Regarding the Duke – Grace Callaway

ALMOST THERE. Keep moving. Don’t let them catch you. Heart pounding, nine-year-old Anthony Hale trod through the streets of Mayfair, keeping his head down and gaze vigilant beneath his tattered cap. He didn’t dare run for fear of rousing suspicion. In this playground of the rich and powerful, he stuck out like a runty black sheep among plump, fluffy lambs, his soot-stained clothes betraying his profession as a climbing boy. The last thing he needed was for one of the blue-bloods taking their morning constitutionals to summon the Peelers. He tried to appear casual, as if he were on his way to clean another chimney…when in fact he was running for his life. I own you, you li’l bugger. Roger Wiley’s menacing face flashed before his eyes. If I catch you runnin’ away again, you’ll wish you was dead. The scars on Anthony’s back drew taut at the memory of his last flogging by the master sweep. He’d been feverish for days afterward, his blood soaking into the flour sacks that served as mattresses in the windowless cellar where all the climbing boys slept. It had been his second attempt to escape, and Wiley had made an example of him. Now none of the other children dared to step out of line.

They were resigned to their fates—unlike Anthony. He had a different path to follow. A promise to keep…and a destiny to fulfill. He heard again his mother’s desperate last words. I won’t make it off this ship, my dear boy, but promise me you’ll find Anthony De Villier. He’s your father…your last hope. You’re so handsome and clever, I know he’ll take you in. If he doesn’t believe you, give him this. She’d pulled a piece of knotted leather from beneath her bodice, upon which dangled a magnificent bloodstone ring. The thick shank was made of gold, the shoulders carved in a scroll design.

The ring’s black-and-red-flecked stone was carved with the ornate initials, “A. D.” Keep it safe until you see De Villier. Until then, tell no one, my son…trust no one… Anthony had been stupid; he hadn’t heeded his mama’s words. He’d thought he could trust the Wileys, fellow passengers on the ship who’d pretended to be Good Samaritans. When his mother died the day before reaching London, he’d sobbed in Drusilla Wiley’s arms. She and her husband Roger, a master sweep, had taken him to their home in St. Giles. At Drusilla’s gentle persuasion, Anthony had confessed his purpose for coming to London. Promising to help him find his father, Drusilla had asked to see the ring, and he’d given it to her.

She and Roger had promptly locked him in the cellar—where Anthony had found himself face-to-face with a score of dirty, hungry, terrified boys… For three years, he’d lived the nightmare of being one of the sweep’s “apprentices.” He’d cleaned stinking, suffocating stacks from dawn until dusk; by night, he’d toiled in the sweep’s other trade, committing burglaries and petty theft. He’d proven himself to be the fastest and cleverest of his peers, bringing in the most loot and artfully dodging the Peelers. He supposed this was the only reason Wiley had let him live after his two attempted flits. As valuable as Anthony was, he knew that if Wiley caught him this third time, he would not survive. This was his last chance. His last hope…and he’d finally arrived. He stared up at the imposing mansion built of cool grey stone. Rows of windows with rounded tops gleamed in the morning sunlight. Grand columns flanked the entryway, the steps leading up to the door so clean that you could eat off them.

“Crikey,” Anthony murmured. His father lived in a bleeding palace. Casting a furtive glance around, he took out the handkerchief he’d nabbed from an unsuspecting passerby. Spitting in the fine linen, he used it to rub his face, removing as much soot as he could. Smoothing his unruly black hair beneath his cap, he climbed the steps and stood on tiptoe to reach the heavy brass knocker shaped like a lion’s head. Three raps, and the door opened to reveal a stern-faced butler. “Deliveries around back,” the man barked. As the door began to close, Anthony jammed one worn boot into the door’s path. “What in God’s name—” the butler thundered. “Please, sir, I need to see Mr.

De Villier,” Anthony said desperately. “It’s a matter o’ great import—” “Who are you to utter the master’s name? Move, you dirty cur, or I shall summon the police!” Calculating his options, Anthony made his face contrite. “You win, guv, but you’ve got my foot trapped in this ’ere door.” With a huff, the butler eased the pressure on the door—and Anthony charged into the wooden barrier. The door slammed into the butler, who landed on his arse with a startled curse, and Anthony dashed into the house. His holey soles slid against the gleaming marble floor, but he kept his balance, racing through the antechamber with its dripping chandelier, past the wide staircase that wound up toward the upper floors. He dodged a swearing footman, almost collided into a maid who screeched, her cleaning bucket crashing to the ground. This time of day, a rich cove would likely be in his private sanctuary. Anthony’s experience cleaning the chimneys of fine homes helped him to guess the present layout. He sprinted down a painting-lined hallway, passing the billiards room, music room, library, finally arriving at a closed door.

