"May?" Felicity Harrington called, anxiety touching her heart and making her voice shake. "May, hurry please."
Another tremendous gust of wind hit the house, rocking the building. Felicity held onto the bannister, fearing the storm would push the house off its foundation, and hoping the old place would hold steady until she and May made it safely down to the ground floor.
"Felicity, the rain’s coming in my window!"
"I know, sweetling. But there’s nothing we can do about it right now!" It had always seemed silly for the family’s rooms to be in the oldest wing of Forton Hall. Nevertheless, great-grandmother Louisa had hated the morning sun, and so by tradition everyone kept to the west end. It was a tradition Felicity wished she’d abandoned yesterday, before the storm hit. "Just bring your blankets down, and we’ll sleep in the morning room. It’ll be an adventure."
"Damnation, Nigel Harrington," Felicity muttered through clenched, chattering teeth, "you should be here."
It was not that her brother would have been of any use; he never had been before. She and her twin brother might both be twenty-two years old, but there were times, like tonight, when she felt a thousand years older than he. They both had their mother’s black hair and dark eyes, as did May, but all similarities ended there. Mother had used to say that Nigel had inherited Father’s share of common sense, which was a kind way of saying that he had none at all.
That had only been confirmed five weeks ago when he’d dismissed Smythe, the last of their servants. True, the butler’s absence would save them three pounds a month, but Nigel had erased any benefit of that when he took it into his head to go to London and win enough money to see their ancestral home repaired. Despite her protests, off he’d gone, taking their carriage, their last horse, and all of their ready cash with him -- all except what she’d been putting aside in case of emergency. But tonight looked more like a catastrophe.
Wind buffeted the manor again, and the attic timbers groaned. She hefted the quilt in her arms, its heavy, cumbersome weight making her feel awkward and clumsy on the stairs. Thunder boomed over the Hall, and plaster dust fell in a damp cloud around her.
May screeched again. "Felicity!"
"I'm coming, sweetling!"
With a curse she heaved the quilt over the railing and let it drop onto the foyer floor. It took one of their last crystal vases off the hall table as it went, shattering the delicate glass. Ignoring the mess and gathering her skirt, she hurried back upstairs. The house continued to creak and shudder around her as wind and torrents of rain battered against the old walls.
Down the hallway a window broke. Felicity shrieked as a sudden cold blast of wet wind hit her. She could only guess what May, only eight and possessed of an excruciatingly vivid imagination, must be going through. Shielding her face with one arm, she made her way into her sister's bed chamber.
Curtains flapping above her head and her dark hair blowing around her face like a mad halo, May sat on the floor, piling clothes, books, toys, and shoes onto the middle of a blanket. "Felicity, where is Polly?" she asked, her brown eyes wide.
"She’s downstairs in the morning room, still having tea with Mr. Bear. Here, let me help you with that."
Kneeling, she pulled the four corners of the blanket together and knotted them. Dragging the bundle out into the hall, she headed for the stairs. May followed close behind her, a favorite pillow held tightly to her chest.
"Everything’s getting all wet!" she yelled, ducking her face behind the pillow.
Felicity grabbed her sister’s arm and pushed her toward the stairs. "It’s all right! It’ll dry!" The groaning of the west wing took on an alarming timbre, and she looked anxiously up at the ceiling. Cracks spread across the rough surface with such speed that she could see them growing. "Oh, no," she whispered, hoping May wouldn’t notice and panic.
They reached the bottom of the stairs just as the front door blew in. May screamed. One of the double doors cracked off its hinges and slammed onto the foyer floor, narrowly missing the two of them.
The wind howled like a mad wolf. Felicity grabbed May by the arm and dragged her toward the morning room in the east wing. Her hair had come loose from its clips, and the black, wet strands whipped into her face, half blinding her. More glass broke behind them, and the house shuddered again.
A resounding crack echoed through the west wing. With a rumble louder than thunder, the entire wing lurched drunkenly sideways and then collapsed on itself. Plaster and glass and wood and water flew outward. Felicity screamed, but she couldn’t even hear the sound in her own throat.
Without realizing it, she’d fallen to the floor. As soon as the house stopped shaking and shuddering, she scrambled to her feet, fighting against the tangle of her sodden skirts. "Come on, May!" she yelled. "We’ll be safe in the morning room!"
May shook her head. "No! It’ll fall, too!"
"No, it won’t! The east wing is much sturdier, May. We’ll be fine! I promise."
"I hope so," May wailed, gripping her older sister’s hand tightly.
So do I. Felicity glanced up at the dark, lightning-streaked sky where a third of her roof used to be. Damn Nigel for running off. If he didn’t return with money soon, there wouldn’t be a Forton Hall for him to return to, at all.
Rafael Bancroft awoke to the sensation of having his chest licked. Reluctantly he opened one eye to see a disheveled head of flaming red hair working its way down toward his abdomen.
"Good morning, Lydia," he murmured, stretching and trying to ignore the pounding in his skull. "Where are we?"
