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Chapter One Yorkshire 1904 Edward Deravenel galloped ahead at great speed, leaving his brothers behind, rapidly gaining the advantage. He urged his white stallion forward, oblivious to the icy weather, the lash of the wind on his face. At one moment, half turning in the saddle, glancing behind him, Edward laughed out loud, his hilarity filling the air as he waved to his brothers: George, endeavoring to catch up, his face grim in its determination . . . Richard, struggling even farther behind, yet laughing and waving back. But then he was the youngest, and much less competitive, the baby of the family, and Edward's particular favorite. For a split second Edward considered slowing down and allowing Richard to win this impromptu race, which had come about spontaneously a short while before, then instantly changed his mind. George would inevitably contrive to finish first, by pushing Richard out of the way in his overriding desire to be the winner. Somehow he always managed to do this, no matter what the circumstances. And this Edward could not permit. He strived to make certain Richard was never humiliated, never diminished by George, who was older than Richard by three years and frequently endeavored to lord it over the younger boy. Edward continued at a gentler pace along the narrow path, glancing to his left as he did. The cliffs fell steeply to the rocks and the beach; six hundred feet below him, the North Sea roared under the gusting wind, resembled polished steel in the January sunlight. The waves frothed and churned against the jagged rock formations, while above him kittiwakes, graceful and buoyant in flight, squawked stridently as they wheeled and turned against the pale sky. Hundreds of these beautiful white gulls with black-tipped wings made their homes on the cliff faces, and as a child he had watched them nesting through his binoculars. He shivered involuntarily as the sudden remembrance of a tragedy of long ago hit him most forcibly. A man in his father's employ, who had been bird-watching, had plunged to his death from this very spot. Now, instinctively, Edward veered away from the precarious cliffs, headed in the direction of the dirt road which led across the moors and was much safer terrain. This morning the moorland was dun-colored and patched with slabs of frozen snow, and there was no question in Edward's mind that he much preferred riding up here when the weather was more benign, the air even balmy and filled with the scent of wildflowers, and the northern summer light dazzling. Edward mentally chastised himself for taking his brothers out on this winter day. He had realized, rather late, that it was far too bitter, especially for Richard, who tended to catch colds so easily. He dared not contemplate his mother's ire if the boy fell sick because of this ill-conceived outing. Swinging his head, Edward saw that the boys had again slowed and were obviously fatigued by the long ride. He must spur them on, get them home without delay. He shouted, "Come on, chaps! Let's get a move on!" And he set off at a brisk canter. Once or twice he glanced behind him, pleased that his brothers had heeded his words and were cantering hard on his heels. Within minutes, to his profound relief, their ancestral home was in his direct line of vision. Ravenscar, the beautiful old manor house where the Deravenels had lived for centuries, stood on high ground, set back from the sea, and dominated the surrounding landscape. Dark green trees, ancient, tall, and stately, formed a semicircle around it on three sides, and these were backed by high stone walls; the fourth wall was a natural one--the North Sea. This stretched into infinity below the tiered gardens and sloping lawns that ended at the edge of the precipitous cliffs. As Edward drew closer, he could easily make out the crenellation along the line of the roof, smoke curling up from the chimneys, and the many mullioned windows glittering in the sunlight. Within seconds he was bringing his horse to a slow trot, riding through the black iron gates and up the long, tree-lined drive. This ended with some abruptness in a small, circular courtyard covered with gravel and with a sundial in its center. The house was built of a local, pale-colored stone that had mellowed to a soft golden beige with the passing of the centuries. It typified Tudor architecture with its recesses and bays, gables and battlements, and many windows of differing sizes. Ravenscar was one of those grand houses from the past, and it had a lovely symmetry and a charm all its own. To Edward there was a sense of timelessness about it, a quality of serenity and peace dwelling in its gently flowing facade, and he understood why his forebears had always cherished and cared for this treasure. The Deravenels had lived in their house by the sea since 1578, the year it was finished. Before then, for