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Sebastian Thorndyke's brother, the Duke of Weston, and his wife succumbed to influenza in 1837. Settling in Spain and marrying Luna del Torres after the Napoleonic Wars ended, Sebastian brought his family--Luna, Antonio, and Briella--to England to meet the new Duke of Weston, his nephew, James Thorndyke and his wife Lorena.
During that visit, the Spanish Thorndykes were introduced to James's closest neighbors--the Earl of Crestwood, his son, Hal, and his daughter, Caroline Newton.
Hal Newton and Antonio Thorndyke were both eighteen that year. Learning they were to attend Cambridge University together, the two men soon became friends.
Briella, Antonio's sister, was an unruly child of ten, spoiled by her parents and her older brother. Born in Spain, both of Sebastian's children learned to ride at an early age, taught by Luna's relatives. The talented young riders rode beautiful and highly trained Andalusian horses bred on Luna's father's estancia in Andalucia. From their uncles, the two young aristocrats learned to ride the animals in Haute Ecole and airs above the ground as taught for many years at the Spanish Riding School in Austria.
Caroline Newton, deprived of her deceased mother's guidance, was allowed to run wild with little restraint during a rather lonely childhood. The Earl of Crestwood, involved in London with Parliament for much of the year, was at a loss as to how to deal with his daughter's palpable grief. He finally asked his head groom, William Hershey, to teach Caroline to ride. Very soon, the girl rode like a centaur, astride like a man, wearing breeches, her behavior and attire most improper, tosay the least.
At thirteen, Caroline was metamorphosing rapidly from girl to woman, with new and frightening modifications pulsing through her nubile body and invading her emotional landscape with instability.
Intensely handsome, Antonio had a way of making her uncomfortable. He seemed to look right through her with those inscrutable pools of liquid pitch, his eyelashes so thick and black she couldn't tell what he was thinking. When she thought about him--which was often--distracting fantasies consumed her even though she was tongue-tied in his presence.
At the time Caroline never understood why he had such an effect upon her. She didn't even like him. She thought him conceited, haughty, unfriendly, and intimidating. Nevertheless, she never forgot her youthful flutters around Antonio Thorndyke, the cool, handsome, dark-eyed Spaniard.
February 1845, Andalucia, Spain
Summoned by his English father, Antonio Thorndyke strode hurriedly toward the thick walled hacienda of the Estancia de la Luna. What could be so urgent that Sebastian sent a servant rushing to fetch him from the riding arena?
Entering the book-lined study, Antonio took one look at his father's face and was immediately wary. Sebastian wore the look of someone hiding a deep, painful emotion.
Coming around his immense desk, Sebastian leaned his backside against the sharp edge, grasping it with both hands as if needing support. He pinned his gaze on his son's countenance.
"Tony, I received a thick packet of legal papers from England a little more than an hour ago. The information was shocking."
Antonio reacted to Sebastian's anguished expression and gruff words, scrutinizing his father's face. Dark, slashing eyebrows clashed in a frown over the bridge of his nose as Antonio hoped to stave off bad news. Nevertheless, a premonition of pain struck him squarely in the solar plexus.
"What's happened, Father? What is it?"
Sebastian's reply was brief and gloomy. "Your cousin, James, Duke of Weston, his wife, Lorena, and their young son, Joshua, are believed dead--drowned." A minute hesitation suspended the bleak announcement in silence as it echoed hollowly around the room. "They were lost at sea off the coast of Scotland in a boating accident last summer."
Stunned, Antonio's deep voice rose in dazed disbelief. He flinched, noticing a flickering in his father's blue eyes, eyes that blinked too rapidly to hide tears. Unable to comprehend the loss yet, Antonio asked, "You mean the entire family is deceased?"
Antonio raked a hand through his thick, ebony hair. Several loosened strands fell onto his broad forehead, and he impatiently brushed them away. "How? I don't understand, Father." The emotion in his voice betrayed his disbelief. "Why is it we learn this only now, months later?" He tore his gaze from his father's face and stared at the floor; his broad shoulders slumped. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment of silence and crossed himself in prayer.
Meanwhile, Sebastian's boot heels clicked unevenly across the Spanish tile floor, the only sound in the solemnity of his study as he paced.
