Rain streaked down the carriage windows while Caleb Maxwell Crawford traveled from the London docks to his family home on Grosvenor Square. Dusk had turned to night since he’d stepped off the ship on which he’d sailed from Calais yesterday afternoon. Jaw set, he tightened his grip on the leather satchel beside him on the bench. It held all the evidence he needed to prove how wrong his father had been when they’d parted ways ten years earlier. Filled with letters of praise and articles heralding Caleb’s architectural abilities, it would show the old bastard he’d made a success of himself. It would prove that refusing to join the clergy and being cut off financially had not led to his downfall, as his father had claimed it would when he’d railed about Caleb’s ungratefulness. Peering out past the heavy rivulets of cascading water, Caleb narrowed his gaze on the murky darkness. He couldn’t wait to gloat and see the astonished look on his father’s face when he showed him the lithographs printed in the Paris Gazette. They illustrated in fine detail the mansion he’d designed for the Duke of Orléons. Building had commenced six years earlier and had just been completed last month. Inhaling deeply, Caleb tightened his hold on his satchel. The carriage drew to a jarring halt moments later, throwing him slightly off balance. Muttering a curse, he opened the door and climbed out into the unpleasant downpour, satchel in hand. The driver helped him retrieve his valise from the boot. “Here you go sir,” the man said while water streamed over the brim of his hat.
“Thank you.” Caleb paid him and walked toward the imposing Mayfair mansion that loomed before him. The heavy front door with its massive brass knocker was less than inviting. Rain gushed down the curved slope of the roof and pelted against the ground. Pulling his hat down over his forehead, Caleb drew the collar of his greatcoat up to protect the back of his neck and climbed the slick stone steps. He still owned a key and withdrew it now from his pocket to unlock the door. It swung open and gave way to a dim interior. Entering the foyer, Caleb paused to listen. All was silent. Not even the longcase clock ticked away the progression of time.
Shivering, Caleb nudged the door shut behind him. It closed with a resounding thud. Where the devil was everyone? He sighed and muttered another oath. He didn’t like the idea of having to hunt down his family at one of the country estates. But even if they’d left town, there ought to be servants about. His parents had never left a house completely empty. A soft snick caught his ears, and then the sharp click of approaching footsteps filled the air. The sound accompanied a man whom Caleb instantly recognized, even though his features were far more drawn now than when he’d last seen him. “Murdoch,” he said, addressing the butler. “It has been a while.
” The old man drew a sharp breath. The candelabra he carried displaced the darkness. “I thought I heard something, so I came to investigate.” Moving closer, he peered up at Caleb. Light from four guttering candles flickered across his face, accentuating the creases there. “Is it really you, my lord?” Caleb drew his hat from his head and swiped back the wet strands of hair that clung to his forehead. “Yes. I have returned.” He set his valise and satchel on the floor and proceeded to take off his gloves. “Where are my parents?” Murdoch stared at him as if he could still not believe he was actually there.
“Your mother is upstairs in her rooms.” Breaking eye contact, he proceeded to help Caleb off with his coat. “And my father, the duke?” When Murdoch failed to reply, Caleb knit his brow. “Is he not at home?” “No, he is not.” The butler busied himself with hanging the coat and setting Caleb’s hat and gloves aside. “But your mother will be pleased to see you, I’m sure. Please, follow me.” He led the way up the stairs while Caleb followed behind, his curiosity piqued by the servant’s unwillingness to supply him with details. Perhaps his parents had quarreled during his absence and were now living apart? They reached the top of the landing and turned left toward the duchess’s apartment. Caleb knew the way well enough, but was glad the butler would be there to announce his arrival.
After all, he doubted his mother would be as pleased to see him as Murdoch believed, considering he’d left without saying farewell. But he’d been too angry to do so at the time, and his decision to leave had been made in haste without consideration for anything besides getting away. Arriving in front of the door leading into his mother’s sitting room, Murdoch paused to knock. A maid answered seconds later, her eyes widening when she noticed Caleb. “Please inform Her Grace that her son, Lord Caleb, is here to see her,” Murdoch said. The maid nodded and the door closed, only to be opened again moments later by the duchess herself. “Thank God you are here!” She stared up at him with shimmering eyes, and then, in the next second, her arms were around him, and she was holding him to her as if he offered necessary support. Unaccustomed to such a display of affection from his mother, Caleb hesitated briefly before wrapping his arms around her as well. He hadn’t expected such a warm welcome and was slightly thrown by the effect it was having on the resentment he’d harbored for the past ten years. Placing a kiss on his mother’s cheek, he listened to her uneasy breaths until she was ready for him to release her.
