Authors: Lorraine Heath
This one is for you, Lucia,
because over the years you’ve often been
my personal Obi-Wan Kenobi,
drawing me back from
the “dark side” of my writing
Thank you so much
for not only guiding me through
the complexities of this story,
but for being a remarkable editor
Robert Hawthorne stared at a face he’d not seen in…
Now that the moment had actually arrived, Torie Lambert wished…
Only your wedding, Your Grace.
Torie sat in the open carriage, striving not to take…
Robert had an uneasy feeling he’d find himself burning in…
“I see what you mean.”
Robert couldn’t seem to bring himself to look away from…
Sitting on the floor in the corner of a darkened…
Torie stood before the window, the heavy velvet drapes drawn…
The next morning, Torie awoke surprisingly well rested. Last night…
In the end they walked, leading their horses behind them,…
He didn’t say another word until they arrived at Hawthorne…
Robert had tucked the missive from Weddington inside the pocket…
Robert stood at the edge of the cliff, staring down…
The storm grew in intensity. Torie could hear the wind…
“You’re not really going to jump in, are you?” Robert…
Torie knew a moment of uncertainty when she saw the…
“Despite your protests to the contrary, I can tell that…
The mornings that followed were filled with Robert secluding himself…
Twisting and wrenching herself free of his grasp, Torie backed…
She sat in a field surrounded by raspberry bushes in…
As she regained her strength, Torie couldn’t help but be…
He’d promised her that she’d never again suffer, but he…
obert Hawthorne stared at a face he’d not seen in eight long years.
A face he hardly recognized. When last he’d looked at it, he’d seen nothing except the unmarred countenance of a life untried—features that revealed an absence of lines, character, and depth. A face that had yet to be written upon. Unfortunately, it now told an incredible tale of unbelievable cruelty.
The deep creases spreading out from the corners of the eyes and mouth had been shaped by agony, agony brought on not necessarily by
physical discomfort, but rather by emotional upheaval—which could carve just as deeply, and in many instances, more so, leaving the mark of its visitation visible to any who dared to look. Yes, the physical and emotional torment suffered was as clearly evident as the passage of time.
Black whiskers that had been as fine as the downy hair on a newborn’s head were now thick, coarse, and scraggly. The skin was pale to the point of almost appearing sickly, but then how could he expect it to look any differently when it had not known the direct touch of the sun in years?
That unhealthy pallor might cause a bit of a problem.
But in studying the visage before him, Robert decided it was the eyes that shocked him the most. Not the color, a blue that matched the hue of a deepening sky just before sunset gave way to night. No, the color remained exactly as he remembered, but the pathway the eyes offered to the soul had changed considerably.
They reflected a journey of devastating betrayal. And that, too, might cause a bit of a problem, because a man could seldom hide the truth of his character revealed by his eyes. Well, not a good man anyway.
Robert shifted his gaze away from the reflection in the mirror he held to the man he’d secured to the bed with silk sashes he’d taken from several dressing gowns hanging in the wardrobe. The man’s eyes were the same brilliant blue, but
they burned with fury mingling with hatred. He wondered why he’d never recognized the emotions before when he’d looked into those eyes.
looked into them—for the first eighteen years of his life. Surely during one of those glances, he should have
the monster who dwelled within.
“Why, John?” he asked, his voice scratchy from lack of use after years of not being allowed to speak. “Why did you have me locked away? What did I do to deserve such abuse?”
The monogrammed handkerchief that Robert had stuffed into John’s mouth prevented him from doing anything more than growling, and perhaps that was a bit unfair, but Robert didn’t want to risk his brother calling out and rousing the servants. He doubted John would provide a truthful answer anyway.
Yet the questions had haunted Robert for more than three thousand days: while he’d paced his cell, while he’d lain in his hammock, while he’d listened to the screams of men as they’d succumbed to insanity’s tantalizing promise of freedom.
It was frightening how often he’d been tempted to give in to the siren’s call of madness himself. But he’d managed to escape, and there he was, at long last, facing a nemesis he’d never known he possessed until it was too late, now with only a vague idea of what he would do to regain what had been stolen from him.
He couldn’t deny that John had always been a bit of a scamp, laughing gaily at his own delightful wickedness, his transgressions tolerated as harmless pranks. The man—in his youth—had fooled them all. But Robert drew no comfort from the fact that he hadn’t been alone in misjudging John.