Antonio wanted to commiserate, to say something to soften the blow. Looking up, finally, he said, "You recall I met James when he inherited Uncle Robert's title, and I stayed in England to enter Cambridge. He and I got on well for the short time I spent at Westhaven Hall." Antonio swallowed hard. "Nombre de Dios! James was only ten years older than me, and now..."
Inhaling audibly, Antonio hesitated then spoke again. "What will happen, Father? None of us has been to England since I graduated from university."
"I received a copy of James's will in the mail packet." Sebastian halted his pacing and nodded toward the pile of papers lying on his desk. "It names you, not me, Tony, as next in line to inherit."
"Me, an English duke? But how...?" Antonio's palms rose in protest until he asked, "May I see that, Father?"
"Of course." Sebastian handed Antonio a number of pages that were affixed with gold seals and colored ribbons. "See for yourself, Son."
"Caramba, this can't be correct!" A deep scowl furrowed Antonio's brow.
"It's true, Tony. It's all there in James's will."
"You gave me the title of Viscount Stanton when I might visit England now and again. But this..." Antonio waved the written sheets in front of him. Shaking his head in a sharp gesture of denial, he faced his father, voicing his complaint.
Antonio had returned to Spain after Cambridge to breed and train his Andalusian horses. He expected to live out the rest of his days in the sunshine and sands of southern Spain. "I don't want this. This ... this is much too ... permanent."
"You are going to England, Tony. Be warned of it. James's solicitors told me in correspondence that you must return as soon as possible to oversee the duchy's title and possessions. I was advised it may take months or even years before James and his son Joshua are legally designated as deceased."
"You must do what James's will decrees. Our family is small. Unfortunately, now it is decimated more by the loss of my nephew, his wife, and heir. Someone must oversee Weston's affairs. It's your responsibility to do it."
Several expressions streaked across Antonio's countenance--amazement first that he was made duke instead of Sebastian--anger because he was forced to give up his settled life in Andalucia; and lastly, dismay, since family honor demanded he obey his father's dictums.
"For all intents and purposes you are the next duke, Antonio."
"I seem to have no choice in the matter," Antonio replied, his scowl deepening.
Sebastian nodded. "You're six and twenty, my boy. It's time you accept the English half of your ancestry. You are to assume the reins of the Weston title and what it entails until such time as James's and Joshua's demises are no longer open to question--or are confirmed."
Antonio leaned forward and threw his cousin's will onto his father's desk, then circled the room with choppy strides.
Almost immediately, Sebastian gripped his son's arm, halting his agitated pacing.
Sebastian had been an officer in Wellington's Peninsula army. Commanding was part of his nature, and Antonio knew his father expected to be obeyed. He saw Sebastian's cobalt eyes fire back at him with a purposeful glint of paternal determination. His father's lips had thinned to a straight line; the cleft in his square chin tightened. Not ready to hear more reasons, nevertheless Antonio watched and listened.
"You will stay in England until such a time as you are no longer needed."
Dios! An English duke? Me? Ranked just beneath the monarchy? A member of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria's court, bound by the stringent rules of propriety and strict, miserable behavioral constraints?
Antonio hated the very idea. A tic jumped high on his cheek. Unsmiling and unhappy, he clenched his teeth to subdue his frustration at the familial subordination.
"There is more, Tony."
"There's more?" Repeating his father's words, a dark eyebrow lifted. "What else can there be to interfere with my life?"
"You'll be leaving Spain very soon. After receiving the sad news, your mother and I made additional, hard, and uncomfortable decisions."
"And what might those be?" Straightening his shoulders, Antonio braced for yet another distasteful surprise. He waited to hear what was to come. His eyes fastened on Sebastian's face. "You'd better tell me everything, Father. I want no more shocks."
"All right, then." Sebastian cleared his throat. "Briella will go to England with you. She's eighteen. It's time she learned of her heritage also. You'll introduce your sister to London society with the help of your grandmother. What better place than England and who better than my mother, the Dowager Duchess, to sponsor Briella's come out?"
For the first time since entering his father's study, Antonio barked out in laughter. "That little hoyden? Briella turned loose in London? God help the English Haut Monde!"
When his chuckles ceased, Antonio released an audible sigh. "I shall do my best, Father."
Without further argument, he accepted the demands presented to him. Whether he wanted it or not, he had been given the prestigious title of Duke of Weston.
"There's something else, Tony," Sebastian said hurriedly. "Luna and I strongly suggest that to secure the title you should choose an English bride as quickly as possible."