I saac remembered the murder of his father as though it had happened that very day. It was terrifying and tragic, and it set the course for the rest of his life. It had all started when his father had a visit from an old friend, and no matter how many times he thought it through, he could never change the outcome. It was early afternoon. Joshua Campbell, the Duke of Gallonon hiccoughed, drunk again, but laughing loudly. His friend, Henry, had arrived hours earlier, and they had spent the day talking of life and love and London. Isaac’s watchful eyes fell on them, dreaming of the day he, too, would be old enough to sit and drink all afternoon, fat on life and happy with it. They seemed such good friends, and the Duke gazed at Henry with a brotherly love that greatly appealed to Isaac. He wanted that with his own brother. “I do believe that the brandy is stronger than usual,” Joshua said and hiccoughed again. Henry laughed and patted his friend on the knee. “No, Joshua,” he said, a drunken slur in his own voice. “We’ve just drunk far too much.” “Tosh,” Joshua said, hiccoughing again. “No such thing.
What are men to do of an afternoon if not get drunk with their closest friend and ally?” Twelve-year-old Isaac sat a little straighter and smiled at both men, eager to be involved. How he would love to sit at their table, talking of adult things and drinking with them—and why not? He was almost an adult now, himself. But his attention was pulled away by his irritating and needy brother, two years younger than him but demanding and irksome. “Isaac, come and play outside,” Thomas said. “It’s boring in here.” “No,” Isaac hissed. “We’re having a nice afternoon without you children. Go and play on your own.” Thomas pouted, his bottom lip stuck out in a sulk, but Isaac did his best to ignore him, to put childish thoughts from his mind “And those daughters of yours,” Joshua asked. “They are well?” The redness of his chubby cheeks matched the color on the tip of his nose, and his broad smile seemed never ending.
Isaac wished he could make his father as happy as these afternoons seemed to. “They are my life, Joshua,” Henry said, his eyes sparkling with true love. “Such intelligence, such wit. I am very lucky to have them, and my darling wife, too.” “Ah yes, Lady Kitty. You are lucky to have such a looker,” Joshua said with a wink. “I have often thought to take another wife—my boys are in need of a new mother, certainly —but I am sure I could never find one as good as my Emmeline. She had it all, including in the bedroom, if you get my meaning.” “Joshua,” Henry reprimanded, but the two burst into childish guffaws. “Father’s friend is fat,” Thomas whispered with a giggle, pulling Isaac’s attention from the adult conversation.
“No fatter than Father,” Isaac replied with a shrug. “And he smells bad.” “Thomas,” Isaac remonstrated but with a smirk on his lips, a copy of his father’s. “That’s mean.” He pushed him over playfully, so that Thomas rolled onto his back on the intricate rug, laughing loudly. Play fighting, but it was neither the time nor the place, not when they had guests. “Boys! You are being noisy, and rude to our guest.” “It wasn’t me, Father,” Isaac said, and he climbed to his feet. Joshua smiled down at his son, his hands folded over his rotund belly, and he laughed. “You will make a fine politician, telling brazen untruths like that.
Come here, My Boy.” Isaac moved to stand near his father, his eyes gleaming in delight. Joshua stretched his arm around his son and pulled him in close, patting him on the back with his pudgy hand. Isaac wrinkled his nose against the smell of brandy on his father’s breath, but he felt as though he’d finally won a place in this special club. The small round table between the two gentlemen was littered with the detritus of a decadent afternoon. The brandy decanter stood almost empty, the stalks from grapes had been thrown thoughtlessly, and two plates held the dregs of the cold meats and cheese Joshua had had brought up from the kitchen. “Did you know, Isaac? The Earl here is my dearest and oldest friend.” Henry smiled at the boy, although he looked uncomfortable with the compliment. Isaac watched him in awe, his brown eyes twinkling. To be stood with the adults, to be engaging in conversation with them, was something new for Isaac and he was thrilled his father thought him old enough, mature enough.
He stood a little taller, a little straighter. “He is a very special and kind gentleman,” Joshua continued, his words clear and distinct as he tried to push away the drunkenness. “Stop, Joshua,” Henry said, blushing at Joshua’s kind words. “No,” Joshua said, laughing. “I mean it. Listen to me, My Son. You will never meet a more honorable, good man as Henry here.” Isaac saw Henry squirm in his seat, clearly uneasy by this declaration. He pulled at his cravat as though it choked him, and his cheeks flushed a gentle pink. Isaac wondered at his discomfort.
It was not overly warm, there was no reason for it. “It is your Father who is the honorable one, Isaac. Not I.” Isaac looked at him curiously, his head tilted. He seemed so sincere, so true, and yet he doubted his own honorability. Why? It didn’t make sense. Noble men were normally so sure of themselves. Thomas jumped up then and stood opposite Isaac, next to Henry. Isaac could see the jealousy firing in his eyes and he found that, for once, he was pleased about it. Thomas never had liked it when Isaac got more attention than he and normally, Isaac would be kinder to his brother because of it.
That day, though, Isaac simply sneered at him, wanting him to leave him be with the men. They stared at each other across the way. Thomas stood a few inches from Henry, and Isaac could see that he wanted Henry to put his arm around him, in the same way Joshua had his arm around Isaac. Anything for a little affection. “I imagine you are both very noble,” Isaac said. “Ah, my eldest is a diplomat, too! Imagine that, Henry.” He paused and sighed with a smile. “I have two wonderful sons,” Joshua said, flashing a quick grin to Thomas. But his grin slipped as his voice slurred, as though the alcohol hit him with a sudden force. His eyelids drooped heavily, and Isaac looked at him curiously.
