Page 11

“All right,” Lily soothed. “No more talking tonight. Don’t cry. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.”

Alex strode rapidly down the grand staircase. He was dressed in traveling clothes—a coat of fine blended wool, a tan poplin waistcoat, and cotton trousers. In response to a message he had received from a carrier the day before, it was necessary for him to travel to London. His youngest brother Henry was being expelled from Westfield.

Feeling equal parts of anger and concern, Alex wondered what incident had prompted the expulsion. Henry had always been an energetic boy, full of mischief, but possessed of a good-natured disposition. There had been no explanation in the short note from Westfield’s headmaster, only that boy was no longer welcome at the school.

Alex sighed heavily, thinking that he hadn’t given the boy enough guidance. Whenever it had come time for discipline, he’d never had the heart to punish Henry for his misdeeds. Henry had been so young when his parents had died. Alex had been more of a father than a brother to Henry. He wondered if he had done well by the boy. Guiltily Alex thought that he should have married years ago in order to provide a kind, maternal woman in Henry’s life.

Alex’s thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a small figure clad in a nightgown, hurrying up the staircase. Lily again, scampering through the house in next to nothing. He paused and watched her hasty ascent.

Suddenly she noticed him and stopped a few steps away. Looking up into his stern face, she groaned and held a hand to her head. “Let’s just ignore this, shall we?”

“No, Miss Lawson,” Alex said in a grating voice. “I want an explanation of where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing.”

“You won’t get one,” she mumbled.

Alex contemplated her silently. It was possible she had been telling the truth before, that she was indeed involved in a tête à tête with one of the servants. She had the appearance of it—dressed in a nightgown, barefooted, her face haggard, and her eyes dark-circled as if she were exhausted after a night of debauchery. He didn’t know why the thought enraged him. Usually he didn’t give a damn what others did, so long as they didn’t inconvenience him. All he was conscious of was a bitter taste in his mouth.

“The next time this happens,” he said coldly, “I’ll pack your bags personally. In London a lack of morality is something to be admired—but it won’t be tolerated here.”

Lily held his gaze defiantly, then continued up the staircase, muttering some obscenity sotto voce.

“What did you say?” he asked in a soft growl.

She threw a saccharine smile over her shoulder. “I wished you a perfectly splendid day, my lord.”

Retreating to her room, Lily requested a bath to be prepared. Efficiently the maids filled the porcelain-rimmed tub in the adjoining dressing room. One of the girls stoked the fire in the little fireplace, and set the towels on a nearby warming rack. Lily declined their assistance after that.

Easing into the tub, she idly splashed water over her chest. The walls were papered with scenery in the Chinese style, illustrated with hand-painted flowers and birds. The porcelain fireplace mantelpiece was decorated with dragons and pagodas. Outmoded. She would bet her last farthing that the wall had last been papered at least two decades ago. If I had my way around here, there would be some changes made, she thought, and submerged herself, head and all, in the steaming water. Coming up with dripping hair, she finally allowed herself to think about what was happening to her.

This sleepwalking business was occurring more frequently. Yesterday she had awakened in the library, this morning in the parlor, in back of the settee. How had she come to be there? How had she managed to descend the stairs without mishap? She might have broken her neck!

She couldn’t allow this to continue. Frightened, Lily wondered if she should begin tying herself to the bed each night. But how would that appear to anyone who might discover her? Well, Raiford certainly wouldn’t be surprised, she thought, and giggled nervously. He probably thought of her as the most depraved woman alive.

Perhaps she should try drinking before bedtime. If she were drunk enough…no, that would be the fastest course to ruin. She had seen it too many times in London, where people destroyed themselves with strong drink. Perhaps if she consulted a physician and asked for sleeping powders…but what if he declared her to be a madwoman? God knew what would happen to her then. Lily ran her fingers through her wet hair and closed her eyes. “Perhaps I am insane,” she muttered, clenching her hands into dripping fists. It would drive any woman mad to have her child taken from her.

After an industrious scrubbing of her hair and skin, Lily rose from the bath and patted herself dry with a length of towel. She donned a white lace-trimmed shift, embroidered cotton stockings, and a cotton gown printed with tiny pink flowers. The dress made her appear nearly as young as Penelope. Sitting before the fire, Lily ran her fingers through her damp curls and considered what her plan for the day should be. “First,” she said with a snap of her fingers, “I’ll have to convince Raiford that Zachary is courting me, not Penny. That will throw him off the scent.”