He tried to find satisfaction in his captive’s attempt to escape the bonds that held his wrists and ankles secured to the four posts of the magnificent bed in which he’d been born, but all Robert felt was deep and resounding disappointment. As though he gazed upon his own soul and found it withered and empty, void of any worth.
“I thought we were more than brothers. I considered us friends. We shared confidences. I would have trusted you with my life. More than that, I would have willingly sacrificed…” Inhaling sharply through clenched teeth, he turned away, the pain almost too great to bear. He’d loved his brother—remarkably, he still did in that strange way that affected those bound by blood—and that unconditional love was the very reason that the betrayal sliced so deeply into his heart and flayed it raw.
If he couldn’t trust John, then whom could he trust?
He knew a moment of gratitude because his parents were no longer living, would never know the truth about everything that had transpired,
but his gratefulness was fleeting, like life, and he wished only that he could return to the wondrous days of his youth when his worries had consisted of nothing more than meeting his father’s lofty expectations—something he’d achieved with amazing regularity.
If he thought too long on his present circumstance, he began to feel adrift, losing his sense of purpose. Regaining what was his by right was crucial, not only on a personal level, but on an ancestral one as well. He couldn’t turn his back on what duty, honor, and those who’d come before him demanded was not only his due but his obligation to set right. He owed the past as well as the future to stay on course.
Drawing on a reserve of strength he’d not known he possessed until everything had been stolen from him, he concentrated on the immediate task facing him, knowing it was imperative that he complete it as quickly as possible.
“Stop thrashing about, John. You’ll only hurt yourself, and trust me when I offer you this bit of advice born of experience: you don’t want to be in a weakened state when you receive your just reward. Rest assured that I plan to grant you a bit more mercy than you showed me, but I must take steps to protect myself, my inheritance, and my heirs.”
He shook his head with a mixture of sadness and disbelief. After all this time, he still couldn’t compre
hend how it had all come about. “I can’t fathom how you managed to pull off your deception. How long did you plot to dispose of me and take my place? The planning alone must have been extensive, the details numerous. I almost admire your cleverness.”
Setting the mirror on the bedside table, Robert leaned it against a stack of books his brother had no doubt taken joy in reading before he drifted off to sleep; both joys—the reading of any books he desired and the peaceful slumber—would soon be denied him, along with many others.
Robert adjusted the mirror’s angle so he could view his reflection clearly while he sat in the high-backed burgundy velvet-covered chair he’d dragged over and placed beside the bed. He wondered briefly when exactly the house had been modernized with gas lighting, wondered what other changes he might find. It was unsettling to realize that life had gone on as though nothing were amiss. And in the next instant he was comforted with the same thought.
Because it meant that it would again happen: life would continue without anyone other than the twin brothers realizing that an incredible change had taken place.
With scissors he’d located in the dressing room next to this bedchamber, he hacked away his stringy black hair until it followed the outline of his ear and the nape of his neck.
“No lice,” he murmured. “The whole purpose behind isolation, I should think. Keep men iso
lated and they can’t spread disease or rebellion. It has its advantages.”
And a whole host of disadvantages few men could endure for long. How he’d managed to maintain his sanity remained a mystery. He didn’t want to contemplate that perhaps he hadn’t, that his escape was merely an elaborate illusion and that he would awaken to find he was still a prisoner housed in corridor D, gallery three, cell ten.
Forcing the unsettling thoughts away and concentrating on what he knew to be real, he gazed intently in the mirror and studied his shortened curling locks. His hair was far from perfectly cut, but he wasn’t overly concerned. He’d have his valet trim it up nicely in the morning. He doubted the servant would say anything if he thought his master’s hair seemed more unruly than usual.
After all, one didn’t question a duke.
Next, Robert used the scissors to shorten his long beard until it was manageable, then he picked up the shaving cup, whisked the brush around, and began applying the lathered soap liberally. Inhaling the fragrance brought back memories of the first time he’d sat so his valet could shave him while his father looked on with pride.
“You’re well on your way to becoming a fine young gentleman,” his father had said. Robert had shared his father’s assessment, not with conceit, but with a quiet acceptance that he’d worked hard to gain that regard and was succeeding.
He didn’t recall his father saying the same to
John when he’d sat for his first shave. Perhaps that had contributed to the problem. John had always been second: second at birth, second in his father’s eyes, second in line.
