The Duke of Durham was dying.
It wasn't spoken of openly, but everyone knew. With quiet steps and whispered instructions the servants were already preparing for the mourning. The solicitor had been sent for. Letters had been urgently dispatched to the duke's sons, one in the army and one in London, summoning them home. Durham himself knew his death was nigh, and until a sudden attack of heart pains the previous evening, he had been approving the funeral arrangements personally.
Edward de Lacey watched his father doze, the gaunt, stooped figure propped up on pillows in the bed as he struggled to breathe. The doctor had assured him there was no hope, and that the end was swiftly approaching. Edward would be very sorry to lose his father, but there was no question that the duke's time on earth was spent.
Durham stirred. "Charles?" he said faintly. "Is that you?"
Edward moved forward. "No, sir," he said quietly. "Not yet."
"I must … speak … to Charles," his father gasped. "Need … to—" He raised one hand and clutched weakly at Edward's sleeve. "Get Charles…you must."
"He's on his way," promised Edward, although he wasn't sure of any such thing. He'd filled the letter to his brother with the direst language possible, but that could only have any effect after the letter found its way into Charlie's hands, and even then he might be too drunk to understand that he must come home immediately, let alone actually make the journey. Edward clasped his father's hand between his own and expressed his hope, rather than his expectation. "He will surely be here at any moment."
"I have to tell him … " Durham mumbled fretfully. "All of you … "
Edward waited, but his father just closed his eyes, looking anguished. Unwillingly, Edward felt a flicker of petty annoyance; always Charlie, the firstborn, even though he was the son who was always there when the duke wanted him. He shoved it aside. It was unworthy to think such a thought as his father sank closer and closer to mortality. "Tell me, sir," he whispered. "I will tell Charlie in the event … " In the event he doesn't arrive in time. "I will make sure he knows as soon as he arrives, if you should be asleep then."
"Yes … " came the duke's soft, slurred voice. "Sleep. Soon. But not … without … telling Charles … " He sighed, and went so still Edward feared the worst for a moment, until the faint rise of his father's chest proved him still alive.
In the utter quiet of the room a distant drumming sounded. Hooves pounding hard up the gravel drive, Edward realized, at the same moment his father bolted upright in bed. "Charles," croaked the duke, his face ashen. "Charles—is it he, Edward?"
Edward rushed to the window in time to see the rider's scarlet coat before he flashed out of sight beneath the portico in front of the house. "It's Gerard, Father."
"Ah," said Durham, slumping once more into his pillows. "A good boy, Gerard."
Edward smiled wryly at his father's masked disappointment. He was glad his younger brother, at least, was home. "I'll go fetch him right up."
"Do that," murmured Durham. "I will be glad to see him. And Charles … Charles will be here soon?"
"At any moment," Edward said again as he slipped through the door, then held it for the doctor to take his place in the room. He reached the top of the stairs just as his brother came running up.
"Am I too late?" demanded Gerard.
Edward shook his head.
Gerard exhaled and ran one hand over his head. His dark hair was damp with sweat, and dust covered him from head to toe. "Thank God. I've been riding all day; probably damn near killed the poor horse." He glanced at Edward. "Charlie?"
"No sign of him, as usual," muttered Edward as they walked down the hall. "Father's been calling for him for two days now."
"Well, some things never change." Gerard sighed and pulled loose a few buttons of his coat. "I should wash."
Edward nodded. "I had all the rooms prepared. But Gerard—hurry."
His brother paused on the threshold of his bedchamber. "He's really dying, then?"
It did seem incredible, even to Edward. Durham had been a vital person, every bit as robust and daring as his sons. Since the death of the duchess over twenty years ago, the household had been a preserve of male pursuits, and no one pursued them harder than Durham himself. Edward was almost eighteen before any of the brothers could outshoot their father, and they outrode him only when the doctor flatly ordered His Grace out of the saddle at the age of seventy after a bad fall injured his back.
But now Durham was eighty. He was an old man, and had been dying for the better part of a year. Gerard just hadn't seen the decline. "Yes, he's really dying," he said in answer to his brother's question. "I would be surprised if he lasts the night."
