Read The Duke in Disguise Online
Authors: Gayle Callen
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Love Stories, #Historical, #England - Social Life and Customs - 19th Century, #Historical Fiction, #Nobility, #Governesses
ichard fought his every impulse to strangle Charles, to see the life leave his eyes. The man deserved to die.
But Stephen was still alive.
Wasn't the constable out there in the darkness with Meriel? Why didn't he come forward, especially after Charles talked about letting Stephen live?
"Is something wrong, Richard?" Charles asked softly, his smile fading as he looked around. "Waiting for someone?" Charles pulled a pistol out of his pocket and aimed it at Richard. "Come out, whoever you are, or I'll kill him."
Richard let himself smile. "Ah, Charles, you've underestimated me. I guess you've been out of practice, dealing with Cecil for so long. Kill me if you want, but it's too late. The constable must have heard all he needed, and went off to rescue Stephen. You better hope he gets there before your men do something drastic to my nephew."
Charles betrayed himself by a quick look over his shoulder, and Richard launched himself at the pistol. He deflected Charles's hand just as a shot went off, and he felt a momentary burn across his upper arm. Charles kicked him in the face, the stinging blow glancing off his cheekbone. As Richard rolled to the side and back to his feet, he saw Charles disappearing into the night in the direction of the hunting lodge. His torch lay burning on the ground.
No constable had appeared to apprehend Charles. What had happened to Meriel? Though it was difficult to forget his concern for her, Richard had to think about saving Stephen. He took off after Charles, leaving the torch so he wouldn't be seen. In the darkness, he could only hope he was heading the right way.
Occasionally Richard paused to listen, and he still heard someone running ahead of him on the gravel path. Off in the distance, the formal gardens lit the sky, and he could hear the shouts and cheers of the guests. He left that behind and crossed the last open grass before the woods. Up ahead, he thought he saw a shadow slipping between the trees.
His relief was great— until he realized that Charles might be desperate enough to kill Stephen before Richard got there.
Richard pounded down the path, the light from the half moon only occasionally filtering through the branches. He tripped twice over exposed roots, but he was lured on by the flicker of light up ahead.
He came out into a torchlit clearing in front of the hunting lodge and slid to a stop, sweat running into his eyes, his chest heaving. Charles was already mounted, and when he saw Richard, he reached to the far side of his horse and dragged something across his saddle.
Facedown, the little boy flailed, proving that he was still alive. Richard swayed with relief. Then Charles put the barrel of another pistol against the boy's neck. They must have terrorized Stephen with it already, because he knew enough to remain still.
Where were Richard's hired guards? He saw three men motionless on the ground near the lodge, and he prayed that they were still alive. A flicker of movement caught his eye. A wide-eyed Jasper Tearle looked frantically between Richard and Charles before slipping away into the woods.
"Don't move, Richard." Charles's voice was a snarl, no longer polished and calm.
"You have one bullet," Richard said. "You'd better shoot me, because if not, I'm going to kill you." It was dark— he prayed that he could dodge in time and save Stephen.
"So arrogant, the lot of you," Charles said. "Your brother was no different— but I beat him in the end, didn't I?"
"You killed a sick man. Not very sporting of you."
"I beat him long before then. To think, I loaned him his own money! When he owed me more than he could repay— and he knew that if he died, I would make sure I controlled Stephen— he offered me a deal."
Some part of Richard already knew what was coming.
"Strangely enough," Charles continued, his pistol still on Stephen, "he guessed that I would harm his son to control the dukedom. But it was already financially unsound, so he offered a trade. He would get
to masquerade as the duke, and then I would be able to hunt you. Because of course, once you're dead, Stephen inherits all your money. Please tell me Cecil didn't lie about that."
Richard remained silent, still trying to comprehend that his own brother planned his murder. He felt almost dizzy, as if his whole life was not what he'd thought.
"Now, your poor, ignorant brother thought he was saving his son," Charles continued. "I'd agreed to let Stephen live, and control everything through him. But between you and me, Richard"— he laughed softly, and patted Stephen's back— "I'm changing the rules. I deserve to be the duke. My mother was the eldest in the family. It's only fair that the title finally come back to me."
For a moment, Charles's words echoed strangely. Hadn't Richard just considered remaining the duke, as if he deserved it? The lure of such power overtook so many people.
