from Chapter Three
London, March 1805
On deck of the East India ship, Derek Vaughan drank in his first bittersweet sight of London in eight years. From the throng on the docks—more active than an ant colony—to the chimneys belching smoke into the gray sky, he’d once thought London the most exciting city in the world. But after living in the panorama that was India, his homeland appeared dingy and overcrowded.
He turned to the burly giant beside him. “Home again, Cushing. Are you eager to return to dry land?”
His servant shuddered at the gentle gibe. “To be sure. I’ve never been so seasick in my life. May we never again make such a harrowing journey.”
“Aye,” Derek agreed absently as he gripped the rail and stared out over London again, besieged by long-buried memories more turbulent than the stormy seas they’d traversed. “It’s time for us to forge ahead with our lives.”
They continued to stand their watch over the hive of activity on the dock while the ship was safely moored. Even without words, the older man’s presence buoyed Derek. Slightly past his prime, Cushing stood strong of limb and broad of girth. Though he laughed readily and was always the first to join in song, creases etched in his leathery face hinted at personal loss. At five-and-twenty, Derek understood loss too well, and so had never pressed for details.
“Two more morose men I shall never hope to see.”
Derek glanced over his shoulder at tow-headed Harry Coatsworth. Tall and lean with arms akimbo, his cousin radiated the happiness of a man about to debark on his native soil—a man assured of the open-armed welcome of his family. Where Derek found it difficult to uproot the joy in life, Harry tended to trip over it.
“Two more morose men you shall never find,” he responded. He waved Harry to join him at the rail where Cushing, silent, flanked his other side. These two men were all the family and friends he had—or needed. He would always remember they’d both been by his side when Harry delivered his painful tidings.
’Tis your father. He’s dead.
The memory of those simple words sent a swift searing pain through Derek’s belly, much like a gunshot. Though he’d left London convinced he would never again see the man he’d called father, the finality of those five words had caught him unprepared. That Harry, with little more than a score of years to his name, had taken it upon himself to travel halfway around the world to deliver the news still astonished him.
His cousin leaned on the railing and held his peace for fully a minute—half a minute more than Derek would have thought possible. “Are you yet sorry you returned?”
He turned to lean against the rail. “No. ‘Tis my filial duty.”
“Duty?” Harry snorted. “It’s your inheritance.”
Derek remained silent. Any bequest meant little, but he couldn’t as casually discard the notion of repaying a debt of honor. Reginald Vaughan had raised him, though Derek had been no more than a cuckoo in the nest. Despite a notorious wife whose public and outrageous liaisons culminated in murder, the man he called father had always treated Derek with the utmost respect and paternal love. Always—until that final day when Derek had confronted him with the truth.
To refuse to return to England would have been churlish, and Reginald Vaughan’s memory deserved better than that. Derek had returned to fulfill his obligations as head of the Vaughan family, regardless of what it might cost him personally.
An elbow poked him in the ribs. “You’re still pining for the lovely ladies you left behind,” Harry said.
Derek frowned, but that only urged Harry on with his foolery. “Do you think I didn’t hear the feminine sighs over your silky dark locks, your penetrating blue eyes, your fine leg in the saddle, your penchant for stealing a kiss?”
“Did you also hear what they whispered behind their fans? Their furtive questions about my prospects or sad laments over my mother’s behavior?” Derek laughed darkly, the memory of Helena Thorne haunting him. “No, if I miss anyone, it’s my men.”
“And what did the cavalry think of our fair captain?” Harry looked pointedly at Cushing. “Did they admire his fine leg in the saddle?”
The giant scratched his nose. “His leg? No, but I did hear tell he had an excellent seat, and they were confident he’d keep his head when facing the bayonets. They were proud to follow him.”
“High praise indeed,” Harry said with sincerity.
“Oh, and there was a tailor in Jaipur who swore the Master’s shoulders were the finest in all of India for showing off a well-cut coat.”
“What? You still own that coat.”
