications.
"Richard?" His grandmother was moving through the study, her hand raised, and for a moment, he thought she would stroke his cheek. Instead, she slapped him. "What were you thinking?"
"I never forced myself on or misled Annabelle. She's... she's with child."
"Blast it," the dowager muttered. Her sharp eyes went round the room before she marched back to the study door. "Mr. Forshaw, a moment please." Sliding back into the room, the lawyer was looking worse for wear. "I trust you to keep silent on today's proceedings."
The lawyer nodded; his face was still pink from where he'd hit his head.
"Woolwich said there will be a child," the dowager repeated.
He had ruined it all, even the poor child's life.
"He said he'd take it to a brothel," Richard replied, his stomach churning.
"Can we claim the child?" the dowager asked. "Better than letting the mite be shipped to god knows where."
The study looked wrong, with its elegantly kept books, polished oak furniture, Chinese carpets, and paintings by Kneller and Reynolds. The room had housed his father, and here was Richard, further spoiling his family's reputation. Distantly, he could hear the Set leaving, their voices raised, and headed towards the stables. They had arrived to see his humiliation; they had believed Woolwich. A flare of anger ignited in his stomach. Did they know what was intended for his baby?
"It is not my area of expertise," Mr. Forshaw said, "but if the child is christened, and no one claims to be its parents... If the duke does not let it be christened with his name, then..." Mr. Forshaw flushed. "It would be named a foundling, rather like an orphan. Provided you could locate the babe, there would be no reason why you could not raise the child as your ward."
"At least I would be able to rectify that," Richard said. It was only an idea, a glimmer of hope, his unborn child, a silver lining in such a wasted life. It is my chance, no, it is my only chance at salvation.
LONDON, April 1814
Richard was on a mission. His tight-lipped expression aged him past his twenty-eight years, adding gravity to his features and grit to his expression. He was returning to London in a high-speed chaise, at the request of his recently hired Bow Street runner, Mr. Clifton. The runner's note assured Richard that there was finally news of his child. Clifton had some promising new leads that needed to be heard in person. In truth, over the last few years, Richard had heard so many different tales that he had almost lost hope. Since that fateful day, that dark day as he thought of it, there were only the Heatherbrook estates and the quest for the child. In a way, he told himself without much humour, the desire to locate the baby had replaced, or become a welcomed distraction from, the loss of his dear brother. An urgent, overwhelming desire to find the child at any cost.
Tightening his fists, Richard wished the carriage would go faster. He disliked returning to London, but needs must. Most of his business was contracted through Forshaw and his associates, but Clifton promised that the lead was genuine.
The child. His child was a girl. Hidden deep in his waistcoat pocket, was a sketch of the child, the mirror image of her mother. Years back, his hirelings had combed through foundling hospitals, but without much hope. Richard had had the recur‐ ring dream that Woolwich had thrown the child into the Thames.
"Drive on," Richard muttered as he fidgeted in his squab. He could have sworn he would have been able to drive the blasted thing faster. They must be nearing Oxford by now. They had stopped only to change the horses, the drive down lasting hours.
It was getting dark, the cloudless sky blackening. I will be there soon, Richard promised. If I am lucky, I could see my child within days.
Leaning into the cushions of the chaise, Richard allowed himself to relax. His obsession over the girl's safety had kept him going, had kept him sane almost to the exclusion of all else. With his eyes closed, he pictured a scene where they were all together, picnicking on the grounds, teaching her to read perhaps. Lord, he would need to get her a tutor. Richard was lulled into an uneasy sleep. When he opened his eyes, the chaise was slowing outside his London home. The Mayfair house was a handsome one, with a fine white façade, neat railings, and large windows, which would have seemed inviting. It had been closed for numerous months, with only two elderly servants to keep an eye on things, so now the place looked almost gloomy.
Stepping down from the chaise, Richard reviewed the London street. He had arrived in the late afternoon, almost evening. Were anyone beyond the servants working, he might have been noticed, but he hoped he could slip unnoticed into his home and await Mr. Clifton.
"My lord." It was the reedy voice of Mr. Wilson, the family butler. Unbidden, a smile formed on Richard's face. It was a sweet, familiar reminder of the past.
"Good to see you, Wilson." Striding up the steps, Richard made it inside the hallway and resisted the urge to question Wilson. The old man needed to proceed back inside.
"There is..." Wilson's voice trailed off, and he gestured over towards the main parlour, "a gentleman waiting for you."
Frowning, Richard moved forward. Woolwich would not be depraved enough to have had him followed. Swinging the parlour door open, Richard was surprised to see Verne sitting by the empty grate, a book of poetry resting on his knee and a reflective expression on his face.
"His Lordship will not be staying," Richard snapped. If Verne thought Richard could be chased out of London, then he had another thing coming.
"I hate to contradict you," Verne said. "But I do think you will wish to hear what I have to say. It concerns your Mr. Clifton. And the child."
"Please see that my bags are sent up." Richard closed the door and turned back to his guest. He had never been close to Verne per se. There was something almost too relaxed about the man; he gave the impression that he was easing one into a stupor before striking. But his reputation for intelligence, and his ability in the ring, preceded him. Making his way forward, Richard chose the chair farthest from Verne and sank into it, before waving his hand. "You may proceed."
Drawing out a small snuff box, Verne took a sniff, stretched, and then began in a light manner. "I hope my reputation precedes me."
"To what do you refer?"
This caused Verne to smile. He gave a Gallic shrug. "In that case, I shall simply say that I am said to be a good judge of character."
"If you say so."
Verne did not immediately voice a reply to the comment, but he did glance away from Richard. "I have never been one who has come under the sway of the stunning Lady Annabelle Bradley, as was. Our dear Duchess of Woolwich, as is."
