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My darling son, my hands are shaking as I pen this letter....
The devil had come to Devonbrooke Hall.
He hadn’t come drawn by four white horses or in a blast of brimstone but in the honey gold hair and angelic countenance of Sterling Harlow, the seventh duke of Devonbrooke. He strode through the marble corridors of the palatial mansion he had called home for the past twenty-one years, two brindle mastiffs padding at his heels with a leonine grace that matched his own.
He stayed the dogs with a negligent flick of one hand, then pushed open the study door and leaned against the frame, wondering just how long his cousin would pretend not to notice that he was there.
Her pen continued to scratch its way across the ledger for several minutes until a particularly violent t-crossing left an ugly splotch of ink on the page. Sighing with defeat, she glared at him over the top of her wire-rimmed spectacles. “I can see that Napoleon failed to teach you any manners at all.”
“On the contrary,” Sterling replied with a lazy smile. “I taught him a thing or two. They’re saying that he abdicated after Waterloo just to get away from me.”
“Now that you’re back in London, I might consider joining him in exile.”
As Sterling crossed the room, his cousin held herself as rigid as a dressmaker’s dummy. Oddly enough, Diana was probably the only woman in London who did not seem out of place behind the leather-and-mahogany-appointed splendor of the desk. As always, she eschewed the pale pastels and virginal whites favored by the current crop of belles for the stately hues of forest green and wine.Her dark hair was drawn back in a simple chignon that accentuated the elegance of her widow’s peak.
“Please don’t sulk, cousin, dear,” he murmured, leaning down to kiss her cheek. “I can bear the world’s censure, but yours cuts me to the heart.”
“It might if you had one.” She tilted her face to receive his kiss, her stern mouth softening. “I heard you came back over a week ago. I suppose you’ve been staying with that rascal Thane again.”
Ignoring the leather wing chair that sat in front of the desk, Sterling came around and propped one hip on the corner of the desk nearest her. “He’s never quite forgiven you for swearing off your engagement, you know. He claims you broke his heart and cast cruel aspersions upon his character.”
Although Diana took care to keep her voice carefully neutral, a hint of color rose in her cheeks. “My problem wasn’t with your friend’s character. It was with his lack of it.”
“Yet in all these years, neither one of you has ever married. I’ve always found that rather ... curious.”
Diana drew off her spectacles, leveling a frosty gaze at him. “I’d rather live without a man than marry a boy.” As if realizing she’d revealed too much, she slipped her spectacles back on and busied herself with wiping the excess ink from the nib of her pen. “I’m certain that even Thane’s escapades must pale in comparison to your own. I hear you’ve been back in London long enough to have fought four duels, added the family fortunes of three unfortunate young bucks to your winnings, and broken an assortment of innocent hearts.”
Sterling gave her a reproachful look. “When will you learn not to listen to unkind gossip? I only winged two fellows, won the ancestral home of another, and bruised a single heart, which turned out to be far less innocent than I’d been led to believe.”
Diana shook her head. “Any woman foolish enough to trust her heart into your hands gets no more than she deserves.”
“You may mock me if you like, but now that the war is over, I’ve every intention of beginning my search for a bride in earnest.”
“That bit of news will warm the heart of every ambitious belle and matchmaking mama in the city. So tell me, what brought on this sudden yearning for home and hearth?”
“I’ll soon be requiring an heir and unlike dear old Uncle Granville, God rest his black soul, I’ve no intention of purchasing one.”
A bone-chilling growl swelled through the room, almost as if Sterling’s mention of his uncle had invoked some unearthly presence. He peered over the top of the desk to find the mastiffs peering beneath it, their tails quivering at attention.
Diana slowly leaned back in her chair to reveal the dainty white cat curled up in her lap.
Sterling scowled. “Shouldn’t that be in the barns? You know I can’t abide the creatures.”
Giving Sterling a feline smile of her own, Diana stroked the cat beneath its fluffy chin. “Yes, I know.”
Sterling sighed. “Down, Caliban. Down, Cerberus.” As the dogs slunk over to the hearth rug to pout, he said, “I don’t know why I bothered going off to war to fight the French when I could have stayed here and fought with you.”
In truth, they both knew why he’d gone.