Derek tried to curtail Harry’s infectious laughter with narrowed eyes but failed to repress his own twitching lips. In truth, he wasn’t one to preen before a mirror, for contemplating his own reflection only reminded him of unanswered questions.
“With a barony and a well-cut coat, you shall find yourself an heiress and make your fortune,” Harry said.
Derek’s own dark laugh joined theirs.
“What? Don’t want an heiress? I’ll wed her.”
“Harry, you don’t need to wed an heiress. You already have a small fortune.”
“Ah, but I’ll need a bride with breeding and connections. Now that I’ve seen the world, I think I’ll work for the Foreign Office.”
“Lucky girl,” Derek said. “She can wed you and be rid of you immediately.”
With a grin, Harry turned to the servant. “Cushing, what will you do now that we’re back home?”
Cushing scratched his chin. “Don’t have what you’d call a home here, exactly, so—”
“So he tells me he plans to continue to work for me with no pay,” Derek finished.
Cushing straightened and folded his arms. “The Master’s concerned we won’t be able to feed ourselves, but I’ve told him time and again that whether his fortune be good or ill, I’ll stick by him the same way he stuck by me.”
“Did he now?” Harry said to Cushing while contemplating his cousin. “He’s not known for an overly generous spirit. The one time he tried to help me, I wound up with a black eye.”
His gaze rolling up to the clouds, Derek pushed away from the rail.
Encouraged by Cushing’s questioning brow, Harry unfurled his story. “I was eleven, and Derek, at the ripe old age of fifteen announced he would teach me to box. Apparently, I was a poor student, for he got right past my guard and popped me in the eye. His father tanned his hide.”
His father. Like a festering wound, the topic was best left untouched. Derek drew the conversation to safer ground. “Cushing had much the same luck with me, Harry. He got into trouble, I tried to help him, and he got sacked. The least I could do was offer him a position with me.”
“And I’ve never regretted it,” said Cushing.
“Nor have I,” Derek said with a genuine smile. “I’ve no idea what tasks to set him in London and even less how I shall pay him.”
Cushing gently clapped him on the shoulder. “You just leave that horse to me, sir. Sabu will make our fortunes.”
“Indeed, I hope so, Cushing. I truly hope so.” Derek had borrowed a small ransom from Harry to buy the desert-bred stallion’s passage back to England.
“You still plan to breed your little horse and start a racing stable?” Harry asked.
“I like horses. If studied, they’re more reliable than cards.”
“And less fickle than women,” Cushing said with a wink.
Derek frowned. “Indeed.”
A quarter hour later, the cousins descended the gangway. Harry sent up a joyful shout when his feet touched the quay then shrugged at Derek’s lifted brows. As they shouldered their way through the crowd, a lusty woman approached. Older than he, and a little the worse for her painted lips and eyes—she tugged her tight dress down to better reveal her bountiful bosom.
“‘Allo, Guv’nor,” she greeted in a saucy tone, “let Millie give you a welcome home kiss.” Her breath smelled of stale gin, and Derek repulsed her with no remorse.
She turned to Harry, who stopped her with mock horror. “Oh, no, Millie, you look old enough to be me mum!”
With a snort of contempt, Millie marched grandly away.
Derek looked at his grinning cousin. “Must you treat everything as a lark?”
“Life is a lark, Derek, if only you’d let it be so.”
They hailed a hack and rode to Harley Street to find Vaughan House silent and shuttered. Derek paid off the driver and stood with Harry on the cobblestones.
“Odd that they’d leave before the end of the Season,” Harry said. “They’d be out of mourning by now. Wherever do you suppose they could be?” He barely paused before adding, “Let us visit your father’s clubs tonight to see if there’s any news of Rosalie Vaughan’s whereabouts.”
With a resigned sigh, Derek assented. He hadn’t expected much from his homecoming, but finding no sign of them at all was disconcerting at best. As the two men walked south on Harley Street toward Cavendish Square and ultimately Claridge’s Hotel, he contemplated how demeaning this situation would be if he’d arrived here with Helena Thorne as his bride.
But then, her rejection had been demeaning enough.
