Love's Promise

Love's Promise

New York Times bestselling author, CHERYL HOLT, will sweep readers away with the first novel in her new and breathtaking ‘Lord Trent’ trilogy…

With the death of his older brother, Michael Wainwright, Viscount Henley, has become heir to his father, Duke of Clarendon. The Wainwright men are renowned cads, and as his brother’s will is read, it’s discovered that he sired an illegitimate son and has left the eight-year-old boy his entire fortune. Michael decides to bring the boy to London so he can be showered with all the wealth and status guaranteed by his inheritance. But first, he has to gain custody from the boy’s aunt, who is determined to keep her nephew away from Michael’s dissolute family.

Frances “Fanny” Carrington has always lived in a small village in the country. As a newborn, she was left in a basket on the church steps and raised by the vicar and his wife. But they’ve died, and Fanny is in dire straits, struggling to raise her nephew, to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. When she begins to receive correspondence from Michael, asking for custody, she can’t help but be suspicious. For years, the Wainwrights have refused to claim her nephew or provide financial assistance to him. She’s alarmed by their sudden interest. What can it mean?

As Michael finally meets Fanny, their attraction is swift, blatant, and dangerous. He can’t fight the need to have her at any cost, and gradually, he lures her into his decadent life of affluence and privilege. But she’s never possessed the callous nature required to thrive in the cut-throat world of the aristocracy, so she could never understand the peril she faces from those who would do anything to keep them apart…

“…a master writer…”
—Fallen Angel reviews

“Best storyteller of the year…”
—Romantic Times Magazine

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Letters Between Viscount Henley and Fanny Carrington

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“Oh Cheryl! I loved this book. I read it so fast…I couldn’t put it down. I don’t know how you’ll top this with the next in the series, but I’ll be ready for the next book!” — Deb

“I think this might be the best book I ever read by you…” — Sandy

“This was so different from many of your other books. But better, I think… Maybe the best one so far? Certainly my new favorite.” — Veronica

“I was breathless…blown away…” — Barbara

“I just finished reading LOVE’S PROMISE. Can’t wait for the next one. — Sarah

“LOVE’S PROMSIE is spectacular! Can’t wait for the next one.” — Didi

“Really looking forward to the rest of this series. Great story!” — Melanie

Before Fifty Shades of Grey was more than just a dim section of the color chart, Cheryl Holt defined the role of the super-sexy, dominant male hero and in her new “Lord Trent” series, that legacy lives on.

Charles Sinclair, the Earl of Trent is an unrepentant libertine who has done his best to help populate England with his illegitimate offspring. His eldest son, Philip has made it his mission in life to track down as many of his half-siblings as he can, to offer them the chance at a better life. The three books in this series—Love’s Promise, Love’s Price and Love’s Peril—tell the stories of four of these found siblings, just as they are embarking on the journey to discover their destined loves.

Of course, with a cast of truly despicable villains lurking in the shadows to impede their journeys the road ahead is not always made smooth by the discovery that they were sired by the notorious Lord Trent.

Cheryl Holt is a genius at creating characters that you love to hate and hate to love in equal measure, but in the end the Hero/Heroine always sees the light and the villains always get their comeuppance in a way that makes you truly believe in karma.

All three books, with the bonus of a double love story in Love’s Price, are filled with extraordinary passion—both physical and emotional—that make it difficult to set them aside for any length of time. A true guilty pleasure!

Look for the first book in the Lord Trent series, Love’s Promise on May 1st 2013 and don’t worry about waiting a year for the story to continue, as books 2 and 3 will be released back to back in June and July. ~ Teresa St. Mary — Novels Alive TV

“A lot of the appeal in Ms. Holt’s books is the rocky road to redemption and hopefully love requited. LOVE’S PROMISE has a particularly perilous path to a potential happily ever after. There are numerous wrongs to be answered for and a lot of growing to be done. A lot of living and action is packed into LOVE’S PROMISE; it’s busy and occasionally dramatic. I was hooked from the start.

Another favorite is the karma and comeuppance factor. Ms. Holt never stints on the karmic payback for her nasty characters and LOVE’S PROMISE contains some especially gratifying just rewards. LOVE’S PROMISE can’t take the number one spot as my favorite by Ms. Holt—that belongs to her book NICHOLAS—but it’s currently running a close second.” ~ Ivy Truitt, Manic Readers.com

“The book was brilliant…can’t wait for Book #2.” ~ Harlie, Harlie’s Book Reviews

“There are times when you doubt that Fanny and Michael will ever have their happy ending; there are so many obstacles keeping them apart and you on the edge of your seat. But I guarantee you won’t want to put this one down. Holt’s fast-paced dialogue, paired with the emotional turmoil, will keep you turning the pages all the way to the end.” Susana Ellis, Susana’s Parlour

“…A great love story populated with many flawed characters. Highly recommend it.” Bookworm2Bookworm

CHAPTER ONE

London, May, 1813…

“When will I see you again?”

