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The Family is the Country of the heart
T his is a hellish errand,' Gerald Brenner muttered to himself as the hackney coach he'd been forced to engage rumbled away. He stood alone before the Palladian villa gleaming in the afternoon sun. He could almost laugh at the irony of its name.
Brenner's vision had been fixed on the house's white façade for the past half-hour. His first glimpse had come from the other side of the Thames.
Surrounded by verdant land where sheep grazed, it made a beautiful vista, but its land was cultivated, not for crops, but for pleasure. There was no industry of any kind, merely beautiful gardens lush with flowers and shrubbery, paths for walking, perhaps even a summerhouse to provide a shady resting place.
Or so Brenner imagined. He'd never set foot on this property and wished his connection with it had not brought him here this day.
He hesitated at the arched doorway, glancing up at windows rising four storeys. From one of those windows came the sound of loud voices and laughter.
The voices must belong to the progeny of the Duke and Duchess of Manning. Of course, the Duchess had only been the Duchess for about four months, having married the Duke after the proper grieving period was over for his first wife. She'd been the Duke's lover for the last twenty years, however.
Their illegitimate children were known to the world as the Fitzmanning Miscellany. Brenner now knew their given names. Leo Fitzmanning, the oldest at age nineteen. Miss Annalise Fitzmanning, aged eighteen. And Miss Charlotte, the youngest at sixteen.
'A spirited group of young people,' others had described them. Undisciplined, Brenner's father always declared.
Brenner took a quick breath and sounded the door's knocker, pounding hard to be heard over the revelry from above.
A footman in pale blue livery opened the door. Brenner crossed the threshold and immediately caught the scent of flowers.
The footman gestured towards a carved mahogany staircase. 'The party is above stairs, sir.'
Brenner's brows rose. 'Party?'
'The house party.' The footman's forehead wrinkled. 'You have not come for the house party?'
Brenner handed the man his card. 'I have business with the Duke's children.'
'Which one of them?' the footman asked.
'All of them,' Brenner said sharply. He was unaccustomed to being questioned by a footman.
The footman walked away, leaving Brenner standing in the entrance hall like a tradesman still holding his hat and gloves.
Brenner frowned. His card had clearly read Viscount Brenner. Why had he not been shown to a room where he might wait in comfort?
Perhaps the servants in this household were not up to London standards. This was, after all, the house in which the Duke and his lover had settled after leaving their respective spouses. Even if such scandal had not entirely damaged the Duke's popularity among the ton, servants were often more particular for whom they worked.
He glanced at the vase of flowers on a narrow table against the wall and had a flash of memory. He was a child again walking through a garden. A woman's voice said, 'And these are roses. And these are jasmine '
Pink roses, white jasmine, purple lavender. He could recog-nise the flowers even now.
He quickly turned away and crossed the foyer to peek through a doorway that opened to a formal hall. The room was large and square with windows looking out on the Thames. An arched door that was a mirror to the street entrance lay open to the summer breezes. One hundred years ago guests would have arrived in river barges and would have entered through that door.
The hall looked as if it had been transported from ancient Greece, with its four Ionic columns, sculpted friezes and patterned marble floor. Interspersed among statuary that appeared as if it had, indeed, been gathered from the ancient world, were gilded chairs and marble-top tables upon which more vases of flowers made a colourful and fragrant display.
From an upper floor came the muffled sound of a pianoforte and voices raised in song. The house party in full cry, no doubt.
Brenner's brows knitted. Who was chaperoning these young people?
At that moment a young man burst into the hall, waving a paper and shouting, A love poem! I've found a love poem!'
Two yapping pug dogs, one a mere puppy, nipped at the fellow's heels. A girl pursued him, her dark hair coming unpinned as she ran.
'Give it back,' she cried. 'Give it back.'
Brenner jumped aside as they shot past him, into the foyer and up the staircase, the girl still shrieking, the young man laughing, the dogs yapping. Were they Fitzmannings or guests? Brenner did not know.
He swung around.
A grey-haired man seemed to have materialised behind him. Thin as a whippet and dressed in plain black, the man was obviously the butler. He looked completely unruffled by the rowdy escapade he must have just witnessed.
He gave Brenner a quizzical look. 'You wished to see the Duke's children?'
Brenner returned a curt nod. 'I have news of the Duke and Duchess.'
