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Royal Dewar crossed the massive oak-beamed entry of Bransford Castle, his tall black riding boots ringing on the wide-planked wooden floor. As he strode past the main drawing room, so impressive with its high, Tudor-style ceilings and heavy beams, he tried to ignore the worn Persian carpets, the way the bright reds and vivid blues he recalled from his youth had faded to shadowy, lackluster hues.
As he climbed the wide, carved mahogany staircase, he tried not to notice the feel of the wooden banister beneath his hand, once polished to a rich patina but now dull from years of neglect.
He had been home for less than two weeks, returned to England from his family's plantation, Sugar Reef, in Barbados, where he had been living for the past seven years. His father had fallen ill and the family solicitor, Mr. Edward Pinkard, had sent for him.
The Duke ofBransford is dying, the letter had said. In all haste, my lord, please come home before it is too late.
He was home at last, grateful to have this brief time with his father, but the house was dreary and in desperate need of repair, and he was unused to being cooped up inside. At dawn, after checking on his father's condition, he had headed for the stables. He hadn't ridden Bransford lands in the past eight years and he looked forward to becoming reacquainted with his home.
Though the winter wind was chill, the sky gray and cloudy, Royal enjoyed the ride immensely, surprising himself a bit. The hot climate of Barbados had seeped into his bones and his skin was sun-darkened from his work out in the sugarcane fields. Yet this morning, with the brisk wind in his face and the open fields stretching as far as he could see, he realized how much he had missed England.
It was late morning when he returned to the house, swinging down from the big gray stallion that had been a gift on his twenty-first birthday, a colt he had named Jupiter that now stood seventeen hands high. He handed the reins to a waiting groom.
"See he gets an extra ration of oats, will you, Jimmy?"
"Aye, my lord."
Feeling only a little guilty for leaving with his father so ill, Royal hurried into the house and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Striding down the hall, he paused for a moment to collect himself outside the door to the duke's bedroom suite.
A strip of light seeped from beneath the heavy wooden panel, indicating a lamp burned inside. Royal turned the silver handle, opened the door and strode into the massive, dimly lit chamber. Across the room, his father lay beneath the covers of a huge four-poster bed encased in heavy gold velvet hangings, the shell of the man he had once been.
The duke's valet and most trusted servant, George Mid-dleton, hurried forward on long, spindly legs, his shoulders stooped from years of service and now resignation.
"It is good you are back, my lord."
"How is he, Middleton?" Royal pulled the tie on his long scarlet woolen cloak and allowed the valet to sweep it from his shoulders.
"I am afraid, my lord, each day he grows weaker. Waiting for Lord Reese to arrive is all that keeps him going."
Royal nodded. He prayed his brother, two years younger than his own twenty-nine years and a major in the British cavalry, would reach Bransford before it was too late. His third and youngest brother, Rule, had already arrived, home from his studies at Oxford.
Royal glanced toward the velvet curtains and saw Rule sitting in the shadows next to their father's bedside. Rule rose and started forward. Tall and broad-shouldered with the lean-muscled build of an athlete, Rule looked a good deal like his siblings: same straight nose, carved features and solid jaw, but unlike Royal, who had the dark blond hair and golden-brown eyes of their mother, both Reese and Rule were black-haired, with the brilliant blue eyes that belonged to the duke.
"He's been asking for you." Rule moved into the flickering light of the lamp on a nearby rosewood dresser, the dangling prisms throwing off a rainbow of colors. "He's been rambling a bit. He says there is a promise you must make. He says he cannot die in peace unless you vow to see it done."
Royal nodded, more curious than concerned. All three brothers loved their father. And all three had abandoned him years ago to follow their own selfish dreams. They owed the Duke of Bransford. His sons would do whatever he asked of them.
Following in Middleton's wake, his brother strode past Royal out the door and closed it softly behind him, leaving him alone in the gloomy, airless room. His father had suffered three separate strokes, the first three years ago, and each more debilitating than the last. Royal should have come back to England after the first, but his father's letters had assured him of his recovery, and Royal had wanted to believe it. He wanted to stay at Sugar Reef.