When his younger brother slipped into the sickroom a few minutes later, Edward had already returned to his post by the window. Durham had told him to wait there, to announce Charlie the moment he arrived. He wondered what his father wanted so desperately to tell Charlie; God knew Charlie hadn't cared much for anything the duke had to say for the last ten years or so, and apparently still didn't. But whatever final words Durham had for his heir, they were obviously of tremendous importance. When the duke heard the creak of the door at Gerard's entrance, he lurched up again and cried out, "Charles?"
"No, Father, 'tis Gerard." Not a trace of offense or upset marred Gerard's soft tone. He crossed to the bed and took his father's hand. "Edward wrote me some nonsense that you were ill," he said. "I came to thrash some sense into him."
"But why did you not bring Charles?" whispered the duke in anguish. "Ah, lads. I have to tell Charles … ask his forgiveness … "
That was new. Edward abandoned his window post as Gerard shot him a curious look. "Forgiveness, Father?"
A tear leaked from the duke's eye, tracing a glistening path down his sunken cheek. "I must beg pardon of you all. I didn't know … If only I had known, in time … You, Gerard, will come out well enough—you always do—and Edward will have Lady Louisa … But Charles—Charles will not know what to do…"
"What do you mean?" Edward had to admire his brother's calm, even tone. The duke's demeanor was raising the hair on the back of his neck.
"Edward … " Durham reached feebly for him, and Edward stepped forward. He knelt beside the bed, leaning closer to hear the duke's quavering voice. "I know you would forgive me, and even know what to do … Forgive me, I should have told you earlier … before it was too late … "
"Told me what, Father? What is too late?" Edward fought down a surge of apprehension. Behind his back, Gerard hissed quietly at the doctor to leave.
"Tell Charles …" rasped the duke. An ominous rattle echoed in his breath. "Tell Charles … I am sorry."
"You will tell him yourself when he arrives," Edward said. Gerard crossed the room in two strides, but shook his head as he gazed out the window facing the road from London. Edward turned back to his father. "Rest yourself, sir."
"Rest!" Durham coughed, his entire body convulsing. "Not until you grant me forgiveness … " His blue eyes were almost wild as he stared at Edward.
"I—" Edward stared. "Yes. Whatever it is, Father, I forgive you."
"Gerard!" cried the duke.
"You know I will forgive you, sir." Gerard had come back to the bed. "But for what sin?" Even he couldn't joke now.
"I tried … " The duke's voice faded. "The solicitor … will tell … Sorry … "
Durham never spoke with any clarity again. He slipped in and out of consciousness the rest of the day and into the evening, and finally breathed his last in the darkest hour of the night. Edward slumped in the chair next to the bed and listened to the silence when the tortured breathing finally stopped. Gerard had been sitting with him until a few hours ago, when he finally went to bed, exhausted from his hard ride. The doctor had long since dozed off, and Edward saw no reason to wake him, either. Durham had lived a long and full life, and suffered the last several months of it in pain. It was a kindness that he was at peace now.
Slowly, he levered himself upright in the chair and leaned forward to take his father's hand. It was still warm; it felt just as it had for the last year or so, when the wasting illness had taken hold of the duke and shriveled his flesh. But there was no strength in it, and never would be again. "Fare thee well, Father," he said quietly, and laid the limp hand back on his father's chest.
The duke's solicitor, Mr. Pierce, arrived the following day. He had handled the Durham affairs for twenty years, as his father and grandfather had done before him. Edward was waiting in the front hall when his carriage pulled up to the steps.
"I see I should begin with condolences," Pierce said, glancing at the black crepe already on the door. "I am very sorry for your loss, my lord."
"Thank you." Edward bowed his head.
"His Grace sent full instructions, as always. I was delayed a day, gathering everything he wished me to provide you." Pierce paused. "I will be available as soon as you are ready."
"My brother, Lord Gresham, is not yet here. Captain de Lacey and I are in no hurry to proceed without him."