“Miss?” She heard a puzzled voice. The maid was standing in the door of the dressing room. “Did you say—”

“No, no, pay no heed. I was just talking to myself.”

“I came to collect the soiled linens.”

“You may take my nightgown and have it washed—oh, and tell me where Lord Raiford is. I wish to speak with him.”

“ ’E’s gone to London, miss.”

“London?” Lily frowned. “But why? For how long?”

“ ’E told Silvern ’e’d be back tonight.”

“Well, that’s a quick journey. What could he possibly accomplish in so short a time?”

“Nobody knows what ’e went for.”

Lily had a feeling the maid knew something she wasn’t telling. But Raiford’s servants were closemouthed and quite loyal to their master. Rather than press the issue, Lily shrugged indifferently.

Westfield was built on one of the three heights to the northwest of London. In good weather, it was possible to stand on the hill and obtain a view of nearly a dozen counties. The most venerable of public schools, Westfield had produced great politicians, artists, poets, and military men. As a youth, Alex had been a student there. Although he had memories of the strict discipline of the masters and the tyranny of the older boys, he also remembered the high-spirited days of close friendship and mischief. He had hoped that Henry would do well at the place, but evidently that was not to be the case.

Alex was shown into the headmaster’s office by a sullen-looking boy. Dr. Thornwait, the headmaster, stood up from a large multidrawered desk and greeted him without smiling. Thornwait was a lean man with stringy white hair, a narrow grooved face, and bushy black brows. His tone was thin and disapproving. “Lord Raiford, I would like to express my relief that you’ve come to collect our culprit. He is a young man of dangerously volatile temperament, quite unsuitable for Westfield.”

During this little speech, Alex heard his brother’s voice behind him. “Alex!” Henry, who had been seated on a wooden bench against the wall, rushed toward him with a few quick strides, then checked himself, trying to look chastened.

Unable to prevent a grin, Alex grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him near. Then he held Henry back, regarding him closely. “Why does he say you’re dangerous, boy?”

“A prank,” Henry confessed.

Alex smiled ruefully at that. Henry did have a lively sense of fun, but he was a fine boy, one that any man would be proud of. Although short in stature for a lad of twelve, Henry was husky and strong. He excelled in sports and mathematics, and concealed a secret love for poetry. Usually an infectious smile danced in his intense blue eyes, and his white-blond hair required frequent combing to restrain its unruly waves. To make up for his lack of height, Henry had always been daring and assertive, the leader of his group of friends. When he was in the wrong, he was always quick to apologize. Alex couldn’t imagine what Henry had done to require expulsion. Gluing the pages of a few school books, no doubt, or balancing a pail of water on top of a partially opened door. Well, he would soothe Thornwait’s ire, apologize, and convince him to allow Henry to stay.

“What sort of prank was it?” Alex asked, looking from Dr. Thornwait to Henry.

Thornwait was the one to answer. “He blew up the front door of my home,” he said sternly.

Alex stared at his brother. “You did what?”

Henry had the grace to look away guiltily. “Gunpowder,” he confessed.

“The explosion might have caused serious injury to me,” Thornwait said, his spidery brows drawing low over his eyes, “or to my housekeeper.”

“Why?” Alex asked in bewilderment. “Henry, this isn’t like you.”

“On the contrary,” Dr. Thornwait remarked. “It is typical of him. Henry is a boy of rebellious spirit—resentful of authority, unable to accept discipline in any form—”

“Bugger you if I ain’t!” Henry shot back, glaring at the headmaster. “I took all you had to give and more!”

Thornwait regarded Alex with a you see? expression.

Gently Alex took the boy by his shoulders. “Look at me. Why did you blow up his door?”

Henry remained obstinately silent. Thornwait began to answer for him. “Henry is the kind of boy who doesn—”

“I’ve heard your opinion,” Alex interrupted, giving the headmaster a freezing glance that silenced him immediately. He looked back at his brother, his gaze softening. “Henry, explain it to me.”

“It don’t matter,” Henry mumbled.

“Tell me why you did it,” Alex said in a warning tone. “Now.”