It hadn’t taken Sterling long to discover why his uncle wasn’t averse to a show of spirit in a lad. It was because the old wretch took such brutal pleasure in caning it out of him. Sterling had stoically endured his uncle’s attempts to mold him into the next duke until he’d reached the age of seventeen, and like his father before him, shot up eight inches in as many months.
Sterling would never forget the cold winter night he had turned and ripped the cane from his uncle’s gnarled hands. The old man had quailed before him, waiting for the blows to begin falling.
Sterling still couldn’t say whether it was contempt for his uncle or for himself that had driven him to snap the cane in two, hurl it at his uncle’s feet, and walk away. The old man had never laid a hand on him again. A few short months later, Sterling had left Devonbrooke Hall, rejecting the grand tour his uncle had planned in favor of a ten-year tour of Napoleon’s battlefields. His stellar military career was punctuated by frequent visits to London, during which he played as hard as he had fought.
“You might consider coming home to stay,” Diana said. “My father’s been dead for over six years now.”
Sterling shook his head, his smile laced with regret. “Some ghosts can never be laid to rest.”
“As well I know,” she replied, her eyes distant.
His uncle had never once caned her. As a female, she wasn’t worthy of even that much of his attention.
Sterling reached for her hand, but she was already drawing a folded, cream-colored piece of stationery from beneath the blotter. “This came in the post over four months ago. I would have had it forwarded to your regiment, but...” Her graceful shrug spoke volumes.
Proving her judgment sound, Sterling slid open a drawer and prepared to toss the missive onto a thick stack of identical letters—all addressed to Sterling Harlow, Lord Devonbrooke, and all unopened. But something stilled his hand. Although the fragrance of orange blossoms still clung to the stationery, the handwriting was not the gently looping script he had come to expect. A strange frisson, as subtle as a woman’s breath, lifted the hairs at his nape.
“Open it,” he commanded, pressing the letter back into Diana’s hand.
Diana swallowed. “Are you certain?”
He nodded curtly.
Her hand trembled as she slid an ivory-handled letter opener beneath the wax seal and unfolded the missive. “‘Dear Lord Devonbrooke,’” she read softly. “‘I regret to inform you that your mother has passed from this world to a much kinder one.’” Diana hesitated, then continued with obvious reluctance. “‘Although you chose to ignore her repeated pleas for reconciliation over the past few years, she died with your name on her lips. I trust the news will not cause you any undue distress.Ever your humble servant, Miss Laura Fairleigh.’”
Diana slowly lowered the letter to the desk and drew off her spectacles. “Oh, Sterling, I’m so sorry.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched once, then was still. Without a word, he took the letter from Diana’s hands, dropped it in the drawer, and slid the drawer shut, leaving the fragrance of orange blossoms lingering in the air.
A smile curved his lips, deepening the dimple in his right cheek that always struck dread in his opponents, whether across the gaming tables or the battlefield. “This Miss Fairleigh sounds less than humble to me. Just who is this cheeky chit who dares to reproach the all-powerful duke of Devonbrooke?”
He waited while Diana consulted a leather-bound ledger. His cousin kept meticulous records on all the properties that had once belonged to her father, but now belonged to him.
“She’s a rector’s daughter. An orphan, I believe. Your mother took her in, along with her young brother and sister, seven years ago after their parents were killed in an unfortunate fire that destroyed the estate’s rectory.”
“How very charitable of her.” Sterling shook his head wryly. “A rector’s daughter. I should have known. There’s nothing quite like the righteous indignation of some poor deluded fool who fancies she has God fighting on her side.” He whipped a sheet of stationery from a teakwood tray and slid it in front of Diana. “Pen a missive at once. Inform this Miss Fairleigh that the duke of Devonbrooke will be arriving in Hertfordshire in a month’s time to take full possession of his property.”
Diana gaped at him, letting the ledger fall shut. “You can’t be serious.”
“And why not? Both my parents are dead now. That would make Arden Manor mine, would it not?”
“And just what do you plan to do with the orphans? Cast them into the street?”
He stroked his chin. “I’ll have my solicitor seek out situations for them. They’ll probably thank me for my largesse. After all, three children left too long to their own devices can only arrive at mischief.”
“Miss Fairleigh is no longer a child,” Diana reminded him. “She’s a woman grown.”
