Suddenly a St. Clair – Alexa Aston

“I NEED A new whipper! Now!” Hudson Wright answered the foreman’s call, returning from the wagon where he’d just dumped a heavy sack filled to the brim with coal. He quickly tossed the empty sack at a boy who was no older than five and hurried down the dock. “I can be your coal whipper,” he told the burly man in charge as three men carried an injured whipper from the docks. The man groaned loudly as he passed Hudson. He didn’t know how the worker had been injured. Only that it created a vacancy that he wanted. Hudson worked as a coal backer, a porter who carried loads of coal on his back to waiting wagons, dumping his load and returning for a new one, over and over, for fourteen hours a day. At eighteen, he was young and strong—but his dreams went far beyond the backbreaking work of transporting coal from the dock to a delivery wagon. As a whipper, he would unload pieces of coal from the arriving ships, placing them in a basket attached to a simple form of crane. It would save his back from the burdensome loads carried long distances since the wagons were parked a good distance from the docks. Being a crane operator would have been better but, at this point, he’d do anything to save his back, which remained aching and sore since it never got proper rest. After he left the docks, he went to his second job as a waterman, working at a cab stand to water horses. He arrived home shortly before midnight each night, falling into bed for a few hours sleep before he repeated the same day, over and over. Only on Sundays did he have time to himself after he worked at the cab stand for eight hours since the coal wagons didn’t run on Sundays. Every precious moment left in the day was devoted to studying for the upcoming university exams.

His hopes of winning a scholarship and changing his life was the only thing helping him to hang on to his sanity. If he failed to score high enough marks to gain the scholarship, he’d be lost. He didn’t want to disappoint himself—but he especially didn’t want to disappoint Laurel. Not after all the sacrifices she’d made. “Wright? Is that you?” Hudson couldn’t blame the foreman for not recognizing him. As usual, he was covered in coal dust, which obscured his face. He thought the day would never come when he would get the scent of the dust out of his nose and have clean fingernails, the sign of a gentleman. He pushed aside that thought. Survival was key now. Laurel had pressed their last apple on him this morning.

They’d spent every farthing they had to bury Mama and now his sister couldn’t find work, thanks to being blackballed by Julius Farmon, who wanted to make Laurel his mistress. “It’s me,” he assured the man in charge. “I’ll be your new whipper.” Whippers made two sixpence more a week. He and Laurel needed that sixpence. “Go on then,” the foreman barked. Hudson hurried to the nearest crane and shouted up to the operator, “I’m your new man.” Immediately, he got to work, scooping up coal with a shovel and dumping it into the basket. The operator would then lift the basket and swing it a good distance, lowering it and releasing a lever that opened the basket’s bottom. From there, the coal backers would stuff it into their sacks.

He enjoyed the slight break he received each time the basket was put into motion. He might have to bend to use his shovel to load the coal but now he stood upright and breathed deeply. Backers never had a moment’s respite. A rhythm developed between him and the crane operator. At one point, the passing supervisor grunted, “Good work,” which was the first compliment Hudson had received since he’d been working the docks. He’d labored a good six hours in this capacity when the foreman tapped his shoulder. Hudson scooped the last bit onto his shovel and dumped the coal into the basket, giving the operator a signal that it was full. “Yes, sir?” he asked, hoping he wasn’t being pushed out in favor of someone else. “You’re to go with that man.” The foreman pointed to a bespectacled gentleman.

A true gentleman, one dressed in a beautiful greatcoat of black. Beneath it, Hudson could see a fine coat of blue and dark trousers. “What for?” Hudson asked suspiciously. “Because I said so,” growled the foreman. He set down the shovel and another man quickly picked it up. Disappointment filled him. He’d already been replaced and hadn’t a clue why. He doubted he’d receive the extra pay he’d earned during the time he’d labored in a new capacity. His stomach growled noisily, reminding him that he hadn’t a clue when he would eat again. Guilt filled him, knowing Laurel had already gone hungry a day or two, giving what little they had to him because of the physical work he did.

Warily, he approached the stranger and said, “I was sent to speak to you.” “You’re Hudson Wright?” the man asked. “Yes.” “Very good, Mr. Wright. If you’ll come with me.” The man turned and walked a few steps. “Wait!” Hudson called. “Who are you? Where are we going?” The man smiled wryly. “You’ll know soon enough.

Come along, Mr. Wright.” As he followed the tall, thin man, Hudson couldn’t remember ever being addressed so respectfully. At school and work, he was always called Wright. Mama and Laurel were the only ones to call him Hudson. To be Mr. Wright was almost beyond his comprehension. The man stopped in front of a grand carriage, gleaming black as midnight. Four horses, all white, stood attached to it. A footman opened the vehicle’s door and the man climbed in.

He sat and then leaned to the door’s opening. “We haven’t all day, Mr. Wright.” Bewildered, Hudson climbed in and stood, hunched over. “I can’t sit in here. I’m filthy.” Reaching into the corner, the man picked up a blanket. He spread it across the plush velvet seat and returned to the opposite bench. Reluctantly, Hudson sat. The door closed.