The study…voices coming from inside. He reached for the door handle. His fingertips touched the smooth metal knob—and the next instant he was yanked back by the collar. He struggled, kicking out, his curses muffled by his captor’s hand. “Got the li’l bugger,” the footman said. “What do you want me to do with him, Mr. Laraby?” Appearing behind the footman, the butler said with a scowl, “The guttersnipe broke into a gentleman’s home; he’s undoubtedly a burglar in the making. It’s off to Newgate for him. Lock him in a cupboard while I summon the police.” The footman began to drag Anthony away from the study.

From his only chance for survival. He bared his teeth, sinking them into the footman’s palm. Swearing, the servant jerked his hand away, and Anthony shouted, “Anthony De Villier, I’m your son! My mama was Seraphina Hale—” The footman backhanded him, making him see stars. “Shut your filthy gob, you rabid mongrel—” “Bring him here,” an imperious voice commanded. His vision clearing, Anthony saw that a tall, well-built gent now stood in the open doorway of the study. The man’s hair was the shade of bleached wheat, the clipped waves gleaming around his handsome, chiseled features. In contrast, his eyes were the black of coal and the only feature he and Anthony had in common. Anthony’s heart thumped against his ribs. This toff…he’s my father? “Beg pardon for the intrusion, Mr. De Villier,” the butler said hastily.

“This brat barged in from the street, and I was about to contact the police—” “I’ll deal with it,” De Villier said. “But, sir, he’s a street urchin. There’s no telling what he could do—” De Villier looked at Anthony. “Did you come to do harm, boy?” “N-no, sir.” “Follow me.” De Villier turned and walked back into the study. An instant later, the footman’s grip loosened, and Anthony jerked free. He followed De Villier’s broad back into the study, turning briefly to stick his tongue out at the glowering servants. Hah. Soon they would be answering to him…and the notion filled him with impossible hope.

Have I come home…at last? “Close the door behind you.” At De Villier’s command, Anthony shut the heavy door, gawking at the opulent space. He’d cleaned the chimneys of many a fine house but never had he seen a study as grand as this one. It even smelled rich, a mix of oiled leather, fine tobacco, and lemony beeswax polish. The shelves that reached from the floor to the soaring ceiling were filled with books—a luxury denied Anthony for the past three years, although his mama had taught him his letters. His boots sank into a carpet softer than anything he’d slept on. Tall windows stood to the right of De Villier’s massive mahogany desk, the long velvet drapes pulled back to offer a view of the gardens. De Villier seated himself behind the desk. Anthony remained standing on the other side, belatedly remembering to doff his cap. “You have something to say to me?” De Villier had his head idly propped against his left hand, his elbow resting on the arm of his studded wingchair.

Once, Anthony had found a gentleman’s magazine in a rubbish heap, and this cove looked like one of the bleeding fashion plates. Now’s your chance. Tell ’im who you are. Twisting his cap, Anthony said in a rush, “My mama was Seraphina Hale. I was born in a village in Tuscany, lived all o’er Italy ’til I was six. Mama told me my father died afore I was born, so it was just the two o’ us. We got by all right. Mama was a fine singer, see, and ’er performances kept a roof o’er our ’eads and food in our bellies. But one day, she started to cough and couldn’t stop.” The memory flashed of his beautiful mother withering away in a dirty cot, blood-stained handkerchiefs strewn around her like crimson petals.

With ease borne of practice, he tucked away the grief. “She told me it was time that I knew the truth: that her ’usband wasn’t dead but ’ad left ’er—and ’e didn’t know about me…’is son.” “And you believe that I am this husband and father?” De Villier drawled. Anthony gritted his teeth at the indifferent response. When Mama had told him about his father, he’d been angry: what sort of faithless whoreson would abandon his own wife? And why hadn’t his mama gone after the cad and demanded that he provide for her and their unborn child? Pride and passion led to my downfall, Anthony, his mama had whispered. Don’t be like me. “Mama said that you are,” he said in flat tones. “When she learned that she was dying, she sold all we ’ad to get passage to London. We arrived ’ere three years ago, but she died afore we made it to shore. Her last words to me were to find you.

” She died because you left ’er to fend for ’erself and your son, you blackguard. Because she worked ’erself to the bone and couldn’t afford a decent doctor. Because she spent everything she ’ad to get me ’ere to you. “Three years ago?” De Villier lifted his brows, which were oddly dark like his eyes rather than fair like his hair. It gave him a hawkish, predatory look. “It took you that long to find me?” Anthony reined in his rising fury. “On the ship, Mama and I were ‘befriended’ by a sweep named Wiley and ’is mort. After Mama died, the Wileys said they would ’elp me. They lied.” He gestured at his sooty clothes.