“Shall I have some tea sent up?” Murdoch asked, reminding Caleb of his presence. “Please do,” his mother said. She opened the door to her sitting room wider and invited Caleb in. Unlike his mother, whose youth had departed during his absence, the space looked unchanged. “Come sit with me, Caleb. There is much for us to discuss.” He wasn’t even sure where to begin. This reunion wasn’t going at all the way he’d imagined it would. Since leaving Paris five days earlier, he’d pictured himself storming into his father’s study and shoving the evidence of his success under the man’s haughty nose. Now, inhaling deeply, he approached the sofa and lowered himself to the vacant spot beside his mother.
There was so much to say. Too much, in a way. Perhaps the best place to start was with an apology. “I am sorry,” he told her and reached for her hand. “I should have written to you, but the more time passed, the more difficult it became.” “I know.” He looked at her and was swiftly accosted by guilt at the sight of her watery eyes. Christ, he’d been awful to her. She hadn’t deserved it, but his pride had been wounded, and he’d only been able to think of himself and of getting away from the life he’d come to despise. “At least I am not your only son,” he murmured.
She had three besides his older brother, George, the heir who’d received all their father’s affection. “You haven’t been in touch with Griffin or Devlin?” she asked in reference to the brothers who’d been born only minutes after himself. He shook his head. “They left shortly after you, for similar reasons, I suspect. Now, after everything that has happened, I am hoping they will return as well. I’ve sent out letters, but it will take time for them to reach your brothers.” She met his gaze. Her brow puckered ever so slightly. “I’m surprised you are already here since I had no idea of your actual location. I suppose the agent I hired to find you was good at doing his job.
” Unease traversed Caleb’s spine. He tightened his hold on his mother’s hand. “No one came to find me, Mama. I returned of my own accord.” “But then…” She swallowed and closed her eyes. Her lips trembled and it became suddenly clear to Caleb that she was making a stoic effort to maintain her composure. “You do not know.” The words were only a whisper. “Know what?” he asked even though he sensed he had no wish to hear whatever it was she would say in response. “Your father is dead, Caleb.
A fire broke out at the Everly stables last week,” she said, referring to one of the dukedom’s larger properties. “He and George went to inspect some repairs. They were supposed to be gone only for a few short days but now…” A sob cut off her words, and her free hand rose to smother the sound. Caleb’s heart thudded against his chest. “And George?” he asked, already dreading her answer. “When your father didn’t come out, George went in after him.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “They’re both gone, Caleb. I buried them at St. George’s this morning.
” It was as if time slowed to a halt. A distinct feeling of disappointment and deep regret trickled through him, numbing his veins. Slumping back, he tried to make sense of it, to accept what his mother told him as fact, only to find that he couldn’t. The door opened after a quick knock, and Murdoch returned carrying a tray. He placed it on the table, exchanged a few words with the duchess, and departed once more. Caleb’s mother withdrew her hand from Caleb’s and dabbed at her eyes. She then busied herself with pouring tea while he watched with a strange sense of detachment. He shook his head. “No. It cannot be true.
” She sniffed and took a sip of her tea. “You know what this means,” she said, as if he’d not spoken. She waited for him to meet her gaze before saying, “You are the Duke of Camberly now.” Caleb stared at her in dismay. “I don’t want to be.” It was the first thing that came to mind. He liked his uncomplicated life, free from all the responsibilities his father and older brother had faced. He’d never envied either of them. But he had cursed the way his father’s sense of duty and obligation had affected his life. “Unfortunately, that hardly matters.
With your father and brother gone, the title falls to you.” He instinctively shuddered and bit back the comment that threatened. To say that he ought to have stayed away would only cause his mother pain. She was happy to have him home and probably quite relieved with the prospect of him taking over the day-today running of things. And for her he would do it, or at least he would try. He drew a deep breath and felt his chest tighten. “Very well. But if I am going to do this, I will need something stronger than tea. Please tell me you still keep a bottle of sherry in that cabinet over there.” Her wobbly smile tilted as if trying to find its balance.
