Read an Excerpt
Spitalfields, LondonFebruary 1816, 8 p.m.
'The Temple of Beauty?' echoed Captain Alec Stewart, lifting his dark eyebrows as he eased his foil into the nearby sword rack. 'How old are you, Harrytwenty? And still wet around the ears, my young pup. The Temple of Beauty is nothing but a den of harlots, take my word on it.'
For the last half an hour, this dusty old hall at the heart of the east London mansion known as Two Crows Castle had echoed to the click of gleaming blades, to the muttered curses of Lord Harry Nugent, and the curt admonitions of his tutor. Now the fencing lesson was over and Harry collapsed on a bench to mop the sweat from his brow and make his plea once more.
'Oh, Alec, do please say you'll come! It's my birthday after all. And the girls are as sweet a bunch as you'll find in London!'
Alec laughed aloud. 'Trust me, they're whores.' Pouring out two brandies, he handed one to his pupil. 'I'm not coming. Buthappy birthday all the same.'
Harry Nugent, inordinately rich and a truly hopeless fencer, sighed and sipped just a little of his brandy, which was rough. He let his gaze rove with a certain amount of trepidation around this lofty hall, where the chill February wind rattling at cobwebbed windows sent shadows from the candles leaping across the smokestained rafters. Then he glanced at his fencing master, who, tall and loose-limbed, looked as though the exertions of the past half-hour had affected him not one jot. Harry took a deep breath. 'Alec!'
'It's really not right, you know, Alec, that you should live in a wreck like this and make your living by running a sword school. You're a war hero, man!'
Alec shrugged. 'War hero or not, I've scarcely sixpence to scratch with, Harry. Anyway, I quite like it here.'
Harry watched as his fencing tutor idly pulled another fine rapier from the rack and tested its balance. Alec was one of the best swordsmen in London and used to hold an enviable reputation as a captain in the Light Dragoons. Once, they said, he was light-hearted, never serious, even on the night before battle. London's ladies used to adore him; he'd had his pick of the ton's heiresses, and for a brief while was betrothed to one. But now Now, he was a stranger to London's social scene and his once-merry brown eyes were etched with cynicism.
'Even so, to live like this!' Harry couldn't stop himself blurting it out. 'You should take up the matter with your father, you really should! Everyone says so!'
Alec made a gentle feint with his rapier. 'Do they indeed say that?' he asked softly. 'Do you have fun discussing me with your friends around London's clubs and watering-holes, Harry?'
'No!' protested Harry Nugent, rather flustered. 'Well, we say nothing we wouldn't say to your face, Alec!' He spread out his hands in entreaty. 'You needn't actuallyyou know, do anything with any of the girls tonight. Just join us at the Temple for a bit of fun! And perhaps,' Harry went on innocently, 'a night away from this place would do you good. Your brother said'
Alec's well-shaped, flexible fingers suddenly went very still around the hilt of his rapier. If Lord Harry Nugent had fought at his side at Waterloo, he'd have known to be wary of that look.
'When, exactly,' said Alec in a deceptively soft drawl, 'did you see my esteemed brother?'
'Why, it was mere chance, at Tellworth's tables in St James's last night!'
Still in London, then. 'And what in particular did he say?'
'He said ' Harry hesitated ' he said you are a little too fond, like all former soldiers, of the brandy bottlewhich we all know is a lie!and that is why, he says, you tend to avoid decent company.'
'Decent company, eh? And will my delightful brother be at Tellworth's again tonight, do you think, my fresh-faced, intriguingly honest Harry?'
'Not as far as I know ' Suddenly Harry's face brightened. 'I say, Alec, are you thinking of making your peace with the fellow? That's surely what your father wishes, ain't it? Now, that really would be capital!'
Alec reached across and ruffled the younger man's fair curls. 'Make my peace?' he echoed. 'Harry, let me tell you something. If I come across my brother tonight, I shall take very great pleasure in slicing whichever expensive coat he's wearing into precise, inch-wide strips.' The rapier in his hand gleamed as he thoughtfully practised a coup de pointe. 'I don't much care for his taste in clothes, you see.'
'Oh, Lord,' muttered Harry. 'Oh, Lord.'
'No bloodshed, though. For which my brother should be profoundly grateful.' Decisively, Alec put the weapon away and started to propel Harry gently towards the door. 'Enjoy the Temple of Beauty, my young and innocent friend. And if you really consider there'll be any girls there who aren't whores, then you're an even greater gudgeon than I thought. Now, here's your ' he blinked at the wide-brimmed creation ' I think it's what you'd call a hat. And your coat.'
'Very well.' Harry nodded. 'Same time next week, Alec? And Alecdo you think I'm making progress?'
Silence. Then, levelly, 'Your technique, Harry, never ceases to amaze me.'
'Oh. Oh, I say.' Harry left, looking rather pleased. Alec shut the door on his departure a little too hard and brushed the ensuing shower of ceiling plaster from his shoulders.