"While the rest of us followed at her heels, you mean?"
"Quite." Verne smiled. He had an unnerving way of forming a grin which did not reach his eyes. "This luck, shall we say, meant that I never bought Woolwich's accusation against you."
Richard could recall the dark day still and did remember Verne calling out, reminding Woolwich... well, he had stopped the man from killing him.
"Not enough to do anything about it," Richard bit out. The resentment he felt, the rejection and bitterness, had consumed him; how easily they had gone along with Woolwich's say. "Was it because he's a duke? You didn't want to offend someone so powerful?"
For the first time, a flash of emotion—was it anger or some‐ thing else—passed over Verne's dark features. But then it vanished, smoothed away, and he resumed his easy, calm look.
"Don't you know that guilt can work in unusual ways?" Verne asked. "It has worked its wiles on me." When Richard made no reply, Verne continued, "I noticed that you had your own reasons for keeping quiet too."
The night I spent with Annabelle was a mistake. She had already suffered enough. What was I supposed to say that would ever remedy it? Stuffing such delicate thoughts away, Richard stiffened his resolve. Just because he had been chased out of society, didn't mean he couldn't rescue his child.
"I prefer to work on evidence. And my knowledge of people's characters. They usually give me enough disappointing information to reveal themselves," Verne continued. "It is the most effective way of operating."
"What evidence did you find?" Richard asked. He could see the way Verne was going, and this could take all night. The man was impressed with himself.
"If I share this with you, I want your word on two things. The first, that there will be no reactionary gestures against the duke or the duchess. Two—"
"If I wanted to do that, I would have done so already."
"Two," Verne carried on as though he had not been interrupted, "I want you to release the services of the numerous Bow Street runners you had hired over the years. Their services could be put to better use than searching through foundling hospitals. It is at the request of the British government."
"Why do you care about that?" Richard had made his way over to the nearest bookshelf and started through a leather- bound book. He wasn't about to give up the good men he had hired unless Verne was going to give him something better in return. "The note I received mentioned that the child was a girl. That..." For some reason, Richard could not quite form the words. "There was drawing of her."
"I did that. It's not an exact likeness. I cannot say I am a gifted artist."
Richard was across the room in a flash, pulling Verne out of the armchair and to his feet, his hands tightening around the other man's neckcloth. "You know where she is. Give her to me."
"I don't," Verne said with maddening calm, "have her with me. But I saw her, and I am prepared to tell you all that I know, provided you agree to my stipulations."
"Yes, yes," Richard snapped, releasing his hold on Verne. He was in a vile mood; the idea that the girl could be close by was eating him up. He could still recall Woolwich's taunt about brothels. Some places specialised in children. He shuddered at the idea. "Get on with it."
"I saw the girl. She is the tiny twin of Annabelle, unmistakably her daughter, in a small rural village in Sussex."
"Her wellbeing?" It was not at all what Richard would have imagined. His fears were confounded, and he found himself listening in confusion.
"From what I could see, the child seemed well. Happy too." "What else?" "I watched the pair of them, the child and who I assumed
was..." Here, Verne paused. "Well, the child was accompanied by a very striking woman who was looking after her. I believe her to be Woolwich's mistress."
Here we go, Richard thought. He is punishing me by raising my daughter with his jade.
"You have their names?"
"Indeed. I heard the woman call the child Harriet. I made a few discreet inquiries around the village and discovered she is a foundling known as Harriet Milton. A foundling who lives with the Pendletons."
It all sounded far too respectable. So unlike everything that Woolwich had threatened. Glancing up, Richard met Verne's eyes. "If you are lying—"
"Then feel free to return to using the runners and resume paying Mr. Clifton his huge fees."
"The name of the village?" "Alfriston. Just five miles away from Lynde's family estate." The idea that his old friend might have known Harriet's whereabouts wriggled its way around his brain, painful and gnawing. But then Richard squished that emotion back down; what good would it do him to dwell on that? He now had the best opportunity he'd had in years. Her name, her location... Sussex, just a matter of a day's travel away.
"Richard?" It was Verne who called him back to himself.
Not bothering to turn around, Richard paused; he had been bent over his desk scribbling these scant details down.
"I suppose Lynde knows already."
"I thought it best and only fair for me to tell you first. But I will make a call on him tomorrow or the following day."
"Give me the whole of tomorrow. You owe me that." He locked eyes with Verne. "What did she do that convinced you?"
This earned him an amused look from Verne. "I thought the rest of us could burn in hell?"
With a careless shrug, Richard drummed his fingers on the wooden surface. It had been years, so why did they still have the power to hurt him? It was the lie; they were liars, holding him captive in such a way.
"She asked after you. Annabelle." Verne spoke into the silence. "It was a small question directed to me, just a passing remark, but when pressed, well, she confirmed my doubts."
"How good of you." A flare of bitterness had returned to his tone that Richard could not control.
The expression on Verne's face was neutral, that of a gentle‐ man. "This means you won't have contact with Woolwich or Her Grace? No matter who Harriet has been raised with. I don't suppose either of them will wish to, Her Grace is in a delicate condition, and I thought—"
There was a break in Verne's speech, and Richard could imagine the rest. Verne believed that Woolwich, distracted with Annabelle's new pregnancy, would let the previous child go. How innocent Verne was in the true maliciousness that Woolwich had left Richard in.
Swallowing down any surprise at the news of Woolwich's impending fatherhood, Richard said, "Tell Lynde whatever you like when you run off to tattle to him. And I don't give a damn about the others. It's all for Harriet." He did not look back to Verne and waited for the man to leave the room, so when he repeated it to himself it was more of a benediction. "I don't give a damn about anyone else."