Robert peered over at his younger brother, younger by less than a quarter of an hour, yet born not only a day later, but in a different year entirely, with Robert arriving before midnight on the thirty-first of December, while John arrived on the first day of the new year. But when it came to primogeniture, minutes held as much weight as years.
“Can’t say I care much for your side whiskers, all bushy and long like that. Are they indicative of the latest fashion or are you still a rogue, doing things your way and to hell with what is proper?” He leaned over and ground out, “Or legal. But how to prove the truth of the matter when it will be your word against mine? Therein lies the crux of my dilemma and the reason that I must originally treat you as unfairly as you did me.”
Ignoring John’s groans, Robert returned the cup to the table, snatched up the straight razor, and very carefully began to scrape away what remained of his beard, leaving side whiskers that closely resembled John’s. After taking a good look around London in the next day or so, he’d change them to a style he preferred. He didn’t want too much difference in his appearance in the beginning for fear people would begin to suspect something was amiss. Although he would actually be righting what had been amiss for years.
He was desperately in want of a warm bath with scented soap, but that indulgence would require the servants bring up hot water, so he’d have to postpone the much anticipated luxury until morning. Tonight he would simply clean up as best as he could with the water he found in this bedchamber and the changing room.
“To explain my pallor, I shall have to say that I’m feeling a bit under the weather, I think. That should do it until I can get out in the sun. I must say that you look as though you’ve been enjoying robust health. That will soon change, though, brother.”
He finished his task and laid the edge of the razor beneath John’s chin. He wasn’t exactly sure what reaction he’d hoped for: fear, remorse, regret. Instead, John looked merely more rebellious—as though he were the one betrayed.
“Why didn’t you simply kill me, John? Was it that you couldn’t look into a face that resembled yours and watch as you snuffed the life out of it? Or was it sentimentality over our sharing the womb that stopped you? Or something else entirely?” Saddened beyond belief, he took the razor away from his brother’s throat. How had it come to this?
He moved away from the bed and began preparing himself with more haste. He had much to do before dawn and not much time in which to do it. John had been asleep when Robert had sneaked into the London town house and into
this bedchamber. He would now have to do to John what John had done to him.
He turned toward the bed.
“Why did you drug me and have me imprisoned? A silly question. You did it so the dukedom would fall to you.”
England’s history was rife with tales of men who had killed those who stood between them and the crown, murdering nephews in towers and brothers on the battlefield and fathers in their sleep. For some, a title was as coveted as a crown. As long as a man’s deception wasn’t revealed, what did it matter how he came to be next in line?
“But how in God’s name did you manage to pull it off? Did Mother and Father not suspect? What of the servants? My friends and acquaintances?
“Surely someone must have realized you were masquerading as me. And how in the devil did you ever explain only one of us returning from a night of revelry?” They’d gone out to celebrate their eighteenth birthday. Robert remembered drinking, the scent of a woman…and waking up alone, imprisoned. Anger at first, followed quickly by desperation. Until he learned the truth of the matter…
“What luck for you that Mother and Father succumbed to illness shortly after you’d dispensed with me. I pray it was as reported and not poisoning, because, dear brother, I fear I could never forgive you if you were responsible for shortening their lives.
“I must say I appreciate the fact that you had the newspaper announcing their deaths slipped to me, along with your succinct note. Otherwise I might have wasted time searching for them here, rather than coming straight for you.”
An envelope had sailed through the bars on his door. Hardly able to believe he was receiving a scrap of communication—unaware that anyone except his jailer knew where he was—he’d watched it flutter to the ground.
Inside he’d found a clipping from the
announcing the unexpected deaths of the Duke and Duchess of Killingsworth. The cause of their demise was reported to be influenza. Still struggling with his plight, unable to determine how he’d come to be where he was, he’d read the article three times, dispassionately, as though it discussed people he barely knew.
Then he’d unfolded the letter that accompanied the article.
Thought you should know
—Robert Hawthorne, the Duke of
He’d stared at the words until they blurred, trying to make sense of them. And when understanding finally dawned, he could hardly believe the implications.
“I must give some credence to the brilliance of
your plan. Much easier to have John disappear than Robert. No one would search for John, would they? After all, he wasn’t the heir apparent. That must have irked somewhat. To know that John’s disappearance would cause no ripples. But Robert, should Robert disappear, well, then that would be an entirely different story, wouldn’t it? Would have required absolute proof of my demise before you could step into my shoes.