The damn place was falling to pieces. Rather like his life.
Alec was the younger son of an earl, and had served in the army for seven years. He'd returned home with a reputation for gallantry, and his future should have been bright indeed.
But here in London, the very air was tainted. Tainted by his own brother.
'Beg pardon, Captain!' A small but tough-looking man with a black patch over one eye had entered the hall. 'I've got three fellows here, wantin' to speak to you.' Hovering behind Garrett were some men who were plainly ex-soldiers, though their uniforms hung in rags from their half-starved bodies. Andthey saluted Alec. That got him. In spite of their pitiful condition, they saluted him.
'They're old 'uns from the Fourteenth, Captain,' Garrett explained. 'Want to know if we've got any room to spare.'
Two Crows Castle was full to bursting. Alec sucked in a deep breath. 'Garrett, I really don't see how we can'
'We could squeeze some extra pallets in the top attic, Captain!'
'Right.' Of course. How could they turn away these brave men, any one of whom might have fought at his side on the bloody battlefields of Spain? 'Right,' he repeated, 'see to it, Garrett, will you?'
'Straight away, Captain!' Garrett saluted and turned smartly to escort the ex-soldiers to their new quarters upstairs. 'Look sharp now, lads!'
'God bless you, Captain!' they were trying to say to Alec. 'You're one of the very best! A Waterloo hero and more!'
Alec waved them away. Then he sat down and raked his hand through his dark hair.
A hero and more? In his father's opinion, far from it.
'My own son.' The Earl of Aldchester had looked strickenno other word for itas Alec had stood before him a year ago in the luxurious drawing room of his Mayfair mansion. 'Alec, I cannot believe you have come here to try to destroy my new-found happiness with the woman I love!'
Alec had been in his uniform, the famous blue jacket and white breeches of the Light Dragoons. It was February 1815, and all the army's senior officers had been quietly warned that the Emperor Napoleon was bent on escape from Elba, but Alec had other matters on his mind, for he'd just heard that his father was planning a June wedding.
'Please believe me, sir.' Alec had stood very straight, hating every minute of this interview. 'It's your happiness that I wish to preserve.'
The Earl had got slowly to his feet, suddenly looking every year of his age. Once, Alec knew, he'd dreamed of a military career for himself, and historic paintings of famous British victories a hundred years agoBlenheim, Ramillies, Malplaquetwere hung around the walls of his beautiful house. He would await Alec's brief periods of leave from the army with almost painful eagerness. 'Ah, this fellow Wellington!' he used to say. 'At this rate, my son, he'll be snatching the Duke of Marlborough's title as the greatest British general ever!' He used to listen to Alec's accounts of Wellington's campaigns with his eyes full of pride.
But he hadn't been so proud though on that ominous encounter last February.
'You surely realise,' the Earl had said heavily, 'that I used to live for the times you came home to me. For your news of the war. Butto come to me instead with scurrilous tattle.'
'Father,' Alec had said quietly. 'Father, I only wanted to ask you if you have known her for long enough. If you are sure that she can be trusted, in every way.'
'Trusted?' The Earl looked wretched. 'Trusted? Oh, Stephen warned me, so often, that you were jealous of my marriage and that you were afraid of losing my favour!'
'Sir, that is not so, believe me!'
'Enough.' The Earl sat down again abruptly. 'Enough. You must see that what you have just tried to say to me means that I can no longer receive you in this house as my son.'
Fateful words. Irretrievable words. And his father had sounded quite broken as he uttered them. Indeed Alec's voice betrayed his own emotion as he replied, 'Sir, I am sorry for it. And please believe me when I say I will always hold you in the deepest esteem. But I must beg you, one last time, to listenreally listento what I have to say! Sir, this marriage must not take place!'
His father had stared at him. Almost dazed. 'I just don't understand. Perhaps if you were to meet her. Meet her properly, I mean, and talk to her.' He was on his feet again, pacing to and fro. 'Yes, that's it. And then you would realise for yourself how badly you have misjudged her.'
'I will not change my mind, sir. I'm sorry.'
The Earl sagged with despair. Then his eyes grew hard. 'Very well. So be it. One last thing, then. My future wife requires a London base for her mother. She once mentioned that the Bedford Street house I've let you use for the last few years would be suitable. And now I must ask you to vacate it, as soon as possible. Needless to say, your allowance will cease forthwith.'
Alec stood very straight, his face expressionless. 'There's the matter of the home for old soldiers in Spital-fields, sir. I trust, however sorely I've displeased you, that you'll continue with your plans to fund it?'
'Do you know,' said the Earl, his voice breaking a little now, 'I'm beginning to think that it's associating with men of that kind that's made you lose all sense of family duty!' He gazed at his younger son in utter anguish. 'I suggest that you run it yourself, since you obviously care more for youryour lowly battle comrades than you do for me!'
'That is not so, sir'
Alec, his jaw clenched, had given a curt bow and left. His brother had his wish at last. This was a breach between son and father that surely could not be healed.