"You can't kill Stephen," Richard said, "because then he won't be around to inherit my money."
"I'll think about it." Charles slowly raised the pistol and pointed it at Richard.
For a frozen moment, Richard waited, caught between diving away and concern that Charles would just kill Stephen instead. The boy was the only thing between Charles and all the power he craved.
Suddenly, from around them three men appeared out of the darkness. Richard recognized the constables, one of whom was holding a pistol trained on Charles. Richard remained still, not wanting to panic his cousin.
But Charles barely blinked an eye. He pointed the pistol up into the night sky and sighed heavily as if with relief.
"Thank goodness you've come, Constables. I was trying to protect my young cousin from this impostor posing as the duke. This man is the duke's bastard brother. He's already killed the duke, and I knew his next target would be poor Stephen. Thank goodness you've come to save us from him!"
It was a woman's voice— Meriel. She walked into the torchlight alone, her hands raised. Her mask was gone, and the roses at her shoulders drooped. Richard's breath left his body at the danger she put herself in, all for him and Stephen.
She turned appealing eyes on Constable Leighton. "He's lying to you, Constable! I'll tell you everything. Won't you listen?"
Charles was watching her with sympathetic concern, as if Richard had fooled even her. One constable took the pistol from Charles and told him to dismount slowly. Then Charles lifted poor Stephen down and set the boy on his feet in front of him, holding his shoulders. Stephen turned wide, frightened eyes on Richard. Tears tracked dirty streaks down his cheeks.
Constable Leighton regarded Meriel thoughtfully. "You did come to me for help, and said that Sir Charles was threatening the duke."
"Sir Charles is right about one thing," she said gravely. "This is not the duke. He's Richard O'Neill, the duke's brother, and he's only here because it was the best plan I could come up with to protect Stephen."
"You'd better explain yourself," Constable Leighton said.
Richard thought the same thing— this wasn't part of the plan. What could she be thinking? He tried to warn her with his eyes, but she looked away.
"The real duke disappeared," Meriel said. "I knew that this would leave Stephen unguarded, ripe for any unscrupulous family member to exert his influence. By questioning the servants, I knew that Stephen's own uncle could be counted on to help him, to step into the role of the duke temporarily."
Stephen suddenly pulled free of Charles and ran to Richard, who bent down and hugged him tight.
"Uncle Richard!" Stephen cried. "That man tried to hurt me!" He burst into tears.
Charles shook his head. "The poor confused boy."
"He's not confused," Meriel said. "He knew about the masquerade the whole time. Do you think he wouldn't recognize his own uncle?"
Richard looked up at Meriel, knowing she held his whole life in her hands. And he trusted her with it, as he'd never trusted anyone before.
"Constable Leighton," he said, rising to his feet, yet keeping a hand on Stephen's shoulder, "my cousin Charles just told me that he's had the duke's steward in his employ for years. It will be a simple matter to get Mr. Tearle to testify to all that he did for Charles. And the falsified account books are at Thanet Court, in Tearle's own handwriting. He's the man who took Stephen away from his guards tonight, and Stephen will be able to vouch for that."
"That is ridiculous," Charles said, still sounding mildly amused. "If they've convinced their steward to lie, it has nothing to do with me."
Constable Leighton looked at him thoughtfully. "But I arrived here tonight in time to hear some of what you were saying, Sir Charles. You had a pistol to that boy's head."
Richard sighed and ruffled Stephen's hair in relief, then glanced at Meriel, who watched him, wearing a tremulous smile.
Constable Leighton strolled closer to Charles, whose smile had finally faded. "And you said you were in league with the real duke, but you were breaking your agreement."
"You misunderstood, Constable," Charles said, then stiffened when the other constable behind him put a hand on his shoulder.
"You can come with us into Ramsgate, Sir Charles. I'm sure you'll try to talk yourself out of this, and it will be a long night."
Constable Leighton turned to the other officer. "We'll need to start a search for Jasper Tearle, and see to Mr. O'Neill's injured men." He looked over his shoulder at Meriel and grinned. "Thank you for the loan of your pistol, Miss Shelby. Might I keep it awhile longer?"
"As long as you'd like, Constable," she said. "You have my undying gratitude."
"It came from such a nice hiding place," the man replied.
