Gerard de Lacey did not remember his mother.
His older brothers did. Edward had been eight, and Charlie eleven, when she died. He'd been only five, too young to have fixed memories. Sometimes his brothers would mention something about her—the songs she sang to them, the way she made their father laugh, her passion for the gardens—that made Gerard wild with envy they still had some piece of her, and he had almost nothing. Nothing bright and lovely, at any rate. Nothing that was purely his.
He'd seen the portraits of her, of course; the portrait painted when she was a young woman newly engaged to the Duke of Durham, the formal portraits of her and his father after their marriage, the family portraits of her with her sons. He knew she'd been pretty and slim, dark-haired and blue-eyed; but that didn't help. In one portrait she held him on her lap. They must have sat for hours for the artist like that, but try as he might, he couldn't recall the sound of her voice or the feel of her arms around him even though he had been told she was a warm and affectionate mother, and that he had been the particular favorite of her boys. The very fact he had no real memory of her made him miss her even more, more than either of his brothers did, Gerard was sure.
His only memory of her, in fact, was terrible. He remembered the day she died.
His father came to breakfast that morning in the nursery. That was the first clue something was wrong although Gerard didn't realize it at the time. His father was a larger-than-life figure to his young eyes, and it was always thrilling when Father would come striding up the stairs, his heels ringing loudly on the treads, his deep voice booming off the high-vaulted ceilings of Lastings, their house in Sussex. Gerard remembered being tossed in the air, that exhilarating feeling of flying, then the sickening plunge before being caught safely in his father's arms. In later years he discovered it was quite rare for a man like the Duke of Durham to spend so much time with his children, but at the time it only served to make him idolize his father. Durham was the best rider, the keenest hunter, the most jovial companion, the most forceful personality Gerard ever knew.
But that morning, Durham had been none of that. He came up the stairs grave and quiet, while they were eating their porridge. Charlie and Edward must have known why, for they didn't say a word. Gerard, though, had no inkling until his father sat down at the round table with them as Nurse was bringing their toast.
"I've brought some sad news, my lads," said the duke heavily.
Gerard thought it was about the puppies, just born to the duke's best pointer bitch. Why he remembered the damned dogs and not his mother, he never could fathom.
"It's Mother, isn't it?" Edward said in a small voice.
The duke hesitated, then nodded. Edward put down his spoon.
"What's wrong with Mother?" Gerard asked.
"She was very ill," Father replied. "But now, unfortunately, she's died." Edward said nothing. Charlie put his head down on his arms. "I've written to your aunt, Lady Dowling," Father went on. "I invited her and your cousin Philip to come stay for a few months."
"I don't want Aunt Margaret," said Gerard. "I want Mother."
"She's dead," Edward whispered.
Gerard scowled at him. "She is not!"
"Gerard, son, she is," Father told him. "I wish it weren't so."
His chin wobbled. Gerard knew what dead meant. It meant they took the dog—or person, he supposed, but so far he'd only seen dogs die—and dug a hole behind the stable to put them in. Surely Father would never let them do that to Mother. "I don't believe it."
The duke was quiet for a moment. Gerard never forgot how the morning sun shone on his father's forehead, the skin smooth where his hair had receded. "Would you like to see her?"
Gerard nodded. After a moment, so did Edward.
"Yes, sir," mumbled Charlie. "Please."
The duke nodded once, and all three boys slid off their chairs to follow him, breakfast forgotten. They went down the narrow stairs that led directly into the duchess's sitting room. It was still and quiet in there, which was unusual. Gerard often came running down those stairs to see her and climb into her lap, and the room was always full of people: the housekeeper, the duchess's maid, servants carrying tea trays and stoking the fires and bringing letters. She never minded it, and never told him not to come, or even not to run. Today the room was deserted. The duke opened the door to her bedroom and waved one hand, sending the servants within scurrying for the door. Then Father stepped back and let them come in.
Later, Gerard would wish he hadn't done it. He thought perhaps, without that last, terrible view of her, he might have clung instead to some other, happier, memory of his mother. But as a child he had no idea, and he went into the room to see her lying on the bed, so altered from her normal self he could hardly recognize her. Her dark hair was pulled back from her face, which seemed to have sunk into her head. The covers had been stripped back from the bed, and she wore a stark white nightgown, which only made her skin look gray instead of its normal pink-and-white prettiness. A bundle of cloth was tucked into the crook of her arm. She didn't look like she was sleeping.
Beside him Edward made a gasping, snuffling sound. The duke put his hand on Edward's shoulder. "I'm sorry, lads," he said again, very quietly. "You may go if you like."
"Thank you, sir," choked Charlie, before he turned and ran for the door. Edward sniffled, then dragged his sleeve across his face before he, too, went out without a word.
Gerard inched closer to his father. It looked a little like Mother, there on the bed, but not really. "Is she really dead?" He looked up to see his father's slight nod. "Why did she die, Father?"