She lifted her head to look at him, then grinned and resumed her downward journey. "My room, upstairs from Jezebel’s." Lydia giggled, the sound muffled. "And it ain’t morning."
Rafe glanced over at the window. "Damn." Despite the fact that what she was doing felt very good, he supposed he did have things to do. He stretched once more and started to sit up, until her nimble fingers joined her mouth. With a grin and a sigh Rafe lay back and closed his eyes again. Nothing was worth hurrying over that much.
He shifted, tugging her bare legs up over his chest. Then he noticed Nigel Harrington’s parchment on the nightstand. Reaching over, he lifted the paper and awkwardly unfolded it to see just what he’d signed for last night. And then he sat up so quickly he dumped Lydia off the narrow bed.
"Blast it!" Lydia sat, stunned, on the floor for a moment, then scrambled naked to her feet and slammed him across the head with a pillow.
Rafe grabbed it away from her, barely noticing the blow. "Show some respect, dear. I seem to be a landowner."
"You’re a bloody, rotten pig, that’s what you are!" she snapped angrily.
"But at least I'm a well-to-do one." He grinned.
"You don’t think he was serious about China, do you?"
Julia Bancroft, the Duchess of Highbarrow, turned from gazing out over gloomy King Street to face her elder son. "You seem to think he is, or you wouldn’t have bothered telling me."
Quin Bancroft, the Marquis of Warefield, scowled and sipped his glass of Madeira. "It’s ludicrous. Even for him."
She studied the marquis as he turned his head yet again to listen down the hallway for his wife. Both her boys had her tawny blond hair and green eyes, though Rafe’s were much lighter -- almost the color of the sea -- and had a devilish twinkle in them that came with knowing he was the absolute delight of his mother’s heart. "You sound like your father."
Quin looked up at her. "Well, thank you very much," he said indignantly. "I thought you’d be pleased that Francis Henning repeated the tale to me, and that I bothered informing you."
She smiled. "What’s so ludicrous about Rafael wanting to travel?"
"He has a life here. He’s a Bancroft, for God’s sake."
"I believe he thinks he’s explored that aspect of his life already, Quinlan. To hear Rafael tell it, he’s explored it to death."
The butler scratched at the morning room door. "Luncheon is served, Your Grace, my lord."
"Thank you, Beeks."
She rose, and Quin followed her through the maze of rooms and doors and hallways to the huge dining chamber. "You’re certain he didn’t return home last night?"
"Quin, now you sound like his mother. That’s my position, I believe."
"I am merely showing brotherly concern."
"Yes, you are, and it’s lovely, but what do you have in mind for Rafe to do here?"
The marquis hesitated. "I’m sure if he’d sit down and talk to me about it, we’d come up with something that would keep his interest."
"You could let him attempt something on his own."
"Not if it involves blasted China. Why didn’t he bother mentioning that to me? He’s been back from Africa less than a damned month. I can’t believe he wants to travel again already."
"Perhaps he thought it might upset you, dear."
Quin narrowed his eyes. "If that stopped him from doing things, I wouldn’t be nearly so close to having an apoplexy every time he walked through the door."
Julia couldn’t help laughing. "Please, Quin. Someone has to take risks."
"I’ve got Maddie for that, thank you very much."
The duchess paused by her chair, then glanced at the other, empty seats. "Beeks, did you inform Maddie and His Grace about luncheon?"
The butler inclined his head. "I did, my lady. His Grace requested that I inform you they will be along ‘in a damned minute,’ Your Grace."
Quin chuckled as he held out his mother’s chair for her. "Maddie’s beating him at whist again. He hates that."
They seated themselves at the table. While Quin kept up a stream of amusing banter, avoiding further discussion of his brother’s highly disputed future, Julia glanced at the clock on the mantel. Rafael was in town so rarely, and he’d been avoiding the lot of them since he’d returned. An uneasy sensation ran along her bones. He had already helped to defeat Bonaparte, charmed his way into the hearts of London’s loveliest ladies, and won and lost himself a small fortune in London’s most famous, and infamous, clubs. She had to wonder what would appear next on his shrinking list of challenges.
"Your Grace, hand over Highbarrow Castle and all its lands, and I’ll forget that you owe me one hundred and thirty-eight million pounds." Her gray eyes dancing, Madeleine Bancroft swept into the dining room. With Rafe’s frequent absences she’d been the force to bring life back into the staid Bancroft family, and Julia would always adore her for it.
"Absolutely not, girl. You said pence, not pounds."
"I did not, and you know it."
His Grace, the Duke of Highbarrow, followed her, and Julia stifled a smile at the unaccustomed look of good-humored befuddlement on her husband’s face. And to think everyone in the world but she and Maddie -- and Quin -- were terrified of him. Rafe pretended not to be, but he, probably more than anyone else, both craved his father’s acceptance and strove to keep himself as far as possible from the duke, as if it didn’t matter to him one way or the other. And Lewis Bancroft hadn’t a clue about any of it.
Quin stood to kiss Maddie and hold out her chair. "You’d best give in, Your Grace. I’ve yet to win an argument with her."