The man's eyes widened. 'Indeed?' He quickly bowed. 'Come this way, m'lord.' He led Brenner through the hall to a small parlour whose windows faced the river. 'Please be seated, m'lord.' He bowed again and left.
Brenner had no wish to sit. He paced the perimeter of the room decorated in the chinoiserie style made fashionable by the Prince Regent.
The Duke's décor was of no consequence, however, given Brenner's errand. Making him the messenger must be a joke at his expense, a cruelty to him and to the Duke's children. He would carry it out none the less. The duty had been thrust upon him, and Brenner was not a man to shirk duty.
He'd dispose of this business as quickly as possible and return to his life as it had been before the Duke's solicitor had summoned him early that morning.
Brenner's curiosity got the better of him. He leaned forward to examine a small blue-and-white vase that held pink roses, white jasmine and purple lavender. The piece looked authentically Chinese and very old.
Brenner straightened at the sound of a young woman's soft voice. A stunningly beautiful woman walked towards him, tall and graceful.
His breath caught in his throat.
Her eyes were a riveting light grey-blue, her hair, a glorious chestnut. She appeared to be in the full bloom of womanhood.
Too old to be one of the Fitzmanning Miscellany.
Her full pink lips glistened as if she'd just moistened them. 'You have news for us, Gerald?'
'I am called Brenner.' He hated his given name. He never allowed anyone to use it. How did she even know it? 'Forgive me, but I do not know who you are.'
She lowered her gaze and a tinge of colour stained her cheeks. 'Of course you do not.' She lifted her gaze again and met his. 'I am Justine Savard.'
Her name meant nothing. 'I still do not know who you are.'
A wan smile flashed across her face. 'I am the Duke's daughter, the eldest of his children here.' Brenner must have continued to look perplexed, because she waved her hand in impatience. 'I have a different mother. She was a French émigrée. I have lived here most of my life.' She touched his arm. 'But, please, you have come with news.'
Her fingers seemed to shoot sensation through his body. 'My news is for the Fitzmannings.'
She nodded and her hand slipped away.
The Duke's solicitor had not told Brenner of Justine Savard. Even his father, who seemed to make it his business to know everything about this household, had never mentioned her.
Again those lovely eyes touched his. 'I fear I know why you have come. She told me, you see.'
'Told you?' he breathed.
'The others do not know,' she added. 'But she told me what she would ask you to do.' Her gaze seemed to sear into him. And why.'
'She?' He knew what her answer would be, but, even so, he could not help asking.
'The Duchess,' she responded. 'Your mother.'
* * *
Justine struggled to maintain her composure. 'I am so very sorry, Brenner.'
Before the Duchess had left on her wedding trip, she'd told Justine what she and the Duke had chosen Brenner to do.
Justine and her siblings knew the Duchess had another son, a legitimate one by her first husband, the Earl of Linwall. Many times the Duchess had told them she'd not seen her sonGerry, she called himsince he'd been ten years old. After the Earl had divorced her, which must have created a very public scandal indeed, she'd stopped asking to visit him.
'There was no use,' she'd once confided to Justine.
Now looking upon GerryBrenner, she should say Justine could only surmise that this task thrust upon him was not a welcome one.
She observed the emotion flicker in his eyes, green eyes that looked so much like his mother's she would have known him even if Halton had not shown her his card. There seemed to be anger there. And determination. And pain.
Certainly he was as handsome as his mother was beautiful Justine caught herself. She must not dissemble.
'The others' Her throat tightened at the thought of how Brenner's news would affect them. 'Haltonour butleris fetching them. It will take a few moments, I am sure, to separate them from their friends.'
He glanced away. 'I understand you are engaged in a house party.'
She nodded. A few of their friends. Yes. We are having a little house party.'
He looked back at her, his expression disapproving. 'With their parents away, you engage in a house party?'
She lifted her chin. 'Why should they not have some enjoyment? Your brother and sisters are young and in need of occupation.'
His eyes flashed. 'I would not describe them as my brother and sisters.'
'Your half-siblings, then,' she corrected, feeling as if she were defending them.
'Who chaperons them?' he asked.
'I do.' She bristled at his disapproving tone. 'You cannot object to that. And, of course, some of the girls' friends have brought their own chaperons.'