I should like to taste the brandy, so I can feel what Father feels. “They will grow up to be great, strapping lads.” He coughed, his eyes bulging. “Although my first born here…” he wheezed, unable to catch his breath, “my Isaac…he will become Duke as is…as is—” “Father?” Isaac turned to look at his father, whose face was turning red. He clutched desperately at his throat, clawing at it in fear, panic, desperately trying to clear it. “Father!” Isaac, wide-eyed, jumped back just as his father fell forward from his chair and began writhing on the ground, gasping for breath. Isaac stared open-mouthed, unable to look away but not wanting to watch. Terror gripped him, shook through him, and he let out a loud sob. “Joshua?” Henry, too, stared, wide-eyed but not moving, not doing anything to help, and his words were whispered rather than screamed as Isaac’s were. Why will you not do something? Isaac’s words choked him, and he could not plead for help.
He couldn’t even turn to look at Henry. All he could do was stare at his panicked, sickened father, and hear his pulse thumping in his ears. Everything seemed to slow, each second lasting a minute, and Isaac heard himself wail, the sound ripping through him, raw and angry and fearful. Thomas ran to kneel at his father’s side, screeching with a wildness Isaac had never seen before. “Father,” he cried, and he slid across the tiled floor, his knees bumping into his father’s prostrate body. Thomas cried out again, an animal in pain, and Isaac risked a glance at him. Thomas’ eyes were dull and lifeless, despite the panic in his voice, and Isaac quickly looked away, his breath catching. His brother’s fears did little to help his own, as he tried desperately to calm himself. Joshua’s movement had slowed. Although he still writhed, it was without the energy and the urgency he had before.
His eyes were so wide that they were ringed with white, and his usually pale skin had turned a deep purple in color as the life force drained away. “Father,” Isaac squeaked, “Father.” But then he began to shake violently, his body descending into shock, and he heard himself scream, loud and terrified and desperate. “Somebody help!” Joshua stopped grasping at his throat and his hand fell to his side just as his head lolled in the opposite direction. As he took his final earthly breath, he seemed to glare ominously at his oldest and dearest friend, Henry Allen. Chapter 1 Lady Diana Allen, daughter of the Earl of Estnell, sat on the white, wrought-iron bench in her favorite spot of the garden. She sat sideways, so that only her feet dangled off the edge of the seat, and her long pink gown draped delicately over her legs and the bench itself. It was a magnificent gown made of a delicate satin, feminine and floaty and adorned with lace around the hem. The sleeves puffed and the waistline was high under her chest, and it was one of her favorite gowns, but for the color. Her bonnet, a similar shade of dusky pink, had flowers wound through the ribbon, and on her lap sat a book of love and adventure.
“Come on, Cocoa.” She reached down and pulled the dog onto her lap. The Pomeranian looked up at her happily, wagging his whole behind rather than just his tail. She let her fingers run through his long, chocolate-colored fur as she looked around her, breathing in the scent of summer. She raised her face to the sun, feeling the warm rays on her rosy cheeks, and she smiled, content. At one-and-twenty, she was at the peak of her beauty. Her hair, so red and fiery, grew richer and deeper by the year, and it complemented her flawless pale skin. Her blues eyes twinkled with passion and intelligence, and she wore a smattering of freckles across her petite nose that she covered whenever she could. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it Cocoa?” She smiled as she looked down at the dog, and she could see he quite agreed. He loved to be in the gardens, too, his little pink tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth as he bounced happily around.
Ahead of her, the lawn went on for as far as she could see, the grass so carefully tendered that it seemed almost like a carpet. In the center of the lawn there stood a simple fountain, and the sound of the trickling water was a percussion to the melody of bird song in the sky. She had laid a part of her skirt across the bench, and Cocoa walked in circles before curling up on it, tucking himself into Diana’s side. She picked up her book and began to read. It was a story about knights and maidens, of fierce passion and fighting for what was right and good. It was a fairy tale into which she threw herself, somewhere she was allowed, for once, to be free. She was a polite young lady, with correct manners and a good upbringing, but still she had a streak of rebelliousness that ran through her and a free spirit that shone out in her every action. She was stubborn and flippant, and she said what she thought when she thought it. She had a quick wit and humorous heart, and she lived with a laugh never far from her lips. But above all that, above her chatter and her beauty, above her humor and her intellect, Diana Allen was an utter and hopeless romantic.
“Oh Cocoa,” she said with a sigh. “Do you think I will ever find my hero?” The dog, of course, paid her no heed, but instead snored softly at her side. She looked down at him and smiled a smile full of love. “I’ve always got you, haven’t I, Cocoa? And that will have to do for now.” She sat back, book returned to her lap, and she thought again of love and what it would feel like. She had dreamed of it so often, but never had she experienced it, never had her breath been taken away by some handsome prince. It was that, she wanted. Not a marriage of convenience or finance, but a life filled with love and passion. One day, she sighed. She froze when she heard footsteps walking over the gravel path but she did not turn to look, hoping it was one of the gardeners going about his daily duties.
She had no desire to speak to anyone or discuss anything. “Lady Diana, your Father wishes to see you.” Diana sighed again, her shoulders sagging, and she looked up to see Mary, her lady’s maid, stood over her, a hand held up to her brow against the bright sun. Her mousybrown hair was tucked neatly into her cotton bonnet, and her brown eyes were alive with her friendship for Diana. She wore a simple muslin gown, the sleeves of which she had pushed up to her elbows against the summer heat, and her dainty feet were slippered. She was a pretty girl at ten-and-eight, and she had been in the employ of the Allens since the moment she came of age. She had, in many ways, grown up with Diana and her sister, Celine, and because of that they had grown close. “Oh, really?” Diana could hear the disappointment in her own voice, her eyes downcast. “I’m afraid so, My Lady,” Mary replied. “Is there anything the matter, do you think?”