many centuries, the family had occupied the fortified castle that had stood on the edge of the cliffs; a ruin now, it was nonetheless a well-maintained ruin. This stronghold had been built in 1070 by the founding father of the dynasty, one Guy de Ravenel, a young knight from Falaise, liege man of William, Duke of Normandy. Duke William had invaded England in 1066, claiming his right to the English throne through his cousin the deceased monarch Edward the Confessor, who had promised that the throne would be his one day. But for political convenience, Edward had reneged on that promise and passed over William in favor of his wife's brother, Harold, bequeathing the throne to the man who became, briefly, Harold II. Believing his claim to be absolutely legitimate, William had crossed the English Channel with the six knights who were his trusted childhood friends and a large army. He defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings and was proclaimed William the Conqueror and crowned on Christmas Day of 1066. A few years later, William had dispatched Guy de Ravenel to the north to act as his marshal. Based in Yorkshire, Guy had followed William's orders, had kept the peace, by force when necessary, built defenses and forts, and ensured the north's loyalty to the Norman king. And Guy had been enriched by William because of his staunch loyalty and unparalleled success. Ever since that time, some 835 years ago, descendants of Guy de Ravenel had lived on this long stretch of coastline known as Ravenscar high above the North Sea. Nearby was the ancient seaport and spa of Scarborough; a little farther along the expansive stretch of coast was a picturesque fishing village with the quaint name of Robin Hood's Bay. Both dated back to Roman times. Edward rode out of the courtyard and around to the back of the house, heading for the stable block. He clattered into the cobbled yard, his brothers following behind him, and jumped off his horse with his usual vitality and energy. As he hurried over to his youngest brother, he greeted the stable lads cheerfully; a moment later he was reaching up for the eight-year-old Richard, exclaiming, "Let me help you down, Dick!" Richard shook his head vehemently. "I can manage, Ned. I truly can," the boy protested, stealing a surreptitious look at George through the corner of his eye. He knew only too well that his brother would tease him unmercifully if Ned helped him to dismount. But Ned paid not the slightest attention to Richard; he put his strong arms around the boy, determined to lift him out of the saddle. Richard sighed. Accepting that he now had no choice, he slipped his riding boots out of the stirrups and reluctantly slid into his brother's enfolding arms. For a split second, Edward held Richard close to his chest, and then he put him down on the cobblestones, noting that the youngster's narrow face was pinched with cold and drained of color. My fault, he chided himself, regretting even more his thoughtlessness. "Thank you, Ned," Richard murmured, staring up into his oldest brother's face through his steady, slate-blue eyes. Edward was six feet four, broad of chest, very strong and athletic. His brilliant eyes were as blue as the speedwells that grew in the summer meadows, and his thick hair was a stunning burnished red-gold. To Richard, and to every woman who met him, Edward Deravenel was the handsomest man alive, and in addition, he had a warm, outgoing personality. He was affable, inordinately friendly, and blessed with a beguiling charm that captivated everyone. Richard loved him more than anyone else in the family, was completely devoted to him, and he would be all of Edward's life, and even after that. "Inside the house as fast as you can," Edward cried, giving Richard an affectionate push toward the side door, which led to the mudroom. "And you, too, George, my lad. No dawdling around this morning." The two boys did his bidding, and as Edward followed them at a quick pace, he called out to one of the stable lads, "The horses have been ridden hard this morning, Ernie. They need your very best rubdown, and put the heavy wool blankets on them before you give them water and feed." "Aye, Master Edward," Ernie shouted back, glancing at him. He and the other stable lad took the reins of the three horses and led them toward the stables and tack room. Once Edward and his brothers entered the mudroom, they felt the warmth of the house surrounding them. Shedding their black-and-white checked caps and thick woolen Inverness capes, they scraped their riding boots free from dirt. A moment later they all went down the corridor at the back of the house, heading toward the Long Hall at its center. "I shall ask Cook to make us a small snack and hot tea," Edward informed his brothers, an arm on each of their shoulders. "Perhaps she'll be able to rustle up some of those delicious Cornish pasties of hers." "Oooh, I hope