Michael Wainwright, Viscount Henley, straightened his trousers and stepped away from his paramour.  As sounds of gaiety drifted from the crowded ballroom, he stared at her, struggling to remember her name.

What was it?  Mary?  Marie?

“Will you be at the Belmont’s supper tomorrow night?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

“Perhaps we can sneak off for a bit.”

“I’d be delighted if we could,” she gushed.

She was practically quivering with glee, assuming she’d won his favor, so it was probably time to find a new lover.

With his title and his tall, dark good looks, it was never difficult to attract a female, but they all thought they would be the one to tie him down, to geld him with bonds he didn’t intend to form.  As a bachelor, who’d been shoved onto the unwelcome road to matrimony, he had loose women throwing themselves at him wherever he went, but he simply wasn’t partial to monogamy or fidelity.

Yet, he never declined their offers.  He was only human, after all.

After serving in the army for over a decade, he was bored out of his mind and trying to fill his days with activity.  Unfortunately, he leaned toward debauchery, when he ought to be exercising restraint.

His peccadilloes were being bandied at every club in town, and while families were keen for a union with his own, money had recently become an issue.  He’d hate to have the wealthiest girl cry off due to rumors that were most likely true.

He nodded to the door.  “Why don’t you go out first?”

She rose on tiptoe and brushed a kiss across his mouth.

“I’ll think of you every second till tomorrow night,” she vowed.

He flashed a look—that might have indicated anything—but she took it to be smoldering passion.  She hurried over and peeked into the hall, and as she flitted off to rejoin the party, he breathed a sigh of relief.

He dawdled to ensure that she was gone, then he proceeded to the other wing of the house, and the meeting ordered by his father, Alfred Wainwright, Duke of Clarendon.  Nearly an hour had passed since he’d been summoned by the exalted ass, and although Michael made it a habit to annoy him as much as possible, the Duke couldn’t be ignored forever.

Michael skirted the festivities in the ballroom, content to walk by relatively unnoticed.  The cream of London society was present, and he was in no mood to chat.

Couples twirled by, laughing, as the orchestra played a fast waltz.  Jewels glittered under the chandeliers.  The women’s expensive dresses swished in time to the intoxicating rhythm, but Michael couldn’t bring himself to share in the revelry.

With the death of his older brother, John, Michael had become his father’s heir.  The calamity had forced him to resign his military commission and return to London, but the position brought a duty and obligation he’d never coveted.  Previously, he’d often bragged that he wasn’t his brother, and he’d tormented John over the fact that John had had to study and train and behave, while Michael had had to do very little, at all.

John had been a carefree, happy, and mischievous boy, who’d grown to be a dissipated, cynical man, but as a child, Michael had worshipped and emulated him.  He’d loved John, and he felt it uncouth to be entertaining so lavishly.  He didn’t like having so many people in their home, didn’t like them guzzling the liquor and gobbling the food, but the Duke had decreed that the party would go forward, so go forward it had.

Of course, John had been deceased for six months, so it wasn’t as if tragedy had struck the prior afternoon.  But still, Michael didn’t comprehend why they couldn’t have waited a tad longer to carry on as they always had.

He entered the library and shut the door, and as he glanced around the ostentatious, masculine room, he saw that the Duke had already arrived.  He was lounged on a sofa by the fire and sipping a brandy, and his scowl signified that Michael had been too slow in scurrying to his side.

Michael was thirty years old, a viscount in his own right and would one day be a duke, yet his father treated him like a servant.

“Where have you been?” the Duke queried, dispensing with any greeting.

“Where would you suppose?”

“And fornicating with a harlot is more important than attending your father?”

“Yes, and much more pleasant, too.”

With the Duke’s latest fiscal revelation, they were constantly at odds, and they seemed on the verge of another argument, but evidently, the Duke was exhausted by their fighting.  He bit down a retort and visibly reined in his notorious temper.

At age fifty-two, the Duke was a cunning and sly man, with a full head of white hair and sharp blue eyes that hadn’t lost their ability to intimidate.   If there were any limits to his influence or authority, he hadn’t recognized them.  He told others to jump, and they asked:  how high?

He was a despot and bully, who’d driven four wives to early graves, and he ran his homes and estates like a dictator.  Those around him were the walking wounded, staggering after him, weathering his petty rages and absurd demands.