“Yes. I dare say I could do with a glass myself.” Raising her hand to his lips, Caleb pressed a tender kiss to her knuckles before going in search of their fortification. He was conscious of his heart beating a dull tattoo, like a drummer marching him off to the gallows. Recalling the satchel he’d left downstairs, he closed his eyes briefly and muttered a curse. Everything he’d worked for these past ten years had been for nothing. His father would never know of his success. How ironic that the son he’d named his greatest disappointment would now be continuing his legacy. As had become his habit in recent weeks, Caleb arrived at White’s shortly after nine in the evening to enjoy a drink and possibly a game of cards with his friend, Robert Moor, Viscount Aldridge. The two had known each other since childhood and had been sent off to Eton together as lads.
The moment Caleb’s return to London had been announced six months ago, Robert had immediately come to call, and the two had spent an hour washing away the years wedged between them with a few glasses of brandy. Since then, Robert had offered invaluable advice and support. He’d invited Caleb out for rides and to Gentleman Jackson’s boxing saloon whenever he’d needed to lose himself in something besides accounts, ledgers, investments, and his mother’s most recent obsession – his need to think about marriage. He’d cut her off and walked away the first time she’d made the suggestion and every time since. But when the Season had been well underway and she’d produced a list of potential candidates she considered appropriate for courtship, he’d had no choice but to listen, even though he detested the extra pressure it placed on his shoulders. “You look more somber than usual,” Robert said when Caleb found him. “Trouble with the dukedom?” Dropping into a vacant chair, Caleb frowned at his friend, who poured a large drink and handed it to him. Caleb took a long sip, enjoying the powerful flavor and the heat it exuded as it slid down his throat. “I cannot stand it any longer.” Leaning back, he cradled the glass between his hands and stared at his friend as if he had the power to save him.
“It is awful, Robert. I just…” He sighed and scrubbed one hand across his jaw. “I hate being a duke.” Robert had the decency not to argue. Instead, he watched, his eyes increasingly somber until he finally said, “Then don’t be.” Startled by the comment, Caleb grinned, the expression so foreign to him now it actually hurt his jaw. “As if it’s that simple, but you know as well as I that it is not.” His friend inclined his head, paused for a moment as if on the verge of divulging some piece of information, but then set his own glass to his lips and drank. “Is it not getting any easier?” Caleb thought back on the endless hours of work that held him hostage in his study. There had been little reprieve and no time at all to consider his own wants and needs since his return.
Even now, the satchel holding his architectural designs remained unopened. He’d had no opportunity to share them with anyone or to dream up new ones. “No,” he told Robert with unwavering honesty. “If anything, it is getting worse. The demands on me are increasing with each passing day. Women I’ve never met are showing up at my home, intent on praising their daughters’ charms. Meanwhile, every business in Town is paying me court, and every hostess wishes to make me her guest of honor. And that’s not considering repairs I am asked to fund and approve at my various estates and the tenants who all have concerns they’ve decided to air in a steady stream of letters I receive daily.” Robert’s lips twitched as if struggling to contain his laughter. He cleared his throat.
“I see.” “Do you really?” Caleb wasn’t certain. “You were groomed for this sort of life from the day you were born, while I was largely ignored until I was dropped in the middle of it.” “I also have the added benefit of being happily married to a woman who helps me endure the burden of the responsibility I carry.” Robert considered Caleb for a long moment before saying, “Maybe your mother has the right of it. Perhaps marriage is precisely what you need.” Caleb groaned. “Don’t be daft. The last thing I need at the moment is another female to coddle.” He winced, aware he’d just referred to his mother in rather disparaging terms, but the truth of it was that as much as he loved her, her constant weeping and insistence he fill a mold he didn’t quite fit had driven him to the point of madness.
“Then what do you need?” Robert stared him straight in the eye. “Do you even know?” It took a moment for Caleb to turn the question over in his head and find the right answer. “Yes,” he finally said. “I believe getting away for a while would help.” Robert studied him with increased interest. “Where would you go?” Caleb snorted. “I have no idea. If I head to one of my country estates, all the problems I’m trying to escape will surely follow.” “So you want to go somewhere where you won’t be bothered.”