As dusk descended, Harry and Derek handed their hats to a porter at White’s. The addition of a tip that amounted to pure bribery prompted the servant to usher them directly to the gaming room where, despite the early hour, the top tier of Society drank and gambled in earnest. A few gentlemen conversing in groups or lounging in chairs heeded their entrance with little interest before returning to their own pursuits.
With relief, Derek noted that while some of the older men wore wigs or powder in their hair, the younger generation had adopted the fashion of the simple queue. His “well-cut coat” might not be the latest in style, but he need not feel inferior.
“Vaughan, is that you?” A gentleman detached himself from a group at one of the gaming tables and came forward. Though older and grayer, Derek immediately recognized the Earl of Montrose, his father’s closest friend.
Derek made a brief bow. “Lord Montrose, you’re very kind to acknowledge me after all these years.”
Montrose waved away formalities by clapping him on the arm. “Nonsense my boy, I’m glad you’re here. Hasn’t been the same without your father around. It’s good to see a Vaughan in the place again.”
“Thank you, sir, though I confess I’m here under pretense. My cousin and I are just returned from India, and neither of us are members.”
“Consider yourselves my guests,” said Lord Montrose. “You’ve heard about your father then?”
“My cousin brought me word.”
Montrose nodded with understanding. “Reggie missed you. Not that he spoke of it, but I could tell by the way he read every word the papers printed about India. He hungered for word of you but was too proud to write.” Montrose perused him. “I suspect the apple falls not far from the tree, eh?”
Derek tensed as his face flushed with warmth. “Never far.”
The benevolent approval in Montrose’s eyes made it clear the older man had no idea Derek had fallen from a different family tree altogether.
“Lord Montrose, do you know where my father’s wife is?”
“Rosalie?” Montrose frowned. “She left London some time last year. Reggie fell deep into debt before he died. The gossips say she’s living at Ambersley and that the duke shall make good all of her family’s debts. The duke hasn’t stepped forward to dispute her claim, and so her creditors wait.”
“The Duke of Ambersley?” Derek had never held much faith in gossipmongers, perhaps because they’d hovered around his family like hungry vultures.
“Your family’s related to Ambersley, is it not?”
“Yes,” Derek answered. “But the kinship is so distant, I would never dare presume upon it.”
“Ah, but Rosalie’s been widowed twice and has two children to raise.” Montrose gestured toward the nearest card table. “Will you join me?”
“Another time, sir,” Derek answered. “But thank you for the news of my stepmother.”
Montrose’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Your father and I were friends for many years. Now that he’s gone, I’d like to extend that friendship to you. I’ll propose you here for membership.”
He felt like a thief accepting, but to refuse would cause the sort of stir he wished to avoid. Derek gripped Montrose’s outstretched hand. “I’m honored, sir.” With due courtesy, he excused himself and sought out his cousin.
Harry handed him six wafered letters. “The porter told me these were addressed to your father here but were never picked up by anyone in the family.”
The sympathy in his cousin’s eyes, did little to dispel Derek’s dread.
“You’ll want to read them,” Harry urged. “I’ll have a look around the tables.” With no further preamble, he drifted toward the noisier games.
Derek seated himself in a well-lit corner, broke the first seal and settled himself to read the missives.
The first five were from merchants requesting, imploring then demanding payment for long overdue credit they’d issued. But the final letter’s tone differed. The sender must have learned of Reginald Vaughan’s death, for it was addressed to “The Right Honorable Derek Vaughan, heir to Reginald Vaughan.” Please contact me at your earliest convenience… Undoubtedly, he’d be asked to settle a debt or answer for some business venture of his father’s that had gone wrong, but the marked courtesy of the letter made it the first he would answer.
“Nowadays, they’ll let anyone enter White’s.”
Derek lifted his gaze at the sarcastic tone to see a dark-haired gentleman flanked by two others staring down upon him. The first gentleman wore buckled shoes, stockings and satin knee breeches with a black coat impaled by numerous silver buttons that bespoke wealth and station. But it was the familiar jaw and blue eyes that triggered recognition.