Meriel blushed. Richard came to stand beside her, and he smiled as Stephen hugged her.
"So where was my pistol again?" Richard asked.
"Strapped to my thigh," she said haughtily. "You told me to find somewhere to put it."
Charles was led away, already trying to explain his actions.
Constable Leighton looked at Richard. "We'll need to ask you more questions, Mr. O'Neill."
"Any time, Constable. But might I get my nephew into bed tonight? It's a very trying time for him. Please ask Sir Charles where we can find the duke's body."
The constable looked sober. "I will. So you're certain that the duke is dead?"
"Sir Charles told me he was. He held hostage my brother's terrified valet, who verified that my brother was dead. That man still hasn't been set free."
"We'll find him. I'll speak with you in the morning."
Richard put Stephen up on his shoulders, and then he and Meriel followed the constables through the woods. By the time they got back to the house, Stephen was drooping forward with exhaustion. Guests were still milling about the grounds, and they stopped to watch the parade of constables and their prisoner. When Richard, Meriel, and Stephen brought up the rear, they received shocked stares.
Meriel leaned toward Richard. "They act like they already know who you are," she whispered.
"Maybe they do. One constable came back before the others. All he would have had to do was tell one person and then— "
"An explosion of gossip."
As they left the constables and headed back indoors, whispers and stares followed them. Meriel wanted to feel vindicated, but all she felt was exhausted and sad for Stephen, who had lost a father and now a cousin.
Mrs. Theobald met them in the conservatory, staring wide-eyed until she saw Stephen. She promptly burst into tears and grabbed the little boy. He sagged against her, blinking drowsily, and she allowed Richard to take him from her. Stephen cuddled against his uncle and closed his eyes.
Meriel put her arm around the woman and whispered, "I told the constables that the masquerade was all my idea to protect Stephen until we could find his father."
Mrs. Theobald glanced at her shrewdly, then nodded with obvious relief. "You are good to Mr. O'Neill." She lowered her voice. "But then, you love him."
"Yes." Meriel felt like a silly girl as tears welled in her eyes.
They both turned to look at Richard, who cradled Stephen and watched him sleep.
"Meriel!" cried a voice.
She looked up to see Renee striding quickly through the turning paths, pushing aside ferns. "I heard the most dreadful rumor," she said. "It certainly can't be true that Cecil is— "
She came up short as she saw Richard's face. He looked at her with such sorrow, such resignation. Her eyes widened and flooded with tears.
"Oh dear, you're Richard, aren't you?"
He nodded. Her shoulders slumped, and she looked bewildered as Meriel put her arm around her.
"I should have known," Renee said to Richard. "You seemed different, but I thought you— he had finally grown up." Her voice trailed away, and when she spoke again, it was husky with strain. "Is it true what that constable said? Is Cecil…dead?"
Richard nodded. Meriel took Stephen from him and watched with sorrow as he went to Renee. Renee didn't seem to know what to do with him, but then she began to sob, and he put his arms around her.
"How horrible it must have been," she said, hiccupping with each unsteady breath, "to die like that."
"We don't know how he died yet, Renee," Richard said gently. "Consumption might very well have taken him."
"But you don't believe that," she said.
Meriel watched his face as he spoke about his brother. There was pain and heartache and a terrible knowledge. She hadn't heard everything Charles had said, but he'd implied that Cecil had betrayed Richard.
How would Richard, who had so few good memories of his childhood, ever forget this?
Within the hour, the guests were all gone, Stephen was in bed, and Meriel was alone in her room, hurriedly removing her costume. When she wore her dressing gown, she rushed down the private staircase and knocked softly on Richard's door.
There was such a long pause that she began to think he wasn't there. Then he called for her to come in.
She opened the door and saw him slumped tiredly in a chair near his writing desk. He was still wearing some of his evening clothes, although his coat and waistcoat were tossed on a nearby chair. A dark bruise had blossomed on his cheek. There was a small bloodstain on his upper sleeve, and she wanted to tend to the wound beneath. But he was staring at a piece of paper in his hand.
She slowly walked toward him, and he looked up with an exhaustion that made her want to cradle him in her arms and never let go.
"Hargraves just brought this," he said.
"What is it?"
"A letter from Cecil."
She would only have sat near him, but he pulled her onto his lap and rested his cheek against her shoulder.