He looked down at the frail old man on the bed, once a man of unbelievable power and strength. It was sheer force of will, Royal believed, that had kept his father alive this long.
He moved to the bed, settled himself in the chair his youngest brother had vacated. "I'm right here, Father." He reached out and clasped the duke's thin, cold hand. Though it was warm in the bedroom, he made a mental note to stoke up the flames in the hearth.
"I am sorry
my son," the duke said in a raspy voice, "for the poor legacy
I have left you. I have failed you
"It's all right, Father. Once you are back on your feet"
"Do not talk
nonsense, boy." He took a few wheezing breaths, his mouth drooping slightly, and Royal fell silent. "I've lost it all. I am not
not even sure exactly how it happened. Somehow it just
Royal didn't have to ask what his father meant. The furniture missing from the drawing rooms, the bare spots on the walls where exquisite gilt-framed paintings once had hung, the general dilapidated condition of what had once been one of the grandest houses in England told the story.
"In time, our fortune can be rebuilt," Royal said. "The Bransford dukedom will be as mighty as it ever was."
I am certain it will be." He coughed, dragged in a shaky breath. "I know I can
count on you, Royal
you and your brothers. But it won't be easy."
"I will see it done, Father, I promise you."
"And so you
shall. And I am going to help you
even after I am dead and buried."
Royal's chest squeezed. He knew his father was going to die. It was only a matter of time. Still, it was difficult to accept that a man once as strong and vital as the duke would actually be gone.
"Did you hear what I said
He had, but only dimly. "Yes, Father, but I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
"There is a way
my son. The simplest
of ways. Marriage to the right woman will give you
the money you need." His frail hold tightened on Royal's hand. "I have found her, son. The perfect
Royal straightened in his chair, certain his father must have returned to his former rambling.
"She is beautiful
" the duke continued. "An exquisite creature
worthy of becoming your duchess." The old man's strength seemed to grow with every word, and for a moment, the dull glaze over his eyes lifted, turning them the fierce blue of his youth. "She is an heiress, my boy
inherited a fortune from her grandfather. And the size of her dowry is incredible. You will be a wealthy man again."
"You should rest. I can come back"
"Listen to me, son. I have already spoken to her
father, a man named Henry Caulfield. Caulfield dotes on her. He is determined
to give her a title. The arrangements have already
been made." He wheezed in a breath, coughed, but his hold on Royal's hand never weakened. "After a suitable period of mourning
you will marry Jocelyn Caulfield. With her fortune
and your resolve
you can rebuild the house and return our lands to their former glory."
The duke's grip grew fierce. Royal was amazed he had that much strength. And he realized his father wasn't rambling. Indeed, he knew exactly what he was saying. "Promise me you will do it. Say you will marry the girl."
Royal's heart was thumping oddly. He owed his father, yet deep inside, some part of him wanted to refuse, to rebel against a life that had been dictated for him. Though he had been trained to assume the duties of duke, he hadn't expected to face those duties so soon.
His mind rushed backward. At two-and-twenty, he had hied himself off to adventure in the Caribbean. He had taken over the running of the family plantation. The vast acreage had been of little value when he had assumed the role as owner. Through hours of back-breaking labor, he had created a domain he could be proud of, made the plantation the success it was today.
He had known one day he would be called back home. He had known he would face responsibilities beyond anything he had handled in the past.
But he hadn't expected his father to die so soon.
Or to inherit a title and lands that had been stripped completely bare.
His father's grip slackened, his energy drained. The corner of his mouth drooped as it had before. "Promise me
Royal swallowed. His father was dying. How could he refuse his dying wish?
" the duke whispered.
"I will marry her, Father, as you wish. You have my word."