"That’s because you’re always wrong, my love."
"Now just a moment--"
"Good afternoon, everyone."
Rafe entered the dining room, and Julia’s uneasiness deepened. Something had agitated and excited him, though he tried to hide it. Being recalled from Africa had angered him deeply, and Julia couldn’t blame him. Thus far he’d avoided any direct confrontations with His Grace over it, but from his expression it looked as though he had chosen today as the day.
Maddie narrowed her eyes. "Good heavens, Rafe, you look like you had to dig your way out of your own grave."
He forced a chuckle. "Got a bit inebriated last night."
As soon as his younger son appeared, the duke’s mood blackened. The Highbarrow Thundercloud, Quin called it, more predictable than any storm front. "You might have shaved and changed your clothes before you stumbled in here, boy. For God’s sake, we had King George here for luncheon last week."
Julia flinched. "Rafael, might I--"
"Ah, good afternoon, Father. Didn’t recognize you until you scowled. You look completely menacing now, as usual."
"I’d rather be menacing than useless."
"Lewis," the duchess said quietly.
Rafe leaned over her shoulder and kissed her on the cheek. "Not to worry, my sweet. He’s about to be very impressed."
"Bah. I doubt that," the duke sneered.
With a flourish, Rafael produced a heavy piece of parchment from his coat pocket. He opened it and set it beside his father’s plate. "You see?" he said, folding his arms over his chest. "I am now the owner of Forton Hall. In Cheshire."
Quin reached out to grab the paper, mingled astonishment and amusement on his face. "You’re what?"
Maddie clapped her hands together in delight. "Whom did you kill, Rafe?" She laughed, while Quin chuckled. "Was it a duel, or an assassination?"
Rafe’s expression eased a little. "No one died. I used my commission money as a stake, and--"
"You sold out your commission?" the Duke of Highbarrow bellowed, flushing furiously.
"I thought you’d be pleased." Rafe ran a hand through his disheveled, honey-colored hair and kept his expression aloof.
"First bloody thing you’ve done that makes any damned sense."
"By God, it’s even signed over," Quin mused, handing it to the duke. "It looks completely legitimate. Francis kept mumbling about some piece of paper or other, but I couldn’t make any sense of it."
Julia kept her eyes on her younger son. Unless something as catastrophic as Parliament exploding again had occurred, Rafael had not suddenly become a conventional landowner. "So you bought yourself an estate," she repeated.
His light green eyes touched hers and then slid away again. "Not precisely. I won it. This Harrington fellow just put the deed on the table, and lost it, and said ‘glad to be rid of it.’ He signed it, I signed it, and Henning and Fields witnessed it, and now it’s mine."
The duchess continued gazing at him. "And?" she prompted.
"However he got hold of it, Rafael is finally using his skull for something besides a sharpshooter’s target," the duke finished. "A landowner. Thank Lucifer. I thought for certain you’d end up on some damned fool expedition or other."
A muscle in Rafe’s lean cheek twitched. "Actually, Father, you’re not that far off the mark."
Lewis shook his head. "You can’t be gadding about to Hades and back when you’ve an estate to run."
"Hm. I imagine you’ll be needing me to look over the estate and books, since you don’t know the first thing about--"
"I’m not keeping the bloody thing. I intend--"
His Grace surged to his feet, knocking his chair backward. "You’re what?"
Rafael glared at him, his green eyes glinting with a month’s worth of suppressed anger. "I have no intention of sitting about on my fat ass waiting for the wheat to grow every year," he snapped. "Your life is a bloody, stifling bore, and you’re welcome to it. You and Quin, both. I’m--"
Quin straightened. "Now just a damned minute, Raf--"
"I’m going to sell this blasted place," he growled, ripping the paper out of his father’s fingers, "for as much as I can make off it."
"And then what, you idiot? Gamble it or whore it away?"
Rafe stuffed the paper back into his coat pocket. "I’m going to travel," he stated sharply. "You may own half of England, but you don’t own the Colonies, or the southern Americas, or the Orient. And you don’t by God own me. Mother? Maddie? Good day."
His gaze lingered for a moment on Julia, and then he strode out the door and slammed it behind him so hard the windows rattled.
Julia sat looking at the door. "My," she muttered faintly.
The door flew open again. "Beeks!"
The startled butler stepped forward. "Yes, Master Rafael?"
"I’m taking my kit with me. Box the rest of my things. I’ll send word if I need any of it."
"Very good, sir."
The door slammed again.
"Go stop him, Julia, before he does something he’ll regret," the duke blustered.
She faced her husband, trying to remain calm. It would do no good if she exploded, as well -- much as she would have liked to. "You think I could stop him, Lewis? After what you said to him?"
"After what I said? Bah. A good riddance to him, then."
Maddie and Quin looked at one another, clearly dismayed, and Julia sat back in her chair. She wondered if Lewis realized that, barring a miracle, he’d just lost a son. Apparently Rafe’s next challenge was to escape the Bancrofts, themselves.
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