Henry glared at him as he answered reluctantly. “It was the flogging.”

“You were flogged?” Alex frowned. “For what reason?”

“Any reason you could think of!” A flush came over Henry’s face. “With a birch, a rod…they do it all the time, Alex!” He threw a mutinous glance over his shoulder at Thornwait. “One time I was a minute late for breakfast, once I dropped my books in front of the English master, once my neck wasn’t clean enough…I’ve been thrashed near three times a week for months, an’ I’m damn sick of it!”

“I mete out the same punishment to other boys with similar rebelliousness,” Thornwait said crisply.

Alex kept his face expressionless, but inside he was roiling with fury. “Show me,” he said to Henry, his voice clipped.

Henry shook his head, his face reddening even more. “Alex—”

“Show me,” Alex insisted.

Looking from his brother to the headmaster, Henry sighed heavily. “Why not? Thornwait’s seen it enough by now.” He turned, reluctantly removed his jacket, fumbled at his waist, and dropped his britches a few inches.

Alex stopped breathing as he saw what they had done to his brother. Henry’s lower back and buttocks were a mass of welts, scabs, and bruises. Such treatment would not be considered usual or necessary by anyone, not even the strictest disciplinarian. The floggings had not been done for the sake of discipline—they had been done by a man who got perverse pleasure from inflicting pain on others. The thought that this had been done to someone he loved…Trying to control his rage, Alex raised a shaking hand to his jaw and rubbed it roughly. He dared not look at Thornwait, or he’d kill the bastard. Henry jerked up his britches and turned back to face him. His blue eyes widened as he saw Alex’s cold eyes and rapidly twitching cheek.

“It was entirely justified,” Dr. Thornwait said in a self-righteous tone. “Flogging is a normal part of the Westfield tradition—”

“Henry,” Alex interrupted unsteadily. “Henry, did they do anything to you besides the flogging? Did they hurt you in any other way?”

Henry looked at him in confusion. “No. What do you mean?”

“Nothing.” Alex motioned to the door with a jerk of his head. “Go outside,” he said quietly. “I’ll be right there.”

Henry obeyed slowly, glancing back with unconcealed curiosity.

As soon as the door closed, Alex strode to Dr. Thornwait, who instinctively backed away.

“Lord Raiford, flogging is an accepted method of teaching the boys—”

“I don’t accept it!” Roughly Alex seized him and shoved him back against the wall.

“I’ll have you arrested,” the headmaster gasped. “You can’t—”

“Can’t what? Kill you as I’d like to? Perhaps not. I can come damn close to it, though.” Gripping his collar, Alex held him up until Thornwait’s toes barely grazed the floor. He relished the faint choking sound coming from the headmaster’s scrawny throat. Thornwait’s blurring vision was filled with Alex’s steely eyes and snarling white teeth. “I know what kind of perverted bastard you are,” Alex sneered. “Taking out your frustrations on boys. It satisfies you to whip some poor lad across the backside until you draw blood. You’re not fit to be called a man. I’ll bet you enjoy the hell out of beating my brother and the other innocents in your care!”

“D…discipline…” Thornwait managed to gasp painfully.

“If any permanent damage results from your so-called discipline, or if Henry reveals that you’ve abused him in other ways, you’d better flee before I can get my hands on you.” Alex gripped Thornwait’s throat then, pressing inward as if he were molding clay. The man writhed and gurgled in terror. Alex waited until the headmaster’s face turned gray. “Or I’ll have your head stuffed and mounted on Henry’s bedroom wall,” he growled. “As a memento of his days at Westfield. I think he’d like that.” He let go of Thornwait suddenly, allowing him to collapse to the floor. The headmaster choked and wheezed. Wiping his hands on his coat in distaste, Alex opened the office door with such force that it slammed against the wall and the bolt fell from one of the hinges.

Finding Henry out in the hall, he took the boy by the arm and began walking rapidly. “Why didn’t you come to me about this?” he demanded.

Henry struggled to match his long strides. “I don’t know.”

Suddenly the memory of Lily’s accusations about his being unapproachable and unfeeling rang in Alex’s ears. Was it possible there had been some truth in her words? He scowled darkly. “Did you think I wouldn’t be sympathetic? That I wouldn’t understand? You should have told me about this long ago!”

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