Michael had joined the army specifically to escape the Duke’s machinations, and he had no idea why he tolerated the obnoxious tyrant, but the Duke’s pull was strong.  Michael had tried but had never been able to completely sever the ties that bound them.

“What have you learned?” the Duke asked, moving on to the true reason for their meeting.

“Nothing good I’m afraid.”

“Will she give us the boy?”

“No.  She’s refused again.”

“The mother or the aunt?”

“The aunt,” Michael said.

“The insulting jade!”  The Duke stood and started to pace.  “Who the hell does she think she is?  I’ll see her ruined for this!  Ruined, I tell you.”

Michael poured his own brandy and flopped down in a chair, eager to stay out of the line of fire as the Duke ranted.

Apparently, John had sired an illegitimate child, and he’d kept the secret for almost a decade.  Though he and Michael had had a cordial and close relationship, Michael hadn’t had an inkling of the scandal until the morning John’s will was read.  The news had certainly been a fascinating surprise.

On discovering how much money John had bequeathed to the little devil, Michael had wondered if the Duke would suffer an apoplexy.

The Duke had decided to bring the boy, eight-year-old Thomas, to live with the Wainwrights, but he was stymied by the frustrating reality that they hadn’t yet made contact with the mother.  The aunt kept responding on the mother’s behalf, and she had no intention of relinquishing custody.

“Why do you suppose,” the Duke inquired, “that it’s the aunt who replies to your correspondence—rather than the lad’s mother?”

“Perhaps the mother can’t read or write.”

“Perhaps,” the Duke mused.

The door opened, and Michael’s sister, Anne, slipped in.

She was a beauty with Michael’s same black hair and the Wainwright blue eyes.  But at age twenty-five, she was still a spinster, having remained unwed due to the Duke’s ridiculous insistence that there wasn’t a man in Europe with lofty enough blood lines to warrant a union.  At least that was the story he told.

The actual reason was that Anne had no dowry—though she wasn’t aware of the dire situation.  The Duke had squandered her fortune, and the property that would have gone to her husband was mortgaged to the hilt.

She puttered about in their many spacious mansions, with nothing to do but serve as their widowed father’s hostess.  It was a lonely, useless existence, and she was growing bitter because of it.

“Have you explained to Father about the latest letter?” she asked Michael.

“Yes.”

“What shall we do now?”

“I’ll get a damned writ,” the Duke threatened.  “I’ll have custody like that!”

He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing off the vaulted ceiling with a sad finality.

“You will not.”  Anne ignored the Duke’s outburst, and she gazed at Michael.  “As usual, you’re the sane male of the family.  How should we proceed?”

From the moment they’d learned about Thomas, they’d had unending discussions about what their course of action should be.

They all agreed that he should be raised by the Wainwrights, as the law and the church would deem proper, but they were divided on how to wrest him from his mother.

Anne had pushed for consideration and compromise, while the Duke had advocated harsh measures.  Michael liked Anne’s approach, and had penned several notes to the mother, requesting an appointment.

To Michael’s amazement, the first two had gone unanswered.  The third one, after a lengthy delay, had generated a polite response—from Thomas’s aunt, not his mother—declining the Duke’s offer.

From there, the negotiations had deteriorated.

Michael had written again, being more strident in tone, and he’d been stunned to receive a reply that was equally stern and unbending.  The aunt claimed that the Wainwrights had been given numerous opportunities to become acquainted with Thomas, but had rebuffed all overtures, and she found their sudden interest to be offensive and suspect.

She’d accused Michael of having ulterior motives, and he couldn’t believe the woman’s acuity or her audacity.  Yes, he’d neglected to mention that John had died, or that Thomas was now in possession of a huge fortune, but she didn’t need to know all the pesky details, and he was furious that she would dare to thwart him.

While he tried not to exhibit too many of the Duke’s more horrid traits, he was the man’s son, and he could definitely be imperious when the situation called for it.

As with his father, no one told Michael no.  No one refused him.  Not when the topic involved his deceased brother’s only child.

“What is the aunt’s name?” the Duke inquired.

“Frances Carrington—although she signed the letter as Fanny.”

“Fanny Carrington,” the Duke muttered.  “What is to be done with her?”

Anne glared at him as if he were an idiot.  “Why must you make this so difficult, Father?”

“What is difficult about it, Anne?”

“We needn’t quarrel with these people.”

“Really?  And what would you—in your infinite wisdom—suggest?”

“Simply send Michael to speak with the mother in a friendly and courteous manner.  Explain the circumstances to her.  You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

The Duke glowered.  “When I want spurious, meaningless phrases, I’ll let you know.”