The duke made a faint nod of his head. A slow breath whispered out and his eyes slowly closed. For an instant, Royal feared he was dead. Then his chest weakly inflated, and Royal felt a sweep of relief. Releasing his father's cold hand, he slipped it beneath the covers and eased away from the bed. He paused long enough to build up the fire, then left the suite.
As he stepped outside, he spotted Rule pacing the hallway. His brother jerked to a halt as Royal quietly closed the door.
"He is as he was." He released a breath. "He has arranged a marriage. The woman comes with an enormous dowry, enough to begin rebuilding the family lands and holdings. I have agreed to the match."
Rule frowned, drawing his black eyebrows together. "Are you certain that is what you wish to do?"
Royal's mouth barely curved. "I am not sure of anything, brother, except that I have made a vow and now I must keep it."
The burial of the Duke of Bransford took place on a windy, overcast, frigid morning in January. The proceedings had actually begun several days earlier, with a lengthy funeral service given by the Archbishop at Westminster Abbey. It was attended by a score of nobles and dozens of London's elite.
Afterward, the coffin was transported to the village of Bransford via an extravagant black carriage and four matching black horses for a graveside service and the final interment of the late duke's body in the family's private plot adjacent to the village church.
A number of family members were in attendance, including the duke's aging aunt, Agatha Edgewood, Dowager Countess of Tavistock, as well as numerous other aunts and cousins, some Royal hadn't known existed. Some, like vultures, had come to discover if they might receive a bequest in the late duke's will. Those few had a surprise in store for them since little unentailed property or monies remained in the family coffers.
Royal stared down at the gleaming bronze casket that held his father's remains and a thick lump swelled in his throat. He should have come home sooner, should have spent more time with the man who had sired him. He should have helped him manage his vast affairs. Perhaps if he had, the dukedom wouldn't have fallen into ruin. Perhaps his father wouldn't have worried himself into an early grave.
Royal gazed at the coffin, which blurred for an instant behind a film of tears. His father was gone. The sixth Duke of Bransford had passed away peacefully two hours after the arrival of his middle son.
Reese and the duke had been cosseted together briefly, and another vow was made. By no later than the date his twelve-year enlistment was up, Reese would leave the military and return to Wiltshire. He would take over the lands and manor at Briarwood, a nearby property Reese had inherited from their maternal grandfather. He would rebuild those lands and make them and his life productive.
Reese, the most stubborn of the duke's three offspring, enjoyed his freedom, his military life and his travels. He wanted nothing less than being bound to a chunk of land he saw as a place that would hold him prisoner. But in the end, as his father's life drained away before his very eyes, Reese had agreed.
Rule, the wildest and least responsible, had made his pledge before Royal arrived. The duke believed an alliance with the Americans was in the family's best interest. His youngest son had pledged to do whatever it took to make that alliance a fact.
The vicar's words cut into Royal's thoughts, turning them away from events of the past few weeks and returning him to the words being said over his father's coffin.
A sharp wind tossed his long woolen cloak and cut through his heavy black tailcoat and dark gray trousers as he stood at the graveside. Next to him, Reese wore the scarlet-and-white dress uniform of a major in the British cavalry, the breeze slashing at his thick, wavy black hair. He was the most sober of the brothers, his features harder, reflecting the life he lived.
Royal's gaze moved to his youngest brother. Rule had been an unexpected addition to the family, born almost six years after Reese to a mother in ill health who had been warned against having more children. Amanda Dewar had died in childbirth, leaving Rule in the dubious care of a nanny, his two older brothers and a father who often drank to bury his grief or hid himself away in his study.
Rule had survived to become the most reckless of the three. He had a reputation as an incorrigible rake and he wore it proudly. He loved the ladies and seemed to make it a personal challenge to bed as many beautiful women as he possibly could.
Royal almost smiled. His own future had already been decided. He would marry a woman named Jocelyn Caulfield. A woman he had yet to meet. She was out of the country at present, enjoying a European tour with her mother. Royal was glad.
The period of mourning for his father would last a year. There would be time enough to arrange a marriage after that.