Pierce nodded. "As you wish, sir."
"There is just one thing." Edward raised one hand. "My father was quite agitated near the end, begging us to forgive him, but he wouldn't say for what sin. He said you would explain."
Pierce looked startled. "He didn't—he didn't tell you?"
"Tell us what?" Gerard was coming down the stairs, buttoning his scarlet jacket.
"Welcome home, Captain. My deepest sympathies," said the solicitor with a quick bow.
"Thank you, Mr. Pierce." Gerard turned to Edward. "The mysterious sin?" Edward nodded once, and Gerard fixed his penetrating gaze on Mr. Pierce again. "Do you know what Durham meant by that?" he asked in his usual direct way.
Mr. Pierce's eyes darted between the two of them. "Yes," he said. "I believe I do. I have a letter, as well as many other documents from His Grace, which will explain everything—as much as can be explained. But I think we should await Lord Gresham so that you might hear it, and the contents of His Grace's will, together."
"God only knows when Gresham will find his way out to Sussex," said Gerard. "My brother and I would like to know now."
"Yes," Edward said when the solicitor shot him a questioning look. He and Gerard had been unable to guess what Durham meant, and it was bothering Gerard as much as it was him. Over breakfast they agreed that since Durham had pushed the task onto the solicitor, it was undoubtedly some matter of inheritance. Perhaps their father had imposed some onerous conditions in his will or made some unexpected bequests—but that, of all things, was something completely in Durham's power to change, and had no need of forgiveness. They were both at a complete loss, and very impatient to know the answer.
Mr. Pierce drew in a deep breath. "His Grace wished you to hear it at once—all three of you, since it affects you all."
"Now, Mr. Pierce," snapped Gerard.
"If you please," Edward added more politely. "On this we do not wish to wait."
"Is dead," said Edward. "I believe you are in my brother's employ now—at the moment."
Everyone knew Edward ran Durham, right down to which flowers were planted in the gardens. Everyone knew Charles, the new duke, wouldn't give a damn which solicitor handled his affairs. If Edward wanted to sack Pierce, Charles wouldn't lift a finger in protest. And Mr. Pierce knew just how profitable it was to handle Durham's legal affairs. He hesitated only a moment, glancing from Edward to Gerard and back.
"The trouble is," the solicitor began in a lowered voice, "it is not a well-defined problem; it stems from events many, many years ago, and unwinding the knot after so long has proven very difficult."
"What knot?" growled Gerard.
"There is a chance," said Mr. Pierce, as though choosing each word with care, "a very small, remote possibility, although it is impossible to ignore, that … "
"What?" prompted Edward sharply when the man hesitated again. This was doing nothing to ease his bad feeling about anything.
"That you—all of you, I mean—may … not be … able to receive your … full inheritances."
"Explain." Edward held up one hand to quell Gerard's outburst. "Why not?"
Mr. Pierce winced at his cold tone. "His Grace was married before he wed your late mother, the duchess," he said, almost whispering. "Long ago." He paused. "He and the young lady both decided the marriage had been a rash, youthful mistake and they parted ways." Another pause. "But … there was no divorce."
He didn't need to say more. The implications came at Edward in a blinding rush. He looked at his brother, whose expression reflected his own dawning horror. Holy God. If Durham had been married … If his first wife had still survived when he married again … when he married their mother …
The solicitor was still speaking. "Unfortunately, recent letters received by the duke made clear this marriage was not as forgotten as His Grace had believed, and implied the woman might still be alive. His Grace expended a great deal of effort and expense trying to locate her—"
"Are you saying," said Gerard in an ominous voice, "our father was a bigamist?"
A fine flush of perspiration broke out on Mr. Pierce's forehead. "That has not been proved."
"But it is a distinct possibility." Gerard stabbed one finger at the man. "And you didn't tell us!"
"I was expressly ordered not to, sir!"