“And your plan is better?” Anne said.  “You’ll menace and frighten and wound, and in the process, you’ll hurt everyone.  Particularly Thomas.”

“The boy will be fine,” the Duke declared.  “You have my word on it.  If you’ll excuse us…?”

He gestured to the door, indicating that her presence was no longer welcome.  Briefly, she tarried, contemplating further argument—which would be pointless—then she marched out in a huff.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” she hissed to Michael as she passed.

He chuckled.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t let him do anything cruel.”

“How will you stop him?” she countered.  “You’ve never tried very hard before.”

She continued on, clearly feeling that Michael would side with their father in his every devious deed.  More and more, she chastised him for being too much like the Duke, and her low opinion rankled.  Michael could be ruthless, but he had a conscience and knew when to let it kick in.

They were silent till her footsteps receded, then the Duke said, “I’ll get that writ.  Then I want you to travel to Sussex, serve it on those two imbecilic females, and bring the child home with you.  I won’t tolerate any nonsense.”

“What if they fight you in court?”

“Fight me?”  He scoffed.  “Pray tell, how?  You read the report prepared by our investigator.  By all accounts, they’re two indigents who can barely keep a roof over their pathetic heads.  They couldn’t find two pennies to hire a lawyer, and if they managed it, can you actually presume the courts would rule against me?”  He was standing next to his massive oak desk, and he pounded his fist on the polished wood.  “For God’s sake, I am the law in this country.  How soon can you leave?”

“In a few days.”

“See that you do.”  The Duke nodded, delighted to have gotten his way, but quickly, he sobered.  “Now then, have you had a chance to talk with Phillip?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“He can’t help you.  His father is determined to collect what you owe.”

“Dammit!” the Duke seethed.

Phillip Sinclair and Michael had been friends since they were boys, but their fathers were bitter enemies.  Michael wasn’t certain what had initially caused their rift, but it was rumored that Phillip’s father—a notorious rake and scoundrel—had seduced one of the Duke’s mistresses.

Their animosity was legendary, yet the Duke had been stupid enough to gamble for high stakes with the man, even though he was renowned as a cheat.  The amount of the loss had been the final straw in the Duke’s fiscal house of cards.

If the debt wasn’t forgiven, the Duke would be bankrupt, which had to be prevented at all costs.  Michael wasn’t concerned over the Duke’s predicament—his misery was deserved—but if the Duke was destroyed, others would be destroyed along with him.

Property would have to be sold, farms would lie fallow, and employees would be let go.  Most terrible of all, Anne’s dowry would never be restored, so she could never marry and would be forever trapped in their father’s web.  Michael couldn’t sentence her to such a dire fate.

He had his own money, and his own estate—Henley Hall—but his income was a drop in the bucket compared to the sums required to save those whom the Duke would abandon without a backward glance.

A wealthy wife was the solution, and the Duke should have been the one looking for a bride, but he never would.  He believed that he could force the world to do his bidding, that credit could be perpetually extended and markers never called in.

“What about Rebecca Talbot?” the Duke inquired, honing in on the very topic Michael had just been pondering.  “Her father asked me again.  What should I say?  Will you offer for her?”

Rebecca was a twenty-year-old beauty and heiress, whom everyone assumed Michael would marry.  Though she was British in nationality, and her father an earl, she was descended from Russian royalty, her mother having been a princess in some small principality that Michael couldn’t pronounce.

She was also rich as Croesus, which elevated her far above the other available girls.  He could wed her immediately, could have all of her pretty cash in his bank account the moment the ceremony was concluded, yet he chafed at the notion.

She had been his brother’s fiancée, and with John’s death, Michael felt as if he’d come in second in a race, or was the prize for second place.

Six months earlier, she wouldn’t have had him for a husband, but she was eager to be a duchess someday, so she’d changed her mind.  It was infuriating, and Michael was tempted to refuse the match—merely to annoy her—but he couldn’t postpone matrimony as John had done, either.

Michael was the Duke’s only remaining male child, so the dukedom was at stake, the family’s status and position at risk by even the slightest action or inaction on Michael’s part.

“I’ll think about it while I’m gone,” he said, delaying the inevitable, “and upon my return, I’ll give you my answer.”

“If you spurn her, I’ll expect you to select an appropriate alternative and be wed by Yuletide.”

“I aim to please.”

Michael spun and left, and as he started down the hall, Anne was loitering in the shadows and watching for him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“If you steal that boy from his mother, I’ll never forgive you.”

“Anne, you’ve heard about their plight.  Thomas will be better off living with us; he’ll have everything he needs.  He’s John’s son!  We agreed.”