The carriage took off. He shook his head. “I don’t understand.” The man, who looked to be in his early to mid-thirties, said, “I am Matthew Proctor. That’s really all I’m at liberty to say for the moment, Mr. Wright. Be patient. I know it must be difficult but everything will be explained once we arrive.” He smiled kindly. Hudson couldn’t remember the last time anyone had smiled at him.

A terrible thought struck Hudson. “Laurel? Is she—” “Miss Wright is fine,” Proctor assured him. “You will see her shortly. Please, Mr. Wright. You need to trust me. Be patient. All will be fine.” At least his twin was all right. But who could have summoned them both? And why? He wanted to grab Proctor and shake him until the information spilled from his lips but something in his demeanor made Hudson leery of doing so.

He remained silent the rest of the ride, gazing out across London at the various neighborhoods, many which he had never seen. They finally arrived in an area where immaculate white townhouses sat on both sides of the street. The carriage slowed and came to a stop. “We’re here,” Proctor announced. Hudson only wished he knew where here was. The footman opened the door again. Hudson couldn’t imagine being employed where all you did was ride on the back of a carriage and open and close a door, all while wearing livery that looked better than anything Hudson had ever worn. Wherever they were going—and whose carriage he’d been brought in—was someone of immense wealth. Fear closed about his heart again as he thought of Julius Farmon and the threats he’d made against Hudson and Laurel. This couldn’t be Farmon’s residence, though.

Although the man owned numerous saloons and brothels, he couldn’t imagine him living in a palace as grand as the residence before them. He exited the vehicle and Matthew Proctor followed closely behind him. The carriage then pulled away. Proctor led him into the house. Into a different world. The large entryway had gleaming marble floors and art hanging on the walls. Scattered pieces of furniture made of rich wood were finer than anything he’d ever seen. The townhouse spoke of wealth and elegance, two things foreign to his experience. A servant appeared, his dignified air causing Hudson to shrink. “I am Barton, Mr.

Wright. If you’ll follow me.” His eyes cut to Proctor. “Go ahead. You’re expected.” With that, the man turned and walked down a hallway, disappearing from sight. They ascended a wide staircase to the first floor and walked down a long corridor. Hudson’s gut tightened. He had no idea why he’d been summoned to this palatial place. He’d already been gone from work too long and worried that it had cost him his job.

His physical appearance put him at a disadvantage, his clothes filthy and worn. The fear morphed into anger by the time they arrived at a door. Anger was a feeling he knew how to deal with. He stoked it so he didn’t appear as a scared, lost child. The butler opened the door to a room that seemed to go as far as the eye could see. Seated at the far end was a large group of people. Including Laurel. Pushing the servant aside, Hudson charged into the room. “What in the bloody hell is going on?” he demanded. His twin sprang to her feet and hurried the length of the room.

Hudson didn’t look at her. Instead, his focus was on the three people who had followed her. Two men and a young woman, all favoring one another so closely that he knew they were related. A numbness descended upon him. His jaw dropped in astonishment. They all had hair black as midnight and dark brows. But what stood out were their eyes. The trio had the same emerald eyes that he and Laurel possessed. Neither twin had ever seen anyone with eyes similar to theirs. “They look like us, Laurel.

They all have our eyes. It’s . like looking in a mirror.” The oldest of the three took a few steps forward. He thrust out a hand. “That’s because we’re all St. Clairs, Hudson.” With a broad smile, he added, “Welcome to the family.” He stiffened. “I already have a family.

Laurel is my family. I don’t know what kind of trick you’re playing, but we’re not falling for it.” He glanced to his sister. “Come, Laurel. We’re leaving.” “We are not leaving, Hudson,” she said firmly. He knew that tone. Once Laurel dug in her heels, no one could change her mind. She was the brightest person he knew—and also the most stubborn. “I know this is overwhelming, Hudson.

” She looked at the man who’d offered his hand, which Hudson had refused to shake. “May we speak in private, Jeremy?” “Of course, Laurel.” He nodded to the man and woman by his side and the three moved away to the far end of the room, where the rest of the group studied Hudson and Laurel with interest. “I need to tell you—” “Not here,” he spit out. “Move into the corridor.” He glanced at the other side of the room. “I don’t want any of them listening to what we say.” She sighed. “Very well.” They stepped into the hallway.

Thankfully, it was deserted of servants. “Who are these people, Laurel? Why are we here?” “They are our brothers and sister, Hudson. They—and we—are St. Clairs.” “What?” A long string of curses erupted from him. He shook his head. “I don’t understand.” “Then quit talking and listen,” she said, giving him that no-nonsense look of hers. “I can explain it if you’ll stop behaving like an idiot.” He shoved his temper deep inside, locking it away.

“I love you, Laurel. I trust you. Tell me,” he urged. A part of Hudson wanted to know. The other half was afraid of what she would reveal. “You know Mama never talked about our father. She finally did. Just before she died.” He saw her eyes mist with tears. “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Because there wasn’t much to tell,” Laurel admitted.