Justine decided not to inform him that there were no parents in attendance at the house party. The girls' friends came from households too much like their own, with parents too busy with their own pleasure to attend a daughter's house party, not when some impoverished and dependent relation could perform the service.
She expected him to pursue the subject, but instead he glanced around the room and drummed his fingers on the table, as if he'd forgotten what they'd been discussing.
He is nervous, Justine realised. She warmed to him again, remembering how difficult this must be.
His green eyes fixed on hers once more. 'You know what I must say to them?' A worry line had formed between his brows and his breathing quickened.
'I do,' she managed.
He was tall, lean and physically intense, as if inside him existed much pent-up energy begging to be released. He swiped a hand through his brown hair and paced the room. His misery resonated inside her.
Voices and footsteps sounded in the hall. The others were approaching.
In a moment all their lives would be for ever altered.
Brenner stiffened as the protests of his mother's other children reached his ears. These young people were strangers to him. How dare his mother give him the duty to bring them such pain? He clenched his hand into a fist.
No doubt the Duke's vast wealth had given them a life of ease. They certainly had no need to worry about whether the harvest would be good enough or the income from investments high enough to pay all the expenses of an estate in need of repair. They probably had never experienced adversity.
And he, of all people, would change that. The idea sickened him.
They entered the parlour. Brenner expected to see the son and two daughters his mother bore, but there were three extra young men. Two Brenner recognised as the Duke's legitimate sons, the heir and the spare, whom he had glimpsed in society a time or two this past year.
By God, Brenner would have to tell his news to these two as well. The Duke's solicitor had been searching for the Duke's sons and, as of that morning when Brenner had been in the office, he had not located them.
Because they were here.
It was appalling that Brenner should be put in this position.
There was still one extra young man. What more surprises were in store for him?
He glanced at them all again. One of the young ladies was the girl Brenner had seen earlier. The young man she'd been chasing had been the Duke's younger son, Brenner now realised.
This young lady walked right up to him. 'Are you Gerry? Halton said our brother had come.'
Brenner flinched at hearing the diminutive of his given name, even worse than being called Gerald.
Miss Savard stepped in. 'Yes, this is Viscount Brenner,' she told the girl. 'But do get in some order so I may make the introductions.'
They lined up, shoulder to shoulder, after some good-natured shoving among the young men. The Duke's heir was, of course, first.
Justine gestured to Brenner. 'Nicholas, may I present to you Viscount Brenner.' She cleared her throat. 'Lord Brenner, this is the Duke's eldest son.'
She, of course, realised the significance of Brenner's message to this young man.
Nicholas's younger brother jostled him and laughed.
Justine silenced the young man with a severe look and went on to the next in line. 'The Duke's second son, Stephen Manning.'
Stephen extended his hand to be shaken. 'I've seen you, but never had the chance to meet you before.'
Brenner shook his hand. 'Lord Stephen.'
Stephen turned to the young man next to him. 'This is our friend, Drew. Lord Bassington. We've known him since school days. We wanted him to meet you, too.'
At least that mystery was solved. Brenner had feared there was another illegitimate son among the group. He shook Bass-ington's hand.
'Bassington,' he said.
The young man next to Bassington resembled the Duke's sonsand their fatherexcept his hair was dark like his sisters' next to him. The young man's eyes startled him. They were so much like his own.
Justine introduced him. 'May I present Leo Fitzmanning.'
The young man smiled and extended his hand as well. 'This is too good. Glad to see you.'
The girlyoung lady, reallynext to him piped up. 'If only Mama were here. She would be over the moon.'
Justine quickly said, 'Miss Annalise Fitzmanning.'
Brenner felt as if he'd been socked in the chest. Annalise Fitzmanning was the image of the small miniature he'd found one day in a bureau drawer, one unknown to his father or it would have been destroyed. The miniature was of his mother.
'Miss Fitzmanning,' he managed, bowing.
The young lady next to her, the one with the mussed gown from her race through the house, looked to be half in girlhood and half-grown.
She did not wait to be presented. 'Why are you all acting in such a ridiculous manner? She's Annalise. I'm Charlotte. We're your sisters and Leo is your brother.'
A muscle in Brenner's cheek twitched. A voice inside him wanted to shout no! Instead he bowed to her. 'Miss Charlotte.'
Justine stepped in again. 'Let us all be seated.'