“I understand that, Michael, but there’s a thoughtful way to do it, and there’s a malicious way to do it.  Which will you choose, I wonder?”

“I will be as considerate as circumstances allow.”

He couldn’t promise much more than that.  Despite how Anne yearned for a tender separation, Thomas was the only grandson of the Duke of Clarendon.  As such, he couldn’t be permitted to wallow in poverty, and he had to be properly educated and reared as befitted his new station.

In the end, what the mother or the aunt wanted was irrelevant.  Michael would do as the Duke had ordered, would do what was best for the family—and for Thomas.  If that meant a bit of conniving or deceit, so be it.

He would have his way; he always did.  In that, he and the Duke were exactly alike.

        

+ Fan Reviews

“Oh Cheryl! I loved this book. I read it so fast…I couldn’t put it down. I don’t know how you’ll top this with the next in the series, but I’ll be ready for the next book!” — Deb

“I think this might be the best book I ever read by you…” — Sandy

“This was so different from many of your other books. But better, I think… Maybe the best one so far? Certainly my new favorite.” — Veronica

“I was breathless…blown away…” — Barbara

“I just finished reading LOVE’S PROMISE. Can’t wait for the next one. — Sarah

“LOVE’S PROMSIE is spectacular! Can’t wait for the next one.” — Didi

“Really looking forward to the rest of this series. Great story!” — Melanie

+ Reviews

Before Fifty Shades of Grey was more than just a dim section of the color chart, Cheryl Holt defined the role of the super-sexy, dominant male hero and in her new “Lord Trent” series, that legacy lives on.

Charles Sinclair, the Earl of Trent is an unrepentant libertine who has done his best to help populate England with his illegitimate offspring. His eldest son, Philip has made it his mission in life to track down as many of his half-siblings as he can, to offer them the chance at a better life. The three books in this series—Love’s Promise, Love’s Price and Love’s Peril—tell the stories of four of these found siblings, just as they are embarking on the journey to discover their destined loves.

Of course, with a cast of truly despicable villains lurking in the shadows to impede their journeys the road ahead is not always made smooth by the discovery that they were sired by the notorious Lord Trent.

Cheryl Holt is a genius at creating characters that you love to hate and hate to love in equal measure, but in the end the Hero/Heroine always sees the light and the villains always get their comeuppance in a way that makes you truly believe in karma.

All three books, with the bonus of a double love story in Love’s Price, are filled with extraordinary passion—both physical and emotional—that make it difficult to set them aside for any length of time. A true guilty pleasure!

Look for the first book in the Lord Trent series, Love’s Promise on May 1st 2013 and don’t worry about waiting a year for the story to continue, as books 2 and 3 will be released back to back in June and July. ~ Teresa St. Mary — Novels Alive TV

“A lot of the appeal in Ms. Holt’s books is the rocky road to redemption and hopefully love requited. LOVE’S PROMISE has a particularly perilous path to a potential happily ever after. There are numerous wrongs to be answered for and a lot of growing to be done. A lot of living and action is packed into LOVE’S PROMISE; it’s busy and occasionally dramatic. I was hooked from the start.

Another favorite is the karma and comeuppance factor. Ms. Holt never stints on the karmic payback for her nasty characters and LOVE’S PROMISE contains some especially gratifying just rewards. LOVE’S PROMISE can’t take the number one spot as my favorite by Ms. Holt—that belongs to her book NICHOLAS—but it’s currently running a close second.” ~ Ivy Truitt, Manic Readers.com

“The book was brilliant…can’t wait for Book #2.” ~ Harlie, Harlie’s Book Reviews

“There are times when you doubt that Fanny and Michael will ever have their happy ending; there are so many obstacles keeping them apart and you on the edge of your seat. But I guarantee you won’t want to put this one down. Holt’s fast-paced dialogue, paired with the emotional turmoil, will keep you turning the pages all the way to the end.” Susana Ellis, Susana’s Parlour

“…A great love story populated with many flawed characters. Highly recommend it.” Bookworm2Bookworm

+ Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

London, May, 1813…

“When will I see you again?”

Michael Wainwright, Viscount Henley, straightened his trousers and stepped away from his paramour.  As sounds of gaiety drifted from the crowded ballroom, he stared at her, struggling to remember her name.

What was it?  Mary?  Marie?

“Will you be at the Belmont’s supper tomorrow night?” he inquired.

“Yes.”

“Perhaps we can sneak off for a bit.”

“I’d be delighted if we could,” she gushed.

She was practically quivering with glee, assuming she’d won his favor, so it was probably time to find a new lover.