Sterling shrugged. “Then I’ll find her a husband — some enlisted man or law clerk who won’t mind taking a cheeky chit to bride to curry my favor.”
Diana clapped a hand to her breast, glaring at him. “You’re such a romantic. It warms my heart.”
“And you’re an incorrigible scold,” Sterling retorted, tweaking her patrician nose.
He rose, the casual motion bringing the mastiffs to attention. Diana waited until he’d crossed to the door, the dogs at his heels, before saying softly, “I still don’t understand, Sterling. Arden is nothing but a humble country manor, little more than a cottage. Why would you wish to claim it for your own when you have a dozen vast estates you’ve never even bothered to visit?”
He hesitated, his eyes touched by bleak humor. “My parents sold my soul to obtain the deed to it. Perhaps I just want to decide for myself if it was worth the cost.”
After sketching her a flawless bow, he closed the door behind him, leaving her to stroke the cat in her lap, her brow furrowed in a pensive frown.
“Soulless devil! Odious toad! Truffle-snorting man-pig! Oh, the wretched nerve of him!”
George and Lottie watched Laura storm back and forth across the drawing room in slack-jawed amazement. They’d never before seen their even-tempered sister in such an impressive rage. Even the rich brown hair that had been gathered in a tidy knot at the crown of her head quivered with indignation.
Laura spun around, waving the letter in her hand. The expensive stationery was woefully crumpled from having been wadded up in her fist numerous times since it had arrived in the morning post. “He didn’t even have the common decency to pen the letter himself. He had his cousin write it! I can just see the heartless ogre now. He’s probably rubbing his fat little hands together in greedy glee as he contemplates snatching the very roof from over our heads. It’s no wonder they call him the Devil of Devonbrooke!”
“But Lady Eleanor died over five months ago,” George said. “Why did he wait so long to contact us?”
“According to this letter, he’s been abroad for the last several months,” Laura replied. “Probably off on some Continental tour, no doubt gorging himself on the shameless pleasures of any overindulged libertine.”
“I’ll bet he’s a dwarf,” Lottie ventured.
“Or a humpbacked troll with broken teeth and an insatiable appetite for ten-year-old brats.” George curled his hands into claws and went lurching at Lottie, eliciting a squeal shrill enough to send the kittens napping beneath her petticoats scattering across the threadbare rug. Lottie never went anywhere without a herd of kittens trailing behind her. There were times when Laura would have sworn her little sister was spawning them herself.
Laura was forced to make an awkward hop to keep from tripping over one of them. Rather than darting for safety, the yellow tabby plopped down on its hindquarters and began to lick one paw with disdain, as if their near collision was solely Laura’s fault.
“You needn’t look so smug,” she informed the little cat. “If we get evicted, you’ll soon be gobbling down barn mice instead of those nice, juicy kippers you fancy.”
Sobering, George sank down beside Lottie on the settee. “Can he really evict us? And if he does, what’s to become of us?”
Laura’s laugh held little amusement. “Oh, we’ve nothing to worry about. Listen to this — ’Lord Devonbrooke begs your forgiveness,’” she read with contempt. “‘He sincerely regrets having been lax in his duties for so long. As the new master of Arden Manor, he will gladly shoulder the responsibility of finding new situations for you.’” She crumpled the letter again. “Situations indeed! He probably plans to cast us into the workhouse.”
“I’ve never cared much for work. I do believe I’d prefer to be cast into the streets,” Lottie said thoughtfully. “I’d make a rather fetching beggar, don’t you think? Can’t you just see me standing on a snowy street corner clutching a tin cup in my frostbitten fingers?” She heaved a sigh. “I’d grow paler and thinner with each passing day until I finally expired of consumption in the arms of some handsome, but aloof, stranger.” She illustrated her words by swooning onto the settee and pressing the back of one plump little hand to her brow.
“The only thing you’re likely to expire of,” George muttered, “is eating too many of Cookie’s teacakes.”
Reviving herself, Lottie stuck her tongue out at him.
George sprang to his feet, raking his sandy hair out of his hazel eyes. “I know! I’ll challenge the blackguard to a duel! He won’t dare refuse me. Why, I’ll be thirteen in December — nearly a man.”
Copyright 2002 by Teresa Medeiros