so," George exclaimed and added, "and sausage rolls as well. I'm very hungry." "And what about you?" Edward asked, glancing down at Richard. "Aren't you ravenous?" "I will enjoy the hot tea," Richard answered, smiling up at his brother. "But I'm not really very hungry, Ned." "We'll see about that when you smell some of Cook's tidbits. You know how they make your mouth water," Edward said and shepherded his brothers into the Morning Room. The boys raced over to the fire roaring in the grate and stood warming their hands, glad to be thawing out. After doing exactly the same thing, Edward swung around and went back to the door, explaining, "I'm going to have a word with Cook. I'll be back in a few minutes." Closing the door behind him, he left them to their own devices. Edward hoped George wouldn't tease Richard; he so often did. He was a bit of a bully, and Richard had not yet learned how to go into verbal combat. Mrs. Latham glanced up expectantly when the door to her kitchen opened. Instantly she broke into laughter. "Why, good mornin', Master Edward!" "Hello, Mrs. Latham," he responded in his usual polite manner, giving her one of his most beguiling smiles. "I know how busy you are on Tuesdays, but would it be possible for you to make a large pot of tea and something to eat for us? The boys are famished after their ride on the cliffs." "By gum, I bet they are!" She wiped her big, capable hands on a tea towel and strode across to the long oak table standing in the middle of the huge kitchen. "I've just been baking a few things--" She broke off, waved a hand in front of her morning's work, and added, "Pork pies, fish cakes, Cornish pasties, sausage rolls, and savory tarts. Take a look, and take your pick, Master Edward." "How splendid," he said, grinning at her. "A veritable feast, Cook. But then you're the best in the world. No one has your skill in the kitchen, no one." "Oh, get along with yer, sir. It's a real flatterer yer are." This was said with a hint of pride at his compliment. Straightening her back, she added, "I knows yer all like the Cornish pasties, and Master George is ever so fond of my sausage rolls. I'll get a tray ready for yer, sir, and send young Polly with it in a tick, once I've made the pot of tea. Does that suit, Master Edward?" "It does indeed, Cook, and I can't wait to sample some of this fare, it smells delicious. Thank you so much, I do appreciate it." Once more he gave her the benefit of his warm smile and inclined his head. "My pleasure," she called after him, watching him walk over to the door. Swinging his head, he grinned at her, waved, and was gone. Mrs. Latham stared at the door for a moment, her eyes filled with admiration. Edward Deravenel was blessed with the most pleasant nature as well as those staggering good looks. She couldn't help wondering how many hearts he would break. Scores, no doubt. At eighteen he already had women falling at his feet. Spoil him, that they will, she thought, clucking to herself as she turned to the ovens. Aye, they'll spoil him rotten, give him whatever he wants, and that's not always a good thing for a man. No, it's not. I've seen many a toff like him ruined by women, more's the pity. She swung around as the door opened again and muttered, "There yer are, young Polly. I was just wondering where yer'd got to--" She broke off and clucked again. "Bump in ter Master Edward, did yer, lass?" The parlor maid nodded and blushed. "He's ever so nice ter me, Cook." Mrs. Latham shook her head and sighed but made no further reference to Edward. Instead she continued, "Set a large tray, please, Polly. I'm preparing a mornin' snack for Master Edward and his brothers. When it's ready, yer can take it ter the Morning Room." "Yes, Cook." Edward made his way back to the Morning Room and his brothers. He was lost in thought, contemplating his return to university. Today was Tuesday, January the fifth; in two days he would travel to London and go up to Oxford that weekend. He was looking forward to returning and especially pleased that he would be reunited with his best friend and boon companion of many years, Will Hasling, who was also an undergraduate. His attention suddenly became focused on the end of the corridor. He had just caught a fleeting glimpse of a dark skirt and jacket, a froth of white at the neck, a well-coiffed blond head. And then there had been the click of a door closing. He hurried forward, passing the Morning Room and not stopping until he reached the room at the end of the corridor. Pausing at the door which had just closed, he listened intently. There were no voices, only the sound of someone moving around, the rustle of papers. Tapping lightly on the door, he did not wait to be summoned. He simply walked in. The woman in the room stared at him, obviously startled. Edward closed the door, leaned against it. "Hello, Alice." Copyright © 2006 by Beaji Enterprises. All rights reserved.