With his title and his tall, dark good looks, it was never difficult to attract a female, but they all thought they would be the one to tie him down, to geld him with bonds he didn’t intend to form.  As a bachelor, who’d been shoved onto the unwelcome road to matrimony, he had loose women throwing themselves at him wherever he went, but he simply wasn’t partial to monogamy or fidelity.

Yet, he never declined their offers.  He was only human, after all.

After serving in the army for over a decade, he was bored out of his mind and trying to fill his days with activity.  Unfortunately, he leaned toward debauchery, when he ought to be exercising restraint.

His peccadilloes were being bandied at every club in town, and while families were keen for a union with his own, money had recently become an issue.  He’d hate to have the wealthiest girl cry off due to rumors that were most likely true.

He nodded to the door.  “Why don’t you go out first?”

She rose on tiptoe and brushed a kiss across his mouth.

“I’ll think of you every second till tomorrow night,” she vowed.

He flashed a look—that might have indicated anything—but she took it to be smoldering passion.  She hurried over and peeked into the hall, and as she flitted off to rejoin the party, he breathed a sigh of relief.

He dawdled to ensure that she was gone, then he proceeded to the other wing of the house, and the meeting ordered by his father, Alfred Wainwright, Duke of Clarendon.  Nearly an hour had passed since he’d been summoned by the exalted ass, and although Michael made it a habit to annoy him as much as possible, the Duke couldn’t be ignored forever.

Michael skirted the festivities in the ballroom, content to walk by relatively unnoticed.  The cream of London society was present, and he was in no mood to chat.

Couples twirled by, laughing, as the orchestra played a fast waltz.  Jewels glittered under the chandeliers.  The women’s expensive dresses swished in time to the intoxicating rhythm, but Michael couldn’t bring himself to share in the revelry.

With the death of his older brother, John, Michael had become his father’s heir.  The calamity had forced him to resign his military commission and return to London, but the position brought a duty and obligation he’d never coveted.  Previously, he’d often bragged that he wasn’t his brother, and he’d tormented John over the fact that John had had to study and train and behave, while Michael had had to do very little, at all.

John had been a carefree, happy, and mischievous boy, who’d grown to be a dissipated, cynical man, but as a child, Michael had worshipped and emulated him.  He’d loved John, and he felt it uncouth to be entertaining so lavishly.  He didn’t like having so many people in their home, didn’t like them guzzling the liquor and gobbling the food, but the Duke had decreed that the party would go forward, so go forward it had.

Of course, John had been deceased for six months, so it wasn’t as if tragedy had struck the prior afternoon.  But still, Michael didn’t comprehend why they couldn’t have waited a tad longer to carry on as they always had.

He entered the library and shut the door, and as he glanced around the ostentatious, masculine room, he saw that the Duke had already arrived.  He was lounged on a sofa by the fire and sipping a brandy, and his scowl signified that Michael had been too slow in scurrying to his side.

Michael was thirty years old, a viscount in his own right and would one day be a duke, yet his father treated him like a servant.

“Where have you been?” the Duke queried, dispensing with any greeting.

“Where would you suppose?”

“And fornicating with a harlot is more important than attending your father?”

“Yes, and much more pleasant, too.”

With the Duke’s latest fiscal revelation, they were constantly at odds, and they seemed on the verge of another argument, but evidently, the Duke was exhausted by their fighting.  He bit down a retort and visibly reined in his notorious temper.

At age fifty-two, the Duke was a cunning and sly man, with a full head of white hair and sharp blue eyes that hadn’t lost their ability to intimidate.   If there were any limits to his influence or authority, he hadn’t recognized them.  He told others to jump, and they asked:  how high?

He was a despot and bully, who’d driven four wives to early graves, and he ran his homes and estates like a dictator.  Those around him were the walking wounded, staggering after him, weathering his petty rages and absurd demands.

Michael had joined the army specifically to escape the Duke’s machinations, and he had no idea why he tolerated the obnoxious tyrant, but the Duke’s pull was strong.  Michael had tried but had never been able to completely sever the ties that bound them.

“What have you learned?” the Duke asked, moving on to the true reason for their meeting.

“Nothing good I’m afraid.”

“Will she give us the boy?”

“No.  She’s refused again.”

“The mother or the aunt?”

“The aunt,” Michael said.

“The insulting jade!”  The Duke stood and started to pace.  “Who the hell does she think she is?  I’ll see her ruined for this!  Ruined, I tell you.”

Michael poured his own brandy and flopped down in a chair, eager to stay out of the line of fire as the Duke ranted.