“For the past three years, I’ve been one o’ their climbing boys.” Among other things. He thought it best to keep his criminal activities under wraps. De Villier’s gaze turned considering. “You have proof of your connection to this Seraphina Hale? To me?” For the umpteenth time, Anthony cursed himself for being a gull and handing over the signet ring to the Wileys. Risking his life more than once, he’d snuck into the Wileys’s rooms in the flash house to look for his lost treasure. He’d never found it. No doubt the Wileys had pawned the ring years ago, disposing of the stolen goods…and Anthony’s future along with it. If living in the stews had taught him anything, it was this: an eye for an eye. Anthony had an excellent memory, never forgot a wrong.

He would get his justice…eventually. He wasn’t the same fool he’d been at six. Now he understood the importance of self-control, discipline, biding one’s time. The Wileys betrayed me, stole my legacy, and one day they’ll pay for it. But the time for retribution was later. For now, he had to convince De Villier that they were kin. Even if he despised the bastard, he would swallow his pride for the sake of survival. Like an alley cat, he didn’t give a damn whose hand fed him as long as he got food in his belly. Once he was strong and powerful, he would get his due. “Mama gave me a ring, sir.

Made o’ gold and set with a bloodstone in the center.” Encouraged by the flicker in those dark eyes, he forged on. “The bloodstone was carved with the initials ‘A. D.’ There was an inscription inside the band too.” Was it his imagination, or did the blighter sit up straighter? De Villier said slowly, “What did it say?” “It wasn’t in English.” Anthony’s mama had shown him the Latin, told him the meaning. “Numquam obliviscar, it means—” “Never forget,” De Villier said in a low voice. Hope burgeoned inside Anthony; he gave a vigorous nod. “You have this ring?” “The Wileys stole it from me,” he admitted.

De Villier regarded him dispassionately. “Then you have no proof.” A cold droplet trickled down his spine. “I ain’t got the ring, but I described it, didn’t I?” From Wiley, he’d learned that pleading was futile, the strategy of the weak. He kept his voice strong and steady. “You can’t deny you know what I’m speaking o’—” “I do.” Relief burst in him. “So…you believe me? That I’m your son?” De Villier lifted his right hand, the one that had been below Anthony’s line of sight, onto the desk. Shock barricaded Anthony’s breath: he stared in disbelief at the heavy gold ring, the crimson-flecked black stone that bore those distinctive initials. “I d-don’t understand,” he stammered.

“’Ow do you ’ave the ring…?” “Wiley,” De Villier said. Wiley gave it to him? Before Anthony could make sense of it, a side door opened—and Roger Wiley entered the study. At the sight of the sweep’s cruel features, selfpreservation overrode shock, and Anthony bolted toward the main door. He didn’t make it, the familiar beefy hand catching him by the scruff, lifting him clear off the ground. He yelled for his life, punching and kicking out. Wiley’s fist slammed into his jaw. Metallic pain flooded his mouth, the blows coming again and again, pounding the fight out of him. Finally, he slumped to the ground, curling up against the onslaught, the truth more agonizing than bruises and shattered bones. De Villier knew about me…this whole bleedin’ time… “That is enough.” De Villier’s voice came from above him.

“Beg pardon, sir,” Wiley replied. “What do you want me to do wif the bugger?” “Your job was to keep him away. That was the deal.” “Brat’s slippery as a lamprey. From now on, I’ll keep ’im chained night and day—” “No. I want a permanent solution.” “Do you mean…?” “I don’t want to see him again.” De Villier’s command penetrated the red waves of agony. Anthony forced himself to sit up, to look at his sire. “I ’ave your blood,” he gasped out.

“You would murder you own son?” De Villier’s eyes were as cold and dark as the Thames. “A powerful man isn’t blinded by sentiment.” Anthony’s survival instincts wouldn’t let him die this way. He tried to get on his feet, pain forcing him back on his knees. Using his hands, he dragged his broken body away from the danger. De Villier abandoned my mama, and she suffered, died because o’ ’im. ’E paid the Wileys to abuse and imprison me, work me like a slave. And now the bastard wants me dead…my own father—tears rolled down Anthony’s face, despite his vow not to show weakness—…’e’s my enemy. I’ll never forget… “Where do you think you’re going?” Wiley snarled. Anthony crawled doggedly on.

The vicious kick caught him in the ribs. He heard the snap of bones, the helpless cry of an animal claimed by the dark.


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