"What do the letters say?" demanded Edward. He felt struck numb. It was one thing for Gerard not to have known; Gerard had been on the Iberian Peninsula until two months ago, and then with his regiment at Dover. It was even understandable that Durham would have kept it from Charlie, even though he was the heir apparent. Charlie wouldn't have taken it well, or been much help in getting to the root of the problem. But his father had kept this dreadful secret from him, from the son who stayed at his side and managed his estates and dined with him every evening and cared for him in his final illness. Of all the people Durham might have trusted enough to confide in, Edward thought he would have been the one.
Apparently, he was wrong.
"I have brought them, as His Grace instructed." Mr. Pierce indicated his bulging satchel apologetically. "I believe he wished to take care of the problem himself and spare all three of you any uneasiness, my lord."
Great lot of good that did, thought Edward bitterly. "We'll look at them later," he said, masking his emotions with effort. The butler stepped forward at his wave.
"Thank you, my lord," said Pierce with a bow. He followed the butler up the stairs, his relief evident in his quick step. Edward strode after his brother, who had turned and left the hall. Gerard was already pouring a drink when Edward stepped into the drawing room.
"The bloody scoundrel," muttered Gerard.
"Father, or the solicitor?" He closed the doors behind him. No need to titillate the servants further.
"Both." Gerard swallowed his brandy in one gulp and poured another. He raised one eyebrow at Edward, who shook his head. "But mostly Father, I suppose. What the bloody hell was he thinking?"
"I have no idea, and I was right here all the time."
His brother glanced at him, apology flickering in his eyes. "I didn't mean that. Just … What kind of fool keeps that secret?"
"A fool who doesn't want to look like one," said Edward. "Or an old fool who still thinks he can control everything."
"Bastards," Gerard said, and Edward flinched at the word spoken aloud. "We'll be bastards if this woman turns up alive. All this"—he swept one hand around to indicate the room, the house, the estate—"will go to someone else." He paused. "To whom would it go? I can't even recall."
Edward sighed, not wanting to think about that. Durham was supposed to go to Charlie. "Some distant cousin. Augustus, I suppose."
"Perhaps he's the one who sent those letters," said Gerard.
"Perhaps. Perhaps it's the woman herself. Perhaps her children. Good God," he said as the thought struck him. "You don't suppose Father had other children?"
"Wouldn't that cause a stir?" His brother gave a harsh crack of laughter. "Rather odd they haven't come forward in all this time."
"Rather odd our own father never mentioned the possibility of their existence." Edward walked to the tall windows that overlooked the lush gardens his mother had designed and planted, and he himself had maintained. He felt at home in those gardens, at peace—usually. A hot fury burned in his chest that all this might be yanked out from beneath him and given to another. He had spent his life here, doing everything that was required. He was needed here. Without Durham, what would he be, where would he go? How could he face his fiancée, Lady Louisa Halston, and tell her he was no longer Lord Edward de Lacey, brother of the Duke of Durham, but just some bastard son with no property? The scandal over his father's bigamy would be enormous. How could he ask Louisa to endure that gossip? It simply staggered the mind that Durham had kept a prior marriage secret, knowing it could have come to light at any time and upended everything in their lives. In that moment, he was almost glad the duke was dead, because he would have surely doomed himself to hell for what he would say to his father now.
Gerard came up beside him. He tossed back the remainder of his drink with a flick of his wrist. "We've got to find Charlie."
"So that he might offer his sage counsel and guidance, and exert himself to deal with the problem?" Edward muttered.
Gerard gave a snort. "Hardly. But it's his problem, too—he's got even more to lose than you and I do."
"When has that mattered?" But he knew his brother was right. Of course they had to tell Charlie, and since Charlie couldn't be bothered to come to Sussex, even for his father's death, it appeared they would have to go to him. And perhaps this would actually spur their brother into some action that didn't involve personal pleasure. Perhaps that was why Durham had been so desperate to beg Charlie's pardon; he knew very well how terribly his eldest son's life would change if he were to lose his name, his title, and his fortune.
Unfortunately, for all that their father seemed to think them better equipped to cope, he and Gerard would suffer much the same fate.
Because if they couldn't disprove this shadow on their claim to Durham, they would all lose everything.