He rose stiffly and bowed, too wary of offering a hand that might be refused. “Trevarthan.”
“Oh, it’s Worthing now. Buried dear pater over two years ago now. You must be back to do the same for your father.” The emphasis on the final words was not lost on Derek, nor was the omission of introductions to Worthing’s friends.
St. John Trevarthan—now the Marquess of Worthing—had been a fellow student at Eton. Once friends, the two boys had turned enemies when they learned Derek’s mother numbered St. John’s father amongst her many paramours. Derek found himself shunned by any boy who agreed with St. John’s taunts that Alicia Coatsworth Vaughan was little better than a whore. Derek had quickly tired of the insurmountable task of defending her. She’d never shown him any love, and if he could have drained her blood from his veins without killing himself, he would have done so long ago.
But the resemblance he and St. John bore troubled them both.
“I’ve come home to settle his affairs and take my place in Society,” Derek said neutrally.
Worthing gave a sinister chuckle. “Don’t be a fool, Vaughan. You don’t belong in good society.”
Harry bumbled into their midst, oblivious to the tension. “I say, Derek, let’s seek supper. I’ve improved none at hazard—regardless of your hours of instruction. More importantly, I’m famished.” He pulled up short at sight of the men and sketched a bow. “Lord Worthing, your servant.”
Worthing looked down his aquiline nose at Harry. “Another Coatsworth. Indeed, seek your supper elsewhere, gentlemen, for White’s is not the place for either of you.”
Derek’s fingers curled around the letters, but his military training firmed his resolve. Petty injustices were better ignored when larger battles could erupt at any moment. “We’ll bid you good night, gentlemen.” He steered Harry toward the entry where they collected their hats and stepped outside to the summer night.
Harry hesitated only a moment before heading down Regent Street. Fitting his hat atop his head, he glanced back toward the club. “Never liked Worthing. Too stilted by half. Mark my words, one day, his family will suffer a scandal, and I, for one, shall enjoy watching him ride out the tide of ridicule.”
“I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
“Not even your worst enemy?”
Derek didn’t answer. St. John was right—Derek no more belonged in this world of alliances and manners than his mother had. And the whole ton had been witness to that disaster. Still, he refused to be routed while he had debts to pay. He would suffer Society’s barbs and do what he could to provide for Reginald Vaughan’s children, especially now that he knew how destitute his father had been upon his death.
“Derek, do you intend to be silent and inattentive all evening?”
Derek looked up. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Harry laughed good-naturedly. “That’s precisely what I meant. We’ve just arrived in London, and I plan to embrace the city and celebrate my freedom from that ship. Think of it—tonight we’ll sleep in beds that don’t rock with waves. There’s fresh water by the gallon, not that I’d drink it if you paid me, but I did enjoy an excellent hot bath this afternoon. We have so much to be thankful for—”
Derek’s brows knit. “Harry, have I ever told you that you jabber like a magpie?”
“Daily,” Harry replied, unabashed.
“And have I ever expressed that I find it irritating?”
“Yet you persist.”
“Because I often find your conversation lacking. Just now, you were a thousand miles away—why, you may as well be still in India.”
Derek was glad for the mask of darkness as Harry contemplated him.
“Derek, we’re home, and I sense neither elation, nor grief, nor anything from you.” Harry continued to watch him. “When we were boys, we kept no secrets from each other.”
They walked in silence for a few moments before Derek responded with a sigh. “I shall try to be better company.”
“You need family,” Harry said quietly. “Join me and Mother for supper tomorrow in Bath. She’d love to see you. We shall enjoy a few concerts, perhaps an Assembly or two, and soak away our cares. It may be just the remedy for this sudden melancholy of yours.”
“It might at that,” Derek agreed with a fleeting smile. “But I cannot go tomorrow, Harry. Will you grant me another day?”
Derek acknowledged the prodding of his cousin’s uncharacteristic silence. “Those letters were from creditors and a solicitor here in London. Whatever business must be conducted for my father’s estate, I’d like to put it behind me as quickly as possible.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Atwell