Apparently, John had sired an illegitimate child, and he’d kept the secret for almost a decade.  Though he and Michael had had a cordial and close relationship, Michael hadn’t had an inkling of the scandal until the morning John’s will was read.  The news had certainly been a fascinating surprise.

On discovering how much money John had bequeathed to the little devil, Michael had wondered if the Duke would suffer an apoplexy.

The Duke had decided to bring the boy, eight-year-old Thomas, to live with the Wainwrights, but he was stymied by the frustrating reality that they hadn’t yet made contact with the mother.  The aunt kept responding on the mother’s behalf, and she had no intention of relinquishing custody.

“Why do you suppose,” the Duke inquired, “that it’s the aunt who replies to your correspondence—rather than the lad’s mother?”

“Perhaps the mother can’t read or write.”

“Perhaps,” the Duke mused.

The door opened, and Michael’s sister, Anne, slipped in.

She was a beauty with Michael’s same black hair and the Wainwright blue eyes.  But at age twenty-five, she was still a spinster, having remained unwed due to the Duke’s ridiculous insistence that there wasn’t a man in Europe with lofty enough blood lines to warrant a union.  At least that was the story he told.

The actual reason was that Anne had no dowry—though she wasn’t aware of the dire situation.  The Duke had squandered her fortune, and the property that would have gone to her husband was mortgaged to the hilt.

She puttered about in their many spacious mansions, with nothing to do but serve as their widowed father’s hostess.  It was a lonely, useless existence, and she was growing bitter because of it.

“Have you explained to Father about the latest letter?” she asked Michael.

“Yes.”

“What shall we do now?”

“I’ll get a damned writ,” the Duke threatened.  “I’ll have custody like that!”

He snapped his fingers, the sound echoing off the vaulted ceiling with a sad finality.

“You will not.”  Anne ignored the Duke’s outburst, and she gazed at Michael.  “As usual, you’re the sane male of the family.  How should we proceed?”

From the moment they’d learned about Thomas, they’d had unending discussions about what their course of action should be.

They all agreed that he should be raised by the Wainwrights, as the law and the church would deem proper, but they were divided on how to wrest him from his mother.

Anne had pushed for consideration and compromise, while the Duke had advocated harsh measures.  Michael liked Anne’s approach, and had penned several notes to the mother, requesting an appointment.

To Michael’s amazement, the first two had gone unanswered.  The third one, after a lengthy delay, had generated a polite response—from Thomas’s aunt, not his mother—declining the Duke’s offer.

From there, the negotiations had deteriorated.

Michael had written again, being more strident in tone, and he’d been stunned to receive a reply that was equally stern and unbending.  The aunt claimed that the Wainwrights had been given numerous opportunities to become acquainted with Thomas, but had rebuffed all overtures, and she found their sudden interest to be offensive and suspect.

She’d accused Michael of having ulterior motives, and he couldn’t believe the woman’s acuity or her audacity.  Yes, he’d neglected to mention that John had died, or that Thomas was now in possession of a huge fortune, but she didn’t need to know all the pesky details, and he was furious that she would dare to thwart him.

While he tried not to exhibit too many of the Duke’s more horrid traits, he was the man’s son, and he could definitely be imperious when the situation called for it.

As with his father, no one told Michael no.  No one refused him.  Not when the topic involved his deceased brother’s only child.

“What is the aunt’s name?” the Duke inquired.

“Frances Carrington—although she signed the letter as Fanny.”

“Fanny Carrington,” the Duke muttered.  “What is to be done with her?”

Anne glared at him as if he were an idiot.  “Why must you make this so difficult, Father?”

“What is difficult about it, Anne?”

“We needn’t quarrel with these people.”

“Really?  And what would you—in your infinite wisdom—suggest?”

“Simply send Michael to speak with the mother in a friendly and courteous manner.  Explain the circumstances to her.  You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”

The Duke glowered.  “When I want spurious, meaningless phrases, I’ll let you know.”

“And your plan is better?” Anne said.  “You’ll menace and frighten and wound, and in the process, you’ll hurt everyone.  Particularly Thomas.”

“The boy will be fine,” the Duke declared.  “You have my word on it.  If you’ll excuse us…?”

He gestured to the door, indicating that her presence was no longer welcome.  Briefly, she tarried, contemplating further argument—which would be pointless—then she marched out in a huff.

“Don’t pay any attention to him,” she hissed to Michael as she passed.

He chuckled.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t let him do anything cruel.”

“How will you stop him?” she countered.  “You’ve never tried very hard before.”

She continued on, clearly feeling that Michael would side with their father in his every devious deed.  More and more, she chastised him for being too much like the Duke, and her low opinion rankled.  Michael could be ruthless, but he had a conscience and knew when to let it kick in.