“She told me I looked like him. That she’d read in the newspaper he’d died.” She paused, her mouth trembling. “She said he hurt her, Hudson. Raped her.” “No wonder she never wanted to talk about him.” Anguish filled him. “I found a note from him that she had hidden under the mattress.” She swallowed. “Our father was the Duke of Everton.

” Shock filled him. “We’re by-blows of a bloody duke?” Laurel nodded. “I came to this house today to blackmail the current duke. Our half-brother.” “You what?” he shouted. She winced. “Hudson, you know what our situation is. We haven’t two farthings to rub together between us. Farmon is determined to make me his mistress and send you halfway around the world, branded a criminal.” She took his hand.

“A duke has scads of money. I only wanted a little. Enough to help us escape from London and go where Farmon couldn’t find us. You could sit for the university exam and become a student. I could find a job elsewhere and keep house for us, the threat of Farmon gone.” “How did this duke take to being squeezed for money?” Laurel’s face changed, wonder filling it. “That’s the remarkable thing. I was going to threaten to expose us as bastards to Polite Society, thinking a high and mighty ton family wouldn’t want this kind of scandal to be made known.” She shook her head. “I never had the chance to blackmail him.

Jeremy knew instantly who I was. So did Luke. And Rachel. Instead of shunning me, they embraced me, Hudson. They immediately offered for me to come live here.” “Live here?” He couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. His mind whirled, learning first how he and Laurel had been the products of rape. He’d always assumed their father had already been married or left when he found out Dinah was pregnant. Never in his wildest dreams had he thought she’d been brutalized, much less by a peer of the realm. “Do you hear me, Hudson? The St.

Clairs wanted me. Us, actually. I told them I had a twin and they are thrilled. They want to get to know us.” He jerked his hand from hers. “You’re mad, Laurel. No high and mighty duke and his family would ever want us.” “We do,” said a quiet voice behind Hudson. He wheeled and saw the man he now knew as the Duke of Everton standing there. Beside him were his brother and sister.

The three looked so much alike, it was uncanny. And the fact they resembled Laurel—and him—was eerie. “We are St. Clairs,” the duke said. “We always stand together. Our father was a blackguard of the worst kind. He drank and gambled and wenched his life away. He was the worst man I ever knew. Especially since he never claimed responsibility for you.” Laurel’s hand found Hudson’s and clasped it.

“I know we are strangers to you both,” the duke continued. “We—Rachel, Luke, and I—want to remedy that. You are St. Clairs as much as we are. The three of us all had different mothers but we don’t feel as if we are half-brothers or half-sisters. Together, we are whole and better for it.” The other brother stepped forward. “We want you as a part of our family, Hudson. Just like a marriage, for better or worse. We have a lot of years to catch up on but you are both St.

Clairs.” He grinned. “You are our relatives for life, whether you like it or not.” The sister smiled. “Jeremy and Luke are right. We look forward to getting to know you. You are as much a St. Clair as the rest of us.” With that, she flung herself at Hudson, wrapping her arms tightly about him. “You .

I mean . my lady . you’re getting filthy,” he sputtered. Rachel laughed. “You need to be put in a tub of hot water and scrubbed within an inch of your life, Hudson. I can’t wait to see what you look like without all that coal smudging your face.” She released him, her pale gown now stained dark, and both Jeremy and Luke wrapped their arms about him. “We’re never letting go, Hudson,” Luke promised. “You’ve got a large, loving family now. You’re not getting rid of us.

You need to come and meet our spouses. And Cor, of course.” “Cor?” he asked, still overwhelmed by these three and the idea he and Laurel were wanted. “She’s our grandmother,” Jeremy said. “With all our mothers dying in childbirth, she raised the three of us. Cor is the wisest woman you will ever meet. Come on.” Hudson saw all three of the St. Clairs wearing coal dust on their fine clothes, which were now ruined beyond repair. Their eyes were bright and they were laughing and smiling, actually happy to have discovered lost siblings who were bastards.

He looked at Laurel. In her eyes, he saw how desperately she wanted to be a part of something beyond the two of them. She had always been the one to make the sacrifices in their family. She left school early so he could remain, even holding down two jobs to make the rent. She completed the sewing jobs Mama had taken when her eyes failed, working until the wee hours of each morning. Even now, she went without food to ensure he didn’t starve. If joining this family would ease Laurel’s burdens, Hudson was all for it. “I’m game if you are,” he told his twin, his only friend, the person he loved above all others. “Thank you,” she whispered fervently. “You won’t regret it.

I promise.” The duke turned, waiting for a decision. Hudson nodded and Jeremy smiled with satisfaction. “Cor is waiting,” Jeremy said. Leaning in, he added, “She will be your biggest supporter. I guarantee it.” With that, the five St. Clair siblings returned to the drawing room. Hudson didn’t know that’s what it was called at the time. He only knew life as he’d known it would be changed forever.

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