For a moment the duke was silent. He wore an odd expression, rather like the one Edward had the time he realized he'd broken his own new compass: distraught and guilty at the same time. Edward had even punched Charlie when Charlie pointed out it was his own fault. "It is God's retribution," said the duke at last, almost inaudibly. "She was too good for me."
Gerard looked back at his mother. He thought she was perfect. He wanted to touch her face, on the chance it might wake her up, but didn't dare. "Are we going to bury her behind the stable?" he asked sadly. "She won't like that, Father."
The duke sighed, then leaned down and scooped up Gerard in his arms. "No, son, we won't put her there," he murmured. "She'll lie in the mausoleum by the chapel, and someday you'll lay me there beside her, to keep her company."
"I don't want you to die. I don't want her to die."
"Neither do I," said the duke, his voice bleak and hollow. "Neither do I."
"What is that?" Gerard pointed at the bundle of cloth. He could see the family crest embroidered on it in silver thread.
"Your sister. She was born too early."
"Oh." He stared at the bundle, wide-eyed. "Did she die, too?"
Gerard put his head on his father's shoulder. He started to put his thumb into his mouth out of habit, then remembered himself and folded his hand into a fist. "Will she stay with Mother?"
The duke's grip on him tightened. "Yes. She'll stay with Mother, and I'll stay with you and your brothers."
"Thank you, Father," Gerard said softly. "I don't want you to go away, too."
"I won't, lad," whispered his father. "I promise."
And Durham kept his word. He never married again, but oversaw his sons' rearing personally, with as much demanding exactitude as he expended on everything else. Gerard recited Latin verbs and history lessons to his father until he knew them perfectly. He stood and confessed his misdeeds to his father, then took his punishment from the duke's own hand. His father sat him on his first horse, and bought him his first commission, as a junior lieutenant of cavalry. A man must deserve responsibility, the duke said, declaring he wouldn't buy a captaincy or a majority for a twenty-year-old boy so he could get himself and others killed. At the time Gerard seethed with impatience, but as he grew more experienced in the military, he acknowledged that his father was right. A lieutenant followed orders, hopefully learning from his superior officers before he, too, had the duty to order men into battle and the responsibility for leading them wisely. Too many majors and colonels, it became clear, had skipped the crucial step of learning, and the burden of command sat uneasily or lightly on them. It was yet another confirmation of Durham's care for his children.
But Gerard's faith in his father took a dreadful blow when the duke died. With his dying breath Durham begged forgiveness, but only when they were preparing to lay him in the mausoleum beside the long-dead duchess and infant daughter did Gerard and his brothers discover what sin Durham had committed. A clandestine, scandalous marriage, years before he inherited the dukedom … or married Gerard's mother. A Fleet marriage that was never annulled or terminated in divorce. A marriage that could cost Gerard and his older brothers everything they'd grown up believing was theirs because it could invalidate Durham's marriage to their mother and render them all illegitimate. And all because Durham, in his boundless arrogance and faith in his own judgment, concealed it from his sons even when threatened with exposure and ruin by a blackmailer.
Gerard was furious with his father for that. The dukedom of Durham was enormous, one of the wealthiest in England, and all their expectations were tied to it. This sin, bursting like grapeshot among them, stripped everything away. Durham had left some specific bequests in his will, of the unentailed property he had bought as duke and of their mother's dowry funds; but compared to what they would have had, it was laughable.
Charlie, who had been raised to become a duke, was left a country house in Lincolnshire that nobody had much used or cared for during Durham's lifetime, and barely enough funds to maintain it. Edward, who had devoted most of his life to running the Durham properties efficiently and prosperously, would see all his work go to benefit another, most likely that preening boor Augustus, their father's distant cousin. And Gerard, the youngest, who had always known he would have to find some other way to distinguish himself, would be forced to give up the army career he had chosen, bled for, and come to value very highly, to be left with nothing. They would all be bastards, cast out of most good society, with only a thousand pounds a year to live on and no property at all.
And his mother … Gerard stayed behind after Edward and the rector and the few servants invited had left, when his father's body had been laid to rest in the crypt. Edward gave him a curious glance, but Gerard shook his head. He knew they had much to attend to, and no time to stand around in some pose of mourning. He and Edward agreed they must go to London at once, to tell Charlie about their misfortune since Charlie hadn't managed to make it back to Sussex even for Durham's funeral. They had to decide what must be done to protect their inheritance because none of them was giving it up without a fight. Gerard just needed a moment before rushing off.
So he stood in the family mausoleum, alone with the ghosts of generations, and laid his hand against the cold stone plaque on his mother's bier. Anne, Duchess of Durham, it read, with the dates of her life. Below was a small note about the infant buried with her. She didn't even have a name. Of course, she could be as illegitimate as the rest of them, thanks to their father's carelessness. If everything fell apart, would the next duke—Augustus, curse him—remove Anne and her nameless daughter?
He closed his eyes and said a silent promise to her. He wouldn't let that happen to her—for her sake, for his own sake, for his brothers', even for his father's. One way or another, Gerard intended to save his family from the ruin that loomed before them.