They were silent till her footsteps receded, then the Duke said, “I’ll get that writ.  Then I want you to travel to Sussex, serve it on those two imbecilic females, and bring the child home with you.  I won’t tolerate any nonsense.”

“What if they fight you in court?”

“Fight me?”  He scoffed.  “Pray tell, how?  You read the report prepared by our investigator.  By all accounts, they’re two indigents who can barely keep a roof over their pathetic heads.  They couldn’t find two pennies to hire a lawyer, and if they managed it, can you actually presume the courts would rule against me?”  He was standing next to his massive oak desk, and he pounded his fist on the polished wood.  “For God’s sake, I am the law in this country.  How soon can you leave?”

“In a few days.”

“See that you do.”  The Duke nodded, delighted to have gotten his way, but quickly, he sobered.  “Now then, have you had a chance to talk with Phillip?”

“Yes.”

“And…?”

“He can’t help you.  His father is determined to collect what you owe.”

“Dammit!” the Duke seethed.

Phillip Sinclair and Michael had been friends since they were boys, but their fathers were bitter enemies.  Michael wasn’t certain what had initially caused their rift, but it was rumored that Phillip’s father—a notorious rake and scoundrel—had seduced one of the Duke’s mistresses.

Their animosity was legendary, yet the Duke had been stupid enough to gamble for high stakes with the man, even though he was renowned as a cheat.  The amount of the loss had been the final straw in the Duke’s fiscal house of cards.

If the debt wasn’t forgiven, the Duke would be bankrupt, which had to be prevented at all costs.  Michael wasn’t concerned over the Duke’s predicament—his misery was deserved—but if the Duke was destroyed, others would be destroyed along with him.

Property would have to be sold, farms would lie fallow, and employees would be let go.  Most terrible of all, Anne’s dowry would never be restored, so she could never marry and would be forever trapped in their father’s web.  Michael couldn’t sentence her to such a dire fate.

He had his own money, and his own estate—Henley Hall—but his income was a drop in the bucket compared to the sums required to save those whom the Duke would abandon without a backward glance.

A wealthy wife was the solution, and the Duke should have been the one looking for a bride, but he never would.  He believed that he could force the world to do his bidding, that credit could be perpetually extended and markers never called in.

“What about Rebecca Talbot?” the Duke inquired, honing in on the very topic Michael had just been pondering.  “Her father asked me again.  What should I say?  Will you offer for her?”

Rebecca was a twenty-year-old beauty and heiress, whom everyone assumed Michael would marry.  Though she was British in nationality, and her father an earl, she was descended from Russian royalty, her mother having been a princess in some small principality that Michael couldn’t pronounce.

She was also rich as Croesus, which elevated her far above the other available girls.  He could wed her immediately, could have all of her pretty cash in his bank account the moment the ceremony was concluded, yet he chafed at the notion.

She had been his brother’s fiancée, and with John’s death, Michael felt as if he’d come in second in a race, or was the prize for second place.

Six months earlier, she wouldn’t have had him for a husband, but she was eager to be a duchess someday, so she’d changed her mind.  It was infuriating, and Michael was tempted to refuse the match—merely to annoy her—but he couldn’t postpone matrimony as John had done, either.

Michael was the Duke’s only remaining male child, so the dukedom was at stake, the family’s status and position at risk by even the slightest action or inaction on Michael’s part.

“I’ll think about it while I’m gone,” he said, delaying the inevitable, “and upon my return, I’ll give you my answer.”

“If you spurn her, I’ll expect you to select an appropriate alternative and be wed by Yuletide.”

“I aim to please.”

Michael spun and left, and as he started down the hall, Anne was loitering in the shadows and watching for him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“If you steal that boy from his mother, I’ll never forgive you.”

“Anne, you’ve heard about their plight.  Thomas will be better off living with us; he’ll have everything he needs.  He’s John’s son!  We agreed.”

“I understand that, Michael, but there’s a thoughtful way to do it, and there’s a malicious way to do it.  Which will you choose, I wonder?”

“I will be as considerate as circumstances allow.”

He couldn’t promise much more than that.  Despite how Anne yearned for a tender separation, Thomas was the only grandson of the Duke of Clarendon.  As such, he couldn’t be permitted to wallow in poverty, and he had to be properly educated and reared as befitted his new station.

In the end, what the mother or the aunt wanted was irrelevant.  Michael would do as the Duke had ordered, would do what was best for the family—and for Thomas.  If that meant a bit of conniving or deceit, so be it.

He would have his way; he always did.  In that, he and the Duke were exactly alike.